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La Vie en Rosé

Like a lot of wine writers, I’ve been drinking rosé lately. It’s that time of year, early summer: Rosé season is upon us, and wine writers are supposed to be out in front of the pack. And after tasting perhaps two dozen dry rosés in the last two weeks, I’m struck both by their value—you can get a very good bottle for under $15—and by the deep persistence of the “pink” problem. The latter issue came to mind mostly because of my various guests; almost everyone who drops by my house at a reasonable drinking hour gets a comparative wine tasting forced upon him or her, as I pull out the bottles I want to taste and seize the chance to hear how another palate reacts to the same phenomena. In this case, guest after guest—and I’m just talking about family members and the odd friend—confessed to expecting the wine to be sweet. Even my father, who spends a month in France with my mother every summer, said that he was surprised to find himself liking the rosés cluttering my kitchen island. Then, curiously, he commented that one of the bottles, from Bieler Père et Fils, tasted like Provence.

“That’s the taste of Provence,” is how he put it, I believe. “Right there in that bottle. That’s every night in Provence, in the summer.”

So this is a guy who has consumed and enjoyed rosé right in its heartland, night after night, and yet while standing in his own son’s kitchen he still expects it to be sweet. Here’s my theory: Even those of us who fancy ourselves somewhat alternative, shopping at farmers’ markets and avoiding white Zinfandel sold in boxes, inhabit a profoundly media-saturated American food environment. And in that environment—in advertising and on supermarket shelves and in the food aisles and drink coolers of every gas station minimart in North America—pink is a primary color, a color with meaning. And that meaning is very simple: It says, “This food is very sweet.” Pink popcorn, pink lemonade, pink soda, pink candy of all kinds—American food manufacturers simply don’t make food pink unless they want to signal sweetness.

The same goes for the metaphorical sweetness of nonfood items: Anybody who has ever known anybody who has ever had children knows that pink is the universal color of hyperfemininity. Dolls, clothes, toys—pink is a deliberately chosen, added quality, meant to indicate sweetness and girliness and nothing else, ever. (Nor would any American company ever call something by a French word spelled like rose if it didn’t want that product to be perceived as fancy and feminine.)

So even if rosé in America hadn’t been historically sweet—which it has, at least in the cheap, domestically produced iterations—we could all be forgiven for thinking that any pink beverage was bound to be sweet. That’s a lot of semiotic clutter, and yet it’s all utterly misleading. Pink is not, after all, a primary wine color, distinct from red and white. Nor is it an additive. Rather, pink, in the case of wine, is more of a light red. If red wine is metaphorically masculine, and white wine metaphorically feminine, then rosé falls somewhere in between. And it drinks that way: cool and dry, with a freshness to the fruit, and yet backed up by a hint of tannins that come from the red grape skins. In fact, if men could only start thinking of rosé as the reddish white wine, sales would probably spike accordingly. How to market that idea, naturally, I’ll leave to somebody else.

House Wine

Groggy from Saturday night’s rosé—Sterling and BV, the Sterling remarkably clean and dry and full all through the mouth, but available only at the winery, and the BV a favorite of my wife’s—I made a cup of jasmine tea and sat down to read. I was looking at the tea—Yin Hao jasmine, from Peet’s—and wondering if I should add milk, when the unusual notion of milk in green tea mingled with the smell of the jasmine and then, poof, right there in my mind was an image of Julie, my first girlfriend out of college. She loved Yin Hao jasmine, and we were standing together outside the original Peet’s Coffee store, in Berkeley, where she was still in college. We had a sweet thing, the two of us—we’re still in touch, both have kids, both happily married—but somehow the nature of our affection was strongly platonic. We plain liked each other, so it’s never been hard to keep caring.

Anyway, from the memory of Yin Hao jasmine at age 21—the tea’s exquisite floral perfume, the soft morning sunshine at the corner of Vine and Walnut, the sense of everything possible, bookstores to browse and mountains to climb and school over and no pressure yet to become anybody in particular—my mind rambled to the sunny little apartment we’d shared, and then it ran to the wine we’d bought in cases. My uncle Jim worked for Trefethen and Schramsburg at the time (he was that cool uncle I wanted to be like), and he’d always brought fantastic wines on the rock-climbing trips we took with my father. The three of us would climb all day, on granite walls in the Sierra high country, and then set up a camp stove at a picnic table and make quesadillas and drink fine red wines out of tin cups and watch the sky turn purple and the alpenglow on the highest peaks, burning a honey-gold color. So when Jim offered to get me his price on some wine, I jumped at the chance. This was in 1989, and I had very little money, and I was a little young to be buying cases of wine, but bottles of Trefethen’s wonderful Eschol blend, a red table wine they no longer make, were about $2.50 a bottle if I bought by the case. Their magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon was about $5 or $10, I can’t remember.

So Julie and I laid in a few cases of Eschol red, and it became our nightly drink. She was interested in cooking professionally, and she had introduced me, on our first date, to roasted bell peppers with goat cheese, eaten with our fingers. This kind of food was far less common back then, and it was downright rare among college students; to me, the flavor and textures were a revelation. Several months after that first date, when we moved in together, we still ate well, and we began drinking well, too. Almost a dozen friends of ours, mostly in couples, lived in other apartments in the same building; we all ate and drank together often, and I recall best of all the profound sleeps I slept in those days, after a big meal and a bottle of red wine, on top of a young man’s day of whatever I was doing. I remember feeling that wine was life, and that that apartment would be perfect for me forever, and that Berkeley’s Rockridge district, with sweet Julie and all my friends, was the best place on Earth.

Perhaps I was right, for that moment in time. But it’s also true that I no longer have any of those friends—well, maybe I have two of them—and that I no longer live there and wouldn’t choose to, and that Julie traded her gourmet impulses for life as a professional herbalist, mixing and selling herbal teas. It’s also true that my father and my uncle and I no longer rock climb together, and that my uncle no longer works for Trefethen, and that Trefethen no longer makes that Eschol blend, which was a terrific deal. But the pleasure of that wine has remained with me, and the pleasure of having a house wine to return to time and again—providing a control sample against which other wines could shine by contrast—and the flavor of that Eschol has never gone away, with its good fruit, firm tannins, and clean oak.

And now that the memory has dispersed and I’m back to my own living room and the Yin Hao jasmine I’ve just brewed, I’m thinking I don’t really want to put milk in it after all. But it’s definitely time to find out what Trefethen is up to now—maybe Schramsburg, too—and to drop Julie a line and ask about her kids.

The Story of Wine

This is a pairing story, in the end, but it begins with a bottle history. Nine years ago, in early 1998, after a catastrophic, soul-destroying breakup, a brief period of reflection, and the beginning of a promising new love, I moved into an apartment uphill from San Francisco’s Mission District. It was in a gorgeous old Victorian, pre-1906-earthquake, only blocks from my new love’s apartment—her name began with L—and I had two roommates. One of those roommates was Suzanne Groth, daughter of the Napa Valley’s Groth wine family.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, in a fine Boston suburb, L’s father—still unknown to me, but a serious wine-lover—was buying and cellaring a magnum of Groth’s 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon (registration required).

Cut back to the Mission District: Suzanne turns out to be a great roommate, I love the apartment, and I fall completely in love with L. Horrid earlier-breakup long forgotten, hell-bitch ex-girlfriend now seeming an aberration, I propose to L and move into her tiny apartment and meet her father when he flies out to celebrate our engagement. Her mother is there, too, of course, but she’s not much into wine. Or at least not at my soon-to-be-father-in-law’s level.

Jump forward to 2005: L and I have a two-year-old daughter and another on the way, I positively love being married to L, and L’s parents have decided to sell the Boston place and retire to San Francisco. We’re all back in Boston in the weeks before the movers come, my father-in-law is concerned about transporting his considerable wine collection, and he hands me a bottle to carry to California on the plane: the magnum of Groth 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon. I’ve long since lost contact with Suzanne, but the bottle brings back powerful memories of that special moment—that blessed transition from bad-relationship hell to great-relationship joy.

Several months later, my father in law—now living in San Francisco—makes it clear that he considers that bottle a gift to me, and that I should enjoy it. So strong are my feelings around the bottle that I decide I should wait until I can cook a great dinner for my in-laws. A year passes, and the right dinner still hasn’t happened—although many other wonderful family dinners have. And then the bottle begins to seem a reproach: It is nearing the end of its reasonable cellaring period, I realize. In fact, it’s possible I’ve already missed the peak window. Anxiety rises. I tell myself I really must cook a special dinner.

Of course, I’m growing and evolving along with that wine, and I’m coming to feel what so many do: Drink the damn thing, whatever it is. Eat dessert first. When are we to live, if not now? So, one night, I’m down in the cellar fishing for a bottle. Friends are moving to Chicago soon—dear friends—and they’ve dropped by, last minute, for dinner. They’re not just friends, is the truth. L and I rent out a small apartment at the back of our house, and we’ve had a young couple there—M & F—for several years. They were on shaky terms when they arrived, and we didn’t know them well, but they’ve since gotten married and solidified their connection and we’ve all become great friends and M, in particular, has become a great wine-and-food buddy for me. So I’m going to miss them. And unfortunately, I’ve only had time to grab some great steaks at the store and whip up a salad. But suddenly, that Groth magnum is speaking to me. We’ll drink the whole thing in the spirit of fellowship and farewell! A last big vinous blowout for me and M!

And now for the pairing part: The wine’s tannins have receded into a restrained earthy quality, and its fruit has become surprisingly light and delicate, verging on crisp. Very strange. I’m loving the wine, of course—it’s wonderful stuff, by any measure, and we’re whipping through the magnum fast—but it’s a curiously delicate wine, after all these years. My steak, by contrast, is feeling too big and juicy. I don’t care much, because the food’s good and the wine’s great and the company’s better, but I’m taking notice: “Thought I had a good pairing here; turned out to be wrong.” Then I put out the salad. I had some gorgeous greens that night, from the farmers’ market, and I also had some truly outrageous strawberries, from a farmer I’ve known for 15 years. So I’d put the greens and strawberries together, and then balanced them out with some careful dressing work. And as soon as I took my first bite, I felt the curious tingle of surprise: 12 long years after its vintage, and 9 long years after I’d moved in with Suzanne Groth and found true love and then lost contact with Suzanne Groth, that grand Cabernet had somehow mellowed and brightened into an awe-inducing pairing for the strawberries. Or perhaps it was for the whole suite of flavors—the juicy steak leavened by crisp mizuna greens and simply brightened or accented by the strawberries. I’m not exactly sure. But whatever the answer, and whatever the role of the time and history and feeling that had gathered around that bottle as it aged and my life changed and the blessings piled up along with the pain, the pairing was pure magic and pure serendipity, the kind of thing I’ll never be able to plan and that I’ll always hope to savor again.

When Vintage Doesn’t Matter

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CHOW wine blogger Daniel Duane explains why vintage tends to be less important with new-world wines. ... WATCH THE VIDEO

Climbing Wine, Rolling Wine

Philip Shaw, the Australian winemaker between the new Rolling and Climbing labels, as well as his eponymous Philip Shaw label (in ascending order of price per bottle), is handsome as hell in a dark-eyes and silver-hair kind of way, surly and caustic like a good old Aussie curmudgeon, and a sweetheart on the inside. Or at least that was my take, after a dynamite tasting at his hands. I say at his hands because Shaw is a terrific wine geek, and he gave me a great education on a night when I wasn’t exactly receptive. I’d had one of those lunatic days: up at 5 a.m. to write, pancakes with L and our little girls from 7 to 9 (meaning syrupy faces and lots of sugar-crazed giggles), picking up these two brothers from Chiapas at 9:30, so they could crank hard on some remodel work I’ve got going, and then, while they started hanging drywall, a high-speed drive into the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District and down into the deep, dark basement of Staffan Terje’s spectacular restaurant, Perbacco, to pick up the 300-pound Berkshire pig he’d sourced for me and then helped me butcher. Zipping back across town, with an obscene amount of pork in the Subaru, I had to stop and pick up a bunch of tie-down bolts and concrete for a little cap I’m putting on my foundation, and some chemically treated two-by-sixes that won’t rot if they get wet. The boys from Chiapas—tiny pueblo, 15 days in the desert to get here, a buddy died along the way, one boy’s young wife has now died back home and he’s blowing all his earnings to fly back to his family this very night—can’t even believe how much pork I’ve got. But while they unload the lumber and concrete, the one who’s flying home gets teary-eyed and says his father’s probably going to kill a pig tomorrow night, for the family dinner welcoming him home.

Hours later, after much backbreaking work, I’m speeding to the San Francisco airport to put my Chiapas friend on that plane home, ending his big adventure across the border, and I’m paying him for that final day’s work, and he looks handsome as hell in all the new clothes he bought for the trip, and then it’s straight from the airport to a downtown building where Philip Shaw’s awaiting me. The drinking starts straight out because it has to, because I’m late, and because if I don’t start drinking wine soon, and getting into the mood, this isn’t going to work out. I’m going to spend the whole tasting caught up in complicated feelings about a sweet young guy who left his tiny pueblo and risked his life walking in the desert to make money to send home to his wife and his little daughter, only to have that young wife fall ill and die.

But the wine’s wonderful, and Shaw’s setting up these flights across his price point: a Rolling bottle, a Climbing bottle, and, finally, a Philip Shaw eponymous bottle. And at each step of the way, he’s offering a terrific little education about some fine point of winemaking, and how it has impacted the flavor distinctions between each price point. For example: the Rolling, Climbing, and PS wines come from progressively higher-altitude vineyards, and the flavors, in each, become progressively more bright, precise, complex, and balanced.

By the end, I’ve almost forgotten about the strange intersections in human lives—I bought that boy from Chiapas a new pair of sneakers, earlier that very day, because he wanted to bring them home—and I’m half in love with cranky old Philip, because I can see that this guy’s dream is precisely the life he’s led. Grew up as landed gentry, more or less, near Adelaide, and apparently took his first stab at making wine at age 14 with a bag of grapes—what a naughty boy! But all these many decades later, he’s still so enamored of the chemical mysteries of winemaking, and still so deeply invested in making good wines, that despite the slick haircut and the black silk shirt you can cut right through his crusty exterior by asking him a direct question about winemaking. He simply cares too much not to answer.

For example: “OK, Philip, I caught that wince when I said the Climbing Chardonnay had more acidity. Talk to me.”

He’s trying to be polite, doesn’t want to call me a fraud.

But I don’t care, because I’m not a fraud. I’m just a guy eager to learn.

OK, fine, he tells me, and out pours this bottled-up, compressed, and half-articulated diatribe about how everyone talks about more and less acidity and it’s often bollocks because nobody’s distinguishing between the amount of acid by volume, in a wine, and the actual strength, or pH, of that acid, or even the precise nature of the acid, because different acids, with different potassium counts, bind differently with various other flavors. I don’t need to bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that Philip Shaw, the man behind these curiously named wines—Rolling and Climbing—is an artisan in just the way you want your winemaker to be. And his wines are lovely.

Cognitive Dissonance

If you’re not one of the superrich yourself, then an encounter with the superrich can be confusing. I had such an experience recently, when I accepted an invitation for a wine tasting on a winery owner’s boat on the San Francisco Bay. I pictured huddling in the wind on a small sailboat, sipping Chardonnay under the Bay Bridge. So I invited my brother-in-law Mario, who also happens to be my number one wine-tasting partner, and we both brought extra flannel shirts and old fuzzy jackets. On the drive over, we talked about world-critical matters like home-job buzzcuts, done with electric hair clippers, and how they look when they grow out long—which is where we both stand currently, in terms of hair. (The answer: It looks ridiculous; hair styling is a legitimate profession.) We both have two-year-old daughters, so we talked about them as well.

But then we arrived at Pier 40, next to the baseball park, and got a look at the boat: Called Silverado, it was in fact a positively enormous pleasure yacht, appropriate for Jackie Onassis or Rupert Murdoch. Walking out on a long dock, we ascended a gangway and stepped into a huge party space at the boat’s rear. The room took up perhaps one-third of the total floor space of that deck, and there were decks both above and, presumably, below us. A shipboard phone roster, posted on the wall, showed perhaps 15 on-board rooms distinct enough to merit their own, separate phones. Distinct enough, as Mario put it, that you wouldn’t just want to say, “Hey, bro! You in there?” You’d want to use a phone.

The room was filled with guests tasting wines, hors d’oeuvres were already hitting a nicely laid table, and there were several expensively dressed women around. The owner of the yacht—and of the winery, Brassfield Estate—is Jerry Brassfield, a trim, fit, 50-ish guy with freckled skin and a gleaming bald head and on this night a beautifully tailored sport coat paired with slacks and a tie. Jerry apparently made his millions in vitamins, and Mario, who learned this detail for us, loved it. Mario loves the freakish specificity of human lives. Vitamins! Looking around the boat, at the dazzling display of wealth, Mario quipped, “The man clearly has a B complex.”

Brassfield lives most of the time, we were told, on the peninsula south of San Francisco, and he has a full-time boat staff that moves the yacht to Alaska for the summers and then on down to Baja for the winters—migrating, as it were, like gray whales. Except only sort of. Because the idea is that the yacht will be wherever Jerry wants it when he’s ready to pass time on its glorious decks. Then he’ll pop out in his private helicopter.

More to the point: In addition to all this material splendor, Jerry also owns a 2,200-acre cattle ranch in Lake County, California, and he’s been making wine there since 2001. And this is where things became confusing for me. I love Lake County. That is exquisitely beautiful country, and an underappreciated part of California—not just for winemaking. Lake County is also underappreciated for the quiet, rustic beauty of its dry hills and summer-golden grasses. Deer are plentiful in those hills and hollows, mountain lions leave their big prints on the dusty dirt roads, coyotes probably outnumber dogs, and bobcats are a common sight. I liked Jerry’s wines, too—especially his reds. This is a guy making a serious push toward serious wine. Jerry was a gracious and warm host. So were his lovely wife, and his tall, poised daughter.

But I found all of this bewildering: It’s hard to get a clear read on the wine you’re tasting when you’re tasting it in those surroundings. On the other hand, we always taste wine in one surrounding or another, and wineries sure go a long way to create a particular experience—witness all those grand Napa wineries with their massive and silly castlelike buildings. Walk around one sometime, and you’ll be struck by how utterly empty much of the space feels. The reason is that there’s simply no purpose for such grandiose architecture, except for the visual impact, the feeling it’s meant to give you about the wines you taste there. To be clear: Jerry Brassfield has hired a good winemaker from Rutherford Hill, he’s using the best soil consultants in the country, and he’s making a Cabernet with a pleasant tannic backbone and dense jam and spice flavors; he’s also making a rich and smoky Syrah with tobacco and even body musk in the nose. So I guess what I’m saying is that when I think of a Syrah and a Cab from a remote cattle ranch in Lake County, I think very rustic and positive thoughts; and when I taste that wine aboard a spectacular pleasure yacht, glimpsing the life of a megamillionaire, squinting at the sun off the white deck and the glitter on the arms of the women and the heartbreakingly beautiful views of a San Francisco Bay I so dearly adore, I have feelings I can’t entirely sort out. A disconnect, maybe? A wonder what it’s all about? What it all means?

It’s What’s Inside That Counts

Two objects sat upon my butcher-block kitchen island: a large black cube and a curious-looking corkscrew. At one level, they had nothing to do with each other. The cube, which was really more of a rectangle, was a carton of Black Box Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon (about $19.99 for the equivalent of three bottles), and the curious corkscrew was a normal corkscrew with a curious accessory: a circular appendage meant for grasping and removing screw-top wine-bottle caps. Boxed wine, needless to say, doesn’t require even a normal corkscrew. But here’s what the two had to do with each other: The wine box, which contained a good, balanced Cabernet, with nice fruit and moderate, integrated tannins and nothing out of place, came from a company that puts a great deal of energy into explaining that boxes are perfectly good receptacles for fine wine (which they are, as long as you don’t intend to keep the wine for long); and the screw-top corkscrew was an act of marketing whimsy by Tamás Estates, a Livermore, California, maker of modestly priced and very accessible Italian varietals, entirely bottled with screw tops. Both companies, in other words, are experimenting with modern wine packaging, both are a little nervous about customer reaction, and both are trying to preempt the customer’s skepticism by meeting it head-on.

This is peanuts-level stuff in the grand scheme of life: Who cares? Wine is wine, right? But the appearance of both objects, at once, upon my butcher block on a sunny afternoon—my kids’ beautiful-to-me drawings piled nearby, and yesterday’s newspaper fading in the recycling bin below—suggested a nagging anxiety about the old bottle and cork, and just how central they are to the sentimental side of wine drinking. Wine is not just wine, say the marketing slogans for this box and the very existence of this corkscrew: Wine is ritual and tradition and romance. And perhaps the customer actually loved using a corkscrew, and feels something missing without the corkscrew’s drama. Perhaps the customer won’t trust a wine that opens as easily as a bottle of cheap vinegar—or, in the case of the boxed wine, as easily as a cheap gallon of distilled water. Or perhaps he’ll just yearn for the bottle’s ancient, timeless curves—curves captured in a million photographs and paintings over a millennium or more—and feel in his ears the absence of that satisfying pop, as the cork pulls out.

But the fear is unfounded: We do love the curve of the bottle, and the box will never replace it. Ditto for the cork. But we also know, out here in consumer land, where the kids produce hundreds of sweet drawings that pull at our hearts even as we quietly slip them toward the trash, lest our lives be overrun—and where yesterday’s newspaper speaks already less loud about outrages and tragedies and scandals we can do nothing about—that times change and the world changes, and that some of those changes, while vaguely sad, are utterly inconsequential in any real sense. We also know that wine—the liquid itself, regardless of container or closure—has always been among the world’s best balms for the transient sense of poignancy, the tears of relief, the craving for the strength to accept the far more serious changes that visit every one of our lives. Boxes and screw tops? Sure, something may be lost, but as long as the wine’s still fine inside, the loss can’t count for much at all.

Thinking Outside the Bottle

I have friends who drink boxed wine exclusively. They live in a trailer, but it’s not what it sounds like: Jeff and Vicky track mountain lions as part of a joint state-federal effort to save the nearly extinct Sierra bighorn, a species of wild sheep. These sheep survive only in a few isolated canyons on the magnificent eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, and Jeff and Vicky have the job of keeping mountain lions from eating them. As a result, they wake up six days a week at around 3 a.m., load their mules and dogs into a truck, and start driving the remote dirt roads, looking for lion tracks. If they find some, and if the tracks come from a lion they haven’t yet fitted with a radio tracking collar, they park the truck and spend the rest of the day on a wild chase in rough, dry canyons. On a perfect day, they tree the lion by midday, tranquilize it, collar it, and head back to the truck. If it’s summertime, home is a camp trailer—a tiny little towable deal, not a double-wide—parked way out a dirt road, past a locked gate, in a Hollywood-ready aspen grove at the base of enormous mountains.

It makes sense, for all the usual boxed-wine reasons: The box takes up far less space than a bottle, it’s relatively cheaper, and it lasts far longer once opened. If you live in a trailer way off the grid, all these things matter a lot. Jeff also isn’t much of a stickler for wine quality: His first career was as a bareback bronco rider on the pro rodeo circuit; then he made it as a freelance fur trapper for about 10 years. Born to libertarian ranchers, he remains a libertarian rancher at heart; but he’s also heard that wine’s good for you, and he’s discovered that he loves a glass of red with a few ice cubes and a little water at the end of a long day. And you know what? I do, too, at least when I have the privilege of sharing it with Jeff and Vicky. Because there can’t be a prettier mountain setting on Earth than that aspen grove, with a big, clean, willow-lined creek rolling right out of the high country and right beyond their trailer, keeping a soft breeze always blowing, a fresh smell always in the air, and a peaceful white noise gurgling behind the braying of the mules and the howling of Jeff’s dozen or so lion hounds. I love that guy—he’s been a dear friend to me—and I love drinking boxed red wine over ice with him in the lawn chairs by the fire pit, while he grills a chuck steak and Vicky talks about whatever Civil War book she’s reading at the moment. Wine, like everything in life, is all about context.

Piggy Bliss

I have a new favorite person: Staffan Terje, chef-owner of Perbacco, a splashy new Italian place in downtown San Francisco. This is not a restaurant review (Chowhound has that covered); what I really want to do here is get around to a point about pairing cheap Lambrusco and classy salumi, but just to give a little context allow me to say that Perbacco’s dining room has soaring ceilings, lots of exposed brick, massive beams, and a very slick, financial-district feel. Terje is gunning for the big wallets, in other words. But now for the reason he’s my new favorite person: This man’s relationship to all things piggy, his fixation with the most mundane tasks of pig butchery and charcuterie, is not at all spiritual or obsessive or artistic or visionary or anything else. It’s just genuine. At the center of that great restaurant’s high-end splashiness is a slow-moving, unflappable butcher. And when he puts out his salumi for you, and pours a Lambrusco (Cantine Ceci 2004 “La Luna,” I believe) that costs about $15 retail, it’s not a grand experience. It’s a calm, practical, delightful experience. The crisp suds cleanse the palate from the pork fat, and the pork fat—along with all the spices, and the meats, and the salts—read less like transporting deliciousness than like the relaxed, afterwork move of people who know how to live.

Want to know the other reason I love Terje? He head-butted Sid Vicious at age 14. Terje was a kid punker in Stockholm, where his family moved after giving up their commercial pig farm (!), and he was at an early Sex Pistols show when Sid hawked a huge loogie on his face. So Terje head-butted the great punk god. I so, so wish I could say that. Almost as bad as I wish I knew how to make salumi like Terje. But hey, who knows? Maybe I’ll learn—to make salumi, that is. Not to head-butt.

Welcome to Tasting Notes

My obsessions give shape and meaning to my life. Through my early 20s I built my summers and three books around Yosemite rock-climbing. In my late 20s, when I was getting a PhD in American literature, I spent a lot more time riding waves at isolated surf breaks than in the graduate stacks of the UC Santa Cruz library. Flamenco guitar made a brief appearance in my early 30s, when the anguished and defiant pride of the Gypsies felt (weirdly) like the perfect outlet for my own problems. Carpentry came next—I have an old house, and I’m still neck-deep in that one, restoring the place. But the food-and-wine obsession, which took hold about five years ago, looks to be the most enduring of all.

It started with the birth of my first daughter, when the postfeminist division of labor meant that if my wife was going to bathe and wrangle the baby every night, I was going to have to cook dinner. An hour a day of flamenco guitar (well, OK, sometimes it was six hours) had got me pretty far pretty fast, both in terms of finger-speed and in terms of annoying my wife, so I figured I’d treat the pleasures of the table in the same way: I’d develop a plan for exploring those pleasures, and I’d plug away every night. Five years and more than 1,000 Chez Panisse recipes later (Alice Waters was my Montessori preschool teacher, eons ago, so I was naturally drawn to her books), I have a basement freezer holding cuts from the whole lamb, pig, and cow I’ve bought directly from farmers, I have a diverse (though by no means high-dollar) wine cellar, and I also have a clear understanding of exactly how wine (and food) fits into my life, and of exactly how I feel best writing about wine.

Wine, for me, is one marvelous, indispensable instrument in the symphony (or rock band, or quintet, or whatever) of a well-lived life. I do love listening to a great soloist—tasting a wine in the abstract, I mean, either at a winery’s tasting room or simply at my own kitchen table. I even enjoy comparing soloists in the abstract—tasting wines against each other, in the classic, isolated, and analytical manner of the wine critic—and I’m intrigued by the challenge of rendering that soloist’s sound in a prose that actually helps other people see where I’ve been, and what I’ve tasted, and even what they might taste if they followed. But the real wine journey for me—the one I’m on, and the one I’m recording in this blog—is about mastering the ways in which wine can add pleasure to life. In part, that means that I intend to write about the basic principles of wine knowledge as I have come to understand them—the clear, simple ways of thinking that decode a ridiculously diverse and confusing subject. But it’s also about the fact that the pleasure of wine isn’t especially meaningful to me when it’s not tailored to and savored in the context of friends, family, food, timing, mood, and everything else that helps shape our experience of the world. So when I write about wine, I write also about the life led around wine—by myself, and the people I drink with, but also by the wine-world professionals I meet along the way.