Thursday, December 10, 2015

Newsletter Wines of the Year

 Wine of the Year, I always feel like I should use quotation marks when we use grand statements, or proclamations about something, wine or otherwise, that is “The Best”. I don’t know, just always hear that slightly argumentative voice in the back of my head asking, “The best for what?” I mean a wine “Best” for sipping while nuzzled beneath a blanket binge watching back episodes of Orange County Housewives, or “Best” to pair with a thick New York Strip that has been deeply seared and heavily salted or a plate of briny oysters? “The Best” for each of those are going to be profoundly different wines. For me there are so many pieces that factor into what makes a wine “The Best” that I struggle each year with narrowing down my list.  

Sure I’ve had wines that blew me away, fed my inner wine geek, seduced me and revived me at times when exhaustion or the sameness of my daily grind weigh heavy on me. Lots of wines struck me and created a spark that lit me up and had me pushing through the front door of The Wine Country ready to be shocked again and vibrating with “You have to try this!” energy. Are those “The Best”? The tiny 2 case allocated wines of Patrick Piuze, Francois Chidaine, Marcel Lapierre or Clos Rougeard? The super rare and unattainable for most, are those “The Best”? Well if they are, or were, they’re long gone so telling you about them is meaner than it is helpful or useful, plus it’s a bit like saying caviar is better than French fries and frankly, that ain’t at all true amigos.

The Wine Country celebrated our 20 year anniversary last month, and as someone that has been here for over 19 of those 20 years I’ve watched trends drive and destroy sales, seen winemaking styles swing this way and back again, in some cases and back again, watched people chase highly scored wines and witnessed the rather dramatic back turning on that kind of wine chasing, people now trusting their own palates, curiosity and often, (and thank you for this) us to pick wines for them. Been an amazing ride to be on and observe and the one thing I have always loved about Randy and how he taught us is that we have never strayed from our vision or purpose, to bring you wines made by real people, for real people that taste and feel like where they come from, in every price range. We’ve had buyers come and go, well aside from me, pretty sure I’m a lifer, but each one of us has always bought wines for you, the end customer, and not for a randomly affixed magical numerical score, glossy ads in publications or because it’s trending. There’s no heart in that kind of “The Best” which is likely another reason I wrestle with this seemingly award giving process each year. Best for what, for who? 

I slowly walked the aisles of my beloved French department the other day, touched labels, smiled as I remembered nights I’d spent with this wine or that, drew inspiration from all the times our customers, you lovely folks, came back to tell how that Muscadet worked with your meal or how much your friends swooned over the Meursault you splurged on. Felt very proud that our unrelenting dedication to Randy’s original model has earned your trust and loyalty. It is the tradition of The Wine Country to serve our community as best we can and as that thought rolled through my head it hit me, the best wines for me, this year specifically, the classics.

Red Wine of the Year

2013 Chateau de la Font du Loup Chateauneuf-du-Pape $42.99

Whew, that’s a mouthful no? You might just need me if for no other reason than to help you pronounce all that. Randy and I first sat with the feisty Anne-Charlotte Mella, a young-ish mother of three that makes the wines and owns Chateau de la Font du Loup, a couple of years ago. Randy and I had both nearly given up on our once adored southern Rhone Chateauneuf-du-Papes because the style of winemaking in the region had taken a stark shift. The once racy, layered and complex wines grown in deep pebbly soils had gone right off the deep score seeking end and landed in a syrupy backwash of high alcohol and mouth burning extraction. In an effort to garner high scores from influential American wine writers, winemakers in the region opted for longer hang time, (read higher sugar and alcohols) and intense saturation in small oak barrels, all of which stripped the wines of any and all accent or flavor of place. Sitting across from the wild-haired Anne-Charlotte and hearing her thick accent say, “I don’t know what has happened to my Chateauneuf-du-Pape, as a region. I can’t recognize the wines anymore” and we both knew we were in for a treat.

The Domaine is located in a cooler, higher altitude, so later ripening part of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and is named for the natural spring it sits atop, Font meaning fountain and Loup, the French word for wolves, they were legend to come drink from the spring. Due to the location of the vineyards the grapes for Chateau de la Font du Loup are harvested a little later than many in the region but, because of the cooler climate, they have lower natural sugars so the wines retain an unbelievable amount of freshness and purity. 65% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre and 5% Cinsault and all about purity. Bright red fruit comes leaping from the glass with this sultry but playful wisp of spice that runs right up the middle. The aromatics are so much fun you almost don’t want to take a sip but, well once you do you will want a second, a third and a fourth. Deep flavors but hardly heavy handed, this wine dances across the palate looking for food to play with. Gentle, graceful and beyond civil. Get reacquainted with Rhone. Start here.

White Wine of the Year

2013 Domaine Rene Lamy Les Pucelles Saint-Aubin $49.99

Behind Champagne it was Burgundy that stole my heart, like hard and fast and once bitten by such a sensual and ache inducing taste of that place, well it’s nearly if not totally impossible to look back. I called Randy while on my first trip ever to France, way back in 2003, (gulp, feeling old now people) it was 3:00 in the morning and I had just spent one of the grandest nights of my life falling madly, deeply and unapologetically in love with Burgundy. My mouth soaked and bubbling with effusive passion as I shared with him the wines I’d tasted and the ones that made my heart beat so hard it felt like it was pounding its fists against my ribcage, Randy instantly handed over the Burgundy department to me. I guess even from like 6,000 miles and a few time zones away Randy could tell, this was true love.

Since 2003 however there have been some serious hard times befallen upon my beloved region of Burgundy. First of all the dollar sent prices of these already limited and sought after wines right through the roof, and then, just as things were correcting themselves with the whole euro to dollar matter the weather tossed its ugly hat in the ring and poor Burgundians have had several vintages now that have suffered from traumatic loss of fruit due to hail, frost and rain. Kind of tragic actually as the Burgundians aren’t like the uber wealthy folks in Bordeaux. These are farmers for the most part and having to raise their prices came from necessity and not from greed. That said, wow, not only have the allocations dried up, the prices keep creeping up too. Crushing for those of us that simply cannot live without at least a little whisper of those specific vines from time to time. Enter wines from lesser known villages and the wicked smart importers that find them.

Rene Lamy’s winery is right in the heart of the famed village of Chassagne-Montrachet and trust me, their wines from the more famous villages are simply stunning, but the art and testament to great, like truly great, winemaking is being able to elevate a wine from a “lesser” area, like Saint-Aubin in such a way as it could easily be confused with a much more noble wine. When I tasted this Les Pucelles Saint-Aubin from Lamy I would have sworn it was either Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet. 

This is classic white Burgundy and while not inexpensive I’ve had a hard time keeping it in stock because of how much it offers at this price. This is an incredibly sexy wine on the nose. Dripping with moist white flowers, ground spice and roasted nuts. Wonderfully silky as the wine enters the palate with all that luscious fruit but it’s followed by a scrape of firm acidity that keeps the palate vibrating and wanting more. Chardonnay that wears a thick accent of where it came from and we love it for that.

Champagne of the Year

N.V. Suenen MBDA Extra Brut $81.99

“Sam, should we go and visit him?” the sweet French tinged voice of Aline Thiebaut of Aliane Wines, one of our favorite French wine importers pouring me a glass of Champagne she had been sent. Aline had earlier in the year payed us a tremendous compliment, she asked that I join her in Champagne to help her taste and maybe select some new grower Champagnes, for her portfolio and for us, as in you and me, to drink. Our steadfast dedication to supporting traditional and real wines rather than copy and paste has, luckily for us, earned us some respect with importers too. They want to have their wines placed in our shop because they know, we are hell bent on making sure they end up in the hand, on the tables and forever in the hearts of the people that will adore them. I took a few deep sniffs from the glass, spun away the frothy bubbles to try and discover the base wine, took a tiny sip and felt that tingle that assures me, this is a wine that has been crafted from soil to bottle, “Yeah, I think we most definitely meet with whomever made this” I told her. 

The second Aline and I got out of the car at the Suenen Domaine it was palpable, there were changes afoot. We were met by Aurelien Suenen, a tall, quite handsome and very young winemaker. Aurelien is the youngest of three children born to the Domaine. He was a basketball player by trade until his father became ill unexpectedly after an accident. Normally it would fall upon the eldest of the family but Aurelien came home in a pinch and found himself madly in love with the entire process of winemaking. He was in his very early twenties when his father passed away and Aurelien proudly took the reins of family estate and brought about the changes that are just now showing themselves in the absolute power and complexity of the wines. Mentored by Pascal Agrapart and Jacques Selosse, this young man is bucking to take the world of Champagne by storm.

 MBDA is a tribute cuvee, named to honor the four generations of Suenen to farm their land in Champagne: Marcel, Bernard, Daniel and the current winemaker, Aurelien. Nearly equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay all of which with an average vine age of 45 years, this is a wine of extreme depth, complexity and character. One that we are sure would make the generations before very, very proud.

 Lemon custard with vanilla bean on the nose, from there it plunges into a sweet but savory note that reminds you of great charcuterie, that sweet cure or smoke if you will. Sexy in the mouth, the wine unveils itself little by little. It makes you wait, dig deeper and has enough beguiling flavor that you find pleasure in the hunt. Truly stunning wine that just so happens to have a tiny bead of delicate bubbles. (Only 20 cases brought to California and be sure to keep checking the calendar at the beginning of the year, we are trying to get Aurelien out of the vineyards and to California and we’ve been assured, we are atop the list of places he will visit and do a tasting)

So there you have it, my Wines of the Year, or “The Best” wines for to explain why I do what I do, and why I still love it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Rocket Man

“There he is Sam! You see that spot way up there, just to the right of the power line and left of the sun? That’s Mikey on his jetpack.” My mother’s hand firmly holding mine, her other arm pointing high into the warm San Diego sky, to the right of the power line as my white blonde head popped back and forth dodging searing beams of sunlight as I desperately searched the sky to catch a glimpse of my older brother Michael who was coming to visit. Mike and I were separated by just four years but for the majority of our lives we were worlds apart.

 Michael Shawn, Mikey, was born in 1967 a couple months shy of 9 months after his parents married. His young and beautiful 23 year old mother finally settling, or literally settling into the life she had been primed for and promised. To be a mother and a wife. No matter how rebellious inside, no matter how talented or wanting, no matter what she could have been she was assured that pretty was all one needed to make all your dreams come true. Of course not all dreams are of the pleasant variety. This my mother came to realize in a way that would only pick deeper at that growing wound that was her festering and utter disappointment. 

The man she married, Chuck, was small, thin, a drop out from the seminary that was raised in Iowa and couldn’t get the fuck out of there fast enough. He moved west for a successful job and after starting to acquire a fair amount of wealth, at least to the standards that impressed himself, he set about looking for the Christmas card photo, a family. He wooed my mother with expensive gifts, fancy dinners, and rambling promises of things to come. She never had a passion for him, his small freckled hands poking about dutifully at the flesh that many had wished they could have. She’d had lovers before and Chuck was never to be her lover, not in any way that would feed her, but he would be able to provide her with a life that could afford her the landscape she had envisioned. Her own Holiday card of sorts, a pretty lady, lovely children, a nice home and a man that seemed to crave spoiling her. Passion and open sexuality she could, and did find elsewhere, if that elsewhere helped speed along a marriage decision no one really knows. It was a bit after my brother was christened that the late nights started. Oh, not hers, his. She made up and waiting, the baby tucked away in bed and sweetly sleeping. The crack of the front door, two drunk men, one of which her husband the other a complete stranger. Clumsy introductions, ones so thick with lies she felt like she were being fed spoonful after spoonful of literal shit. Wifely offers to make a drink, awkward glances back and forth and then came, “Don’t you think it’s time for you to go to bed Nance?”….and so it began. 

Chuck ran to the church to “fix” his gay and then he ran into marriage trying to cover it up. My mother left with the shame of living that big a lie or ending a marriage in a family that would likely never let her forget or live it down. Would have been easy enough to stay actually. Many women did, still do, but my mother, for as many wonky and poorly made decisions, she opted to save less face and more of herself.  She left and took my brother with her. There were threats of legal recourse, on both sides and there are about 20 stories as to how what happened ended up happening. Bottom, line, my mother found herself in San Diego, wildly in love, broke and pregnant with her second child, at some point my brother was “elevated” to Long Beach living with a man that could, and did, afford him the very best that money can buy. Thing is, well we all know what money can’t buy….

I saw Mikey emerge from the Greyhound station with a backpack slung over his shoulder, his jet pack cleverly concealed from the general public. His mass of thick wavy hair that looked exactly like my mothers. Same color, same texture, same kinks and random bends. His smile broad and eyes the same shade of brilliant blue as the woman that was my everything. I ran to him, wrapped my skinny brown arms around his waist and rested my head upon his shoulder. “You really got here in a jet pack Mikey?!” my belief that my brother was the coolest kid alive and all, “Sure did Sam. Maybe one day I’ll let you take a ride with me” he said before slipping my arms from around his frame and running full speed into my mother’s arms. Her tears always assuring me they shared a story I couldn’t yet read. Wasn’t invited to read in fact. I just knew my brother The Rocket Man was here for another visit and I couldn’t be happier, until. 

“Why are we doing this again?” my face puckered, brown forearm stretched out across my forehead shielding my light green eyes from the sun. “I want to show you a trick” Mikey’s response as he propped up the packets of catsup and hot sauce on the curb. “You look like Mommy. Like a boy version of Mommy. You think I will look like you guys too?” standing there as my brother built his little contraption. “Nope” his response. My heart was racing and my eyes began to fill when I stretched out my pointy chin, lifted the narrow nose that I hated because it wasn’t cute and upturned like theirs, “Why not?!” the tears rolling like rain on a windshield down my face. Just then Mikey picked up a brick and balanced it atop the sauce packets before standing on the curb, shooting me one of those looks that both he and my mother wore that let me know I was in trouble and just before he jumped on top of the brick he said calmly, “because you’re adopted” the words landing sharper and messier than the colorful splash of fast food condiments that exploded all over my special outfit, the one I’d worn specifically to welcome my brother.

There are tons of evil tricks that siblings do to one another. Just hurtful and mean but in the end there is some core of love, a foundation of family that makes those things sting less and maybe years later the very kind of remembrance that you can laugh about…..apologize for over the Thanksgiving table. That wasn’t Mikey and me. I think we both tried at various points but they were never at the same time and the fact of the matter was, there was no real core of, anything really. We lived apart for most of our lives and the few years we were under the same roof were some of the most torturous and nightmarish I can remember. From having to live with he and his evil fuck of a father, to when we were all, my mother, baby sister, my son and at some point the boyfriend that would become my husband and Mikey, living in a 2 bedroom tiny apartment where he ruled the roost via fear and drunken/drug addicted threats, thefts and raging. My brother made sure I was aware how unhappy he was, made sure we all knew but he always has some extra venom for me.  

After years of having things stolen, loaning money and being lied to over and over again, it was one night that I went to make a transfer from my savings account to my checking and I was standing at the bank machine looking at all my hours of hard work and pride that I never took welfare or child support to care for my son, to see my bank account had been drained, dry, by my brother, still The Rocket Man but now his rocket snorted right up his nose, the meth his pilot taking him away from me as I begged the bank machine for $20 to buy milk for my son…it was that night that I knew I could and would never forgive him. Not in the conventional way anyway.

“They don’t have anywhere else to go Sam!” my mother screaming at me when I was in tears because she had invited Chuck and Mikey to Christmas Eve at our apartment. “Why the fuck do you think that is Mom?!” I screamed back as I grabbed my bag and son and attempted to find any hole anywhere in the world that was not that place. It took me years to really see that night. To feel what she must have felt. What he might have felt. They were all alone in their strange little story and all of them were guilty of some pretty egregious and seemingly unforgivable stuff, and they were all suffering in one way or another because of it.

My mother for having sent her son, her first born to live with a rich monster that had all the funds to buy his son all the things he could ever need and want. The motorcycles, the drum sets, the go carts and super expensive private school education, The thing was, he could never buy Mikey the touch of a mother’s hand. The way it feels to be tugged tight into her breasts, the smell of her skin wrapping around you like and extra set of arms. Standing beside her in the kitchen as she cooked for you. He could never wear Nancy’s beaming smile as he watched Mikey at some sporting event, and he could never love his son as much as he loved himself and his need to devour every man he could, heart, body and soul. He threw money at the young man that looked like his ex-wife, mostly in the hopes that he would be successful and something else for Chuck to brag about. My brother, the one that looked most like Mom, was her first and in the end probably needed her most, he had to live in that big hollow home, the only real comfort in the piles of stuff and promise of more. His life knowing, or thinking really, that my mother gave him up, to make room for me. No wonder the venom and extra rage. Top that with the fact that I finally refused to deal with him at all, well in his addled sense of reality I must have been just as awful as I found him to be. 

I ignored repeated Facebook friend request, didn’t respond to voicemails and just barely acknowledged the emails he would always send me on my birthday, well the ones when he wasn’t living on the streets or in some random person’s storage unit. I saw my brother a couple years ago, he was barely 100 pounds and I was sure he was days from passing. I went to the hospital to be there, more for my baby sister who took on our mother’s role of caregiver for Mikey. I heard in her voice that she needed support and I will not lie and say I was there for any other reason than her. He and I were done and I didn’t even want to see him, but I did. I walked in and saw that hollow house all over him, sunk in cheeks, writhing in pain trying to breathe, suffering the decades of drugs and alcohol….but there was this set of brilliant blue eyes. They were hers and it took everything I had not to fall apart then and there, but I was there for my little sister and not to hash out, or even bring up old wounds. 

I felt like a fraud being there. Like some sick ass voyeur ogling his weakness and fragility and I hated myself for walking in that room. He didn’t deserve more per se but I had no right, as someone that had turned him away when he was literally living under an upturned dumpster because of his addiction. I did what I did to protect myself and my family from the only life I’d known with Mikey, a brutal one filled with lies and anger. I let The Rocket Man fly far, far away, seeing him that frail was too personal. I hadn’t earned it. I walked out of that room, only after silently slipping my hand over his skinny hospital sheet covered foot, I gave it a squeeze and in my own way hoped he would this time forgive me this intrusion on his life. I said goodbye that day and I knew I would never see Mikey again.

“I wish you would just accept my friendship over on Facebook Sam. I’m not the same juvenile asshole I used to be” Mikey reaching out once again, his sense of family something very different than mine. His persistence one I didn’t understand. I told him once again that seeing as my account is also public I couldn’t really have him making his snide remarks about me be a snob for being into French wine and our, both radical, politics on other sides of the fence were a recipe for disaster. All true but I just couldn’t find a place in my world where Mikey made sense. His life started with everything and he gave it all away, my life starting with nothing and I’ve been given so much. I fought harder than he did but…..I knew her scent and how it felt to curl up next to her when it was dark and I was afraid. He didn’t and this is only now sitting heavy on my heart.

“I’m doing a wellness check on Mikey” my sister messaging me a week ago today. “Say huh? What’s that?” I replied. Turns out Mikey, who was now living in Pennsylvania near his daughter and 3 tiny granddaughters, had been having some health issues again and he asked our little sister, his true caregiver, to keep an eye on him and if he didn’t respond to texts after like 24 hours, maybe have someone go check on him. I thought the gesture sweet and found myself even more in love with my baby sister, (her name is Tessa by the way and she was the first real love of my life….she makes me proud every single day and she is about to give me a tiny niece that I cannot wait to pull close and wrap in my scent. I don’t have the brilliant blue eyes but I have a big waiting heart)  as I wriggled into a swimsuit and waddled out to the hot tub to work my newly busted back and drink wine with the husband that adores me. Bottle of Bandol Rose gone, fingers pruney and saturated with chlorine I tossed my wet swimwear over the shower door and made my way to the living room. That was when my phone started ringing, fuck. 

Her warbled voice streaming through the tiny holes of my cell phone, “Well, I guess you know why I’m calling” my heart leaping to the base of my throat as I held back every urge I had to yell, scream and gag, “Oh sweetheart what happened?” all I could muster before slapping my hands over my mouth, looking over at my husband, eyes huge and roaring with tears. I made it through the call before falling into a sobbing heap. He was gone. In a way he always was but, never like this….

My brother’s name was Michael Shawn

He was at one time unbearably handsome

He used to draw and design motocross gear, including helmets when he was like 12

He had all the Star Wars ships suspended from his bedroom ceiling

His taste in music was awful but I think it was because he couldn’t dance, with that gawd awful noise you didn’t need to

All my friends when I was little had a massive crush on The Rocket Man

He used to try and get me to do drugs too…hated that and never did with him

He too had a passion for food and cooking

He was so very proud of the young man my son Jeremy turned out to be, and he always said it

He was too smart for the life he gave himself

He was madly in love with his daughter and granddaughters

He ruined more relationships than he succeeded in

He must have seen things and done things that he would rather die than tell me

He fought in Desert Storm and his entire team was lost when he was home while our mother was sick. This is something I’m sure was with him every single second of every day

He loved me even though I shunned him over and over again…..

He told our little sister that he knew I might not ever forgive him

He never once apologized for stealing from me or my son

He was a sad soul….

He was working, living in an apartment and clean for the first time in like 25 years and when they found him. There was a bowl of food he made for dinner, one he and our sister had been texting back and forth about, and there were no drugs or alcohol in his apartment….his alarm was going off for him to go to work the next day. 

No matter what we went though I will forever picture Mikey, that backpack over his shoulder, the idea that he sailed through the air on a jet pack to come visit us….that wavy Mom colored hair and a heart that was broken before I really got a chance to know it.

I’m sorry Mikey….and no matter how late and seemingly stupid, I just accepted your friend request. Seems like this might have been the first time in our lives apart that we could have maybe been friends. Or tried to be.

Letting you be away was always easy

Letting you go, for good, this one hurts Mikey….but I’ve earned it. 

The Rocket Man, I hope you are heading to the home you always dreamed of and I hope she is there to cook you something, give you that look and tell you all the reasons she loved you.