Great Grapes

Knowledge is power; wine knowledge is delicious power, as 58 Degrees illustrates

Every culinary experience can be enhanced by a good bottle of wine. Discovering which wines you like can be daunting, or it can be a joy; it all depends on your level of wine knowledge and experience.

In the complex and ever-changing world of wine, it helps to have a knowledgeable guide. One such guide is Nicolas S. Mills, general manager of 58 Degrees and Holding Co.'s new wine store in St. Phillip's Plaza, at River Road and Campbell Avenue.

You could say that wine is in his blood. His family owns and operates Five Beauties, a small boutique winery in California's Napa Valley.

"I hated crushing the grapes as a child, but now, I am glad I did," he said.

His wine knowledge was expanded and enhanced while he served as wine captain and sommelier at the Ventana Room at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.

When wine customers enter 58 Degrees, they are greeted by Mills' warm smile. He answers questions about specific wines, wineries and vineyards with ease and confidence.

"We specialize in buying good, hard-to-get wines that are often only available in small quantities," Mills said. Customers are not likely to find most of these wines at Costco, Trader Joe's or the supermarkets, because those chains need much larger quantities to stock all their stores.

There are now more wines available domestically than any one store can stock. The number of wineries in the United States mushroomed to 2,163 in 2004, according to a map showing wineries by state in the book Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, by Kevin Zraly, available at 58 Degrees for $24.95. Every state has at least one winery. There were 911 in California, 208 in Washington, 195 in Oregon, 13 in Arizona and 162 in New York.

The 58 Degrees St. Philip's store is a smaller version of the 6,000 square foot store on Broadway Boulevard. Mills stocks some 500 wines with a total inventory of about 2,300 bottles. The Broadway store stocks some 800 wines. To compare, the eastside Costco stocks about 150 wines; Trader Joe's has some 200.

Wines at 58 Degrees range from $8 to $450 for a rare French burgundy--the 2002 Grand Échézeaux. "There was only one case of this vintage allotted to all of Tucson. I was able to get several bottles," he said. I asked Mills if anyone in Tucson would spend $450 for a bottle of wine. He said there were a few sophisticated connoisseurs and wine collectors who just might.

And speaking of hard to get, good wines in half-bottle sizes (375 milliliters) are hard to find. 58 Degrees has a small but respectable selection. I bought the Hess Collection 2004 Napa Valley chardonnay ($11) and a 2001 pinot noir from Benton-Lane, Ore. ($10.50). We tried the chardonnay with a baked salmon fillet and green romaine salad with fresh tomatoes and avocado. To our taste, the wine was perfect, dry with plenty of oak, smooth and worth every penny. The pinot noir awaits the right meal.

Expansion plans are in the works for the northwest store, Mills said. "By April, we hope to have a wine bar, upscale lounge with DJ music and a wine storage room."

The new store can be hard to find. It's at the far south end of St. Phillip's Plaza (4280 N. Campbell Ave., No. 27) in the former Adobe Wine Deli, with the only door facing south toward the Rillito River. The store is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Another source of wine expertise is Kathleen Carter, director of operations for 58 Degrees. She is a certified sommelier and is based at the Broadway store (5340 E. Broadway Blvd.). The store has a wine bar, bistro and wine-storage facility for customers.

Carter said 58 degrees is the best average temperature for wine storage. She traveled the country with some of the company's partners looking at other wine stores and wine storage facilities. 58 Degrees is a composite of the best of what they saw, plus some of their own original ideas, she said.

Many of the wine-storage facilities they visited stacked customers' stored wine on the warehouse floor, with nothing more than a number to identify whose wine it was. At 58 Degrees, each customer's wine is stored in an individual locked bin. There can be no confusion about whose wine is whose. In addition, wine-storage customers have access to their wine every hour the store is open, unlike many facilities, where access is granted only a few hours a week.

I asked Carter what assurance customers have that their wine will be protected--that the air conditioning won't fail or that theft will not occur.

There are four AC units plus a backup generator to run them if the power fails, she said. The temperature sensors are tied to the alarm system. "If there is a problem, I get the alarm call." There are security cameras everywhere, with video recorders.

Storage customers can have wine shipped directly to 58 Degrees. One customer had about four cases of expensive red wine shipped from California this summer via UPS ground. One problem: UPS trucks are not refrigerated. The wine was cooked when it arrived, corks bulging from the bottles. Carter advised shipping wine during hot weather in refrigerated trucks.

Today, wine storage is more about how to keep the wines you own from deteriorating than storing wine until it improves with age. "More than 90 percent of wines made in the world today are meant to be consumed within one year, and less than 1 percent of the world's wines are meant to be aged for more than five years," said Zraly. "Wines change with age. Some get better; most do not."