My good friend Roy had made it his personal mission to teach me about wine. I'd met him, appropriately enough, at a wine tasting. But at a careless 24, I was less interested in frou-frou terminology and varietal descriptions than I was in following culinary author M.F.K. Fisher's adage: "It matters not how a wine is drunk, as long as you are."
I remember that evening and many lovely ones later when, in my mind, Roy ruined perfectly good meals by insisting I appreciate the nuances between Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zinfandel. Roy, 13 years my senior, was obsessed with good grapes and littered his conversations with affected adjectives: acidic, chewy, flinty, grassy, malolactic, supple, yeasty. There were times I thought he found the vin sexier than me, as he waxed poetic about its tactile body, firm structure, mouth-filling texture, perfect legs and nose.
Now, 10 years later, I speak the language of wine and can spout with the best of them the eccentric character of Riesling (dry and tart, or lusciously sweet as a late harvest). I understand, and appreciate, that while both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot utilize Bordeaux grapes, I prefer Merlot for its softer character.
But I've never lost my disdain for, and boredom with, such conversations. Even now, when joining Roy for a fancy dinner, I shrink in my seat when he starts his "jammy, herbaceous, tannin" talk with the waiter. It's all just too pretentious for me.
When the conversation turns too conceited, I think back on a private tour I took last year of Sicily's renowned L'Azienda Agricola Planeta winery, and I smile. The young boutique winery nestled on Lago Arancio (Orange Lake) gained international recognition for its superior quality in 1998, just three years after producing its first bottle.
I felt entirely intimidated as the owner led me through the cool dank of the small cellar, his hand unconsciously, proudly stroking the handmade wooden casks as he described each wine's pedigree. He drew the plug from a cask, released a glittery pour of wine into a sparkling goblet, and led me through the ritual: swirl, smell, swish, swallow (this stuff was much too good to spit out). I wanted so badly to down each three-ounce sample, but following his lead, I unhappily relinquished the remaining nectar to an assistant, who poured the leftovers into a jug.
As we moved on to the next varietal, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. The assistant had taken the jug and was pouring our surplus wine back into the aging keg, backwash and all. I laughed, and the Planeta owner shrugged.
"We're just a little winery," he said in thick, unapologetic Italian-accented English. "We'd be crazy to waste the wine."
I came across a Planeta tasting table at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen last month. "Mmm," I said, sipping a sample of Chardonnay. "I'd recognize my spit anywhere."
Over the years, I have to think that people's preoccupation with wine snobbery is waning. The Food Network has made wine appreciation much more mainstream. Oenophiles are aging: Roy even gave away his massive collection of custom crystal decanters and goblets last month. ("It just doesn't matter to me much anymore," he admitted. "I want to enjoy wine, not think about it.")
And then there are the wine bars popping up all over town. Places like Kazimierz World Wine Bar, Postino and that original House of Spirits, Sportsman's, encourage sampling wine flights, three-ounce pours of various wines that allow us to educate our palates while snacking on gourmet pizza, bruschetta and cheeses.
So when I was driving down Scottsdale Road the other evening thrilled that, for one of the first times, I'd successfully navigated the curve north of Osborn without ending up in the Walgreens parking lot and saw the giant new "BYOB" restaurant sign that's popped up next to AZ Wine Co., I made a sharp left and skidded to a stop in the parking lot.
AZ Wine Co. is one of my favorite places to explore wines. With some 20,000 bottles, it's the largest wine shop in Arizona, but more important to me, it's absolutely relaxed and remarkably well-priced. No noses in the air, just naked concrete floors lined with long, collapsible tables topped with box after box of wines from around the world. The box tops are ripped off to expose slender bottle necks, the prices are scrawled on the cardboard in Magic Marker and, on one box, I see someone's handwritten comment: Great!
The Wine Co. is where you'll find me many Wednesdays and Fridays, indulging in free tastings at the cozy bar or kicking back on one of the front-porch-style sofas and chairs clustered in a cradle of boxes.
The only thing lacking at AZ Wine, I'd thought, was the opportunity to eat while I drink (I've got to snack while drinking or I immediately fall asleep). Enter Atlas Bistro, the real name that's hidden under the letters of the giant "BYOB" sign beckoning from behind a pet shop fronting Scottsdale Road.
Genius! Atlas is part of the warehouse, separated by French doors and endearingly tranquil. Decor is decidedly refreshingly unpretentious, with some color slapped on the concrete floor, tan paint on the walls, white tablecloths cozied down with white butcher paper, and blond mission-style chairs. Personality is found only in a few offbeat photos of faces on the walls and in Mexican-tile coasters topped with tiny glass vases fat with mini carnations.
But offering more than kitschy snacks, Atlas' menu is so inspired and well-executed that it makes the bistro one of our town's best restaurants. That it's BYOB means we save huge amounts over standard restaurant wine markup; that it's connected to the wine shop means we don't have to make an extra stop to pick up a bottle. And AZ Wine's staff is so well-versed, we can go over the menu with them before entering the restaurant, and they'll help us pick the perfect pairing.
My dinner companion hadn't really wanted to come along tonight. He'd set his heart on hamburgers at home (me too, actually, because he makes an incredible sandwich sparked with garlic salt). But once through the door, he was completely into the event.
Atlas is a compact offering usually six appetizers, two salads, a soup, and seven entrees including a vegetarian dish. It changes often but is always pristine and nearly always perfect. My first menu foray sung with silky sushi-grade ahi over fresh greens, mahogany-hued ginger-cured duck with creamy wild mushroom risotto and sautéed spinach, plus fresh trout glistening with chile-tequila sauce and partnered with polenta.
Tonight, though, we're substituting heartier stuff to quell those burger pangs. Gorgeous rack of lamb with grilled potatoes, apples and couscous is barely nudged out by an enormous Niman Ranch pork chop, exquisitely thick and moist, sided with an earthy wet heap of roasted corn, plump barley and black beans.
"When can we come back?" my companion asks hopefully.
I could have herded him out after just the starters, actually. In a piggy mood, we coughed up $19.95 for a tasting, bringing our choice of three appetizers (full-size servings, in my book). Bruschetta are brilliant, six dainty crostini individually capped with chopped tomato and olive oil, white beans with hummus and briny mushrooms over goat cheese and mascarpone. A selection of tri-colored organic tomatoes, herbed and doused with olive oil, flanks pretty greens with triangles of purple-edged drunken goat cheese (a sharper, firmer variety than I've usually eaten). A quesadilla gets special treatment, the sun-dried tomato tortilla encasing white cheese and nubs of smoked salmon atop a peanuty-charactered bay scallop and crayfish sauce studded with corn and pearl onions.
The only disappointment I've come across at Atlas, in fact, is a duo of pan-seared quail with "spicy" apple-sausage hash. The tiny, flattened birds are as good as quail gets, with mild game notes and wee fleshy breasts, but I hate the hash, so cloyingly sugary it's like spooning melted jelly.
AZ Wine is out of our preferred Newton Claret, but our waitress disappears into the wine store and returns with two complimentary tastes of Catena, a 2000 Malbec from LunLunta Vineyards of Argentina. Stunning, with intense aromas of ripe blackberry interlaced with vanilla and tobacco. After we sip and smile, she confides that she'd been eyeing the bottle jealously; if we're not going to finish our samples, she'd love to help out. I love her attitude. I love the wine more, and we end up purchasing a bottle of the $22.49 delight.
Being BYOB but affiliated with a wine shop, Atlas has some creative check policies. There's a stem fee of $2.50, no matter how much (or who) is drunk. There's also a $7 corkage fee per bottle, though it's waived for wines purchased next door. And wines must be purchased next door, then hand-carried by the customer into the restaurant, because of liquor laws. Leftovers (as if there could be such a thing with wine) can be re-corked and carried out.
AZ Wine Co. doesn't sell Planeta. That's unfortunate. I'd love to take Roy in for a tasting and see if he can detect that elusive, compelling note that only true wine experts can discern: spit.
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