Au Lait Cru: Part One

Inspiration is a funny thing. When it strikes, I often feel the need to sustain it, to hold on to it so tightly it never leaves my grasp again. This of course has the adverse effect of promptly abandoning me, leaving with a great whoosh of deflated energy. So I vow to relax, let it all flow over me, the next time I feel that gentle intake of breath that lets me know I'm on to something. I often long for that which I don't have, but I always believe that it's near-inevitable arrival is just a few moments away. Marriage, a career that is utterly fulfilling, financial stability, children, travel , a house, publishing a book that becomes a wild success... And sometimes I get so wrapped up in longing I forget that it actually is up to me to somehow gently guide my inspiration with real live action and just do it already. Hm. Maybe I've seen too many Nike ads recently.

camembert
camembert

So when inspiration arrives, fresh off the plane from Paris, in the form of not one but TWO wheels of raw milk Camembert, I think of how best to document this glorious experience. I post a photo on the Facebook. I snap a dozen more iPhone pics with the intention of writing a blog post all about cheese and the demented US regulations that keep such lovely (and totally harmless) products out of our everyday grasp.

But then I eat. And I forget to take notes, instead closing my eyes and breathing in the ripe aromas. I nibble, letting the cheese melt on my tongue. I sip some Vouvray. I smile widely at my boyfriend. And I let inspiration just be, Nike be damned.

*Eternal gratitude to Mike and Angela for acting as illicit cheese couriers.

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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CameraAwesomePhoto(5)

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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CameraAwesomePhoto(6)

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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CameraAwesomePhoto (7)

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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CameraAwesomePhoto (8)

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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IMG_2668

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.

Traveling in Place

We dream of traveling to far off countries filled with things exotic and unusual. We long for experiences unlike that which we have encountered before. Even something as simple as market day in an unknown land is rich with newness and unique sensations. When we are prevented satiating this hunger for the unknown, we can often feel confined and lonely—as if somehow the trappings of our everyday existence stifle us and make us feel less like ourselves. If our true self only emerges when we are exploring, how are we ever to feel at home?

This is when we must turn the act of exploring to something more local. Familiar though this territory may be, we can put ourselves in the boots of those traveling here - see what they are seeing for the first time. While it may not be so fresh to us as we are now, trapped in our mundane masterpiece of monotony, it can be wholly new to us—the renewed adventurer.

For me personally, the Point Reyes shoreline is well-known and beloved. But on a typically foggy day, with wines in tow from both local Sonoma County and distant New Zealand (a memory of previous adventures), Hog Island Oyster Company is fresh and new when taken in as a distinctive experience. Never again will we have these particular succulent divinities known as oysters paired with these particular cheeses that near mystic experiences. Never again will these wines from these vintages be open together with this simple yet delectable feast.

And we are, right now, wholly joined in laughter and contradictory ponderings. We can share this inimitable moment and yet still be lost in our own dreams and longings.

When the worlds of responsibility, economics, obligations, and frustration collide to keep us tethered against our will, we must survive by exploring that which might be less unusual to our personal identities—yet can also be exceptional in its imaginative freshness. And we can do it together or alone, as we somehow always are, no matter the company we keep or where we are in the world.

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. 

wine road glass
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.

Mustard
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!

Wine Country Chronicles: The Shyness of Taste

Most of us have heard about the infamous tasting of 1976, where French and California wines were tasted blind by a panel of snobby French judges in Paris. The California wines rocked the house, much to everyone's surprise. They've made movies and written books all about it. If you haven't yet heard this fascinating tale, read the original Time article here Needless to say, I thought it would be fun to kick off my informally-formalized independent wine education with a mini-tasting here in the house. With Chris otherwise engaged preparing us dinner, I started off with two whites I had picked up at Cost Plus that morning. From France I had the Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse, a white burgundy. And my representative for California chardonnay was a Gundlach Bundschu from Sonoma. Both wines were from the 2007 vintage. I opened them up, gave myself some generous pours, and set about to write what I thought of them.

All of a sudden, I felt strangely nervous. Who do I think I am, that I can just presume to open some wines I know nothing about and then write what I think of them? What if I think it tastes like something that's not really there? What if I don't notice something about the wine that is painfully obvious to everyone else?

Why this sudden reticence? I'm certainly not one to shy away from speaking my mind, no matter what the subject. So it should be no different when it comes to my opinions about wine, right?

See, this is the funny thing about the wine world. It can be so intimidating to explore, with different people proclaiming opinions with an air of absolutism, magazines assigning points to "grade" wines and a plethora of different varietals and styles. Most of us simply don't have the knowledge, time, or money to be able to give ourselves a thorough education in all the dizzying aspects of the art of enjoying and understanding wine.

Plus, isn't the idea of taste subjective? I don't care for the taste of peanut butter, but it might be your favorite foodstuff in the pantry! Additionally, two people can like an identical dish but for different reasons. So, couldn't it be the same for our tastes in wine?

As our tastes vary, so shall our opinions. And if I think a wine tastes like hibiscus or seems flirty, that's just my way of expressing a personal opinion. There shouldn't be any reason to be shy about that.

Taking a deep breath, I sipped. Pen in hand, I boldly wrote my first impressions. The Pouilly-Fuisse was slightly sweet. It was crisp at first, then softened to something silky. It was pale. Light-colored. It had a fragrant perfume. And then came the chardonnay. It was so different! It was richer, golden-colored. It tasted like butter. It coated my mouth in a way totally unlike the French wine.

Excitedly, I sipped more. Chris jumped in, cautiously proffering his opinion as well. We were so taken with our new roles as wine critics that we forgot the whole tasting-in-moderation aspect of the wine tasting. Hm. I had planned on doing a red wine tasting that evening as well, but we polished off the last of the two bottles of white, I thought I might just postpone it for a day or two.

But we had so much fun! I liked writing about the wine -- it made me think about it more, and enjoy it even more than if I'd just absent-mindedly sipped it. Wine has always stimulated conversations, daydreams, pleasures, and friendships. Too often it can also stimulate depression, discord, and strife. I think the balance can be struck not just in moderation, but in always remembering to savor and enjoy the experience of drinking-- and feeling a little gratitude for the blessing that is wine.

Shyness simply cannot mix with unbridled enthusiasm. And so, I vowed that night to dispense with my hesitations and embrace this magical world of wine and words, sans fear.

Wine Country Chronicles: The Beginning

Living in busy, compact San Francisco, sometimes I forget that we've got the gorgeous sprawling wine country for a backyard. As a child, my parents always dragged me along to tastings, where of course I couldn't understand why they wanted to sip that vile stuff in dark cellars. And I've been up there as an adult for weddings, events, or on my way up to Oregon or the coast for vacation.  wine country hill2

And though I do love wine now, somehow its never occurred to me that I would actually enjoy wine tasting. So the wine country remained a far-off place in my mind -- something for tourists or people with suitcases full of money to spend on huge crates of Pinot Noir. 

But then the other night we were at Chris' parents house in the North Bay, and we tried some delicious wine that was a blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery was in Sonoma County, and all their wines were apparently just fantastic. As Chris had some business to attend to in Santa Rosa, we thought it might be nice to drive the extra twenty minutes and cruise by this land of delightful grapes. 

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The resulting adventures have sparked yet another time, money, and imagination consuming passion of mine. This post marks the beginning of a series of posts about our experiences in Napa and Sonoma Counties and other wine country locales. There will be posts about biodynamic and sustainable wineries, local restaurants and shops, wine varietals, tastings, tours, bottling, and more. I hope to take you on the trip with us as we explore and learn more about wine and the lives of those who live among the grapes. Hopefully it will prove interesting, whether you are a certified oenological expert or a wine neophyte, or even if you're somewhere in the middle, like myself. And if you don't like reading about our adventures, well, at least we'll have enjoyed some good wine.