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Murray: Lambrusco wine comes in quality varieties

POSTED: February 4, 2009 1:00 a.m.

I'm back. I hope somebody noticed I took a month off in January. Lots of "stuff" going on in December - including a visit from a brand new grandbaby - so I gave myself a brief hiatus for the start of the new year.

I've kept some scratchy notes on some of the phone calls and e-mails I've received from readers and, if I can read those notes, I'd like to share some of them with the rest of y'all.

Question: My youngest daughter has just started work on a masters program at the University of Gastronomic Science in Parma, Italy. The course of study is "Food Culture and Communication."

She attended a food and wine fair recently and was bragging about the "Lambrusco" she had sampled. My immediate, horrified thought was of Riunite Lambrusco, sort of a grape-flavored Kool-Aid of a wine, in my opinion. But she insisted that there were many varieties sampled - fruity, but dry - all the way to a sparkling.

Apparently it's a regional specialty. Any insight?

Answer: Of course. Asking a columnist if he has an opinion is like asking a bear if he keeps his Charmin in the forest.

Your daughter is right! But I, too, remember Riunite (that's the brand name) Lambrusco (that's the type of wine), the most popular wine drink sold in the 1970s. It was fruity, semisweet, thin and lacking in compatibility with most foods - except Ritz crackers and Cheez Whiz. So everybody bought it.

But there truly is good-quality Lambrusco produced in central Italy, around Parma where your daughter finds herself.

There is a red lambrusco grape that goes back to Roman times, and it is used to produce dry, semidry and sweet wines - even a lightly sparkling wine. You'll find red, pink and white Lambrusco, with the last two being made like a blush wine - read white zinfandel - in which the fermenting juice is allowed to have contact with the red skins for only a brief period.

Ask your daughter to haul some of the good stuff home and I'll be happy to sample and critique. Yes, I will be available that day.

Q: I've found a bargain wine called Bay Bridge at a local supermarket. It's really inexpensive, sometimes less than $3 a bottle. I'm almost ashamed to say I like it, but I do. I've seen a chardonnay and a cabernet sauvignon. It's got a red, black and white label and it's from California. What can you tell me about this wine?

A: Thank the folks from Franzia for this bargain wine. And never be ashamed to say you enjoy cheap - uh, inexpensive - wine. I do all the time.

Bay Bridge is just another iteration of the wines known as Two-Buck Chuck. Those are the wines produced by Franzia under the Charles Shaw Winery label, available only at Trader Joe's.

You may recall that Franzia acquired the rights to the Charles Shaw label many years ago when that winery fell into the financial toilet. With a unique marketing arrangement with Trader Joe's, Franzia brought out a series of wines priced at $1.99 - hence "Two-Buck Chuck." The wines are bulk produced but are good everyday drinking wines. And that, essentially, is what Bay Bridge is. I suspect the name came from the span linking San Francisco and Oakland. If you compare the label with Two-Buck Chuck, you'll see they are nearly identical. So's the wine.

It's a good value ... and you don't have to hunt down a Trader Joe's to buy it.

Q: I've been told not to wash my good wine glasses - they are crystal - in the dishwasher. How do you wash your wine glasses?

A: Wash them? We just heave them into the fireplace after swilling down our 1959 Chateau Margaux. Actually, I will confess that we do run our everyday wine glasses through the dishwasher. Doesn't seem to hurt them, although hand washing really is much easier on the glassware.

For good stemware, I recommend hand washing using either baking soda or washing soda. I've always washed my Champagne flutes this way, using baking soda and very hot water. After mixing the soda powder thoroughly with the hot water, allow the glasses to sit in the water for about 10 minutes before washing. Rinse thoroughly and dry carefully.

If you wash glassware with detergent, no matter how often you rinse, a film remains. With Champagne flutes that poses a real problem because it reduces the formation of the mousse - what a beer drinker would call "the head."

Chances are you'll find washing soda in the detergent aisle of the supermarket. If not, check it out online.

P.S.: This column marks my one-year anniversary in The Times. Thanks to all of you who have contacted me during that time. If you have a question about wine, send me a note (see my e-mail below my photo).

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. His column runs on the first Wednesday of the month.



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