Wine Lists: Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, AL

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

 

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Chef Chris Hastings, a repeated James Beard winner, is making some of the nation’s best food happen off Birmingham’s Highland Avenue. His inventive new Southern cuisine is taking critics by storm, and he’s deservedly proud of his food and way of doing business. It’s quite likely that Hastings will walk over during your meal and chat you up.

blacktearsbottleFor me, the winner on his wine list is Black Tears by Tapiz. This is the trophy wine from a longtime Mendoza winery where I had the privilege of eating lunch a couple of years ago. Most of the Tapiz wines are just okay – but Black Tears is a big, bold, classic New World red. You’ll like it; and as I remember the wine was relatively well priced. It’s about $40 in stores and it seems like it was less than 2X on this menu.

 

 

On my wine lists feature, I don’t attempt to rate the food; only whether Argentine wine is well-represented and well-priced.

 

Should you buy wine in Argentina?

Once you’ve been seduced by the steak, the tango, and of course the delicious malbec on your Argentine vacation, it’s hard to resist the urge to fill your suitcase with as many bottles as you can find.

But the truth is, there are many reasons NOT to buy wines during your Argentina vacation. Many of the best wines are available in the US, at the same or better prices as you will find in Argentina. Shipping is incredibly expensive, to the point where it almost never makes sense. And checking wine in your baggage comes with its own set of hassles.

The good news is, there are still some compelling things to look for – and new mobile smartphone tools that can help you make better decisions on the fly, in the store. For example, WineSearcher.com or its app. Do a price search with US retailers, as you’re viewing the bottle in the Argentine wine shop. Use eRobertParker.com ($99/yr) to check ratings and reviews while you are in the store.

A few thoughts on this from the taxi, as I head on my own trip to one of my favorite wine stores, Terrior in Buenos Aires, to stock up.

Has the Parker effect ruined the South American wine industry?

An increasing number of retailers and vineyard owners seem to think so.

My conversation with Claudio Fontana, owner of esteemed wine retailer Terroir Casa de Vino in Buenos Aires, was most revealing.

Fontana understands the double-edged sword that ratings and popularity have brought to certain vineyards. And as someone who has benefitted enormously from the popularity of Malbec, he doesn’t question that Parker ratings are what originally put Argentina on the map.

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What worries him is customers’ slavish devotion to the numbers. He says:

“Don’t drink points – drink wine.” 

The interesting point that Fontana makes is that popular wines tend to have a life cycle. They come out of nowhere when a Wine Advocate or Wine Enthusiast reviewer assigns them a high numeric rating.

Being the value seekers we are, consumers flock to that particular label of wine. Hooray! For consumers and the winery.

But then the next harvest comes, and consumers want more of that delicious, highly-rated wine. So, what’s the winery to do?

Find. More. Grapes.

Make. More. Wine.

But chances are, the winery was already using all their best grapes in the previous year’s output. So, they have to go find grapes somewhere else. Maybe even on the bulk market, from unknown vineyards in unknown locations.

And the wine you fell in love with, that Robert Parker or Jay Miller or Neal Martin loved, isn’t the same wine anymore.

Really skillful winemakers can mitigate the effects of higher volume, but it’s hard to do, and exceptionally hard to deliver the same wine at the same quality.

So, following Fontana’s theory, it’s even smarter to look for under-the-radar wines from smaller vineyards that haven’t yet suffered from The Parker Effect.

But, as I pointed out, as Americans we don’t have the luxury of Claudio standing beside us in our local grocery store or wine shop. I’ve relied heavily on Parker ratings throughout the years, because otherwise, what are you going to do?

What are you thoughts on this?

Store Check: Whole Foods Market, Birmingham, AL

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Whole Foods hit town with an astonishing assortment of high end wines at grand opening. It looked like it was going to give neighborhood favorite Western Supermarket a real run for its money. A few years later, it seems that the $60-80 product (big California cabs, etc.) has been pared in favor of more sub-$20 choices.

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The Argentine Red aisle looks fine, though it’s hardly the most compelling choice in town. But there are still two compelling reasons to shop here.

1) Since you can buy a bottle and drink a glass at the counter at the Brasserie while they cook you a grass-fed Tenderloin you’ve picked out yourself at the butcher shop, you can create your own poor-man’s parrilla right off US 280.

state-malbec2) The semi-annual 20% off case sale. The one to pick up here is Colomè Estate Malbec, priced at $28.99. It’s from Salta, in the northern provinces, and now owned by the Hess family out of Switzerland.

 

Wines: Luigi Bosca Malbec

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

1173826_1907599Note that this is not the higher-end D.O.C version but the more basic wine. You should be able to find this in stores for around $14 with some careful shopping. Full-bodied, lots of oak, not terribly complicated, but a pleasant Wednesday night sip.

 

Store Check: Target

Target

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

Love me some Target. Good prices, great pharmacy and a bit more fashion sense than other discounters.

But for all its much-vaunted design sensibility, Target isn’t terribly on target when it comes to Argentine red wines.

The selection is nothing to write home about, lacks even some of the common quality high-volume labels (even finding Catena malbec is hit or miss, depending on which location you are at) and the selection tends to skew towards those cute-label brands rather than anything labeled with the name of an actual winemaker who is proud of his craft.

If I had to pick up something here, it would be the Alamos Seleccion, which got a 90 from Robert Parker. It says Catena on the label and it is a product of that family but it’s from different vineyards and is actually imported by (gasp) Gallo.

Second choice would be Punto Final but the reserve version of this wine is much better than the black label.

The Terrazas (huge seller in the States) is appropriately located on the bottom shelf. I’m not a fan of their wines.

Personally, I would buy my socks, grab a Starbucks latte, and plan to make one more stop at the wine store before heading home.