After inflicting a Bud Light Orange on Mrs. M. last week, she declared that I owed her a decent bottle of wine as restitution. Fair point, but which wine?
The climate in northern California provides a wonderful stand-in for north and central France, and if you move down toward the Central Coast toward Santa Ynez Valley, what you get is a pretty fair approximation of the south of France. It's called the American Riviera — and not just because the members of the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce are delusional. These vineyards are some of the oldest in the country, but they differ in character from their Napa and Sonoma Valley cousins by leaning toward the Rhône style.
I picked up a bottle of 2006 Zaca Mesa Z Cuvée from Santa Ynez Valley, a blend of 59 percent Grenache, 23 percent Mourvèdre, 15 percent Syrah, and 3 percent Cinsaur. Theoretically, this should have been a perfect Rhône stand-in, but I wasn't impressed. I found it astringent and faded quickly to water. Mrs. M. was a little more visual, describing a bowl with heavy lines and nothing in the center. I've been doing this long enough to know that some reasonable wines that start off peculiar improve if allowed to "breathe."
Understand that opening a bottle 10 minutes before drinking it will not allow it to breathe, as there isn't enough exposed surface area in the bottleneck to allow air to pass. I've heard opening the bottle an hour earlier is best, but the physics don't really support this, either. Besides, different wines benefit from aeration differently: Younger, harsher wines can be vastly improved, while the flavors of an older vintage will flatten out.
Aeration triggers two reactions in wine. Oxidation, the process that turns an apple brown once you break the skin — which is bad — and evaporation, which can mellow flavors. Aeration reduces the sulfites that are added to all wines sold in the U.S. and at least partially responsible for the "wine headache" you get. Since the Zana Mesa had that astringent or ethanol taste, I reckoned we'd aerate the hell of out of it and see what happened.
The mere act of pouring wine into a glass aerates it. So does swirling it around. Swirling thoughtfully also improves conversation by giving you time to think up lies to make yourself seem more interesting. If the wine in question needs more CPR than that, decant it in a wide-bottomed ship's or duck decanter that creates a lot of surface area. If you aren't going for style points, a water jug will do the same thing.
You can buy aerators that mix the wine with oxygen as it pours. They work well enough and show assembled company that you are a sophisticate — and probably a pretentious ass — in the bargain. Much more effective, however, is to just dump the wine into the decanter. And I mean dump. We've built up so much prissiness around wine that we think it needs to be treated like nitroglycerin. Just turn up the bottle, vertically, and dump it. This will churn up the oxygen and speed up the process considerably.
A note of caution, if you've got an older bottle that might have some sediment in it, don't do this. You'll only mix the crud in the decanter to settle in your glass later. This is bad.
An inventor called Nathan Myhrvold claims to have pioneered hyperaeration — pouring wine into a blender and pulsing it for 30 to 60 seconds. While that sounds fun enough, if you need to assault your vino with whirling blades to make it drinkable, then perhaps your brand loyalty is misplaced. Half an hour in a decanter did improve the Zaca Mesa somewhat. Mrs. M. marked more improvement than I did, but conceded that it might just be because we were getting toward the end of the bottle and, well, you know how it is at the end of the bottle.