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Thinking about wine in Shell Beach

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Drove down the 101 to Shell Beach yesterday under clear blue skies scuttled with fleecy white clouds, and I swear California’s hills never looked greener. All the recent winter rains have made the grasses grow fierce, dappled here and there with lupine and mustard, and every flowering tree — plum, cherry, magnolia — was festooned with brilliant blossoms. Along the hundred-mile stretch of the Salinas Valley, the vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands looked pale green, but they were far off, and it was hard to tell if they were already breaking buds. A little further south, the gigantic San Bernabe Vineyard, owned by the Indelicato family and supposedly the world’s largest, looked almost ready to burst into bloom. Spring is just around the corner: another season, another vintage, another turn of the wheel.

Got to the The Cliffs, where I’m staying, around 3 p.m., and the temperature on my dashboard was 64 degrees, the warmest of any point of my 240 mile trip. Of course, Shell Beach also is closer to Southern California, but there was a mild offshore breeze, making the coast warmer than inland, and I remember once, on a winter day, when Pismo Beach (just a few miles further south) was the warmest place in the continental U.S. Just as you hit Shell Beach on the freeway, the Pacific springs into view, and I never fail to anticipate it, and be amazed. In everyday life those of us who do not dwell directly on the coast tend to forget that the ocean is out there, next stop Japan, and maybe one of these days, when the San Andreas Fault does its thing, God forbid, the ocean will be closer inland than it is now.

My editor at University of California Press, the inimitable Blake Edgar, had advised me to read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” for inspiration for my next book, so I brought it with me to the hotel gym and read it while on the exercycle. (Ninety minutes of hard cardio for this aging Boomer, including ellipticals and treadmill. You have to do something when you’re on the road, eating and drinking all the time.) I came across this quote from the author, Michael Pollan, concerning a fast food meal he, his wife and son ate at McDonald’s: “Perhaps the reason you eat this food quickly is because it doesn’t bear savoring. The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it tastes. I said before that McDonald’s serves a kind of comfort food, but after a few bites I’m more inclined to think they’re selling something more schematic than that — something more like a signifier of comfort food.” It’s good, forceful writing, and like all good writing made me think of things in my own life that might be described in the same way. In this case, it’s commodity wine. You know what that is; there’s no need to name names. It’s the mass-produced, varietally-named, inexpensive wine that could come from anywhere and, in California, usually comes from the Central Valley. It’s comfort wine, or, as Pollan wrote, a signifier of comfort wine, since it’s not like the meatloaf and mashed potatoes I make at home — real comfort food — but more like frozen food meatloaf and mashed potatoes that may, or may not, actually contain meat and potatoes. I mean no disrespect to these wines. When priced accordingly, they enable millions of Americans to drink true varietal (or, at least, 75% varietal) wine on an everyday basis, and Lord knows I’ve given lots of Best Buys to them in Wine Enthusiast. There’s a huge difference between the chicken McNuggets Pollan indicts in “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the oceans of inexpensive plonk California churns out. The world always has produced plonk; I welcome it and celebrate it. But “it doesn’t bear savoring.”

Do we wine aficienadoes make too much of “savoring”? No. Great wine, like great cuisine, is an extraordinary experience. And that may be the ultimate definition of the difference between an 85 point wine and a 99 or 100 pointer: Can it be savored? Not just “is it good?” or “is it easy to like?” or even “does it go well with food?,” but “Can you sip it again and again, as it warms in the glass, and be astounded?”

  1. The moments that get me are when I’m so enthralled by a wine that I realize I’ve spent several minutes smelling it without ever having taken a sip. Then someone might ask me “how does it taste?” and I’m responding, “uhmm… I don’t know yet.” Always a pleasant signal of a potentially awe-inspiring wine to me.

  2. Some wines smell so good you’re almost afraid to taste them lest they let you down.

  3. Richard says:

    Steve,

    You know, can’t write anything these days w/out being criticized – and, I do this one very tongue in cheek – but I take issue with your statement “San Andreas Fault does its thing, God forbid, the ocean will be closer inland than it is now.” The San Andreas is basically a right strike slip fault, meaning that the Pacific Plate is hitting the North American plate and rubbing against it moving northward. What this means is that Cali won’t fall into the ocean but that eventually, theoretically, someday, Los Angeles will parallel San Francisco…

    Richard.

  4. Well, Richard, then it won’t take so long to drive to Southern California.

  5. And when that day happens, I am moving to Seattle. Oh, wait, I won’t have to move. Maybe my house will get there on its own.

    And while Richard is correct technically, was it not fun in the days that Howard Hughes was buying up so much Nevada real estate to make jokes that he was just waiting for the next big quake to turn his holdings into beachfront property?

    Hey, Richard, I do this tongue-in-cheek. We do not live in Cali or Frisco. We live in California and San Francisco–and we know the risks.

    Now, back to wine. A few years ago, I was invited to a tasting of new DRC releases. I don’t often get to drink those wines. In fact, it would be fair to say that I rarely get to drink those wines. Obviously, the room full of wine folks were nearly giddy with anticipation, and then we put our noses into the glass of the first wine. We only tasted eight or nine wines total, but it took us over an hour. These were wines to savor.

    People sometimes do not understand how great meals can stretch for hours and hours. I find it hard to believe myself that such meals take so long yet go so quickly. It all has to do with the joy of experiencing greatness. Folks like Steve and me who tastes thousands of wines for a living, take maybe eight minutes per wine (at least in my case). We are sometimes pilloried for not being able to stay with the wine for hours and hours in order to find its developing essence. And we have no alternative but to plead guilty.

    But, that is what our jobs are about. Our lives, the stuff we do when we are not tasting, spitting writing is lived in the essence. Great wine and food does that for you.

  6. I’ve been to those DRC tastings too. I often wonder what would happen if there was a tasting of California Pinots and a ringer was slipped in — La Tache or Romanee-Conti itself. Would it show well? Do we “savor” the DRC wines and linger over them because we know it’s DRC (the tastings I go to are hosted by Wilson Daniels and are open, i.e. not blind)? If we didn’t know they were DRC would we still give them the high scores? Food (or liquid) for thought.

  7. Steve,
    I know exactly what you mean, happens to me all the time as a buyer. I smell and taste certain wines and think, “meh” but when they are $6.50 wholesale I need to remind myself that they don’t need to be profound and just like eating McDonalds, some people are comfortable putting that lifeless, soulless stuff in their mouth. We stock very few of them but the ones we do sell just fine.

  8. Charlie,

    Re: your comment: “We do not live in Cali or Frisco. We live in California and San Francisco–and we know the risks…” Frisco? Charlie! Please! I live in “Cali” too and never did I refer to “THE City” as “Frisco.” Horrors! As for Cali – well, you got me there – maybe it’s a southern Cali thing and you folks from Frisco, uh, I mean San Fran, that is, The City, don’t call it Cali… So, like, dude, you need to like go, like really, like rad, and like get with the lip of the wave, dude…

    And besides, I’ve heard drinking DRC can have a deleterious effect on one’s senses akin to an earthquake and leave one addled for years to come. I’m addled enough already which is why I stay away from the stuff…

    Richard.

  9. Richard–

    Very cool, dude.

  10. That drive along the 101 where it meets the coast has always been one of my favorites and, like a good wine, is something I always try to savor.

  11. Nice to see you’re out on such a fun road trip. Reminds me of last year at Shell Beach. Enjoy!

  12. The World of Pinot Noir tasting yesterday was a great event. It was the first time we participated with our La Rochelle pinots, and the ability to compare Santa Lucia Highlands and Russian River with Pinots from Switzerland, Alto Adige, the Fingerlakes, and Oregon was a great treat.

  13. Back to “wines to savor” vs. “commodity wines”; how about a third category, “wines that hit the spot”? I’m thinking about wines that are fairly simple and may not bear a lot of scrutiny but are delicious and satisfying and represent a place or style (or mood?) perfectly. For example a minerally or grassy and somewhat austere Sauvignon Blanc with oysters. Or a dry Spanish or southern French rose with a little heft and character with an assortment of sausages, peppers and tomatoes in summer. A hearty Petite Sirah as the heavily peppered steak hits the grill. The funny thing is, it is possible to produce such wines at low cost, with the right grapes at the right prices. But I don’t think that’s what you have in mind when you’re talking about “commodity wines.”

  14. Christian, actually the kinds of “wines that hit the spot” are what I’ve most drunk and enjoyed all my life. Thankfully there are many from around the world. You’re right, that’s not what I mean by “commodity wines.” We’re lucky to live in an era when we can try so many wines at decent prices and find things we love.

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