To Drink and Think

Crotchety and tempestuous. Blessed and grateful. Productive and contributing member of society or permanently attached to the chaise with endless reruns of Grey's Anatomy? These are the grand choices I struggle with. Okay, how about somewhere in between? Just finished up with another wine club newsletter, and thought I'd share my favorite wines from one of the best-kept secrets in Sonoma with you this month. These wines aren't available everywhere (what would be the fun in that?) so if you are tempted, you can always get them at my shop, or online direct from the winery.

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Porter Creek This has got to be one of my favorite producers in Sonoma. It's super-small, the tasting room is an old shed located next to their chicken coop, and the wines are superb.  Their dedication to the land and the grapes is nothing short of amazing-- and the wines prove it. Winemaker/owner Alex Davis focuses on minimal manipulation in the cellar, which allows the authentic nature of the grapes to shine.

2010 Fiona Hill Pinot Noir Retail: $43

Truly a delight, the Fiona is rarely available, as every vintage sells out almost instantly. Feminine and sensual, with notes of crushed cranberry and raspberry, with a shot of minerality and woodsy depth in the midpalate. Try to hold off for at least six more months, though it is unmistakably gorgeous now. Would be perfect with a springtime appetizer of morel mushrooms on brioche toast.

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2011  Mendocino Carignane Retail: $27

Carignane, a traditional Rhone blending grape, is full of rustic and charming character. This bottling from old vines is brash and a little bit spicy, with some brooding dark fruits thrown in for good measure. Think about pairing with short ribs, grilled quail, or even a hefty, grass-fed burger.

2012 Sonoma County Rosé Retail: $22

My darling, my love-- Rosé. No I am not biased. This bottling is FANTASTIC. $22 might seem like a bit steep for picnic wine, but Good Lord. This wine is usually only available to Porter Creek's wine club members, but guess who managed to get her hot little hands on a case? Moi! Fresh and vibrant, this wine races with acidity and delights the palate with strawberry, rhubarb, kiwi, and a touch of orange blossom. Drink this with charcuterie. Drink this with cheese and olives. Drink it with fried chicken. Drink it with pork tenderloin, ham, pasta, sandwiches... Drink it alone, standing up in the kitchen while you do the dishes and listen to Nouvelle Vague. Just drink it, and smile.

Is Wine a Reason?

I sell wine. Every week, my distributor reps come in and we taste new wines, searching to fill holes in my current inventory and try out new producers. I get to write shelftalkers and wine club newsletters, using my words to tempt customers into trying something new and different. I talk to every single person that comes into the shop and assess their needs, budget, and preferences in order to match them with their perfect wine for that particular moment. Oh, and I get to take home samples and leftover wines at the end of the day.

But what is it, really, that I do? I love the wine industry, and I love the fun parts of my job. Honestly even the unglamorous aspects like washing tasting glasses and spit buckets, breaking down hundreds of cardboard boxes, and dealing with an astonishing number of snooty wine snobs are just a small price to pay. However, at the end of the day, I sell wine. Is this to be my contribution to society? To provide you with one great bottle for one night's worth of fleeting happiness? If I do my job correctly, you take a bottle of wine home, to a dinner party, and while drinking it, you remark upon it's remarkable taste and glorious finish. Perhaps you even take note of the producer and vintage and vow to buy more (hopefully from me.) But is this it?

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I don't mean to denigrate my industry and my small place in this world. I love wine with a sometimes overwhelming passion that threatens to subsume all other considerations.  And in these moments, I turn to the only thing I have ever turned to in times of frustration and aimlessness-- I turn to writing. I work on my book and I type these blog posts and continue to search for that which will satisfy my yearning soul. But I fear this is a question that not only I struggle with. Across all industries, do we all sometimes wallow in doubt? I despise regret and have no wish to visit with it. But if we chase the goal of regretting nothing, do we perhaps move too fast to see the truth in our actions? I make nothing. I give no tangible objects or benefits to the world at large. Is wine then, reason enough for being and breathing?

I'm not sure. I think I shall open up a bottle of vintage champagne and contemplate this some more.

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A Georgian Feast

Did you know that in the tiny country of Georgia, they drink wine out of little clay bowls? Did you know that they also make excellent wine in this strange little land of east meets west meets north? And who would have thought that the most amazing collection of Georgian wines outside of Georgia lives in a tiny wine bar called The Punchdown in Oakland, CA? Well, I now know all of these things, plus I was lucky enough to get to participate in a Georgian feast hosted by said wine bar and The Satellite Republic, famous for delicious Georgian eats and a moped-driven tandoori-style oven.
Georgian wines are rustic, earthy, and full of a tangible minerality. The cuisine is diverse, unusual, and ever bit as exciting as one could hope for. If you ever get a chance to sample either, it goes without saying that I heartily recommend it. Especially if you are surrounded by charming people in downtown Oakland.

Drink More Rosé!

I'm starting to see the first 2012 rosés come into the shop, and I couldn't be happier. It's always disconcerting to see people come in and so readily dismiss rosé as frivolous or sweet or something only for picnics on hot summer days. I keep hearing other industry people write and talk about how the tide is turning for rosé, but I'm not feeling the love yet.

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My current personal favorite is the Raventos 1999 Cava ($25), which is supremely elegant without being precious or too austere. And in the land of still rosé, I find myself unable to get enough of the 2011 Casamatta Rosato of Sangiovese  ($13), which is such a good match for grilled flank steak, it's hard to imagine ever pairing that lean meat with a red wine ever again.

Rosé is also just about the most versatile wine around. Its acidity makes it supremely food-friendly, and the character extracted from the juice sitting around with the skins for a day or so makes it stand up to heartier dishes you would normally reserve for a pinot or a cab.

Please do yourself and the entire wine industry a favor: pick up some charcuterie and an inexpensive bottle of dry rosé. Go home and dig up whatever cheese you have leftover in your fridge. Maybe track down a can of these. Add some good crusty bread, and call it dinner.

Seriously. Go do it right now! I promise you will thank me later.

The Dearth of Decent Dive Bar Wine: A Bit of a Rant

I relish the modern upscale wine lounge. A place where the list includes dozens of wines by the glass, where one can relax on a plush sofa or a charming bistro table with some friends or on a date. I also enjoy dining out at the bar in nicer restaurants where one may order a light meal and an interesting glass of wine, usually region-specific and almost always agreeable for the given price. And the sheer value of opening a lovely bottle at home and either sharing it with a few select friends or alone and in cosy pajamas is simply undeniable. But every once in a while, I just want to hang out in a place that's more casual. A place with an interesting mix of people, where the patrons are a cross-section of society and where you are guaranteed a cheap drink and a slightly sardonic bartender.

The dive bar is an institution probably  as old as wine itself. The tavern, the pub, the kneipe, the lokal, the taproom, the saloon, and countless others in all various forms and languages are all examples of this type of establishment. The dive bar is the modern incarnation of that age-old place where one can get a decent drink at a fair price and there are no real qualifications for admission, other than being of legal age and reasonable sobriety. Basically, if you can pay for a drink, you're old enough to do so, and you're not too drunk to stand, you'll fit in just fine.

Dive bars get a bad rap sometimes for being less than reputable, but they really are fascinating places to spend an hour or two on a lazy Tuesday evening. There isn't just one kind of patron; rather, there are all sorts of people from all different professions, backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, and education levels. No matter where you go in to world, the dive bar is a place where, if you know the general rules of common courtesy and have a mild-to-fair appreciation for alcoholic beverages, you can spend some time in a welcoming and oftentimes fascinating environment. At least it's never dull.

The one black mark of a dive bar is the utter lack of decent/tasty/quaffable wine. At least here in the states, I have noticed that it is next to impossible to acquire a drinkable glass of wine-- and I live in Northern California! There is a huge microbrew movement that has been pretty phonomenal in the bar and restaurant scenes for at least the past couple of decades. You can now go into just about any dive bar and have your choice from all manner of beers: from the humble Miller High Life or PBR, to the hoppy craft brew IPAs, to the elegant Hoegaarden white beers and Trumer Pilsners.  So why, pray tell, it is so enormously difficult to get a simple yet well-made glass of wine in these establishments?

If you don't believe me, please visit your local dive and notice the refreshing variety of beers. Then ask for a glass of wine. I can almost promise you that the response will likely be, " Red or White?" Then there will be two options: either a cheap chardonnay that has been aged with oak chips to give it that lovely sour-wood quality, or a cabernet sauvignon-based blend that tastes bittersweet in its undeveloped and saccharine nature.  Yuck.

I have asked various bar managers and owners, and all I seem to get for  a response is a shrug of the shoulders. Various reasonings supplied have run along the lines of, "no one is interested," or "it's too expensive," or "it doesn't fit with our vibe." To which I reply, Yes! We are interested! People don't ask for wine because they know it will be awful plonk and they'd rather not subject their taste buds to that drudgery. And No! Decent wine doesn't have to be expensive! There are plenty of bottles you can get that wholesale for $7-12, that you can turn around and sell for $6-8 per glass. You just need to put an ounce of effort to find them. And while you may claim it isn't in your bar's particular style, keep in mind that fancy microbrews hardly fit in with the vibe back in the 1980's, but they sure seem to be indispensible now.

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Needless to say, there are plenty of establishments that do cater to the needs of the wine lover. I love these places and have no wish for them to disappear. I would simply like to see the humble dive bar continue to display its welcoming and egalitarian nature by offering all its imbibers something to get excited about.

Wine Country Chronicles: Barrel Tasting

Every year, an organization called Wine Road Northern Sonoma County puts on an all-weekend-long event for wineries to offer barrel samples for their soon-to-be released vintages. It's a lovely opportunity for people to get a sort of "sneak peek" at what the last year's harvest has in store for them. It's a simple enough arrangement: At any participating winery (this year there were 130!), you pay $30 and receive a souvenier glass and a wristband that allows you to access tastes from the barrels, current releases, and delightful nibbles at ANY of the participating wineries for the ENTIRE Friday thru Sunday weekend. It's an incredible value in these days where some wineries are charging up to $40 to sample 2-3 wines.   There are minor downfalls, as with any deal this wonderful. The low price tag and sheer number of wineries and tasting rooms involved create an irresistible opportunity for local college kids, large groups of giggling housewives, and others looking more to get down and party than those looking to seriously taste and explore the possibilities of each wine. However, these large groups of people probably are the only reason why it is possible to hold an event of this magnitude! But as long as I can get a little wine in my glass and am able to say a few words to those pouring (often the winemakers themselves,) it really isn't much of a complaint at all. Especially if it exposes those who might not have a huge passion for wine to some really neat stuff. Anything that has the possibility to spark interest in the uninterested is great for wine industry... right?

And of course, there's the wine. It was wonderful to be able to do a vertical tasting of the wines from several different wineries. Wilson Winery let us taste their 2008 still in the barrel, as well as their '05, '06,  and '07 vintages. What is remarkable about doing a vertical tasting is how amazingly different each wine can really be. It's a fantastic opportunity to see how nature affected each year's grape harvest and how the personality and style of each wine really is varied. 

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wine road glass

Attending barrel tasting also gives us an excellent opportunity to purchase "futures." Basically, this means you have the opportunity to buy the not-yet-released wines you are tasting before they are available to the public. You don't get to take them home right away, of course. You have to be patient and wait until the wine is in the bottle and officially released! But most wineries offer these futures at a pretty little discount-- sometimes as much as 50% off what they will eventually retail for! So it's a special deal, especially if you are excited by what you taste in the barrel.

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Mustard

What a fantastic way to ring in the spring! To taste some delicious wines straight from the barrel while taking in the gorgeous scenery... The bare vines, so naked and vulnerable, with the riotous streaks of yellow mustard bursting through the rows... Already I'm looking forward to next year, when I can take possession of our futures and start exploring the new season's offerings!