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White's Wines: Looking For a Wine List Bargain? Go Off the Beaten Path

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WHITE'S WINES DAVID WHITE

One recent Saturday morning, a friend sent me the wine list for Green Zebra, one of Chicago's top vegetarian restaurants, and asked for my advice. He was dining there that evening with friends who enjoyed wine but weren't obsessive about it. So he would be tasked with ordering for the table.

When hanging out with other wine enthusiasts or having a nice meal at home, my friend will happily open a bottle that costs upwards of $30. But when dining out, he typically opts for beer, as restaurant markups are too hard to stomach.

I could see his conundrum. As the resident wine geek, my friend would be expected to find something delicious. But ordering the sort of wine he'd open at home -- say, Littorai's "Les Larmes" Pinot Noir, which retails for $45 but is on Green Zebra's list for $95 -- would be gauche.

My advice was simple. I urged him to look for off-the-beaten-path varieties from off-the-beaten-path regions. As New York University economics professor Karl Storchmann once explained, "[The market] adds a premium for certain places or grapes."

Consider Pinot Noir. The best examples of the variety are seductive and ephemeral, to be sure. But because Pinot Noir is so popular -- and so challenging and expensive to grow -- even "budget" options that offer little in the way of character are quite expensive.

Pinot Noir obviously does well with the fare at Green Zebra; when it comes to reds, the sommelier has dedicated 35 percent of her list to the variety. The wines range from $48 to $105 per bottle.

But if I were in my friend's shoes, I'd order the $55 Gamay from Georges Descombes, one of the top producers in Beaujolais. Pinot Noir is quite different than Gamay, of course. But serious examples of the variety effortlessly combine vibrant acidity with depth and complexity, just like top Pinot Noir.

And I wouldn't shy away from the list's least expensive option, a $36 Cabernet Franc from Calcu, a producer in Chile's Colchagua Valley. Since there isn't much demand for either Cabernet Franc or wines from Chile, this bottle essentially comes with two built-in discounts. Plus, at high-end restaurants everywhere, sommeliers take great care to make sure their inexpensive wines are impressive, knowing that such offerings are introductions to their programs.

The search for affordability is even easier with Green Zebra's whites.

While six of the list's 26 offerings are Chardonnay, with prices ranging from $56 to $90, the list is packed with unusual varieties from unheralded regions. For $40, patrons can enjoy an intensely aromatic Gewurztraminer from Elena Walch in Alto Adige, Italy, that's full of charm. For just $38, there's a delightful blend of Assyrtiko and Athiri from Domaine Sigalas in Santorini, Greece. For even less, there's a rich blend of Roussanne and Viognier from Arizona. The choices go on.

While the list at Green Zebra is well curated -- and well-priced -- it isn't particularly unique. Any restaurant with a serious wine program will make sure its cellar is stocked with fun, food-friendly options that won't break the bank. At Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C., for example, wine director Julian Mayor offers dozens of affordable, offbeat wines in a section of his list dubbed "Secrets of the Sommelier."

Asking for advice helps, too. Most sommeliers are keen to help patrons find the perfect wine, regardless of price. When dining out, one of my friends simply asks for "something weird" -- and he's almost always pleased with both the wine and its price. One recent evening at a D.C. steakhouse, his request resulted in an affordable, captivating blend of Savagnin and Chardonnay from legendary Jura producer Jacques Puffeney.

Wines from blue-chip regions like Burgundy and Napa are almost always expensive. Fortunately, sommeliers love stocking their lists with bottles that they, too, can afford to drink. So next time you're looking for a bargain, just go off the beaten path.

In Wine, Accidental Superstars Abound

"Born to Run," the album that catapulted Bruce Springsteen into the national spotlight, celebrated its 40th anniversary last week.

Springsteen fanatics love sharing the story behind the album. The Boss released two records in 1973, and although critics praised both, they flopped. So Springsteen's third effort was, quite literally, his last chance. As Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin once explained, "Columbia [Records] gave Bruce and the band just enough money to produce one song to show he could make great singles and prove the next album would be worth making. That's why [the band] took six months on 'Born to Run.' Every single note had to be perfect, otherwise they knew they would be going back to Asbury Park empty-handed."

When Columbia executives heard Springsteen's recording, they signed up for a third album. They knew that the 26-year-old Garden Stater was going to be a superstar.

Similarly, many of history's greatest wines almost never made it.

Consider the wines that emerged victorious at the "Judgment of Paris," the 1976 wine competition that pitted California against France. Everyone assumed that France would win, but the winners -- Chateau Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon -- hailed from California. The performance transformed America's wine industry, yet both wines almost didn't happen.

The story of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars begins in 1969. That year, former Robert Mondavi winemaker Warren Winiarski tasted a homemade Cabernet Sauvignon from winegrowing pioneer Nathan Fay. The wine was an epiphany for Winiarski; it captured everything he loved about Napa Valley. So he promptly purchased 44 acres of land next door to Fay, ripped out most of the prune, cherry, and walnut trees that covered the property, and planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

If Winiarski hadn't tasted Fay's homemade wine -- and been able to purchase the adjoining property -- Chateau Mouton-Rothschild would have won the Judgment of Paris.

At Chateau Montelena, winemaker Mike Grgich feared for his job after finishing his 1972 Chardonnay. Grgich had exposed the wine to so little oxygen during production that a natural browning enzyme remained in the wine for two months after bottling. Had the wine remained brown -- and had Grgich lost his job -- he wouldn't have finished the 1973 Chardonnay, so Domaine Roulot's Meursault-Charmes would have won the Paris contest.

The list of inadvertent superstars goes on.

John Shafer is sometimes credited with creating Napa Valley's modern style with his 1978 "Hillside Select." But that wine was an accident. Shafer had just moved to Napa Valley and couldn't find any pickers during harvest. As a result, his grapes were picked several days later than planned -- and were consequently much riper.

Screaming Eagle, Napa Valley's most famous "cult" Cabernet, traces its origins to a trash can.

In 1986, former real estate agent Jean Phillips purchased 57 acres in Oakville, California. Most of her land was planted to white varieties that were sold. But one acre consisted of Cabernet Sauvignon, from which she made wine in a plastic trashcan. Curious about her homemade wine's potential, Phillips brought some to the team at Robert Mondavi Winery, who promptly encouraged her to produce commercially. So in 1992, Phillips hired well-known consultant Richard Peterson and his daughter, Heidi Barrett. The inaugural release was awarded 99 points by Robert Parker and sold out instantly.

One of Bordeaux's top properties, Château Cheval Blanc, describes its 1947 cuvee as a "happy accident of nature." The weather was extreme that year; by harvest, most grapes had roasted on the vine. Air conditioning and temperature-controlled fermentation tanks didn't yet exist, so the excessive heat continued through production. As a result, many wines -- including the Cheval Blanc -- didn't finish fermentation, so were bottled with significant residual sugar and volatile acidity. Yet, as wine writer Mike Steinberger once explained, "the '47 Cheval is probably the most celebrated wine of the 20th century."

It's hard to imagine that Bruce Springsteen would have forever gone unnoticed -- or that any of these wines would have forever failed to capture oenophiles' imaginations. But it's certainly possible. In wine, as in art, accidental superstars abound.

David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com, which was named "Best Overall Wine Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at GrapeCollective.com.