Safari, of course, conjures up images of machetes and pith helmets and gunbearers and dangerous wild animals. It may seem a little extreme to equate wine with big game, but so many people I talk with seem to experience wine shopping with the panicked confusion of someone lost in the Serengeti. They speak as if the chance of hunting down an interesting, good-value bottle is as likely as bagging an albino elephant (or something like that, just to torture the safari metaphor as far as it will go).
Our guides are Max Gottesfeld, Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board retail wine specialist at that store, and Michael McCaulley, managing partner of the Tria wine bars in Center City and University City. Throughout the spring and early summer, the two have been collaborating on the lunchtime Wine Safaris, open to consumers on a first-come, first-serve basis. The safari lasts only about 30 minutes, so the advice is meant to be shorthand. McCaulley, for instance, might say something like: "Look for the three V's: vermentino, verdicchio and vernaccia. If you find a grape from Italy that begins with the letter V, you'll get a good white."
On this day, we are seeking out bottles from Spain and Portugal, two of my favorite countries for value.
"When we talk about Spanish whites, we often talk about Albariño," says McCaulley, grabbing a bottle from the section labeled Spain. "Albariño is from Galicia in the northwest, or ‘Green Spain.' It's from an area called Rias Baixas, which has the highest per-capita consumption of seafood in Europe. So obviously people there drink these wines with seafood."
He leads us from Spanish whites like verdejo and godello to reds like tempranillo from Rioja and Ribera del Duero (noted on our maps) and grenache (garnacha in Spanish), and then over to the Portuguese shelves, where he talks about under-$12 vinho verde ("fresh, and tends to have a little spritz") and under-$20 Portuguese "country reds" from Dão and the Alentejo. He points out that in Portugal, "tempranillo is called ‘tinta roriz.'" Then he walks us through sparkling cava from Catalonia, and crisp, dry fino and manzanilla sherries that we can pick up for $15.99. "Sherry right now is going through a renaissance."
He ends up pointing out Blandy's 5- and 10-year-old Madeira, saying, "My favorite wine in the world is Madeira."
The tour's a bit of a whirlwind, and when it ends — and the guy goes back to his meeting — I want to continue my safari. So I stick around and chat with Gottesfeld, whom McCaulley has introduced me to as follows: "Max is a crazy man who likes wacky wine."
The state of things
Gottesfeld is one of the state's recently minted "retail wine specialists," a position requiring advanced training that was created by the PLCB for employees who sell premium wines. The state has trained about 20 experts, and the goal is to have at least one in each of the 72 stores with expanded fine-wine departments.
Setting aside the obvious question — it's taken the PLCB this long to commit to employees with actual wine knowledge? — people like Gottesfeld are going to bring a breath of fresh air and some much-needed change to the stores.
Part of the change is bringing in wines beyond the obvious. "There's been more of an investment in esoteric wines," says Gottesfeld. He's not talking about obscure wines for geeks. He's refering to well-priced wines from corners of the world and from grapes that many consumers aren't familiar with — zweigelt from Austria, furmint from Hungary, Xarel-lo from Catalonia, monica from Sardinia.
But when you're dealing with value from esoteric sources, consumer education becomes vital — something the PLCB had been woeful at for years and something people like Gottesfeld are trying to change.
Gottesfeld and other retail wine specialists are eyeing stores' "shelf talkers," used to explain wine. For years, numbers have ruled, as in point scores from Wine Spectator or influential critic Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. Consumers don't have to know anything; they just buy wines rated 90 points or higher.
"I'm starting to phase out the scores," Gottesfeld said. In the wine world, there's been a lot of grumbling over what many see as the tyranny of the score. Gottesfeld's reasoning in getting rid of scores is not philosophical, but based on business and profits. "People will walk in and buy based on seeing 90-plus points. Then they often bring it back and say they don't like it."
Instead, Gottesfeld would like consumers to learn what they like and don't like, and to ask experts like him when they have questions. "I want them to read the actual review and know what they're buying."
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.