When Wine Is Not the Priority

Sometimes the pickings are uneven
Nov 20, 2009

I opened the wine list at El Tovar, the fanciest restaurant at Grand Canyon National Park, with some trepidation. The night before, in the casual restaurant at our accommodations at the Bright Angel Lodge, the choices seemed to focus on inexpensive California wines specially bottled as “Grand Canyon” selections. Washington’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates seemed to have done a fine selling job too, as its entry-level tier occupied many of the remaining options.

El Tovar’s list of 100 or so wines had some better choices, but nothing as scintillating as the scenery outside. Some, ahem, depth would have been appreciated.

What do you do in a situation like that? I felt trapped. I wanted to drink something special, because the Grand Canyon is such a miraculous place, but I ended up with something familiar, a reliable bottle of Columbia Crest Merlot. The wine, if not memorable, was better than the food, which tasted like the kitchen knew it had a captive audience.

The night before at the Bright Angel, we decided to have mixed drinks with a nice appetizer of Southwest-seasoned minced chicken lettuce wraps, and a glass of the “Grand Canyon” Chardonnay with the grilled-fish tacos. Tacos good; wine instantly forgettable.

Things got better at times on our nine-day jaunt through Arizona, a vacation in which my wife and I gawked at the Grand Canyon, luxuriated at a resort in Sedona with nonexistent cell-phone reception, and the last few days visiting friends and family in Phoenix and remote Ajo. We had great weather, mostly sunny with daytime highs in the 60s.

I met a cousin I did not know I had who has a successful chocolate truffle business and at the age of 72 is planning to take a professional sommelier course. We hiked among the red rocks of Sedona and sought vortexes to gain some higher spiritual energy. We drove 20 miles over bumpy dirt roads near the Mexican border to see organ pipe cactuses and the whole panoply of Sonoran desert flora.

Finding a good bottle of wine was not always a priority. I took advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. After a long day hiking along the rim of the Grand Canyon, then driving nearly three hours to Sedona, we arrived at the Enchantment Resort wiped out. As we were unpacking, room service arrived with a welcome cheese platter. It had prosciutto and salame, bread and crackers, even a nice little pile of grilled asparagus. My wife and I looked at each other and gave up plans for dining out.

I had a copy of the wine list for Yavapai, the resort’s restaurant, and found a bottle of Betz Syrah La Serenne 2004 on it for $95. We made dinner of that and the cheese platter, feet up on the coffee table. Things were looking up. The Syrah was a spectacular bottle, having rounded its edges into a gleaming, polished texture, the warm, earthy flavors adding depth to the rich fruit. It has years to go, too.

In Phoenix, we made a beeline for Pizzeria Bianco with our friend Marge, drank a bottle of crisp, citrusy Donnafugata Anthìlia 2007 from Sicily while we were waiting, and Titus Zinfandel 2006 from California (silky, generous and brimming with berry and black cherry flavors) with the outrageously good pizzas.

The next morning, we met my cousin Ellie for brunch at Lon's at the Hermosa in Scottsdale, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner. I don’t usually think about wine for breakfast other than Champagne, but main-dish offerings such as braised short ribs with a sunnyside-up egg and grits made me think of red wine, so we drank a bottle of Peter Lehmann Clancy’s 2005, a Barossa Valley blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that was tasting terrific. Perfect pairing.

Ajo is a former copper-mining town peopled primarily by border patrol agents and retirees from up north today. I bought a couple of modestly priced bottles in Phoenix to bring to my wife’s cousin Tana, our host there. She seared steaks for dinner and we drank my Shoofly Aussie Salute 2007, a blend of Grenache, Shiraz and a touch of Viognier. Another hit.

We took Tana out for dinner the next night at the Ranch House, her favorite restaurant in Ajo. The wine list of six options had nothing I wanted to drink, and I wished I had another bottle of that Shoofly to drink with very good grilled chicken tacos.

It’s always a balancing act when you’re not traveling the food-and-wine circuit. Overall, I don’t think we did too badly. Anyone have any better strategies?

United States Arizona

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