Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Revisited

For the January 25th issue.

Well, we did it. We made it through Christmas. As you may recall, my family was going to attempt to get through Christmas by exchanging only local gifts, or (failing that) at least not getting anything made in China.

This was a decidedly mixed experience, although a highly educational one. For example, did you know that every single thing for sale in the United States is made in China? I bet you didn't know that, but I can attest that it's 99.999% true.

I spent the last four days before Christmas frantically shopping for anything that wasn't made in China. Sure, I got some local wines for my editor, but I couldn't do that for everyone. We did manage to score a couple of DVDs for the grandkids that were made in Mexico, and I found a pasta strainer that was made in Thailand, but the overall end result of Christmas was that we all ended up trading almonds and gift certificates to local stores (stores, by the way, which are mostly stocked with crap made in China).

Not the most satisfying Christmas in that respect. But I did learn that we are completely dependent on our Chinese overlords for everything we own and use. All hail our Chinese overlords! Sigh. I wish I was kidding.

However, I did score a couple of great wine gifts that I can consume in an attempt to forget that America is now made in - and owned by - China.

First, I got a bottle of 2003 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve. Despite its French-sounding name, Beaulieu (or, more familiarly, "BV") is one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley. And aside from Inglenook (the real Inglenook, not that crappy box wine schlock), BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve is the wine that had the greatest impact in establishing California as a top wine-making region.

It's a wine with a long and fascinating history (and one my absolute favorites) but that's not the subject of this column. The subject of this column is the second wine gift I got: a gift certificate for Creekside Cellars.

My partner went way overboard and got me a $100 gift certificate. That's all great and everything except for the fact that we had agreed to keep things "under control" this year, and that, as a result, I only got her a $25 gift certificate to The Galley. Oops.

That will have to get straightened out later, after she lets me back in the house, but in the meantime I have $100 to spend on wine! Woohoo! There ain't nothin' as fun as buying wine... except of course drinking wine, but to do that you have to buy the wine first, so the way I figure it, it's a win-win situation all the way around.

The rules for using the gift certificate were the same as for Christmas: whatever I picked had to be from California. I could live with that.

My goal on this trip was to try to score a Cab and a Pinot, so right in the door at Creekside, I headed to the Cabernet rack. Silver Oak doesn't impress me, so I skipped that and went straight for the 2005 Caymus Special Selection, but at $170 a bottle it was way too rich for even my gift-certificated blood. Coming back to earth a bit, my eye was caught by the 2004 Justin Isosceles ($59.99) and the 2004 Larkmead Firebelle (meritage blend, $45.00).

Next, I moved to the Pinot Noir rack, which I would normally avoid since I think Pinots have gotten hugely over-priced in the past few years. But today, fortified with a gift certificate, I was attracted to several California Pinots, including the 2005 Belle Glos Las Alturas Vineyard $57.99), the 2005 Sea Smoke Southing ($51.99), and the 2005 Domaine Alfred Edna Valley Pinot ($41.99).

How did I finally decide? Like any smart shopper, I talked to the proprietor, Dennis McLaughlin. Now, my tastes and Dennis's don't always match, but I listened for characteristics I wanted to hear as he described each wine. For the Cabernet, I wanted big and smooth and accessible. Dennis's description of the Larkmead seemed to hit that pretty well. For the Pinot, I like lots of Pinot character, not too lean or subtle, and the Sea Smoke sounded like a full-bodied Pinot with plenty of complexity.

In the end I happily walked out with the Larkmead Firebelle, the Sea Smoke Point Noir and a bottle of 1999 Roederer Estate L'Hermitage Brut (Anderson Valley sparkling wine, $48.99). Of course, that's about $50 more wine than my gift certificate was worth, but hey, I needed the bubbly for New Year's Eve anyway.

Take aways: China sucks. Local stores rock. Gift certificates really are the perfect gift.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The "It" Wine Experience

Column for Feb 8th.

Last Thanksgiving, my partner and I visited our parents in southern California. As the resident "wine expert", I was told to bring the wine for Thanksgiving dinner (a nice festive Mumm Blanc de Noirs).

Unfortunately, I didn't plan for dinner the day after Thanksgiving. We were going to one of my father's favorite Italian restaurants and I didn't have a bottle on hand – an embarrassing predicament for any resident wine expert.

Fortunately, I was sent out on an errand to purchase a lock to replace the one we were going to cut off of King Tut's tomb (AKA my mother-in-law’s 10x30 foot storage locker, the inside of which no one had seen for a quarter of a century and which you really don't want to get me started on because of the boxes of paper napkins stacked to the ceiling, not to mention 25 years of dust, sofas, Pittsburgh phone books and God only knows what else.).

Luckily, there was a high-end bottle shop next to the hardware store. After perusing their very nice selection for an hour or two, I picked a bottle of 2001 Rodney Strong Symmetry. I've always liked Rodney Strong's entry level Cabernet; it’s a pretty solid wine for the price. But I didn't really know anything about the Symmetry. It was just a lucky pick.

I'll skip over the whole deal with the rude waiter, but at least he opened the bottle and gave me a taste before pouring for everyone. That first taste told me that this wine was a cut above average, and as it developed in the glass, I began to realize that I was having the proverbial "it" wine experience.

What is the "it" wine experience? To your ordinary wino, it's that first taste of Thunderbird that convinces them that they could be happy spending the rest of their life living in an alley begging for enough spare change to buy their next bottle. To your extra-ordinary wine snob, on the other hand, it's usually that one glass or bottle that blew their mind and really turned them on to fine wine.

This bottle definitely blew my mind. Unfortunately, there's really no way to describe it. I've drunk a lot of wine in my life, but nothing like this. The Cabernets and Bordeaux I've been able to afford up until now pale in comparison, with ghostly faint suggestions of fruit and thin, spindly structures.

The Symmetry absolutely lived up to it's name, not only with incredibly dense dark flavors of blackberry, black cherry, chocolate, mocha and spices, but also with a wonderful balance, silky smooth tannins and a finish that seemed to go on for minutes. Every sip set off a cascade of stunning revelations.

It was a religious experience, and I could swear I felt the rapture quickly approaching.

Sadly, a bottle of wine split between five people only gives you one short glass to savor, and all too soon the experience was over. I was left like a penniless heroin addict, craving more, more, more. I went into withdrawal almost immediately, and was pale, shivering and incoherent by the end of dinner.

I went back to rob the shop where I got the bottle, but discovered that there was no more. I shot up the place in a rage and left. Then I stole a car and raced back to Chico, avoiding the law at every turn. I searched for the wine online, only to find it nearly impossible to find or incredibly expensive when I did find it. I started stealing TVs and car stereos to pay for my addiction, but to little avail. Eventually, I was caught robbing a liquor store (go figure) and sentenced to 3-5 years.

Or so it sometimes seems. Strange as it is to say, that one bottle of wine really changed my life – and not for the better. No longer does a “decent” bottle of wine suffice for Wednesday night dinner. Every bottle I drink, I compare to that 2001 Symmetry. It doesn’t matter what it is, a $10 Zinfandel or a $70 Napa Cabernet. It gets compared to that one bottle and inevitably comes up wanting.

Like an oenophilic adrenalin junkie, I’m now on a perpetual search for another “it” wine experience, spending hundreds of dollars in just the past couple of weeks on various Napa cabs and Bordeaux.

I thought having an “it” wine experience would be a good thing, but all it’s done is raise my taste beyond the reach of my checkbook. I think the only cure is to “recalibrate” my palate, and the only way to do that is with a bottle of Thunderbird. So, if you see me in an alley somewhere, be kind and toss me some change.