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Bring Your Own Bottle

You're invited to a friend's house for dinner, and the host has told you to bring a bottle of wine but has not decided on the menu or won't divulge to keep the suspense. Which varietal has the best chance of complimenting the most dishes?

My first instinct is to suggest a Pinot Noir. Generally, it's a medium-bodied red with flavors of cherry, raspberry, and even a touch of chocolate. It's generally well balanced enough not to dry out your mouth or make you pucker up. All this makes it pair well with most vegetable dishes, especially anything with mushrooms, and a good range of meat dishes. It might get lost with a steak, but there'll most surely be a Cabernet kicking around.

Recently, I decided to try an experiment. I invited a few of my friends over for dinner and had them bring the food, while I supplied the wine. I was hoping for something to surprise me, but overall, the Stephen Vincent 2001 Pinot Noir ($13.00 at Amphora, 384 Hayes) was everyone's choice. It smelled like a cherry pie, both sweet and tart at the same time, with just a hint of vanilla. In your mouth it's surprisingly soft -- a velvety texture against your tongue because of the balance in acid and tannin. The flavor is just as lush, like dried cherries sautéed with Chambord and a touch of cocoa on the finish.

We did find a close second with Gagliardo 2001 Barbera d' Alba ($12.00 at Coit Liquor, 585 Columbus). It smelled like Knudsen's Cherry Cider; imagine unfiltered apple cider with black cherry juice. Then imagine eating a purple plum, the kind with the almost black skin and dark red flesh, so ripe you have to stand over the sink with juice dripping down your arm: that's the taste. After you swallow, you're left with a hint of chocolate-covered almonds.

Ultimately, we did have one surprise. At Amphora, a 2001 Zinfandel from Shenandoah Vineyards ($9.00) was suggested to me. I like Zin, but I tend think of it as more of dessert in a glass than a food wine. This one was a bit uncharacteristic, with significant acidity and the flavor of raspberry jam, but there was the expected black pepper spice.

Go with an Oregon or Northern California Pinot Noir and you'll always be safe. If you want to try something a bit different, go for a Barbera, and if you stumble upon the Shenandoah Vineyards Zinfandel, grab a few bottles; this is the party season.

Vineyards Genevieve Robertson can be reached at [email protected]