One reads much these days about the power of preconception to affect our experience of wine: for example, the recent study by Cornell University researchers showing that diners had a dramatically different reaction to a wine when it came with a North Dakota label than they did if it came with a Napa label.
Well, now I have my own variation on the same tale, and it’s a little humbling. It begins on a Wednesday night, when one of my oldest friends is coming to town. Russ and I were college roommates at Cornell, and although he went on to law school and then government work, all in the east while I moved home to California, we kept in touch. He was even the best man at my wedding, in July 2000. But as we’ve both become fathers and ramped up our work lives, we’ve had less and less occasion to visit. He lives in Washington DC, after all, and travels mostly abroad; I live in San Francisco and, well, I too travel mostly abroad. So when Russ does come to town, it’s a big deal.
I knew he’d be arriving at around dinnertime, and although my house was a catastrophic construction zone, I was still living in it, and I was still determined to host him well amidst the two-by-fours and the sheets of plywood. So I defrosted some grass-fed steaks and put out eight or nine open bottles of wine, hoping he’d enjoy a little tasting. But Russ is nothing if not well bred, and when he breezed through the door he carried both a six-pack of beer and a bottle of red wine—a Stonestreet Merlot. Then he proceeded to crack a beer and ignore both the Stonestreet and all the wines I’d put out, because he’s like that: Russ enjoys his evening beer. Only when the steaks emerged, and he let me pour him a terrific Fess Parker Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir, did Russ wake up to what was happening here. My entire foodie evolution has occurred in recent years, when Russ and I have been in only faint contact, so he hadn’t expected to get hit with superpremium beef in a competent red-wine reduction. Nor had he expected to get hit with such a thrilling mouthful of wine.
That’s when he noticed all the wines I’d offered—and he’d ignored, in pursuit of that beer—and said something like, “Holy smokes, I guess I was an idiot to pick up a random bottle at the corner bodega. You can just throw that bottle away.”
And here’s where I become the turkey: I nearly did. Truth be told, the Stonestreet labels are a little hokey-looking, I’d never heard of the winery, and the fact that it came from a bodega and that Russ was embarrassed about it told me it was a cheap liquor-store remainder not to be savored. A few days later, in fact, when I wanted to marinate a leg of venison in red wine—another recipe from Lulu’s Provençal Table—I figured I had just the bottle. Pouring the entire 750 milliliters of Stonestreet into my pot, I added the bottle to the recycling.
The next day, my father-in-law was over and he picked up the empty and asked how the wine had been. I said I didn’t know, that it was currently soaking a deer joint.
“Wow,” he said, “that’s quite a cooking wine.”
And then, to further the coincidence, I got an invitation to dinner with the winemaker at Stonestreet, and a chance to taste their current-release Chardonnays and Cabernets, all of which were terrifically interesting and unusual. But I’ll report on that part next.