In The New Yorker magazine years ago, the brilliant Montreal-raised American writer Adam Gopnik chided people in my line of work for a glaring failure. "Remarkably," he wrote, "nowhere in wine writing … would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk." It was, I think, an exaggeration. I know people who enthuse about wine but rarely court alcohol's buzz. Some are readers of this column who have declared that they always stop after a glass or two.
But I take his point. We scribes give wide berth to the subject of alcohol. We're pompous sophisticates – or at least we feel compelled to cultivate that image to advance our credibility (shame on us). Inebriation is for the vodka-cooler crowd, not for connoisseurs who "understand" Volnay. And what columnist wants to remind the world about the social costs of alcohol abuse? Wine columns are supposed to be about hedonism.
There is hedonism in today's tasting notes, and I don't want to end on a downer. But it struck me at a recent tasting – what with the holidays approaching – that the alcohol-by-volume spread from one wine to another can be jarring. One terrific white from Germany, Dr. Pauly, weighed in at 8 per cent, while Darioush Duel 2007 from Napa (which I didn't love) tipped the scale at 16.4. You can drink six glasses of the former and be no less fit to drive than someone consuming three of the latter.
Roger Oatley, a partner with the personal-injury law firm Oatley Vigmond in Barrie, Ont., recently reminded me of a famous case he brought to court 10 years ago. His client, Linda Hunt, drove away after a holiday office party under the influence and sustained brain injuries. She sued her employer, a real-estate brokerage, and won $300,000 in damages. The case was later overturned on a technicality and a new trial was ordered, but the parties eventually came to an out-of-court settlement.
Hunt's suit set no legal precedent. The law had long been clear in placing a duty on employers to protect workers in such cases. But it served as a sensational reminder that those who do the pouring, or hosting, could be on the hook for a big sum.
"Toxicologists tell us that the body metabolizes one drink an hour," Oatley said. But at end of day, he added, "experts also tell us that the person consuming alcohol is the worst judge of his or her sobriety." It's a wise caveat, especially if the person tries to insist he or she has had "hey, only a few glasses" of 16.4-per-cent wine.
Dr. Pauly – Burgweiler Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Spatlese 2011 (Germany)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $24.95
Beware the sugar if that's not your thing. Sweeter than off-dry, this white is wonderfully complex, with luscious tinned apricot, pear and lime creating a dance floor for floral and mineral nuances. The balance is spot-on. Try it with smoked trout. 8-per-cent alcohol.
Stonestreet Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $49.95
A superpremium label of the late Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson fame, Stonestreet is the intriguing middle name of Jackson and his father. The wine leaves many pricier California cabs in the dust. It's very dry, featuring pure blackcurrant and blueberry fruit and notes of mint, cedar and tobacco, with solid structure. It should improve with at least a dozen years in the cellar or pair nicely now with rare beef. 14.5-per-cent alcohol.
Famille Perrin Les Christins Vacqueyras 2010 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $23.95
The family behind famed Château de Beaucastel delivers a winning Vacqueyras, the little-brother appellation to Châteauneuf. It's fullbodied, with gorgeously aromatic lavender and licorice floating above the rich berry fruit. Very elegant and worth a 10-year rest in the cellar, or try it now with roast leg of lamb. 14.5-per-cent alcohol. $24.99 in B.C., $23.70 in Que., $26.99 in N.B., $30.49 in N.S.
E. Guigal Crozes-Hermitage 2009 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
This fresh, youthful syrah shows concentrated fruit and classic northern Rhône pepperiness complemented by flowers and kalamata olive. Perfect for braised red meats or roast lamb or game. 13-per-cent alcohol. $24.30 in Que.
Burrowing Owl Syrah 2009 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $40.95
My esteemed colleague Konrad Ejbich, a wine commentator for CBC Radio, pushed a glass of this under my nose and quizzed, "What do you taste?" I forget my response, but he was looking for "Baileys," the Irish cream liqueur. I had to congratulate him. There's a resemblance, for sure. Up-front caramel and chocolate are underpinned with sweet, chewy berries and a hint of clove. Very fine for short ribs. 14.5-per-cent alcohol. $29.90 in B.C.
Leone de Castris Maiana Salice Salentino 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
A blend from the southern region of Puglia, this red is based mainly on the bitter-earthy negroamaro grape. It is full-bodied, rich and packed with plum, prune, dark chocolate and spice, carried on voluptuous texture. Great for grilled lamb chops. 13-per cent alcohol.
Domaene Gobelsburg Gruner Veltliner 2011 (Austria)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.95
Here is a lean white that causes me to wonder how gruner veltliner came to be borderline trendy. I like it, but there's an underlying bitterness that places it well outside the crowd-pleaser bull's eye. Spiced red apple and herbs take centre stage. It would go nicely with light seafood. 12.5-per-cent alcohol. $15.50 in Que.
Alamos Viognier 2011(Argentina)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95
There is relatively restrained flavour in this lean viognier, hinting at the variety's classic orange, honey and floral characters. I would prefer a tad more oiliness and weight, as befits the grape, but it's a good value – viognier light. Serve it with mild curries or roast chicken. 13.5-per-cent alcohol.
Editor's note: This is the complete version of a column that ran in the newspaper.