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A wine drinker's guide to March Madness



It's been almost 20 years since a Florida State University basketball player deemed fans in UNC-Chapel Hill's Dean Dome a cheese-and-wine crowd, and the Tar Heel faithful have been living it down ever since.

It was all the worse that Seminoles point guard Sam Cassell made the post-game comment about lackluster cheering in the Smith Center as a direct comparison to Duke's wildly uninhibited Cameron Crazies, who cheer themselves—literally—until they're blue in the face. "This is not a Duke kind of crowd. It's more like a cheese-and-wine crowd, kind of laid back," he said.

As someone who was screaming her heart out from Level Double T in the rafters of the Dean Dome that night, Cassell's words felt like cold Gatorade in my face. Hey, Sam, we couldn't help if the alumni held just about all the courtside seats in those days. In the ensuing years, Smith Center crowds have gotten louder, and the sting of Cassell's words has faded, but the ABC (Anybody But Carolina) folks still love to drag out the old taunt.

So, in the spirit of wine-loving Carolina fans everyone, I'm here to say: Bring it on. Ridiculing us by suggesting that we quench our thirsts with something other than cheap pilsner might have worked in the early '90s, but these days it packs as much punch as a Four Corners offense.

The popularity of wine was at a low ebb in the United States in the early 1990s after having risen in the 1970s and fallen in the late 1980s. When John Wooden's UCLA squad won the NCAA title in 1970, the rate of American wine consumption in the course of a year was about one gallon per capita. That rate increased to more than two and half gallons by the time Dean Smith's Tar Heels took the title in 1982. By 1991, when Coach K's Blue Devils won the first of their many recent titles, yearly American wine consumption was down to 1.89 gallons per person.

These days, Americans drink about three gallons of wine per person each year. Plenty of people who used to automatically think "home or away" when they heard the phrase "red or white" have figured out how to effectively discriminate between sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon.

As a proud cheese-and-wine Tar Heel, I'm raising a toast to every team in the Sweet 16 this week. Here are my suggested wine pairings for Thursday's and Friday's NCAA viewing, arranged via the bracket. Since I'm seeking to dispel wine snob associations, I'll keep these picks cheap. One of the best things about the wine revolution of the past decade is that it means drinking wine is as affordable as drinking beer or liquor. All of these picks are $15.99 or less. If last week's tournament action was any indication, most of these games could go down to the wire, which means you could be popping corks like Duke's perimeter shooters pop three-pointers.


Start the evening with the West region's No. 2 seed, San Diego State University, taking on the No. 3 seed, University of Connecticut, on Thursday at 7. You'll want a pinot noir, in honor of fictional SDSU grad Miles of the movie Sideways. You may recall how his plea to Maya that he was just Jack's "freshman roommate at San Diego State " doesn't sway her from kicking him to the curb after finding out what a dog Jack is. Go with the Turning Leaf 2007, available from just about any grocery store. It's got Old World balance, offering more wood than fruit, and surprising heft for such an affordable pick.

If your bracket's still thriving, you'll no doubt be switching between games. The first match in the Southeast starts at 7:15 p.m., when the Southeast region's No. 2 seed, University of Florida, goes up against No. 3 Brigham Young University. I'll take my inspiration from Florida and look for notes of tropical fruit and flowers in a bottle of Cycles Gladiator Pinot Grigio. Just look for the label with the willowy nymph floating over a bicycle. This has nice acid to help even out the aromatics, while reminding you of sunny climes like the Gators' home. These bottles should last through the 9:30 p.m. start in the West's region with No. 1 seed Duke against No. 5 University of Arizona. And by 9:55, when the Southeast region's No. 8 Butler is set to take on No. 4 Wisconsin, break out the cheese to go with all that wine. Anything mild and nutty from the Badgers' home state should do.


UNC, No. 2 in the East regional, kicks off the action against No. 11. I'm looking west in tribute to No. 7 Washington. On Sunday, the Huskies came within half a second (depending on which game-clock reading you accept) of ruining the Tar Heels' Sweet 16 dreams. A Riesling from Washington state's Columbia Valley is always a good bet. The 2008 Late Harvest from Washington Hills is sweet but not too sweet, because the acid finish keeps it in check. If you're out and you happen to see Marquette fans, send over a beer and make them feel like they're back home in Milwaukee. Any North Carolina craft brew should make the point.

For the 7:15 p.m. matchup between the Southwest region's No. 12 Richmond and No. 1 Kansas, I'm going with a crisp, refreshing underdog. Hard cider is rarely anyone's top pick, but Foggy Ridge in Dugsbur, Va., makes a great one. Their First Fruit cider has become easier to find in these parts, and it's worth looking for. It has the attractive dryness of a well-made sauvignon blanc but offers the appeal of sweet apple as well. Cider seems like a good pick for the 9:30 p.m. contest between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 4 University of Kentucky, too. Didn't Johnny Appleseed carve his path through the Midwest?

Much like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody expected No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth University and No. 10 Florida State University to face each other in the Southwest region's Sweet 16, bracket geniuses excepted of course. Celebrate with a Spanish white like verdejo. Spain's Rueda region has a long history of making great verdejo, and Oro de Castilla is an affordable example. It's soft and fruity without being sweet, the kind of white that makes new fans of the grape. Share it with some of your beer-and-pretzel friends and watch them become converts.

Just remember that being a cheese-and-wine fan doesn't have to be a bad thing, as long as you get out there and make some noise.

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