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Serving the lamb: the religious hierarchy of wine serfdom


All these articles about what wines to drink at Thanksgiving are giving me a headache, but I get it. They’re a staple of the wine publishing trade. Heck, for all I know, someone’s gonna write one for Wine Enthusiast! While I defer to no one in my penchant for the best wine and food pairings, Thanksgiving is the annual lacuna in this fun practice. Such is the nature of the traditional table that there’s almost no wine you can put on it that someone won’t like, or that won’t match up with something. At our annual family turkey day, I just pack up a crate of this and that–a little dry white, some Chardonnay, some bubbly, a Pinot Noir, Zinfandel for sure, even a Cabernet, and definitely some sweet wine, and that’s it.

People always turn to me as the expert to ask what to drink with what, but for the most part I defer from taking up that mantle. In many respects, I’m the least wine snobby person I know, and I think it has to do with my constitutional makeup. I’ve always been acutely aware of snobbism in life. Hated it from day one. A snob might have been that preppy kid in 8th grade who was too good to talk to me and my friends. It could have been the frat boy when I was a frosh in college, who went around thinking he was God’s gift to the world. My first experience in wine snobs was meeting the country’s leading collectors when I wrote The Collecting Page at Wine Spectator. My lord, what a tedious bunch of men. Too much money, too little self-respect, and a complete lacking of common sense etiquette. It was a variation on the old “Mine is bigger than yours,” except it was “Mine is older than yours,” or “Mine cost more money than yours,” or “Mine is much rarer than yours.” Better still, a combination of all three. I saw the soft underbelly of the wine world at that time, and it had a profound effect on me. I think that’s why Wine Enthusiast and I are such a perfect fit. We’re the anti-snob magazine. Wine is about fun, and laughter, and companionship, and eating lots of fantastic food. It’s not about having a heart attack worrying about whether the ‘02 or the ‘03 will better serve the lamb.

Still, there can be obvious mismatches. When we were in Monterey the other day, we (four of us) went to an Italian restaurant, Cibo. Cookie and Allison ordered angel hair pasta with fish, Lisa had the breaded cod, and I opted for a pizza with green apples and prosciutto (unbearably good). Then the girls handed me the wine list and told me to have at it. I could have gone through every permutation in my head over the precise nature of the meats, sauces and spices, the way some people I know do, and agonized over the possibility that something might go dreadfully wrong. But I didn’t. I saw a Nozzole Riserva, with six years of bottle age, and that was that. I used to drink a lot of Nozzole in the Eighties and knew it would be fine, which it was. Dry as dust, so smooth in tannins, earthy and rich in cherries and tobacco. The girls loved it with their food, I loved it with mine. A no brainer. (Our server liked my pick, too.)

This Thanksgiving we’re having about 20 people at Maxine’s, down in San Mateo. I promised to help with the prep. There will be little kids, medium sized mini-adults, proper adults and, uh, aging boomers. I like Thanksgiving because it’s our country’s own holiday, secular, and fun, but with a serious point. I’m sure all of us of legal age who are not on 12-step programs (a few in my family are) will indulge like crazy, which if fine with me. I love getting my blood alcohol to illegal limits when I’m with friends, although as most of you know, I will not drive after I’ve been drinking. Fortunately, I’ll stay the night at Maxine’s, then drive home to Oakland early the next morning. For all my loathing of driving the Bay Area’s impossibly crowded, frustrating freeways, I adore driving just as dawn is breaking. Heading east on the 101, you come around Hospital Curve and there it is, downtown San Francisco, the soaring towers (the Jukebox Marriott, as Herb Caen called it, is my favorite) gleaming in the rising sun, the sky over the East Bay Hills ablaze in fire. When I’m able to relax and just drive instead of battling my way through gridlock, I sense how small the Bay Area really is. If you’re on the Bay Bridge, Napa is just to your left, Sonoma a little behind your left shoulder, Livermore Valley straight ahead, and the Santa Cruz Mountains just over your right shoulder. I’ve driven from Boonville to Oakland early on a Sunday morning in an hour and twenty minutes. It seems far away, but it’s not.

Oh, the headline on this post? I don’t know what it means, either. I just liked the sound of the words.

  1. I liked this posting (especially the part about the wine collecting snobs), although I’ll admit I was waiting to see what the headline was about.

  2. I was wondering too…and hope that you’ll follow what sounds to me like a potentially interesting thought-path.

    Your description of the Bay area at dawn is downright poetic. Lovely! (I too love driving at dawn, though for me it’s more commonly the Indiana plains under a late-November frost; a symphony of pale golds and greys reflected in a limitless sky.)

    Oh, and Thanksgiving? Trappist ale with the appetizers; then Russian River Chardonnay, Beaujolais-Villages, an off-dry white blend, and sparkling cherry juice for the non-drinkers. Scotch or icewine with dessert and coffee. Something for everyone.


  3. I was thrown by the paragraph on Cibo…it starts off with “there can be obvious mismatches”…and proceeds to talk about an odd combo (Chianti and fish) but that it worked out fine (hence, not a mismatch, but instead a different combo). That’s the obvious thread thru this blog (which I really like) that presumed combos and “perfect-match” wines are far overdone/overpublicized…that oddball combos can be fab and fun. That we should stress a little less with perfect-fit and instead explore unique/different combos and expand our horizons…
    Pls keep up the common-sense approach to vino!

  4. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Syrah can work well with heavily flavored fish, like “red snapper”, halibut, or real cod or what is called Chilean Sea Bass. Not good with light and delicate fish like sole and not too good with salmon. But it is one of those unlikely combos that can work. I even cook the “heavy” fish in some Syrah on occasion.

    But I don’t think that bringing a Napa Cab to a sushi restaurant is a good idea. Except of course in the SF area, where Cab. shows up for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight ice cream.

  5. Great Post Mr Steve, Happy Thanksgiving to you and all the crowd at Maxine’s, especially the “aging boomers” (sort of redundant)We do have a lot to be thankful for. Cheers!

  6. Steve, I’m impressed by your driving time from Boonville to Oakland. Google maps shows the distance at 118 miles as a minimum. Doing that in 80 minutes is averaging 90 miles an hour. Considering 1/4 of that distance is windy two lane road before getting to 101 where you might be able to average 50. it means once you hit the highway you are averaging 105. I suppose going south you don’t need to pay any bridge tolls so that probably helps speed things up. I never pegged you for a Maserati guy. 😉

  7. Doug Wilder there are many things about me you do not know!

  8. Nice! Love the last line! Made me laugh!

  9. you had me at serfdom

  10. ***

    Nice to see the Sacamenna Kid (Herb Cain) is still referenced and remembered.


  11. Some of us will never forget the late, great Herb Caen. I miss his column to this day.

  12. Alfonso: Friedrich Hayek has been much in the news lately. I think that’s why I chose the word “serfdom.”

  13. While I am as bored as everyone with the usual holiday wine recommendations that appear at this time of year in every newspaper, magazine or blog; I would like to see everyone do it again this year… in spades… but with a twist. That twist would be “Buy and Give American Wine.”

    Instead of that latest phone or gadget or the sweater or socks that send most of our wealth to Asia, give American wine. Everyone has too much Chinese “stuff” anyway. Wine is easy to wrap, all you need is a bow or a colorful sack.

    I would like to see all writers and editors come up with a choice of wines that are 100 percent American. No foreign oak, no imported bottles or corks, no foreign consulants. (Maybe we can be flexible on corks given Spain and Portugal’s economies.) I want a list of good giftable wines that are red, white and blue… all ‘Mer-can, if you know what I mean.

    Classic economics shows us that wealth creation is the combining of material, labour, land, and technology in such a way as to satisfy human needs and wants. There is nothing that fits this description or creates real wealth better than wine. And this wealth doesn’t just go to the producer, but is spread about to the entire chain of suppliers and services that are necessary to get the product in the bottle and distributed around the country.

    We only need to buy some Zin to kick start our economy. So let’s do it.

  14. I love this post! My own little blog’s title, The Frugal Wine Snob, is completely tongue in cheek, b-t-w.

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