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Fine Wine Writing by Jonathon Alsop

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The Too-Perfect Hostess
October 1998


Rain fell in sheets the day of the Dragon Boat Race on the Charles River in Cambridge, and our team was so miserable and freezing as we sat bailing that we nearly won our second heat in spite of ourselves just from the energy released of sheer misery and the desire to make this hellish day end. Luckily, I looked up as we approached the finish line, saw we were threatening to win, and shouted, "Backpaddle!" while flailing wildly backwards in the water with my paddle. Defeat was ours!

The other people on the team looked at me strangely as we left the boat, tossed down our paddles and Day-Glo life vests, and started sprinting toward our cars in the rain. We agreed to meet up later and de-brief our performance: that is, have pizza at someone's house. I'm certain this is how they do it in Hong Kong after the championship. We will never know.

At home, I looked at what I had on hand for wine, thought about pizza, and picked out a couple of Italian rusticos - rough when red, piercing and zippy when white, both un-pedigreed wines from the countryside. Actually, the '95 Brindisi Rosso (2/$8 at Beacon Beverage in Brookline) is from the remotest countryside on the heel of Italy that's supposedly the home of the grape that today is California Zinfandel. The white wine, '96 Fedro (rescued from the death bin at Brookline Liquor Mart for $5.50), was made from some indigenous white grape near San Gimignano where they also grow Vernaccia. The point is, these were super-cheap wines that hadů some promise, but they were cheap, all the same.

When I went to meet the team, our hostess met me and welcomed me and gave me a proper tour. We slid by the dining room, but I saw in an instant she already had wine set out. I saw that crazy purple block label that is only Hannah Sauvignon Blanc, an excellent tropical specimen of this grape. Out the corner of my eye, I spotted the unmistakable bobcat logo of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards, which is an excellent and interesting winery started in the 70s from a region that's now nicely developing. And I saw something I didn't recognize, but decided it looked Spanish and expensive. Let me tell you, from a wine entertainment perspective, this looked like a home run.

All this time, I was carrying my wine in a bag, and once we were in the kitchen, I presented it, saying, "Oh, here's a couple of bottles of wine too." I went into the living room to chat a bit. It was still raining and cold as hell, and our hostess had a real inglenook - benches built in around a small fireplace - and I warmed up there plenty.

By the time I went to get something to eat, our too-perfect hostess had removed all her verifiably excellent wine and replaced it with my interesting but cheap pizza wine! I thought, what can I say? This woman's manners were impeccable. How could I confess that the wines I'd brought were good for a Tuesday night pasta dinner, while her wines were wines you could build a fine meal around? For a moment, I thought of opening them and saying they were crap, but just for a moment. I managed to know better that to compound the situation.

A couple of people have asked what you do when you have wine all picked out for dinner and guests bring plonk, but what do you do when you're that guest?

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