Thinking about wine in Shell Beach
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?”