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Everything's coming up roses

With so many out there, the challenge is finding the perfect wine that's great with food and well priced.

August 13, 2008|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

HERE'S THE thing about roses and me: I buy them by the case. With other wines, maybe I'll buy a couple of bottles -- one to drink, one to stick away -- and if I really like them, I'll think about picking up a few more. It's a considered, rational purchase.

But who can be rational about rose? At any time during the summer I'll have one bottle open in the fridge, ready for me to pour a glass or two for dinner. There'll be another bottle chilling, because who wants to run out of rose? And there will be several more just waiting to be tapped.

It's kind of the wine equivalent of the baseball batting order: I've got one bottle at bat, one on deck and the rest of the lineup sitting in the dugout waiting their turn.

Why am I so hooked on rose? It's not a drinking thing -- roses tend to be lower in alcohol than other wines (though I have noticed a distressing number of exceptions; more about that in a minute). And it's not just because they're pretty, though they certainly are.

I love today's dry roses because they seem to go perfectly with everything I want to cook in the summertime. They've got it all: crisp, mouth-cleansing acidity; spice and ripe fruit; and just a hint of juicy sweetness.

They are the perfect complement to the big flavors I tend to throw around with such abandon in the summer: pungent garlic and fresh herbs, salty olives and anchovies, ripe tomatoes and wood smoke.

It used to be that many wine lovers disdained roses as the sweet tipples of their youth. Happily, that sad little bit of snobbery seems mostly to have passed. But even now, you'll sometimes hear roses derided as "simple," a criticism that reflects a complete misunderstanding of their purpose.

Roses aren't wines to ponder, nor are they wines to uncork to impress your friends. They're simply delicious. They're wines to drink purely for pleasure, without any esoteric folderol.

But with a rose, as with anything else, there is good and there is bad (or, at least, not-so-good). I'm extremely aware of that right now because for the first time in a while, I've actually had to go out shopping for my roses this summer.

For the last several years, my house rose has come from my friends Rob and Maria Sinskey at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Carneros. It's a fabulous Pinot Noir-based wine that deserves every bit of the attention it has received. Unfortunately, the upshot of all that praise has been that when I finally got around to visiting the website to place my order, the wine was completely sold out.

When I stopped by a couple of wine shops to search for a replacement, I was astonished to find how many roses are available. While not long ago a good shop might have half a dozen bottles, some now have twice that number and counting.

Left on my own in this dense and tangled rose garden, I did what any sensible shopper might do: I bought a bunch of bottles and made dinner.

My requirements for my house rose are pretty simple: It has to go with food and it has to be priced so I can justify buying a case or two -- which for me means a top end of $17 per bottle.

The first qualification posed little difficulty, but the second proved to be a bit of a sticking point. Like everything else, rose prices have gone up. Not only are top-flight roses such as Domaine Tempier and Domaine Ott nearing the $40 mark, but what used to be a solid $13 rose is now smacking up against the top end of my price range.

Prices aren't the only thing going up. Alcohol level is too, and that also plays a part in my decision-making. Let's face it: Rose is a wine that is made for picnics and sunny days. Serving a 14.5% alcohol wine in those conditions is a recipe for a long nap immediately followed by a big headache. For this kind of drinking, I want something that hits about 13%, tops, and 12.5% is even better.

--

Tryouts at the table

I split the tasting over two dinners. The first night was pretty warm, so I made a salad with wild arugula, cherry tomatoes and the fabulous goat milk feta from Redwood Hill Farm.

I also served some sliced salami, since nothing is better with rose and because I happened to have a Fra'Mani salumetto, Paul Bertolli's smallest and spiciest, in my refrigerator begging to be eaten.

The second night was supposed to be just as simple: I'd planned on pasta with fresh pesto, to see how the wines reacted to all of that garlic and basil.

Then, at the last minute, the artist down the street called and asked if she could come over because, for her seventysomething birthday, her daughter on the East Coast had mailed her a lobster bake in a box (lobsters, clams, mussels, snow crab claws, potatoes and corn). She didn't know how to cook it and wondered if I'd do the honors. Well, yeah.

Out of 18 wines I tasted over the two meals, I found six that I was extremely happy with. This group included some old favorites, plus a couple of surprises. Who would have guessed that they made a really good rose in Germany?

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