Sunday, November 10, 2002

Wrath - not grapes - seems
more Huggins' style

Wine-sipping odd fit for UC coach

Bob Huggins drinks red wine with dinner now, a 12-ounce glass, to which we say, "What's going on here?" Heretofore, Huggins was skeptical of any beverage that didn't come with a head. Now, the University of Cincinnati men's basketball coach drinks "merlot, cabernet and pinot noir," he says.

It's for medicinal purposes. Huggins' cardiologist, Dr. Dean Kereiakes, suggested red-wine therapy. The tannins are good for the heart. Huggins also got expert guidance from another legendary health guru.

"Skip Prosser's high school coach told me to drink a glass of grape juice in the morning and have a hot pepper and a glass of red wine at dinner. That's what I've been trying to do," Huggins said.

A hot pepper?

"It's supposed to keep you cleaned up," Huggins allowed.

Well, OK. Wine thins your blood, which is good even if you're not recovering from a big heart attack. But we can count on so few things in life these days. One of those things was Huggins' Everyman love for good friends, good conversation, big cigars, late-night bars and empty lager pitchers stacked like cordwood.

What do you do with wine glasses? I mean, they have stems.

It's not a complete image makeover. The day we see Huggins responding to a charging call against one of his players by saying, "Thank you, sir, may we have another?" we'll all have to head for the hills.

"Guys are acting like I drink three bottles a night," Huggins groused. "It's just a glass."

But here's the thing:

There are wine people, and there aren't.

Huggins isn't.

Bob Boone drinks red wine. Boone went to Stanford and majored in psychology. ZZ Top recorded a song called "Beer Drinkers and Hellraisers." Not "Sophisticated People Gather To Sip A Sauvignon Blanc."

I don't picture Huggins, standing among tweed-wearing chums, twirling a stemmed glass delicately between thumb and forefinger, saying, "This beautiful and distinctive Spanish red marries savage flavors with sleek structure."

It's hard to see Huggs breathing deeply the bouquet of "oak with a trace of anise" before sipping a small portion and declaring, "supple and harmonious" or "muscular, with a hint of style."

Tony Soprano don't drink fruit punch from a juice box. Know what I'm sayin'?

"It's OK," Huggins said of his new dinner companion. He could develop a taste for it. If he had to. Which he does.

To help Huggins through this difficult transition, we recruited Tony Ricci, the general manager of The Precinct restaurant. Ricci has been drinking wine since he was 7. The man was born in Italy. About two years ago, his boss, Jeff Ruby, dispatched Ricci to Italy, where he spent 10 days touring wineries and researching vintages to stock Ruby's new restaurant, Carlo and Johnny.

Ricci knows vino.

So, Tony, give our man Huggs some wine. Something subtle yet complex. Full-bodied but silky, with a smooth finish and hints of cherry and raisin. Something along those lines.

"There's nothing like a good Barolo or Brunello," Ricci said. He suggested a Brunello di Montalcino, a Tuscan red. But the palate needs time to adjust. It's a long way from Bud Light to Brunello, you know.

"He can start out with a nice, light Beaujolais," Ricci said. "A Louis Jadot" pronounced Zha-Doe if you want to pretend to sound informed. Also, "beaujolais" is BO-zhe-lay, not "bruise your legs," OK?

"Then he could go to a light pinot ("pee-no") noir, something from Washington state," said Ricci. Ricci also said "the more you drink a particular wine, the more your palate will demand something bolder."

If Huggins' palate is as demanding as the rest of him, it'll be screaming its little taste buds off for a cabernet real soon. Cabernet is sort of the knock-out drops of red wine. Muscular, yet sophisticated, with hints of Ironman Triathlon and British soccer crowd.

We like to say people have "mellowed." They get older and wiser and their heads hurt more. They stop carrying on the way they used to. Lou Piniella is said to have mellowed. But Huggins? Volcanoes do become extinct.

In all things, 'tis better to sip than gulp, even if what you're sipping is "subtle and complex, with hints of smoke." You live longer that way.


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