Wine, which has arguably been around since Neolithic times, is enjoying a current surge of popularity in our country. According to a Gallup Poll, wine eclipsed beer as the alcoholic beverage of choice for the majority of Americans in 2005, and a study commissioned by this year's Vinexpo Bordeaux wine fair determined that the United States will be the world's top consumer of wine by 2008. An increase in local wineries, improvement in the quality and variety of wines in general, and pop-culture references such as the wine-obsessed film "Sideways" reinforce its standing as the drink of the moment.
So where does this leave the average wine consumer? In many cases the answer is "confused," and selecting a bottle of wine from a retail establishment can be as tricky as taking a pop quiz.
First there is the fairly straightforward question of white or red, which is generally accompanied by a price consideration. But more difficult posers follow: What grape (or grapes) is the wine derived from? Should I choose a Northwest producer, Californian or something European? How do I decide on a "brand"/winery (rather than just grabbing the bottle with the coolest label)? And, most impossibly, the combination question: How to determine a "good" year for a particular grape from a particular vineyard in a particular region of a particular country?
Happily, there's a cheat sheet for all these questions and more. It comes in the form of a phenomenal little wine shop sitting right in our midst. I'm hardly alone in my admiration of McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants; there are many who consider this neighborhood wine retailer one of the foremost in the city, if not the country. GQ magazine hailed it in 2004 as one of the "50 best wine stores in America" and one of the "top 10 small specialty shops featuring wines from Piedmont and Tuscany." And Food and Wine magazine deemed it "retailer of the year."
The company was born in 1980, when Daniel McCarthy translated his many years of experience as a wine wholesaler into a little shop in Ravenna. Shortly thereafter, Jay Schiering, a regular customer who shared McCarthy's passion for wine, came on as partner. In 1990 they opened a Queen Anne location in the storefront currently inhabited by Barbacoa. Now it's shifted to the rear of A&J Meats, where it feels as though they've always been. The partners divide their duties, with McCarthy ordering for and managing the Queen Anne location and Schiering doing the same for the Ravenna store.
McCarthy & Schiering on Queen Anne is so cozy, it's almost unfathomable that they constantly have between 600 and 1,000 wines in stock. Of those, McCarthy informed me that he has personally tasted each and every one (and yes, he does use a spittoon). As remarkable as that number is, the following figure is even more impressive: For each wine he chooses to carry, McCarthy tries and rejects approximately 10 others - which makes shopping at this store akin to having your own personal Wine Taster.
McCarthy & Schiering carries a large assortment of French and Italian wines, as well as other national and international selections. However, its reputation has been built on its knowledge and supply of Northwest wines, which comprise about 30 percent of the store's sales. McCarthy, co-author of a book dedicated to the subject, is ardent about finding great Northwest varieties and supporting the wineries that make them, and he works closely with purveyors to obtain good wines from some of the smaller, lesser-known producers. He has a particular affection for Cabernet, and his local favorites include Quilceda Creek and Leonetti Cellars, both of which have limited production because of their size.
To him, the wine business is one of romance and all its best qualities - passion, excitement and loyalty. Personal relationships and fierce allegiances exist between families and individuals at every step of the industry, from producers to sellers and consumers. Contrary to the view espoused in the indie-film hit "Mondovino," which suggests that big corporations will soon swallow up all the small wineries, McCarthy believes that the devotion of wine-lovers will keep those vineyards alive and thriving. In addition, the sheer scale of the industry - which employs more people than any other in the world - has always caused all attempts at conglomeration to fail.
In the end, McCarthy has an egalitarian view of wines. He's of the sound opinion that a good bottle of wine is a good bottle of wine, whether made by the smallest or largest of producers. He supports the modern use of screw-top bottles, a trend resisted by some, but sensible because of the quickly depleting supply of cork - as well as the fact that it's a better method of preserving the wine: damage to wine from corked bottles is between 6 and 15 percent. You'll also find an irreverent boxed wine at the shop, about which McCarthy only half-jokingly stated that "there's nothing quite like a good wine in a box," even as he explained that this efficient packaging style is already common in Europe.
Speaking to McCarthy about wine is like getting an instant education about an industry, and product, he clearly loves. His knowledge and enthusiasm are reflected in the attitude of his employees, all of whom are incredibly gracious to their customers - offering educated advice in the form of a gentle suggestion when asked, while allowing ample space to peruse the shelves and stacks of bottles.
One of the greatest surprises in visiting the store is discovering how many wines are affordable to the average consumer. Although prices range from nine to hundreds of dollars, McCarthy & Schiering's specialty is to provide access to the best wines within a range of $10 to $12. It's those wines that continue to draw me back to the shop, seeking advice from the helpful staff as to what to try next. Although I've settled on a few favorites - such as the 2003 Pierre Sparr Pinot Blanc Reserve ($11), a white that manages to be dry even as it fills your mouth with the taste of fruit; and Di Arie Zinfandel ($13), a wonderfully big, jammy red for this price range - part of the fun in shopping at McCarthy & Schiering is the ongoing introduction to fantastic new wines.
Many (almost 5,000) of their customers are members of its "Vintage Select Club," which means they've paid the one-time fee of $100 in exchange for a lifetime discount of 15 percent on every bottle of wine purchased, 17 percent when paying cash. Membership is accompanied by a monthly newsletter (which can be picked up at the store) full of information on new and newly discovered wines and wineries, special events and free in-store wine tastings. The tastings have different themes and are held every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. McCarthy & Schiering also takes special orders, including orders of single bottles, allowing one to try something new (or pricey) without committing to an entire case.
This year, McCarthy & Schiering celebrates its 25th year in existence. Stop by for a Saturday tasting and your own complimentary wine education, bearing in mind the motto that graces the company Web site: "Nothing is so effective in keeping one young and full of lust as a discriminating palate thoroughly satisfied at least once a day."