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Wine Can Be Fun – Seriously

Oenophilia is often undertaken with the utmost reverence. So our wine columnist went looking for levity—and bottles that bring joy in more ways than one.

By: Lettie Teague 2/24/2021

I’VE BEEN THINKING about Ralph Steadman recently. From the late 1980s through the 1990s, the English illustrator lent his whimsical style to wine books as well as the catalog for the Oddbins wine, beer and spirits retail chain in the U.K. Think tipsy, red-nosed drinkers and mice dipping into glasses of Sherry. The world of wine according to Mr. Steadman was highly irreverent, slightly diabolical and a great deal of fun.

The real wine world, by contrast, hasn’t been so much fun lately. Winemakers whose sales are down—their tasting rooms closed, in many cases, by government order—tend to be more earnest than amusing. Retailers, meanwhile, are more likely to sell wines with the aid of point scores than mouse cartoons. But because I believe that even the most serious oenophile appreciates, and perhaps needs, a laugh or two, I went looking for present-day wine fun. Happily, I found some good stuff.

“No one calls me unless they want to talk about something funny on our wine label,” said John Williams, founder of Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley, when I called him the other week. I told him this was one of those calls. I’d bought a bottle of his wine recently and found a note on the back label instructing the buyer: “Open At Other End.”

‘We get cards and letters and phone calls from customers every day saying thank you for making wine fun.’

Frog’s Leap has been funny for decades, ever since its first wine, a Sauvignon Blanc, debuted in 1981. The winery’s motto, “Time’s fun when you’re having flies,” made it clear that no one at Frog’s Leap, least of all Mr. Williams, takes him- or herself too seriously. For example, a timeline entry on the winery’s website notes, “John befriends Jonah Beer, Director of Sales at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars while on the road and teaches him how to cheat on his expense account.” (The bit about the expense account is crossed out.)

Mr. Williams did note that humor can have its drawbacks. “When you inject any kind of playfulness into your messaging, to some people that might suggest that your wine isn’t good,” he said. I assured him I take him seriously, and the savory 2019 Frog’s Leap Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($19) I bought was quite good.

For the most part, Mr. Williams has found that being funny can be good for business. “We get cards and letters and phone calls from customers every day saying thank you for making wine accessible and fun,” he said. And the wines themselves leave little doubt that Mr. Williams has spent his nearly 50 years in the wine business, farming 200 acres of Napa grapes, pursuing serious stuff.

Chester Osborn, the longtime winemaker at d’Arenberg winery in McLaren Vale, Australia, has an equally whimsical streak and a slew of unorthodox wine names. The funny names have never been a problem, according to Mr. Osborn—indeed, quite the opposite. He recalled that his Shiraz blend, labeled the Old Bloke & the Three Young Blondes, earned him “a million dollars in free publicity” after a journalist in Australia declared it sexist.

The name refers to Mr. Osborn and his three (blonde) daughters. While Mr. Osborn clearly has a mischievous side, his approach to good winemaking is “deadly serious,” he said. His many awards and his family’s hundred-plus years of winemaking back that up.

I couldn’t find Old Bloke in my local wine shop, but I did turn up the deliciously rich, slightly tropical 2018 d’Arenberg the Hermit Crab ($14), a white Rhône-style blend including Marsanne, the white grape of Hermitage, France. “Hermitage means ‘house of the hermit,’ and a hermit crab carries his house on his back,” Mr. Osborn explained. There are also fossilized hermit crabs in the vineyard soil. “It’s hermit crab that you’re drinking, I tell everyone,” he said.

Closer to home, I’ve long been a fan of the Brooklyn-based team of hip-hop artist Sadat X and producer Will Tell, and their irreverent, occasionally profane YouTube show “True Wine Connoisseurs.” It debuted in 2010 as a bit of a lark, filmed in Mr. Tell’s basement. The duo tasted (actually drank) wines straight from the bottle and rated them by the so-called F—ed Up Factor (FUF). By the time they filmed their last episode in 2017, they’d become sought-after tasters; wineries sent them samples in hopes of having their wines on the show.

When I heard that the team had launched a line of wines and were preparing to air a pilot for a new show, I called Mr. Tell. He said he was still in Brooklyn, but Sadat X had moved to North Carolina, where he’d become a father and released a new album with the artist Agallah. Mr. Tell is now in the wine business full time, representing the True Wine Connoisseurs line of three wines, all from Italy, ranging from $15 to $18 a bottle.

I bought all three from a Brooklyn store named, appropriately enough, the Happy Cork. I was especially impressed by the dry and lively True Wine Connoisseurs Prosecco ($18), whose label features a cartoon of Sadat X and Mr. Tell in black tie and top hats. They refer to the wine as “Spread Love” Prosecco. “We wanted to bring a lighter side to the wine world,” said Mr. Tell.

Gerald Weisl of Weimax Wines & Spirits in Burlingame, Calif., brings a wonderfully sharp sense of the ridiculous to the wine world and indulges in some fun tasting notes. In the listing for a Bordeaux, the 2016 Haut-Bana, Mr. Weisl writes: “Our late colleague Bob was surprised to learn President Obama had invested in a winery in Bordeaux. But he [had] forgotten to put new batteries in his hearing aids. It’s ‘Haut Bana, not Obama, Bob.’ ” Lately, however, he’s been playing his notes a bit more straight. “People are more easily offended by attempts at humor these days,” Mr. Weisl said.

Happily, the people at Oddbins still seem to be having plenty of fun. Mr. Steadman might not be providing illustrations for the store these days, but his spirit carries on. Take this listing for the 2018 Trevisana Extra Dry Prosecco on the Oddbins website: “How can something be ‘Extra Dry?’ we hear you ask. After all, you don’t jump out of the shower and towel yourself down past the point of dryness, as wisps of smoke begin to rise from your hair and comment ‘today, I’m Extra Dry.’ ” And this one, for a magnum of 2017 the Brand Malbec: “Many wine drinkers go a long way to express their devotion to Malbec. We heard of one chap in Verona who would call passionate verse up to Malbec’s balcony. ‘Anon, good nurse, me and this Chilean red are rather busy.’ We heard of another fellow who saved his bottle of Malbec after a shipwreck, while he perished…Despite the fact we all know there was room for both of them on that door.”

I have no idea how either one of these wines actually taste, and I don’t particularly care, because reading the tasting notes themselves is so much fun.

2018 d’Arenberg the Hermit Crab McLaren Vale The name of this juicy blend of two Rhône white grapes, Viognier and Marsanne, nods to a famous wine of the region, Hermitage, as well as the hermit crabs in the vineyard soil, according to winemaker Chester Osborn.