The Sharks of Wine

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It’s Shark Week. Thank GOD.

I’ve been into sharks since before it was cool, and I know because I can vouch for the uncool nature of my compulsive borrowing of the same six books from my elementary school library and the myriad times I watched the Eye Witness video about sharks and rays. Every August, I reach into the recesses of Young Katie’s brain and pull out dusty, elementary, and probably long outdated information about the oldest predator as I settle down in front of the television for seven consecutive nights of shark program after shark program. Thanks, Discovery Channel.


The thing about Shark Week, though, is that you essentially have a limited body of work to draw from. There are two or three fundamentally terrifying stories about psycho sharks, but most of them are basically just about surfers who look like seals and so sharks want to eat them. You spend the first part of the week in abject terror of the dark shadows under the water, then the rest of the time being told that the water is their home, not ours, and we kill thousands of them and we have to respect their dominion. This is why, I’m fairly sure, Discovery Channel seems to enjoy filling the empty hours with dramatic mockumentaries about mysteriously large sharks. I told my mom it was fake last year when Megalodon was “proven” via Shark Week. The disillusioned, shattered look on her face was like a kid hearing Santa was just a myth, but instead of a jolly round present-bearer, she was mourning the loss of a colossal, prehistoric, man-eating machine. 

Anyway. Wine. 

Navigating the complicated world of wine purchasing can be as treacherous as braving open water and there are hundreds and thousands of crafty marketers trying to get you to take a sip. So I’ve lined up some of the craftiest predators on your wine shop shelves and paired them with their toothsome counterparts in a salute to Shark Week.

The Great White: Giant Petite Sirah

Reasons to avoid: If you saw a fifteen foot, several ton monster cruising by during a quick dip, you don’t need much of a reason to avoid the Great White. JAWS made it famous, but the undying legend persists even today. Petite Sirah isn’t something many will bother with if they see it on their shop shelf, but it really isn’t bad: fruity, uncomplicated, dark, and if it’s made particularly well, the stuff with live forever. Like it will never die. Like it will continue to be its uncomplicated self for eternity because Petite Sirah does not know when to fall off the wagon. It will always bite you in the face. It will, as my husband said while falling asleep the other night, “never fail to get you drunk” (pillow talk is unique here).

The Tiger Shark: Flashy Aussie Wines 

Reasons to avoid: Tiger sharks are strikingly beautiful, but in this case they are beautiful with a healthy portion of teeth that cut through turtle shells. Giant, powerful, and absolutely camouflaged: so also go many Australian wines. There is a lot of clever packaging for these guys, really sleek design with eye-catching names. But the overarching (not by any means universal) style choices for the reds tend to be bold, heavily oaked, punch-your-face kind of wines, often Shiraz and Cabernet. So if you’re anything like me, you pick up one of these babies with a clever name and attractive design and don’t notice that the alcohol is 17.4%. Like diving into water and finding an attractive but hungry tiger shark, a lot of these wines have a lot of bite tucked into folds of overripe fruit and oak influcnece. These are wines that you think you’re selecting, you think you’re drinking…three hours later, you find they’re really drinking you.   

The Bull Shark: Ubiquitous Merlot in Northern Italy

Reasons to avoid: A big, nasty brute, bull sharks are the stuff of nightmares to surfers and anybody who has ever considered fresh water rivers to be safe for water-based activities. These guys swim into the river to spawn, and I don’t know if you recall, but featured heavily in our local news last year as they made appearances in the Bay. So what is as gnarly, as biting, and has overall as bad an attitude as the bull shark? Why, poorly made Merlots and Cabernets, of course!

Though it isn’t known for it, the most prevalent grape in the northern regions of Italy is actually Merlot, along with some Cabernet Sauvignon. This region is nothing like Bordeaux and therefore often has no business trying to grow Bordeaux grapes. The wine can be aggressively vegetal, tannic, highly acidic, and overall unpleasant unless handled with great care, and realistically most are not. You expect sharks to be nasty when confronted in the ocean, in their natural habitat, just as you expect Merlot to have a certain balance and build when you find it in Bordeaux or its comparable counterparts. You do not expect to be bitten in the face by acid and under ripe fruit, and yet here we are. Stop being a bully, Northern Italy. 

 The Nurse Shark: Cheap Port

Reasons to avoid:
Lying in wait for its next prey, the nurse shark is a bottom feeder and doesn’t generally bother with swimmy things up on the surface. But step on it and expect to lose your leg. I would also bite if you stepped on my face, for the record. Like the lurking nurse shark, cheap Port (or “port,” if it’s not actually even Portuguese) is guaranteed to have a lot of sugar and a lot of booze. Its high alcohol can’t be helped, but the high sugar content is mostly there to hide its lack of finesse and/or its general nastiness. So sip on, if you must. Tempt fate. But as you do, recognize you’re about to step on a biting monster’s face and it will bite you in the face tomorrow. Hello, hangover.

Let it be known there may be times and places for each of these wines, but you can peacefully coexist with your ebbing and flowing wine shop shelves without demonstrating risky behavior. Be careful out there, comrades. Buying wine can be tricky and treacherous business, and like my husband says, “all bad wine has shark eyes.” Watch for them. 

 Katie Callahan is a wine educator and the former manager of Bin 201 in Annapolis.

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