An archive of notes from 2015—2019
I went up the coast for inspiration recently – and also to sneak in a maiden off road voyage in the new Cruiser, Suz. She did great, getting us to locations that required splashing through mud (and then reversing and splashing through the same mud again), to the foot of a hill or tree, all of which we’d climb, perch, chat and sip.
Everywhere I looked, I saw those giant trees shaped by time and weather, welcoming us to take a seat. Having spent most of my California childhood in Hang Ten t-shirts at the beach, these pastoral scenes were a surprise. There was a rural serenity, intact and alive, something equally unexpected and surprising. Roads wind around to accommodate the shape of nature rather than blasting through it or extending straight out for speed.
My love for driving was only deepened on these backroads, of course. Driving them has got nothing to do with going fast. Plus you can’t be in a hurry when you’re too busy fathoming the possibility of mountains and the sea, redwoods and live oaks, two lane highways leading to dirt roads that lead to other dirt roads, all in one scene together. Windows rolled down and the strong breeze rushing through to change our mood with the passing scenery – it was revelatory.
My heart is exploding with California lately, there is just so much to love. My appreciation and pride for my home state is nothing novel. But when it comes to wine (I hate to admit it), I wasn’t always a champion of the stuff growing in my own backyard.
My love affair with California wine started later, only recently if I’m being fully honest. My first love was with the old world, which left me pining for trips to Loire Valley, Vallee d’Aosta and Sicily – all which I took, tasted, and learned. But back then, I wouldn’t have appreciated the liquid beauty and history I’ve tasted recently in California wines, both old and new.
My California is a clear picture: it’s a day of eternal sun, one that first bounces off the ocean to heat your face and melt your ice cream, then it soaks into your skin long after it’s tucked itself in below the horizon; it’s sunny winters and an always-scenic highway; it’s from the past, a memory of a time and place that precedes me somehow; it’s an Earl Thollander sketch, with live oaks, two lane roads, cows munching grass that scale rolling hills, and a barn. One that presumably contains people who grow things – not only earn a living but also to feed their families and neighbors, perhaps sitting amongst gnarled, old vines and olive trees. Winemakers of that era didn’t sit in their high towers or palaces that sprawled across $40M estates making remote decisions on how to bend what nature delivered into something marketable.
I’m not the same pup I was when I was snubbing the juice of my own home state. I recently opened a bottle of 1983 Merlot from Rutherford Hill, and it proved once again, that time is a hell of a thing (both in its effects on wine and on people).
This dusty gem that had so clearly walked the miles, made the journey. I tasted several others – 1978 Zinfandel and 1983 & 1984 Cabernet, and even Chardonnay from 1968! They were all alive, filled to the brim with the same wild herbs, eucalyptus, menthol, red berries and white pepper that grow in those Thollander sketches I love so much.
They were resolved, pure, and calling forth a period of time that I know in my bones is what makes California wine so wonderous.
Old wine is aspirational – not because it’s high brow, because it feels lived in, like faded jeans and broken in boots. It has a future promise in it, that the adventure I’m having now makes a mark on me I’ll only be able to taste later, when I reflect back on it.
And that means I must get out and do life. Taste everything, and be open to it.
But what about California wine now? It’d be easy to say how great California wine once was, a bygone era that we can only fantasize about, long lost unless we score some rare treasures from old relics like Stony Hill and Rutherford.
But that would be such a miss.
Because, oh, the contemporaries! The many new producers making wine in California are as revolutionary as those who made names for themselves in the 1970s. They’re doing things differently, with a consciousness that, at face value might sound hippie ish or like personal philosophy, but is actually impacting the wine world globally – for the better.
For one thing, they’re not chasing Big Flavor – that thing that seduced the nouveau rich and satiated the elementary palate demands of sweeter, heavier, more. Those are the introductory cravings of the curious, the neophyte, but anything inspirational, moving, and meaningful comes from a place more complex, and that takes some context to appreciate.
Today’s California winemakers are doing the work of vinters (not the work of god), and they’ve doubled down on the idea that terroir isn’t adorned by a wine diety. They are in tireless pursuit to answer a question: what is California is truly made of?
The answer, I’m sure, is storied and more intricate than I’m qualified to provide. But I know it is full of good stuff. And while I have always been attracted to the allure of Burgundy and Loire, the romance of Italy, the free spirit of Portugal, it’s the bounty here that has got me feeling so inspired recently. I am never going to be a fourth generation farmer or even a first generation winemaker. But I am so incredibly proud to support the producers, to pay tribute, and to taste what it is to be Californian.
Here are images from my trip up the coast, and after that, a list of California producers I am proud to support, drink, and share:
Below are some California producers not to miss. There are more I’m sure, that I’ve failed to list. I’ll continue to update this as necessary, so I don’t leave anyone out. When you come across any of these, I command you to drink them! As always, you can shoot me an email to request some or a lot of these bad boys (and gals) and I’ll do everything I can to make them show up at your doorstep, be it in California or elsewhere!
A TRIBUTE TO GRACE WINE COMPANY
ANTHILL FARMS WINERY
BLACK SHEEP FINDS
CHANIN WINE COMPANY
DOMAINE DE LA COTE
DREW FAMILY CELLARS
FORLORN HOPE WINES
GROUND EFFECT WINE COMPANY
HABIT WINE COMPANY
HOBO WINE COMPANY
HUNT & HARVEST WINES
ORO PURO VINEYARDS
PAX MAHLE WINES
POCO A POCO
ROARK WINE COMPANY
ROBERT SINSKEY VINEYARDS
SCAR OF THE SEA CIDERS
TENDU WINE COMPANY
TRAIL MARKER WINE COMPANY
WIND GAP WINES
YOUNG INGLEWOOD VINEYARDS
I will never get over Sicily. It is no place like anywhere else in Italy, let alone the rest of the world, and until I go back, its vivid flavors and colors will linger and haunt my senses like that kind of lover you can never shake.
If I could, I would alternate my time between the volcano and the sea, swimming when the soul required it in that cobalt, salty dream and getting my boots dirty on the slopes of Etna.
In Siracusa, I drank 4 cappuccini a day and peppered in a healthy dose of 3-12 cannoli in between. There was the deli we discovered, where Pino would toss endless samples of local cheeses and meats over the counter, to all of which I said “Si! un mezzo chilo! Si! quattro etti!” More of everything. While we sampled and stocked up on everything, two glasses of Frascati appeared out of nowhere, delivered on Pino’s command.
Many after lunch swims at our platform, one impromptu thunderstorm (which was equally enjoyable as the swims), and rock jumping off of giant boulders we scaled to stare down the clearest, bluest water I’ve laid eyes on. Jumping off of rocks in Fontane Bianche – diving even! – is programed into my being for life, and I’ll be doing it in my dreams until we return.
We quickly honed in on a favorite restaurant and our regular after-dinner wine bar where we’d order another and then go for third and fourth and twelfth cannoli runs to complete our evenings. Our hearts, bellies, and glasses were at capacity.
My appetite for things on two and four wheels was also increased on the island even though our Smart Car rides were cramped and unstylish. But Italian driving is admirably aggressive and I was inspired to learn how to drive a manual. I’ll just say I (we) survived, but I may or may not have popped the clutch, stalled out, and panicked once or twice at a crucial moment. Starting the lesson in Italy it was a right of passage, but after two tries, I had to retire to snapping pictures of Aprilias, Paris Dakars, and Defenders so that I didn’t cause injury to myself, my passenger, or anyone’s emotional well-being.
We rode the train around the volcano, accelerating around turns on the tiny Circumetnea, sticking our heads outside and breathing in the volcanic, mountain air. Intoxicating is the only word that comes to mind.
We discovered a wine bar that was just for locals, half way up the volcano in Randazzo, where Sandro took the utmost care of us, walking us into the cave and selecting our wine for us. In Italy, a good waiter tells you what to eat and drink, and if you order the wrong thing, they tell you no, you’re not having that. Have this. It was a kind of aspirational service.
We drank bottles I’d never seen before. Tasted olive oil that wasn’t even in the states yet. Missed our train back to Giarda to get the Smart Car, and ended up walking through the streets of Catania eating the best wood-cooked pizza I’ve ever had, drinking wine in plastic cups. I butchered the Italian language brokering a taxi driver to take us the 40 minute journey back to our car, and he butchered it worse when he responded in Sicilian dialect that would be indecipherable to any cultured Milanese or Roman. Un gatto attaccato ai maroni!
And the wine. I visited stunning producers, including Occhipinti, Passopisciaro, and Calabretta. Each iconic, but if I may say, meeting Arianna at Occhipiniti was like meeting the Pope. Except that I’m more interested in Arianna. She’s a pioneer. A total rockstar. Getting to talk to her was just, well, ridiculously inspiring (for an actual taste of Sicily, you can grab yourself a limited run of the exclusive Sicily box and some Occhipiniti olive oil!).
Below is a snapshot* of all of the above; it’s just a tiny peek into the profound trip I can’t stop thinking about, one that’s very much stuck to my soul. After you indulge your eyes, take a look below for my hit list of where to go if you got bit by the travel bug and booked your flight already. I’m looking for return tickets myself…
*not pictured: Graucho, our parking attendant who had the tightest gluteals but also the biggest belly full of cannoli – it made no sense! We couldn’t photograph him because he’d have certainly killed us immediately, but I believe he wore a special set of pants, which he would take off and hook up to a machine so that they did their own squats while he sat on a crate and ate cannoli. Glute-pants + cannoli belly = very impressive driving and parking skills…
Circumetnea: This old school train takes you up Mt. Etna and accelerates on the curves! Gorgeous way to see the volcano.
Siracusa: We stayed in the most beautiful little sea town on the coast of the Ionian. White marble piazza, cannoli filled to order, and the most charming everything.
Enoteca Solaria: Our wine bar, where I climbed up the shelves and helped myself to bottles we took home or drank on the patio, after dinner bottles, before dinner bottles, midday lunch bottles.
Granita: Forget icy, watery, slushy shaved ice. Granita is a magical Sicilian – not Italian – treat that you cannot find anywhere else. It’s made from the milk of pistachio or almond, and is so creamy that it tastes like ice cream! Cipriani is the best on the island.
Fontane Bianche: I miss it so much. This is where I perfected my dive. I have never seen water so blue and clear!
Cave Ox: Hands down the best wine bar on the island. It’s like a winemaker hangout on the side of a volcano. I’m sure every local would be pissed I’m revealing this secret place, but you deserve to know! Things must be shared! Just don’t act like a brainless loud American – enjoy the food and wine and ask for Sandro.
Randazzo: Charming little town filled with churches (one made from lava stone entirely!), about midway up the volcano, delicious hidden gem called San Gregorio di Drago – so good!
Taormina: I was excited to return to this beach after nearly 10 years – it’s beautiful and a must swim! And a must foot massage – lounge-chair-beachside-spritz-in-hand kind of foot massage!
Fratelli Burgo: The best ‘street food’ in Sicily: salumi served by weight and sliced to order, same for formaggi, and a bustling Italian only kind of energy that just inspires you to keep eating meat and cheese!
Homemade video peek:
When I was seven, Shirley Temple dazzled me. I had learned of the magical pink bubbly by way of similarly named child actor, one to which the adults would constantly compare me, because of my once-blonde curls.
I got hooked on the juice at The Old Spaghetti Factory, and had always assumed it was its own profound thing, a cocktail made custom for me. I actually believed for several years that the Old Spaghetti Factory was the only place in the world you could get a Shirley Temple. And also, spaghetti. That drink and that place were both spectacularly formative, two things I would first fall in love with and then discard once I knew better.
Spaghetti Factory was the spot where the fam would fancy up an occasion, and it was also my only experience with Italian food until my early twenties. Italian should be in quotes here, a very loose interpretation of the idea. This was a restaurant with walls draped in green velvet, too dim lighting masking your supper while you dined in a trolley car. Like a scene stolen from Little Women but with culinary flair; I mean, to eat something as truly authentic as noodles with red sauce and mizithra cheese was to be in Rome itself.
Oh man, and that cheese: wondrous mizithra parading to the table, white flakes tumbling hospitably to hurl themselves eagerly onto my mountain of red pasta from their tiny silver bowl.
Of course in my youth it made perfect sense that they wouldn’t allow parmesan at such a high end place. Parmesan? Please. That’s for regular folk who eat at home. It comes in a green can that can be mistaken for cleaning product (contents equally as powdered), so it lives in the fridge next to the soy sauce.
And after the spaghetti came the spumoni. What a punctuation mark on those glorious affairs! A dessert served in the same loveable silver bowl and fickle as the wind in its unpredictable ratio of cherry to pistachio to chocolate. Or more accurately, pink to green to brown.
On a hunt to recreate that meal from my childhood I scoured specialty grocers that focused on Italian and then even French ingredients when I moved to LA. I was looking for mizithra. A confused cheese monger finally confirmed that mizithra was actually a Greek cheese, of no relation to Italian cuisine.
Now I would have to settle for Parmaggiano-Reggiano.
It should also be noted that spumoni is not really an Italian flavor, as pointed out by an Italian unapologetically (there’s no other way for an Italian to point something out to you).
It’s just some made up American thing, more defined by its colors than flavors, with some formaldehyde maraschino cherries folded in synthetically bright red.
A garnish, as it happens, that is also traditional of the once-beloved Shirley Temple.
I should have known it was her. A tiny and faded fork-knife-spoon tattoo, tucked away discreetly at the back of her shoulder was perhaps the most affirming of details; it wasn’t one of these blatant drawings of a cow silhouette with its body hacked into labeled cuts branded ironically on the forearm of some new school, would-be top chef contestant. It was almost unnoticeable, like her. Almost.
She sat at the bar quietly, not drinking water (having refused the offering from three separate individuals, myself included) and dining solo.
Fine, don’t be hydrated. Clue #1?
I recognized all the signs. She was too confident in her ordering to be a happenstance diner. It’s my job, after all, to know every dining body chomping away in every one of our 47 seats – who they might be, at what pace they are eating, allergic to, waiting for, what they’re drinking (or refusing) – the general going on-ness of the bustling room.
Then, when someone from the industry comes in, I knowingly nod, let the server know inconspicuously conspicuously who they are, perhaps chat the guest up a bit, make them feel all very-important-person, but never when there’s hot food down — it’s all about the food, of course. In fact, we’ll hammer them with food! Let them depart uncomfortably full, both in their belly and of themselves, for having been styled out by one of the coolest places in LA.
Well, I didn’t get the chance because Gabrielle Hamilton robbed me. However benignly, she did. I ignored the alarm my internal radar sounded at me as I intuited her manner of dining and instead let her be (the shame!), save for the offering water and delivering her sweetbreads with a brief recap of the parsley, shallot and finger lime that so obviously garnished the dish.
She finished her meal quietly, got up from her seat at the bar, casually walked to the kitchen to thank them for her meal, which I had nothing to do with.
Then my jaw dropped as she said a familiar hello and goodnight to Vinny and left as quietly as she had arrived. He confirmed that the one and only person I had been waiting to host had just finished her meal, eaten only what she had decided to order, and paid the bill in full, a dual crime victimizing both hospitality and my ego. The savagery!
She catered Vinny’s wedding and had NEVER once been in to animal—how could she have not said even a quiet hello?! Or inquire about the Chef like they all do! Send the proverbial text message to Vinny about maybe popping in, so he could of course alert me and pre-validate all my would-be suspicions and creepy staring at her tattoo and dining manner, and thus allow me to be the all-knowing General Manager whence she appeared out of the blue?! NOTHING. Ate, paid, politely thanked us, and left. The fucking nerve.
So naturally, I chased her out the door like she was that absent-minded guest who leaves his cell phone or credit card behind, or worse, a thief skipping out on the bill (I told you I had been robbed).
Out the door and across the street I ran, abandoning the four walls that contained all 1200 square feet of my responsibilities, including several humans.
Worse, I shouted at her: WAIT! WAIT! Wait. Never mind the oncoming traffic. Wait. To an iconic New York Chef who’s meal I had just let slip through the cracks.
“WAIT! Gabrielle! I knew it was you! I am so sorry! I wanted to talk to you, I—You—I read your book it was so meaningful!”
Standing in the middle of Fairfax I tripped over a few short words while my mind ran away with a pretty vivid fantasy, one that involved inviting her over for lamb ragu (because I am that confident?), over which we would have the brilliant and inspiring conversation and endless bottles of wine, inevitably leading us to become old friends and laugh about how I had chased her down the streets of LA some number of years later.
She hugged me like you would hug an adorable child that’s just seen the tooth fairy. When I apologized again about not hosting her properly, she said she had had the exact experience that she wanted, and thanked me for that.
It’s a funny thing, with Chefs and TV Chefs, reality shows and rock star tattoos, yelp reviews and blogs and tweets and all the fucking noise that is constantly at the highest volume; it was a lot to swallow, even for a young GM.
But that night I got it. She didn’t want the soignée note hanging on her ticket, the extra 4 dishes, two desserts, and uninvited wine pairings or banter about the food scene.
She wanted a meal, an honest meal, at an extremely hyped restaurant, to see and to taste for herself. I won’t ever know if the egg on the pig ear she got was centered perfectly because I wasn’t monitoring her meal in that way. And yeah, I was devastated that she didn’t eat the pork belly sandwiches, which I would have no doubt sent her. But she didn’t order them. And that was fair.
We walked back across the street, where she introduced me to another chef who had joined her outside. In my dizzied state I searched my rolodex of restaurant information but failed to recognize who this guy was (sorry, Adam Perry Lang).
He didn’t seem to notice, and they were in more of a hurry than I was, despite the full dining room I had abandoned. They hopped in a car and left me standing on the sidewalk.
I still felt slightly robbed. But I felt happy that I felt that way because I realized service is an act of giving. We in the front of the house are not sweating over a flat top for 10 hours of back-breaking service; we are not meticulously balancing 5 different garnishes on top of a composed plate, and we certainly are not devising recipes to be parlayed into a dish that honors the farmers who nurtured the produce every step to market, becoming the sole catalyst in delivering satisfaction and striking awe to someone’s senses, someone’s memories, as the completed dish journeys from fork to mouth. And none of us are saving lives.
But we are there to carry out a mission. And when it’s genuine, and when it’s right, holy shit, is it something! Seizing a moment to enliven someone’s meal with conversation, acknowledgment, a listening ear, or a perfectly timed reset and refill – therein lies the harmony, the hospitality, the transport. When the simple act of eating can transcend survival mechanism and become peaceful, inspirational escape, it suspends time and is forever-preserved in the most intimate and primal form, the senses. And that to me, is a greater reward than all of the Michelin stars in the culinary sky.
I had been waiting for Gabrielle Hamilton to come in just so that I could show off, prove that our hype was real, and leave at least a fraction of an impression on her the way she did on me, just through her book!
But that was a selfish aim, not a gesture of hospitality. And while I have guaranteed that thousands of guests, industry or not, have left in a hypnotic overdose of animal fat, butter, wine, and warmth, she did it her way, not mine, and that was pretty much exactly who I’d imagined her to be: unapologetic.
Same as her food probably, which I’ve never tasted, but hope to one day, at the bar, maybe, sitting by myself.
*every night at animal, before service, I’d listen to this with my staff, full blast, you’re welcome:
This man was six foot five. Blue eyes, more threatening than dreamy, with subtle lines that had settled in across his face, a roadmap to and from secret locations. They were marks indicating a lifetime of seriousness, and not to say one without a sense of humor, just evidence of intense focus.
His attention to detail was incomparable and his work ethic dogmatic. You don’t just try to work well with someone like that; you adapt to the pace at which he breathes when he’s in the room. You moderate how you walk when you approach him, and the way you gesture in a conversation. Because he’s aware of everything.
I was used to walking through the pastry department and sticking my eligible GM finger into any proximate batter for a deserving lick of something sweet on my way to the office. I was due my fika in the afternoon! I was owed a sugary reprieve from the hustle of it all. I was the boss! But with Lincoln around, I didn’t dare.
Give a man like that a gun and he’d be a sniper to rival the best. Give this man a measuring cup, and he’s the best pastry chef in the country. I knew the latter well, but I was pretty sure the former was somewhere in there, too.
I’d reach into an open bag of white chocolate pastilles and hide out in dry storage for five minutes of sweet solitude during dinner service (I know I said I didn’t dare; I meant I didn’t dare get caught in the act).
He arrived around 3am, to tend to croissant dough proofing and other delicacies in the works, making perfect all things delicious, a champion of sweets, and scary as hell.
The man inspired fear and respect, and it was nice to have that around. Especially at this particular project, an endeavor that started to unravel before its time. I’ll blame the most dysfunctional ownership I have ever worked for, but we all played our part. Lincoln just kept calm, stayed the course and worked on.
Sometimes I would pass through his pastry kitchen and he would stop me to taste what he was working on – the greatest achievement in my day. His eyes would penetrate you, waiting for your reaction. Not the opinion you gave verbally or even the expression you made. He was in search of the primal light that would or wouldn’t go off in your eyes based on whether it immediately delighted you. And if it didn’t, he wanted to know why.
Not why, as in, “needs more sugar” or “too much salt,” but why as in: Why do your eyes not flash like your five year old self at the deli with your deceased grandmother when you taste this bagel croissant I made?
I think it must have been our 59th consecutive hour without sleep, laughter, or much food at all, let’s call it some time during opening weekend; he was absurdly pissed off that a broom was visible in the corner of the restaurant (a restaurant which had a two-hour wait, a failing POS system, and a chef who never cursed screaming obscenities as servers fired tickets incorrectly). He wanted me to be concerned about this broom, sitting innocently out of the way, at the ready to sweep up a broken glass or scattered bread, albeit visible to the guests.
I am all for detail orientation, but in this moment I couldn’t help but wonder (be infuriated at) why he was parading about the front of house criticizing anomalies – shouldn’t he could be in the back airbrushing teacakes? Or in a padded cell??
I walked away from him mid-conversation, with the line I can’t even defining the moment before it was a hashtag or cliché.
And then I felt his imaginary bullet pierce me in between the shoulder blades, precisely and intentionally left of center.
But there were times when we sat down and shared a glass, a bite, and our common love for rosé Champagne and the Loire Valley. Once I told him that my grandfather despised croissants. He couldn’t believe it! He had to know why, almost as delighted as he was shocked.
It was simple, really, but I told him:
My grandma’s name was Rose, and Grandpa Lew called her “Ro.” For some reason, she never remembered (or obliged) my grandfather’s baked goods preferences. Every Sunday she came home with a box of pastries, full of croissants and other laminated things. She never had them ready for breakfast, and by the time she’d arrive back, it was more of an afternoon snack.
A few minutes after her arrival, Gramps would open the box and scowl, take a reluctant bite of something shiny, and chards of golden flakes would burst into the air and scatter, sticking to his perfectly-combed mustache. Flakes glued to his fingers and decorating the front of his sweater, he’d just lose it.
“IT’S A FLAKEY DOUGH, RO!!” He would yell, to no one really (my grandmother was probably watching the Chicago Bulls game by this hour, yelling her own frantic frustrations at Michael Jordan for slacking off in some important game). He was so mad at the dough!
Lincoln laughed out loud at my story so unexpectedly, and so genuinely, it makes me laugh now to remember him smiling in that afternoon light, a memory that’s warm like the fresh steam from one of his popovers – my grandpa would have loved those.
As the days worn on, we wore thin with them, and the owner’s demands became more outlandish. One day he would walk in with twenty something vintage wire baskets, $300 a piece, for display. The next, he was screaming about being over budget on labor in a place that was open for 16 waking hours.
“We’re wasting baked goods!” he’d complain, only to demand moments later that the display remain full at all times as he bare-handed a fistful of scones to hand out to his motorcycle buddies. What a loser.
So we all just sort of deflated. It was the beginning of the end. The air was sucked out of the project – which was ironic because it was the most airy, open space I had ever worked in. A seamless integration between outside and in, an architecturally lovely and highly-dysfunctional space. So Venice.
And with the open space came the flies, relentless and all around us, an un-shooable reminder of the apocalyptic tone hanging in the air.
The flies loved the pastries most and this drove Lincoln mad. The look in his eyes edged closer to assassin with each passing day, increasingly dedicated to a new, sugar-free mission as he swatted and missed, losing bits of sanity with each attempt.
His cooks (no one worked for the owner by this time, they stayed and worked for Lincoln or left) bought him a salt gun, meant as a half-joke, given to a man who doesn’t half anything, unless a recipe calls for it, explicitly.
He took well to firing caps in flies’ asses. It gave him a purpose I think. The toy was effective, but not enough. I think he had a genuine need to see evidence of the kill (another indication that his mission was covert and pastry was the rouse?).
Lincoln swapped out the fragile salt for more sturdy ammunition.
Armed with poppy seeds, he began taking out flies mid-flight, leaving actual blood spatter for proof on the walls next to prep lists and resting bread dough. He kept a tally of lives taken, looking to break records each day.
He had long since broken from reality when the owner demanded he make popsicles. For the record, given Lincoln’s skills and creativity with sugar and butter, that is the pastry equivalent of asking Miles Davis to squeak out happy birthday on a Kazoo some hundreds of times a day.
But the popsicles were of course, the best popsicles you had ever eaten. Flavors that sounded trite like lavender vanilla and bourbon butterscotch tasted like unstained originals in their perfection of balance and flavors.
And, then, on a hot day, 500 popsicles that took days, tons of liquid nitrogen, and the concentration and skill of one man alone, melted during a power outage because the most incompetent company on earth had fucked up the electric bill.
It was the end of the end. We all parted ways and landed at other projects, and I haven’t talked to Lincoln in a long time.
I don’t really eat croissant anymore, and I’ve been craving Kougin Amann for close to three years. Nothing I’ve found in recent years comes close to his perfectly crisp outer edges and soft, buttery layers, that beautiful honeycomb lattice. They’re always just full of these gaping, sad holes that collapse into little failures with the first bite. There’s no chance I’d go back for a second one.
I imagine he is on to a new project, defying physics and science with sugar and butter, at peace in the kitchen and not sniping anything, croissant remnants flaking in his wake.
Sometimes I’ll drink a glass of something crisp in the afternoon, when the light is just right, and I’ll settle for a chocolate chip cookie or a piece of toast. It reminds me of our glasses shared at those hours, a time of day that must have felt like after midnight to him. It makes me miss my grandfather a lot, somehow.
And actually, Lincoln, too. They would have gotten along so well.
I’m pro-natural – no bra, eating from the season’s bounty, barefoot in summer – let’s do this.
But I’m worried the word is falling from grace. Like artisanal and organic, it’s veering into #nomakeup territory – eight filters? We know you’re wearing lipgloss and brow gel.
And when it comes to wine, you’re probably thinking, of course it’s natural. It’s just grapes! Well, mostly true in some, not all cases… But wine doesn’t make itself.
Ideally, sure, very little goes into wine. For centuries, the basic approach has been simple: take care of the land, harvest grapes, ferment and bottle the damn stuff.
Then industry pressures (1980s consumerism) steered wine from farming tradition to economy of scale, flooding the market with shortcuts, trickery, and mass-produced swill (see below).
It’s easy to get caught up on the idea of “natural” being paramount, but it’s also important to note lots of small wineries make adjustments in the cellar like assisting fermentation or using sulfites. Winemaking requires expertise and guidance for a quality end product. And that’s a far cry from industrial-made wine.
It gets a little confusing but it comes down to practicality vs. purity: do we support minimally influenced wine that’s delicious, or do we have to actually drink our principles? Every time I try swallowing principle I choke and not because it’s well endowed.
And, since you can’t drink movements or political views, I’ll get off my high horse (not a pedestal, I was just plowing a vineyard naturally, forgive me) and present a (slightly opinionated) road map:
Natural wine laws: simply put, they don’t exist. The word “natural” isn’t defined legally or environmentally. Zero interventionist winemaking means no temperature control, no added yeasts, no tampering – at all. Some say it’s the only definition of natural wine even if it yields something tasting like vinegar and looking like apple juice.
And while the bush is making a comeback, I’m not going to stop shaving my legs and I’ll retain the right to wax, thanks. Some super cool wines are made in this unkempt manner, it’s just not the only way.
A little grooming in the cellar – like minor use of sulphur or yeast – stabilizes wine and secures consistent fermentation. It doesn’t make it fake or even unnatural.
What I’m saying is, there’s a huge difference between mascara and getting ass implants:
Winemakers face challenges every year because nature is unpredictable. You can’t just follow a recipe. It seems unfair to demand they throw away an entire year’s work because sulfur is the new gluten allergy.
Where to buy: If there’s one thing you can absolutely change, it’s this: stop buying wine from grocery stores, liquor stores, and chain retailers. A local shop or good e-comm store (shameless plug) employs passionate people who talk directly to winemakers, ask questions and taste constantly, in order to source great wines. Buying wine is about trust, like letting someone cut your hair.
Oh! This brings me to an important, slightly unrelated tangent about how a terrible see you next tuesday of a hairdresser cut 8 inches off my mane, then BROKE UP WITH ME VIA TEXT – the day before an important appointment – for no apparent reason! I would never be so savage as to out the hairdresser, but I would never recommend or go to Lucas Salon in Echo Park ever again. Oops. Sorry, that just felt like the natural thing to say at this juncture.
Anyway, if you forge a relationship with a solid retailer, you support the growers who make the good stuff. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
Chemicals: That’s easy – they’re bad. The worst. Pesticides and Fungicides (like Round Up) get into the water supply, rob the earth of vital nutrients, are carcinogenic and destroy everything they touch. Of course they’re terrible for wine, avoid them! But it’s not always easy to navigate which wines are truly free of chemicals.
Drink wine made by real people: Sure, Sunday Funday sounds cute at first, but that bottle isn’t from a winemaker. It’s a brand made by a company. Commodity wines use chemical colorants, sugar, wood chips, artificial thickeners, stabilizers, and flavoring in the wine itself, not to mention pollutants and chemicals in the vineyards.
Real winemakers grow or source grapes; they don’t buy them in bulk from an industrial supply chain. They also prioritize the environment because they’re invested in its long-term health.
Look for clues to a wine’s origin on the label: vineyard name, site location, a real person’s name, the words hand-picked. These are indications there was a human maker at the source.
Biodynamic and Organic: These words mean something, but not everything. Organic refers to how the grapes are grown, not the wine inside. An organic wine isn’t necessarily without additives, and U.S. wines labeled as such can’t use sulfites, European ones can.
It’s also pricey to certify. Lots of tiny producers actually implement holistic methods but can’t afford the official creds, so they can’t state it on their labels.
Biodynamics refer to even stricter standards that apply beyond just how grapes are grown. Cover crops, using living organisms as pest control, pruning according to the lunar cycle – these are just some of the radical, holistic, and even spiritual tenants of biodynamics. Demeter is the official seal, and it’s expensive to obtain. But good wine sellers will know whether the winemaker practices sustainably, even if they’re not certified.
Drop a little coin. You don’t have to start hunting triple digit baller bottles. But if you can drop $60 on a manicure and hundreds on shoes (worth it), spend an extra $20 on a bottle of wine. Local strawberries are pricier than the ones you get at Ralph’s, but you know damn well they’re better from taste alone. Added bonus: environmental and ethical points, plus better Snapchat fodder at farmer’s markets than grocery stores.
Ditch the ego. Everything has its politicians, its dogmatists, even its romantics. But when pros gets on a soapbox to champion natural as some sort of crusade, advocate weird-tasting flaws as intentional, and condemn any human touch on wine whatsoever, it’s ironically elitist and self-serving. Like punk rock for money. That insiders-only shit almost kills my thirst. Sometimes, those wines are good, they’re just not the entire picture.
Wine is not for survival and it doesn’t spontaneously exist. Wine gets made, hopefully injecting pleasure into a meal, a gathering, all things it touches. And while I’m a socially responsible adult making mostly healthy choices, I’m a pleasure-ist first. Which is why I also order Frosted Flakes at 1am from Postmates in dire times. True story.
Life is about balance and so is good wine.
Sure it’s been a little while since I’ve served up a Daily Pour. But I promised I wouldn’t send you any old wine and I meant it. It’s funny but I just can’t fake this sort of thing. And It’s better that way, because when I feel it it hits me hard.
I took one sip of this golden treat and its lime and lemon-melon-y curves took me on an easy ride, winding me gently downhill to take in whiffs of yellow flowers and summer fruits. It washed over me like an old friend.
I packed a bottle of this Soave (type of white vino but also Italian medieval village; I packed the former) in my basket bike (a 1984 Stumpjumper, the bike). We pedaled off in tandem to the new taco joint across the river (LA River, not a fancy one in Verona quite yet, but stay tuned…).
This is a white wine with smooth lines: gradual dips and turns that both allow you the opportunity to sprint your stuff and skid out like a showboat and also to coast effortlessly, the dragging buzz of the freewheel your sweet soundtrack – on cassette, if you will (#bikereference).
Like crickets in the night, that soulful, summer bike song squeezes me right in the heart muscle every time. I love it.
Wine in tow, once we got to the taco spot, parked our (gorgeous) bikes, waited for a free table (hot new joint) and sat down, the juice wasn’t exactly icy; when we poured ourselves the end of the bottle, it was room temp.
*This is actually ironic because the al pastor and potato tacos arrived piping not-hot-at-all; pretty cold, in fact. But being a new restaurant, we forgave, and they were so damn good anyway!
Then with the wine!? Ay dios mio.
Cold tacos, room temp Italian white, all things perfect in the universe. Delicious is an understatement: my mouth is watering as I write this thinking about the pineapple and pork tucked inside the best flour tortilla I’ve had in ever, washed down with its unpredictably perfect match: this Italian gem of a white wine that proved its ability to shake maracas and socialize with guacamole no problemo!
This wine is impossibly satisfying, and I discovered it totally unexpectedly, like the best meals, and things in life, really, seem determined to be.
WINE: Coffele Soave Classico, Veneto, Italy
GRAPE: Biodynamically-grown Garganega, from old vines, harvested by hand.
HOMETOWN: Soave, Veneto. Gladiator battles and medieval executions aside, Verona is an ancient city of love; Soave is also ancient itself – the volcanic region has grown grapes on its hills since Roman times.
TASTES LIKE: Fruit-filled with lime, white peach, and honeydew melon but clean and focused; lilac and yellow flowers like marigolds, too. Tastes like the smile of someone you’ve known for ages that you haven’t seen in a little too long, like whole a day. Where have you been!
GOES DOWN EASY WITH: Richer seafoods hold up well, and I’ve R&D’d the taco thing for you and it’s a flying-colors pass; anything with an Italian accent is just pure extra credit – gnocchi, pesto, scallops, risotto, polenta, pizza with anchovies, game on.
WEIRD FACT: Soave’s a city so famous for amore that people send love letters addressed simply “To Juliet, Verona, Italy.” Oddly, there’s a team of volunteers who’ve assembled to reply to these lovesick folk… if only they were sending them this bottle of this Soave instead!
So you want to make a good drink? Have at it!
teaspoon each of sugar, sparkling water
5 dashes Angostura bitters
grapefruit zest (peel from the skin)
muddle all of the above in the glass, then add 2 oz of bourbon and remember: like anything the better the input the better the output so use good stuff – and stir it all with ice (use good ice too you turkey!) – then strain it over new ice in a beautiful rocks glass.
Garnish with a grapefruit peel after you zest it over the drink!
BARTENDER JOKE ALERT!!!
Question: What’s the difference between a bartender and God?
MF’in punchline: God doesn’t think he’s a bartender.
Ahh Sancerre: a time-burnished town full of history and beauty, a tapestry of steeples and emerald forests and half-timber houses. We’re talking Loire Valley, where castles and sprawling hills form a landscape so impossibly fairytale you’re practically waiting for Charles Perrault to join you for a sip and invite you on a stroll around some geometric garden or lily pond.
The wines from here also straddle the realm of reality and fantasy, so easy to enjoy and accessibly tasty, but otherworldly and serene like a chateaux on a postcard.
Enchanting is a word you don’t get to say often, but when it fits, it fits like a custom glass slipper. Cinderella went to the ball, and the King’s son was always by her side, and his pretty speeches to her never ceased, as it was written.
But the part Perrault failed to mention (probably he was drunk) was that this was all because they were sharing a bottle of this same damn Sancerre Rosé while walking across the castle grounds!
That might sound made up (the best fairytales kind of are), but it’s not. And princesses in towers aside, this wine tastes like it rode in on a Pegasus with trumpets playing in the background.
Pinot Noir is the central character, and in this beautifully restrained iteration, it is sheer like a dress that lets the light in just right, tastefully but generously. It’s a rosé is plucked from a plot of botanical pleasures, with roses and irises and ripe berry and citrus pouring over. But it’s also so mineral-laden, chalky, and dry that it rivals those Provençal dreamboats we love to claim as the best rosés on earth.
This wine is fit for modern-day sleeping beauty, a hammock-slung damsel, lounging in perpetuity. Not to be woken, no thirst to be quenched, unless by this majestic pink liquid equivalent of a harp singing, bluebirds chirping, brook babbling.
I say, surely this is the sought-after antidote – not to rouse you from slumber, but to cure endless emails and phone calls, traffic jams and city sounds, gently resolving any such ailments with a faint magical kiss under a canopy of bougainvillea.
I imagine Perrault would delight in this charmer, too: he’d fancy up a new prince, one in dire need of just such a mystic therapy that would strengthen him – not to battle dragons, but rather to take finally take a wine break for once and recline in the hammock himself, with the hot piece of princess ass dozing under his arm midday.
WINE: Domaine Lucien Crochet, Sancerre Rosé, Loire Valley, France 2015
GRAPE: It’s entirely made of Pinot Noir, noblest of grapes, harvested by hand.
HOMETOWN: Sancerre, gem of a wine town in Loire Valley, France.
TASTES LIKE: Blissfully easy to drink, but not without substance, depth, and texture. Salty and dry, floral and citrus and berry, all things amounting to a rosé from the chivalric days of yore, delicate as a glass slipper.
GOES DOWN EASY WITH: foods of all kinds, the obvious rosé fare like fresh vegetables, seafood, sandwiches, breakfast…oops wait what?
If YOU LIKE: Happily ever-afters and once upon a times.
I’ll start by saying this wine trumps everything you thought you knew about rosé. It’s not some waif that disappears with a hint of grapefruit and a brunch reference. It’s deeper than that – in color, for starters. It’s darker but delicate, filled with forest-y, brambly fruit and flowers that spontaneously bloom at dusk.
You know when something’s so heavenly you just want to inhale it all at once, as fast as possible? Guzzle it with no manners like the glutton you’re free to be (because you’re an adult)? But then, you want to slow time way down and savor every little sip, too…
Well it’s impossible to do both. I tried.
I was conflicted! I wanted to dive in head first! Swim around and maybe even drown myself in this liquid strawberry portal to wine utopia. All these rustic, deep flavors – so much to discover!
I delayed the rush because I was worried it might be fleeting. When I finally tasted it, it reminded me of those Turkish Delights from the Chronicles of Narnia – rose-flavored and enchanting, each subsequent sip bringing an insatiable desire for more as its consequence. Just delicious.
It was the color of a bouquet that just appears on your doorstep, then came the waft of those same flowers leaping from the glass, confirming what I already knew it would taste like before I even dared try it. I had to marvel at all of its sensory wonder.
In case you’re wondering, I did stop to smell the roses as they say, like I aim to do in life always, and also whenever walking Hudson.
Why would you take a jet plane to paradise when you can go on the road trip? I’ll admit, once I got a little sample, the bottle drained quickly. So I opened another (two or three).
You only get the first kiss once, and this is that kind of singular wine. Better to savor it than chug it, but it wouldn’t be hard to do that, either. I’d get a few bottles so you can press rewind as much as possible. It’s summer.
WINE: Vini Rabasco Cancelli Rosato, Abruzzo, Italy 2015
GRAPE: Organically-grown Montepulciano from 40-70 year old vines that have never once seen the use of chemicals or pesticides. Simple ingredients, incredible wine.
HOMETOWN: The 3.5 hectare Rabasco estate is in the village of Pianella, province of Pescara, in the heart of Abruzzo. Italy! This is a region known for junk wines or cult-like wines that under deliver…this is neither.
TASTES LIKE: strawberries, roses, love potion. Blushing with red fruit but not over done; juicy and wholly satisfying, but keeps you going back for more as each sip brings new flavors of berry treats and savory bites and just enough texture to make it the fairest of light reds and still also rosé; unexpected but right on time, like the breeze showing up for an afternoon nap in the hammock.
GOES DOWN EASY WITH: Started drinking it before it got all the way cold because we were thirsty – salty tortilla chips and guacamole is a verified match. By the time the steak was ready (a perfectly-cooked bone in rib eye to be precise – If you know me you know: the meat should always be bone-in), it was chilled. This isn’t a pairing wine, it’s damn drinking wine. Steak and vino found each other effortlessly, a match made out of something bigger than lust, but the more we drank the thirstier we got. We ate the entire meal without silverware including the steak, if that tells you anything about this wine’s capabilities to elevate things.
FULL DISCLOSURE: This is one of those natural beauties you don’t need to over explain, but it is extremely small production and so I took the liberty of offering it up here even though this wine is also part of the July Monthly Pour (of which there is very limited supply). No other producer in this tiny region is taking the care to make wine as special as this.
Here’s your one chance to get more than a single bottle if you’re already a member, and if you aren’t (not sure what you’re waiting for), this is a way to sample the flavor of me making good on my promise to fill your glass with the absolute best.