SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
Josh Arons has more to say, I can tell. We've spent an hour talking about wine and it feels like we've barely scratched the surface of everything he knows.
In all likelihood, this is true. When I had the idea to do a piece on unusual wines for fall, it was fueled by my own selfish desire to ask all of my dumbest wine questions to a professional, and to do it in a context where I wouldn't be monopolizing dinner banter with friends or creepily cornering a sommelier at a party they were planning to, you know, enjoy.
But then again, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the belief that if one person has a question, ten other people in the same room are wondering the same thing but are just too embarrassed or shy to bring it up. If that's true, the alternate title for this article could be "Things You Always Wanted to Know About Wine (But Were Afraid to Ask)." You're welcome.
Arons is something of a savant when it comes to wine. Sure, he's a certified sommelier and a sales rep for Chicago-area-based Vintage Wines; he dreams in AOCs and maps of the Willamette Valley for a living. But in the first two minutes of conversation it's clear that he was born for encyclopedic knowledge. When formulating answers to my Normal Person wine questions, he often looks into the distance just above my shoulder, chin in hand, working hard to compress years' and miles' worth of knowledge into the hot tips I'm trying to coax out.
That's why it's heart-warming to hear him confess, at the end of our conversation, that this interview was a good exercise for him. He's used to waxing technical and poetic to his clients. They want to be able to tell maybe half that story to their customers, who in turn just want to remember the name of the winery and, like, the word "loamy." Arons seems a little bemused and genuinely pleased to put his extensive knowledge to work for a wider, albeit more plebeian audience.
For someone whose comprehensive knowledge could be overwhelming to a rookie, Arons is also full of hysterical and very useful one-liners when answering my questions. Maybe he's better suited to this stuff than he thought.
Below I've compiled all the best tips from Arons, as well as a list of his favorite Chicago bottle shops. As he told me in our interview, "understanding wine is a relationship-based concept." He recommends finding a shop you like and building a rapport with them over time so they can steer you to new wines you'll love.
"When I drink wine, the main thing I look for is acid." Without it, Arons says, wine can taste "flabby and one-note." As he says this, I immediately call to mind far too many bottles (not all of them cheap) that fit his description.
It's an unseasonably warm October day when we talk, and I cheekily ask him if it's still warm enough to drink rosé. He responds with my favorite wine advice, ever: "Drink what you want, whenever you want. It's not like wearing white after Labor Day." For an excellent autumnal rosé experience, he recommends looking for wines that are a bit darker in color, usually Cabernet- or Grenache-based. You can also try skipping the chilling stage - the wine will be more rounded this way.
For his own favorite fall wine, in general Arons loves wines from the Rhône valley. They tend to be acid-forward (different from acidic!) and boast Old World flavors. So it's no surprise to hear him say that his absolute favorite wines for this time of year are those from the northern Rhône, specifically the St. Joseph region. These wines are fuller-bodied, spicier and warmer; perfect for pairing with heartier food, but still with enough acid to cut through and balance out the food's richness. He recommends the 2012 St Cosme St Joseph ($39.99), and the 2014 D’Andezon Cote Du Rhone Rouge ($14.99).
I always think of fall as a time to slow down and pick out wines for the cooler months, especially bottles and regions I'm not as familiar with. Arons adores reds from Austria's Burgenland for their balanced acidity, medium tannins, and notes of spicy, floral fruit. From that description alone, my mind immediately turns to food; so does his. "Anything roasted," he says. This can be anything from a beautiful leg of lamb to an easy roasted chicken and potatoes. The 2013 Heinrich Red ($17.99) is a great example of a Burgenland red.
He's also a huge fan of southern Italian reds for their food-friendliness. His favorites are Aglianico, similar to the full-bodied Nebbiolo but with more dark fruit, and Gaglioppo, with the translucence of a Pinot Noir, but "WILD," he says, "with earthy, mineral, bramble flavors." The 2015 Librandi Ciro Rosso ($12.99) is a great inexpensive bottle to start with.
Arons pouts. He is all of us. He says what we all know but are too afraid to openly admit: when it comes to choosing wine, "Thanksgiving is a pain in the ass." Everyone serves different dishes, different people have different tastes, some people only drink red, some only drink white.
Arons offers common ground, though: with a meal like Thanksgiving dinner, you need wine that's higher in acid to cleanse the palate between bites and courses.
For white, he likes to recommend anything with notes of apple or pear. Makes sense - these fruits are in season in the fall, so their flavors would complement other seasonal dishes. (As the saying goes, what grows together, goes together.)
Going back to Austria, he loves Grüner Veltliner for Thanksgiving, as well as Chardonnays from Burgundy that use old oak to add complexity, and semi-dry to dry Rieslings. In particular, he notes that Riesling gets a bad rap - there's a broad perception that all Riesling is sweet. In fact, most good Rieslings land on the semi-dry end, their fruit balanced by - you guessed it - a good dose of acid. The 2015 Stadt Krems Gruner Veltliner, Kremstal Austria ($17.99) is a lovely Grüner Veltliner, and the 2014 Elk Cove Riesling, Wilamette Valley, Oregon ($19.99) is a fabulous dry Riesling.
For reds, Arons admits that the old trope of Pinot Noir for Thanksgiving is actually one that works. It's lighter-bodied, with good acid. (We then talk for 10 minutes about the glorification of Pinot Noir in the years since everyone and their white-Zinfandel-drinking moms saw "Sideways," and mourn Merlot's tarnished reputation.)
What he really loves, though, is a Cru Beaujolais, or wines from specific Beaujolais sub-regions, for Thanksgiving.
"Not Nouveau!" he quickly points out. Wines like Beaujolais Nouveau are traditionally consumed among locals in wine growing regions throughout Europe, usually in spritzes. It's light and juicy, but just doesn't pack a lot of nuance. It's marketed in the U.S. as a festive seasonal wine, but Arons reassures me that it's purely that: marketing.
Cru Beaujolais, on the other hand, is the product of a traditional production style. It's still on the lighter side, but with more restrained fruit, offering a better balance. Check out the 2014 Chanrillon Cote De Brouilly, Beaujolais Gamay ($21.99).
"Nero d'Avola is bulletproof as a food pairing wine."
Finally, Arons confirms what I had always suspected about my favorite red to drink with food: "Nero d'Avola is bulletproof as a food pairing wine." It's full-bodied but not crazy-tannic, fruit-forward but not sweet. It's a friend from everything to weeknight pizza to a grand dinner party spread. Arons recommends the 2014 Tasca D’Almerita Lamuri Nero D’Avola ($18.99).
I make a note to restock our wine cabinet with Nero d'Avola and Beaujolais Villages for Thanksgiving dinner.
My goal for this interview was to find little gems of wisdom that felt mentally portable. I might not have nearly the same amount of knowledge that someone like Arons has, but it's nice for my friendly neighborhood wine guy/gal to have something to go off of.
So without further ado, I give you the results of my final handful of fast-pitch questions. I hope you'll find them as useful as I did.
Three most underrated wine-producing countries: Germany, Australia, and Greece.
Most overrated wine: Arons is diplomatic here. After all, he sells wine for a living. Once he explains his stance, he admits he wishes people would branch out. "Cabernet Sauvignon can make amazing wine, but if you're only drinking Cab from one place, you're missing out on a lot of pleasure." As an enthusiastic Cab drinker who is currently in a wine rut, I love this answer.
Feelings on hot mulled wine? "I don't feel too much about it," he answers blandly. That said, he appreciates that it's a festive tradition for a lot of people. "Don't use the cheapest bottle you can find; make sure it's drinkable." (Good, I say to myself. I've always gotten the second-cheapest bottle.) He also supports the use of a recipe vs. a mix, and of course, real fruit and spices.
Any easy tips to remember for pairing wine with food? You can go complementary - i.e. a "big" Italian red with a thick steak - or contrasting - i.e. spicy Thai food with a fruit-forward white.
This last piece of advice reminds me of something he said in the beginning of our conversation: "Think about what will feel good." There are no real rules in drinking wine, only guidelines that help us find the most pleasurable experience for the moment.
Independent Spirits 5947 N Broadway St
Crown Liquors 2821 N Milwaukee Ave
Kimbark Beverage Shoppe 1214 E 53rd St
West Lakeview Liquors 2156 W Addison St
Top image: www.food52.com