A few years ago, I flew into Houston for a work trip on a breezy October afternoon and cabbed straight to a sales appointment with a distributor colleague at a truly Texas-sized grocery store. No need to mention the store by name, though gourmet-minded residents of the city would know the place, which was high-end and located in a nice neighborhood. The lighting and space were bright and airy, and the shelves were very well-stocked. It reminded me of a saying I once heard: “Dallas has the flash, but Houston has the cash.” Indeed, there was a fossil fuel-enabled vibe of prosperity to this mammoth epicurean outlet. I was, after all, in the energy capital of the world.
“There is a horrible American vermouth — I shall not reveal its name.”
– Julia Child to Jacques Pepin
It was a pleasant surprise to find out earlier this year from my friend Carl Sutton that his Sonoma County Brown Label vermouth, a labor of love if there ever was one, had been featured in the New York Times. I became a convert to this extraordinary aperitif wine last fall and subsequently plied friends and family with it between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. At the end of January, I brought a bottle to a friend’s restaurant in Napa Valley to mix “Carlitos” (a Cava-sherry-vermouth cocktail; recipe noted below) for his manager and him. A couple of wine industry friends were in tow. It was roundly agreed that, on top of experiments with hand-made vermouth being a pleasant way to spend a Friday afternoon, this dry, rich, botanically expressive wine was good stuff. Then Jordan MacKay’s article appeared in the Times in early February. Echoing Julia Child, he observed that while the supermarket brand vermouths we Americans are used to drinking are almost unmentionable, the Brown Label is another beverage entirely. The publication of MacKay’s article was an event I figured would alter Carl’s world of artisan winemaking for good and perhaps, too, my chances of continuing to buy it at such a friendly price.
As both a friend and professional colleague, I’ve had a unique view into Carl’s winemaking world. Six years ago, I helped him sell his wines to a handful of restaurants and retailers in the Bay Area. Meeting at his and his wife’s San Francisco apartment to organize our sales plan, I took note of regular updates to the classroom-sized chalkboard on their kitchen wall. The board would tell intertwining tales. It served mainly as a calendar for a busy schedule of distributor visits across the country and event dates in and around the city. But also I recall notations of wine science data, interspersed with abacusian reminders (“$$owed from Ohio!”), domestic exhortations (“Buy coffee!!”), and a sidebar devoted to drink recipes and ideas, wacky and otherwise. The serious purpose of our work meetings notwithstanding, my powers of recall in the wake of visits to Carl’s flat have always been softened by his more formidable skills at hospitality. I have, in fact, come to believe that his favorite adjective to pair with the word “wine” is “fortified.” So The Chalkboard, like a kiss or a cigar, might just have been a chalkboard. What I know for sure is that Carl Sutton’s kitchen, like his mind, is an ideas factory for riffs on the theme of fermented grape juice. Continue reading
“As for Juliana, I think the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
– Dan Petroski
Here’s something I’ve learned since moving to Napa Valley seven years ago: among the winemaking set, kids’ birthday parties are popular occasions to debut side labels and one-offs, or otherwise unload mistakes on friends. For a good example of the former, see Dan Petroski, whose full-time job is assistant winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga. On the side, he runs a tiny project he founded last year called Massican, with a production so limited it makes some boutique winery outfits seem Gallo-esque by comparison. I first came across Dan’s unique white wines at a mutual friend’s daughter’s birthday in May. It was a warm day in a St. Helena park, and the wines were an unexpected but very welcome find. One of the bottles—a crisp, delicious sauvignon blanc—etched a deep impression on my palate. Over hot dogs and cake, he agreed to show me around its source, a vineyard in the Napa hinterlands of Pope Valley.
Dan knows from out-of-the-way places. It could be in his Italian genes: his great-grandfather grew up north of Naples in the foothills of Monte Massico, for which he named his label. He got his winemaking start in 2005 working at Valle dell’Acate, a winery in southeast Sicily whose location must rival the Corleones’ ancestral hometown in the category of remote getaways. And he lives in Calistoga, at the northern end of Napa Valley. While not as far-flung as Sicily, the pickup trucks and minivans there still appear to outnumber Range Rovers and Maseratis. The town is its own little island of unpretentious solitude. Continue reading