Reading Between the Wines

Valentine's Day is approaching, and that has me thinking about romance. And sitting down and sipping a glass of wine or two is the perfect first date. It's a great way to relax, talk about your day, and get to know the person you're romancing.

A first glass of wine is as important as a first date. It's either love at first sip, or a big fat brush-off.

Ordering a bottle of an unknown wine is a blind date. After the server displays the label, you might just want to send the bottle back.

D. Seuss

Once the glass is poured, you immerse yourself in the experience. You notice the little things. With wine it's color, clarity and aroma.

Then you taste. And, like a first kiss, you know right away if you want more.

But wine is easier than romance. No one accuses you of being fickle if you want to play the field. In fact, variety and experimentation are encouraged.

One of the best ways to indulge your appetites -- for wine and variety -- is ordering by the glass.

Restaurants usually offer wines by the glass. But for a little social sipping, consider a visit to a by-the-glass boîte. Most serve at least a few edibles to round out your evening.

By-the-glass spots usually offer bottles for retail sale. This isn't just a pleasant coincidence. If you like what you taste, you might buy a few bottles to take home.

Cheese seems to be the common denominator when it comes to food to go with your wine. Cheese and other fatty foods coat the tongue and round out flavors. This makes wine, especially red wine, taste smoother. Some wine-sipping venues offer sandwiches and more extended menus.

The Valley offers many options for would-be sippers.

For variety, quality and staff knowledge, no place beats Sportsman's Wines, Spirits and Other Flavours, 3205 East Camelback. Sportsman's great wine inventory is a wine-taster's bonanza.

I counted 62 wines by the glass priced from $4 to $19.75. In addition to by-the-glass, Sportsman's offers two-ounce tastes. This means you can try four or five wines and still stand without wobbling.

At $1.90 a taste, the '97 Michele Chiarlo Barbera D'Asti is a good start. It's smooth and fruity without being sweet. The '97 Greg Norman Coonwarra ($2.30 a taste) is perfect for someone just getting into reds. It's a light, simple red with a hint of a sweet finish. The '98 Clos Baudin Vouvray is a crisp, sweet white that goes well with most foods.

I went with a friend for a late lunch. We ordered the Peasant's Palate combination basket ($15.95). The menu said it served two. We couldn't finish it.

Our basket contained a well-balanced selection of Morbier, Mahon and Gorgonzola cheeses, and a pile of paper-thin slices of Sopressata salami that gently spiced up our meal. Greek olives, Cornichons (tart little pickles), mixed nuts and spicy mustard rounded out our peasant's feast. If you're going à la carte, definitely try the Mousse Trouffee Pâté.

Duck and Decanter, 1651 East Camelback, with its large, eucalyptus-shaded patio, is a perfect fair-weather place to hang out and sip. There's live music in the evening from Thursday through Sunday.

The Duck's cheese selection is topnotch, and includes varieties you've probably heard of but never gotten around to tasting.

I sampled a spectacular Blue Shropshire that tastes like a cross between sharp Cheddar and Stilton, a smooth baby-Swiss-like Fol Epi, and a not-quite-ripe and rather blah Camembert. You'll be given the option of French bread, crackers or both. Take the bread.

To round out your wine go-withs, the Duck has an assortment of pâtés. The galantine of duck and pork with olives and pistachios has the consistency of crumbly salami. Spread with a little Dijon mustard, it's worth a second helping. Cheese baskets are priced by weight, and $20 will feed three or four.

The Duck's by-the-glass wine selection is pretty small, but the prices are reasonable. There were three in my party, and the woman behind the counter suggested buying a bottle to save a few dollars. Good advice, especially since there's no corkage fee.

For a slightly more upscale atmosphere, there's Vintage Market in Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback. Its broad selection of good wines averages $7 a glass.

The cheese-and-pâté platter is a bit disappointing. The cheeses were good, especially the manchego and Brie. The duck pâté was excellent. A dollop of raspberry jalapeño jam paired well with the Brie, but was hot enough to deaden my palate for purposes of wine tasting. But at $10.99 per person, the portion seems a bit stingy, especially compared with other venues.

I'd have enjoyed Vintage Market more if I hadn't seen one of the servers sniffing the wine she was taking to a nearby table. I can't fault her curiosity, but I wouldn't want her nose in my glass.

Another upscale place is Vinterra Fine Wines, 5041 North 44th Street. Nice lighting, comfortable modern furniture and good food are Vinterra's best features. The Napoleon Bruschetta ($8) is a hefty serving of tomato, basil and onion on crusty bread topped with a layer of melted cheese.

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