Something Special in a Bottle: Mills Fine Wine and Spirits

Mills sells the best wines that the world has to offer and sells them at a fair price," said Todd Ross, general manager and principal wine buyer of Mills Fine Wine & Spirits. Mills was named "Best Fine Wine Shop in Maryland" in December 2003 by Washingtonian Magazine in its annual "Best of Washington" issue. Cited as having an "excellent selection" and "helpful, knowledgeable staff", Mills is located at 87 Main Street across from the City Dock.

Mills has been a family owned business since 1946. The current owner, Hillard Donner, started in the business after leaving the Navy to begin working with his father and later his uncle. In those days liquor was the big seller along with local beer. Wine was a very small part of the business, mainly sweet wines. Donner was one of the first to bring in wines from Europe such as French wine from Bordeaux. Mills is known for procuring the finest wines each region has to offer from France, Australia and Spain. Ross proudly claims that the selection of Bordeaux sold at Mills is as good as you will find practically anywhere in the country.

Mills carries a vast selection of wines and promotes them through their print catalogue and online sales. This year Ross traveled to all of the major wine regions in France "for two weeks of vintages in the bottle, hanging on the vine". He and the other buyers get a preview of what is to come directly from the wine makers. "We ferret out good new producers and really interesting wines." They generally travel to wine regions in France, Italy or Spain to visit the producers of the wines they carry and to sample the wines of up and coming regions. This year Ross and John Chadwick, another wine buyer at Mills, went on their annual wine buying trip in July. Ross' travels took him to Rousillon, Corverier, east Languedoc, northern Rhone, Burgundy, Beaujolais, east into Alsauce, Chablis Epitnere and the Loire Valley.

All of the producers they visited were "artesian makers" who create individual wines at their best that are representative of their region. "Many interesting wines are made in complete austerity, bare bones operations," said Ross. "The wine makers are hard working people. They spend their days stooping over the vines. They know all the wines, know every vine." He mentioned as an example, Bernard Begard in Burgundy, who has promoted the region and the health and concentration of the grapes. "They're just hard working farmers."

With European wines the regional style is embodied in the bottle. "Most of the wine makers feel it is an obligation to maintain the regional style of the wines," said Todd, "and make the best wines they can. There's no gimmickry to mask poor quality with oak."

The trend in wine making is "bio-dynamic" production to create more healthy vines without hormones. The "terroir" of the wine is derived from the microclimate, that is the weather and the flora and fauna that grows around it. Every step along the way, pruning, foliage and weather has its own effects on the grapes causing the wines to vary in quality and quantity from year to year.

Gerard Goaly, in the south of France, bought the surrounding properties to protect the "viti- culture" and keep fertilizers and sprays out of his groundwater. "Instead of giving a crutch to the vines," said Ross, "the quality of the harvests have improved. In 2003 during the heat wave, many producers had small berries but in his vineyards the roots were so deep the vines flourished."

"The weather affects the wine so greatly," Ross explained. "Last year, 2003, was a challenge because of the heat. No living wine maker had ever seen such heat. Some were able to make great wines. It had disastrous affects for others." Ross further illustrated his point by saying 2000 was a great year in Bordeaux, a region in France. But in 2002, in the south of France and northern Italy, the region had 24 inches of rain in 25 hours.

On this trip Ross sampled many new wines, some still in the barrel. He and Chadwick trooped through hills and valleys to visit rustic wine making facilities and ancient vineyards, some that had vines over 100 years old. They tell customers about their discoveries through the Mill's Wine and Spirits catalogue and wine sales. "We bring it to the attention of the customers - known wines and some from more obscure appellations."

Some producers have a following, such as Charvin, and are the true stars of the appellation and stewards of the land. An appellation is a designated land, a bounded area and "an expression of the fruit of the land". Some appellations represent a single vineyard. Regions are represented by particular types of grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in France.

The main attributes to look for in a wine are color, density, body, clarity (whether it is opaque or transparent), texture, aroma, flavors, finish and whether it is true to type or not. Ross explained that "finish" is a term for the flavors that linger on your palette after you take a swallow and texture is the balance, the acidity. "Are the tannins aggressive in the wine?" he asked. "That means the grapes were green, under ripe when harvested."

"There's fear, intimidation when people buy wine," he continued. "The first rule is it should taste good and then other factors speak to the quality." He suggested that a buyer should look for balance and harmony in the wine's components. "Wine should be harmonious, true to type and region, with no off-putting aromas. Like a car firing on all cylinders."

And labels can be confusing. French wines are named by appellation. They brand the area while Italian wines speak to the grape and the region. In Spain it is the region and the estate that are highlighted. German wine speaks to the village, the vineyard, the grapes, ripeness level, producers and the vintage, vintage being the year of the harvest specific to the region. Mills carries 1200 fine wines in its store at the foot of Main Street, a huge selection with something to suit every taste and pocketbook.

At Mills the employees work diligently to assist customers in selecting the right wine. They also educate consumers about the art of combining wine and food for a memorable experience. They want to be sure customers get something special for their money. "We work with people's dinner party menus all the time," said John Chadwick, another of the wine buyers. "Selecting the right wine is a mixture of guess work, experience and memory. People like to come back and tell us we're pretty good at it."

The wine buying trips provide the buyers with an opportunity to bring back a wide variety of good wines valued from $10 to $100 a bottle for their customers' tables . "Bordeaux is its own little animal, the greatest Cabernet wine," Chadwick marveled. "It's a beautiful wine country. It looks like the Eastern Shore". On a wine buying trip two years ago he went to the rustic, hilly region of Tuscany, Italy. "Italy is a sea of vines," he said. "It translates into the bottle and takes you to a place you've never been before."

Chadwick stressed that a high price tag on a bottle of wine does not guarantee that it is special. Reputation and scarcity also contribute to the cost. "In Annapolis we're lucky. More people have traveled and are sophisticated about wine with food. It's part of the table."

"You can have a memorable wine that's a little special." Chadwick said. A well-planned menu with the proper complement of fine wine can create an experience to treasure. "You can get something really special for the money," he said. "You know that some little guy or woman has put their heart and soul into that bottle. It's love in a bottle."


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