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Stop Whining About Selecting Wine: Some Simple Tips for Spring-into-Summer

A conversation with wine expert Hank Zona of Swirl Wine Events.

I can't think of much I enjoy more than sipping a glass of wine on the deck with friends. But that moment of pleasure is a far cry from the torment of standing amid aisles and aisles of wine bottles, all begging to be pulled out from the bunch. What is there to choosing a bottle? What regions are producing the best buys now? What wines are particularly good for spring into summer? Luckily, we have Hank Zona from Swirl Wine Events to share some tips and tricks of the trade and provide some context for picking out wine.

Maplewood resident Hank Zona's brainchild, Swirl Wine Events, coordinates everything from wine classes to tastings to corporate functions to fundraisers to private parties and does events for groups with anywhere from six to 250 people. Basically, if it involves wine, it involves Swirl Wine Events. Just this week, Hank did a wine and chocolate pairing birthday party for 14 women, working with a chocolatier out of Cranford to highlight some unique confectionery finds. He's even taught a company's sales staff how to order wine at a restaurant when wining and dining clients, and he works directly with restaurants, assisting them in wine selection and teaching their waitstaff the finer points of how to talk about wine.

Hank has had a love affair with wine for as long as he can remember, ever since his dad would put a little bit of red wine in his 7Up when he was a kid. (My dad and I need to have a chat—I now consider my childhood to be entirely inadequate.) His dad is the son of an Italian immigrant, and there was always wine on the table. His familiarity with wine ultimately morphed into an obsession, and he took wine classes in college at Cornell and was a teaching assistant at a wine school in Manhattan, which allowed him to soak up wine classes for free. Professionally, though, he didn't get involved with wine until he started Swirl about four years ago. Prior to that, he was an executive recruiting as a head hunter for 18 years. Over the years, he began teaching about wine informally, and he's quickly establishing himself as The Wine Expert of Maplewood and South Orange.

The timing seems to work quite well for this type of business, as Hank explained that wine consumption is currently increasing in almost every demographic in the United States. In fact, it's projected that in two to three years, the U.S. will consume more wine in total than any other country in the world, surpassing both Italy and France. Now, that's saying something.

“Wine is something that people want to talk about, learn about,” Hank explained. This isn't a snob appeal thing to him, and it's not about status. “It's social, it's a way of life,” he said. Hank emphasized that wine is all about personal tastes. “There is no wrong answer in wine... except for white zinfandel,” he joked, chuckling. He loves trying new things, playing with wines. You can always find a variety of open wine bottles on his counter or in his fridge.

When it comes to selecting wine, Hank is encouraging. It's really tough to get a bad bottle of wine, he assured me. Apparently, current technology makes it quite difficult for vintners to screw up that badly. There's a wine glut out there, so wine makers have to work even harder to stand out. The trick, instead, is to learn how to stay clear of overpriced mediocre wines.

Hank strongly suggests developing relationships with wine stores. And not just one. Become a regular at several. Engage the staff in conversation so they begin recognizing you when you come in. The more they see you as a regular, the more they'll want to make sure you leave with the best finds. Without telling you they're doing so, they'll help you steer clear of the hidden land mines of wine shops: the brands a store only brings in because a distributor offers a special deal on one type of wine if they agree to sell the other.

Paying close attention to the region where the wine is made is another great way to find diamonds in the rough. For instance, lots of people are familiar with the Rioja region of Spain and tend to gravitate toward wines made there, but there are great wines that are often better deals coming out of lesser-known regions like Murcia, Yecla, Jumilla, Toro, Valencia and Tarragano. Overall, though, Hank suggests taking a look at wines from Spain, Portugal and South America. There are great values from those areas right now, he said. He's also finding more distribution of quality wines coming out Greece. And from Morocco, he's found grape varieties he's never had, some really unique wines. His big prediction is that Eastern Europe is going to be next—keep an eye out on wines from those countries.

When I asked Hank about his favorite price point in terms of quality wines at the lowest price, he hemmed and hawed a bit, intrigued by the question. Finally, he decided that he's currently most comfortable in the mid-teens, though he can be incredibly happy with both $5 and $50 bottles of wine. Additionally, he said, there are a lot of excellent deals right now for $10.

For what he calls "spring-into-summer wines," Hank had some great recommendations. A traditional dry rose, he said, is perfect to sip by itself or eat with food. That's also one of my personal favorites in this kind of weather. It has some of the body of red but the refreshing qualities of a chilled white. He also suggests prosecco, the fastest-growing category of sparkling wines, enjoyable and delicious. Specifically, he's a big fan of the Riondo brand, which comes in those squat green bottles that you've probably seen in wine stores. It's well-priced, good quality and comes in a rose version as well. Hank prefers to drink sparkling white wines out of champagne flutes instead of wine glasses, since flutes help maintain the bubbles.

Hank also mentioned gruner veltliner for the season. It's an Austrian white wine grape that pairs particularly well with spring vegetables like artichokes and asparagus, foods that tend to kill most wines. Finally, he couldn't stop talking about vinho verde from Portugal, which you can get for five bucks. It has a low alcohol content, and as he recently discovered, also comes in red and rose versions. Hank calls vinho verde the soda pop for adults.

I love Hank's tongue-in-cheek approach to wine. He once did a girl scout cookie wine pairing and now talks about a New Jersey foods wine pairing... Yes, including the best bottle to drink with a taylor ham, egg and cheese sandwich. (Let us know if you might be interested in an event like that!) I found myself enchanted by Hank Zona. He has a lack of pretense and a sense of humor and an adventurous spirit toward wine that I find utterly liberating. But most importantly, Hank's number one tip? Drink for pleasure. How can you argue with that?

Ben Salmon is a former literary agent and the owner of Kitchen a la Mode: Accessories for Cooking & Entertaining in the heart of downtown South Orange. Each week, his local food column at Patch explores the food and drink scene in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.


Have an idea for something you'd like me to explore? E-mail me. I'd love to hear from you.

Cotton Delo May 29, 2009 at 06:47 PM
I love vinho verde too! It's so refreshing for summer... and CHEAP.
Hankzona May 30, 2009 at 05:00 PM
first, thank you Ben...its good to meet someone who is also passionate about what he does. Its been fun having people stop me already around town to make comments about the piece...I even was approached during my Swirl Girls' softball game this morning (we won, by the way). Cotton, I'll report back when I try the red and rose vinho verde. I mean, I'll probably report back before then too. I may have to run a group outing to the Ironbound to do some wine shopping in the Portuguese and Spanish wine shops on and around Ferry St. (with a stop for a tapas lunch and some dry sherry too, of course). Cheers!
Randy Meech May 31, 2009 at 02:54 AM
Funny, I just learned about vinho verde last weekend (over a bowl of Portuguese kale soup). Where are the wine shops located?
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Hankzona June 01, 2009 at 05:02 AM
Randy, there are a number of shops on and around Ferry St. Ive just popped into a number of them, and have had a lot of success at Ferry Wines (now on Adams St, off of Ferry) and Oporto and also Lisbon, but there are others. I just had an alvarinho Saturday night that wasnt the lighter, low fizz, low alcohol version for $5, but rather a more full bodied, excellent food wine for around $15. I had it at Arturo's with a pretty strong flavored and tasty spring greens salad, a homemade tagliatelle and tilapia oreganato. It worked nicely with all three...it was labeled as a vinho verde, but was a different wine stylistically than the $5 quaffer.

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