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Finding Diamonds in the Rough

Beth Ribblett

While I do love tasting wine with our wholesalers, importers and winery reps, it is not as romantic as everyone thinks when they come in and see us gathered around the bar or the back table with open wine bottles and half filled glasses, envisioning my day spent doing nothing but sipping wine and lazily sharing stories with others fortunate enough to be in this industry...

It's work;  I stop what I'm doing, dirty lots of glasses that we then have to clean, make small talk with people I'd sometimes rather not and occasionally taste bad or mediocre wine often with silly, kitschy labels that oh so obviously don't belong in our store.  And then there is the very unromantic but necessary spitting of every sip of wine I drink (well almost every...) because to do this job well, you have to keep your palate clean and your brain clear so you don't make some stupid decision to buy too much of a not so great wine.

Tasting Dumangin Rose required cheese...
But there are many wholesalers that come in who are a joy to taste with; who know what I like at the price points I want and who are excited about the wine in their portfolios.  Of course it's the European stuff that makes me happy with wines from Italy being at the top of the list.  Obscure varieties always pique my curiosity and wacky winemakers who use a non traditional approach to their craft, ah this is when my job is fun! But unfortunately those are not the norm...

So what am I looking for in those sometimes 40 plus wines that I taste in a day?  The first thing I taste for is balance; Is there too much fruit or not enough?  Is the wine soft and elegant or just flabby with not enough structure?  Is the acid present but not overpowering?  Is the oak in check or overwhelming the fruit?  Is the alcohol level noticeable on my nose and palate or well integrated?  After I quickly assess all of those things in few sips that I then spit out into the bucket, I want to know the price.  What is the quality to price ratio in my terms?  Is it in the grocery stores or limited to fine wine shops and restaurants?  If it fits into all of my criteria, then I need to see if I have a spot on the shelves for it now or should I pick it up later? And most importantly, is it a wine I could drink on any given day, because if it is not good enough for me, I'm not going to sell it to you. Period.

Out of all the wines I taste in a week, which usually ranges between 50-100, probably only about 5-10 will actually make it on to our shelves one day.  I use the same process when buying a $5 wine as I do a $50 bottle and feel good about everything that comes into the store, from the cheap and tasty rack to the indulge section and all the bottles in between.

So all of this is leading to finding a diamond in the rough yesterday when tasting with Linda from Republic and Holly from Hess Selections.  While the Hess wines are not something I carry, not so much from a quality standpoint but due to their obvious presence in grocery stores, they also represent some other products from South America and South Africa that I tasted.  The standout was the Glen Carlou Chardonnay from Paarl, South Africa.  At a whopping retail price of $14.99, this wine is a steal for those who like oak, but find many Californian Chards too over the top.  A very balanced wine, with nice acidity, the perfect amount of French oak, beautiful fruit yet elegant on the palate, this wine will be in soon, (not enough room on the shelves this week) and is something I could and will drink any day of the week.  Lovely!

Robert Parker's Wine Advocate Review, 89 points:  2010 Glen Carlou Chardonnay - Entirely fermented in barrel with 30% new oak, the 2010 Chardonnay has an attractive nose of beeswax, honeysuckle and apple-blossom that carries the oak well. The palate is medium-bodied with fine waxy texture, good acidity with a light, elegant, caramel-tinged finish. This is good value South African Chardonnay. Drink now-2018+

Established in 1985, Glen Carlou is one of Paarl’s most familiar names and has been part of Hess Family Estates since 2003.Winemaker Arco Laarman oversees a portfolio that ranges from the entry-level “Tortoise Hill” range to Prestige single-vineyard releases. There is certainly consistency here and even their top-level wines are reasonably priced.