Hey bud, watch who you're calling an oenophile

Steamboat Wine Festival expands mountain-dwellers Cabernet vocabularies

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— White wine could disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow and I wouldn't miss it. But I think I'm rapidly becoming a red-wine fanatic. The Steamboat Wine Festival 2004 did nothing to slow my fermentation process. Still, I'm no oenophile, and don't you dare call me one unless you're prepared to prove it.

There was a vineyard full of oenologists up at the base of Mount Werner over the weekend and all of them were experts on the subject of wine. One of the things that fascinates and delights me about wine experts is their liberal use of the English language to celebrate the many wonders of wine. I swear in the name of Dionysus, I told an oenologist here last week that I detected a faint taste of licorice in a Zinfandel and he replied, "Yes! It's fennel bulb!"

Fennel bulb? Here's the deal. If you are in the grip of red wine -- if you're really passionate about the subject, mere "licorice" won't do. That word just isn't descriptive enough. Instead, it must be a hint of anise or fennel.

Now, I know some of you believe all of this fancy talk about wine is for snobs. You're thinking, "I don't want to be put in my place by some intellectual who has fooled himself into thinking he can taste lingonberries in his wine. If I feel like a change of pace from Bud Light some evening, I'll open a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck and call it good."

That would be OK, but you would be missing out on all the fun, even if you are saving a bundle of money. Besides, oenologists aren't snobs. They're just average guys and gals who are convinced the wondrous complexities of wine and the infinite ways in which it can be combined with food, are a gift from the gods (see Dionysus). They just want to share it with the mortal world.

Brother, I was in the mood to share last weekend and the folks at the wine festival were more than generous in that regard. I attended a wine tasting at the Steamboat Grand where Chris Rowe of American Wine & Spirits of Colorado was discussing the relative merits of wines from Napa Valley and their counterparts from nearby Sonoma. Everyone knows that climate has a great deal to do with the varieties of grapes that can be grown in a region. It also explains why Steamboat is not known for its vineyards.

Anyway, Sonoma borders Napa, but it hogs all of the oceanfront property. As a result, fog lingers over the Sonoma Valley a full two hours longer every day than it does in Napa (Not NAPA as in auto parts; Napa as in wine). So, Sonoma is cooler and more conducive to Pinot Noir. Napa is where they put out those really big Cabernets.

In addition to guiding us through some tasting comparisons of eight really fine wines from Napa and Sonoma, Rowe gave us some practical advice: If you purchase a bottle of wine for $8 to $10, don't store it in your wine cellar for two years. If a wine is priced below $10, it can be a perfectly good value, but it's meant to be consumed within a month of purchase.

Maintaining a consistently cool temperature is the most critical part of storing wines properly. If the room in which you store wine often goes above 70 degrees, the wine will age two years in 12 months, and if the temperatures goes through extreme highs and lows, it will kill the wine. If you're planning a special dinner party, don't purchase the wine on the day of the meal. The wine stocked on your retailer's shelves has probably been shaken up by two recent truck trips, and you're about to bounce it around in the back of the SUV on your way home.

"The wine gets stupid after awhile," Rowe said. Nobody wants to serve "stupid wine." So, stash your fine cabernets and zin's for a month at home before serving them to guests.

Finally, if you order a $40 bottle of wine at a restaurant and your first whiff of the bouquet reminds you of wet dog instead of blackberry, don't hesitate to send it back. Most consumers don't realize that it's the wine distributor, not your favorite restaurateur who will eat the cost.

Now for your homework. Go out into the world and search for two red wines -- one with a hint of sweet rosewood on the finish, and another with a mysterious taste of forest mushroom. Take it from the oenologists, they're out there.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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