On Beer, Wine, Mead, and Sake
Also known as: David’s Guide to Getting Drunk in Style.
With eight years of wine tasting experience, I’ve now become the sommelier (wine steward) for the house I live in, Rainbow Mansion (nothing to do with our sexual orientation; we’re at the end of Rainbow Drive). We drink a kind of startling quantity of alcohol, being eight strapping men and women in our 20’s and early 30’s who like bringing over friends and entertaining. It’s not unheard of for us to down half a case in a night and most evenings see one or two bottles dispensed with. So I’ve been tasked with keeping us supplied with quality, affordable liquors. So I make a point of trying a lot of different kinds of wines, beers, sakes, and liquors to bring the best home to the house. The great news is that the Good Stuff is often not startlingly expensive or even hard to find. It just needs a little researching. And that’s where I come in, so you don’t need to do that “hard work”.
Cheap Beer. Need to bring a six pack to a party and don’t want to be the chump bringing Bud Light? Good, cheap choices are Fat Tire, Widmer Hefeweizen, and Corona (with a lime in it of course — please bring the lime). They’re all good, widely available, and not very expensive. Heineken’s a little watery for my taste, but not a terrible pick. Sapporo goes well with Asian cuisine. And if you can get your hands on a six pack of Sam Adams’ Cherry Wheat, you’ll be a hit with the ladies. Please, please don’t show up with MGD, PBR, or Natural Light, even if it’s to be ironic.
Quality Beer. Boddington’s and Guinness are absolutely rock solid staples for quality beer. Incredibly drinkable and smooth nitrogenated beers, they have reached the same kind of unimpeachable staple perfection as Heinz hit in ketchup and French’s in mustard, Sriracha’s in Asian spicy sauce, and Tapatio in Mexican hot sauce. But I digress. Just make sure to buy the tall cans of these beers and serve them cold – pour them immediately after opening into tall, refrigerated pint glasses. Smithwick’s gets an honorable mention here, and Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale is the best of the bunch but VERY sadly not available for sale in the US. (I got hooked on the stuff in New Zealand and miss it terribly.)
Corked Beer. Everyone (including myself) is a sucker for Belgian ales with a champagne top. It just feels classy to decork your beer. Chimay Blue has you covere here. ~$10 for a wine-sized (750mL) bottle. Very tasty. This beer, like other Belgian ales, is actually ideally served in wine-like glasses to be sipped, not pounded. (There’s a time and a place for the red Dixie cups; this ain’t it.) Allagash’s Curieux is another Belgian-style ale, this one aged in Bourbon barrels; quite tasty and sophisticated.****
Now most Americans haven’t had a lot of experience with sake. What experience they have had has been bad. My first take on sake was during college, watching anime with some friends, and we thought it would be really “authentic” to grab some sake to go with the anime. So we bought the cheapest stuff we could at the local liquor mart. We heard that traditionally sake is served warm, so we stuffed it in the microwave and served what came out. Good lord it was terrible, like getting assaulted by dirty gym socks. I decided that was it for me and sake.
Fast forward about three years from that to a trip I took to New York and some friends of mine wanted to drag me out to a sake bar. My protests were quickly waylaid as it became clear that noodles would also be served as I had missed dinner altogether. They bought a nice bottle (served cold) and gave me a sip – it was delicious! I was “reintroduced” to the world of sake.
Now if you happen to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I would very highly recommend you take a day trip out to Takara Sake Factory in Berkeley. They provide free sake tastings (with an adorable museum) every day. And you can get some very, very good sake there very cheap. I’d particularly recommend the Shirakabe Gura Tokubetsu Junmai ($16/bottle), which serves amazingly well at room temperature and will absolutely convert new people to sake. The Sho Chiku Bai Organic Nama is refreshing and tasty (and a ridiculously cheap $7/mini-bottle), but the Sho Chiku Bai 4Nigori Crème de Sake is really what will win you friends. At $43 per CASE (12 small bottles), this stuff is one of the best deals for any kind of quality alcohol anywhere. And yes, trust me, you want a case of the Creme de Sake.
It seems that America over the last few years has begun to overcome its fear of wine. I’m very happy for this. The wine world can seem scary, with its pretentious personalities, complicated lingo, innumerable varietals and geographies, and marketing hocus pocus. But all of this serves to obscure the simple fact that alcoholic grape juice can be pretty damned tasty.
And tasty is really what it should be all about. NEVER feel pressured into buying a wine because it’s fancy or because you’re supposed to like it. The whole point is that you should like it. If you do learn words to describe the wines you drink, it should be for the primary purpose of finding other wines you like to drink, not to be pompous. So start with whatever comes to you, like “this reminds me of bubble gum.” Or “this smells like Grandma.” It’s fine. And if you find out you like a very unsophisticated or discount supermarket wine? Well, f— the haters. Know what you like.
The best white table wine in America is probably Carnival by Peju, a French Colombard that retails for about $16 a bottle; very lightly sweet and incredibly drinkable. Mondavi’s Fume Blanc is a little drier and is also a very solid and palatable white for even discerning palates at $15 a bottle. Navarro makes some of the best “off dry” (read: “lightly sweet”) whites out there, including their delectable late-harvest Riesling and, unbelievably, a Gewurtztraminer GRAPE JUICE that is out of this world – perfect for your Mormon friends. (Ditto their Pinot Noir juice.) Thankfully, I don’t like Sauternes at all, so won’t comment on them. The best port wines are the Vi Sattui 1999 Vintage Port ($34) and the 2006 Brutocao Ruby Port ($34)
Roederer’s Estate Anderson Valley Extra Dry (only available at the winery) is about $21 a bottle and is pretty much the only champagne I actually like. Yes, I’ve tried Dom Perignon and all sorts of other fancies, but most fizzies don’t sit well with me. Mind you, I won’t pass up a mimosa or a bellini.
In most other civilized countries in the world, red wine is as commonplace as water (and maybe consumed more often). My favorites are Chilean Malbecs from Mendoza and Californian Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels. Specifically the the 2006 Duckhorn Migration Pinot Noir ($32/bottle), Imagery Zinfandel ($45/bottle), Benziger Tribute ($80), and Opus One ($150). The only wine club I belong to is Benziger and their sister wine Imagery is fantastic as well. The most FUN red wines probably come from a crazy old Dutch grandfather’s shack – visit Van Der Hayden Vineyards and you’ll probably be greeted by several children running screaming around the yard. It’s awesome.
Honey wine (also called “tej” if you’ve ever had it with Ethiopian food) is quite good and can surprisingly vary across the board from very dry to (less surprisingly) very sweet. There’s a lovely meadery in South Bay called Rabbit’s Foot Meadery, definitely worth a visit.