New-World Red, Old-World Red, and How Wine Can Heal

I bought the old-world wine, you might say, in extremis: My father had come home from the hospital only moments before, and I’d beaten the medical transport to the house to switch on lights and turn on the heat and put on one of his Maria Callas CDs. When they carried him through the door in a wheelchair, with a plastic brace stabilizing his broken back, his mood was clearly soaring. He was positively ecstatic to be back among his custom-made guitars and his poetry books, his photographs of flamenco dancers in Andalusian villages; most of all, he was happy to be home and with my mom and with his mind intact and his body on the road to recovery. There was plenty of food in the refrigerator, brought by loving friends and relatives, but for this one night, this one meal, I wanted very much to cook for my father, to have the food pass from my hands to his. Our relationship was never built around food; we were climbing partners, hiking partners, music partners. Food and wine is a journey I’ve taken on my own. But he loves a good time, and he has always embraced whatever new form our friendship takes.

He’d also been in the hospital for 10 days, lost in drug-induced delirium and eating the revolting dreck that hospitals somehow justify on the grounds of economy. And he’d confronted the possible loss of a very vital and vigorous life. So I wanted the meal to remind him that he was still absolutely alive. I wanted it to say: You’re back, man. You’re back!

There’s a simple soup I like to make, with baby turnips and their greens, and I knew that it would fill him up with the healing warmth he needed most of all, but I wanted to follow it with a steak and wine, painkillers and nausea be damned. I wanted him to have seared beef between his teeth, and to wash it down with the right red, and to let the combination remind him that he’s still the guy he was before nurses and gowns and braces and beds took away his autonomy, his independence, his power. So I ran out to the store, found a good-enough top sirloin (I’m picky in this department, but that’s another matter), and then I stopped at a shop called North Berkeley Imports, about a half mile from the house in which I grew up, and where my father now waited. The store wasn’t there when I was a kid—it was a Persian rug shop, I believe—but it turned out to be a very serious little wine place, and I bought a 2006 Domaine la Millière Vin de Pays de Vaucluse.

I also had an Artezin Zinfandel, just a bottle I’d grabbed from home at the last minute, and some wild black chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms from my own fridge. So we started the meal with the turnip soup poured over dry bread; just sitting upright, at his own dining table, was an obvious liberation for my father. Then I sautéed the mushrooms in olive oil and garlic and thyme, and added them to a quick pan sauce for the meat, and it all worked: When my father tasted a great bite of steak again, and let a good red wine cross his lips, his face relaxed in just the way I’d hoped it would.

2006 Artezin Zinfandel Mendocino County

Grapes: 91 percent Zinfandel, 9 percent Petite Sirah
Wood: N/A
Alcohol: 14.5 percent (major)
Total Acid: .55g/100ml
pH: 3.67 (this is fairly high, I think, meaning this isn’t an especially high-acid wine)
Price: $18 from the winery
My Tasting Notes: When I think of Mendocino, I think of the cold north coast, but that’s not the deal here. This is a hot-weather wine from the Ukiah Valley, well inland, and it’s a huge, plush, luscious mouthful. There’s something about the impact on your tongue, in particular: It’s as if the winemaker (whom I’ve met, and will write about soon) has reached right into your mouth and placed a perfect bomb of blackberry-vanilla liqueur exactly where he wants you to feel it.

2006 Domaine la Millière Vin de Pays de Vaucluse
Grapes: 100 percent Merlot, according to the importer
Wood: None, this wine is vinified entirely in concrete tanks
Appellation: Vaucluse (which is a broad “vin de pays” designation for wines from the Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Ventoux, and Côtes du Luberon appellations)

Alcohol: 14.5 percent
Other Nice Info: Turns out the guy who makes this also makes some very sophisticated Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines; North Berkeley Imports, the folks who bring this wine to the States, see it as the work of a great winemaker doing a great-value rustic/everyday red from a rustic region
Price: $12.99 from North Berkeley Imports
My Tasting Notes: Rustic really is the word, in my view. Blueberries, pepper, plum, spice, and … I’d swear there was obvious wood. But apparently there’s not, which means I’m maybe tasting a kind of wet-earth quality. This is a great deal.

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