Gut Check loves us some wine. We want a bottle with bang and a bang for our buck, so every week we will visit a local wine shop, where the experts will recommend a good-value wine priced under $15. We'll drink some and tell you whether we want to continue -- because the only time Gut Check has our nose in the air is while we're draining our glass.
On a blustery, sun-blasted day earlier this week, Gut Check walked into Randall's Wine and Spirits (1910 South Jefferson Avenue; 314-865-0199) -- and what appeared to be as much a mass of contradiction as April in St. Louis. We spoke with Jase Bennett, who helped us sort things out as we tasted 2009 Bodegas Obergo Lágrimas de Obergo Rosado, a rosé.
Just across the parking lot from Johnnie Brock's Dungeon is not the first place you might expect to find a wine shop -- but Randall's is not your typical wine seller. The store is a gigantic yet welcoming warehouse space that features a classic car on display, a Zoltar machine a la Big and a blown-up portrait of the owner with Dan Aykroyd, who did an in-store appearance promoting his wine. In addition to Titanic-sized loads of liquor and beer, Randall's also offers 1,000 wine selections. Since opening thirteen years ago in Fairview Heights, Illinois, the store has expanded to multiple locations while maintaining its "focus on liquor and great prices," according to Bennett, who came on twelve years ago as Randall's web designer and now acts as a one-man marketing department.
He also handles the wine, which is where we come in.
Bennett says he chose a rosé for us to sip because of the season; with mid-spring's unpredictable weather, he wanted something versatile -- not heavy-winter red and not summer-light white. Not only does the rosé's dark pink coloring echo the whimsical pastels of the upcoming holiday, it would also work well for that classic rite of spring: the family potluck. "There's always going to be someone who brings a dish that destroys the wine," Bennett says, "but the rosé is versatile -- it could go with fried chicken, a light vegetable plate. It's a picnic wine."
Retailing for $7.99, Bodegas Obergo Lágrimas de Obergo Rosado is a product exclusive to Randall's. Its grapes -- a blend of 70 percent grenache and 30 percent syrah -- hail from the Somontano region of Spain in the foothills of the Pyrenees, a drier inland climate that sees four seasons (just like St. Louis!).
Even though some of the grapevines for this vintage date to 200 B.C., the winemaking process is strictly New World, with stainless steel standing in for the traditional wooden barrels. "There's nothing rustic" about this wine, says Bennett. "There are no dead animals in here."
When poured, the wine was a bit over-chilled, so Jase instructs us to cup our hands around the bowl of the glass and swirl. "As it warms," he explains, "the fruit will come out, and the wine will have more weight."
While we're transferring body heat to the rosado, we ask Bennett a few questions about his down-to-earth outlook on wine.
How would you recommend a wannabe wine-drinker develop her palate? "Ask people like me. Find bottles that are typical of what they're supposed to be. Don't just care about the scores."
So are all those 90-point ratings just hooey? "A lot of 90's - you don't want to drink the whole bottle because they're so boozy and over-oaked."
Then why did they receive such a high rating? "It's the same principle as to why TV commercials are louder than the rest of the programming. When you've got a wine reviewer who's tasting hundreds of wines in a day, whoever shouts the loudest in terms of taste, whatever 'pops,' is going to get the attention of that reviewer. But not because the wine is necessarily better, and definitely not because it's wildly different. On the other hand, a good review will tell you something about the bottle of wine."
What do you think of wine writers' creative descriptors? "I think they're OK, and I often use them. Your associations with the taste and nose of a wine will be associated with your strongest childhood memories -- could be grape bubblegum. Try out new terms; it's supposed to be fun. But dumbing down isn't of use, either."
Cork or screwcap? "Ceremony is silly."
How can the wine industry overcome its elitist image? "Randall's is definitely friendlier than wine shops I've gone to in other cities. We're in a really diverse neighborhood that we truly love working in. We do a huge volume, so we're not here for the hard sell. We want to start conversations and see that person come in here again."
You're a certified sommelier. Why don't you like to use the term? "It's more of a restaurant term, and I love the retail environment. Customers sometimes feel like they have to come in knowing a lot about wine to talk to a salesman, and they're always hesitant to say how much they want to spend. But I need to know, because it's a big jump in quality between $10 and $20 bottles of wine -- and it should be."
What if someone truly likes the cheaper wine more? "Wine can be great and not be complex, or have layers. But it'd be a sad, sad world if all we had to eat were Big Macs."
What do oenophiles say about the Obergo Rosado? "The shelf talker says this wine has a 'crystal-clear aspect and subtle shades of strawberry pink. Explosion of fresh fruit with a hint of flowers, fresh and pleasant in the mouth, with an earthy lingering.'"
"Many people see pink stuff, and they think it's going to be sweet," Bennett adds. "But most rosé is drier and food-friendly."
Bennett describes the pop-and-pour Obergo as "something to drink on the patio," with notes of strawberry, cherry and citrus, "a little minerality," and interestingly, "an honest wine that's good for what it is."
"You don't have to think about it too much," he says. It seems Gut Check could take some notes and learn how to stop worrying, pause and smell the rosé.
Gut Check's Final Take? We wish we liked this wine more: In theory, all the components are there for this friendly wine to meet us in the middle and make us happy. Unfortunately there's not enough fruit for us, but instead a very acidic, long-lasting impression all over the tongue. We still trust Jase, though - it may just be that even when you compromise, you can't please everyone.
Randall's has bottles of wine open for tasting every Friday and Saturday, which can be found at the front of the store, since there's "no plush tasting room." Just talk to Jase.