New Year's resolutions

Now is the time to enjoy wine
KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

I've made my share of New Year's resolutions through the years, but none quite as delicious (or easy to keep) as the ones about wine. Here are mine for 2003.

1. Try more different kinds. There are more than 5,000 grape varieties in the world, but many of us drink the same one, or ones, week after week (the equivalent of eating chicken every night). Here are some I plan to try more of this year: Albariño from Spain; Pinot Gris from Oregon; Riesling from Alsace, Austria, and Australia; southern French reds like Gigondas; Barbera and Dolcetto from Italy; and Syrahs from all over the American West.

2. Set aside a "wine discovery" budget: $20 a week. With that, I'll buy wines I don't know, and hopefully by the end of the year, I'll have made all kinds of delicious new discoveries.

3. Create a permanent wine space in my refrigerator. After a long day at work or when a friend drops over unexpectedly, I want to be able to open that door and know there's a good white waiting inside. The first bottle I'm going to put there: J Pinot Gris (about $18). Pinot Gris is as "hot" as a variety gets right now, and this is one of the best in California. Its exotic aroma is all about peaches, apples, and rain-fresh country air, its flavor evocative of peaches and apricot purée.

4. Order the least expensive bottle in a restaurant. This takes courage, but I've found that many restaurant wine buyers work hard at finding great deals. Instead of being embarrassed about ordering from the lower end, I've decided to make the most of their expertise. For example, the least expensive wine on the list at Bouchon, Thomas Keller's Napa Valley bistro, is a Delas Frères Côtes du Ventoux 2000 from France ($20). It's terrific ― juicy, earthy, and leathery. Just the ticket for, say, roast chicken and pommes frites.

5. Drink more white wine with cheese. In experiment after experiment, I've discovered that white wine generally tastes better with most cheeses than red; acidity does the trick. My favorite combination: goat cheese and a crisp Sauvignon Blanc (also called Fumé Blanc). Benziger, Dry Creek, Firestone, Hogue, Honig, and Meridian all make great ones (and Sauvignon Blancs are steals, to boot).

6. Open wine just for myself. There's a bottle of Domaine Carneros sparkling wine in my refrigerator, but I've never considered opening it when no one else is around. I'm going to get over that. Each of us deserves the simple pleasure of a glass of good wine. Besides, the rest won't go bad in a day. If you pour out a glass and stopper the bottle immediately, the wine will be fine the next day; put a white back in the refrigerator and it will probably be good for several days to come. Ditto for sparklers: you just need one of those sparkling-wine stoppers that keep the bubbles in ($5 to $10 in most wine shops).

7. Give red wines the carafe treatment. Most of the reds I drink are young. I know they'll taste softer, rounder, and more expressive if I just take a minute to pour them into a carafe or decanter so exposure to the air can open up their flavors. When I did this recently with a Penfolds "Thomas Hyland" Shiraz from Australia (about $15), the transformation was amazing: the wine actually tasted like it cost a lot more.

8. Stop holding back those "great" bottles. I'm as guilty as anyone of saving wines instead of enjoying them, even though I know it makes little sense. As far as wine is concerned, delayed gratification may be overrated. Wine is meant for drinking. Without waiting for a special occasion, I'm going to invite friends over and open some of those gems I've had stashed away for years.

Sunset's Wine Club