Coke Roth

Drink Riesling like a man

I have a Best Friend Forever. Riesling. In txt, that's my BFF (I have a teenager at home).

My first exposure to non-Kosher wine occurred in the mid-1950s when my dad would pour us kids "experimental" wine gifted from Vic Allison, general manager American Wine Growers, the precursor to Chateau Ste. Michelle.

We were privy to a fuchsia-neon Grenache Rose, a straw-gold Semillon and a greenish-gold Riesling. The grapes came from the legendary Walt Clore's experimental "mother block" near Grandview, Wash., and the wines were made by my old buddy, Les Fleming. These family friends and visionaries poured the foundation for Northwest wines.

I vividly recall the Saturday drugstore mad dash to buy a corkscrew; all other Washington table wines of that era that Dad had in our wholesale wine operation were screwtops. The vintage 1958 corkscrew was a Swiss Army Knife-like contraption, comprising both can and bottle openers, a sharp nose that could be used as an ice pick, screwdriver, leather punch or torture threat on a little sister, and, importantly, had an auger that flipped out of the handle. Ceremoniously, Dad twisted the auger into the short cork of the unlabeled bottle, placed the bottle between his thighs and let out a grunt like a shot putter until the cork succumbed to his efforts. Band-Aids and sometimes even stitches were side effects of its use.

The home movie I have lasered on the back of my eyelids from when we were given a short pour of Riesling on Thanksgiving, Passover or just the rare Sunday my dad decided not to work are generously augmented by memories of the concentrated apple flavors of Riesling.

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I was in fourth grade when I grew taller than Vic, a most inspiring man in my life. I vividly recall when Vic took us into the bowels of the musty old Nawico and Pommerelle Marginal Way winery facility just across from Seattle's Boeing Field. Among the massive cedar tanks were just a few glass carboys filled with a beautifully bright nectar he called "Johannisberg Riesling."

Like it was yesterday, I recall Vic telling me, "Cokie, this is the future of the Washington wine industry." Uncle Vic was so right. Indeed, it was the 1972 Chateau Ste. Michelle Johannisberg Riesling that took top honors at a 1974 Los Angeles Times blind Riesling tasting, jerking all heads toward the Pacific Northwest.

Where Riesling originated seems to be competitive rural legend. The Mosel River folks claim first-century Riesling plantings in Trier, Germany. Rheinlander's tell tales of Charlemagne, mounted on his white steed during the Saxon wars in the late 700s, nobly directing Riesling to be planted on the warmer south facing of the Rhine River, the Rhinegau, because of the early snowmelt. Wherever its origin, my BFF became later planted in every continent except Antarctica -- at least for now -- Riesling is winter hardy. One interesting characteristic is that oftentimes Riesling divulges its area of origin: the Fuji apple/Bosc pear of Washington, the lime/gooseberry notes of New Zealand, the intriguing minerality of Australia and the flinty honeysuckle of Germany.

It was in August 1970 when my BFF and I really started dancing. Dad arranged for me to visit the now-defunct Julius Kaiser Winery in Traben-Trarbach on the Mosel River, where I was allowed to dive into 75 or so Rieslings. A long-passed statute of limitations notwithstanding, proper decorum does not allow me to disclose the evening following that "tasting. Suffice to say, I was 20 years old and showed it.

So, you say Riesling is too sweet for you, eh? When you think about Riesling, you think about some portly old fellow dressed in lederhosen dashing something sweeter than cola into your glass? No real man would be caught drinking Riesling, right?! I would venture to say that a solid half of the Rieslings you will now find are slightly off-dry to dry, and even those that are a bit sweeter have been balanced with acid and alcohol to create the forum for food.

It is the norm and not the exception for Rieslings to gracefully keep their powerful fruit and their salivating acidity after those desirable characteristics are in the rearview mirror of most high-alcohol red wines. Compare a contemporary Merlot and Riesling to see how my BFF looks at the 10- or even 20-year-class reunion.

Having Asian cuisine with an off-dry version of my BFF is a no-brainer. However, you are remiss in pigeonholing Riesling for isolated occasions or foods. It is time to think outside the bottle! Try pork chops, barbecued ribs, pasta and even a steak with dry Riesling. Dry Riesling has the acidity to deal with fat issues and gracefully complement stronger foods. Riesling doesn't strong-arm a meal. Rather, it harmoniously integrates with food.

In my dictionary, the word for "buddy" is Riesling, good ol' Vitamin R.

With Riesling's typically moderate alcohol levels, pleasing acidity and exploding fruit, all you need to do is buy some and find someone to drink it with. Riesling awaits your occasion and your food, to be drunk in moderation, frequently.

Coke Roth is an attorney who lives in Richland, Wash. He is an original member of Wine Press Northwest's tasting panel. Learn more about him at cokerothlaw.com.

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