Returning to a couple of threads from a couple of days ago: I’m up in Tahoe with my wife’s extended family, on a four-night stay, and I’ve brought along four bottles of wine from Kermit Lynch, the wine store based in Berkeley.
What the bottles represent to me is a little date I have with myself, the next pleasurable move in my quiet wine journey. They represent, in other words, a treat about which I’m thrilled, but which I don’t expect to thrill others. This, I suppose, is because there’s a wine-geek element to the exercise: I have bought the wines not because they’re supposed to be good, although I’m sure they will be, but because a Kermit Lynch sales clerk has testified that they represent the boss’s idea of proper winemaking technique. And the boss’s idea, as I’ve mentioned before—I’m reading his book, Adventures on the Wine Route—is deeply conservative in a way I’m open to embracing, at least for now. It holds, in essence, that wine should be made with the least intrusive, most traditional means possible (forgive me, Mr. Lynch, if my paraphrase is unfair), letting grapes express terroir, and turn themselves into wine, with minimal interference from technology. This seems to mean, especially, no mechanical fruit-picking machines, no stainless steel tanks, no added sugar, and absolutely no filtering.
It also means a way to occupy myself, something I’m curious about, and I’m eyeing these bottles as the days pass between dips in the pool and excursions into Tahoe City and a ridiculously hard mountain bike ride with my wife’s sister’s husband. I’m leaving the bottles in the fridge so they don’t bake in the Tahoe heat, and I keep wondering if I should just break them out and taste them alone, over lunch, but that seems sort of sad. I do love these folks, after all; they are my wife’s family. But sometimes I worry that asking people to share a geek-out tasting is a mistake: They might feel pressured and not enjoy it. And then I’d feel stupid. So I’m sitting on the wines, not bringing them to dinner. Until, finally, my brother-in-law—the one with whom there was friction years back, but who seems to be letting it all go in a nice way—cooks a beautiful meal of California king salmon with a Sinskey Pinot Noir, and suddenly I feel that culinary gifts are appropriate here, and won’t go awry. And so I spend our last day in Tahoe julienning potatoes for the frites recipe from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon cookbook (an excellent recipe, I might add), and I defrost the many pounds of grass-fed steak I’ve brought up from my home freezer, and I cobble together a shaved salad of fennel, radish, parsley, and cucumber. And then, finally, I put out some appetizers, on the big deck in the warm Sierra evening: roasted garlic, roasted sweet peppers, olives. Awakening the senses without dulling them or killing the appetite. I pop a bottle of Mumm Napa nonvintage champagne that has been in my cellar for far too long, and I’ve just confirmed that it’s unexpectedly wonderful when my brother-in-law mentions that he’s not drinking. He went cycling the day before, riding 35 miles in the arid, high-altitude atmosphere, and he horribly overdid it. He feels sick the way only a high-altitude overexertion can make you feel sick (I’ve been there).
So if he’s not going to drink the bubbly, I suppose I ought to hit it myself. Which I do, even as I’m pulling the steaks off the grill and throwing the last of the frites into the peanut oil and dressing the salad. The champagne tastes wonderful—light and yeasty and fresh and smooth, as if settled down by all that time in my cellar—and now it occurs to me that I don’t want to get drunk on bubbly before I’ve tasted all those Kermit bottles, so even as I’m spreading garlic-anchovy butter on the steaks, I’m grabbing at the corkscrew. With every bottle open, and the food hitting platters, I’m into the Chinon first: again, wonderful! Complex and soft and interesting, somehow specific in a way new-world wines often are not. Likewise the Corsican wine: rustic in the very best sense. But now I’m at the big dining table, with my wife’s parents, her sister and sister’s husband, and her brother and brother’s wife. And although I’m still yearning for the brother to drink with me, the way he drank with me the night before, I don’t blame him a bit, and I’m tasting the Bourgogne, which turns out to be a little on the ordinary side. Nowhere to spit, though, so I have to empty my glass before moving on to the Pic Saint Loup, which I find to have an appealing chalky quality in its tannins, with a bright dry-fruit element, and so I’m encouraging the others to taste all the wines, and to eat more steak, and to plow through the frites, when it occurs to me that I’m getting drunk and excited and that I ought to slow down, back off a little, let people eat. Bring out the cheese course at the right time, and try not to mind that my brother-in-law is gone from the table without a sip of these interesting wines and that he’s helping his kids get ready for the flight home to New York. Because I shouldn’t mind. He’s a family man, he’s exhausted from that overexertion, and the trip has gone so very well—no unhappiness, no friction, everyone largely satisfied with the place, the weather. A rarity, really, in the annals of family getaways. And so as the table empties out and I remain, ever more drunk, and quite stuffed full on steak and frites, and now tasting the cheeses and still switching back and forth among the three wines I like—settling on the Chinon as the clear winner—I have to let it all go, all the private hopes that each of us must learn not to force upon others.