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Ontarian's guide takes no-nonsense approach to buying, enjoying wines

Dave DeSimone
| Wednesday, July 9, 2003

This year marks the 20th anniversary of "Billy's Best Bottles," William Munnelly's guide to the best wine buys at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. It is unfortunate that most American wine consumers never have read the great wine tips provided in this modest Canadian publication.

"Billy's Best Bottles" is an antidote to the consumer's insecurity over wine and the thinly veiled wine snobbery found in many wine publications, with their reliance on numerical ratings and "lifestyles of the rich and famous" approach to wine and food.

Even though Munnelly recommends wines sold in the province of Ontario -- like Pennsylvania, the region has a government-controlled retail system -- most of his selections are from producers whose wines are available in the commonwealth. Even more important, Munnelly's refreshing approach to how, when and where to select, serve and enjoy wine is universally applicable.

I discovered "Billy's Best Bottles" in 1993 when I was contemplating starting my own wine publication. As part of my research, I obtained copies of every wine publication available, including "Decanter," "Food & Wine," "The Wine Advocate," "The Wine Enthusiast" and "Wine Spectator."

"Billy's Best Bottles" stood out among these, with its unique vest pocket size (then 4 by 8 inches, now 4 by 11 inches), its nonglossy paper and its lack of advertisements.

As I read the book for the first time, I discovered that Munnelly's prose reflected what I had learned about wine from an early age: It should be unpretentious, fun and shared with family and friends. Also, the price of the wine is not as important as the context of where and when you enjoy it.

When I was growing up in Arnold and New Kensington, I would go to Sunday dinners where my Italian Aunt Frances served her homemade wine. The wine was not great, but the food was superb. We always had a good time; the family shared stories over homemade pasta, good bread, and a bottle or two of my aunt's wine.

"Billy's Best Bottles" captured that same joy and lack of pretension about wine and food; the rest of the publications fell short.

Munnelly appreciated the Mediterranean sensibility of enjoying the flavors of food and wine. He believed in the power of pulling corks. And he did not care whether a wine would appreciate in value with cellar aging or whether his friends would be impressed with a price tag or pedigree as long as the wine made "sense" in the situation in which it was served.

In short, "Billy's Best Bottles" neither read nor felt like a hustle by the publisher.

Today, Munnelly's straightforward tips on buying and enjoying wines still are entertaining, and they are enhanced by plenty of quirky drawings and photographs. His tone is lighthearted, yet unique and authentic. I never have met him, but I consider him a mentor who helps show the way.

Billy Munnelly's own passionate words tell his tale better than I can. Here are excerpts from the introductions of various issues

  • "Winemaking is not about being the best in the world, it's about giving daily pleasure to your community. And that means being affordable. The best sport and entertainment is at the street level, and the same is true of wine. All the rest is nonsense, vain and fake." Vol. 11, No. 1, August 1994.

  • "The Oxford University Press ... has just published the 'Oxford Companion to Wine.' I tried it out ... it was boring. It reads like the Oxford Dictionary -- but the subject is wine. ... My conclusion is that there is more to wine than book learning. And that something more is what wine is all about. ... This Oxford book reminded me of the saying 'busy ants spoiling the picnic of life.'" Vol. 11, No. 3, Dec. 1994/Jan. 1995.

  • "The British can probably be credited with inventing wine snobbery, but today they have competition. Pick up a copy of any American wine or food magazine, and you will see that wine snobbery has crossed the Atlantic. ... Wine snobbery is a business that makes money for some and provides a pastime for those with too much money. It misses the essential point of wine, however. ... Wine's origins are in a peasant culture. The real wine world is about an old wooden table, the shade or shelter of a tree, and good company." Vol. 13, No. 4, Feb./March, 1997.

  • "By abstaining from scores in 'Best Bottles,' I figured on keeping some sanity in wine reporting. However, I just had a better idea. ... Starting in this issue, all of my recommendations score a perfect 100 if they are consumed in the circumstances which I suggest for them. ... A well-made $7 wine poured at an appropriate time can deliver the same wine bliss as $100 bottles at a banquet." Vol. 14, No. 1, Aug./Sept. 1997.

  • "We drink wine for the same reasons that we listen to music -- to entertain matters of the heart and concerns of the soul. Therefore, it's something we must experience for ourselves. With each bottle and event, we write our own story." Vol. 19, No. 6, Summer 2003.

    An annual subscription to "Billy's Best Bottles" costs $48. To request a complimentary copy, either e-mail www.billysbestbottles.com .

    BEST BUY RECOMMENDATION

    2001 R.H. Phillips Sauvignon Blanc, Dunnigan Hills, Calif. (4383, on sale, $11.99 for 1.5 liters): Double the fun with this great buy on a large bottle of this tasty, crisp wine with eye-opening aromas, flavors of grapefruit and light herbal accents. Stainless-steel fermentation and aging preserved the grapes' natural fruitiness and acidity. Try with grilled scallop and vegetable kabobs, or straight up -- well chilled -- as a thirst quencher after work. Highly recommended.

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