Working retail in a liquor store is one of those rare jobs where one gets to interact with every segment of the population; that's part of what I really love about it. One minute, a homeless guy, barely wearing a shirt, wanders in for a pint of Smirnoff — the next, a fat ex-hippie in duck-emblazoned Dockers, barely wearing his toupee, throws down an Amex black card for a $500 bottle of Champagne. I enjoy mostly everyone that comes in and try not to judge.
Then again, every once in awhile, you get a "charming" one; those customers my coworker indicates with the old waitstaff signal of arching his arms over his head, hands pointed with fingers touching his scalp (do a little visualization; you'll figure it out). These characters take every form, and vary in degree from irritatingly vague to aggressively overbearing. The very worst, in my mind, are the "Fromsies" — people who equate geographic proximity with pertinent knowledge. Most of these folks hail from California — no offense to you west coasters out there, but it is highly irritating to have one's proffers of help brushed off with a flick of the hand, and a condescending, "Oh, no: we're from San Francisco."
This past week, an older gentleman came in looking for suggestions for inexpensive wine for a casual get-together. With the dollar in a less than enviable state, I had recently been seeking out value alternatives to high end European wines, and had become quite fond of several French vin de tables. These wines occupy the lowest tier of quality in the French scale, and may indicate no vintage or regional designation on the label. However, this category also allows the winemaker a larger degree of freedom, and as more and more experienced winemakers have realized this, vin de table now represent a fantastic value. I offered said gentleman one of my latest favorites, to which he gruffly responded, "No! I lived in France for six years, so I know never to buy a vin de table!"
This is the equivalent of a driver taking his '89 Cavalier to the mechanic and turning down a refurbished alternator, claiming "I know better! I'm from Detroit!" Your mechanic wouldn't offer you the cheaper, better alternative if he wasn't a good guy, because in many cases, a rebuilt part (or a "lower grade" wine) will serve you just as well as something far more expensive. I guess this attitude comes down to a proclivity for assuming the worst in people; that, or the horrid reputation that mechanics and wine salesmen share for ripping people off.
In any case, rant over!
Instead, let me share some kick ass vin de tables that have come my way recently. At this time of writing, I am enjoying a glass Petit Vin d'Avril Blanc, a white from the southern Rhone valley in southeast France. Despite its humble rank, this wine was made by father-son team Paul and Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes, whose Chateauneuf-du-Pape is one of the most esteemed wines in all of France. Made from 100% Marsanne (one of the region's native grapes), this wine gives off a crisp apple and mineral nose, and has an interesting tangy quality on the palate, thanks to an ample portion of aged wine blended into the mix. This is one of the more interesting whites you will find in the $14 range, and would make a great match with shellfish, chicken marsala, or any light meat or salad prepared with mushrooms. The same winery makes a great red by the same name for a few dollars more (about $18); a field blend of Grenache, Syrah, Merlot, and others, the wine has a pleasing fragrance of flowers and cherries, and a rich, full body.
Another vin de table from the southern Rhone, Little James Basket Press, not only represents a great value, but also wins my award for Creepiest Label Ever (see photos: that is supposed to be the winemaker's son!). Despite the dubious marketing, this most base offering from Chateau de Saint Cosme offers a great nose of cherries and cinnamon, along with a silky, well-integrated structure and full body, which belies its $13 price tag. For the money, I am hard put to think of a wine with wider food applications, being appropriate with anything from salmon to steak.
These are just a few of the high quality "table wines" out there — analogous wines exist everywhere, and they are only bound to become more common as European wine merchants become savvy to our dynamic but depressed domestic market. If your local wine shop salesman tries to turn you on to one of their ilk, make an effort to be receptive. Oh, and if he arches his arms above his head and snickers, consider a kind word or two.