Thursday, January 30, 2014

No. 126 – Free

Performer: Phish
Songwriters: Trey Anastasio, Tom Marshall
Original Release: Billy Breathes
Year: 1996
Definitive Version: None.

I knew of Phish, of course, after my musical rebirth in 1992, but their music wasn’t on either MTV or the radio, so I didn’t know it. The first time I heard a Phish song was when I heard this one on the radio while driving around Reynoldsburg. I liked it right away.

As I’ve mentioned on several occasions, I tend to be a collector. My collecting bug went from Major Matt Mason to Hot Wheels to baseball cards to beer cans to G.I. Joe to Atari video games to shadowbox knickknacks to baseball memorabilia. At about that time, my collecting habit moved to something more adult (and expensive)—wine.

Debbie introduced me to wine and helped me gain an appreciation for it through dinners at her apartment, dinners out and a trip to Napa. For Christmas in 1996, Debbie bought me a subscription to Wine Spectator magazine. Wine Spectator was the switch that ignited my passion because of the price guide that runs at the back of each issue. Arranged by country (state for U.S. wines) and varietal, it made it easy to build a want list, like I have with baseball cards.

By this time, I’d discovered that white wine—even the smallest amount—gave me a headache, so I was strictly a red-wine guy, which I liked better anyway. That limited my list to a degree.

I’d go through my Wine Spectator, check out the score, the price and the amount produced of each wine, and if it fit a set of criteria, I’d list the wine, the type and the price to give me a ballpark idea of what I should be paying. I started with $20 bottles. If the score were 90 or above, I’d list it. Then I moved to $30, then under $50. Eventually, I moved to under $100, as long as the score was 95 or higher.

I kept my list in my car, so whenever I went anywhere, I’d have it handy if I were near a wine store. From there it was a matter of buying and trying. If it were something I particularly liked, I’d buy more.

As a result, I became known as something of a wine guy. I usually brought wine to family functions, and everyone would know that whenever Will brought the wine, it would be good, because it always was.

That said, I’m really not a wine connoisseur. I can’t tell you what wine would pair with what food any more than a few basics. I can’t taste a wine and break down its various hints. All I can tell you is whether this particular vintage by this particular vintner is good. Honestly, I think most of that is pretentious nonsense. It doesn’t matter WHY a wine is good, only that it’s good and that you enjoy it.

As with my other collections, I had a few wine-related adventures. One of my all-time favorite wines was a 1998 Chateau Souverain merlot. It was rated 92 by Wine Spectator, with a price of $18—right in my wheelhouse, heck, right in ANY wine buyer’s wheelhouse. It was memorably good. Even better, it was in almost every grocery store.

It was a big wine before my breakup with Debbie, and soon after that, I started seeing 1999 Chateau Souverain. It’s inevitable. Only so much wine is made and then it’s on to the next vintage. I bought as much of the 1998 as I could find, but fewer and fewer stores had it. By 2002, it was all gone in Columbus.

I went to Cincinnati to visit Scott, and he took me to a huge wine store in Kentucky called the Party Source. Holey guacamole, this place was awesome! I took my list and went down a few aisles. One was the merlot aisle. Let’s see Swanson … Pride … YES YES YES!!! It had Chateau Souverain, of course, but in the racks were 1998 bottles—four of them. I couldn’t empty the bin into my carry basket fast enough.

Early in our courtship, Laurie took me to a wine bar in the West Loop called The Tasting Room (another former favorite that closed at the end of 2013). It was a cozy place that had large comfy couches and views of the Chicago skyline in the second story lounge. On Mondays, it had half-price glasses of wine. Laurie and I always went on Mondays.

At the time, The Tasting Room was connected to a wine store that closed a few years ago (about the time that the upstairs lounge was closed on Monday nights—the fatal blow if you ask me). I had no money, but I wanted to window shop a bit.

The selection, displayed in wood boxes or on slanted wood racks, was pretty good. As we walked around, I told Laurie about a few of the various labels. When we came to the French section, I gasped and pulled down a bottle of 1995 Chateau Margaux. The price: $400. It wasn’t the price that gave me pause, it was the wine itself. I knew from my Wine Spectator days that it scored at 100—a perfect bottle of wine.

I’d seen a bottle of the 1995 Chateau Margaux before, at a little wine shop in Columbus after my breakup with Debbie, but that one was behind lock and key. This one was out in the open, and I had to hold it.

Later, I told Debbie, and she said that the next time I was there, I should buy it for her and that we’d split it. Really? Really. Unfortunately, when I went back months later, it was gone. Some other lucky soul found it, held it and—unlike me—bought it when he or she could. Win some, lose some.

After I regained gainful employment and could afford to buy wine again, I restarted my wine list, which now is on my iPhone. I bought a subscription to Wine Spectator but let it lapse to purchase Wine Spectator’s app. It’s more convenient but less conducive to list building, so I’m considering switching back. Consequently, my list isn’t as up to date as it could be, and I don’t buy as many different labels as I used to.

But I still have my favorites. Columbia Crest Grand Estates merlot is consistently solid and $10 in just about any Jewel grocery, but the 2008 vintage was particularly strong. Wine Spectator rated it a 91, and I thought it stood up even to steak, which you wouldn’t think a merlot could.

Like with the Souverain more than a decade ago, I always kept on the lookout for 2008 Columbia Crest. Unlike the Souverain, there was way more Columbia Crest out there. Even two years after the vintage had been turned over, so 2010 bottles were on stores shelves, I still was finding 2008 here or there, albeit in ever-dwindling quantities.

When the time drew close for the Dominick’s grocery chain to close at the end of 2013, I went to a store that I’d found months before had bottles of the 2008 Columbia Crest. While everyone was piling their carts full of half-priced toilet paper, I went straight to the full-price wine shelves. And there, just like I’d hoped, just like at the Party Source, I found four bottles of 2008 Columbia Crest merlot waiting to be grabbed up by me.

This time I kept the yes-yes dance to myself, however.

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