The distance between expert opinion and personal taste is a vast and perplexing subjectivity gap that explains, for example, Bjork. God bless her exalted elfin soul, and God help me if I have to listen to that screeching. The subjectivity gap also explains why big money paid for a ninety-seven-point cult wine can leave you drowning in tears. Meanwhile the markets (both music and wine) are deluged with new product. It's impossible to keep up. So we turn to the experts and their ratings. We buy the top-rated monster cabernet. It tastes like cherry-ade steeped with a vanilla car freshener. What to do next?
I'll tell you what: Go off the expert grid and, every once in a while, try some random sampling. In a good wine store, buy only from lesser-known regions. Skip Bordeaux and buy from Languedoc. Skip Napa and buy from Mendocino. Same with grapes: Favor malbec over cabernet, viognier over chardonnay, petite sirah over merlot. Mix it up a bit. Some of it will be crap, but who cares?Toss the lousy bottle and open another. Put some variety back in your wine life.
And buy from small wineries. I have a special fondness for small wineries because whenever I visit them, whether on the backroads of Chianti, California or even Long Island, I immediately get intoxicated by the notion of chucking the city life and becoming a farmer-vintner. Ridiculous, I know. But the sublime raspberry smell of the zinfandel crush is permanently wired into my memory; every new bottle of zin conjures a fantasy moment in a small winery in Sonoma one hot October twelve years ago. I'm always searching for exactly the spritzy freshness of the just-fermented pinot gris I once tasted from the stainless tank in a modest Oregon winery.
Problem is, wine from small wineries often doesn't find national distribution, because supply is tiny and the cost of marketing too big. The Internet helps—boutique producers form wine clubs and e-mail members when new bottlings are available. And there are retailers, such as Todd and Joy Miller, who focus on the output of small wineries. The Millers' Wine Garage in Calistoga, California (winegarage.net), offers obscure bottles for less than $25. (All of this is happy news until you remember that bewildering laws prevent shipping to some states except through expensive intermediaries. Plenty of wineries and outlets flout those laws and ship directly to homes in "illegal" states, but it's not a sure thing. See below.)
My favorite small-winery retailer is a shop called Locals in Geyserville, California (tastelocalwine.com), a tiny, hippieand-farmer crossroads at the north end of the main Sonoma County producing area. Locals is run by Carolyn Lewis. She and her husband have opted to sell wines from wineries so small they don't even have tasting rooms. Lewis formed the state's first wine collective, which now sells product from six wineries in her smartly designed shop. Production of the member wineries ranges from a low of 1,200 cases per year to a high of 5,000—practically bathtub quantities.
Funkytown setting aside, the Locals store has a certain big-city designer touch—check out the expensive Riedel glasses—and a very relaxed seriousness about wine that make it one of the more interesting tasting rooms in the country. Where else can you go and taste six or seven pinot noirs, all dramatically different, all from tiny producers, side by side?The last Locals list I saw offered wines made from viognier, carignane, mourvedre, petite sirah and sangiovese grapes as well as zinfandel, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
The wines, all from the area, share the typically Californian intensity of fruit that reminds me of the gummy cooked juice scraped from a cherry-pie tin. This is not a Euro-wine characteristic; the Euros like their wines leaner, tighter, generally dryer and less boobs-out exuberant. The Locals wines aren't bimbo wines, but many are certainly buxom. If this was all they boasted, I'd skip Geyserville on the road north to Mendocino. But beneath the shared fruit lies individual character.
Consider the Eric Ross 2000 Feeney Ranch Zinfandel ($27). If you've never understood how a wine can be "spicy," here's the only example you'll need. Swirling a glass causes fumes of sandalwood and cinnamon and cedar and spice cookies to rise. All this and a terrific raspberry tartness in a wine that is actually very light-bodied and light-colored rather than, in the more typical local style, huge. If you want huge, if you crave the fruit bomb, try the Crane Canyon 2000 Estate Zinfandel ($19), which overflows with prune, raisin, cherry and oaky vanilla. Or try the Martin 2002 Petite Sirah ($33): Deep purple in color, it smells like a soup of cooked-down red berries with a touch of the almost-bubble-gummy nose of beaujolais. Two years old and counting, this wine tastes fresh from the crush. You might expect similar monstrosity from a cabernet, but the Hawley 2001 Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon ($28) is restrained on the nose and on the palate: balanced, not too sweet or oaky, with medium tannins and no trace of vegetal or green-pepper notes. I can see this wine being a richly funky and delicious medium-weight cab after a few years of bottle age. The Peterson 2000 Il Granaio Sangiovese ($25)—from a meager production of just two hundred cases—is also a lovely wine: not quite acidic enough for Tuscany, yet having the food-friendly drinkability of a chianti. Some of these wines are produced in such small quantities that they may be gone by press time, but the point remains that stores such as Locals are worth supporting because they, in turn, support the cause of variety in wine.
Small wine isn't necessarily good wine, of course, nor worth fussing about simply because of its rarity. There's lots of perfectly good, perfectly boring small wine, and some dreadful junk. But wine-making standards are on the way up everywhere—I've had good bottles recently from the North Fork of Long Island and from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Random sampling becomes less risky every day. The reward is a great bottle that even the experts don't know about.
The Interstate Wine War
The United States has been in a civil war over the interstate shipment of wine through mail order and the Internet. At present, only thirteen states (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia) allow sales with other reciprocal states. In December, the Supreme Court began to hear arguments to allow the sale of wine to all out-of-state buyers. If the justices rule in the oenophiles' favor, there are many small vineyards that can help everyone celebrate with wines by the bottle or through monthly mail-order clubs. Some of our favorites are Bedell Cellars (bedellcellars.com) and Pindar Vineyards (pindar.net) on Long Island; Penner-Ash Cellars in Newberg, Oregon (pennerash.com); and Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard in New York's Finger Lakes region (wiemer.com).