also known as…

Woman on the Verge of a Glass of Wine

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Flying High

I don’t know about you, but I have a serious fear of flying. I don’t know if it’s the cramped quarters, the recycled air or if it's just the fact that I’m trapped in the in the clouds when I really prefer to be on the ground. It could be of course, that I am a total control freak who has to surrender my immediate future, my very life, to a couple of guys that I don’t even know, in a small cubby at the front of this huge metal contraption that shouldn’t really be able to be up in the air like it is.

On every flight, I go through my ridiculous rituals of praying to my mother, father and God, wearing red (something my mother told me was good luck on a flight) and of crossing the fingers on my left hand for the entire duration of the journey. Now, anyone who knows me personally knows that I am not a spiritual or even slightly superstitious person at all. I know rationally that the positions of the index and middle fingers on my left hand have nothing to do with keeping the airplane afloat. But I just can’t stop myself.

And like every other Western Medicine believing person, I do rely on the occasional bout of self-medication before take off. Actually, using the word “occasional” is a total lie. Before each flight, I take a Xanax to ease my intense nervousness and if I ‘m lucky enough to be in business or first class, it is usually accompanied by a glass of champagne…pre-flight. I love being that person sitting in my roomy airline seat, sipping on my drink and nibbling my nuts while those poor suckers in economy shuffle by me on their way to the cheap seat in the back. It’s not a snobby thing, it’s a feeling of total relief that if, God forbid, the plane goes down, at least I’ll be drunk, relaxed and sitting in a spacious seat.

Lately however, my business and first class luck has been running out. I used to be that person who was lucky enough to upgrade for just about every flight using my airline miles that I have amassed through airline travel and mile-accumulating credit cards. For a long time, it was rare that I didn’t get upgraded. Unfortunately for me and others like me, with the reduction in flights and the merging of all of these major airlines, these upgrades just aren’t happening and I again am relegate to the rear regions of the plane. This means that I must wait a good hour or so, and well after take off, to enjoy that muscle relaxing, care-removing glass of wine.

This happened in fact on my trip to and from New York for an Alex’s Lemonade Stand fundraiser last week. The flight to New York departed at 8:40 a.m., and while I desperately needed that glass of wine, I just couldn’t rationalize consuming alcohol so early in the morning, So on the outbound flight, I went without it, white-knuckling it all the way. On the return flight however, while sitting in row 22 smashed between two men, I felt that itch for my glass of red coming on pretty strong. Luckily for me, I won the lotto in terms of people to be sitting with. In the past I haven’t been so fortunate, smashed between two fairly large ladies, both of whom haven’t bathed in quite a while, or sitting next to someone’s sick child who screamed through the entire flight. Today on the other hand, I was the lucky one. We all fit nicely into our seats. We chatted about our children, our work and lives, and everyone seemed to actually like one another. Nevertheless, a glass of wine would definitely have help things along here.

By the way, as you may imagine, I am not the kind of girl who will drink just any wine. On a flight however, I can lose that discriminating impulse fairly quickly. After all, it may be my last glass of wine, right?

I got lucky enough to find a flight attendant that was willing to pour me the remnants of a half bottle of Pinot Noir left over from business class. I didn’t expect a whole lot, and frankly I wasn’t disappointed. The wine had a nose of dark cherry, black fruit and cough syrup, followed by a palate loaded with soft blackcurrant and touches of tart thyme and tar. It reminded me quite a bit of the liquid version of a grape flavored Jolly Rancher. It was a really ripe and fruit-driven wine, a “fruit bomb”, and although it wasn’t my kind of wine, I know a few people who would probably like it. I unfortunately couldn’t bring myself to finish the glass.

On this flight though, in which in my fear of flying was feeling pretty intense and in which I started to believe I was breathing what could be my last breaths, my thoughts turned to the question of finality. If I could choose anything, what would my very last sip of wine be?

While this is a pretty big question to consider, my thoughts immediately turned to the wines of Burgundy. I’ve always been more of a Pinot person, preferring the flavors, elegance and acidity of the grape to the bigger, richer Bordeaux varieties. I decided it should be red rather than white for that special, warm, comforting feeling that I get from red wine. I often describe it as the warm blanket effect. Somehow certain red wines just make you feel like you’ve been transported to a snuggly sofa in front of a fire, wrapped in a cashmere blanket. This is definitely the direction that I want to go in when contemplating this last sip of vino, particularly on a flight in which I’m bogged down in a fear of death. I want to go to my happy place.

Now, to find that comforting red wine feeling in a wine from Burgundy, I was thinking that I would have to go for a wine on the fuller bodied, meatier side, like one from Vosne–Romanée where the wines are less delicate than those from Chambolle-Musigny or Savigny-les-Beaune. And when my mind went in this direction, I couldn’t help but wander to the wines of the venerable Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Believe me, when it comes to wine I am not a name-dropper, but in this instance, it’s hard to ignore the fabulosity of the wines from this very famous estate, known to many as DRC. They are the essence of contradiction and synergy: powerful and graceful, rich and lithe, masculine and feminine all at once. DRC owns what is arguably the most prized vineyards in all of Burgundy, most of which are farmed biodynamically and all of which are cultivated with horses and manual tills, rather than tractors. Yields are extremely low and the grapes are rigorously sorted and handled with kid gloves.

There is an enormous history to this estate, one far too long to go into here. But trust me, this wine is special. It is the Hermès of wine, which for anyone who knows me knows that it makes total sense that I love it. A bottle of Romanée-Conti, the queen of all of their eight grand cru bottlings, is like a Birkin bag, and unfortunately costs just about the same. I suppose though, that a sip of this elixir with its fleshy fruit notes, velvety texture, touches of rose petals and elegant yet assertive acidity would be the wine that I would be honored to have as my last. At the very least, it would make the discomfort and mental anguish of that whole cramped, anxiety-riddled trip in the back row of that plane so worth it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Fourth July

It can't really be unusual that I always want to relive the fun and happy moments of my life. This tendency has got to be human nature, this need to recreate a successful event or fun family time and to want experience the feeling of joy and celebration over and over again. We all do it; we venture to host our second and third annual Christmas parties, revisit the exotic locations of our family vacations, travel on our second honeymoons and decide to have more children. I have tried on my occasion, often unsuccessfully, to recreate my most cherished times and have often ended up disappointed because frankly, it is just really difficult to make something "happen" more than once. Most of the time the problem lies in the fact that my expectations are just too high and my memories of past events too idealized. Other times, the stars and planets just don't align in the same way they did before. I guess that's life.

For me, the Fourth of July is that day that I try to "do over" year after year and for the last four, I've been really lucky. It all started four years ago when we invited our friends Amy Christine and her husband Peter Hunken out to our place in Malibu for a day of sun, food and fireworks. Amy and Peter make some really fantastic wines (Holus Bolus, Hocus Pocus, Genuine Risk and Dalla Pancia) and to say that they are serious wine lovers is an understatement. They also happen to be two of my favorite people on earth. They are fun, laid back and just really nice to be around. We invited them out for a belated celebration of Peter's July 1 birthday with a feast of food, wine and fireworks.

My task that day was to make lunch while Amy and Peter grabbed a bottle of wine from the refrigerator in my garage. I tend to keep more than a few bottles of yummy special wine out there since for me, Malibu is the perfect place to enjoy a bottle of wine. You see, the house that my husband and I have out there is one of the few places that I can go to really relax. It's very casual and quiet, and best of all, it gets horrible cell phone service, so going out there, all the way to the edge of Zuma is an act of strategic, wine-filled escape.

Now, believe it or not, I don't have the crazy wine collection that I should. I just don't have the time or opportunity to drink the wine that I would amass if I was to start my own cellar. My husband doesn't drink, so opening an entire bottle of wine for me to only consume one glass is just too wasteful for me to handle. And honestly, cataloging and caring for such an investment is more than I can handle right now. Instead, I've bought a few random special bottles to enjoy when friends come over or to drink on a special occasion like this one.

I told Amy and Peter to pull out any bottle they wanted and was thrilled when they came back with a bottle of 2004 Coche-Dury Corton Charlemagne. I bought a few bottles of Coche-Dury wines in pre-recessionary times and was waiting for the perfect time to open one up. Coche-Dury is thought by many, including me, to be one of the all-time best and most sought-after producers of white Burgundy. Jean-François Coche is the third generation of Coche's to tend the less than 9 hectares of the family's vines. He, and now his son Raphael, care for their vineyards with reverence and rigor and in doing so produce vines of low yields and extremely high quality. In the cellar, long lees contact (to prevent oxidation) and high doses of new wood give Coche-Dury's wines their characteristic opulence, vibrance and acidity. Though most people would probably plan a meal carefully around the opening of such a rare bottle, at the time it seemed like the perfect, impromptu thing to do. We were blown away by the wine from the moment we looked at it. The wine had an stunning golden hue and striking nose of slate-like minerality and power. On the palate, the wine was equally as intense with notes of pear and apple, hints of hazelnut, exotic spices and incredibly racy acidity. We all loved the wine itself, but also the fact that we got to enjoy something so great in such a casual, unplanned manner, together.

For each year since, I've invited them back out to celebrate the Fourth with the promise of another bottle of Coche. We've drunk the 2005 Corton-Charlemagne, the 2004 Meursault-Perrieres and just this last holiday, the 2005 Meursault. Each of these wines has held their own against the others and has memorialized each summer celebration with its stunning deliciousness. I'm hoping that I can get my hands on another bottle before July of 2012 so that I can keep this annual tradition and my Fourth of July "re-do" alive.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Beaucastel Diaries

Not many people know this about me. But one of the things I love most in this world is going to a Laker Game. I can't get enough of the action and energy of watching the game live, with thousands of other people who seem to be as excited as I am. I jump at any opportunity to go to a game and think that my all time fantasy would to be to have season tickets...floor seats of course. Which is why, when one of my favorite winemakers, Chad Melville, emailed me the other day to see if I wanted join him and some his friends at the play-off game that night, I jumped at the chance. Not only would I be going to do the thing that I love, but I would get to hang out with Chad, someone who besides being really talented is sincerely so nice and fun to be with. Hell yes, I'm there!

Apparently though, I've been doing Staples Center the wrong way. Now, I'm the first person to say that I don't get out enough, which is why I had no idea that there is a restaurant at Staples or that there is a super exclusive club on the top floor called The Lexus Club. Maybe if I had season tickets I would know that. But more importantly, I never knew that Staples Center actually has a really deep cellar of wines, an insane array of legendary wines and libraries of vintages. Thankfully, Chad knew this so I was saved from staring at a sweating plastic tumbler of beer all night.

Well, for anyone who actually watched the second game of the playoffs against the Mavericks, it can be no surprise that being able to drink some incredible wines was a great diversion from the ugliness on the court. We began in the restaurant with a 2007 La Fenetre Pinot Noir and 2001 Kongsgaard Syrah, not a bad start, and which I have to say caught me a little off guard. It felt kind of strange drinking serious wine at a basketball game. Somehow I only relate the volume of noise, the flashing lights and general atmosphere of sporting events with drinking bad beer. However, I am a person who is not averse to change and was more than happy to attempt to alter my view of this. As one can imagine, it didn't take long for me to adjust. What we didn't finish of those wines we took back to the luxury suite with us in plastic cups, which was another odd concept to me. Most people were carrying tumblers of beer or coca cola, but we were carrying red wine...whatever works.

I have to say that by the second quarter when a bottle of 1999 Château de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe showed up, I found that drinking old and rare wine while watching the Lakers felt perfectly normal. Château de Beaucastel is a world renowned estate that has been in existence since the 16th century and has been in the possession of the Perrin family since the early 1900's. They were one of the first to farm their vineyards organically and make wines that are remarkably age-worthy. A good part of this is due to the fact that the final blend of the wine usually contains around 30% Mourvedre, giving the wine a strong tannic backbone, resistance to oxidation and good overall structure. Another approximately 30% Grenache adds a fleshiness and fruity depth, with Syrah, Muscardin, Vaccarese and Cinsault rounding out the blend. Year in and year out, these are wines of power and purity. The 1999 was no disappointment. Though much softened from age, the wine still showed a good deal of grace and balance. On the palate, flavors of coffee and sour plum mingled with notes of leather and dusty rose, giving the wine a slightly velvety texture and long finish accented by delicate acidity. The wine was incredibly elegant with an interesting balance of masculine muscularity and finessed femininity.

I've decided that from here on out I will approach Laker games, and any other sporting event at Staples Center, in a whole new way. Gone are the days of bitter, bulk beer. Gone are the days of appeasing my inner armchair althete while disappointing my wine-loving self. From now on, I will order a bottle off of the Staples wine list and be the one happily munching on popcorn, sipping my glass of older Burgundy and screaming at the refs.

Monday, April 25, 2011

When POTUS Came to Town

There is nothing quite as perfect to drink for a celebration than Champagne. And there have been few times in my life that were as worthy of celebration as Thursday, April 21, 2011.

Where do I begin? It's taken me a week to get this one out because I've just had the most whirlwind week of my life. I can honestly say that I'm still not quite over it and that just thinking about the whole experience and contemplating what to write down here is making my heart beat a little faster than normal. I know this may sound pretty melodramatic, but seriously, meeting the President of the United States, or POTUS as we insiders like to call him, is a big f-ing deal! This truly may have been one of the biggest thrills of my entire life. So just how am I supposed to condense this whole experience into just a few paragraphs?

In truth, I think this experience, or at least portions of it, are going to have to be spread out over more than one blog. So for now I've decided to focus here on the fact that after much contemplation, one of the main feelings that I have taken away from my "presidential week" is the sense of how people come in and out of your life and how they leave a lasting impression on you for future relationships and experiences. I say this because, besides the craziness and the feeling of euphoria that I experienced from meeting President Obama himself and just being in his elegant and charismatic presence, the thing that I think I miss the most about the experience is the people that I worked with all week to make the event at Tavern happen.

I met this cast of characters at what I thought was going to be an intimate meeting about the event last weekend. That is, until I pulled up in front of the restaurant and found that the building was awash in clean-cut men in dark suits with small gold pins on their lapels and dark sunglasses over their eyes. I actually began to laugh out loud at the sight of so much not so secret Secret Service. I mean, when one or two USSS agents are out together, they blend in to their surrounding and look like most other people on the street. But when there are fifteen or twenty of them together, well that's a different story. I should interject here that I have a deep love of the Secret Service. I have had only positive experiences with these men in the past, like when John Kerry ate at Lucques during his presidential run and when we catered a fundraiser for Mrs. Obama last year. Not only do they tend to be incredibly polite and nice people, but they make me feel incredibly safe because, let's face it, they are protectors and they've got to be willing to take a bullet. I feel about them like I do firemen: I'm always insanely impressed by their bravery and selflessness. And for some reason, they're all really good looking. But I digress...

I can only describe the people at this meeting as what one would expect to see at a casting call for a film about Washington DC. Among others, there was the tall, eloquent logistics guy, the twenty or so suit-clad Secret Service men, the various casually dressed and sharply tuned-in men and women who work with the President, and my favorite of all, the White House aide who was sporting a tidy suit and thick horn-rimmed glasses. This would end up being a group of people that I would spend my entire week with and in the end, become pretty attached to. They would come to symbolize to me the experience as a whole and as a result, be the thing that I miss the most about the whole adventure.

And let me tell you, this week was quite a ride. The amount of coordination and logistics involved in having the leader of the free world in my place of business, for what would be a total of one and a half hours, was mind boggling. Communications people ran phone lines. Security people inspected the building. Dogs sniffed for bombs. Military and medical personnel came through. I think that I had contact with every form of law enforcement known to man. I literally have a business card with a badge on it in every pocket of every item of clothing I wore last week. (I'm thinking that I should hold on to each one of them, of course, just in case I get into a bind somewhere down the line.) The whole week was pretty intense and each of these interactions seemed to add to the tension.

Throughout it all, I spent a good amount of time with my White House pal Mike and my super cute Secret Service Agent Matt. They were my main contacts and would be the people that I would turn to for help, guidance and the occasional call of distress. I came to look forward to all of our daily conversations, emails and planning sessions. I loved seeing them become more and more L.A. in their dress and manner as the week progressed. And like anyone that you work closely with, we all got to learn a bit about each other over the course of the week. Not only were they consummate professionals, but they were pretty fun to be around. I really felt by the end that I had formed a friendship with these guys.

Not only did I bond with my new-found friends from Washington, but working on something so intense and so special brought me and my Tavern staff even closer together as well. Each day, I and the managers who were "in the know" would find ourselves looking at each other with wide-eyed amazement at the full-throttle security coordination happening around us. I can't count the number of times we said to ourselves, "This is insane!" On the night of the actual event, every member of the staff was beaming with excitement and anticipation. Every one of them deeply felt the importance of this night. At one point before the dinner began, I and my service staff had an inspirational huddle in the dining room where we spoke words of encouragement and gave ourselves and an uplifting group hug. This was our Superbowl and surviving it made us all closer for it.

And like any other major event that takes hours of work, preparation and planning, like a wedding, bar mitzvah or other special occasion, the day went by in the blink of an eye. The dinner itself went off without a hitch and when it was over, I nearly passed out from exhaustion.

Of course, I made sure that we toasted with some super cold and delicious 2000 Champagne Dom Perignon. I know that I'm always the proponent of the small, grower-producers in Champagne, but I have to say that I'm a sucker for Dom Perignon. Dom is always incredibly finessed and elegant, and for me is the ultimate wine for a celebration. You've got to give props to the monk that created it all, and besides that label just says "party" all over it. So, after popping those beautiful corks and raising a glass to our beloved staff, we proposed a toast to the Secret Service and to Mike from the White house. We couldn't have done it without them and we truly miss them already.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Wonder Years

Looking back on my formative wine drinking years, I can see that having wine be a part of my everyday life was inevitable. Now, this can sound like a pretty nutty thing to say, particularly in light of the fact that it sounds like I'm saying that I drink every day...not that there's anything wrong with that. I don't actually drink everyday, but I can say that I've always been a bit "old for my years" when it comes to wine appreciation, at least in my younger days.

My business partner and I laugh because when she was young, she had an early love of the culinary arts and often played the role of chef at her parents' dinner parties, cooking for their guests herself while her parents entertained. At my home, I played the role of wine steward and service captain. I would set the table, open the bottles of Bordeaux and pour wine for her guests throughout dinner. I just loved pulling out all of the pieces of silverware from their special cloth covers, folding the linen napkins just so and especially pulling the corks from those mysterious bottles with the incomprehensible French writing all over them. Funny that Suzanne and I still get such pleasure from doing these things today.

My wine adolescence happened during college. I'm not saying that I didn't consume my share of white zinfandel and wine coolers in my four years at university, because believe me, Bartles & James were my good friends. But once I was able to move beyond the sugar-laden sweet wines, I ended up cutting my wine drinking teeth on more complex and satisfying, chewy red wines. I have particular memories of being in my early twenties, dining out with my long-time boyfriend and ordering bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe. We loved the dark, hearty and slight smokiness of the wines of that region and particularly loved the rustic qualities of the labels and the bottles themselves with the emblem of the region molded into the glass. He was a Spaniard who loved hearty, spicy food and Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe seemed to be the perfect counter to that. Call me a pushover, but I enjoyed eating and drinking what he did, and in this case it was clearly a good thing.

It was only a few years later that I discovered my first bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe blanc while on vacation with a new boyfriend in the South of France. And this is where I really fell...for the wine and the guy. I can closely describe my feelings towards white Rhone wines, and white Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe in particular, as the wine love of my life. This, my friends, is a love I've never gotten over. To this day, I feel a particular excitement when I get the opportunity to taste a white Châteauneuf. I feel myself start to get slightly giddy, like a child at the door to an ice cream truck, at the sight of that golden liquid being poured into a wine glass. This happened just the other day, when one of my favorite "wine guys" Jerome showed up with with a bottle of the 2009 Clos Saint Jean. I literally saw the words Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe and started to drool just a little bit.

Clos St. Jean, located in the famed Le Crau lieu-dit, is a family owned estate that was founded in 19o0 and has been making wine generation though generation. In 1991 brothers Pascal and Vincent Maurel took over the estate when their father died and hired on Philippe Gambie, one of the greatest oenologists in Châteauneuf, to consult. Their vineyard practices encourage natural methods, low yields and an overall respect for the environment. This relatively younger generation is working to create wines of excellence, which makes sense since their vines are some of the best situated in all of the region. Like all of the newer generations to be taking over family estates, they are trying to make their mark and to focus on quality over quantity. So far so good.

I could tell the minute I saw it in the glass that this was my kind of wine, dark golden color and sparklingly bright. It's made from a blend of equal parts Roussanne, Clairette and Grenache Blanc and is the essence of refinement. The nose shows delicate honeyed aromatics that continue on to the palate where they mix with fleshy rose, honeysuckle and unripe peach notes. Beyond even the palate, the texture of this wine really blew me away with its rich, oiliness and bright acidity. It was the perfect balance of soft and firm, lush and lean, fleshy and structured. The wine was partially aged in new oak barrels, giving the wine a rounded, slightly new world feel...but not in a bad way.

And like those old bottles of red that my boyfriend I loved to drink, this wine has a label that is unforgettable. On it is a portrait of a saint with a gilt halo that appears to be taken from a 16th or 17th century painting. Reflective of the the wine itself, the combination of the image and clean, contemporary text on the package is a study in opposites; old with new, classic with modern, history with present day. This seems very much in keeping with what the new generation in the winery is trying to achieve. It also reminds me of my wine past and my wine present, reflecting where I once was and where I am now.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Rosé By Any Other Color

I decided to try out an experiment to test a theory that I'd had. The theory surrounds a study that showed that people who consumed 14 glasses of wine per week were 60% less likely to contract a cold than other non-wine drinkers. One can see how I would find this to be an "au courant" investigation as we in Los Angeles are right in the midst of flu season and everyone around me seems to be dropping like flies. I myself have been teetering on the brink, so I started wondering if drinking a glass of wine or two could actually cure a cold. Many of my friends in the Latino community swear by the shot of tequila cure, but for a wine lover such as myself, I'd much rather drink a glass of fermented grapes, especially if I can find a good excuse to do so.

This all started as I began to feel the tell tale signs that I was coming down with something. I'm one of those people who just always seems to get sick. I swear I'm not a hypochondriac. The problem lies in the fact that I have two school-aged children who bring home every communicable disease known to man and I work in a business in which I shake many many hands every night. And although I wash my hands constantly and carry Purell, I still get sick all of the time. I've tried various methods for curing my various viruses including Oscillococcinum (do those little white balls of sugar really do anything?), Tamiflu (very expensive), feeding my cold (not great for my rear end), starving my cold (hard to do, but I felt really thin for a few days there), loading up on vitamin C (got tired of swallowing those horse pills), sweating it out (got thin again) and Theraflu (fell asleep at work!). This time I'm just ignoring my symptoms and working through it, which is not really doing anything to relieve my cruddy condition, though I do feel like quite the trooper. In my desperation to find a way to feel better, I decided to do one last search for a cure, which is how in my Google-based due diligence I came upon the delicious fact about wine drinking and cold avoidance. Immediately a light bulb went on in my head....maybe I can drink my way out of this illness!

I immediately went to my newly-dubbed "medicine cabinet" to find the appropriate bottle of wine to test out my theory. Within a few minutes I came upon a wine that I've been meaning to taste for a while now, the 2009 Scholium Project Rhododactylos, Phillips Farms, a wine that an employee at Tavern gave me after she worked with the winemaker during harvest and bottling. What struck me immediately about this wine was that I had assumed by its color that it was a white wine, until I actually read the label to discover it was rosé. I suppose that this wouldn't be strange for the Scholium Project as they are known for making wines that are fairly unusual.

It turns out that they actually made this wine by accident, an example of the curious things that happen when we try to control nature. The mistake happened in 2008 when they initially planned to make a deep dark red from 150 year-old dry farmed Cinsault, an utterly unheard of find from Phillips Farms in Lodi. But instead of yielding the anticipated small, dark berries from the vines, they got large, round, light colored grapes much like table grapes but with a muscat-like fragrance. They bled the juice off and fermented it into a rich and delicious white, or more accurately, light pink. They loved it so much that they decided to recreate it in 2009. This time they gently whole-cluster pressed it, fermented it in stainless steel and aged it in old white wine barrels. And though they say the wine was initially pink, it eventually lost it's color and became quite a serious golden color, somewhere between rose gold and 24 karat.

The wine showed aromas of roses, honey and allspice, all of which I was somehow able to detect through my runny nose. This honey intensified on the palate, resulting in a wine that drank much more like a mature white than any rosé I've ever had. It was rich with ripe stone fruit, exotic spices and incredible weight and texture, not unlike white wine from the Northern Rhône Valley. Although the wine was an unexpected rosé surprise, I would expect no less from The Scholium Project whose wines are always incredibly layered, intense and complex. They make the kinds of wines that are not only interesting to taste, but are also a pleasure to drink.

I enjoyed this wine over a couple of nights and though it didn't do anything obvious to help my cold, it certainly made me relax about my illness. This may be the same effect that tequila provides in a smaller, more potent dose. I've decided to make myself an experimental guinea pig and keep testing this theory in hope of finding a wine cure. I figure that it's the least I can do for the medical community.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Catalonia, Take Me Away!

I know things are getting rough when I start desperately pining for my June vacation in January. I think that this actually happens every year as I hear myself saying how badly I need a break while looking longingly at the calendar and the many months between now and then. When these days of rest in a far away place are truly so far away, I often find myself trying very hard to imagine what I would be doing on said trip, and I attempt to recreate it at home as a form of fantasy escapism...a pre-trip cultural immersion, if you will. This way, I can trick myself into thinking that I'm just a little closer to where I'd rather be.

At this very moment, I find myself in the post-holiday moment of getting back to normal life. Of course, normal is a relative term in the restaurant world, since there is never really a time one can call business as usual. Each day at work literally brings a new crisis, a new drama, a new adventure. It could be the ever-glamorous plumbing problem, the overly intoxicated and therefore irrational guest or the random computer crash that can set my mind desperately searching for escape. So today, right as the local neighborhood crazy woman attempts to steal one of our water glasses and then proceeds to punch our bartender in the stomach, I feel my mind wander off to the mountains and villages of Spain, my family's summer destination. I imagine myself walking down a cobblestone street or dining in a charming sidewalk cafe. Of course, this dreamy moment in my mind also includes a glass of wine. In fact, one of the first things I usually think about when it comes to travel, is what wine I will be drinking on my trip. Whereas most normal people think about the sights and the adventure, I think about the wine.

This happens to be the perfect moment to be wondering off to Spain for me because I'm in the middle of an all-out Spanish wine obsession. I just can't seem to get enough of those yummy white Riojas and earthy, concentrated wines of the Priorat. So it seems fairly appropriate that after dealing with yet another not so normal moment, I eagerly reached for a glass of 2005 El Castro de Valtuille Bierzo Joven, a recent addition to the Tavern wine list. This is a wine made from 100% Mencia that is so delicious, I can't seem to stop drinking it.

Mencia is sort of an underdog variety, one that's gotten less attention than the more well-known Spanish grapes Garnacha and Tempranillo. Though Mencia is grown in a few different regions in spain, Bierzo is without a doubt the most famous. Castro Ventosa, maker of Valtuille, is owned by the Perez family of who have been farming 75 hectares of old vine Mencia since 1752. This is one of the top producers in the area and although this wine is called "joven" or young vines, these plants actually range from 20 to 40 years-old. I love anyone or anything that considers 40 years-old young!

The wine's nose shows intriguing black fruit notes of amarena cherries, cassis and black raspberry along side a delicate brininess that I often associate with Spanish reds. On the palate, the dark berry notes continue along side touches of anise, black tea and tarragon. It has a silky texture with firm tannins and a general softness that makes it a pretty easy-drinking, yet complex wine.

When I close my eyes, breathe in the aromas in the glass and finally take a sip of this wine, I am literally transported to Madrid, to a place where business comes to a civilized halt in the middle of the day and where long, lazy dinners last until late in the night. My body instantly relaxes and the tension just seems to melt away. It's enough to help me deal, if only for a few minutes, with the craziness that is my reality. If only June wasn't so far away.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Really, It's Not the Wine. It's Me.

I just got back from a few lazy days in Phoenix. My business partner and I took our staff from AOC on an out of town retreat to Pizzeria Bianco, one of our all-time favorite restaurants. Pizzeria Bianco, for those who don't know, is a legendary pizzeria housed in an adorable old-time brick building that has won a James Beard award for its food and has such a devoted following that people often wait for up to three hours (no exaggeration) for a table. Part of the attraction to this place, besides the insanely delicious pizza, is its owner Chris Bianco who is not only incredibly talented, but is also quite a character. He's sort of a combination of Bobcat Goldthwait and Bruce Willis, with a head of wildly curly dark hair, baby face and raspy voice. He's one of those charming genius types who can ramble on about this or that culinary idea or inspiration with sincere excitement and child-like enthusiasm. He is amazingly self-deprecating and though he looks kind of tough, is actually a sweet and gentle person. We had an incredibly fun night there with our staff and ate and laughed our heads off. It was one of those nights that just passed by too quickly.

Of course, Suzanne and I both saw this retreat as an opportunity to spend a coupe of extra days in Phoenix with our husbands at the Sanctuary, the perfect zen spa/hotel for relaxing and doing nothing aside from reading, sleeping and getting pampered. And let me tell you, "doing nothing" is pretty much all you can do when Phoenix gets so cold that it actually snows! We did nothing...which took some getting used to. You see, my husband and I are such constantly moving city peeps that we have a hard time wrapping our heads around the idea of actually not doing anything. The first day of any vacation, we look at each other and say, "Well, what should we do now?" and talk about how we should probably go back home. We always feel like we should be accomplishing something, fixing something, making something, going somewhere. It's not until half way through the second day of any trip that we grasp the concept of chilling out and finally just go with the idea of inactivity.

It was on this second day of our trip, after a day of just lying around that we went out with Suzanne and her husband to listen to jazz at a place called Kazimierz World Wine Bar. Kazimierz is a dark and moody joint (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) that feels a little bit like a speakeasy and is owned by Peter Kasperski, probably the best wine buyer in all of Arizona. Peter's got a ton of personality, as do his wine lists which are loaded with anecdotes and winemaker profiles, making it about a mile long and something that one could curl up with and read by the fire. The list is so big that it made me wonder how many people can possibly come into that place to support such a huge investment in wine. This list truly rivals many of those in the finest restaurants in the world, but in a far more casual, down and dirty setting.

Because of what I do for a living, it's usually left up to me to choose the wine for the table, understandably. It's just like at dinner when we all looked to Suzanne and her husband to tell us what we should eat. But I have to say that this task of selecting the wine feels like an enormous amount of pressure. It is not an exaggeration for me to say that I feel as though a poor choice is a sign of personal failure on my part. Thus, the selection process is a long and arduous one, usually provoking glares of, "come on, we're thirsty here!" from those at the table. I am also a bit obsessive compulsive. Combine this with the length of the list at Kazimierz, and I had a recipe for disaster on my hands. I was trying hard not to cave in to the pressure I was feeling and yet I was paralyzed by the selection. (I have to interject here to say that even though this feeling of anxiety never leaves me, I am normally quite successful in the wine selection thing.) That is, until this moment when I did a spectacular job of picking what I thought was one of the worst wines I've ever tasted. I chose a 2006 Côtes du Rhône from a producer (who shall remain nameless) that I normally like quite a bit, but it was so intense, dark and funky that I literally couldn't drink a sip of it. My friends at the table were kind enough to drink the stuff, I think as a way of making me feel a little better.

I wasn't sure what had gone wrong with this wine. Was it tainted? Did it have bret? Was it just not my style? Was it the vintage? Or. maybe it was just me, something that wouldn't have been unusual since wine is such a subjective thing. I decided to do a comparison and taste a 2006 Côtes du Rhône that I just happened to have at home to see how it was holding up. The wine was a 2006 Catherine le Goeuil, Côtes du Rhône, Cairanne, Cuvée Léa Felsch that I bought from Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants. And although the first sip was a bit tight, I am happy to say that the wine restored my faith in myself and the vintage. Catherine le Goeuil makes a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan from a 14 hectare vineyard in the village of Cairanne. She has been farming the vineyard organically since 1993 and makes only this one red wine from the property.

After the initial sip, the wine opened up fairly quickly to reveal a nose of soft, cooked plum and dark berry notes with touches of dark green herbs and the very slightest hint of vanilla. On the palate, layers of tobacco and smoky game meat intermingled with dark fruit notes and delicate hints of cedar spice. Although dominated by dark fruit notes, the wine maintained a decent amount of acidity resulting in a feeling of freshness and youth. It was actually the perfect wine to drink with the pork and cavolo nero I made last night as the dark earthiness of the kale was the perfect partner for the wine's herbal component. I liked this wine so much that I'm inspired to buy some more of it to keep on hand for more cold weather meals.

I'm sure it seems pretty comical to hear that I have a hard time ordering wine in a restaurant, at least one that is not my own. And in the end, not loving that particular bottle of wine wasn't really the end of the world. I don't have to have a "relationship" with each bottle of wine I order. Besides, everybody else at the table was totally fine with it, so maybe it really was just me.