Coke Roth

Looking in the rearview mirror

Welcome again to another aggravated assault on the English language, where a reader should resist the temptation to try to make any sense of what is written. Where I hope words are assembled with perfect syntax, enviable acuity and bold cleverness, yet you may be left in a vacuum, suffering from narcolepsy (winolepsy?) and no small amount of confusion.

As I look over my shoulder at the last half-dozen decades of having wine in my life, I find myself confounded and swept into the black hole of the past. I find myself craving wines from my youth and those made in a classical style. I find that my tastes are history in repeat, or maybe, in the words of Yogi Berra, they are déjà vu all over again.

Being the son of a wine distributor offered an early, relaxed and casual introduction to wine; holiday foods were washed down with everything from Kosher to deliciously sweet Concord to the table wines from Old St. Charles Winery — a screw-top “Burgundy” that was the favorite. Back in the 1950s, you could have any kind of commercial Washington red wine you wanted as long as it was made from Concord grapes. And I still LOVE Concord wines, particularly those made in Ohio and New York.

The private sector started distributing California and European wines in 1969, much to the economic betterment of the Roth family. Moreover, Washington wines started becoming available in small quantities from varieties other than Concord. I always thought it was divine intervention that this marvelous expansion of wines occurred when I was in college. Timing is everything.

During the 1970s and early ’80s, the wine industry fired a heat-seeking missile to the sweet tooth of the young American consumer. California wineries used most every imaginable natural and contrived ingredient to get people to drink what they called wine. Citrusy “Coolers” and grapey-flavored wines dotted the landscape.

Collaterally, Europeans were sending us what they drank at the table, some of which were sweet. Fruit-bomb Sangria, Lambrusco with frizzante and Asti Spumante were not created for the American public. Europeans were knocking those back waaaaaay before sweetness became our demand-side economics. And they resisted the temptation of calling a doctored-up beverage “wine” when it was really just “kinda wine.” Getting sleepy yet?

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Many a Saturday night then was warmed up for this cowboy by an off-dry, blended Riesling from Germany, Blue Nun, and a pair of deliciously balanced rosés from Portugal; Lancers and Mateus. Even an ugly duckling like me could find friends with a bottle of any of those. I’ve always found that buying my friends is much more certain than going to the trouble of developing positive personality traits to encourage someone to actually like me for being me.

With few exceptions, during their formative years, the goal for all producers in Washington and Oregon was to make wine as good as those made in Europe. The Californians went mano a mano with successful side-by-side wine challenges. The old Chateau St. Michelle back label did a big ME TOO by illustrating that the fine growing areas of Europe lay on the same latitudinal line as Washington State. My friend Kay Simon of Chinook Winery pointed out years ago that the 38th parallel that goes through Napa, California also goes through Northern Afghanistan. So, let’s not go there.

I recall in the fall of 1976 participating in the first vintage of Hinzerling Winery in Prosser, where my good friend, the recently departed Mike Wallace, was doing back-flips because his grapes came in with precisely the same chemistry (sugar/pH/tartaric acid) as a 1975 vintage of one of Mike’s favorites, Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou. Red winemaking was focused on the same gold standard used by the world: moderate alcohol; lengthening acidity; mature flavors from barrel aging; clean, identifiable fruit showing varietal character; and dry. They were wines that tasted great, and were superb with food — in every sense a non-dominating complement to food.

So, now I’m looking in the rearview mirror, and I’m gobsmacked by my current temporal desires. I crave a clean wine made from fruit or berries. I so much enjoy a Margarita Cooler, or a hard apple cider. I hunger for a pale Amontillado Sherry bedazzled by a lemon peel before dinner and an Oloroso Sherry with nuts after. I have a hankerin’ for Auslese Riesling from the Mosel. What the heck is going on!

I don’t want opulence, boldness and viscosity in my red wines; I want finesse, delicacy and harmony. In my whites I want minerality, grace and balance, not oak and alcohol. I must be going home because I am not going big.

In discussing this dilemma with Kay Simon and Clay Mackey from Chinook over a sample of their Cabernet Franc, they indicated some winemaker told them that the wine “had a hole in it.” We agreed that the hole in her Cab Franc is where the food goes. It is one of my favorite food wines – ever.

So, I am now RETRO-MAN, returning to my childhood pleasures and choices. And why? Because they taste good. I drink whites when eating because the humungous woody, high alcohol and bold-berry reds that are now in vogue are delicious and wonderful to drink – when drinking.

Don’t be afraid to return to where you started with that delicious stuff you started with, with friends and foods, in moderation, frequently.

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