I wrote a while back about Philip Shaw’s line of Shiraz—Rolling, Climbing, and Philip Shaw No. 89, Shiraz Viognier. I’d been treated to a tasting with Shaw himself, and he’d done a masterful job of helping me experience the relationship between altitude and character in his wines. His Rolling wine, which is his lowest price point, comes also from the lowest altitude—rolling country, presumably. His Climbing wine is a bit higher, in the Orange appellation, and the eponymous label higher still. Shaw made it clear that viticultural practices are equally important—demanding a progressively lower fruit yield, for the most part, at each successive increase in altitude. But the altitude distinction was so easy to get my mind around, and the difference between the wines so distinct, that the flight stuck with me. A day or two later, with this same flight of wines out on my own dinner table, I shared the idea with my mother and father.
Other things were going on as well, of course, like a sense of relief at the very occurrence of these family meals: my parents and my sister and her husband, Mario, with all of the kids, here in my house for these now semiregular Friday or Sunday night meals, with as many bottles of wine as I can open. Like any family, we all feel lucky when the synergy works out and easy, everyday connections and meals come without contrivance—when our lives simply take us into each other’s company, and when the company feels good. Family isn’t always that way, so it’s doubly joyous when it is. Also, food and wine haven’t always been the most natural connection point between my father and myself—we’ve tended to connect in long, serious conversation, or while climbing. For years and years, we rock-climbed together in Yosemite and the High Sierra, and it was the greatest shared passion of our lives. Great, but not so much the stuff of everyday coming and going. And also, my own preoccupations had gone elsewhere, with the mountain thing backgrounded first by surfing and then, later, by career and love and children—and also by the sheer fun of eating and drinking.
The family meal, in other words, had emerged in the last few years as the best venue I had to give my father, the easiest way for us to make time and catch up and get the good feelings flowing. If I’d just make food he could love—which I could—and if he could just let himself love that food and drink and be voluble in that love (again, quite doable), then all the good feelings might begin to flow week after week, in an everyday way. No big adventure needed. No peak experience required.
Anyway, there it is, a little context, and now we were looking at 17 bottles on the table at once, all of them keyed to one or another food experiment, and my house half ripped apart with my loony remodels and my father doubtless confused about that (it’s absolutely not his style, vastly preferring to live simply, save all his money, and use all his spare time for reading poetry and taking walks with my mother), and we were all well under way and having a ball when I ran that altitude riff past the crowd. Mario dug in, my mom and sister dug in—sipping, I mean, and trying to get their minds around this mental tasting game—but my father did more than dig in: He wholeheartedly hugged the very thought of altitude bearing on flavor, and in that hug came pouring forth all of the dreams and hopes and feelings he and I have both always associated with the high mountains. “Your mother is a creature of the meadows,” he was saying to me as he happily encouraged her to try the Rolling Shiraz.
“And what are you?” she replied, laughing. “A spirit of the arid heights?”
“Up in the cold, clear realm of the rocks and the wind,” he replied, eyes narrowing in half jest. “But man, I absolutely get it! I get the taste of altitude!”
I did, too, but at some level what we both got was a way to map the very different flavors of those three Shirazes across a set of pre-existing mental categories associated with many of the dearest memories in our lives, memories from a time now well gone by, and yet channeled right through the wine that, in sharing and savoring, we’d begun to use as a way home to each other.