Memories Are Made Of This?
It’s the beginning of the “saison des vacances,” a foggy Memorial Day weekend in Berkeley (as Cornelia has always said, Summer is the coldest season in Berkeley), and there’s no place to park because the Himalayan Fair is going full-tilt up the street at Live Oak Park (Old hippies selling incense, handmade leather belts, prayer bells, and blue-green algae teacakes. Exotic grandmothers wrapped in multi-colored scarves, slurping mung bean stew, and speaking in clipped New Jersey dialects. Golden Retrievers wearing red bandanas, eating green-tea ice cream dropped from sugar cones held by tearful, screaming four year olds. Some old guy from Mississippi playing a juice harp, to the sounds from which a large middle-aged couple belly dance. The lines for the Porta-potties aren’t too long. Patchouli oil covers up a multitude of sins.) on the morning when, of all things, the Chronicle reports the successful ascent of Everest by a blind man. By chance, or some larger design, about which we are, as yet, also in the dark, this is to be the evening we see the film “Himalaya.” It’s all I can do not to fall upon my knees in wonder, and bellow “FAR OUT!!!” for all I’m worth. I’ve been back in town for a week, and I think my mind has, at last, begun to catch up with my body.
The fact that I’m a vintner always colors my conversations; when I see my dentist, or the veterinarian, my accountant, or an acquaintance I run into in the produce section, it takes just a few seconds to get to the question: “how’s the wine going?” (Hmm, I say to myself, is the wine ‘going?’) followed quickly by “is this the slow time of the year for you?”
It’s not easy to explain, even to myself, how unslow it feels. The mid-to-late Spring has become the season during which I travel to various market areas where our wines are sold, in order to visit the retail sales people and restaurant sommeliers and servers whom I expect to tell the world about the virtues of my wares. I go to “press the flesh,” to re-connect, to build, and nurture, and renew the relationships on which the success of a business enterprise is so very dependent. It’s not anything I thought much about when I signed on to do this job back in ’85, but it’s become, in recent years, an increasingly important part of how my time is spent. Important enough that between the 18th of April and the 18th of May, I was at home most infrequently, and never for long.
It’s jarring, in certain ways, to be back. Three or four nights ago I awoke, perhaps at three or four am, my eyes opening briefly, as I turned over in bed. On seeing the windows and French doors in our bedroom, through the filter of being half-asleep, I said to myself, “boy this is a nice hotel,” which, of course nudged my brain up a bit more toward the surface of consciousness to try to remember which hotel this was, and of course I couldn’t, and I felt the adrenaline lurch in my body until I could ascertain that I was at home in my own bed, next to my wife, who was comfortably asleep. (I don’t remember anymore which hotel it was, in what city, where I awoke in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call, and walked into a wall because I thought I was in another hotel — you know, the one in …uh, Cleveland? No, that had the floor-to-ceiling windows, and they were on the other side of the bed… never mind.)
The first order of business for me, at the beginning of the day, when I’m away from home, is: where can I get a decent espresso? This may be the era of Starbucks, but it’s an awful lot easier to get a palatable glass of wine these days than it is to find espresso you can actually drink. It’s amazing, there’s no shortage of places with really good espresso machines, good grinders, top-quality beans, places that feature Illy, and all kinds of good coffees. But there’s still way too much to be desired in the execution department of most establishments that profess to serve espresso, and I wonder whether there isn’t some secret, undrground league I could join that can direct us spoiled java junkies to the short shots and the smoky crema, in some place that ain’t so corporate? (This is not a knock on Starbucks per se; I can almost always get espresso I enjoy there, and the feeling in the places is always comfortable, and orderly, which I appreciate.)
The side of being the travelling salesman that is easy is that the focus is somewhat narrower for me than when I’m at home. A salesman, or manager, from the distributor that sells my wine, in whatever state I’m in, will pick me up at my hotel at a pre-arranged time, and we’ll drive off to visit whichever accounts for which he or she has lined up appointments for the day. I just have to talk about the wines we’re pouring on that day, and try to develop some sort of rapport with the person I’m visiting. With some people, it’s easy; they’re interested in the wines, they’re outgoing and friendly and relaxed. With some it’s much tougher-they’re overworked, or the boss is mad at them, or they’re shy or insecure. Maybe they’re hung over. (Maybe I’m hung over.) It’s definitely different with each person. I have to feel for a way to present information that makes it easy to be received. And I hate having to say the same old thing over and over again.
I spent a year as a tour guide at Robert Mondavi’s winery, back in the mid-70’s, and I never gave a tour the same way twice, though I presented the same information at least a thousand times. It’s something about watching people’s faces and just not being able to stand seeing nothing happen. So I’d find ways to work in a joke or two. Or ask a question to get the wheels turning. And of course I’d get asked questions, often the same ones I’d already heard three or four times that day. I woke up one morning last week in Columbus, Ohio, having been dreaming of a wine buyer for a grocery store asking me: “so, uh, d’you get your grapes from those guys up in Napa Valley?” Who are those guys up in Napa Valley?
My travels took me to Chicago, Portland (Oregon), Boston/Cambridge, and a tour of Ohio that included Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. A few highlights, mostly culinary:
Bin 36, in Chicago. Where else can you get a glass of Gaglioppo (delicious red wine from Calabria) to drink with your rack of lamb?
Naha, also in Chicago. Hot new spot with great food. Ate there with a group of people, all in the wine business, and we ordered an array of dishes to share. The risotto with duck was so good I ordered it twice. The chef paired a lamb and favas dish with our 99 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah at a Share Our Strength fundraiser, a few nights later, at Zealous (also one of my favorite Chi-town eateries.).
North Pond Cafe, still in Chicago. Great lunch in Lincoln Park, right on the lake. Really nice place.
Salpicon; Another winemaker asked me “why go to Salpicon, if you can go to Frontera Grill or Topolobampo?” Fair question. Why drink Edmunds St. John Syrah when you can get Offerus, or Alban? (Or, as someone once asked Edmund Hillary: “why climb Everest?” Even the blind man knew the answer.) The chef-owner at Salpicon is a Mexican woman who loves to eat and drink, and she cooks her butt off; the food is dynamite! I had a pork dish with chilis and tomatillo sauce that was made for Syrah, and I cleaned my plate with a smile on my face.
David Grisman sighting, O’Hare airport.
Three Doors Down, in Portland, Oregon. Innovative, beautifully prepared food, and many unusual and delicious wines to choose from.
Gino’s, in Portland, where I poured some new wines for a group of retail and restaurant buyers, for whom we’d bought lunch: gorgeous food, served family-style. A short concert followed — my first performance in an awfully long time. Don, who sells my wine in Portland, played great improv guitar leads.
Cafe Castagna, a next-door addition to the eponymously named restaurant, one of Portland’s very best. Casual fare, wonderful light pizzas, good wines to drink. This town is rockin’.
Higgins’ in Portland. Very good, comfortable restaurant, and always really terrific beers on draft at the bar. Don and I almost always end up at Higgins’ after the last sales call, sometimes even after an evening out, for a beer or a glass of wine. Great service and staff.
Hammersly’s Bistro in Boston. I love eating at Hammersly’s. It’s like the BayWolf here in Oakland, but slightly less low-key. Everything is always delicious. John Lithgow sighting. (!!!)
The Co-op Bookstore in Harvard Square. Nothing to eat here, but plenty to digest. Picked up the third volume in Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. If you can’t be at home, might as well inhabit a good story when you’ve got a few moments.
Jacobs Field Cleveland. A seat in the shade, near the top of the upper deck, very close to home plate, therefore not the Uecker seats. Freezing cold day. Cleveland was unfortunately (actually I felt pretty impartial) shut out by Tampa Bay. Featured players in this game included ex-Giants Ellis Burks, Dave Burba, Rich Rodriguez, and ex-A Ben Grieve, who got three hits. But the clear standout guy of the day was a vendor who shouted (a la WWF) for all to hear, that he was the Beer Guy!!! You better believe it.
Moxie in Cleveland. Classy restaurant. Nice food, good wine list. Good company, too — a fellow named Mario Vitale, from Western Reserve Wine Company, one of the great American wine retailers, and teachers.
Pier W, on Lake Erie. Great spot to eat and drink and watch the sun set on Cleveland, or to watch the weather change. Todd Thomson, the wine buyer and sommelier, is a bright light in the business.
Lola, best place in town. Really good food, great service, superb wine list. Great bartender. All around class joint.
The Refectory in Columbus, Ohio. An old, old place that is changing with the times.
Feels, from the architecture, like it’s from the twenties or thirties (last century, that is), but for food, wine, and service, it’s utterly contemporary. Dave McMahon, the wine buyer, had me in for a staff training. It felt like he was really rushing us, but then, as we put down the glasses after tasting the last of four wines, he caused a guitar to appear, and asked me to sing. How could I refuse?
Alana’s, also Columbus. We got inside just in time, as the sky opened up for the second time that day, and a good, old-fashioned Midwestern thunderstorm lit up central Ohio. Alana’s is a fairly new restaurant in an old building. It’s got a comfortable, funky feel to it, though there’s nothing lacking at all in demeanor, service or presentation here. This is great cooking; it must be a bit like what Chez Panisse was like back in the mid-70’s. We ordered a number of wines off the exceptional list. One of them, the ’99 Burgaud Cote Rotie we tasted beside the Edmunds St. John ’99 Wylie-Fenaughty, just to see how they stacked up. Good comparison — both wines very impressive.
The Banks of the Ohio, and the ferry boat we took across to beat the Friday night commute hour traffic to get me to the Cincinnati airport to catch my plane home. The Ohio is a beautiful river, and the surrounding countryside is magnificent. Wonderful old architecture in so many of the buildings and houses in this city. Belongs to the America of myth, the one we need to preserve.
My next trip takes me back to Paso Robles, and environs; I’ll be leaving Thursday morning, the 31st, for the Hospice du Rhone activities, beginning with a Syrah tasting at the inestimable Villa Creek (which you’ll no doubt remember as the scene of many a blessed pint of cold Pilsener Urquell passing these grateful lips.). To be followed by all sorts of tomfoolery and chicanery — I mean… some really important tasting events and seminars and special meals and serious things of that ilk.
The espresso scene in Paso has been pretty limited, but it’s bound to change, I imagine. And I will be staying in another hotel, but I’ve gotta stay somewhere, don’t I?
Well, now; that’s been a load off my chest. This is so much cheaper than psychotherapy…
See? What’d I Tell Ya?
I’ve been touting our 1999 Syrah, “Wylie-Fenaughty” as the best wine I’ve ever put in a bottle, for a few months now. A few influential outside opinions are lending weight to that assessment recently. Among them:
- Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar:
“Good medium ruby. Reticent, but thoroughly ripe aromas of framboise, smoked meat, pepper, olive, lavender, and dried herbs. Rich, broad, supple and sweet, with a layered, fleshy texture…This has lovely fruit with plenty of supporting spine. The finish features fine tannins, and very persistent fruit flavors.”
- The Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine:
“Intense and highly concentrated aromas of blackberry and pepper immediately identify the varietal origins of this deep and optimally ripened wine, and the flavors that ensue are right in step with the fruity precision and intensity of the nose. Oak, while an attractive accent here, never threatens to take control, and any tendency to excessive gaminess is held nicely in check. Big-bodied, firm and fleshy, the wine tightens a slight touch at the finish, and promises to grow famously for a decade or more.”
- The Fine Wine Review:
“this would be a strong candidate for the finest Syrah produced to date in California — from a serious student who has devoted much time to visiting the best Rhone producers…what you taste are syrah and the site, nothing more and nothing less. Roasted chestnuts and framboise in the nose, a creamy texture to a medium-full body, precise cherry and framboise flavors, long, black cherry finish…Delicious now, but I also see a minimum of a decade of evolution.”
A word to the wise; the 2000 vintage for this wine is, if anything, slightly better. The other wines for 2000 are also truly splendid, some of them, again, the best so far. Stay tuned.
COMING SOON, TO AN ORGANOLEPTICIANS SPACE NEAR YOU!