Selbach-Oster Pinot blanc 2016

I was chatting with a coworker about what my days look like at the moment: wake up, make tea, go to work (read: log in to work email and chat applications), make lunch, work some more, go for a walk, make dinner, open wine, watch movie, sleep. He’s a craft beer type fella, knowledgeable and funny like all my best coworkers are, and he’s hanging in there with all of the rest of us.

Tonight, dinner was microwaved leftover cacio e pepe (not bad, really) along with a Whole Foods salad kit that I destroyed by accidentally storing in the overly cold part of the fridge; always fun what the freeze-thaw cycle does to a garbage salad, alas. And then it was time to camp out in front of the TV with a bottle of wine.. and this one was for me the best wine of the lockdown so far.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been two and half years, but I hiked the Moselsteig in 2017 (blog posts here). My days followed a similar pattern: wake up, drink tea, start walking, stop for lunch, walk some more, have dinner, drink wine, blog, read about the next day’s walk, sleep. This bottle of Pinot blanc was a time machine back to 2017; it tasted like any number of excellent Moselle wines that I drank along the way. Beautiful texture, with that lovely, typical slate-y quality that’s so hard to describe but so obvious after you’ve drunk a number of wines from the region. Excellent acidity, with lemon and cream to balance it all out. Really, it’d be hard to find a more pleasurable drink for the money… and most importantly for me, all I could do was think about all of the beautiful days I spent on the Moselle while closing my eyes and hoping that I can do it all again someday (I’m guessing after there’s a vaccine).

In the meantime, though, more work… and chatting with Julian about where we can go together in the future. We had plans to meet up at the end of 2020, but that may not happen (it’s hard to say in April!). Regardless, we will meet again… Spain? Portugal? Georgia? Until then, it’s memories of times we shared together and the occasional bottle of wine that snaps the past back into focus.

Bodega Colomé Torrontes 2019

Two stories for you today:

1. When Julian first proposed that we write some kind of wine blog together, I wondered if anyone would ever, you know, send us some free stuff. Spoiler: no, not really. I think it happened exactly three times: one, some multinational behemoth sent a free bottle of a $6 Rioja (thank u, next), much later, two, the kind folks at Mollydooker sent a case of wine, including the really good stuff (read: the expensive stuff), which, me being me, I promptly reviewed as thoroughly and honestly as I could – I have vague memories of finally, excitedly opening a bottle of their tête de cuvée and being profoundly disappointed; it was pretty much everything that I despair of in wine in a single beautifully packaged bottle priced well out of my range, and then at some point for reasons that completely escape me, an author – whose name I have stupidly, annoyingly forgotten – send me an advance reading copy of what I believe was a popular science book on the subject of taste, perhaps, or smell. It is to my eternal regret and shame that I did not review it or at least compose a lengthy email to the author thanking him for generously sending me a free book. I do not remember precisely what the topic of the book was, but eventually, having read it and thought about it for a few months… hang on, UPS is here to deliver emergency hair clippers (the barbers have been shut down, alas). Be right back.

Aha! I remember his name. Leonard something… let me check my email… Leonard Mlodinow… who is, holy shit, a physicist at CalTech. OK, I am now utterly mortified that I did not review his book at the time. Leonard, you deserved better, and you certainly deserve better than the following comments, which are based on all of my scientific experience (which would be none: I have a BA from Berkeley, not a BS, and I am in no way qualified to talk about anything scientific other than perhaps Christian Science, if you’ll excuse a terrible joke), a very distant memory of having read his book, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, and what little I learned about olfaction theory from Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, which is a delightful book about Luca Turin, author of Perfumes The Guide and other articles on perfume. Turin is known for a (crackpot? breakthrough? TBD) theory of olfaction that is predicated on the idea that deuterated versions of the same molecule (that is, a version that is similarly shaped, but which vibrates differently) will smell different; that is, it is not the shape of a molecule that determines how it will be perceived by a human, but how it vibrates. One of the parts of Burr’s book that sticks with me is the disappointment Turin experienced when not every human subject in his experimental trials was able to perceive the difference between the two versions of the same molecule; it seems – again, this is from memory – that something else was at play and that no two people seemed to experience smell in precisely the same way, with some being generally better at it then other. (This, I assure you, will come into play when I eventually describe what this wine tasted like to me, and what my husband Dan, who is luckily in possession of a far better sense of smell than I, thought of it.)

Next, then, is some basic experience with the sense of smell (and taste) as thoughtfully demonstrated out in lectures by Prof. Amy Mumma at Central Washington University. CWU is in Ellensburg, Washington, in a relatively dry area of the state at slightly higher elevation to Seattle. I can vouch for personal experience that wines produced in eastern Washington will necessarily taste a bit different once they’re transported over the Cascades; you’re now tasting them at sea level, and the Puget Sound is much more humid than, say, Red Mountain, and that does mix it up a bit as well. Finally, this is only tangentially relevant, but I have eaten the same lunch, a reduced fat Asian chicken salad from Trader Joe’s, at my desk for the last ten years or so, and I can definitely say that it never tastes exactly the same. Some days the soy is a little bit more pronounced, other days the carrots are prominent, yada yada yada. Why? As with perfumes, I suspect that changes in ambient temperature and humidity (and probably changes in mood as well, who knows?), mean that different notes are more prominent under certain circumstances. If the office fridge is running extra cold, it doesn’t taste like much of anything; if it’s warmed up on my desk for a while, it tastes better; on a dry winter day, the onions taste better; on a warm, humid summer day, it’s more umami. Go figure.

In short, the experience of taste – to me, at least – is definitely influenced by genetics as well as by the ambient environment. If you’ve ever been at a winery tasting room and tried to taste wine standing downwind of a ckOne enthusiast, you may have noticed that you couldn’t really taste anything. You may also be fortunate enough to know people whose genetics seem to allow them to pinpoint flavors better, or who seem to sense a wider, more vibrant range of things in wine than you do. At this point in my life, I know for certain that my sense of smell is not particularly good, but that my husband’s is. This is fine. I buy the wine, he enjoys it, all’s well.

And this leads me to what I believe I eventually came to feel about Dr. Mlodinow’s book: that yes, chance is all well and good, but I do not believe that it’s fair to say that the wine writers’ assignation of scores is strictly aleatoric. Sadly, I cannot find the book in my house; I assume it’s actually here, just shelved somewhere that I cannot find at the moment. Reading the kind email that Dr. Mlodinow sent back in 2008, it sounds like he likely pointed out the inanity of Parker-style wine reviews, in which every review is reduced to a score and in which we all of course obviously know what the fuck the difference between an 89 point and a 90 point wine is. I think I remember feeling that Dr. Mlodinow was perhaps not a wine drinker, just someone who felt that wine scoring was bullshit – which it is! – and yet part of wanted to say but that’s not the entire point of all of this. Good wine writing isn’t filling out an Excel spreadsheet and awarding points based on whether or not the wine’s murky or clear, funky or tame; good wine writing should hopefully give you some idea of what the wine is like, why it might be interesting, and ultimately if you’re very lucky it’ll be amusing or challenging or what have you.

So, Dr. Mlodinow: thank you again for sending me a review copy of your book! To sum up: taste is tricky, there are genetic differences between different people, taste depends on the environment (humidity, temperature, ambient noise, smells, etc.), taste is also culturally determined and can be learned (see also: Germans who think American root beer smells like toothpaste, Americans who think ripe Camembert smells like jock itch), wine scoring is indeed bullshit, bottle variation is a thing (cork especially, some synthetic closures as well), and all of this cannot be reduced to mere chance.

2. In The Current Situation, my days are starting to all look more or less the same: Wake up at 7 am, make a pot of tea (today’s tea: Mariage Frères French Breakfast), have toast (or muesli, or Weetabix, or whatever), change into work clothes (OK, sweatpants, don’t judge), and log on to all of my work’s systems by 8 am (Microsoft Teams, Cisco Jabber, all that fun stuff). I then spend the day writing knowledgebase articles, working with customers to renew expired certificates, configure IV infusion pumps, all of the usual stuff. Lunch is at noon, which means I make sandwiches, typically. Then it’s back to work until about 2 pm, when things slow down as most of our customers are in the Eastern time zone, which gives me enough time to sneak out for a walk in the park as long as it remains open. Finally, at 5 pm, I log out of everything, shut the computer down, and make dinner. Today was Thursday, though, which means that Eat My Box delivered supper, so all I had to do was warm that up and plate it. Rigatoni, charred broccoli, olives, and lemon, so… white wine, anyone? I went with a Bodega Colomé Torrontes 2019 from Argentina… wait, aren’t they all from Argentina? Huh. Well, time for another cheat code… time to whip out that huge Wine Grapes book that I never read all of because. Let’s see what Robinson et al have to say… yup, Argentina only. Surprise, it’s a naturally occurring hybrid of Muscat of Alexandria and Listán Prieto, so there you go, mystery solved. Never one of my favorites, this wine always tasted like some kind of lemon cleaning product, the fancy kind from Whole Foods, but with a bitter, tannic edge to it. Of course, my husband Dan took one sip and said ‘uh, is this Muscat or something?’, once again proving that he’s better at the blind tasting game than I am. Dammit.

This is the first time I’d drunk anything from Colomé, and it’s slightly more expensive at $12 than usual cheap Torrontes I’ve seen, and it seems to me that it was well worth the extra couple bucks – and I am not surprised the Wine Grapes calls out this producer as a stand-out example of Torrontes Riojana. Not at all sweet, but with good texture and that love it or hate it lemon Pledge-with-an-edge, this is a classic example of the style. Damn the back label, though, for suggesting oysters because I sure as heck am not going to be able to eat oysters any time soon as the border with Mexico is closed.

Kirkland Signature Small Batch Bourbon Tennessee

I don’t think Julian or I have ever attempted to write a tasting note about any kind of distilled spirits, and honestly, I won’t attempt to do so. This post isn’t really about what this bourbon tastes like; instead, it’s just a quick note regarding a minor epiphany I had on an impromptu panic-shop through the Mission Valley Costco in San Diego last Tuesday.

I like cognac, but I seldom buy it because I also recognize that if I have an entire bottle of brandy in the house, it is likely that I will at some point enjoy a bit of it and then decide to enjoy just a little bit more of it, well past the point of enjoying the drink as a drink and well onto the point of enjoying it as intoxication. This is not cool: it’s not great for my health, it’s calories I do not need, and so on. I’m still embarrassed to talk about this, but I suppose this is something most adults have to reckon with at some point, especially those of us who public admit to being wine drinkers or whatever; it can be hard to enjoy booze responsibility at times, especially if there are (ahem) external stress factors at play, blah blah blah. All of this was somewhere on my mind when I turned past the booze aisle at Costco, saw the cognac I liked, and also bourbon, which I also like; I am especially partial to Woodford Reserve double oaked, which they didn’t have, but they had the regular stuff, but whoa, I do NOT need a 1.75 liter bottle of bourbon in the house. A regular size bottle is bad enough, thank you, so I of course bought it with no idea as to what it might taste like.

The next day, I decided I might as well give it a taste, so I whipped up something I call a Bullshit Old Fashioned, aka my usual way of drinking bourbon. Ordinarily I’d slice a half-moon of orange, put a sugar cube on top of it, sprinkle the sugar with Regan’s orange bitters, muddle it, put a big-ass ice cube on top of that, and then cover it with about 2 ounces of bourbon. Given the Current Situation, I did not have an orange to use, so I just used simple syrup, orange bitters, and a bit of mandarin peel. The end result was… disheartening. As in not particularly good, there being kind of unpleasant bitter edge to everything. Alas. So I Googled “kirkland bourbon review” and stumbled across a post from a fella who lives in the neighborhood who also happens to be an actual, honest-to-God whisky expert. His verdict: “Not the worst liquor I’ve ever had, but it may just be the worst bourbon I’ve ever purchased.” Well now. (Also: proper to Rowley for the old TTB COLA lookup trick. That’s a fun one, isn’t it?)

After some ruminating over not the worst drink I’ve ever had, but perhaps the worst Old Fashioned I’ve ever drunk, I had a minor aha! moment. If you’re writing about a wine, or an album, or a movie, or whatever, and if you think “whoa, this sucks,” it might be interesting to try to decide who this thing is for, or what you could do to make it a more pleasurable experience. If you’re drinking a glass of [yellow tail] chardonnay, and if you decide it sucks, well, maybe it’s time to steal out of the Carl Wilson playbook and try to imagine why this wine is so incredibly popular and how you might better understand the point of the drink. And if you find yourself in a lockdown type situation with not a lot in the house, home barkeep-wise, but with a bottle of Kirkland Signature bourbon that has failed to produce the kind of Old Fashioned you normally enjoy, then what? Do you keep trying to drink it, lamenting your poor choice in liquor? Or do you try something else, something you haven’t tried before?

If you were to rummage through my soi-disant liquor cabinet, you would find the following items: one bottle of MacPherson Scotch whisky, one bottle of Muti gin, a bottle of Chartreuse elixir vegetal, Kirkland Signature XO cognac, Kirkland Signature brandy, and a few bottles of bitters: cardamom, lavender, and ‘aromatic’ bitters from a random shop in El Calafate, Argentina, Angosture, Regan’s orange, and black walnut bitters. The what now? Aha. A light bulb clicked on: Years and years ago, I had a fantastic meal at Bitterroot barbecue in Ballard, Seattle, with good friends, and I especially liked their “creamed Old Fashioned,” apparently made with soda, vanilla sugar, and black walnut bitters. I had bought the bitters probably a decade ago, but had given up trying to replicate that drink because it always failed with the bourbon I had in the house (likely Basil Hayden or Woodford double oak). But… perhaps this was the solution?

Short answer: yes. If you find yourself with a bottle of Kirkland Signature bourbon, and if you do not like it, do something else with it. In this case, I just went with ice, a little water, simple syrup, bourbon, and black walnut bitters.. and it was delicious. As in, surprisingly good. As in wait a minute, I think this is actually better than my baseline definition of good.

I can’t wait to try it with actual vanilla sugar, which in a remarkable stroke of luck, I made earlier in the week using Indian vanilla that Julian gave me when I visited him in Bangalore last year. I do believe that that will be this Friday evening’s drink.

Domaine De La Ferme Blanche Cassis Blanc 2018, or: why I started writing about wine again.

Yesterday afternoon was beautiful. I went for a walk in Balboa Park, just a few blocks from my house, and enjoyed the solitude, space and freedom of being outside for about an hour. I walked up and down hills, through open fields with new Spring wildflowers, past a cactus garden and the Naval Medical Center San Diego, and felt incredibly lucky to be alive and in such a privileged spot. Sadly, however, the city has now closed down all of its parks, even Balboa Park; apparently, they weren’t able to prevent people from congregating in small groups, so now I’m stuck at home for the foreseeable future.

Anyhow, I digress. There’s still food in the house, there’s still remote work to be done, and there is also wine, for the first time in many years, and I’m doing my best to parcel it out accordingly. I’m reaching into the shipping boxes and grabbing bottles at random, letting chance decide what to make of all of this bounty. Yesterday’s bottle was a bottle of white wine from Provence, from a part of the world I had thought was only known for blackcurrant liqueur. It is something of a miracle that a bottle from a tiny spot in France somewhere near Marseille could make it all the way to my house in San Diego, proof that globalization does have advantages. Of course, pathogens spread that way as well, from dieback in Western Australia to the novel coronavirus that claimed its first death in San Diego county yesterday as well.

I chatted briefly with an old friend earlier in the week, who was greatly relieved that he was able to get his daughter safely back home from a now-abandoned year abroad in Marseille, but again, I digress. What to make of this wine? It’s supposedly primarily Marsanne, but to me it just tastes soft, like inexpensive peach perfume, the kind of thing I imagine a Harajuku girl would wear (and believe me, I have no idea). Absolutely fine, fairly innocuous, and overall my primary impression was that this was a ‘you had to be there’ kind of wine – lovely in situ, but why go to the trouble of shipping it halfway around the world? I cooked up a frozen paella Valenciana, and noted that the packaging invited me to close my eyes of being in Valencia, which is something I did a lot earlier this year; while I was away for Christmas, my husband stayed at home and hung out with a couple of friends from Washington state who are seriously considering moving there. Sounds fine to me, taxes notwithstanding, so I booked us Thanksgiving week in Valencia, which I’m beginning to suspect might not actually happen.

I sat on our living room couch, with a bowl of reheated French paella Valenciana, a glass of Cassis blanc, a view outside to the sun setting on the senior citizens’ apartments down the way, and thought about what to do.

For now, there isn’t much to do except to wait. At my desk, there’s a Japanese himekuri calendar. It’s March 24; that means there are 282 days left until the end of the year; the calendar is still visibly bulky, an ominous symbol for the days ahead. I was planning on hiking the Via Alpina in September, but will I be able to stay fit enough to do so if I can’t go for a walk in Balboa Park, much less a longer hike nearby? Will Edelweiss even fly to Zürich at all this year from San Diego? Will the trail be open? What will things look like five months from now?

In the meantime, this is why I’m back writing at Full Pour: not because the world needs wine writing of any kind (really, it probably doesn’t), but because I’d like to remind myself of all of the good reasons to enjoy wine. For a short period of time, I found myself totally engrossed in a part of the world I’d never considered, looking up the winery on Google Earth, reading about the terroir, and frankly enjoying the mild buzz as a welcome distraction from onerous Big Questions like am I going to get this thing? and are my parents/friends/neighbors going to be OK? Is there a point to any of this? Not really, but there is still a definite magic to the physical experience of enjoying a glass of wine – and it’s (for me, at least) a way of feeling more alive, more connected to the world than usual. Cheers.

Bodegas Juan Gil Honora Vera Monastrell 2018

Late last week, I went over to my neighbor’s house to pick up some cookies she’d baked as a treat for my husband and me. She offered me a glass of Schloß Biebrich sparkling rosé (hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, it’s a lot of fun for not a lot of money and way better priced than most of the other options), we got to chatting, and I of course asked her if there was anything that I could do for her given The Current Situation: pick up groceries, run by the pharmacy, whatever – as she’s older than I am, she and her husband had been advised not to leave their house. She’s a lovely woman; when I married Dan, she gave us a matched set of honey bears with handwritten labels on them, and her cookies (oh man, her cookies!) are so dang delicious that you would probably buy the house next door if you could just in hopes of getting a batch of them, fresh baked, delivered to your door sometime. Plus, her husband is a genuinely cool cat; he talked us into going to Perú with him last summer to hike the Inca Trail, which was a freakin’ blast.

Yes, there was something I could do: pick up a prescription at Costco. To be honest, this filled me with dread. I do not love going to Costco, but I do it every few weeks because I do love organic milk, large quantities of apples, fresh baguettes, Parma ham, and a lot of other things that you, dear reader, will surely not be surprised to find in my (or any other) bourgeois middle class American household. I immediately said yes… and then hedged by saying that I would gladly do it next Tuesday. I had recently gone to a Costco – two weeks ago on Friday,March 6 – and it was obvious that shit was already getting weird. Like, really weird.I stopped in on my way home from work, choosing to go to a Costco business center (it’s kind of like a regular Costco, but definitely oriented to restaurant and convenience store owners) for the first time hoping that it would be somewhat less jammed, and it was, but the cashiers were nervously laughing about the onslaught that had just finally subsided by the time I got there on the way home from work, so around 5 p.m. Toilet paper (huh) and water (why? c’mon, our tap water is awesome in San Diego) were long gone, some aisles were shut down, and it definitely had an eerie, calm-before-the-storm vibe. I bought apples, milk, and peanut butter, and got the heck out of there.

I popped in the Costco near my office in the mid-afternoon on Thursday, March 12, hoping to stock up on a few shelf stable basics, and things had definitely tipped all the way over into full-on End Times madness… albeit a very suburban San Diego madness, which meant that there was a one-minute wait to get a cart and that the lines were very long, but everyone was calm, friendly, and mostly in a we’re-all-in-this-together state of mind, except for some younger people who were obviously freaked out by the whole scene, wondering what the heck was happening. “Son, obviously you’ve never been in a pandemic before,” I said, not sure if I was joking or not. A lot of the prepper-approved basic were long gone (beans, rice, spaghetti) but there random bits and bobs around that looked fine to me, so I snapped them up (one each, no hoarding): Italian canned tomatoes, organic Italian pasta in shapes I didn’t recognize (casarecce, the hell?), peanut butter (whoops, bought the wrong kind the last time), chili, reduced sodium Spam, mixed nuts. The lines moved quickly, I had a fine chat with a nurse from the Scripps medical center across the street, and I felt better that I now had enough stuff to keep us fed for a few weeks in a worst case scenario type deal.

But this was a day after that. Costco, she asked. Would it be OK? Of course, I said. I would be delighted to. And then I went back to my house and slowly realized that that would likely be the last time I’ll see her that close, in person, until The Current Situation has passed. This, dear reader sucks.

At least I had a few days to steel my nerves in preparation for going back to the dreaded Costco. I started working from home full time just a few days before, which gave me plenty of time between technical support calls (my day job!) to figure out some kind of a strategy. I convinced myself that surely waiting until a Tuesday afternoon would be the best because the initial panic would surely have passed; I imagine that the weekend hordes would have calmed down by then. Plus, after seeing a favorite wine shop post on Twitter that they were now offering a curbside pickup service, maybe I could also sneak in a visit there… and maybe back to the Japanese grocery store as well? Although there wasn’t anything I really needed at either of those two stores, I did want to buy the smaller rice storage container I failed to get the last time, plus some ready meals are always delicious (pork cutlet with egg and rice bowls FTW).I left the house at two o’clock. It took almost no time to get to the San Diego Wine & Beer Co; I decided that because it was still relatively early on that it was less likely than it would be in the days ahead that there would be any risk of exposure to 2019-nCoV, but that could also just have been justifying bad behavior on my part. Regardless, I was happy to see that the shop had left its doors wide open to let the fresh, clean San Diego air into the shop, and also happy to see that there were no other customers in the shop. Score. I pulled on a pair of disposable gloves and went in to get my shop on.

Reader, if you’re in San Diego, there really isn’t a better place to get your drank on. They expanded the shop last year to have a shit ton of beer as well, but it’s the wine selection that you’re probably here for. It isn’t the biggest store, but they are friendly, the prices are more than fair, and they have a well-chosen selection that ranges from cheap ‘n cheerful to seriously expensive (but not marked up beyond reason). You could go for a single bottle of Auguste Clape Cornas or a case of this Juan Gil mataro, it’s all roughly the same price, after all! I grabbed two cases of wine (and a couple bottles of Pliny the Elder because fuck it, why not), paid (Apple Pay, theoretically contactless but I still had to sign some paper, yecch), and scooted over to Mitsuwa, the Japanese supermarket, which was nearly unrecognizable compared to the week before. All of the sales had been discontinued, most of the rice had disappeared (they were down to either very expensive Japanese imported rice or extremely boring American rice), but they did have my beloved ready meals as well as spaghetti and rice for the neighbors. Plus, a few more pouches of shelf stable chicken curry, because delicious.

And then, dear reader, I steeled my nerve and drove to Costco. It looked… crowded… ish, but not bad. There was no wait for gasoline, so I filled the tank for the first time less than $30 since I’ve owned my VW. I then parked, dashed up to the exit, and asked if I could just go in and pick up her prescription. Answer: no. You have to go wait in the main line to enter the store, but “it’s not bad right now.” And then I saw how they’d reorganized everything and immediately felt better. A long, carefully tended entrance corral outside the store, with social distancing in place. A dedicated employee to wipe down the shopping carts; another employee to let customers in as space inside the store dictated. Cool. And inside the store, everything, more or less, that you could want. (No Parma ham, but whatever. I’ll live.) I did an impromptu shop (Kirkland bourbon? Kirkland cognac? Sure, why not), grabbed four bottles of wine for the neighbors, threw in a bottle of that cheap Kirkland sangria I’d always been curious about, and found plenty of prepared food that would fit in my fridge and keep us fed in style for six more weeks. A quick trip through the register, paid contactless, no touching anything at all, and then… whoops, no one around to help pick up the prescription. But no, wait! A few calls were made, and they found the pharmacist somewhere in the back of the store, probably refilling bottled water shelves. Whew. He gave me her prescription, entirely based on trust (no ID, no signing), and I was out of there and back up the hill to our house(s).

My neighbor now has her prescription as well as Asian spaghetti, rice, chicken apple sausage, four bottle of Kirkland wine, and some random other stuff. It’s good. And I believe there will be cookies again in the future. This makes me happy.

This wine, incidentally, also makes me happy. I have no idea how anyone can sell a bottle of organic Spanish mataro for $6.99, but there you go. It’s not overly alcoholic, it doesn’t necessarily have the full-on meat feast you’d expect from top shelf mataro, but it does have a lovely, leafy, minty cigar box kind of feel to it, and it goes down a treat with a bowl of katsu don in the middle of a global pandemic. If you possibly can, decant it an hour beforehand – it realllllly started getting good right as we were finishing the bottle while watching The Seventh Seal – and buy more than one bottle because this one’s a keeper. Plus, if you’re really not keen to touch anything or come in close contact to people at this point, you can call the San Diego Wine & Beer Co. or order online and they will just put it in the trunk of your car. Now that’s a win.

2017 Pivnica Brhlovce “Happiness” Pesecká Leánka Slovakia

The husband just now: “OK. That tastes apple juice-y… like cider.”

To be honest, I’d like this better if it were cider. Say, something from Asturias. However, at this juncture, I’m just happy to have a glass of anything other than Sapporo beer (the cheap stuff brewed in Canada, not the awesome stuff brewed in Hokkaido; at the moment, I have an awful lot of that due to an impulse to stock up on rice and shelf stable beef curry at the Japanese supermarket on the way home from work two weeks ago).

Earlier this week – has it really only been a week? – K&L send an email saying that they were closing all of their stores, but were still able to ship and deliver. I haven’t posted to this site in eight years or so, and I haven’t ordered any wine in about the same amount of time – excepting of course the massive purchases I made in South Africa last August in preparation for my 50th birthday celebration with Julian and friends in the Kruger and Cape Town. Five years ago, I think it was, I sold off the last of my collection at auction, save for a few bottles; the proceeds weren’t much, but I was glad to save the cash on hand for a rainy day instead of continuing down a predictably bleary fortysomething path towards increasing alcohol use and bloat. Hey, if I was heading towards 50, I would rather arrive as a mostly fit, REI hiker Dad type instead of a portly bloviating wine blogger. You know.

Given the general mood here in San Diego, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about my wine order: I searched for French wine, white, and ordered by cost: I wanted the least expensive stuff, but a case. Then, why not another case? Yes to the bottle of Nicolas Joly Savennieres I’d always lusted after but never bought. Yes to a wide array of Georgian wines, one of my true loves. And then what to do with the last few empty spaces? Well, search for white wine, other, in stock in Hollywood, not too expensive… and this is how you wind up with a bottle of Slovak white wine from the middle of nowhere that smells like “rainwater” (again, the husband, who’s always had a better nose for these things than I).

Let’s flash back for a few minutes to the winter of 1989. I was living in Tübingen, Germany at the time. I’d just turned 20, had lost my virginity to a gardener at the university, and was finally feeling like hey, maybe I was in fact an adult. As Christmas approached, shit got weird: there was a massive earthquake back home in Northern California, family dynamics changed as a result, and then a Hungarian picnic went haywire and East Germans started flowing over the border to the West. By the time my family landed in Frankfurt, it was pretty clear that decades of paralysis were about to suddenly end in some kind of revolution; on New Year’s Eve, 1989, I found myself in the back seat of a rented Mercedes, my father at the wheel, and talking my way into driving into the ČSSR, the Czechoslovak People’s Republic. My Mom had sent a letter to a hotel in Prague hoping for a reservation, but things were typically socialist and hadn’t quite worked. The Hotel Beke in Budapest had confirmed, and we’d enjoyed a couple of days there, eating McDonald’s on Marx tér and discovering the pleasures of Hungarian Turkish baths – oh, and lest I forget, there was a wonderful night out at a Cuban socialist restaurant with shitty Cuba Libres followed by a lip-synced production of CATS that made zero sense, followed by a round of indescribable schnitzel at the Karl Liebknecht Sausage Stand, or some such shit – and then we were up bright and early on the 31st and on our way to the border post just outside of Bratislava.

Now, I do speak German, and I speak it reasonably well – usually well enough to pass for German and not sound like an obvious American. I have also always had a thing for socialist-speak, largely because it was just so God damn weird when compared to the Reagan-era California that I grew up with. This is just to say that I was able to speak us through the border post with a minimum of fuss; shortly afterwards, my Dad stopped at the tourist office in Bratislava, who let me use their phone to call the hotel in Prague to see what the heck was up with our reservation.

Dear reader, you will surely not be surprised to hear that the hotel in Prague did not give a millishit as to what the hell had happened to our bourgeois Western reservation. They were kinda busy with the Velvet Revolution and settling old scores with the Soviets. Ah well. So back on the highway it was in hopes that showing up in person would present a Situation That Must Be Dealt With… and also a place to sleep for the night.

On the way from Bratislava to Brno, we must have passed through Pivnica Brhlovce, which is a small winery in what’s now Slovakia.

In 1989, and at least through the early part of 1990, it would have been impossible to imagine a wine like this being produced, or even any kind of idiosyncratic small business like this existing. This is made from Fetească Regală, which is a Romanian grape that isn’t particularly noteworthy. It’s biodynamic. All of it exudes a very 2020-esque fuck you, this is strictly for the cool kids kind of vibe, which I am very there for. It’s got a weird, pale, coppery look and smells to me like Cabbage Patch Kids on acid; that is, it’s definitely more reminiscent of apples than grapes and is frankly hard to pin down as wine. Even so: how is it as a beverage? Is it… happy?

You know, it kind of is. There’s something exuberant about its feisty fuck you-ness; this dares you to drink it and ignore anything you might feel about rural Slovakia or the outskirts of Bratislava. Sure, you drove past when you were 20 and all that registered were the endless rows of prefab concrete apartment buildings. Sure, you were still in disbelief that that Hungarian masseur was so friendly and seeing Ceaușescu executed on live TV. You thought it was awesome that you had a Big Mac in front of a Lenin status; you thought it was amazing that you scored a copy of Paul’s Boutique on cassette for just a dollar or so… but what did you drink that was good? Sure, there was beer, but it was just OK. Those Cuba Libres got you drunk, but hell, they sucked; Pepsi with Havana Club isn’t all that. But what would that Christmas have been like with a glass of happiness?

There was nothing for us in Prague. The hotel had never received Mom’s letter, and all of the hotels we stopped at turned us away; they were too busy getting ready to finally kick the Soviets out of the country. On the way back towards West Germany, we stopped in Pilsen briefly to get gas, which devolved into a very weird situation as a large mob of Roma showed up to demand Westmarks. We didn’t have much, just enough to buy a quarter tank of gas, which we weren’t sure would even get us to the border. There was an awkward, desperate piss stop in a field somewhere in Bohemia; we had to slow down, conserving gasoline, and drove slowly through the ominous dark towards the West.

Dear reader: somehow – a Christmas miracle? – I convinced the border guards to give us all of our Western currency back. We drove across that border two hours before midnight; I found a small restaurant with an apartment for rent in the back that fit all four of us. They had already closed up for the night, but they made us pizzas. We ate, we drank good Bavarian beer, we slept well. It was a good night.

Back to the wine, though: should you buy this? I have no idea. Is it good? Does it matter? The simple fact that things like this exist give me hope. I never would have expected that something this human would exist in 2020 knowing what it was like there in 1990.

This wine tastes like hope.

Jalama “Carg” Pinot Noir 2010

Forgive me, Julian, for I have sinned. It has been some ridiculous amount of time since my last confession tasting note. That being said, it’s a new year, a new site (thank you for your hard work), and it’s high time I pulled my own weight around here and contributed something. Right! Off we go: Last year, I was fortunate enough to have drunk several very, very good bottles of wine with this guy named Tom. Tom and I work for the same company, but at relative opposite ends of the totem pole: I’m a humble support tech, and he’s the capo di tutti support services at the company. Better yet, the guy has a seriously good sense of taste when it comes to wine… and he shares. Now, Julian, you may remember that we used to joke about how those of us in the colonies have an amusing habit of referring to anything exceptionally good as being world class or having European styling; this is of course also very, very true in the wine world. If a wine’s especially good, well, then of course it’s world class. To name one example, there’s a very fine, very exclusive winery called in the Santa Rita Hills AVA called Sea Smoke. Support tech that I am, I’d heard of them, sure, but I’ve never actually seen a bottle of theirs, much less tasted it, until Tom cracked one open. Sure enough, just as the <TITLE> tag of the Sea Smoke website claims, it’s world-class: rich, generous, unobtrusively oaked, with fine grained tannins and impeccable taste. There’s a reason it’s mailing list unobtainium and much sought after, and as much as I wanted to find fault with it (being so close to Los Angeles, surely it would have a touch of vulgar Hollywood surgical amplification about it, n’est-ce pas? But no, it’s pure class.)

But I digress. The wine I have in front of me is superficially similar and at the same time not the same thing at all. This is from a small, family-owned vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, not a larger, long-established, well-known winery. Although it’s presumably grown with the same care in a similar climat, and also raised in new French for quite a long time, it’s a relative steal at forty-six bucks, or about four times the price of an oak-chipped monstrosity from the California Central Coast. So: Is it worth it? The short answer is thankfully fuck yeah.

Let’s start with the look of this wine. As rock sage Nigel Tufnel once said, it’s none more black, reall. Unlike Oregon pinot, this one isn’t lacking in the anthocyanin department, no sir. This is the kind of manly pinot that screams Hey ladies, check out my excellent taste in wine as well as my bank balance, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. On the nose, it’s got everything you could hope for in a pinot: soft, fragrant oak just hanging out like Neal Cassady at the Salinas Greyhound station, crisp saline air drifting in from the coast with just a touch of smoke from the Spreckels plant down the road. Mixed in with very pretty strawberry-cherry notes, there’s also just a little bit of something very Robert Smith in there as well, serious as a heart attack, nervy and tense, tightly coiled. It’s very, very groovy.

Finally, the taste of the stuff? Yeah, pretty much what you’d expect, but better. Magically, it’s light on its feet in the mouth, not heavy or syrupy as California pinot sometimes tends to be. The French oak is a bit more noticeable on the finish – for my taste, I could stand perhaps a touch less, but then again, this is very much a la mode and it’s absolutely spot on for the local style. It finishes with some very smooth, fine grained tannin and a lingering soft, cedary note that unfurls into a wonderfully refreshing, acid-supported vibrancy that has a real way of making you wonder why you don’t drink this kind of wine more often.

Really, why don’t you?

Price: $46
Closure: Cork
Source: Winery

Aborigen Ácrata Portada 2006

This wine’s presumably grown somewhere near Ensenada – that’s the only address on the back of the bottle – but exactly where, I have no idea. All I know for sure is that this wine is half grenache, nearly half carignane, and a little bit durif. Period. Sorry.

Clearly unfiltered, swirling the wine leaves the glass with a sparkly coat of residue. The color is that massively purple purple that carignane seems to do so well; it still looks joyously young, even if the wine itself is a hair over five years old at this point. The wine is all sweet fruit with a backing of toasted acorn mush; there’s a savory, umami edge to the cheery/cherry Pop-Tart fruit and thankfully very little of the varnished carignane note I was expecting.

The first big surprise is the weight of the wine; although there appears to be quite a bit of alcohol judging by the legs, there’s not very much at all for a New World wine: just over thirteen percent. As a result, the fat, unctuous Rolland-esque mouthfeel the visuals suggest is absolutely nowhere to be found. Instead, you get a savory mouthful of dried grape and date pudding, with a long, dusky finish of subliminal oak and soft, gentle tannin.

On the whole, I really do like this wine. On the other hand, it’s something of a surprise to drink a carignane that is so tasteful and/or elegantly restrained. The other wine I’ve had from this winery was 100% carignane, twice the price, and was a massive sensorily overwhelming experience that was pure visceral pleasure. This wine, on the other hand, reminds me of what French wine is like when it’s very, very good: mineral, savory, elegant, and yet fruity without being trashy. It’s exceptional, and yet I almost find myself wishing it were more rambunctious.

Price: $30
Closure: Diam
Source: Retail

The Scholium Project the wisdom of Theuth 2010

Here in San Diego, it’s a balmy 25.7°C – sure, it’s technically winter, but it sure doesn’t feel like a good time to bust out the high octane Zinfandel that goes so well with a fireplace (bearskin rug optional, of course). Instead, I’m splitting the difference with a heavy white wine.

On an aside: I’m even more confused about the whole verdejo-verdelho thing after a recent trip to Spain; I came home with a bottle of godello, which is apparently the same as verdelho, which is apparently distinct from verdejo. Go figure. Anyhow: Australians and Californians say verdelho just as surely as we say mataro, so verdelho it is.

You could easily mistake this wine for Asturian cider if you served it in the wrong glass: it’s got that fat, rich, flat sparkling wine color to it. As is usually the case for this winery, there’s obviously a metric ton of alcohol involved, with the kind of legs that would be banned in Utah. The nose is wonderfully complex, with an initial hit of cucumber cold cream, lemon zest, bitter almonds, and empty, waxed wooden floors in a cold German hallway in the countryside, with traces of hay and old leather bookbags.

Unctuous and slippery, the wine is bone dry; all of the texture is strictly alcoholic. There’s a fine-grained acidity that works well against the bitter chalkiness of the wine; there’s an elegant tension between a sense of fresh baked bread with slightly green edges on the nose and the bottom-heavy, quince marmelade of the wine. Finally, apparently only to drive home the point that this wine is serious business, there’s a seductive hint of stony minerality.

Should you age this wine? No, probably not. What you should do is obvious (and a categorical imperative): buy some, cool it (but don’t chill it), and serve it to friends with marzipan or strong cheeses. I know it’s a vanishingly small category, but The Scholium Project is (I believe) far and away the finest producer of verdelho in North America. If you don’t know what verdelho tastes like, this is your best introduction to the genre.

The Scholium Project
Price: $28
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Sandstone Cellars III

First off, allow me to note that I did not pay full retail for this wine. A couple of years ago, I had to travel to San Angelo, Texas to do some work at a local hospital. It was cheaper to fly to Austin and drive, so I did; I passed Sandstone Cellars on the way over to San Angelo, thought it looked kinda interesting, got my work done there, and stopped in on the way back. I thought the wine was damned good and bought a bottle; leaving Mason, the town where the winery’s located, I checked my email and saw that they’d sent an email a few hours earlier, so I made a U-turn and headed back to the winery to chat a bit more. They offered the bottle at half price; I met them half way, and that’s the story here. So: I paid $30, which – now that I’ve finally opened the bottle – feels like I ripped them off for $10.

Right. First time I’ve had this wine, second Sandstone Cellars wine I’ve ever tasted. What’s it like?The first impression I get is of whatever you call the tea leaf equivalent of coffee grounds. If you make a pot of tea – and I’m thinking something malty like, say, Assam – and leave the used tea leaves aside, they tend to smell like this, especially if (say) someone’s made lavender Earl Grey out of them; think vanilla, orange blossoms, just a touch of smoke and cedary wood. It’s lovely, and it doesn’t remind me of anywhere else I can think of. Nice to see that the second bottle I’ve had from Mason County is as idiosyncratic as the first: both have been of uniformly high quality, and it seems that Don Pullum, the winemaker (do check out his Twitter feed if you haven’t), is definitely onto something here.

And how does it taste? First off, it’s tannic (still). Firm, dusty, blocky tannins a go go. It’s also nicely acidic; the overall mouthfeel doesn’t approach the silky smooth California profile I’m used to (think higher alcohol and a bit of residual sugar). Fruit’s here too, thankfully: more than anything, I taste Zinfandel, but the label tells me we’re mostly working with Mataro here; I don’t sense the Mataro particularly save for the smoky-floral notes on the nose. To me, this wine shows a real tension between the fruit, tannin, and acidity; although there’s plenty to love about the vanillin, cherry-blackberry fruit, it’s slightly attenuated by the acidity (think food wine). That being said, part of what makes this wine such a pleasure is its tension: it’s the vinuous equivalent of a tritone.

The finish… yes, Dorothy, there is a finish, and it’s very Bach: four part harmony all the way down. Sweet fruit, nervy acidity, lingering tannins, and spice, not staying in any one key too long before nervously jumping to the next.Sitting here thinking about this wine (and the people that made it), I find myself wondering if there’s a place in most folks’ wine cellars for this kind of thing. Looking at CellarTracker, for example, I see that there’s less than a dozen bottles of every wine they make represented on the Internet. They don’t ship to California, I couldn’t find a bottle in Dallas to save my life last year, and this kinda bothers me. Look, I know I’m something of a hipster when it comes to wine: I prefer the experimental over the tried-and-true, I’m always up for things I haven’t heard of from places I can’t pronounce, and novelty is more interesting to me than safety. Part of this is of course financial: unlike my Dad, I grew up in a world where first growth Bordeaux costs as much as a month’s rent. Much of my drinking has necessarily been local or obscure: if you can’t afford Pingus, might as well make the best of Bierzo.

Even more: as a Californian, I’ve always been especially open to things that are (strictly speaking) unique to my region and my cultural traditions. Field blends (‘mixed blacks’) for example: drinking something like that is a tangible link to the past I share with everyone else in this state, and I honestly believe that’s there no reason why that shouldn’t stand tall compared to other countries’ traditions (be it Hunter semillon or autochtonous Georgian grapes fermented in clay amphorae). And when I come across something like this wine, I really do get excited at the possibility that someone, a pioneer, may be discovering (crafting?) something new, something specifically Texan, something that a hundred years from now will be as well known as, say, California Zinfandel, something that’s universally recognized as Texan.If so, this a damn good start.

Sandstone Cellars
Price: $40
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail