The Low Down On Wine: Interview With An Expert

by Karen on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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There are some jobs I want.

Michael Cristillo has one of them.  He's the wine and spirits buyer for Bristol Farms, a gourmet and specialty food retailer in California that I'm a big fan of (they have some of the most outstanding produce outside farmers markets, in my opinion).  And as the buyer, he gets to taste and make a decision on every bottle their stores carry.  See?  Some jobs you just want.

I love wine.  But, I would say I still have one foot in the kiddie pool when it comes to my wine knowledge.  So, I've asked Michael a few questions that would point someone like myself in the right direction when it comes to buying and appreciating wines.  He is full of wine knowledge and I hope this is helpful for you too!

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What's trending in wines for 2011?

MC: Much as it was last year – good wines at a very affordable price. Malbecs from Argentina, reds from Spain, especially the Jumilla and La Mancha region are at the forefront. People are also discovering alternatives to chardonnay, from the vibrant sauvignon blancs to the floral viogniers and spicy gewürztraminers.  Pinot Noir is still very popular (our 3rd best category behind chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon) and the wines of Italy, especially the reds of Montalcino that produces the great Brunellos is creating a lot of buzz amongst wine aficionados.

Any suggestions for a wine neophyte?

MC: Begin with the softer wines – in reds, that could be pinot noir, beaujolais. With whites, sauvignon blanc is wonderful because it works with most foods and is delicious on its own. And for something in between, Rose is an excellent choice.  Those can be found generally in the under $15 range, be they domestic or import. And don’t cringe and think “sweet”; most roses are vinified dry, but remain fruity. They have appropriately replaced the overly sweet and often innocuous white zinfandel .

What are some good affordable wines?

MC: Argentina and Spain are hot right now as they offer wines that over deliver on the quality and many can be found for under $10. At Bristol Farms, we created something called our “Wine Stimulus” offering last year – basically, its 10 wines under $10. We taste through several hundred wines and pick the ten best that represent very good quality for the price. You don’t need to mortgage the house to enjoy a good bottle of wine!

And what do you recommend for a splurge?

MC: Brunellos from Montalcino in Tuscany. These are receiving amazing press, will age beautifully, and can easily go toe-to-toe with the best wines from Bordeaux and Napa, sometimes delivering a knock out punch. They range from the $50 to above $100+ range, but they are a rare breed in that they are actually worth every penny you pay for them. And if you want to relish such a wine, but not pay through the proverbial nose, try the “baby Brunellos” called Rossos di Montalcino. These are younger vined Brunellos that use the same grape, Sangiovese Grosso, and come from vineyard blocks not designated as “Brunello quality.” A great and less expensive alternative.


What is your philosophy on food and wine pairings?

MC: Beyond the white with fish and red with meat mentality, it’s great to experiment with the different grape varietals available to us.  Our famous chef matched a full bodied cab with blackened scallops. Viognier is a great match with grilled or sautéed green vegetables. Often it’s not so much the protein or veggie that decides what wine to use, but the sauce and spice preparation. Our motto for our Stimulus wine offerings is “drink outside the box” and that applies to wine and food pairings as well.

Any exciting new things wine producers are doing?

MC: Trying to stay afloat in this economically chaotic roller coaster ride. Many are coming up with “inexpensive” alternatives to their pricier wines, thus offering good value with good quality. Also, some chardonnay producers are creating “non oaked” wines that lay off the fat, buttery oak elements and showcase the grape itself. Organic and bio-dynamic wines are gaining momentum to coincide with the “green” philosophy in today’s society.

Some countries around the world produce great wines. Any countries that are front runners in your opinion and how do they compare to California?

MC: Spain and Argentina, simply because they produce wonderful wines at all price levels. It’s hard to find a really good California wine at or under $10. There is a plethora of those wines from those two countries.

Descriptions of wine can get pretty creative.  What's the funniest word you've seen used to describe wine?

MC: “Unctuous”. We’ve actually had several consumers take exception to this word, because it not only describes a wine as being full bodied and mouth coating, but “oily” is another one of its descriptors. In the glass of the beholder, I guess.

Some of Michael's favorites:

Sauvignon blanc: bracing acidity, citrus notes, very clean palate
Rhone reds/syrah: big, juicy wines with spice, medium tannins that will enhance most dishes
Gewürztraminer: floral, spicy white from Alsace that is killer with Asian and Cajun cuisine

(Images from here and here)

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{ 13 comments }

Valerie January 26, 2011 at 10:17 am

Very interesting read. Hmm… methinks a wine tasting is in order…

The Food Hound January 26, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Wine is seriously the missing food group! I love it! We pair red with everything– not big white fans. And I rarely pay over $15 for a bottle. We’re really into the blends right now! I would love his job, too!! I need to find someone around here in that field to stalk… 🙂

Karen January 27, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Haha, missing food group– agreed!!

Belinda @zomppa January 26, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Thank you for such an insightful post! Must be great research….

Jennifer (Delicieux) January 26, 2011 at 11:54 pm

What a great, and interesting read. As much as I love wine, I am still learning, particularly with regard to food and wine matching which I find so interesting. It really is amazing what an impact food and wine pairings can have on your overall enjoyment of a meal. a well paired wine can really make a meal feel extra special and bring out all of the wonderful flavourings.

Karen January 27, 2011 at 5:24 pm

It really does!

just a french girl January 27, 2011 at 3:47 am

I’m currently having a glass of wine with some pizza tonight… I very much like Japanese Red wine, and it’s very bold, has a nice bouquet, and the reason is, because imported wine has so many that make my nose stuffy… having had very expensive wine, but I love Japanese red wine, I can’t have wine which as additives like sulfite… Do you know of any that exclude this additive?

Karen January 28, 2011 at 11:03 am

I don’t know of any, but here’s Michael’s response: Frey and Organic Wine Works, to name a couple. We carry neither anymore due to inconsistancy in quality, a re-occuring problem when wineries do not add sulphites. Also, even if no suphites are added, there is always naturally occuring sulphites in the wine. That is Mother Nature’s addition.

Lisa January 27, 2011 at 7:34 am

What a great interview. I enjoy wine too but like you I’m definitely not an expert. Thanks for sharing this Karen!

Sasha @ Global Table Adventure January 27, 2011 at 11:35 am

I think I have *both* feet in the kiddie pool… but the real question is… why is there wine in the kiddie pool? 😉

Karen January 27, 2011 at 5:28 pm

wait, you don’t fill your kiddie pool with wine???

The Quest For Zest February 10, 2011 at 9:16 am

I can attest to the Baby Brunellos being fantasitc. We had one in Vernazza that was so stupendous we shipped a couple of bottles of it home.

Anika October 17, 2012 at 9:43 am

Great article! I like the idea of “drink outside the box.”

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