Archive for January, 2010

NOTE: Thanks to the Pinot Gallery for voting in my poll to the right! I see that as of press time I have seven friends and four of them HATE ME.

A couple weeks ago I mentioned I worked as a waiter in the fine-dining industry. That’s not entirely true. I don’t work as a waiter at a fine dining establishment.

I work as a waiter at two.

This week I’m focusing on The Derby in Arcadia, an old-fashioned steakhouse near Santa Anita Park. Ah yes, finally a place where horseracing and fine food collide.

(My Job. Fun fact: also where they shot the “Boats n’ Hoes” scene in “Stepbrothers.”)

On top of all the other duties, owner Dustin Nicolarsen takes care of the wine buying. I’ve often accompanied him to offer a second opinion, but since My Pinot Year, I haven’t been able to help. Now when he tastes he just gives me mean looks and reminds me how I’m going to fail miserably in my year-long experiment.

Go Team!

In any case, I asked him what it is he looks for when selecting Pinot Noir for his by-the-glass wine list.

“I’m looking for something that isn’t just cherry,” he said. While he knows a lot more about big, loud Cabernet Sauvignon to pair with his red meat-centric menu, he’s after some subtlety and nuance with his Pinots. “Since Pinot is so light,” he said, “a lot of winemakers will blend Syrah in for color. The problem is, if there’s too much, it stops being Pinot.”

As I’ve found in previous weeks Pinot Noir can say a lot of different things. Dustin’s Pinots are a good example of that.

The house Pinot is Aquinas (reviewed last week). Above that sits Mark West’s 2006 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. I thought it was the most delicate of the three, not as heavy as the Aquinas, loftier. Finally, their flagship is Wild Horse’s 2006 “Unbridled” Pinot Noir, from Santa Barbara County. I’ve never used the word “ferocious,” to describe a Pinot before, but I can with this one. Wow.

OKAY OKAY OKAY I can hear what you’re thinking.

While some might consider this entry on shaky journalistic ground, I have no qualms being a feckless shill for the places I work. A lot of pinot-related activity happens there and doubtless I’ll be relating a few pinot-related anecdotes from them for this blog.

So there.

Case in point:

Freshly smarting from my Chargers’ loss in the AFC Playoffs and just as hung-over from barrels of mediocre industrial pinot, I awoke Monday with a sour memory driving a spike through my head:

ME: Tomorrow I’m heading to San Diego to watch my boys demolish the New York Jets.

MIKE SMITH: Whoa, don’t be so sure.

ME: They’ve got it in the bag. It’s going to be a big victory. Big and ugly.

MIKE SMITH: Want to make a bet?

ME: Of course!

MIKE SMITH: Okay. How about a nice bottle of Pinot, under $50?

ME (shaking hands): You’re on!

(This is to show we really shook on it.)

(“Forget DisneyWorld, we’re going wine tasting!”)

Who’s Mike Smith you ask?

You may have heard Smith’s name mentioned in conjunction with his stellar win riding Zenyatta to victory in last year’s Breeder’s Cup. Or maybe from his appearances on the hit Animal Planet series “Jockeys.” Born in New Mexico, the world-famous jockey cut his teeth racing in New York 1989-2000 before settling here in Southern California.

When he isn’t busy pursuing 5,000 career wins he’s occasionally found at The Derby enjoying a bite to eat. He’s friendly and humble and he definitely knows his wine. Especially Pinot.

“I used to hate it,” he said, “really hate it. So what I did was I made myself drink it, to see what the fuss was about.” He did so for almost a year. Finally he started to see. “There’s a moment where you enjoy a really good one and you say, ‘Oh! This is what it’s SUPPOSED to be like..’”

Now that’s drinking like a champion! His story wasn’t so different from mine, and he seemed genuinely interested when I brought up my blog.

Or he could have just been sizing me up as a rube.

Regardless, a wager’s a wager so I headed over to my friendly neighborhood wine store to eat some humble pie.

I told my guy, “I’m looking for a nice bottle of Pinot under $50. What do you have?”

We settled on Loring Wine Company’s 2008 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot from the Santa Rita Hills. Recognized by their Stelvin closures (WINE-ESE for screw-caps) and their distinct stencil-designed labels, Brian Loring turns out killer Pinot he sources from all over the western United States.

Sourcing is WINE-ESE for taking grapes one doesn’t grow oneself in order to make wine. I dig Loring’s take on sourcing from his website:

“My part in the vineyard equation is to throw heaping piles of money at the vineyard owners (so they can limit yield and still make a profit) and then stay out of the way.”

Which pretty much reflects how I decided on the bottle of Loring. The result is some highly regarded stuff. It isn’t cheap. But it’s perfect when paying off an idiot wager.

By Friday night Smith and friends were back at The Derby to enjoy his bottle of Pinot and a card from me:

Mike, here you go. You won it, fair-and-square. I was a fool to bet you. You are a walking rabbit’s foot. Enjoy.

Aquinas 2007 Pinot Noir Napa; some basic structure
Mark West 2006 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley; light ;lofty
Wild Horse “Unbridled” 2006 Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County; Ferocious; wow!
Loring Wine Company 2008 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills; tasty enough to pay off a debt!


(This Bench Reserved for Awesome Jockeys and Serious Wine Lovers ONLY)

By some stroke of dumb luck I happened upon tickets to the San Diego Charger’s AFC playoff game against the New York Jets last weekend. Those who know me understand my deep love for the game of American football and total disrespect for any other organized sport.

But football fandom is not an easy life in the off-season. Which is why I flew at the chance for the tickets. Being there, live, is just as cathartic as Greek tragedy, and ten times as fun. It celebrates everything GREAT and RIGHT in the American experience.

Football. Food. And Beer.

But wait a second—in My Pinot Year, could I handle football without beer?

Well it’s not like I was stuck in Indiana or Wisconsin. This was California, the most wine-tastic of all 50 states. So why shouldn’t football and pinot mix?

Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t be the BEST in the world, but chances are the stadium would have some, right? There was only one way to find out.

So I spent the weekend trying “Industrial Pinot,” the mass-produced stuff most likely to appear at casual eateries and (hopefully) stadiums. For you beer drinkers out there, think Budweiser with a cork.

I used no scientific method. Instead my prerequisite was that it had to be the cheapest (or in many cases only) pinot offered. Each bottle sampled fell into the “Under $20” range and half were ten bucks or less.

The night before the game the Girlfriend and I mapped out our attack plan at Mo’s, a local restaurant. They featured a 2008 Sonoma Castle Rock Pinot Noir so I asked for a glass.

The label promised “aromas of red fruit.” So what, like communist fruit? Apples are red. Raspberries are red. Tomatoes are red. And they’re all fruit. It also promised, “…flavors of plum and cherry with oak nuances, and the finish is long and harmonious.”

Oooooh, harmonious!

I knew tasting this I’d be one step closer to nirvana.

The nose had some earthiness to it, wood, and a little cherry too I guess. Tasting it backed up what I smelled, but didn’t give much of anything else. It felt two-dimensional.

Nirvana would have to wait.

Up at six a.m. we made it to San Diego and spent the morning at McGregor’s Alehouse, a pub/restaurant walking distance to Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Chargers. Fortunately they offered a pinot noir and within seconds of sitting down I ordered two. The Girlfriend had a mimosa.

The pinot—called Aquinas—was an improvement. Again with the cherry and the wood, but overall it was more balanced. It wasn’t fantastic, but it did pair well with everything I ate: a fully-loaded omelet, cheese-topped potatoes, teriyaki wings, the corned beef on rye and coleslaw, and a chophouse salad.

Eating is vital when sampling wine; if you don’t fill your stomach with food the wine will turn you sideways way too soon. So you’ll get drunk, which is great I guess, but you also won’t recall what was good and what wasn’t.

With two hours to kickoff the girlfriend and I headed to the stadium: I still had to find out if Qualcomm even sold pinot.

When we found our seats I heard good news: the stadium did have a full bar where I might have some luck. Of course it had to be the absolute furthest point from where we were seated, so I decided to make my move. The Girlfriend (wisely) decided to hold down the fort.

I worked my way through the mass of fans, down four floors and around the circumference of the arena. Finally I made it to Murphy’s, Qualcomm’s lounge, and a massive line.

It was the first time in my life I found a bar with all the aesthetic beauty of a US Post Office. It’s not like I expected Cheers, but man, everything about the place said, “You are not here to have fun. Pay and get out.”

Among the booze on the bar I saw a Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend, and there was a third bottle I couldn’t read. I was getting disheartened. What if there was no pinot? Was this slog in vain?

Would I have to order an O’Douls?

At the head of the line I said to the cashier, “I know this is a dumb question, but do you have any pinot noir?”

I was blown away when she said, “Of course.”

In fact I was so blown away I completely forgot to read the bottle to write down any vital statistics. By the time I was through paying she was already with the next customer. I didn’t even get the name of the winery.

So I’ll make up a name for it. A lot of wineries use nature-y outside-y words like creek or glen or valley. And they usually combine it with some other word that captures the effort made in crafting their product.

So let’s call it Turd Creek. Because it was by far the worst pinot of the weekend. It tasted more like a chore than anything else. An $8.75 chore.

I made it back to my seat without spilling two glasses all over myself. The Girlfriend agreed with my assessment and said, “I’m not drinking that crap. Hurry and finish it so we can try this,” and pulled something out of her purse: my 16oz. REI plastic flask filled to the brim with pinot.

“How did you manage that?” I asked.

“When the security guard is checking your purse, you just have to say ‘tampons,’ and he hands it right back to you. Works every time!”

My beautiful genius.

I choked down the Turd Creek and we tried the contraband, Estancia’s 2007 Monterey County Pinot Noir—the clear winner for the weekend.

Unfortunately I could not say the same for my Chargers. They fell to the Jets 17-14.

Industrial Pinot—or rather our general idea of Industrial Pinot—can be summed up in a few descriptive words; light red, flavor of cherry and some wood in there too. And all the pinots I tried over the weekend covered that ground, more or less.

It’s like if you tell a room of kindergarteners, “Draw me a flower in a pot,” you’re going to get more or less the same thing from every one of them, and you can be sure that none of it will be brilliant. But that’s okay because they’re kids. They don’t know better and they’re doing the best they can.

Whereas with pinot, they were all made by grown-ups who SHOULD know better, and if this is the best they can do, well, maybe they should go back to kindergarten.

One or two held up, but that shouldn’t be enough. Even though taste is subjective, there is a point where something is just plonk.

But if people keep buying crap, who’s going to stop industrial wineries from pooping in bottles?

Test drive your wines. When you find garbage, send threatening letters to any winemaker foolish enough to make himself a target. Who cares if that might be “illegal” or “against the law.” If the industry won’t regulate itself, it’s our duty as drinkers to do it for them.

God I miss beer.

Castle Rock 2008 Pinot Noir Sonoma; flat, unbalanced
Aquinas 2007 Pinot Noir Napa; some basic structure
Turd Creek 2008 Pinot Noir California; BOO!
Estancia 2007 Pinot Noir Monterey County; not too shabby.

If I was going to approach this whole thing like the science projects we did back in grade school, what with the baking soda volcanoes and dissected frogs and models of the universe, I’d need a hypothesis.

HYPOTHESIS: Somewhere in the month of September 2010 I will become sick and tired of Pinot Noir for the rest of my life. It will terrify and disgust me and I will flee from it like Pete Carroll flees NCAA sanctions or Stephanie Meyer flees literary merit.

Lucky for me it’s only January and I’m still in the honeymoon phase of this whole disaster of an idea. My girlfriend points to every passing martini and it doesn’t even phase me…yet.

Still, it’s important to see all the subtle differences one grape has to offer. With last week’s Gruet fresh in mind, I called my good bartender friend (yes English majors he is BOTH a good friend and good bartender) Ralph, and told him about My Pinot Year.

A note on Ralph: He grew up next door to the house from “Pretty In Pink.” I find that fascinating. That’s got to mess someone up, right?

No wait: An acolyte of Jonathan Gold’s shamanesque seeker-style of guerilla warfare, Ralph’s been THE man to introduce me to more than a couple of LA’s out-of-the-way spots serving the best are-you-kidding-me dishes. In other words, I trust this guy.

When he’s not indoctrinating me into the cult of the huitlacoche quesadilla (that’s corn fungus, paleface), you can find him tending bar over at Pop in Pasadena.

Ralph told me to stop by some night. He had some things I needed to try.

Pop is just like it sounds; a dessert spot specializing in Champagne and other sparkling wines from all over the world. Tucked into an ancient brick building in Old Pasadena it feels like a speakeasy that woke to find Prohibition over. French electro-pop. High ceilings and chandeliers. The mirror behind the bar has got to be a set piece from The Great Gatsby.

I arrived the night of the BCS Championship game, and while the other spots in town were at capacity with burnt orange and crimson, I took a stool at the bar and Ralph poured me a horse of a different color.

“It’s about time you tried some Brut Rose. Hundred percent Pinot.”

Music to my ears.

Brut Rose. That’s fancy French talk for “dry” and “pink.” It’s used to described any Champagne or sparkling wine that tastes dry (as opposed to sweet) and looks pink (as opposed to, um, not pink).

Ralph explained the color comes from tossing a splash of red wine in with the rest of the unfermented juice, usually from the same varietal. Or it comes from a process called “maceration,” which is just as sexy as it sounds; brief fermentation with the grape skins (which give red wines their distinct color) still intact. Then the grapes get naked and ferment some more.

Ooh baby.

The first glass Ralph poured was a Cremant d’Alsace, which just means it’s a French sparkling wine NOT from Champagne the region but from Alsace the region. I like to think of Alsace as Champagne’s younger sister; she’s not as rich or pretty, but she’s definitely worth dating because she’s also not as stuck up. And she had this on-again/off-again thing with Germany so you know she’s a bit of a freaky too.

In any case, Alsace is known for first-rate wines and their Cremant didn’t disappoint. The back of the bottle said something about hints of “red berries,” which I found troubling. Did it mean hints of ALL red berries? Like raspberries and strawberries and crunchberries? Or was it more like the Platonic IDEA of red berries, like, somewhere in the ether there’s this ideal berry and it’s red and this is exactly how it would taste if we could squeeze it and bottle it?

Either way, it’s one of those suggestive food-porn buzzwords I’m not totally comfortable with because descriptions like that may do more harm than good when trying a wine for the first time. That first impression, that moment of discovery, that should be yours.

Am I tasting red berries because I taste red berries, or because you told me I’d taste red berries?

Am I being manipulated?

I had to ask myself this because, more than once working as a waiter I’ve pulled that exact shenanigan on guests interested in the specific details of a particular bottle on a massive wine list I’ve never tasted before.

“Sir with this vintage you’ll find it fairly fruit-forward…What kind of fruit, sir?…Red berries, sir.”

$180 red berries. Listen man, it’s not dreck. In fact it’s really good and it’s going to taste really really good with your Long Island duck and the lady’s poached salmon. Now if you want me to decide for you what it’s going to taste like I’ll do it. It’s why—in this waiter’s life—they pay me the big bucks.

With that Original Sin in mind I took my first drink and I couldn’t stop these words from jumping out of my mouth: “It’s just like Pop Rocks!”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, have you ever popped a cork on a killer bottle of Pop Rocks?

“What kind of fruit, sir?…Pop Rocks, sir…The red ones. And it’s pretty effing awesome.”

The second Brut Rose came from south of the equator. The winery is Santa Julia (incidentally the patron saint of torture victims…not the best mascot for your wine label artist) in Mendoza, Argentina. There were no red berries. It was not fruit forward. But there was something else.

You hear all the time people talk about terrior; qualities in the wine that come not from the grape but the soil the grape grows from. I have yet to be convinced of terroir (Oh sweet merciful lord the comments I’m going to get), but is it possible to pick up qualities that come from a barrel the grape is stored in? Because the Santa Julia had something to it that wasn’t fruity so much as barrel-y. Which is all fine and dandy I guess, but with a palate that tends toward sweet, not my cup of tea.

Finally Ralph pulled out a fresh half-bottle and popped the cork.

“This is a Rene Geoffroy Brut Rose de Saignee,” he said, “Premier Cru.”

Translation: The real deal. Finally a Champagne. The region I spent last week ragging on was ready to clear its throat and say something.

Ralph said, “One reviewer wrote this is what would happen if strawberries had orgasms.”

I was immediately red-berry suspicious.

But I took a sip.


It’s like a ninja Plato kicked me in the mouth. Like I spent all this time trying things that were supposed to represent a thing, and then I tried a thing that WAS the thing. And it blew my mind because it didn’t taste like anything at all. Instead it tasted like the answer to a Zen riddle that was right in front of me the whole time.

Not getting me?

Okay. Take the idea of flavor out of the equation. Because Brut is not really supposed to taste too much like anything. That’s why it goes so well with dessert; it’s not competing with your fresh fruit or crème brulee so much as complimenting it. It’s about the texture. Let the bubbles do the talking. The grapes are just the vehicle to get there. Then they lose the ego and stand aside. There’s no barrel. There’s no terroir. And there’s no red berries.

But hey, to each his own.

Amazing. Three very distinct flavors, each saying something very different. All classified as Brut Rose. If this were a teachable moment I’d toss off some lazy advice like, “Trust and respect your bartender. He works hard and knows what he is doing.” Instead I’ve found scribbled in my notebook the following: “Ralph is sacred in his ancient wisdom…like Lou Diamond Phillips in ‘Young Guns.’”

But that was after like five glasses of wine. So I’m not too sure how reliable that is. Just go and check it out for yourself.

Lucien Albrecht NV Brut Rose Cremant d’Alsace; pop rocks!
Santa Julia NV Brut Rose Mendoza, Argentina; not so much.
Rene Geoffroy NV Brut Rose de Saignee Premier Cru; the real deal.
Dig It:

Let the record show I enjoyed my last gin martini New Year’s Eve at 11:58 and 30 seconds p.m. Nothing showy, just some no-nonsense London dry goodness; extra cold and up with a twist. She went down easy…and I’ll let you make the dirty joke for me on that one.

I was doing what any sane writer in LA was doing at that time—just finishing my shift at a fine-dining establishment (which shall remain anonymous until my crack legal team gives the green light). I found my beautiful and supremely talented girlfriend holding court in the corner of the lounge as I swooped in and stole a kiss before saying farewell to my Beefeater’s.

With barely two minutes left in 2009 I pulled out a couple flutes and a bottle of something extra special for the two of us.

There is no mistaking the glee you feel when you twist a properly chilled bottle just so, and the cork pops out without taking anyone’s head off.

Because no New Year’s is complete without Champagne.

Or something like it.

For all you novices like me out there, it’s important to understand that Champagne—the wine—can only come from Champagne—the region. It’s in France. Anything else has to be called sparkling wine or else the French and a lot of sommeliers crap their pants in anger. That’s a lot funnier to write about than it is to witness.

And fair enough; give a region’s product its due. Champagne is fiercely loyal to its namesake because they have turned out and will continue to turn out mindblowingly delicious product. There’s a history of quality that’s taken a long time and a lot of hard work to cultivate in every bottle. They don’t want some idiot taking credit for their work AND sullying their good name with his plonk. We Americans have the same qualms about pride in local product—just ask a Maine lobster fisherman or California avocado grower—so we can’t really say this is just the French being, well, French.

THAT SAID, there are very few winemakers from Champagne that think there’s any decent sparkling available from anywhere else.

Now I said very few, not none.

Which brings me to the tale of Gilbert Gruet and the Gruet Winery, with its home about 170 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Yeah. That New Mexico.

See, this cat made Champagne in Champagne, then decided that was too easy so he told his wife to blindfold him and spin him around before he tossed a dart from between his legs at a map of the earth to find the most insane place for a future vineyard–or so I imagine.

Okay so maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that, but in 1984 Gruet settled on Truth Or Consequence which sits at an elevation of 4300 feet (for you Californians out there that’s 150 feet HIGHER than the Tejon Pass). For appeasing the wine gods, Gruet was then welcomed directly into heaven much like Elijah in the Old Testament.

So how does this fit into My Pinot Year?

Well, Champagne-and the sparkling wines that love them-are made up of three kinds of grape: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. You can get a Blanc de Blancs—that’s 100% Chard—or Blanc de Noirs—100% Pinot—but I’ve never heard of a Blanc de Meunier.  I’m sure it probably tastes as good as it sounds.

Champagne not only sets itself apart with its history and self-imposed quality, but also for its unique approach to fermentation. That’s where the booze and the bubbles come from. After it’s taken some time in barrels, winemakers do a little extra magic (rock sugar and yeast) so the Champagne goes through a second fermentation process in the bottle.

If you’re going for a sparkling wine you’ll want to find one that follows the same process or you might be drinking horse pee. So look for the phrase “Methode Champagnoise” or “Methode Traditionnelle” on the label, which I’m certain is French for “Doin’ it like they do in Champers.”

Today Gruet Winery makes a number of sparkling wines in the “Methode Champagnoise,” including a Blanc de Noirs, which I thought was perfect to start 2010 off right. The girlfriend was inclined to agree.

Now this is about where the food porn is supposed to start, where I tell you in the most gratuitous way possible how it looked and smelled and what it felt like in my mouth. Although I believe that the idea of food porn is a bit of a misnomer because you can’t spank your stomach. Even with all my literary brilliance, a written account of enjoying a bottle of Gruet Blanc de Noirs won’t get you off. It won’t satisfy you, even temporarily, leaving you a little empty inside. I’ll leave that to the pros (thank you Giada de Laurentiis).

I like to think I do something a little more valuable than that. All I think I owe you is the nod that this stuff is worth trying. Which it is. Then you can go on with your own bad self with your own food porn experience in the comfort and privacy of your own home.

Or maybe your local fine-dining establishment.

I promise I won’t peek.

Gruet NV Blanc de Noirs; available in 750ml and magnum sizes
Great clean taste. Because the bottle says NM instead of Napa it’s a steal. You win!
Dig it:
Buy it where I did:

I did something very stupid.

Somewhere around mid-October, while most people were putting their Michael Jackson and Bea Arthur costumes together for Halloween, I met with my editor and told her I was going to spend 2010 only drinking Pinot Noir.

No beer.

No gin.

No other varietals. Just Pinot.

And I was going to write about it. And it was going to be brilliant.

“I’m not sure Pinot has enough interest to warrant a book,” she said. We were tossing back martinis somewhere offering a happy hour. She’d just finished telling me about the time her uncle sent her a twenty page memoir full of inappropriate sex acts, and how she chose to let him down gently by saying the same thing she was now saying to me. “It’s not a big enough subject.”

“Well, what I’m going for is really more of a niche market,” I said. This, of course, was what the creepy uncle also told her in response.

“Suit yourself.”

As time went on I realized maybe the publishing world wasn’t quite ready for my literary brilliance. Instead I decided on a place that was somewhere closer to my intellectual equal: The Blog-o-sphere.

Newly inspired I decided to forge ahead, and as the last holidays of the year began to melt away my excitement grew and grew.

But really, why Pinot?

Rex Pickett had a lot to do with it. You’ve never heard of him. But you have heard of his 2004 book Sideways and Alexander Payne’s film starring Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond, the sad-sack schlub with a hopeless addiction to excellent Pinot.

Sideways had sat on my bookshelf for over five years.

I got it soon after the film came out but had no real interest in picking it up until recently. I realized—like many hopeful wine drinkers out there—I stayed away from it for so long because I was INTIMIDATED. Yes, I was worried the book knew more about wine than I did and that I’d feel stupid reading it. It might reference unknown places, or worse, make one of those inside jokes that I’d be very outside of.

Instead, when I finally manned up in October and read it, I found it to be WAY enjoyable and more than a few times laugh-out-loud funny. And that’s having already seen the film!

Stupid idiot, I thought to myself, good thing no one knows you were scared of a book.

However something struck me about the story: it was less about Pinot Noir so much as it was about a man who uses Pinot to hide from his real issues. The book could have been about two men going to check out beer breweries before one of them gets hitched. Or ballparks. Or presidential tombs.

In any case, it made for excellent literature. But could it make for real life?

Could I live like Miles always wanted to? Would surrounding myself with the best and worst Pinot had to offer satisfy my appetite for all things bacchanal? Would I live to tell about it? Or would I snap and lose my cool, becoming so lonely for a martini that search crews would find me roaming half-naked through the Angeles National Forest, gnawing on a juniper bush?

It sounded fun, so now I’m determined to find out.

Hence the New Year’s Resolution and this blog. Welcome to My Pinot Year.