Actor Christopher Meloni, 47, has portrayed Det. Elliot Stabler on NBC's crime drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit since 1998. A native of Washington, D.C., Meloni graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder and was a construction worker, bouncer and bartender before getting his break. He played a serial killer on the HBO series Oz, and appeared in the feature films Bound, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Twelve Monkeys and Wet Hot American Summer. Meloni first began to appreciate wine as a tourist in Europe. He recently spoke with Wine Spectator about super Tuscans, Sassicaia and the screw cap versus cork debate.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Christopher Meloni: I think it was probably when I started traveling through Europe, beginning about 15 or 20 years ago. I've taken a variety of trips—France, Italy, Spain—that slowly got my palate educated about wines—what they are, how they combine with food, and using wine not as a tool to alter your reality, but wine as a tool to enhance life.
WS: In your travels, was there a certain wine that really caught your attention and sparked your love of wine?
CM: While I was in Europe, the long-term effects of the wine I drank there were subconscious, or maybe subliminal. It was only when I got back to the States and really just focused on my palate, vis a vis the wine, that I realized how much I enjoyed and missed Italian wines, and in particular the super Tuscans. To me they have a boldness, a robustness, and yet the best ones are velvety, which is almost a contradiction. I don't pretend to be a wine critic, but the two words that I say all the time when I talk about my favorite wines are "structure" and "velvet." That's how my palate translates those wines, sort of the "iron fist in the velvet glove" thing. And also I enjoy Australian wines, but sometimes I find them kind of tricky.
WS: How so?
CM: I guess the term that people use, "fruit bombs," kind of says it all for me. Sometimes they bomb too much, and get too fruity for me. It's kind of a guessing game for me when I pick up an Australian Syrah or Grenache. Although Penfolds is always a sure bet! [Laughing] I must say, too, that it took me a while to release my prejudice against California wines. I'd started reading books by some of the critics who said that California wines were suited for palates that weren't quite sophisticated enough to appreciate Old World wines. Now I'm a fan of California Zinfandels and Cabs, but it was Italian wines that really first got my attention. I like a wine with a very long finish, something that really rests on your palate.
WS: I understand that winemaker, rock singer and Wine Spectator blogger Maynard James Keenan is something of a wine mentor to you. Tell us about that.
CM: We get together in New York to drink wine, usually the day before he does a concert here. The first time we met, it was [actress] Janeane Garofalo who got us together. We went to Babbo and ordered a magnum of '96 Sassicaia, and it's blossomed from there. He's kind of my big brother in wine. I've offered to have him put me to work in Arizona [where he co-owns vineyards]. My dream is to one day make my own wine. It used to be a dream of owning a vineyard in Italy and making my own, but now, after hearing about some of the challenges that Maynard's endured, I'd be content to make my own wine and let someone else have the headache of ownership. [Laughing]
WS: What's in your wine collection?
CM: I have a tiny 500-bottle wine cellar. I'm always just sort of shucking and jiving, moving things around and buying a case here, a case there. There's some Turley in there … I just bumped into a Napa blend called Rocket Science that's kind of interesting. I have a '96 Sassicaia, and that's pretty special. I have some Haut-Brion from 1998. I don't really consider myself a collector—I just find things that I like, and match them well with food. The idea of collecting as an investment makes me tense. To me it's like buying waterfront property on Fire Island, or buying vintage cars just to drive maybe every other month. In a few cases I'll say to a wine, "I'll buy you and cellar you for five years if that's appropriate, but otherwise you're going in my stomach." [Laughing] I pretty much buy for consumption, and I feel as though I am slowly civilizing myself to the subtleties of food-and-wine pairing right now. It's been mostly trial and error. I've been lucky enough to be on a show that has afforded me the ability to go out to New York restaurants, so that's really been my classroom, but I do dream of one day taking a sommelier course.
WS: Are there certain New York restaurants that you frequent because of the wine experiences you've had there?
CM: Well, Babbo—that's a no brainer. There's a relatively new place called Amalia that doesn't have an extensive wine list, but their pairings are great. I love Del Posto, Jean Georges … and I've got to say, I do love a good New York steak house with a big red-wine list.
WS: Do you have an opinion about screw cap closures versus cork?
CM: From what I've heard, there's no difference, and in fact screw caps are probably better, and it's only a matter of time until the wine drinkers of today slowly die away, and then people won't remember the good old days of the cork. That being said, I gotta tell you every time I run into a screw cap my heart sinks. I mean, I don't think that the people who are strong advocates for cork have much in the way of a scientific argument, but there's just that romance and beauty of the cork, which is hard to replace with a screw cap. It really is the embodiment of old school, of time gone by—your father's father's father was popping a cork just like you're popping a cork right now … it brings you back to a place that you never were, yet you've always been a part of.