Monday, December 31, 2012

Two Nights Of Champagne & The Winners Be?

Oh please. As if I could pick a “winner” or “winners” even among my much adored little grower Champagnes. Unlike children, of which I do have an actual favorites, I simply cannot pick one Champagne over another, (in our store that is) and proclaim it “better”. Can’t and won’t do it. I can however share my impressions, talk sales figures and go over what wines blew me away….and which ones I felt didn’t quite show their stuff in that kind of setting, which always makes me sad but is part of the whole tasting thing/problem as some wines, many in fact, just aren’t made to be flashy and for that they can suffer the crush of rounder, louder and more showy wines. Subtlety and grace are kind of enemies of the side by side, or comparison tasting….of which I try and remind our customers not to do, not to compare glass A to glass B in the “Oh this is better” fashion, but rather explore and appreciate each wine for what it has, and what it has not in some cases. It was while taking in the subtle, or profound, differences in a couple of the flights that it occurred to me once again, applying a numerical score to a wine, while tasting them in a one after the other sort of setting is not only stupid, it’s flat-out inaccurate.

Because I had to add a second evening class, which ended up being arranged for the night before the original class, as confusing as that is, I had a decision to make, do I pour the same wines both nights and risk running out of the wines I originally wanted to pour, which might kind of punish, (should anything sell out) the people that were savvy, and dedicated enough to act quickly and sign up right away for the event the second they saw it announced, or do I use that opportunity to showcase more than ten wines, saving the first selections for the ones that filled the reservation book to overflowing which caused us to book the second event…for the night before? See?! Confusing. I made a few adjustments but for the most part I stuck with the same wines, using that first (but second) class as a trial run and making mental notes to tweak the order if need be.

 It was on the second (which was actually the first) night while tasting a Blanc de Blancs that had been moved, but only one spot down, noting how different it was showing compared to the night before, getting my grubby paws on another open bottle of the same Champagne just to make sure it wasn’t bottle variation, that was when I looked at my coworker and remarked, “Last night this wine would have gotten a much, much higher score. It was elevated by the wine that went before it. Tonight, well it is showing way more savory notes…more interesting maybe but a tad lower on the deliciousness scale” and I spent the entirety of the night totally geeked out on just how much the wine before and after can change your perception of any given wine. How the hell can scores be accurate then? Fuck, just think about all those long, wordy, flowery tasting notes you read, wonder what wine they had before that brought out the hibiscus nectar? Fascinating really and a valuable reminder for me about context and how I want to write my tasting notes. 

On the whole both nights were successful. The first, (second) night showed way fewer sales and attendees that were almost scary quiet. Intent on listening and learning, a much greener group of people many of which were tasting their very first grower Champagnes that night. The second, (first) night was packed, loud, one of my favorite couples actually stopped and bought fried chicken, for the entire group of forty people, the dump buckets were dry….these grower Champagne veterans were closing out a year of fantastic Champagne experiences with a bang, and fried chicken! Those were the people that come to every one of my Champagne events, have been for years now and are now people that drink Champagne, or our little Champagnes I should say, like it should be, like a wine and not some twice a year bubbly treat. Reflecting back on both I have high hopes that maybe a couple of those second, (first) night people will be inspired to continue exploring the wines I so adore and have devoted over ten years to sharing with others…in fact I know at least a couple will, (one dude in particular, saw it all over him, he was bitten, and good) and now I wonder, if I had poured the wines in the order I did on the second, (first) night, would that have made a difference in sales? Like I said, confusing but aside from being super beat and having the skin on my palms feel as if it was on fire while opening even more bubbles Saturday afternoon, (think my last count as to number of bottles I opened, with my hands and not a corkscrew, in less than 36 hours, 99 bottles. Pass that around my friends…ouch) I had so much fun, learned even more and found myself enraptured and seduced by a wine that had somewhat fallen out of my favor. If I were forced to give the whole experience a numerical score….I wouldn’t, it deserves more.

The Wines That Made Me Swoon

2005 Agrapart Pere et Fils Grand Cru Mineral Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs ($72.99)

I went on a limb and even though priced higher than many of the wines later on in the class I started with this delicate and mineral-rich wine from Agrapart. Still quite young the wine needs some time to gain some fat, fill out and settle the hell down, but even now you can get an idea of what remarkable base wine this is made from. The purity of cool climate Chardonnay on the nose, almost Chablis like in that salty, kind of briny way. Cold river stones, green apple, seashells and just a hint of faintly toasted brioche.

N.V. Jose Dhondt Blanc de Blancs ($56.99)

Remember when Blanc de Blanc was more reserved and sort of austere? Well Jose Dhondt doesn’t. Rich, weighty, bursting with salted caramel and citrus. A big, busty wine that begs for gulping. 

2004 Marcel Moineaux Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, ($62.99)

One of my heart-stoppers of the evening. I’ve loved this wine for years now but right now, it is in the sexiest, most complex spot, so much so that it killed me to pull my nose from the glass. Deeply nutty aromatics, like hazelnuts that have been roasted in warm butter, crushed oyster shells, sea spray and the long, achingly long finish is all warm honey on toast. A brilliant wine that evolves in the glass, changing a few minutes and defying you to ignore it. Wild, it drove me wild.

N.V. H. Billiot Grand Cru Brut Reserve, ($58.99)

Over the years I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with the wines from Billiot. Sometimes finding the wines clumsy, sloppy, shut down or just plain dull. Right now, Billiot and I, we are SO on again. All three wines from this estate were rock stars at our events but it was this wine that captivated me, seduced me and reminded me why I fell in love with Champagne in the first place. Power, regality, deep concentration, staining texture and a finish that won’t stop. Get some, now. Damn…

N.V. R.H. Coutier Grand Cru Brut Rose, ($57.99)

Always cracks me up, the N.V. Brut from Coutier is all showy, flashy and full of junk in the trunk but this Rose, delicate and restrained in a way that draws you in and refuses to let go. Just the prettiest pale pink, a nose of sweet black cherries and wild strawberries, lemon curd and warmed cream. Just pretty, supple, generous without being overpowering, pure and polished. Delightful.

2004 Camille Saves Grand Cru Brut, ($73.99)

You like bubbly wine? Step away from this bottle. You like the flavor of small production wines grown in France’s famous region of Champagne, that just so happen to have super-fine bubbles in them? Pick this bottle up, go straight home, pop it in the fridge and pull out some cured meat and cheeses, get out the potato chips, pop the cork and find out why the wines from Camille Saves take home our Champagne of the Year awards year in and year out.  Gobs and gobs of sexy red fruit, berries and black cherries sprinkled with holiday spices and tossed in a buttery pie crust. Unbelievably rich, palate staining and long the bubbles here are the thing that keep the wine perfectly in balance. Insane how stunning this wine is.   

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Nice To Know

“They gave me a dozen yellow roses the day you were born. You were their first grandchild and they were really hoping for a girl so they were very happy when you showed up, a tiny little girl that looked just like her father.” All my mother would say and pretty much all I really knew of my grandparents on my father’s side, I mean aside from some really grainy and not so deep memories of them and awkward visits that were somewhat forced and always fraught with a weird kind of sadness that I was far too young to understand at the time.  

When I was older more stories would come, ones that carried with them an even darker and bloated sense of sadness than I used to feel watching my mother’s big blue eyes fill with tears as climbed back in her VW Bug and left me for visits with my father’s parents. The older me was granted inside access to the stories of rage, sadness, fear and abandonment in foreign countries. Stories of a tyrannical and absentee father that in turn raised a son that, at least in my estimation, abandoned his child as well. Through all the odd and fragmented telling of these events I found myself feeling about my paternal grandparents much as I did about my deceased father at the time, “If they didn’t care enough, well neither do I” Cynical and cold? Maybe but it was part of the protective armor that had been forming over my heart, that barrier that kept most people at lengths far enough that I had hoped they wouldn’t be able to thump away even harder, or even sweeter,  at what was in fact, a rather bruised heart. A thick layer of “Don’t you dare” that would serve me well at a time when I needed it most, and in some strange way I now find myself feeling grateful for….that old, “without knowing pain you can know no pleasure” or whatever, well there is real truth in that. 

So icy cold grandparents on one side and none on the other, like one side loathed me…or worse, ignored me with such venom that it stung and the other just vanished. I learned  that my father’s father died and felt nothing, absolutely nothing. I remember crying the night my mother told me my father had overdosed but I’m still not sure if it were my heart breaking or if I was feeling hers do so. Hard to miss or feel pain for that you don’t know or really understand, males in my life in the form of father or grandfather? Never meant much….but when I would allow myself a fleeting second of wonder, just a few moments of “How come?” I never quite understood how any woman could just write off a granddaughter she was once so thrilled about that she laid yellow roses at my side. Like most things one can’t answer I would just shrug it off and ignore that nagging little twitch, spend my time thinking about and working on the things that did in fact matter like work and the raising of my own child. 

“If you are the Samantha Dugan I am looking for” the letter that arrived in my inbox at work nearly two years ago now, a letter from my father’s brother telling me that he had been looking for me. I once again found myself buckling into the armor, forthcoming but not willing to open up, expose myself to people that had left me nearly 35 years ago. Why would I? Why should I? I’m a happy woman now, living in a life I love and wouldn’t change for anything and that all came about without any help or hugs, any knowledge or involvement from them other than leaving me with a hole or missing half and the occasional sense of wonder. As I heard these things flitting about in my head and sometimes coming out of my mouth, well it became pretty clear, I wasn’t as over it as I thought. 

So began a conversation, one between my uncle and I that would answer lots of questions, sort of and fill me with many more. “I thought I had found you when I went to The Wine Country’s bio page, but when I read that you were married I assumed Dugan was your married name so you couldn’t be the Samantha I was looking for.” His words were slipping past the crust and his dedication to writing me long letters and pages of stories about his family…or our family, I felt myself slipping out of that armor and aching for more. “After your father died your mother was supposed to go to your grandmother’s for a visit, she never showed. My mother waited days, called and even went by where you were living, you guys had just vanished. She sent cards for years but they always came back. We had no idea where you had gone. We learned not to speak of you later in her life because it always made her cry.” 

I read the pages of history my uncle sent, the stories so unlike those my mother told that I would swear I was hearing about two different families. Even now I’m not sure if my uncle is sugar coating things, my mother just made things up or if my father had filled my mother’s head with lies and crazy delusion, thing is, doesn’t matter. None of that matters now, nearly everyone is gone and I can’t even ask my mother why she ran with me, shunned them if that is what really happened. The here and now is all that truly matters and now I have this uncle and the knowing that my paternal grandmother didn’t just vanish, that she wondered and ached for me…can’t say as that changes the way I feel about them or myself for that matter but I must confess, it’s nice to know.

Grandma Jane,

I’m sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t get to know one another. I’m sorry I never got to partake of a meal in your kitchen, one that I can remember anyway. I’m sorry if you were hurt by my mother or her family. I’m sorry you never got to meet your great-grandson. I’m sorry for the times I was angry and worse, apathetic. I’m sorry I never thought to look for you. I’m sorry you and my mother never found peace in each other, you both suffered a life changing blow,  began a new life of loneliness the day that lethal dose ran through my father’s, her husband’s, your son’s veins. Things were far from easy but I’m now a happy and strong woman very much in love with my life. As soon as I send this note off into the ether I will be stepping into my jeans that are way too big for me and I like them that way, buttoning up my Wine Country shirt, also too big and again, the way I like it, to go into work where I have been given some of the greatest moments of my life….where I discovered there is something besides angry that I am good at, to teach and share with people my beloved Champagnes. A second class we had to add because the first one filled up so quickly. Seventy plus people wanting to come taste and learn with me. I’m not alone, Grandmother Jane, not even close and I hope that if there is anything beyond this life we live here, that you can see and feel that….

I’m not perfect

Not beautiful

Not brilliant


I’m not angry

Not resentful

Full of laughter

Sort of funny at times

Fiercely loyal


Very forgiving

Rest peaceful dear lady….and thanks for the roses, and the tears.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Can't Keep Up

I'm buried
Beat up
Slightly stressed
Still having fun though.....

Just so far behind on:


Love letters
Planning for next years events
Letting myself get lost in a bottle of wine 

Way far behind but still here...
Won't be out of touch too much longer
Wait for me....please. 


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

With Purpose

“Sam, I was wondering if you would make that dip of yours. You know the one you make with your mixer that is really creamy with that onion flavor that I love?” My mother in a playfully begging tone, big blue eyes full of sincerity convincing me that I simply had to make my special dip to help her in her time of need.

I was seven or eight years old and my countless hours underfoot in my mother’s kitchen had inspired her to ask Santa to bring me the knock-off version of an Easy Bake Oven and some sort of hard plastic stand mixer. My mother, a thick but mostly weighed down by life woman nearly always seemed lighter when she was in her kitchen. More at peace and I found myself drawn there beside or near her, just to soak up as much of that as I could before life outside the smells of caramelizing animal flesh and steamed broccoli crept up on her, reminded her how unhappy she really was. 

When I was lots younger the kitchen was a much sadder place, cold, full of banging cabinet doors that would send me scampering across the tile floor, slamming of metal bowls and the rattle of measuring cups. The thud as a box of Bisquick hit the counter, little huffs of powder escaping from the sides of the box as my mother prepared another batch of….at the time, Life Saving Pancakes. We lived on those puffy little butter browned disks for weeks at a time, sometimes changing things up with a can of creamed corn when one could be afforded but the Bisquick thud and sticky glass bottle of Aunt Jemima plopped on the table were signs that there were to be sobs at the kitchen sink and both of us would be going to bed with food in our bellies but hungry in ways that would affect us for…well, forever. Once moved to Long Beach and living in the home of a man that gave my mother great financial relief, albeit at the expense of her daughter’s, (unbeknownst to her) emotional wellbeing, well I think we both found some peace in thud of firm, fresh vegetables being chopped from their stalks and thick slabs of meat, actual meat, being prepared, the sizzle at the moist flesh hit a smoking hot pan, meat being readied for us to sink our teeth into. 

I may have been just a little too old for the Easy Bake Oven I unwrapped Christmas morning, the one wrapped in the same wrapping paper my mother used to wrap the gifts the awful man that owned the house would drop off in our “quarters” for her to wrap for him. My mother’s beautiful handwriting on the gift tag, “To: Sam From: Santa”. Too old for sure and had there been any question my, “Now how hot is this oven if this plastic arm thingie is what I’m supposed to use to pull my cakes from the oven? It’s plastic. Plastic.” I can still remember how annoyed I was, my hours in the fancy, food filled kitchen and all its aromatic splendor had not earned me a little more cred than “Santa” thinking I was content watching a fucking light bulb bake a shitty ass cake that I would use a plastic retriever thing to remove from the oven before frosting it with a packet of dust that I mixed with water. Fuck you. The mixer however…that was down-right badass and even came with a cookbook, THE cookbook that held within its cheap ass plastic spiral binding, the recipe for my now, (um that would be my 7 year old now) famous dip that my mom needed, needed me to sweat over and make.

I plugged my mixer into the outlet in my room, aka the place where the washer and dryer lived, and quickly returned to the kitchen to gather far more bowls than I could ever possibly need. Pulled one of the chunky wooden kitchen chairs to the panty, (a fucking walk in pantry…to this day I crave one of those even though I used to hide in that one, often with a bowl of sliced green bell peppers that I had doused in red wine vinegar, black pepper, garlic powder and salt just to pretend I wasn’t in that house for the bell pepper duration) and low and behold, the secret ingredient of my famous dip, well it was sitting there on the third shelf. How lucky was that? Too old indeed.

Secret fixings in my hot little hands I marched back to the waiting mixer, ready to get my chef on and save the day. Measured out the 2 cups of sour cream, (and I swear it was not quite 2 cups…more like 1 and ¾ cups) and scraped the blob of white into my multi-colored mixer before tearing open the packet of Lipton’s Onion Soup mix (shhhhh, super-secret ingredient) and dumping it atop the white blob waiting in my mixer. 20 minutes….took 20 minutes of laborious whirling and wheezing from my Tonka stand mixer to properly incorporate the magical combination of wicked fancy, ingredients that came together and made that creamy, luscious, onion flavored wonder that was my special dip. My pudgy little hands wrapped around the spatula scraping the mixer bowl, trying to make sure we didn’t miss a drop. “It’s not ready yet. It needs to set so the dried onions get soft” I announced as I placed my day-saving dip in the fridge before giving my hair a glamorous flip and flouncing off to rest after saving the day and all. To this day I won't go near pancakes and the smell of syrup not only makes me feel weirdly sullen, it makes me a little gaggy but that fucking onion dip is like goddamn kryptonite to me, I’m powerless in the face of its mouth filling creaminess and savory, almost beef stock like richness of flavor. Aint fancy but it is damn tasty and when something can captivate you, (and don’t lie, you groan and grunt, ooze and moan just as much as I do) like that, well it is a winning combination of flavors that deserves to be talked about, regardless of fancy pants status…

“I just can’t stop drinking this” the smiling face of a coworker at our holiday party as he slurped away at the less meaty, less fancy, (like by far) red wine in his left glass while spearing hunks of beef that were glazed in béarnaise sauce. Two wines in front of us all. Two wines of pedigree albeit one with a far richer and more expensive history than the other and a room full of wine professionals drained one glass so quickly that it was almost scary. One wine flourishing with the food, putting on muscle and strutting about while the other, much more famous and serious wine, kind of whimpered and went flaccid with the food. I went about asking which wine was better but it was strictly for lip service. I knew which wine was better, it was the one that had been drained from the curvy glasses and was so enticing that we couldn’t keep our lips off of it. Loire Cabernet Franc in the form of a sexy little Chinon just obliterated the much thicker and raved about Northern Rhone Syrah, the  Clape Cornas…by a lot. The Cornas was without a doubt a stunning wine but in the context of that meal, we needed the less serious and ultimately gratifying bite and snap of the Chinon. The freshness and mouthwatering acidity it provided was the balance the meal needed and without even talking about it our staff just gobbled up the Chinon in the unserious manor in which it was designed.  It took just a sip or two for our entire group to rain extreme praise, in the form of an empty glass, upon the lesser known but highly appropriate Cabernet Franc.

A humble wine was elevated, made deeper, fuller and more complex when given the right tools, much like a silly seven year old with a packet of dried soup mix, big blue begging eyes and a way to feel important or have purpose.