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There’s a whole world of red wine out there beyond Cabs. Christopher Stagnitta, wine consultant at Prestige Beverage Group of Church Hill, Maryland, provides wine to many of the Chesapeake Bay’s high-end restaurants and has the inside scoop on both reds and whites. 


Pinot Noir popped into popularity because of the movie, “Sideways.” A character in the popular 2004 movie trashed Merlot and sales crashed.

Sideways made our lives hell for two years,” says Christopher Stagnitta.

Red wine drinkers turned to Pinot Noir and distributors ran out of Pinot. Many wineries ripped out their Merlot vines and planted Pinot Noir, harvesting the grapes after the first year.

Stagnitta calls wine made out of young grapevines “grape juice.” Pinots are supposed to be peppery.

If Pinot Noir is aged properly, you’ll taste fruit when you first sip the wine, and then you should taste a peppery finish. It can be a very light red wine or a bit heavier, depending on the vintner.

Meritage & Merlot

wine tasting

As mentioned, the movie “Sideways” nearly killed merlot sales. Or rather, the people who followed the advice of a fictional character.

Meritage — a Bordeaux-style red wine — came of age as a result. It’s a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The percentage of the five may change, and one may be left out now and again, but it’s consistently these five grapes blended.

It’s pronounced: mer-eh tēgh (like ‘his’) not mare-reh-tahge (like India’s Tag Mahal). But don’t piss off your friends by correcting them; just use this as an interesting tidbit.

Meanwhile, poor Merlot is starting to return to favor, albeit slowly. It’s a light red wine and is usually smooth and velvety, but can also be rich and oaky depending on why type of barrel the winery uses to age the merlot.

Chianti vs. Super Tuscans

Chianti’s had a bad rep’ for a long time due to Italian restaurants of the 1960s that became a cliche in the 1970s & 80s. Then, Dr. Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” wanted to eat someone with “some fava beans and a nice chianti.” People started trying it again.

Italian vintners created a chianti on ‘roids and called them Super Tuscans. They’re assorted grape blends from the Tuscan region of Italy.

Sparkling Wine vs. Champagne

Prosecco wine at Severn River

Sparkling wine and Champagne are the same things. They use the same method to become wine. Stagnitta says the high cost of champagne versus “sparkling wine,” or Prosecco, is often due to marketing.

BTW, some Champaign is made in the US. The United States never signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 which maintained that “Champagne” only comes from the Champagne region of France as a side-clause to the peace treaty that officially ended World War One. That changed with a new treaty in 2006, but wineries already using the term are allowed to continue as long as the label includes the grape’s growing region.

U.S. Senate

If you like to experiment, try a smaller grower of Champagne or sparkling. The brand names are so well known that they’re trapped into providing the same taste. Lessor-known brands will vary depending on the growing season and tweaks in the fermentation process. It can be as good, much cheaper and more fun.

The Inside Scoop on Champagne:

  • Any number of white wine grapes can be used to make sparkling wine. The bubble effect is caused by how it’s fermented, not by the type of grape.
  • The smaller the bubbles, the longer the wine has been sealed in the bottle (ie. better quality). The quantity of bubbles has more to do with the type of glass you’re using to drink it from than the quality of wine. Some restaurants will lightly scratch the inside bottom of the glass to create a furious bubbling effect. The bubbles are simply reacting to the scratch.
  • There are seven categories of sparkling based on how much sugar in the wine. They are (in order of dry to sweet): brut nature, extra brut, brut, extra dry, dry, demo-sec, doux. Sugar is often added on the demo-sec & doux end. These are all sparkling wines/champagnes.
  • You can store sparkling longer in the bottle than the average white wine. You still don’t want to hold it overly long (years) waiting for that special occasion, otherwise you might have some sucky wine at that special occasion.

Champagne Alternatives

Prosecco is the Italian version of champagne. It’s often sweeter because that’s the type that sells best in the U.S., but you can find dry Prosecco.

Consider Sparkling Rose instead of Prosecco or Champagne.

“If you think (Rose) is sweet, you’re old,” says Stagnitta.

In a blind taste test, you’ll be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a dry Rose and another red. Rose is the name of a grape, not of a style of wine. It’s pink because fermentation is stopped halfway through. (Wine changes color depending on the grape skin and how long the skin is fermented with the wine.)

The color has nothing to do with sweetness, dryness, or alcohol content. Those are determined by the wine-making process


Grenache is a type of grape. Made into wine on its own, it tastes like “sucking dirt,” according to Stagnitta.

However, when blended, Grenache evens out other grapes and gives the wine a deeper flavor.


Zinfandel has been growing in the U.S. since the California gold rush when it’s believed that immigrants brought it with them from Croatia. Zins are usually the first wine that new wine drinkers like because white Zin is light, sweet, and lower alcohol content.

However, red Zins can be dry, bold and 14-17% alcohol.

Quintessa winery grapes waiting to be processed
Winery grapes waiting to be processed

Old Vine Zins

This is a unique category to consider. The “old” vines have to be a minimum of 40 years old.

They produce a small fruit and the flavors are more intense. Vineyards get only a ton or two per acre compared to younger vines that produce five to six tons per acre.

The wine is smoother and more flavorful.

Box Wine

Don’t dis on the boxes. Yes, some people are still adjusting to screw tops. But boxes are here to stay.

The wine is held in a bladder inside the box. There’s virtually no air inside.  And better quality plastics are being developed, which means higher-end wine can pour over a longer time and not lose quality.

With a bottle, you have to drink the wine within days, maybe a week or so with a fancy stopper. In Europe’s pubs and U.S. “wine bars”, you’ll find good quality wine served from a tap like beer. And there is good boxed wine being sold in the U.S., often served as the ‘house wine’ at restaurants.

Stagnitta predicts the next generation of wine distribution is keg wine.