Tom's blog

Zinfandel's ups and downs

I was talking to Gary Sitton the other day. He's the lucky guy in transition to fill the shoes of Joel Peterson, founder and retiring winemaker of Ravenswood. The subject was on zinfandel's rise and fall from power, a point Sitton agreed is part of zinfandel's history.

There was once a time not that long ago when the all-American grape variety had a cult following for producers like Ridge, Raffenelli, Edmeades, and Ravenswood. But the confusion created by white zinfandel and the increase in competition from other grapes took the luster off red zinfandel. People began to shift to pinot noir and meritage blends.  In fact, zinfandel became the foundation for many cheap blends. The grape can be high-yielding in places like Lodi, so a producer can make a pretty cheap, generic red wine by using zinfandel as his base.

Director of Winemaking Gary Sitton with outgoing winemaker and founder Joel Peterson.

Director of Winemaking Gary Sitton with outgoing winemaker and founder Joel Peterson.

Sitton doesn't think that these blends will undermine the efforts of craft zinfandel users, but clearly the zin industry needs to retrieve its giddy-up. The answer may lay in the single-vineyard zins that show more character.

I'm among those who have had a falling out with zinfandel. I once enjoyed its heady, boisterous character but over time found too many of them overripe and raisiny.  However, I recently tried some of Ravenswood's single-vineyard zins and those from Quivira, Ridge and Raffenelli.  Good stuff.

Ravenswood's iconic Vintner's Blend was once a great wine, but now in the hands of new owner, Constellation Brands, it has become cheap plonk. Sitton says production was once 500,000 cases! No cult following there.

"We are at the crossroads as Ravenswood started out as a high-end, cult status brand," Sitton says. "We've grown the appellation tier of our zinfandel and out of necessity we started growing the Vintner's Blend. When you start that, you are wildly successful. But at the same time you try to remain relevant." 

With the grilling season upon us, zinfandel has relevance. Besides being the patriotic grape for Memorial Day and July 4th, its jammy, fruit-forward character is a great match to hamburgers, ribs, pulled pork and other grilled or smoked meats.

 

Back to those "good" wines...

It seems like every wine writer is weighing in on what makes a good wine. In an earlier post, I commented on Bianca Bosker's distinction between a good wine and a wine a person thinks is good. Largely, I agree with her: a wine that exceeds accepted criteria (balance, finish, and complexity) can be universally accepted as "good," but we may not think it is good for us.

In her book "Cork Dorks," Bosker also accepts the generic and cheap plonk that is becoming more popular among consumers. She says these "processed wines" are manipulated at the winery with chemicals, powders, short cuts and other laboratory wizardry to cut costs and create a monster wine that hits a consumer's sweet spot.

However, New York Times columnist Eric Asimov vehemently disagrees. He says wine critics should call a "bad" wine for what it is: bad. While he doesn't fault anyone for liking these wines, he feels it is the critics' responsibility to separate it from a field of wines made with painsaking detail by quality-minded producers.

He wrote, "....additives and manipulation didn't improve the general level of wine. Science did."

And, "Few things have been as damaging to the American wine industry as its homogenization. Knockoff wines sell, but the American wine industry also craves critical approval."

We do need wines for those who don't care or know the difference -- but many of us also need wines that are unique and fit the universal definition of "good." The thought that anyone can clone a wine irrespective of region or style demotes the great wines that draw consumers into this market. Instead, it makes wine just another beverage with as much distinction as Coke and Pepsi. Such is the direction I fear Dave Phinney is taking when he blends grapes from an entire country and labels it "I" for Italy or "F" for France.

Bulk wines sadly driving the market

Even though the U.S. ranks 57th in world wine consumption per capita, its numbers are increasing as Americans become more comfortable opening a bottle of wine for dinner. You can see wine gaining popularity in bars and restaurants where it has overtaken beer as the alcoholic beverage of choice. Especially among millennials, wine is associated with health and success. 

What this popularity is driving isn't fine wine, though. Mass-produced wines that come in boxes, cans and 1.5-liter bottles are easily outselling better made wines. They are cheap -- less than $10 a bottle -- easy to find and easy to drink. Labels like Barefoot, Sutter Home, Woodbridge, Franzia and Yellowtail are as common to weddings as they are to backyard barbecues.

But buyers should be aware of what they are getting and by any definition it isn't "good" wine. 

The large conglomerates that own these brands cut corners to produce bulk wines. Oak barrels are too expensive, so there's little complexity or texture in the wines. No one else wants the grapes, so their sold in bulk to these producers and from high-yielding vineyards. Flavoring and other chemicals are added to enhance the wine or produce in the lab what wasn't produced i the vineyard. Any step that is high in maintenance and cost is eliminated -- the bottom line is not quality but quantity of a lab-produced wine that doesn't deserve the name.

These wines taste the same year after year when the producer lands on a successful recipe. Apothic Red and White, made by E&J Gallo is a good example. The wine is bursting with sweet, jammy fruit flavor that hits a delicious button for countless consumers. But you can find the same profile in other generic wines. Clever labels like Marilyn Merlot, Melange a Trois, Cheap Wine, Old Fart, Fat Bastard and worse grab people's wallet even if it won't grab their attention. Does anyone buy a second bottle of these cheap wines?

There is a lot of good wine under $15 that deliver more bang for your buck. Don't get suckered into a name.

So what really is a good wine?

I am constantly asked for a good wine suggestion. It never fails to puzzle me: good wine, according to whom? A good wine to me -- a Languedoc syrah, an aged Alsace pinot gris from old vines, an expensive barbaresco -- may not be good to you. And what in the hell is "good" anyway?

Bianca Bosker in her delightfully scandalous book, "Cork Dork," has come up with what I think is the best answer, albeit qualified. She writes, "There is, however, a subtle but important distinction between a wine that's good to me and a wine that's good."

OK, the proverbial light bulb finally went off. You and I can analyze a wine for its balance, complexity and finish and agree that it is a good wine technically -- but disagree on whether we like it. I've tasted a number of wines that meet these three important criterion and still not liked them. A number of German rieslings and California zinfandels come to mind. They aren't "good" to me.

Bosker argues that to truly determine if a wine is of good quality, you need an out-of-body experience. Ignore your biases and your sensory reaction to a wine and judge its quality on its technical analysis. Not everyone can do that, of course, so we are left with people who will continue ask us for a good wine and then become discouraged when our suggestion  is unappealing.

For me, the distinction between what is a good wine and what is good to me leads my answers in new directions. In the future I'll answer what I like with enough caveats to make a head spin.

You'll be seeing more thought-provoking blogs that relate to what I am reading in "Cork Dork." I can't remember a book that has gotten me to re-think what goes into tasting a wine. 

And now those chardonnays....

Having finally left my concentration on roses, I've been focused on American chardonnays in recent days. Heavens, there are so many -- and so many styles.  I'll be summarizing my findings in a future column, but for now let's just say it has been an adventure.

Historically, chardonnays have gone through a number of trends. There were those oaky chardonnays that gave you splinters, then those creamy chardonnays that reminded you of pudding.  While producers have moderated their use of new oak and some have even made oak-free chardonnays, many of today's versions still cling to the buttery texture. 

No matter how much chardonnays are abused and dismissed, they remain the number one selling varietal in the U.S. Sales represent more than 13 percent of the market -- a percent higher than cabernet sauvignon. Female drinkers drive the market.

I'm unapologetic about liking chardonnay. The grape accounts for greatness in Burgundy. In Chablis, the minerally and cerebral chardonnays of producers such as Dauvissat are extraordinary. I'll pass on Australia for most chardonnay, but in California producers focused on this grape variety are doing incredible work. Ramey, for instance, makes a number of chardonnays that range from restrained to concentrated. 

Unoaked chardonnays complement food better because the palate doesn't have to deal with aggressive oak flavors and a buttery texture that conflicts with a delicate sauce or a simple fish dish. 

Don't give up on chardonnay because your friends think it's feminine or too common. It has a role at the table just as much as any other wine.

Who isn't making a rose nowadays?

In the past several weeks, I must have tasted 30-plus roses for an upcoming column. It didn't seem like a few years ago when I tasted only a handful.  Are there more roses on the market -- or am I just more engaged this year?

Several producers -- including Kendall-Jackson -- announced the debut of their roses this year. When K-J gets involved, you know there is money to be made. And, that's now the case with a wine that was once left to the French. 

Unfortunately, much of the rose I tasted this year was more like Kool-Aid. Yes, it had the right color and the right vibrancy, but some were slightly sweet and many were more expensive than they were worth. Clearly, producers saw the market trend and decided to get into the game. But that signals to me their roses are afterthoughts.

Not so in southern France where quality producers make nothing but rose. It's in France where you can oddly find bargains and quality in the same bottle. "Odd" because I would expect them to be more expensive than California roses. Some California roses were priced at $20 and more.

French rose producers use mostly grenache and syrah grapes -- ideal for the spirited fruit flavors, vibrant acidity and young, fresh fruit that make roses so delightful on warm days. Spain also uses grenache and even some California producers have followed the French model. But I've also seem more cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, tempranillo, and merlot. I have to wonder if those aren't the grapes the producers have left over.

The most notable ones so far? Whispering Angel, Chapoutier Bila-Haut, Guigal Cotes du Rhone, Les Dauphins and Stoller. More to come on this subject.

 

The death of the wine shop

Having moved to Florida recently, I have been witness to a sad trend in states that allow wines to be sold in grocery stores and other large bulk-food establishments.  I have been a long-time advocate for the convenience of having wine sold alongside food, but the fallout has been devastating to small, specialized wine shops.

I visited every wine shop in Naples in a couple of hours; it took me a couple of weeks to do the same in Maryland where wine is not sold in grocery stores.  

What's the big deal? Try to find a special wine in a grocery store. Try to find a knowledgeable staff person who can tell you want wine to serve with his precious salmon. They don't a damn thing about their wines.

A small wine shop near me happened to close last week because it's owner simply couldn't compete with giants like Total Beverage, Publix, Walmart and others. Now, Florida's governor is about to allow these same large outlets to sell liquor (up until now they have had to separate their liquor stores with a wall).

I like the convenience of picking up a Kendall-Jackson chardonnay while shopping for fish at my local grocery store, but it sucks crossing town to find an Alsace riesling.  

Without these small operations, consumers will be left with the usual plonk to choose from.

Phinney's introspective moment

Dave Phinney, a richer man

Dave Phinney, a richer man

In a recent video conference call, wine genius Dave Phinney answered a barrage of questions from wine journalists about his new line of wines, Locations, that blended vintages and grape varieties across appellations (see my column on another page). Late in the conversation, an inane question was thrown at him: "What was your proudest moment?" 

Phinney, a relatively shy winemaker but one who is honest and straightforward, paused. He reached back into his early winemaking career and said he refused to put "winemaker" on his business card until he was making his own wine. The unflappable Phinney became emotional and had to stop for a moment. 

"It was when I put 'winemaker' on my business cards," he finally answered, wiping away a tear.

Who couldn't appreciate his moment? He slaved away as a cellar rat for other California producers before hitting it big. He said he decided that if he was going to work that hard, he sure as hell was going to make better money. And so he did. First there was The Prisoner -- sold to Quintessa -- and then Orin Swift wines -- sold to E&J Gallo.

By the way, he joked about his only regret -- selling the The Prisoner brand to Agustin Huneeus. He reportedly sold the brand for $40 million. But in six years Huneeus sold it to Constellation for $285 million. It is unknown how much Phinney got from Gallo for Orin Swift, but I bet he didn't regret the deal this time.

 

Can beaujolais age?

You bet it can. 

Several years ago I asked myself that very question as I was breezing through a dozen beaujolais village crus. So, I put away several duplicates from the 2011 vintage just to see how they would age.  Last night I opened one of them: Chateau des Jacques La Roche from Moulin-a-Vent. It was absolutely delicious -- the fruit wasn't as vibrant or as fresh, but the texture and the depth was much better than I had expected from gamay grapes.

Beaujolais can age. But -- isn't there always a "but"? -- not all of them. This single vineyard cru from arguably the best village and from a very reputable producer had a better chance of survival. A simple beaujolais village or one from, say, Fleurie would not have done so well.

 

Rhone Valley's great whites

When thinking of white wines for spring, I usually turn to sauvignon blanc. Their crisp acidity awakens the slumbering palate from a winter of heavy reds. However, I recently tried a couple of white blends from the Rhone Valley that reminded me that spring is about more than just sauvignon blanc.

You can't even find sauvignon blanc among the handful of white grape varieties allowed in the Rhone. Instead, the indigenous grapes are viognier, marsanne, roussanne, grenache blanc and others no more well known.  They provide similar acidity but often with more character, especially when blended. But how many people think of white wine when they think of the Rhone Valley?

Two wines you should consider are the E.  Guigal Cotes du Rhone Blanc -- grenache blanc, clairette, bourboulenc and viognier -- and the E. Guigal Crozes-Hermitage Blanc -- marsanne and roussanne. Both are aged in stainless steel tanks to preserve their freshness.

These wines are for everyone. A few unsuspecting friends I tried them on were unimpressed, because of their bracing acidity.

Phinney strikes again

In the next several months -- if you haven't already -- you'll be reading a lot about David Phinney's relatively new wine project. Typical of the genius-without-walls wine producer who launched Orin Swift in 1998, his new project doesn't come without controversy.

Called "Locations," the series of 12 world wines blends grapes from different regions and vintages with the goal of creating wines that over-delivers in flavor and enjoyment. Phinney was inspired in part while waiting for a taxi by the bumper stickers denoting a country -- "F" for France in an oval white sticker. That image now graces these labels: "F" for wines from French vineyards, "E" for wines from Espana, or Spain, and "I" for wine made from Italian grapes -- three wines I tasted during a video conference call with Phinney and other wine journalists.

His portfolio includes three blends from the U.S. -- Oregon, California, Arizona, Washington and Texas (of all places).

Phinney spent years traveling around Europe looking for the right grapes, some of which were destined to be sold as bulk wine in regions where grape production outstrips demand. "E", for instance, blends grapes from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

These wines are unquestionably tasty with ripe, extracted fruit. And, most consumers won't care that they break conventions. However, I'm struggling with accepting them beyond what they are: delicious wines that could come from anywhere.

I like tasting mint in my Rutherford cabernet and a special nuttiness in the chardonnay from Meursault. These wines mask the unique flavors that come from the terroir. You have a generic blend that defies the unique character that an appellation has taken years to define. Are these wines disrespectful of terroir?

"Yes, we are completely disrespecting terroir," Phinney admitted in a video conferencing call with wine journalists.

He said he never understood the significance of terroir until he spent time in Maury, a unique region in France's Roussillon area. After seeing the soil and tasting the wine, he saw the connection of terroir to a wine's character. But to him terroir was not an inviolable convention.

The broad blending practice certainly isn't new -- Champagne producers have been blending grapes from many appellations and vintages for centuries.

About those headaches....

Those of you who regularly suffer headaches from drinking a particular wine should read this month's Food and Wine magazine. An article explaining the likely causes of wine-aches is the most comprehensive and understandable one I've read on the subject.

In short, it's not the sulphites that for years have been inaccurately charged as the cause. Instead, scientific evidence points to naturally occurring compounds found in most wines -- phenolic flavonoids and biogenic amines. Flavonoids bring out the wine's color and flavor; they are found in the skins, stems and seeds of red wines. Biogenic amines appear during the fermentation process and are associated with histamine and tyramine compounds found most often in red wine.  For that reason, most headache suffers say their problems occur after drinking red wines.

This working theory was confirmed in a relatively small study conducted by Argentine doctors who gave 28 people two wines to drink during a trial period: a cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux and a cabernet sauvignon from South America. Sixty percent of the Bordeaux drinkers reported headaches; only 40 percent of the South American wine drinkers reported the same.

The explanation? Bordeaux producers extract the most tannin and phenolic flavonoids from their wines to give them longevity, color and depth of fruit. South American producers aren't looking for their wines to be aged and instead make them drinkable on release. The price comparison between the two wines confirms the difference in effort.

Although I know of some people who swear that only white wine gives them headaches, most of the people I know associate headaches with red wines. My wife, for instance, gets regular headaches after drinking even small amounts of Cline Cellars zinfandel -- every time. Alas, the wine is one of a handful that has given me a headache. These wines are fruit-forward, dense and dark in color. Is the producer extracting the most tannin and phenolic flavenoids it can?

So if you insist red wine, particularly those with forward flavors and tannin, gives you headaches, it's not all in your head.

 

 

 

 

 

Unraveling and understanding Orin Swift

David Phinney, a wine genius by most accounts, founded Orin Swift Cellars in 1998 after being inspired by a stay in Italy and later by a temporary stint at Robert Mondavi. He made a batch of wines from zinfandel grapes and thus launched a wine enterprise that became a financial success. His blends, pricey and with edgy labels, developed a cult following.

Orin is his father's middle name and Swift is his mother's maiden name.

These wines aren't for everyone and they certainly aren't for me. Heavily extracted and jammy, they are better spread on toast in the morning. They are the opposite of elegant French wine and more like the dense, hedonistic Australian shiraz and grenache, like those from Clarendon Hills and Mollydooker.

Phinney's The Prisoner brand was bought by Constellation in 2016 for a cool $285 million -- no property, just the name. E.&J. Gallo bought the rest of the brand, inventory and Modesto tasting room later in the year. 

I have to wonder whether Constellation or Gallo will be able to sustain Phinney's wine philosophy. Neither one seems to be a good fit for cult wines not intended for the masses.

I was thinking of this incredible success story while sipping a D66 that was gifted to me recently. Made mostly from grenache grown in the Roussillon region of southwest France, it mirrors Swift's other wines. Jam-packed, rich and concentrated with ripe cassis and plum notes and floral aromas, it attacks the palate with bold, full-bodied flavors. This is hardly a sipping wine on some summer day, but rather a wine you would pair with barbecued foods, beef, lamb or wild game.

In spite of my personal dislike of these wines, I can't deny their popularity. They get high reviews from other critics too. Prices range from $30-120 for blends with names like Trigger Finger, Machete, China Doll, Mercury Head, Slander and more.

 

Paying hommage to Cotes du Rhone

I was in a restaurant the other night and struck by the cost of wine. It's getting pretty hard to find something decent under $50 and most of the interesting wines are $70 and above. Even when I realize the markup can be as high as 400 percent, I still want wine with my dinner. It isn't unusual to get a staggering bill of more than $200 a couple. That's just nuts.

I know, it doesn't make sense when the wine bill is often more than the food bill, but for my wife and I wine is as much a part of the experience as the food.

But, in the hands of a good wine manager or somm, reasonable wines can be found at the right price. Take,for instance, the Cotes du Rhone. I recently enjoyed a Chateau St. Cosme for $46. It was one of the cheapest wines on the menu, but I bet it also was one of the best. I could have ordered current vintages of Bordeaux that wouldn't have showed any where near as well as the St. Cosme. And with country French food on the plate, it was a perfect match.

The Rhone Valley offers great values whether the wines hail from the Cotes du Rhone, Vacqueyras, Saint Joseph, etc. 

The other night I uncorked several 10-year-old chateauneuf du papes and regaled in their quality.  I don't think I spent more than $40 for any of them. Even though Bordeaux dominates my cellar, the Rhone Valley is my favorite for both current drinking and long-term cellaring. 

It really annoys me when a restaurant list of expensive wines fails to provide the right alternatives to appeal to frugal customers. It's not hard if you have a good manager or wine steward.

Lowering the boom on wine sales

The Silicon Valley Bank is predicting that wines sales will begin taking a hard hit as the Baby Boom generation fades. About 44 percent of sales are made to those between 48 and 65 years old.

With 11,500 of them retiring every day, it's not hard to do the math. I am among those boomers who stopped massive wine purchases when I retired on a fixed income. I'm feeding off my cellar now and quite contently.

Winemakers have been bragging about increased wine sales, but I bet those numbers are about to peak. Generation X, Y and Millennials simply aren't buying wine at the same pace as their elders.

The wine producers who may be hurt the most are those whose wines are pricey. I just can't imagine new generations forking over $50-300 for a bottle of wine. It's just not in their nature.

Appreciating good wine not for everyone

I had the most enjoyable two-hour lunch with Gaia Gaja, the fifth generation Gaja to become involved in the family's iconic Piedmont wine business. The subjects ranged from her family history to the impact of an impudent president (yeah, Italy had one too). So, I'll be posting a couple of these exchanges in the next few days.

Gaia Gaja

Gaia Gaja

One illuminating discussion centered around the appreciation of a Gaja barbaresco, not everyone's cup of tea.  I like to call these wines "cerebral" because they call on a taster to dig deep into the recesses of his mind to fully appreciate them. There are nuances that evolve in the glass and even more that evolve in the cellar. They aren't as obvious as, say, a full-throttle Oregon pinot noir or an extracted Bordeaux. Instead of clobbering your palate with ripe fruit, a Gaja barbaresco teases the palate. 

Gaia compares drinking her barbaresco to meeting a stranger. "When I drink nebbiolo, I see myself in a room next to an interesting stranger and he's running away. I'm constantly chasing this wine and about the time I catch up, it goes again," she says.

Although the business is a family affair, Gaia's primary role is traveling the globe and working with wholesalers, customers of her family's wine, and trade groups. In her travels, she says many avid Gaja fans want her to taste what they believe are similar wines. But they are not and that disappoints her. Maybe nothing compares to Gaja barbaresco.

The 2011 Gaja Barbaresco I tasted with her was a fresh edition of what I remember from older vintages. The generous aromas included strawberries and red currants -- somewhat ripe but still fresh to me. Alcohol and acidity were in exquisite harmony.

There are few other wines in my experience that reach this level. Many great burgundies do and maybe a few Alsace rieslings.  But Gaja's wines are the Maseratis of the fleet.

I can't imagine pouring these wines to the masses, which is what Gaja was doing when she attended a charity fundraiser in Naples, FL, that evening. Granted, at $10,000 a couple it attracted well-heeled contributors, but who knew what they were tasting?

 

Redirecting pinot palates

Cushing Donelan

Cushing Donelan

The other night I enjoyed a steak dinner with Cushing Donelan, one of the family members who puts his name behind some of the most exclusive wines in Sonoma County. We were enjoying his 2012 Two Brothers Pinot Noir, an understated wine closer to the likes of Burgundy than California. With minimal exposure to oak and reasonable whole-cluster fermentation, it is a cerebral wine -- one that gets you to think. Contrarily, my palate collapses under the weight of these heavy, extracted pinot noirs from other parts of California.

I asked "Cush" if it's challenging to reach consumers who have been weaned on sweet, inexpensive pinot noir, such as Meomi and Menage a Trois.

"Absolutely," he confessed.

Meomi, now owned by Constellation Brands, makes more than 500,000 cases. Donelan's entire production of 14 wines is a scant 6,500 cases. Meomi cost around $15; Donelan Two Brothers is around $60. 

As consumers flock to the many over-extracted, high-alcohol fruit bombs, is there any hope they will appreciate Donelan's wine? Not likely, but that trend won't dissuade the Donelans who have been true to their cause of making refined pinot noir and syrah.

Fortunately, Donelan has much less pinot noir to sell -- in fact, the only way to get it is through its web site. They'll do just fine, but I have to ponder the thought of pinot noir being defined by the wrong standard.

There are many producers following Donelan's model and I'm thankful every time I ponder a balanced pinot noir. 

More on Donelan's great wines in future posts.

Wine producer eliminates the middle men

 I remember a time in my newspaper career when Craig's List was first introduced. We all scoffed at the notion that one day it would replace newspaper's classifieds. Well, it did. And I get that same feeling when wine producers scoff at Mark Tarlov's concept of eliminating the middle men and selling directly to consumers at greatly reduced prices.

Direct-to-consumer businesses are growing in popularity in the wine industry and, although not yet a huge force, they represent a threat to retailers and wholesalers. 

Tarlov -- a successful movie producer who turned to wine for fun -- introduced Alit to show to consumers how much they are paying for delivery services to their store. On his website he is very honest about where the money goes for a $27.45 bottle of his Oregon pinot noir: 

Farming and fruit             $5.66

Five employees                $2.14

Winery and equipment    $3.31

French oak barrels           $1.11

Bottling/packaging          $2.88

TOTAL                               $15.10

45% gross profit margin: $12.35

Price to consumers          $27.45

Now, his pinot noir is still more expensive than what most people are willing to pay for a bottle of wine. However, Tarlov argues that he is trying to be responsible with farming and winemaking, so his costs may be higher. But, he is revealing to consumers how much he is paying for farming and how much he is profiting from a single bottle ($12.35).  Nothing like honesty to make me a believer.

If the retailer and wholesaler were added to this expensive sheet, that same wine would sell for $50 or more. 

He is currently selling only pinot noir and sparkling wine through his web site, www.alitwines.com.

 

Heavenly matches made in Sicily

Not always do I work hard at finding the right wine for tonight's dinner. I doubt that many of you work at it either. Maybe we decide whether to open white or red, but oftentimes it's a matter of what we have and what we thirst for.

That's not always the case, of course. If my wife is putting an effort into planning a remarkable dinner at home, the least I can do is put the same effort into selecting a wine. How well wines go with a gourmet dinner is the food for thought that makes wine-food pairing so much fun.

The Regaleali Estate

The Regaleali Estate

And I had fun one recent night -- not at home but at an exquisite restaurant in my new hometown of Naples, FL. Sea Salt is unquestionably one of the top dining venues in Naples, a vibrant nucleus of fine restaurants in a relatively small town. 

At a special wine dinner featuring wines from Sicily, owner-chef Fabrizio Aielli teamed with visiting chef Ludovico De Vivo of Regaleali Estate to produce an incredible four-course dinner. The food was a perfect pairing with an eclectic selection of Sicilian wines, an experience that reminded me that professional chefs can do a much better job than home chefs in challenging the palate.  The experience was a jolting reminder of what role wine plays in the hands of detail-minded chefs. 

Although Sicily continues to struggle finding a niche in the wine market and becoming known more for quality than quantity, the wines I tasted on this night gave showed promise of a better future. Younger generations of wine makers are finally moving up the bar and applying practices that eventually will reap results.

A grillo, for instance, was far more balanced and round than I have experienced in the past. A grape variety commonly used to make marsala, grillo is common to Sicily. It does well here because it can withstand the high temperatures generated by the scirocco winds of North Africa. But cool night temperatures in vineyards with high elevation give the grapes a needed respite.

The Tasca d'Almerita Grillo Cavallo delle Fate ($20) had fresh acidity with generous citrus aromas and easy apricot flavors with a dash of minerality. This is a wine that won't overwhelm delicate foods. It didn't overpower Sea Salt's incredible hearts of palm "ossobuco" filled with truffle, scallop and abalone. Don't try this at home, as they say.

Tasca d'Almerita Lamuri Nero d'Avola ($20), another indigenous grape variety to Sicily, had much more depth than I customarily find in this grape variety. In fact, wow, how far this wine has come to greatness. It has great depth and complexity. Black cherry and blackberry flavors with a hint of rosemary and subtle, soft tannins.

My favorite wine of the night was the Tasca d'Almerita Rosso del Conte Contea di Sciafani ($70), which was paired with bison and porcini, cippolini and offal game sauce. Food with this intensity requires a big wine and the Tasca delivered. 

If you can find these wines, you'll be rewarded with good value.

Is it safe to split a bottle of wine -- and drive?

My wife and I like to order a bottle of wine when we dine out. Spread over a couple of hours of leisurely dining, I assume the wine has not rendered me incapable of getting us home. But if I were pulled over, would the police think differently?

Chances are you have wondered the same thing.

I laid the matter to rest recently by using a portable breathalyzer to measure my alcohol content in a simulated dining experience. The AlcoMate Revo made by AK Global Tech is a highly sophisticated breathalyzer that assures accuracy over multiple uses and even has a spare sensor module to quickly substitute as the other one is being recalibrated. Like other breathalyzers, you simply blow into a disposable port until told to stop.

Here was the set-up: I drank  14 ounces of wine -- slightly more than half of a 750ml bottle -- over 90 minutes and with a hearty meal. 

Here was AlcoMate's result: .044 percent alcohol content, well under the .08 level all states use to charge you with drunk driving, measured 30 minutes after I stopped drinking and eating..

Here are the "buts": Some states have lesser charges that can be brought with lower levels. For instance, in Maryland a breathalyzer reading of .07 to .08 could draw a driving while impaired charge with a heavy penalty. Furthermore, a reading of .05 to .07 can be used against you if you are charged with another infraction, such as reckless driving. My home state of Florida has no such additional charges.

But, my .044 reading was safely under even the most strict drunk driving levels.

Secondly, everyone reacts differently to alcohol consumption. I am 6-ft. 4-in. tall and weigh 200 pounds. A woman and a person with more fat will not metabolize alcohol as quickly as a thin male. And, a "drink" is not always equal. A 4-oz. glass of wine is not the same as a margarita with a double shot of tequila, so watch those guidelines that say it's safe to have one drink per hour.

The AlcoMate costs $225 and can be purchased on line. It's far less than your legal fees if you are charged with drunk driving.