An occasional look at reader questions.
With the holidays approaching, it’s time to think of gifts for the wine lovers in our lives. Wine fiends can be tricky unless you really know their taste. Buying wine for a wine lover is almost always a hit-or-miss proposition.
A reader in such a quandary submitted this question to the Food section’s weekly online chat : “Do you know of a wine club or something similar where you can pay in advance for someone to receive one or two interesting bottles of wine each month for a year?”
A wine club can solve the gift-giving problem by leaving the choice to someone else. Some newspapers and other publications sponsor wine clubs (as The Post did for years before discontinuing it in June). These offer monthly or quarterly selections from a third-party company that draws wines from around the world. I have not evaluated such clubs, though I suspect that the wines are chosen as much for their availability in the global sea of wine as for their quality.
I’d put more trust in the wine club of a retailer known for its high-quality portfolio, such as Bounty Hunter Rare Wine & Spirits in Napa, Calif. The store has several clubs, including some offering rare whiskeys. The wine emphasis is on California. You can choose monthly or quarterly shipments. California’s Bonny Doon winery has several options, and owner Randall Grahm is always cooking up something interesting. Brooks winery in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills offers club members access to limited-production pinot noir and Rieslings, among the state’s best. Members at Virginia’s King Family Vineyards receive discounts on wines purchased at the winery and invitations to special events, as well as some of winemaker Matthieu Finot’s experimental wines.
Here’s the rub: A wine club membership is a great gift for new wine lovers who are still exploring and defining their taste in wine. The regular shipments might offer something new and interesting. But more experienced wine geeks — well, we have the wine taken care of. Give us cheese.
For me, I’d love a membership to the cheese club from Artisanal Premium Cheese, a New York-based affineur. Send me four cheeses a month, for three months or six (a “junior” membership with two cheeses a month is also available). I can handle the wine, but new and exciting cheeses are always welcome.
Another chatter recently asked: “What is the hype around natural wines, and who makes some in the United States or the Washington area that are worth trying?”
Natural wines have been a fad for several years. I recommend them periodically and devoted a column to them back in 2010.
Essentially, natural wines are made with as little intervention as possible by the winemaker, in both the vineyard and the winery. That means organic or biodynamic viticulture and no yeasts, enzymes, tannins or other additives to “correct” the wine. Most controversially, natural winemakers use little or no sulfur, a natural preservative that prevents the wine from going funky in the bottle.
The natural wine movement is anti-modernist, eschewing the technology that has helped define wine in our times. In France and Italy, there’s an element of anti-European Union bureaucracy, with winemakers rebelling against official prescriptions of which grapes can go into a wine in each region, or which chemicals must or must not be applied in the vineyards.
Natural wines include orange (or amber) wines, which are whites made like reds: fermented on their skins to extract more color and body. They are sometimes aged in clay containers called amphorae or qvevri, the way wines were made in biblical times. They can be cloudy and tannic, the opposite of what we expect in white wines. They can also be quite good. Donkey & Goat and Scholium Project are two notable California labels. Locally, Early Mountain Vineyards and King Family Vineyards in Virginia have been experimenting with this style, but products may be available only at the winery or to club members. Castle Hill Cider near Charlottesville ferments and ages some of its ciders in qvevri.
Another part of the natural wine movement is the sommelier darling pétillant-naturel, a sparkling wine made with a technique older than champagne’s. Old Westminster Winery in Maryland and Early Mountain in Virginia have experimented successfully with this style. We can expect other wineries to do so before this trend runs its course — and we should enjoy it, even if we won’t necessarily miss it when it’s gone.