Given the profusion of wines offered in retail shops today, putting together a great shopping list takes a lot of work. For Karen Blonder of Silver Spring, a busy, 34-year-old trade association professional, wife and mother who has recently become a serious wine enthusiast, it's also become a distinct pleasure.
Karen graciously offered to share her personal wine shopping list, with a brief explanation of why each wine is on her list, to allow me to examine it and to offer suggestions for improvements.
While I can't, unfortunately, review everyone's list, seeing the changes and tweaks I offer her should prove useful, as you probably face similar questions and dilemmas.
Before getting into the specific wines on the list, I'll offer my thoughts on her list as a whole.
First, her approach of starting with the food and the occasion and then matching the wine is praiseworthy. Going the other way too often results from simply following ratings in wine publications and columns, which eliminates the consumer's active involvement and is therefore less satisfying. Also, her tilt in favor of reds over whites is realistic and sound, as reds are more versatile with food and are also more likely to be preferred by guests.
The greatest problem I see is that Karen is allocating too much to expensive white wines. Better to devote the splurge budget to reds, which improve more dramatically than do whites as more is spent. Also, her emphasis on California wines is misplaced for an initial focus of learning about wines. French, Italian and Spanish wines are less well-known here, so studying them will help in the selection of value wines that might be overlooked.
Now, on to the recommendations. Prices are estimates:
Sonoma Cutrer Winery Chardonnay Russian River Ranches ($20; California). Reason it's on her shopping list . . . to pair with breaded chicken served over salad.
I like the food match, as the vibrant green apple flavors of the chardonnay will perk up the mild flavors of the breaded chicken. However, since the brisk, lightly oaked Sonoma Cutrer is modeled on a French Pouilly-Fuisse, go for the original, which is also made from chardonnay. Pouilly-Fuisse starts at roughly the same price, and offers a lively, minerally complexity that California chardonnay can't quite equal. Suggested wines include 2003 Domaine Louis Latour Pouilly-Fuisse, 2003 Georges Duboeuf Pouilly-Fuisse "Clos Reissier" and 2003 Georges Duboeuf Pouilly-Fuisse Domaine Beranger.
Chateau de Sancerre 2003 Sancerre ($18; France). On her list . . . for having friends over for happy hour, and because she wanted a light, white wine to serve with snacks.
Keep this one. I love Sancerre in general and this producer in particular. However, your food pairing surprises me. Sancerre's steely complexity will overwhelm typical party snacks, and it's too expensive to serve at a happy hour, where it probably won't be noticed. Instead, pair it with goat cheese or salad courses with goat cheese dressing, or assertive seafoods such as raw oysters, sushi and white fish poached in fines herbs.
Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay Reserve Napa Valley ($50-$60). On her list . . . to match with shrimp salad with avocado, onion and corn.
Knock this one right off. Although Napa's Cakebread Cellars makes many terrific wines, this isn't one of them, especially for the price.
However, your food match is right on the money. An opulently oaky chardonnay like this is a thoughtful, creative match with your rich shrimp and avocado salad. But you'll find a similar, if slightly less emphatic, style of chardonnay for much less money in the 2003 Chateau Souverain Chardonnay Sonoma County ($14) or the 2003 Estancia Monterey Pinnacles Ranches Chardonnay ($12).
Domaine Sauvion Cler Blanc (nonvintage) ($7; France). On her list . . . to have a couple of bottles of inexpensive white on hand for weeknight meals.
Although this is one of the better examples, I'm not fond of generic (non-varietal) French table wines. They are often bland, and the lack of a vintage date adds to the risk of getting a bottle that's over the hill. For about the same price, go with a fresh, vintage-dated white from the Southern Hemisphere. An out-of-the-ordinary choice would be a spicy torrontes (a white wine made from the torrontes grape) from Argentina. The 2004 or 2005 Jacques & Francois Lurton Torrontes Mendoza ($8) and the 2004 or 2005 Santa Julia Torrontes Mendoza ($7) are appealing.
Archery Summit Pinot Noir ($40-$80, depending on the cuvee). On her list . . . for a special occasion and for grilling cedar plank salmon; Sebastiani 2003 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($15) . . . . for happy hour with snacks; David Bruce Winery 2002 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($27) . . . . for having a barbecue and making ribs and chicken; Napa Ridge Pinot Noir ($8) . . . . because she wanted to try something different and it was recommended.
Although pinot noir is a versatile and sophisticated wine, you're overweighted on this varietal. Two different ones are enough. As an all-occasion wine, the modestly priced Sebastiani Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast is an inspired choice. Because its plummy, black cherry flavors go well with many foods, including your grilled chicken and ribs, you can delete the more expensive David Bruce you had selected for your barbecue. I'm also okay with Archery Summit Pinot Noir as a splurge. At prices above $40, though, I normally recommend French red burgundy, which is also made from pinot noir. An Oregon wine is the appropriate choice with cedar plank salmon, a Pacific Northwest classic. The Napa Ridge Pinot Noir is of no interest, even at $8.
Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais "Julienas" ($10; France); Rancho Zabaco Zinfandel "Heritage Vines" ($10; California). On her list . . . to have a couple of bottles of red on hand to have with weeknight meal.
Neither is a good choice as a weeknight house wine, because the styles are too overtly grapey and extreme to match with most foods. What you want for this purpose is what the British call a "luncheon claret" -- a medium-bodied, reasonably complex red, typically (but not necessarily) a Bordeaux or cabernet sauvignon, which doesn't call attention to itself but which is savory and pleasant to drink with a wide variety of foods. In the $10 range, I'd recommend Argentine malbec, a Chilean cabernet such as Los Vascos, or a shiraz-cabernet blend from Australia, such as Penfolds Koonunga Hill.
Domaine de Durban Cotes du Rhone Villages Beaumes de Venise "Cuvee Prestige" 2000 ($16). On her list . . . "I really like this wine and want to have a bottle on hand for dinner -- maybe a grilled steak."
I'm not going to argue with that -- if you like a wine, go with it. Plus, in this case, I thoroughly agree with you about both the wine and your food pairing. However, I would also urge you to explore other reds from southern France that are less well-known than Cotes du Rhone but that offer as much or more flavor interest, often at a lower price. I am particularly fond of those from Minervois, Corbieres, Costieres de Nimes, Cotes de Ventoux and Languedoc-Roussillon. Since there are so many choices, ask your retailer for a recommendation.