Let us now praise silly wine, the wine of summer and Indian summer. It is the nectar of boat and backpack and stadium, as well as the lawn at Wolf Trap while experiencing something wonderful by Puccini.
Let other throat-clearing oenophiles hymn the virtues of $100 burgundies, $80 barberas and California cabernets imbibed properly only on one's knees. My song is to the wine of the open road with the top down, the wine of the fair wind and the following sea, the wine of the tailgate party and the picnic basket and the one that lubricates the moonlight swim and the stroll among the autumn colors. Those are not really places for Chateau Margaux or Gevrey-Chambertin. What we're looking for in such locales is something approaching Vivaldi in a glass.
Silly wine is, first of all, festive. One could argue that all champagne is silly, what with that popping cork and all those bubbles, but here we must demur a bit at cost. Silly wine is by definition not serious, so it must not have a serious price. Silliness should be obtainable for less than $10.
Just because it's silly, however, doesn't mean it's not good. Silly wine should be both delicious and salubrious, thirst-quenching and companionable, intoxicating more in color than in content. Excessive alcohol may encourage silliness in the drinker, but it inhibits it in the wine. Somebody still needs to steer the boat after lunch.
But enough of generalities.
My own personal favorite among silly wines is a splendidly lighthearted rose from California named Vin Gris de Cigare. This is produced by the Bonny Doon people in California, who were in such a good mood when they first produced it years ago that they used to put the label on backwards. You had to look through the soft-pink contents to read the name, which as I remember has something to do with a vineyard where workers are not allowed to throw cigar butts. Vin Gris de Cigare is very agreeable stuff indeed, the sort of highly drinkable palate pleaser that puts the lie to those who confuse all pink wine with cloying substances like white zinfandel.
White zinfandel or "blush" wine is not really wine at all. It's a sort of Kool-Aid beverage consumed by the children of parents who, under the spell of various regrettable substances, once drank Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill at Woodstock. That's not silly; that's scary.
It's true, however, that too many pink wines err on the side of sweetness (or sometimes, extreme tartness) and thus never rise to the level of silliness. Silly is not the same as trivial.
Vin Gris de Cigare, for example, is an even- tempered good sport, equally at home with a soy sauce-and-ginger-marinated flank steak or a chicken sandwich. It is particularly fine reaching eastward from Maryland's West River under a 15-knot northwesterly wind when the mainsail is behaving itself.
Silly wine, however, is nondenominational and democratic. It can be red or white or pink (or even green, in the case of Portugal) and can come from any country, though some are sillier than others. Almost all Italian white wines are silly, for example, particularly those bottled in the shape of vases or fish, and Italian sparkling wines might be the silliest of all.
Many would claim that all German white wines
are silly, to which partisans of long green and
brown bottles will take strong exception, in polysyllabic protests appended with terms like trockenbeerenauslese. In truth, Rhine wines are too pretentiously Wagnerian to be silly. Only the sunny wines of the Moselle are truly silly and quite drinkable they are, if you can ever find them at an appropriately silly price, which these days is doubtful.
My first silly wine was German, a near-generic bottling named Zeltinger Riesling that I used to buy for $1.85 in the 1960s when those less enamored of the grape were drinking Boone's Farm. Like many Rieslings, it wasn't worth anything with food, but for lying on a blanket and knocking back in the sun it was unsurpassed. Zeltinger Riesling brought me so many happy memories I have long dreamed of a pilgrimage to the town of Zeltingen on the Moselle to thank the vintners there personally.
Since the advent of the pricey, however, we must look to other Rieslings for silliness. Naked Mountain in Virginia makes a delightful one but there again price threatens to remove it from the category.
Chardonnays have, in general, stopped being silly because those in the silly price range, like most jug wines, tend too much toward uniformity and predictability. Properly silly wine carries the aura of adventure and happy discovery for both the vintner and the consumer. For example, New Zealand sauvignon blancs burst upon the world a few years ago with such astonishing quality and painful price they never had a chance to be silly. But the other day I found a knockout Kiwi contender at Trader Joe's for something like $7. It goes by the name of King Shag and it's both a stunning bargain and a delight.
Australian wines started out silly, if not absurd. But they've grown so ambitious they've almost worked their way out of the fun category. France, on the other hand, used to export no silly wines. But times have changed. The other day at my neighborhood store I picked up for around $8 a friendly little red syrah named Red Bicyclette. I pulled the cork to read on it a cheerful "Bonjour!" How silly is that?
Silly reds are more difficult to categorize than silly whites because lightness is almost a requirement. The reds of Greece, Morocco, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania often qualify, but my current favorite silly reds are made from the tempranillo grapes of Spain. Lots of these are available, and they're full of flavor. I've had very few I didn't like, just as the malbecs of Argentina and Chile rarely fail the silly-red standard.
It is the blends, however, that are advancing the flag of silliness these days. Much has been written about the famous "Two-Buck Chuck," but not enough about celebratory fun wines such as Australia's Long Flat Red and Yellow Tail Shiraz. California's Big House Red and Barefoot wines, and perhaps the silliest red of all, a "red table wine" blend of Sonoma and Mendocino grapes named Jest Red. Jest Red was awarded 89 points of a possible 100 points in 2002 by the Wine Enthusiast, which listed it among "Great Deals and Downright Steals" and described it with exquisite accuracy as a "smooth and succulent . . . sorcerer's brew" with a "satiny, lip-licking finish."
That might give some winemakers airs, but not the folks at Jest Red, who portray their wine on each bottle's label as follows:
"This red wine, blended from seven noble grape varietals, was crushed by the bare feet of 69 beautiful women in the wee light of dawn, one misty October day. The nose is deeply perfumed with wild dewberries, Himalayan breeding musk and horehound candy, while the flavors, so titillating they may only be disclosed in the Ecstatic Singing Mantra, will remain cloaked in silence until the bottle is uncorked. Sip delicately, sing with abandon."
Who could ask more from the silly wines of the season?
Silly wines are sold at wine stores and some supermarkets. Call ahead to check availability.
Ken Ringle is a former Style writer who last wrote for Food about presidential inaugural meals.