An older gent and his wife walked into a wine store in Missoula with this tip: "If you can make wine in Idaho, you can make it in Montana."
It came in response to the guy not finding what he wanted inside Corkscrew, the fantastic little shop on South Third Street off the Hip Strip. Neva Loney, who lists her title on her email as "la presidenta" of Corkscrew Wine Corporation, doesn't carry wines from Idaho. She doesn't carry them from Montana, either, because—and we're gonna get real here—she hasn't found one she likes.
Here's the thing about that: You can trust her. And isn't that what most of us want from buying wine, anyhow? Someone who knows what she's doing to tell us what to pour and swirl or, you know, just drink with a hunk of beef?
I can't tell you how many times I've walked into Missoula's CVS wine superstore (a couple. I have kids. I don't have time to dawdle) and panicked at the rows, the displays, the critters on the labels ready to pounce. If I can settle on a white or a red or maybe a rosé, that's progress. Beyond that, I'm lost.
But let's say you are not lost. Let's say you know your sangiovese from your petit verdot (duh, one's Italian. I just looked it up!). Corkscrew is as friendly to wine nerds as it is to wine dopes.
Chief wine nerd is Aaron Taylor and he's someone you need to know. You probably already do because you're cooler than me. He moonlights as a door guy at the Top Hat and has logged time at high-end restaurants in Portland, Charleston and Chicago. He's also worked the scene in Missoula, notably at Iza. You may not know he grew up in Stanford, the son of beekeepers who's horribly allergic to bees. But I digress.
Taylor makes clear he's the Jedi knight clearing the path for Princess Neva. And yet. His talent for understanding wine and explaining it at warp speed with references to Dr. Who's scarf, HP Lovecraft, holographic Harry Potter and his friendship with the Gator cannot be overhyped. Really, it's sort of magical.
He's the one who turned me onto the Nero d'Avola from Poggio Anima, but it was because he knew what I was eating that night, that this wine would be perfect (it was) and that I was someone sold by him riffing on the "bat-wolf-dog" on the label. Also, having a glass of Nero d'Avola is, in his words, "like drinking a blueberry bathrobe. A velvet one."
"When I taste or smell something, I get moments in time," he says. "It's not just that I get tangerines, it's eating tangerines up on the Clark Fork on a certain Sunday with some salty chips somebody brought."
Loney and Taylor let me sit in on tasting a rare cabernet sauvignon from Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla. They'd been dying to try it, especially Taylor. I watched him swirl and sip. Then I watched him as he aerated it with a Dixie cup because it's what he had nearby. Then I heard him conclude it was like watching a super model through a dirty window. Sexy, but kinda grimy. He also noted hints of chocolate, leather and wooden spoon.
All I could offer was that the finish was not unlike a sweet-and-sour pickle. To Loney and Taylor, that was fine. They'll gladly push you in a direction if willing, but their prevailing attitude can be summed up in five words: What you like is right.
"And don't let people mess with that," says Taylor. "Wine is the new beer and beer is the new snooty thing," he adds.
For both Taylor and Loney, the idea is that a wine shop doesn't have to be intimidating, either in massive selection or in finding something memorable at a price you can pay (most of the wines Corkscrew stocks are under $25).
Loney, 36, grew up about 20 miles outside Seattle in a family that started celebrations with at least two cases of Washington's finest. She lived in Chicago and Portland, studied hospitality management, managed catering, worked in restaurants. Her husband really wanted to get to Missoula, so they did that in 2010, and she found out quickly "there's not a lot of good career paths here. A lot of us have to do our own thing."
She opened the shop almost a year ago, on the day she found out she was pregnant. She also has a 5-year-old and a spouse working at the Kettlehouse. Figuring it all out has had its moments. But she doesn't regret taking the leap.
"Wine is something that has endless knowledge, endless things to know and learn about," she says. And it's fun. Describing wine means she can make up words like "rhubarbarity" for a white and figure out what goes on the "gateway" table, where everything is fabulous and only 10 bucks.
But the best part about Loney and Taylor tasting, describing and having Wikipedic knowledge about wine? That's less homework for the rest for us. If you want to know what's good at Corkscrew, here's my tip: Just ask.