After a couple of glasses of wine with Hughes, even the most inexperienced wine drinker could come away with enough education to craft an answer that sounds something like this:
"Tannins are derived from the stems, seeds and skins of grapes. It imparts color and allows the wine to age. Tannins bond with protein, which is why most people don't like red wine the first time they try it — it leaves the tongue feeling as though carpet's been laid on it. Tannins bond with the tongue, which itself is essentially a big hunk of protein. They account for the reason red wine pairs well with steak, and also why white wines, which are made without grapes' skins, don't age well (except in rare instances). Tannins are also found in iced tea."
Sure, this simple descriptor reads as though it's been culled from the CliffsNotes version of Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide, but unlike the infamous blazing yellow "study aids," Hughes imparts his oenophilic knowledge in a way that makes the novice not only want to read the original text, but also to parse its every sentence. Hughes talks about wine in a way that's less professorial and more akin to the way kids talk about baseball cards: excitedly. Without the slightest bit of pretense, his explanations sometimes flow into rivulets of asides, like legs on a robust cabernet.
He dispenses knowledge in easy-to-swallow phrases: "All zinfandels are red." "The primitivo is known as the 'grandfather grape.'" "If you want to make $1 million in the wine industry, start with $10 million." And our favorite: "If you don't know what to say about a red wine, just say it tastes like cherries." This last one is from Steve's wife of five years, Shannon, who works for a spirit-distribution company. But don't misinterpret the Hughes' casual banter as a sign that they aren't wine-savvy or serious: In fact, they joke that if they argue (which they say is rare), it's probably over the nuances of a particular wine.
The Hughes do agree on the merits of Chiles Mill Vineyard's Green & Red, and they spread their praise like gospel. When Steve earnestly tells us he didn't like raising its price on the menu, we believe him: It will now set customers back $10 for a glass, $43 for a bottle. It's a California red zinfandel, and its grapes are grown on the hillsides — at elevations up to 1,700 feet — that surround Napa's Chiles Canyon. These climes, with cool nighttime air wafting over the vineyards, are ideal for grape-growing. And in a few weeks' time, the harvest there is set to begin.
The 2006 Green & Red Chiles Mill Vineyard Estate Zinfandel is a smack of berry (and yes, cherry) with a pop of spice and a clean finish. It is definitely one of the better wines we've had lately — all the more so when we discover the twists and turns that are imprints of where it came from and how it was made — all with the help of guides who've plotted us a well-charted course.
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