Despite the dreariness of the season, there's a lot going on in the wine world, as usual. First, to the news:

Healthy litany: England's Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies has issued a warning that basically says that in no way is alcohol a health benefit. What does she recommend instead? Tea, of course (she is a Dame, after all). Most recent research has touted the benefits of moderate red-wine consumption, although some studies indicate that it could increase the likelihood of some cancers.

In any event, the volume of stories and studies make it exceedingly difficult to come to conclusions. To the rescue comes CNN, with a recent roundup of the history of wine-health happenings good, bad and ugly ( This highly entertaining and quite edifying collation goes back to 3150 B.C. and includes blurbs on how "wine did not pair well with womanhood" in 750 B.C. and why wine was healthier than water even as late as 1850.

It's Wine O'Clock somewhere: Yes, that expression has gained some cachet with its inclusion in the Oxford Online Dictionary, which clearly is more open-minded than its print counterpart. And while "Wine O'Clock" might not be widely used (yet), its meaning is still clearer than other new entries such as "hangry" (angry in part because of hunger) and "awesomesauce" (most excellent).

Runquist does it again: Congratulations to Minnesota native Jeff Runquist, whose 2013 Amador County Nostro Vino Vineyard Zinfandel tied for best red wine at last week's San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale, Calif. I was one of the judges who sifted through 7,156 U.S. wines, and this zin was all that and more. In nearly half of the wine competitions I have judged, a Runquist wine has earned best-of-show, and no wonder: They are big and hearty but also have depth, nuance and structure, everything you would want in a wine.

This particular wine isn't currently on Twin Cities shelves (production is small), but several Runquist wines are. The Plymouth Haskell's has been a champion of the wines for years, and Wine Thief, Cotroneo's and Dolce Vita are among other stores that carry Runquist wines. Look for a profile of Jeff Runquist in these pages later this year.

Hedren nails it: Most of the competition wines were decent to great. But a few were just plain weird, with one cabernet sauvignon smelling exactly like a buttery apple crisp (oddly alluring but just plain wrong) and another red eliciting this remark from a fellow judge: "It's not supposed to taste like compost."

But, as usual, I learned a lot, and not just about wine. Our panel's coordinator shared a story about Minnesota native Tippi Hedren. The actress was an avid humanitarian, and her pet cause in the 1960s and '70s was helping Southeast Asian refugees. Several of the immigrants marveled at her stylish nails, which gave Hedren an idea. She set up widely available training for interested refugees and now, our coordinator said, Hedren "is considered the godmother of California manicurists."

Pairing practice: Another cool tidbit came from a fellow judge at a winery dinner, who suggested a routine for determining how a wine-food pairing works (or doesn't): "Sip, bite, sip." It proved to be a great way to check out the chemistry. The pairing at hand — chardonnay and wild mushroom soup — didn't work, but it was easier to understand how and why after testing it this way.

Public judging: You, too, can be a wine judge, and there's no better opportunity than at the Winter Wine Fest. A few dozen Minnesota wineries will be pouring their juice, and these wines have become worth checking out for all but the snobbiest of cork dorks. The event starts at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel (1300 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.). For tickets ($40, or $30 per person for groups of five or more), go to I can't think of a better way to kick off Valentine's weekend.

Also on the local front …

The more things change: Six wine-centric stores opened in the Twin Towns in 2005, and as 2015 ended, changes abounded at all of them. WineStyles is gone, perhaps because it was a little too polished and spendy for us sensible Midwesterners. Meanwhile, Cesare's shop, ensconced in a Stillwater wine bar, is now Domacin, and Sam's is now North Loop. Those two stores, as well as the Little Wine Shoppe and the Wine Market, have different owners. The only stable proprietorship has been at the Wine Thief, where Paul and KaTrina Wentzel have built a hip but warm and welcoming haven with a great selection.

And here's the common thread: All of these stores are still locally owned — and better than ever, seriously worth checking out.

Bill Ward writes at Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.