Slouching Toward Cuisinarts

I tasted five Fess Parker Pinot Noirs this weekend, all of which I received as press samples, and while I loved the wines—these are serious, ambitious Santa Barbara Pinots, with terrifically plush fruit, smooth tannins, and interesting vineyard-to-vineyard differences—I was also captivated by the way they floated around the background of the weekend. I was in Napa, at a place owned by my wife’s parents, and we had company, our dear friends C and H. They have a great little 2-year-old boy, and C is substantially pregnant with their second child-to-be, a girl, and they both also have consuming work lives: She’s a neuroradiologist, and H runs his own business, one that is taking off in ways that are exhilarating but also anxiety-producing and tiring. So they feel almost as run-down as we do these days, with our two little girls and our DIY remodel. Conversation, particularly between H and myself, ran notably to lamentations for vanished youth. Neither of us is quite 40, so this is hardly an authentic drama, but nevertheless, one feels something passing, or at least temporarily on hold, while in the tunnel of toddler exhaustion. What, exactly? Perhaps it’s best left unsaid—the electric vigor of youth, or something in that vein.

Anyway, we sat on the deck in the warm night, eating sirloin steaks from a grass-fed steer we recently bought in its entirety to share among a number of families. And as we ate and talked, I also drank and drank among those Fess Parker Pinot Noirs: the Santa Barbara County, the Pommard Clone, the Clone 115, the Bien Nacido Vineyard, and the Ashley’s Vineyard. Or, rather, I drank all these wines; I’d recently been through all of Fess Parker’s Syrahs, which are immense, powerful, and deeply satisfying, and I was feeling pretty good about what lay ahead. Everyone else at the table stuck to the Pommard Clone, which has a dazzling concentration of bright, fresh fruit, and also to the ripe, jammy Bien Nacido Vineyard. But I sipped my way through the others as well, and wondered why H, in particular, didn’t seem much interested. Later, it came out: Wine doesn’t interest him, as he put it. He wishes it did, but it doesn’t. Perhaps someday. He’s a sweet, interesting, thoughtful person—not at all a bore—and I wished he were taking the wine ride with me.

Anyway, we played at a pool the next day with our kids, for hours and hours, and then got ready to go out to dinner. L’s parents generously had agreed to baby-sit. And while everyone showered and put on clean clothes, I whipped out those Pinots again. The Bien Nacido had been completely cleaned out, but the others were waiting for me, and because I knew I wouldn’t have any takers—that I wouldn’t find anyone game for a four-Pinot comparative taste test—I got to work. The Santa Barbara County, being from a very broad AVA, was, not surprisingly, the least interesting—it had a curious bitter hint, almost like fermented cheese—though it was certainly a well-balanced and enjoyable wine. The Pommard Clone and Ashley’s Vineyard, on the other hand, were astounding. My notes for the Ashley’s say that it has an intense dark fruit in the nose, very pure and concentrated, plum fruit leather, licorice, a lot of blueberry and a trace of yerba santa, and beautiful, soft tannins. For the Pommard: a very different fruit from the Ashley’s, a little brighter and fresher, with some pepper and spice. All the wines were full-bodied and balanced, with a great deal of flavor.

But how curious to taste alone, with all these other people in the house! How curious to savor this ridiculous good fortune without successfully luring others to share it!

The thought came back to me after dinner, when we all returned to the house and sat on couches and talked into the night, and H and I began talking about sex—just silly guy-to-guy talk, ruing long-past opportunities. Sort of pathetic for married men, it seemed to me, but perhaps also predictable. Our wives both crawled off to bed, and I felt a little embarrassed. Fraternity antics, high school loves … why revisit all this? What did it say about our current moment in life? Sensory pleasures still abound for us—we’re both happily married, is the truth, to women we’re actively, romantically crazy about. And for me, at least, the sensory pleasures of the table become more pronounced and satisfying every year. Shouldn’t H simply join me in the wine journey? Couldn’t I turn him on to sensory delights that would continue to surprise and delight for the rest of his life? (Lord knows he has the income.)

But every time I have that kind of thought, I’m reminded of a book reading I went to about seven years ago in Berkeley. Betty Fussell, ex-wife of the great Paul Fussell, was reading from her memoir My Kitchen Wars, about life as a faculty wife. L and I were engaged at the time, and we were sitting together at the bookstore, listening, when the author asked if the crowd would next like to hear a chapter titled “Attack by Whisk and Cuisinart,” or a chapter about adultery. All hands voted for the former. The author was astonished, thought there’d been a mistake. She took a re-count. Again, the vote came out for “Attack by Whisk and Cuisinart.” And as L and I walked out the door that night, into the quiet glitter of Berkeley’s gourmet ghetto, we both thought, “OK, no way are we ever moving to this town.” Not that adultery was on our minds; it was just that it seemed like everyone in Berkeley had given up, somehow, become so exhausted with the strain of erotic struggle that they’d turned to the far less trying rewards of food and wine. And I’m never quite sure how I feel about the memory, or my own inexorable slide toward preferring the Cuisinart and the whisk.

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