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Published February 06, 2009, 11:07 PM

Good wine for bad times

Wine lover says you can enjoy wine without spending a lot
When wine lover Michael McCullough picked the wines for tonight’s glitzy gala at the North Dakota Museum of Art, he considered vintages that would complement the menu, please the most palates and enliven conversation.

By: Paulette Tobin, Grand Forks Herald

When wine lover Michael McCullough picked the wines for tonight’s glitzy gala at the North Dakota Museum of Art, he considered vintages that would complement the menu, please the most palates and enliven conversation.

But like all of us these days, even a fancy museum soiree has a budget. So, for his picks, McCullough sought out New World wines from Australia and New Zealand that retail for $9 to $12 a bottle.

“You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money to enjoy good wine,” McCullough said, which is good news during a bad economy that has people pinching pennies, especially on luxuries like wine.

McCullough has been choosing wine for the annual North Dakota Museum of Art Benefit Gala Dinner for about 15 years. Today, he sells plumbing fixtures and whirlpools for Waterfront Kitchen & Bath, but for almost 20 years, he managed Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop. He got an on-the-job education in wine and spirits and has visited California wine country and vineyards in Australia.

McCullough loves wine and said it shouldn’t be enjoyed just on special occasions. You don’t need to pay a luxury price for it. Some screw-top wines are just as good as or better than corked wines. Still, making fun of your mom for buying wine in a box? Well, stop it.

“Boxed wines are fine for everyday consumption for someone who wants to have a glass of wine with their meal,” he said. “It will stay fresh from four to six weeks, which doesn’t happen with a bottle. So there are some advantages.”

Some very good wines have a screw cap on them, he said. But they are meant to be drunk fairly soon.

“Wines that are corked are, generally speaking, those that will age a little bit better in the bottle,” he said.

Nor does all good wine come from France or California’s Napa Valley. There are many good New World wines, those produced outside the traditional wine-growing areas of Europe, from places such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, and the states of Washington and Oregon.

Winemaking practices have gotten so much better that many wines will taste very similar no matter where the grapes were grown, fermented and bottled, McCullough said.

If you buy Yellow Tail from Australia or a Woodbridge or Beringer from California, the so-called “jug” wines, those wines are made to taste the same every year you buy them, he said.

“You’re more likely to find a bottle of wine that you don’t like than you are to find a bad bottle of wine” — bad, for instance, because it’s been on the shelf too long — he said.

For wine less than $10 a bottle, McCullough suggests a Yellow Tail or Rosemount from Australia, or a Columbia Crest or Chateau Ste Michelle from Washington.

As for jug wines? The term isn’t used so much anymore. It used to mean a low-end wine. Now, it’s more often thought of as a blend not defined by the label, “something they thought people would enjoy.”

If you’re paying $20 or more for a bottle of wine, then that bottle is from a particular vintage and has been handled a particular way for the grapes that are chosen.

“Wine is an agricultural product, and every year is different,” he said. “Grapes respond to weather conditions the same way as anything else.”

For tonight’s NDMOA gala, McCullough picked a red, a white and a sparkling wine. Because he was choosing wine for a crowd, he said, he avoided anything too complex.

“I want the drinker to focus on the food and conversation and the art work,” he said.

The white will be a Brancott sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

“It has to bridge between a salad and soup course, which is almost impossible,” he said. McCullough said he looked for a wine with “decent flavor” that would match well with the acidity of the salad dressing, among other things.

For the red wine, he chose a Black Opal shiraz from Australia, the place where a lot of the world’s best Shiraz is made, he said. It’s a wine that has fairly rich flavors and a hint of spice and finishes nice and clean, he said. It’s nicely mature and will complement the main course of beef tenderloin.

The sparkling wine will be Jacob’s Creek, a sparkling rose, also from Australia. It has a natural fruitiness that goes with a wide variety of hors d’oeuvres, especially salty flavors and cheese.

McCullough said one of the reasons people hesitate about choosing wine is that they’re never sure what to buy. His advice? Don’t overthink it. If you want to try new wines on the cheap, set up a wine-tasting party with your friends where everyone brings a different bottle.

“Use it more like an everyday beverage than a special occasion,” he said. “Don’t expect to like everything. Play around with it. It’s just a beverage.”

Just be sure to enjoy it in moderation.

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to