Vine Cuts

Thousands of restaurants and bars in this city vie for attention from a small number of media outlets and journalists. Now throw in the PR types, paid to spread the word about this event or that new drink...or to insist that it's normal for guests to experience searing stomach cramps after a trip to the salad bar.

For some reason none of these propagandists bothers to track down the Burning Question crew. We've always wondered why--that is, until the poor people at Morton's invited us to view the world's largest bottle of wine.

Apparently, bringing the biggest corkscrew we could find to the event wasn't appreciated.


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The gimmick bottle fascinated us, however. It contains the equivalent of 173 regular bottles of Beringer 2001 Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon, worth approximately $130,000 retail. They plan to auction the oversized container at some point. And the winning bidder will likely stand the bottle up on display and never bother to pull the cork.

The rest of us could never throw away that much cash on precious alcohol just to watch it sit, unopened, in the corner.

Of course, as Todd Lincicome, wine director at Al Biernat's points out, "There are two different types of wine consumers: people who are conscious of value and people who don't care so much." Some hunt the cheapest swill this side of jet fuel, in other words, while others shell out ridiculous amounts for often-mediocre vintages. Probably a few go for the stuff in between as well.

This week's Burning Question targets the swill seekers. It's a reasonable question because wine is a perplexing subject for many. "A lot of people have the impression that wine has to be this complicated, fascinating thing," agrees Fabian Hernandez of Dralion. A decade of Prohibition and a couple of centuries of fundamentalist ranting created a nation of immature drinkers. Instead of gaining familiarity with alcohol at an early age, we descend on it as teenagers and binge ourselves into 2.5 GPAs. We also learn to regard wine as something special, worrying excessively about the message each bottle sends to our guests. Europeans, meanwhile, content themselves with table wines much of the time.

For all their faults--soccer, techno--they know how to drink.

"Wines are about relaxing and having a good time," Hernandez reminds us. "Europeans drink wine with every meal, and they aren't $30 bottles."

Which brings us to this week's Burning Question. Can cheap bastards find decent wine?

"It depends on your morals," Lincicome says. By that he means your willingness to disregard centuries of winemaking tradition. "Yellowtail"--an inexpensive wine--"is fiberglass fermented, and they dump oak sawdust in to give it an oak flavor."

Once a person becomes an enthusiast, he contends, vintners using ancient techniques become more important than those mass-producing and controlling costs. Yet, he points out, there are cheaper versions produced by more traditional methods, mostly from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Spain. "Honestly, Australia is where you get the best value wines," Hernandez concurs.

"You can find Australian wines for $8, $9, $10 a pop, and they're good," Lincicome says. "Anything under $7 is generally going to have a mass-produced technique that I'm not comfortable with."

Ah, but there are options. One is wine by the glass during half-price happy hours at Il Sole--a chance to try out, say, a $15 glass of Gallo cabernet for $7.50. Other decent choices exist in the $3 to $5 range.

"Good wine doesn't necessarily have to be high-priced," says Joey Stoker of Il Sole. Although we found that by slipping our drinks onto someone else's bill, our total cost fell to zero.

The best value, in our opinion, is boxed wine. In fact, we have three boxes of the stuff: Black Box Wines 2003 Napa Valley chardonnay, Hardy's Stamp of Australia 2003 shiraz and Cellier des Dauphins Côtes du Rhone, which is all French, including the description on the box. We gather, however, that it consists of some combination of grenache, syrah and other grapes.

We offered to share, but no one expressed any interest in joining us. Americans are not yet secure enough to recognize that the container matters little when it comes to table wines.

"It's perception," says Daniel Ha, wine director at Nana. "It just doesn't conjure up the romance of pulling a cork." Depending on the producer, he explains, there's nothing wrong with boxed wine. "The Black Box is good. The wine was fresh, fruit-driven."

And cheap. Our boxes ranged from $18 to $26, and each contains the equivalent of four bottles.

Which answers this week's Burning Question. Look for the aforementioned foreign bottles, find a convenient happy hour or drop your pretension and pick up a few boxes of the stuff.

As Lincicome points out, "inexpensive wines are meant to be drunk today."

Same could be said of the Burning Question crew.


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