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confessions of a wine fraud

Nosing the glass, nodding my head

Not-So-Rhone Ranger

Sometimes when you buy a bottle on a tasting trip, what you’re really getting is a souvenir, a suitcase for perfect weather and handsome company and latticed sunshine.  Open it again in your apartment and it’s not the notes of vanilla that mean anything - it’s the total sense memory of a much better day. 

The Changala 2010 “Zhone” did all that nostalgic lifting, then threw in a new trick: it was 10 times better than I remembered it on site. I bought it because I liked the wine and the women pouring it, tucked away in a small shared space off the main drag.  I pulled it out this weekend without fanfare; I needed a casual red and vaguely remembered its drinkability and hits of dark cherry.  It ended up shaming my recollection by being fantastic - a prism of blistered strawberry and plum backed by cocoa and sweet spice.  The wine takes 60% Grenache and 40% Zin and does a Rhone riff that’s all Central Coast bravado and unassuming intellect.  A balance of what’s best about California.  

2010 Changala Zhone, $24, Changala Winery

They Had Great Sandwiches, Too

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. 

The Best of Truth or Consequences

Here’s a true thing about me: I love a good loop. When I fall for something, I want a lot of it and right away, until I’ve had so much of it I wear out the very idea of its existence. If I love a song, I suck the spine out by leaving it on repeat for days; no one this side of pre-school is better than I am at re-watching the same episode of television. For awhile there, I could have listed the staff at Oasis Falafel as my emergency contact. If I’d disappeared for a day, they’d have noticed first. 

Outside of annoying my loved ones (sorry, loved ones), the main peril of this approach is that my ruts will sometimes clash. Like when I can’t stop buying dense, menacing American reds, or ordering the new special rolls from the sushi place up the street. It leaves me with a wine fridge full of Zin, Cabernet, and Syrah, all skull-crushers where raw tuna is concerned, and plates of delicious little wasabi knuckles that deserve better than (the crappy kinds of) beer (I tend to drink).

If you have a reasonable approach to life, you’d probably just not order so much sushi, and swap in some things that will match your Cabernet, or vice versa. Me, I just go fishing for another rut: 

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This one’s been brewing in the background ever since I rambled on about keeping Champagne out of weeknight reach. I ended up going back over my favorite alternatives and picking up a bottle of Gruet. I’d had fond memories, but I’d never given it the full rut treatment, which is crazy: it’s $12 and it’s one of the most delicious domestic sparklers, ever. It meets all the U.S. government standards to have “rut-worthy” printed on the label. 

So, let’s talk domestic. It’s made in the methode Champenoise (i.e., labor intensive, aged on its yeast in the bottle), but in New Mexico, not so far from the spa town of Truth or Consequences. In 1983, Champagne veteran Gilbert Gruet and his family toured the American southwest and encountered conditions favorable to sparkling wine. Given the low cost of the land, his son Laurent opted to gamble on the experiment, and for that we all owe the Gruets a round. Of applause, at least.  

As a native Texan and a one-time broke Californian, my relationship to New Mexico up to now has been as an oft-ticketed driver, barreling from one border to the other. My experience of the state’s cuisine is limited to Dairy Queens and Texaco stations; my lengthier stays involved truck stops and one twitchy night under a sign for The Thing. I could have told you that the land is beautiful at high speeds, but until I met Gruet, I couldn’t have vouched for its truly magical properties. 

Or its advantageous elevation, as the case may be. Laurent’s experiment worked largely on account of the altitude of the vineyards. It may get hot during the day, but the height ensures that the nights stay cool, a change that puts the breaks on all that rapid ripening. What came out were a series of really spectacular sparkling wines, each with their own personality. My favorite right now is the seriously underpriced Gruet Blanc de Noirs. Made of Pinot, this bubbly has deep shadows of raspberry laced beneath a golden wash of toast & almond. It has both the creamy texture and the glittery acidity to brighten bold flavors and bad days. 

Gruet Blanc de Noirs, $12, Natural Wine Company

Another Coast Entirely

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

Vodka, pour les Américains

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.

Yuzu + John Lee Hooker

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. 

Plus: G&T on Tap

My first look at Gin Palace, from the kids who brought you most of the other fancy bars in the East Village. 

Now Serving Elsewhere

New on Serious Eats, my “first look” at Middle Branch, the latest entry in Sasha Petraske’s suite of cocktail lounges.

It’s Worth All the Traffic

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

Take a Picture, It’ll Last Longer

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.