There’s always a reason to drink bourbon. Whatever your context, there’s an argument: it goes well with dust and transition and people in a hurry; even the cheap stuff sands the edges and shades the glare. It blunts boredom and invites sleep. There’s no better booze when you’re tired of technicolor.
I drained a liter or two of it during a recent period of shapeshifting, all the while thinking that the second I get a second to do it, I’m going to switch back to good wine. I soon found time to scour the shelves for something adventurous, but I stopped short at an endcap display of Bonarda I’d never tried. It was 2 for 1. You know me, I have this thing for Argentina’s underdog grape. I love seeing it creep back out of the jug wine shallows, especially when it does so with this sort of verve.
Zolo Gaucho Select sounds like the house brand of a South American grocery chain. I could see myself skint and subsisting off of “Gaucho Select” knock-off corn flakes, eating them by the fistful in a hostel, slowly forgetting what the real ones taste like. Turns out, though, Zolo’s a winery in Mendoza cranking out rich Malbecs and the kind of Bonarda that shows up a little tipsy. It’s got a highly typical and wildly friendly nose of dark & thorny strawberry jam; once the heat blows off (give it a second), the palate’s a crushed-velvet, finger-painted mess of red fruit and flowers. It tastes like young love, late summer, and the pleasure of passing out in the sun.
Zolo Gaucho Select 2010 Bonarda, ~$15.99 (2 for 1), BevMo
I’m back in Paris after a week following an odd trail across France: the path of a bottle of Grey Goose from start (in a Picardy wheat field) to finish (in a factory in Cognac). I’m not a vodka person, really, but I am an American who generally associates France with luxury, and for Grey Goose, that’s half the battle won. Of course, it helps that the spirit holds up its end of the agreement, especially in a good martini. Or four.
Now on Serious Eats: my interview with Greg Seider at The Summit Bar, where you must go if you have a thing for outstanding booze.
My first look at Gin Palace, from the kids who brought you most of the other fancy bars in the East Village.
New on Serious Eats, my “first look” at Middle Branch, the latest entry in Sasha Petraske’s suite of cocktail lounges.
It’s funny to watch wine people deal with California. In public discussions (you never know what people drink in private), there seem to be only naysayers and defender-evangelists, as though merely enjoying the occasional West Coast wine marks you as insufficiently geeky. There are two columns from which to choose; you’re to tick one box, then double down.
Before I fell in with this sort of folk, or read their columns or joined their tastings, I lived in California and drank plenty of its wine. It never seemed to me to be monolithic (it’s not), singularly dedicated to powerhouse fruit or sweetness (it’s not that, either), or universally concerned with commerce. I lived in LA, so my wine country of choice was the Central Coast, first because of its proximity and then, after seeing it — Santa Ynez, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles — because I’d fallen in love. Take the ride north from the city and by the time you emerge from Santa Barbara, not loving the gold and marine hues means not having eyes. In which case, you probably shouldn’t have driven up.
I previously lived in the Bay Area, so the tasting rooms of the Central Coast were a bit of a revelation. There are big ones here, too, but on the way to Paso Robles you’ll find tons that feel like homes or sheds, with the pouring done by a daughter or a worker who’s just come in from the field. Better yet, that person may pour you something thoughtful and engaging and so delicious that, if you knew how the outside world discussed the region, you’d want to remind them of California’s rap. Don’t you know you’re supposed to be pouring un-sellable black pepper Syrah? That’s what they think of you. That’s what they think of us.
I left California several years back, and more or less assume the defender-evangelist role when it comes up. I love Zinfandel and have had enough restrained and interesting Pinot to want to fight the power, but in a recent wander around my favorite wine store, I realized one part of my brain had been co-opted by the haters: I have a knee-jerk response to California Chardonnay.
Brainwashing? Too many straw-yellow Chards served in shallow plastic cups? Why, even after reading tons of indications that California Chardonnay has stopped with the super-oak-super-butter treatment, do I still ignore it?
I expressed this concern (not quite so meanderingly) to the kid behind the counter; he perked up and pointed out the one California Chardonnay on the rack, a 2010 bottling from Broc Cellars. Labelled only as Vine Starr, a “Paso Robles White Wine,” it turns out to be 75% Chard, 12.5% Roussanne, and 12.5% Picpoul.
It’s only the second vintage, so it wasn’t around when I was, but man, I wish it had been. Then again, it’s useful for recalling a landscape I can no longer visit in an afternoon. Medium-high acid with a creamy, feathery texture, this is a white that punctures any illusion that California (and the Central Coast, in particular) lacks elegance or a certain regional wit. Here you’ll find ripe red apples, warm, broad sunshine, fresh field dairy and terrific salinity. It wears its complex of flavors like a basket of fruit collected on a long walk: California’s actual bounty, not a billboard selling the myth of it.
Broc Cellars “Vine Starr,” Paso Robles White Wine, 2010 ~ $20
Eventually, someone will ask. What’s the wine that got you into wine? Then come the phenomenal answers. Ancient Brunellos discovered on semesters abroad and Burgundies shared with lovers who don’t speak the language. You know, mind-blowing wines, the ones built like time machines and man, what luck to meet them right there at the top of the road. I hear these stories and I almost never have the heart to say my own gateway bottle was an Oregon Pinot Gris, bought for $10 and served in paper cups.
Prior to this moment, I’d had “wine” the way I’d had “beer,” which is to say selected by price and color at a grocery store. Now, though, I needed a bottle to impress someone who knew a thing or two about the stuff, so I traded up from Safeway to the Woodstock Wine & Deli, on account of the word being right there on the sign. I explained about my audience (probably sophisticated) and my budget (definitely miniscule) and in exchange I was handed a bottle of O’Reilly’s Pinot Gris. He mentioned lime. It had a dog on the label. I took it in good faith.
Two days later, I poured it, nervously, at what I now recognize as my first real gathering of grown-ups. An incredible thing happened: everyone enjoyed it. We didn’t ignore it; we didn’t spend the night talking about it. We smiled over it and made note of it and commented as we drained the bottle. It wasn’t astounding, but it was lovely, and that was more than I’d ever known alcohol to be. As the weeks went on, I thought about it and bought it again and wondered what might be beyond lovely. In the decade since, I’ve found out, but I’ve recently made my way back to the grape that got this all started.
Pinot Gris is better known around these parts as Pinot Grigio, which is better known to plenty of people as “what my ________ (mother, sister-in-law, grandfather who adds seltzer to his wine) drinks.” Much of the mass-produced Italian stuff is light-weight and super-bland, a white and nothing more, that being, often, the secret to its traction. It’s inoffensive and vaguely boozey. Unfortunately, encounters with insipid versions, as with Chardonnay and Riesling, often cause people looking for better flavors and better stories to move along and never look back. I did the same, even after it did me the favor of showing me the way. I’ve returned to say that if you’ve also wandered off, come in. There’s plenty here to make the case.
Though it’s been made in Oregon since the 1960s, the Pinot Gris here is still far from being monolithic. Any given bottle may make a completely different argument as to the best expression of the grape in this region. The lack of consistent, recognizable characteristics may be one thing keeping it from Pinot Grigio’s status as a popular house white in the U.S. For my purposes, that’s a great thing, as it makes the exploration that much more rewarding.
There are through-lines to the best of them, of course. They’re crisp and citrusy with a little orchard fruit for good measure. Veer left, and you’ll find more body and Alsatian-style spice; veer right, and you’ll get residual sugar or the tropics, cut with cream. Even the divergent paths, however, still lead to a wine that can unite people new to this world with those who make their lives here. May there be no lovelier task.
You can tell I’ve fallen for something when my handwriting gets psychotic, panicked, attended by arrows and profanity and amendments. I talk to myself. It’s less “Hmm, is that lemon or lime?” and more “Oh, shit, okay, Jesus, it’s like, baked red soil and fresh laundry? That tall grass I remember from Girl Scout camp. There’s chocolate, wildflowers, marshmallow? The little green ones. Old stone, but like a sweet old stone, stone from a sugar factory, crushed. Caught on fire.” Once I’m in deep, I want to get it down, right now, while it’s all still here and I can touch it. Tell the whole story, earn my place at the table, take in such detail that I’ll never be able to forget.
Which brings me to the 1996 San Leonardo, and its newly minted slot in my top 10.
“This is just one of the best things ever.”
I like lots of wines, and my definition of good is flexible and amenable to circumstance. I’m a believer that the more beautiful the night and the better the company the less necessary it is to have wine of any import. My view narrows, of course, when I consider the great, which stands on its own in a vineyard by the Andes or in a conference room in midtown. The setting recedes, and that’s when you know. It’s not just romance. It’s real love.
Thanks again to the generosity of GDP (who undersold the tasting by billing it, simply, as one of “weedy Cabernet”), I was able to taste through a vertical of 1993-2005 San Leonardo, a brilliant series of vibrantly complex Bordeaux blends from an odd site in Alto Adige. There wasn’t a loser in the bunch; throughout the tasting, a giddiness built up around the table that led to open laptops and quick sourcing of additional bottles from across the country. Once you know it’s this good (and this affordable), don’t ever let go without a fight.
Each wine was fantastic, but 1993 and ‘96, phenomenal. The former’s a field filled with sun-baked ruins and deep, dusty black fruit; knee high grass, hard wax; perfect balance. Elegant and ancient. The latter played out, fittingly, like the same song three years on: wild flowers, sweet green herbs, big baskets of dark, crushed blackcurrant fruit, a grace note of milk chocolate. What a pleasure it will be to hear again.
For those unfamiliar with Nicolas Joly, I’ll start not with a list of pertinent bio bullets, but instead with a challenge, recently issued by Joly himself. Smiling to a packed audience of acolytes (they’ve brought bottles for him to sign) and gentle skeptics (every Mulder needs a Scully), Joly suggests buying a bottle of his wine, and leaving it out, open, exposed to the air. For 8 days. 10, even. You just see if it doesn’t still sing.
“Wines made by nature will last longer when open,” he says, then ribs the lengths we’ve all gone to keep our wine drinkable 24 hours after popping the cork. “Cover it in a layer of gas?” Mimicking exasperation, dropping his head. “How weak is your wine? It has no fight!” Give a wine a robust, truly organic spine and not a cosmetic one, Joly argues, and it will show you true mettle.
Though simpler on its face than some of Joly’s other assertions throughout the night (there are mentions of frequencies, magnets, the interruptive force of manmade satellites on the natural order of the atmosphere), the test captures everything the man’s come here to say.
Nicolas Joly began working his family’s Loire Valley vineyards in 1961, after a stint at Columbia and a career on Wall Street. He was soon after turned on by the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, and began evangelizing the practice of Biodynamics, turning it from a relic into a movement over the course of four decades. In its details, Biodynamics is complex. Adherents refer to it as a “spiritual-ethical-ecological” approach to farming, and adherence requires charts: there are phases of the moon to track, planting calendars to follow. As a philosophy, though, it’s easy to follow. You just start with the soil.
“In the last 30 years, modern farming has been weakening the capacity of the vine to connect to the soil with its roots, and to catch the sun with it’s leaves,” Joly says. One culprit here is industrial weedkiller, which strips the soil of natural nutrients that then must be replaced by industrial fertilizer, a product that induces the plant to consume more water. With that, Joly argues, comes increased susceptibility to disease, and a whole new cycle of intervention on the plant’s natural ability to express its surrounding terroir.
Biodynamic winegrowers (not makers, mind you — the only creatures with that gift are yeast) and organic viticulturists alike seek to remove all this chemical intervention and get back to a system that worked for eons before the industrial revolution. Instead of weedkillers, re-introduce animals who can do that work for you; consider the value of biodiversity in and amongst your vines. For Joly, if you can tend your grapes effectively in the field, then the work of great wine is done long before you crush or cellar a drop of juice.
The handy thing about a philosophy lesson followed by a vertical tasting? No matter whether you find Biodynamics to be an occultist hoax, an unnecessarily spiritual approach to organic farming, or an inspired, holistic how-to, your palate gets to have a say in the matter. On paper, it’s one thing; in the glass, another entirely. And in the case of Joly’s Savennieres line-up, it’s a wilderness of pure, unfettered awesome.
Savennieres “Les Vieux Clos” 2009
A hit of luscious honey on the nose, then white chocolate, though it could be a phantom born of smelling it too long; baked peach, candied pineapple & a mai-tai cut with fresh grass. Full-bodied, oily on the palate. It’s a wild thing, this one, and it gives a hell of a satisfying chase.
Savennieres “Clos de la Bergerie” 2009
Deep, dripping gold honey tones on the nose, they’re practically roasted, and from here it’s all money: marmalade, coconut, white chocolate again.
Savennieres “Clos de la Bergerie” 2007
A stand-out for me, mostly for its epic finish. Tropical fruits splayed over white smoke, and a truckload of caramel, butter, and the best kind of burnt animal flesh.
Savennieres “Coulée de Serrant” 2009
Marshmallow and rock salt, like seaside salinity that turns to salted butterscotch. Medium acidity throughout keeps the candied orange and peach notes juicy instead of jawbreaking.
Savennieres “Coulée de Serrant” 2008
More minerality here than the wines that came before, with some green grass and red apple peel laced in among the wash of golden sunshine. Full, dry, fresh on the palate.
Savennieres “Coulée de Serrant” 2007
More campfire marshmallows that run away with the nose, and then things get charismatic. It’s autumn in a glass, this one, think Halloween and caramel apples and state fairs and fantasy sex by fireplaces. If this is the wine of the occult, someone get me a membership card.