Adventures in Riesling

July 1, 2007 at 3:22 pm (Humor, Travel, Wine, Writing)

Note: This entry is a fuller description of a story synopsized elsewhere in the blog. Please forgive me repeating myself as I play around with storytelling.

During a recent trip to California’s Central Coast region, my wife and I dined at a well-known restaurant, the name of which I feel inclined to withhold. This isn’t because our meal or the service was in any way lacking; in fact, the opposite was the case. It just seems more… polite, if you will, to grant the sommelier in question a certain amount of anonymity, since the experience, in the final analysis, wasn’t negative, just rather bizarre.

Since I was driving (and since we’d already had two full days of wine tasting), I decided to abstain from drinking, leaving my wife to have a glass by herself. To go with her seafood dish, she decided to order a white wine, specifically a Riesling (I’d been praising the virtues of this most noble of all grapes to her all weekend, and I think she finally got sick of listening to me and gave in), and more specifically, according to the wine list, a local Riesling, from Gainey Vineyards.

Now, the next day, on our way back down to LA, I had my own opportunity to try out this wine at the Gainey visitors’ center, and I personally wasn’t impressed (I do, however, recommend their winery tour). Traditional Rieslings can range from very sweet to moderately sweet to dry, but the 2006 Gainey Riesling actually has less than 1% residual sugar and, combined with the strong citrus notes in the wine, left me with an overwhelming impression of sour lemons. Now, before you take this as a statement on the quality of the Gainey wines, let me state that (a) everyone has different tastes in wines, and (b) the great success of the Gainey winery is good evidence that my personal preferences do not extend to the wider population. In fact, Gainey even has a Riesling-only option on its wine club, so I assume they have a lot of takers. That said, the wine didn’t suit me, and I didn’t feel compelled to buy a bottle. Of course, the fact that the incredibly good-looking Hugh Jackman-lookalike of an employee (strike one against him, on account of petty jealousy) described the aforementioned wine club option as an “entry-level option, until people are ready for real wines,” (strike two against him, on account of insulting the aforementioned most noble of all grapes) probably didn’t help my mood either.

However, that is actually rather irrelevant to the main story because the wine that my wife received was, in fact, not the Gainey Riesling, although we didn’t know that at the time. Her glass of wine (I had to take a sip, once she started praising it) was wonderfully sweet and smooth, with a flavor and texture that I can only describe as buttery, since it reminds me of the rich flavor and aroma of butter when you’ve melted it in a frying pan and it has begun to brown ever so slightly. There were no sharp edges or bitter notes on this wine at all, and that one sip was an exquisite pleasure. I was a bit surprised, since I had tried a few local Rieslings over the past couple of days, and all of them had displayed similar characteristics to the aforementioned Gainey wine that I would later taste. I had almost become convinced that the Santa Ynez Valley couldn’t produce a good (to my taste), sweet Riesling. Well, the next time we saw our waitress, we asked her to remind us of the vintner and year of the wine so that we could go over to that winery the next morning and buy a case or two, and she agreed to check. Her answer, delivered upon her return a minute later, put a damper on our idea.

“I’m very sorry,” she informed us, “but for some reason, we’re actually not pouring the Gainey Riesling tonight. What you’re drinking is a South African Riesling.”

I actually tried a South African Riesling for the first time this past October, while attending a conference in San Antonio, Texas. I’d been reading occasional references in Wine Spectator to Texas’ burgeoning wine industry, and although the conference schedule didn’t allow me the freedom to visit any of the wineries, I had hoped that I would have occasion over the three-day period to at least sample a few local vintages. My first disappointment came at the opening night reception, at our hotel on the River Walk, where the bartender was only pouring California wines.

“But I come from California!” I protested. “I’m trying to escape my home state’s wines for a change!”

“It can’t be helped,” he answered. “The Californian wines are better than the Texan wines, and cheaper, too.”

Well, I wasn’t going to be stopped by some ignorant bartender with no sense of local pride. A quick search on the web revealed Drink, a wine bar just a few blocks from the River Walk, and the next night I dragged some colleagues of mine down there in order to finally sample some of the fine Texan wines. After all, a local wine bar would certainly have a broad sample for tasting, right? Wrong. There was only one Texan wine by the glass on the menu, and it was twice as expensive as any of the other wines listed. But I was undaunted.

“How’s the (insert wine name here, since I no longer remember what it was)?” I asked the incredibly attractive bartender and wine expert (this time a woman, so no strikes against her; what is it about young, good looking people and wine, anyway?).

“Honestly,” she answered, “not that great. I don’t even know why we stock it. I’d really recommend going with something else.”

Okay, now I was daunted. Fool me once and all that. But I still wasn’t going to have a California wine, since I can get those here at home, so I settled on a reasonably priced South African Riesling (which I do realize I could also get here at home, if I could just remember the name; I wasn’t keeping track of those little details at the time, I’m afraid), and was pleased. It was moderately sweet and crisp, also with citrus notes, and I remember enjoying it well enough at the time. So, when the waitress informed us that we were drinking a South African wine, I thought to myself, “Ah, well, that explains why it’s so different from the local stuff.”

In point of fact, however, that wasn’t actually why it was so different from the local stuff. As I’ve already said, we were both enamored with this wine, and we asked our server to bring out a bottle so that we could look at the label and see exactly what it was, to help us hunt it down. She obliged us, and came out carrying a tall, narrow green bottle with a navy blue label on it. A label written entirely in German. Even down to the part at the bottom that said, ‘from Germany’ (actually, it said something like ‘von Deutschland,’ which is German for ‘from Germany,’ if you’re being picky). In fact, it wasn’t a South African wine at all, it was the 2005 Eltviller Riesling from Langwerth von Simmern, a German winery.

I pointed this little fact out to our server. She was appropriately mystified and contrite.

I, however, was overjoyed, since I worship the German and Austrian Rieslings above all others. I’ve noticed that when I study a living language, I become fascinated with its culture, especially its culinary culture, at the same time. So, while I was learning Modern Greek, I ate a lot of Greek food, and the same goes for Arabic and, now, Spanish. Well, I’ve had to learn quite a bit of German at UCLA for my degree, so I think you see where I’m going here. That this wine was a German wine only fueled my admiration for the fine vintages of the Deutsch-speaking world, and reinforced my egotistical world-view that I am a veritable paragon of taste. Basking in the glow of my own self-admiration, I politely asked (as the truly tasteful ought to do with the lesser, benighted mortals who surround them) if we might buy a bottle of this exquisite topaz gem of a wine to take home with us, to which request she happily agreed (as any mere mortal ought to do when commanded by the truly tasteful, such as myself). And do you know what she brought out?

A fourth bottle of wine.

I kid you not. The wine which the restaurant claimed to be pouring was not the wine that they should have been pouring which was not the wine that they thought they were pouring which was not the wine that they were pouring. I soon figured out that the difference between the last two bottles wasn’t nearly as great as between the others before; they were both from the same winery in Germany, albeit different wines. The fourth bottle, which, as we later found out, was the wine that our server ought to have been pouring, was the Kabinett, or “select” version of that wine, while the third bottle was the Qualitätswein, or the “regular”version. But still, those are different wines, with different prices, etc., and you ought to be able to keep track of that, right?

By now, my self-delusions of granduer had been swept away by the absurdity of the whole thing, and I was mostly just curious to figure out exactly what was going on back there in the kitchen, if you will. Well, the server summoned the sommelier, who at first didn’t believe our story, until we furnished what one might call incontrovertible evidence (in the form of the third wine bottle), and then she finally concluded that her supplier must have stuck a bottle of the Qualitätswein in with her shipment of Kabinett in order to fill a case. So, the mystery was solved by blaming it on someone else, always a satisfying conclusion to such cases.

Oh, but we still wanted to buy a bottle of the wine! That was the point of this story, of course. Well, we didn’t want to drop $20 on the Kabinett (which was probably a markup, anyway) without Heather getting to taste it, and so the sommelier opened a bottle right there for us, for Heather to taste.

And wouldn’t you know it but that Heather liked the cheaper Qualitätswein more that she liked the fancy wine? So much for ever satisfying her… :o)

1 Comment

  1. Peter K said,

    Great story. I don’t know why I’m not suprised. I will add –
    There is hope for California Rieslings!

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