Friday, December 9, 2011

And Where Do You “Where To”: Wines With Toni

The spirit of the holiday season has demandingly settled upon us!
 Lights must be strung on roofs, kids must cheese it up with Santa, creamy eggnog must now be consumed in large quantities…

And of course, there’s the daunting task of buying gifts for family members, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, clients…your boss, your mechanic, your brother’s obnoxious girlfriend and like, 20 other people you don’t really like and/or know, without breaking the bank in the process.

So with the hectic holiday commotion slightly stressing me out, my mind turned to wine – wine to give as a gift, and wine to savor after battling checkout lines packed with savage shoppers.

While back in April I met with Corkbar owner Caleb Wines to discuss popular spring wines, this fall/winter season, I turned to the exceptional wine guru herself, Toni Staton Harris, a Los Angeles based author/writer/blogger who runs a very informative (and fun!) blog, Wines With Toni.


We initially met at the Blogging While Brown Conference this past summer and kept in touch over the following months. In all this time, I’ve appreciate her vast knowledge – and love – for wine, and she has helped me to discover the wines I like most through extensive conversations and friendly trips to Ugo Wine Bar in Culver City.

So if you’re like me – looking to expand your wine knowledge, and wildly curious to know what wines to sip these chilly evenings and which wines to gift – read on, and learn some wise and useful tips from Toni!

Miss Wilson: As an introduction to everyone, 
what is your blog all about and how did you get started?
Toni Staton Harris: I have two blogs. My first blog is Wine With Toni, which features recommendations, experiences, destinations about wine all over the world. One of the things that I was just telling you that I’m really excited about is a new feature coming soon by the end of December where I will actually wine style people. That means they give me their name, their email address, answer five questions about things they like in life, and I will actually recommend great wines that I know will be specific to them and their palate. I love Wine With Toni because it really is a shared experience about wine. I don’t profess to know everything about wine because one can’t. There are millions of varieties; there are a 1,001 brands, and the thing about wine is, it’s always a journey. It’s always a discovery and it’s always a shared experience. And that’s what I want to make sure comes across in the blog. It’s not authoritative; it’s more a shared experience because I take recommendations from people.

The second one is called Checkin’ Up and Checkin’ in with Toni Staton Harris and this is my hot topics blog where I share my opinions and I talk about your opinions about a number of hot topics that affect our lives daily. I talk about anything and everything here. I talk about film, TV, food wine…anything that tickles my fancy. I check up on you, find out what’s going on with you, and I check in with you, to tell you what’s going on with me. That’s actually a very new blog that just started a month ago.

I said I have two blogs...I actually have two and half, because the third one I write with a blog partner is called Girl TD. That is a lifestyle, fashion, relationship blog where we focus on issues that arise from the television show The Game. Like tomorrow we have a post coming out that I’m doing called: “Divorce. Who Gets the Friends?” Everybody talks about the kids, everybody talks about the house, the dog, but who gets the friends? People don’t often realize that friendships and relationships outside of the marriage are deeply affected by divorce as well. So that’s the stuff I like to talk about.

Miss Wilson: Nice! So now, let’s talk wine…
Toni Staton Harris: [Laughing] Let’s talk wine!

Miss Wilson: How do you have all of this knowledge about it?
Toni Staton Harris: A lot of informal study, a lot of tasting, a lot of reading the bottle. I have this saying: read what you see. Reading the bottle will teach you so much about the wine – the temperature it’s supposed to be served at, what foods it pairs well with, what notes are incorporated into it.

I do a lot of exploring, but I think the biggest reason why I retain a lot of information is because I’m open to the possibilities. I don’t believe that I know everything about wine. I believe that wine comes with infinite possibilities. I listen. I talk. I have my own opinions and sometimes they change, sometimes they don’t. I recognize that it is a journey and it’s a process. I’ve been dealing with wine and figuring out what I like for at least 15 years now. It’s about exploring, tasting and opening your mind to the possibilities of what it’s all about, and knowing what you like.

Miss Wilson: I know in our previous conversations you mentioned that you can get a good bottle of wine for under $25. How does that work? How is that possible?
Toni Staton Harris: That’s a wonderful question. First of all, my median range for pricing is $10. If I pay $20 for a bottle of wine, it’s because I absolutely love it.

Wine doesn’t have to be expensive. As we all know, wine is very subjective. It’s all about your palate – what you like, what you like to taste. So price doesn’t denote quality. Just because something is a high-priced wine doesn’t mean that it is a quality wine. Or, it doesn’t mean that you’ll like it. Price is not the determinant for a great glass of wine. A great glass of wine is what’s good to you.

There was a time when wine was considered of the snobs’ drink or inaccessible, because people didn’t really understand it. But now, you can try wines by the bottle, by the gallon, by the box – whatever – and find out what you actually like by giving yourself clues. What you like in life, you’ll like in wine. You like honey in life? You’ll probably like a nice honey-based, vanilla-based, strong note chardonnay. If you like spice, you’ll like perhaps a shiraz, an Australian shiraz.

So because wine is so competitive, it’s very easy to find great wine for $10 a pop or under. It’s just a matter of going into your wine bars, going into your wine stores like Total Wine and BevMo and places like that. They have thousands of brands, thousands of wines. Once you figure out your grape, go for it.

Miss Wilson: Even if there’s not necessarily a price tag on good wine and it depends on your palate, is there a wine that you would say is popular for this season, for the fall?
Toni Staton Harris: I like to drink red wines in the winter and white wines in the summer. I like a full-bodied, heavy-bodied red wine with a little spice, a little earthiness. 

Seasonal wines, especially in the fall, tend to be your Australian reds, your pinot noirs, your cabernet sauvignons, your shirazes, your syrahs. They make for great holiday gifts. They make for great sipping wine.

My go-to pinot noir is always Edna Valley, which is in San Luis Obispo. San Luis Obispo is taking names and kicking butt. Willamette Valley in Oregon is also taking names and kicking butt. And California needs to watch out for not only Willamette Valley in Oregon, but we need to watch out for Washington State, because they’re doing pinot noirs, they’re doing your cabs. They’re really coming after the Sonoma Valley market. Washington State does a cab called 14 Hands that’ll make you kick somebody and I take no responsibility for them kicking back. 

So spicy, bolder reds, flavorful reds. And there is a big difference between flavor and some basic elements like sugar. I just did a post on Wine With Toni, Sweet vs. Fruit Forward. A lot of novices as well as connoisseurs don’t really understand the difference between sweet and fruit forward.

Miss Wilson: So what is the difference?
Toni Staton Harris: Great question. Sweet is when the residual sugar of a wine is the star of the show. That’s the first thing you taste. It’s the main thing you taste, and the flavor is secondary or even tertiary to the actual wine. Meaning, white zinfandel is always going to be sweet, because white zinfandel is not actually a grape; it’s made up of residual sugar, residual grape pieces as well as added sugar, food coloring and water. That’s your white zinfandel. Your moscato is going to be sweet because you’re taking the ripened grape and you’re extracting sugar. Some winemakers are even adding sugar, not so much for the sweetness, but for the alcohol content, to raise it.

And we know sweet. Sweet is lemonade. Sweet is sweet tea. But a fruit-forward wine doesn’t necessarily have to be sweet. It just means that the fruit is the star of the show. You taste the burst of flavors. You taste the burst of grape or you taste the notes, like currant, blackberry, cherry. That’s more prominent in your mouth than the sugar.

It can be difficult to distinguish, and a not so pleasant way to determine if you’re drinking a fruit forward wine or a sweet wine is when you’re drinking the wine, close your nose and sip. If you taste sugar, you know you’re drinking a sweet wine. If you don’t necessarily taste sugar while you’re holding your nose but you taste something other than sugar, you’re probably drinking a fruit forward wine. It’s the same as the difference between cocoa and milk chocolate. Cocoa tastes like cocoa; milk chocolate tastes like sugar.

Miss Wilson: Would you say that there’s one wine that’s a classic wine – one that’s always and maybe always will be – a wine to appreciate?
Toni Staton Harris: That changes. Again, wine is so subjective that it really is about what you like. Very popular ten years ago, straight up, was your merlot and chardonnay. In the whites, chardonnay still remains the most popular wine consumed. However, the sauvignon blancs are steadily catching the chardonnays because people are starting to say, well just because I like white doesn’t mean I like only oaky. Maybe I don’t want oaky. Maybe I want more vanilla. Maybe I want more fruit. However, where merlot was your most popular – merlot and cab used to fight each other for popularity – pinot noir is taking over.

Now personally for me, I’m still a merlot girl. I just love it. So it really is about your personal taste. Pinot noir is definitely a safe bet and a contender up against merlot and cabernet. The thing about pinot noir is that it can be so complex, and people are often afraid of that wine. And that’s the one thing that my blog does. It demystifies all of that. I give you permission to explore and exchange information and not feel bad, guilty, or unknowledgeable about something that you’re tasting. I really do give you the permission to free yourself from the snobbishness and the mystery of wine, because it’s so accessible, and it should be.

But I would definitely say pinot noir and your sauvignon blancs and your chenin blancs, also known in South Africa as Steen, are really moving ahead in the white category.


Miss Wilson: You mentioned that wine is subjective several times, so I want to go back to something else you were talking about: wine as a holiday gift. Can wine make as a good holiday gift and if so, is there a safe one to choose, such as red or white?
Toni Staton Harris: If you know the person really well, it’s always great to go with the family of their favorite. You know Toni’s favorite pinot noir is Edna Valley, so I’m going to try maybe giving her a bottle of pinot noir from New Zealand…ecause I know she likes pinot noir and I want to gift her this wine, I’m going to give her something different.

But when you don’t know the person, don’t get caught up in anything. Give whatever you want them to have. Because the beauty of gifting wine is that you’ll either give the person something they like or something they don’t know. Even if it’s not their particular cup of tea, they’re having a little get-together, they can present that wine and pour it. So gifting wine is easy, but it’s also great because you are free to give whatever.

And that’s when price does make a consideration. For example, my birthday was in November and my girlfriend called me up. She said, “I want to give you that wine you were talking about that you wanted so badly.” And I said, “No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.” She said, “Why not? I want to buy it.” And I said, “Because it’s a $100 bottle of wine and it’s not worth it.” I’m not going to say the name, because you know, I don’t want to disparage somebody else’s taste. But to pay $100 for a bottle of wine for me is not really worth it, unless you are in a position that $100 is $10. Now somebody else may feel differently and great, good for you. You can afford to spend $300 for a bottle of wine during dinner? How about it. But that just doesn’t work for me.

But the beauty of gifting is first of all, it’s rare that the actual price of the wine is on the bottle, so you can buy a nice bottle of wine and you don’t have to have gone over $20. And it could be worth much more, in terms of taste.

Miss Wilson: Is there anything you want to add? I think we covered so much.
Toni Staton Harris: I would like to add a few simple tips:

Buy through the label.

Don’t be fooled by the fancy labels, the fancy names. If you’re not sure, pick up the bottle and read the back. If that doesn’t give you what you want to know, ask a clerk. Ask a winemaker. Ask somebody in the store.

Ask somebody for a recommendation: hey, have you tried…or what do you like?

Be open to the possibilities – the journey – and ask questions. Don’t be embarrassed by any questions that you ask, because nobody – even your master sommeliers – know everything about wine. They just don’t. We just can’t. We absolutely can’t. It’s so big, it’s so vast.

Miss Wilson: And like you said, it is very subjective. A sommelier might have spent years and years studying wine, but at the end of the day, it is what your mouth says.
Toni Staton Harris: Exactly, it’s what you like. So buy through the label. Don’t be intimidated by the label, the terms, or anything like that. Remember at the end of the day, like you just said, a good glass of wine is what’s good to you. And that’s about it.

Miss Wilson: That’s good – thank you!
Toni Staton Harris: You’re welcome!

For more information on Toni, visit her website www.winewithtoni.com 
or follow her on Twitter at @winewithtoni!

This interview has been condensed and edited.