OVER THE YEARS, I’VE WALKED, trudged, and even climbed through my share of vineyards, but I can’t recall bringing as much of one home on the bottoms of my shoes as I did in late January, when I met up with Joel Peterson in Oakley.
In an unassuming place near the edge of the Delta, it’s all about the sand.
The morning after an atmospheric river flowed across the Bay Area, I headed out to eastern Contra Costa County and followed Highway 4 along an actual river—the San Joaquin—to get to my destination, an eight-acre vineyard near the Oakley-Antioch border. This unlikely viticultural spot on the suburban map doesn’t have a formal name, but Joel has designated it Oakley Road Vineyard for the wine he produces from its old-vine mataro grapes.
While his relatively new Sonoma-based label, Once & Future, isn’t nearly a household wine brand in the tradition of Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, or Mondavi, the wine company he founded in the mid-70’s certainly is. Joel launched Ravenswood in 1976 with the intention, in his own words, of creating “a small, personal project, where I was going to make just fine, single vineyard-designated wines and nothing else” from sites around Northern California.
THERE’S A WINDOW of time on my resumé in the early 2000s when it was my lot in life to run a romper room of a wine bar in San Francisco’s Civic Center. Occasionally, to avoid its semi-deranged, tinfoil-hatted owner, I’d pop across Hayes Street to Absinthe Brasserie & Bar for a nerves-soothing tumbler of Oban. Neither Rob Schwartz nor Jeff Hollinger, the head bartenders, knew me very well, but each poured a generous shot of the Scottish single malt, which I always thought of as a singularly kind gesture of hospitality.
Just a few years later in 2006, that pair partnered with the talented San Francisco food photographer Frankie Frankeny on a well-conceived cocktail recipe book, The Art of the Bar. In it, Rob and Jeff included a section on some of the classic drinks they served at Absinthe that butted up against current trends. “Die-hard devotees,” they observed with some amusement, “surely cringe at the idea of calling vanilla vodka mixed with Midori and a mélange of fruit juices a melon Martini.”
No doubt feeling reverberations of the 90’s vodka craze that spilled over into the new millennium, they wrote, “Nowadays, just about anything served in a martini glass is dubbed a Martini.”
Flashing forward to the present, I wonder what these former Absinthe guys would say about something like beefsteak tomato water, sherry vinegar, and basil oil, all expertly mixed in a martini glass—an intensely flavored concoction that, when I tasted it in the waning days of this past summer, reminded me of the passage in their book and the question it begged: when is a martini not a martini?
Vermouth is the beginning of everything. The pre-meal aperitif. The first stop when leaving work. The start of a chat with your friends. — Más Vermut Málaga
“THIS VERMOUTH RECIPE was originally made in Málaga by my family.”
Patrick Mata wrote this in an email to me in September. Via the website for his New York importing company, Olé & Obrigado, I’d sent him a note to ask about the Spanish vermouth brand that carries his name.
As I’ve written about in the previous two columns, I picked up a bottle of Mata Vermouth Blanco back in August at the increasingly eclectic Lawler’s Liquors in Napa and discovered, more or less with my eyes closed, that it marries quite well in a cocktail with Savage & Cooke Tennessee rye whiskey, lemon juice, and a few dashes of bitters. I dubbed it the Tahoe Delicioso, after the lake where it was concocted in August by your vacationing correspondent.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Hyatt, a good friend and great San Francisco bartender.
WHEN IT COMES TO COCKTAILS, I’m a bit of an accidental tourist. Their mixing, I mean, not the imbibing. In this respect, I’m highly intentional. Especially these days.
As we headed out to the West Shore of Lake Tahoe for a week’s vacation in August, I intended to make a drink or two using the ingredients I’d brought along on the trip. The tourist in me would’ve preferred to sip some punch on the dock at Chambers Landing or enjoy cocktails at Sunnyside Lodge’s lively bar, but the pandemic was doing a great job of sucking the fun out of those time-honored Tahoe traditions (we did manage to get some Chambers Punch to go—this little miracle of an adult beverage could be the subject of its own column).
Arriving at our rental cabin in Tahoe Pines, a century-old community along the West Shore that recedes back into immense groves of white fir and Jeffrey pine, we unpacked for a relaxing week and the temporary escape from reality back home. There was still plenty of reality by the lake: over the next six days, the steady stream of traffic along West Lake Boulevard would be a reminder of Tahoe’s popularity, especially during this coronavirus road trip summer with almost no one getting on airplanes.
DRIVING AROUND TOWN ON pre-vacation errands in early August, I dropped by Lawler’s Liquors to check a few items off of the liquid supplies list. This old faithful of Napa bottle shops is one of our little wine city’s go-tos for both grain and grape booze.
Since the onset of these fun pandemic days, Lawler’s owner, Peter Ibrahim, has gone artisanal on his customers. That is, the center aisle of his family’s medium-sized store is still filled most late afternoons with vineyard guys waiting to pay for their 12-packs of Bud or Miller Lite, as was the case six months ago and forever before. Lately, however, the shelves have been lined with a wider and more eclectic variety of spirits labels than I probably ever expected to see. They call out to a different audience.
Standing behind the (now plexiglassed) register, one of Peter’s employees nodded appreciatively as he rang me up for my fancy choices of rye whiskey, London gin, and Spanish vermouth. When I commented on the shop’s diverse range of spirits, he mentioned that the boss was doing his part to support the local liquor distributors. With several beer-toting, thirsty-looking customers behind me, he left it at that. But in this depressing time of closed or struggling restaurants everywhere you look, the implication was clear that retailers were picking up the pieces, some of which were rather shiny and new—or in certain cases, dull and black. More on this in a second.
“If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.” – Falstaff, Henry IV
AS PASSIONS, TRAVEL AND WINE PROVIDE unique opportunities to open one’s mind and, perhaps in the best of circumstances, impart a sense of place that allows a deeper view into the interplay between people and environment. Tradition and authenticity take on new meanings in an ever-shrinking world while seeming to grow only more valuable in their rarity. With this in mind, and with a desire to be transported mentally at a time when physical travel is all but impossible, I opened a bottle of Manzanilla Deliciosa from Valdespino.
Manzanilla is a sherry that comes from Sanlucar de Barrameda. Since 1964, the area surrounding this coastal Andalucian town has had its own DOP (Denominación de Origen Protegida), but it is generally included under the DO of Jerez-Xérès-Sherry y Manzanilla de Sanlucar—a mouthful even to Spaniards! Located where the Guadalquivir River flows into the Gulf of Cádiz, on the Atlantic Ocean, Sanlucar is the northernmost of the “golden triangle” of Sherry towns, with El Puerto de Santa Maria to the south and, inland, sherry’s namesake and most famous town, Jerez de la Frontera. The area has a history of wine production that dates back to the Phoenicians, who founded Cádiz over 3,000 years ago.
“The tradition of the mâchon comes directly from the canuts who shared traditional meals in Lyon at dawn after hours of work. The mâchon is simple and friendly.” – Le Wiki
SO, IF YOU’VE READ THIS FAR, you might wonder what gives with the title of my recent string of posts.
When he first clued me into the wine called Traboules, during a trip I took to France in early 2018, the conversation with Tim Johnston about this unique French red veered off in an unexpected direction. If my old friend had me at “Rhône Valley gamay,” he further captured my attention explaining where the name came from for the Coteaux du Lyonnais made by his friends at Domaine Clusel-Roch.
After a stopover in Paris, I was headed down to Lyon by TGV, then a bit further south to the very old wine hub of Ampuis. There, I would spend a long weekend at the annual Marché aux Vins, meeting winegrowers and attempting to drink my weight in their Condrieu, St. Joseph, and Côte-Rôtie. Before the trip, I’d never been to Ampuis, nor France’s gastronomic capital of Lyon. I was beyond excited.
Over a jetlag-curing lunch at Juveniles, Tim’s 1st arrondissement wine bar, he told me to be on the lookout during the Marché for a red wine called Traboules, which the Clusels might be pouring at their table. (I’ll note here that I would walk over hot coals to get my hands on their “Grandes Places” Côte-Rôtie; it never came to that during the event in Ampuis, but it’s a wine that certainly pulls in an enthusiastic crowd.) Then, playing remote tour guide for a moment, Tim connected the dots between the Clusels’ Traboules gamay and the name, which comes from Lyon’s ancient traboules: the semi-concealed public passageways that wind through some of the city’s oldest quarters. They sounded exotic and a bit weird. Right up my alley, so to speak.
FROM THE PANDEMIC THAT BROUGHT you virtual tastings comes another new addition to the wine lexicon: curbside pick-up.
And it’s quite new—for wine, anyway. As recently as February, “curbside” still implied a transaction likely involving a Chick-fil-A or a Big Mac. Just three or four weeks later, in-person shopping for wine—the quaint, familiar concept of browsing shelves and case stacks, picking up bottles to read their labels, maybe sampling at a tasting bar—had been pandemically turned on its head. A more appropriate metaphor might be kicked to the curb.
Or maybe not.
“It’s almost impossible to emphasize how different this landscape is right now,” my friend Dan Polsby wrote to me in an email in March about Vintage Berkeley, the College Avenue shop he manages and buys for, and now was tasked with converting to a 100% curbside pick-up business. “Some distributors and importers have already stopped shipping. Some are experiencing crazy delays. And for us? Basically every day right now is as busy as what’s usually our busiest day of the year—but at quarter staff, for 12-13 hours—despite letting no customers into the store. Can you imagine?”
Could anyone have imagined such a scenario? Besides that cohort of doctors, scientists, and other infectious disease experts (surely some wine enthusiasts among them) who’d been sounding the alarm to the White House about Covid-19 since January, I mean.
IT WAS MID-MARCH, EARLY DAYS for shelter-in-place. No tumbleweeds were blowing across College Avenue yet, but Elmwood was a ghost town.
Stuck at home in Napa and rather desperate for some French gamay that wasn’t the Duboeuf Beaujolais stocked on our (and every) local supermarket shelf, I drove down to this normally bustling pocket of Berkeley to pick up a wine called Traboules, a delicious and unusual bottle of gamay from the Rhône Valley’s Coteaux du Lyonnais that I tracked down last year.
The trip was shockingly quick: fifty-five minutes door-to-door from Napa. Only at 6:00 AM on a Sunday—or, I suppose, during a pandemic. The novel coronavirus had brought the novelty of zero Thursday morning traffic to the usual I-80 parking lot.
Granted, an excursion away from Napa Valley to find wine might sound like leaving Darjeeling to go tea shopping. But if you’re looking for good French wine, you head to Berkeley. And if something unique like Traboules is on your list, you make a beeline for Vintage Berkeley.
Drink is the feast of reason and the flow of soul. – Alexander Pope, Imitations of Horace
RECENTLY, I GOT MYSELF into a predicament that, courtesy of their government, U.S. wine geeks narrowly avoided a couple of months ago: I ran out of gamay.
The paucity verged on the political. Had the White House made good in February on its late 2019 threat to increase tariffs from an already egregious 25% on French and other European wines to an industry-wrecking 100%, it would have been bye-bye Beaujolais. And Beaujolais-Villages. And Côtes-du-Rhône Villages and the like. Chablis, Champagne, Château Take-Your-Pick? Adieu to all of them—or at least au revoir for a good, long time.
As if there wasn’t enough government-driven panic going around.
So, when the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, issued his decision on February 14th not to raise the tariffs, it was a reprieve for my beloved gamay noir à jus blanc, as the wine grape of Beaujolais is properly known.