My Pinot Year: ST. PATRICK’S DAY

Posted: May 14, 2010 in Pinot

(Clancy’s Crab Shack on the corner of St. Patrick & Pinot)

Imagine the horror—the promise I made myself almost 6 months ago about Pinot, just Pinot and nothing but the Pinot. I HADN’T CONSIDERED St. Patrick’s Day.

No Guinness?! No Bushmill’s?! What the EF was I thinking?!

For those of us real Irish-Americans (my lineage traces to the McGettigans of Galway), St. Patty’s is really something of an inside joke. The day isn’t so much for US; we’re Irish every day. We don’t need to be reminded, or have anything to prove. Really it’s for every other idiot out there to wear green, eat corned beef and pretend to have an excuse to get absolutely smashed. That isn’t to say these are not noble goals; for most of these people dressing yourself qualifies you for the papacy, or at least a Pell grant.

But fine, great, whatever, we Irish put on a clover sweater vest and tangerine tie and wade into the kiddy pool among all the other jackasses, and shamelessly belittle anyone too foolish to hold their own liquor in the proper and adult fashion. We consider it our sacred duty to act as the lifeguards as it were, keep all the banter friendly, the limericks relatively clean (or at least charmingly crude), and kick out anyone caught peeing or barfing in the water.

(The Author considers what horrors St. Pat will display this year)

You don’t see us slapping people around on Boxing Day, or on Cinco de Mayo for that matter.

In any case, if there’s anything worth doing it’s worth doing right. And on this day “doing right” meant Clancy’s Crab Shack in Glendale. It came highly recommended from my resident Double Agent, but I had my reservations. Those who know me understand there is no love lost between me and Glendale; it’s one of the two places (so far) I’ve spent the night in jail. It’s the only place on earth I can describe as both sterile and filthy, all at the same time—most of the town is an impersonal imitation of a metropolis. Recent studies have shown 92% of it is made from sub-standard concrete pylons and 100% of that is slathered in a thin film of burned motor oil and smog. Fatalities are inevitable during even the slightest amount of rainfall; downhill streets become hopelessly slick, toxic sluices, and high school drop-out rates are comparable to schools in Somalia, which, it should be noted has no operational infrastructure.

But that’s neither here nor there. The sky was clear, the day unseasonably warm, and most important I took a taxi. I showed up just after noon, or as the Irish call it, HIGH TIME TO DRINK.

(Precisely as I remember it)

And I was not alone. St. Patty’s is not the sort of day to spend by yourself, and unfortunately my more beautiful better-half was away at work. However, Karmyn’s equally lovely older sis Diane Minter was visiting from Texas. Texas people are great to hang out with on drinking holidays; they are talkative and fiercely loyal and will not hesitate to clobber interlopers with their very own barstools if they look at you the wrong way. Marvelous, classy people—just pray they don’t meet someone else from Texas—they won’t stop talking about the Motherland for at least three hours.

(Today the role of sidekick will be played by Diane Minter)

Clancy’s has a long oak bar and—most important for me—some decent Pinot by the bottle. In this case it’s Hitching Post’s 2006 Highliner. They also sell HP’s ground level Pinot, which tastes like something between a barium milkshake and a kick in the teeth. SO, Highliner it was.

(Irish Times call for Desperate Measures—Hitching Post’s Highliner)

In “Sideways,” if you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you know Hitching Post has a restaurant that Miles uses as his base of operations for much of his and Jack’s shenanigans. So it felt fitting to enjoy that for my Irish luck that day. Two bottles—eight glasses—a decent amount to enjoy on this, a most foul national semi-holiday.

In order to not go sideways myself, I offer here my bill of fare for the day:

jumbo prawn cocktail; 5 prawns

basket popcorn shrimp; 16 ounces

split loaf garlic toast; 18 inches

caesar salad with croutons; 16 ounces

oysters on half-shell; 15 count

cream of corn chowder; 8 ounces

Maine lobster, whole; 32 ounces

And most important, for continued hydration:

Voss sparkling, large size; 6 bottles

GREAT SUCCESS!

(Yes Your Honor, a platter of oysters at noon WAS a brilliant idea)

The day wore on and more and more squares and goons in green began to pack the bar like a can of leprous sardines. There was live music, I think, which, in true pub style, was neither terrible nor great. But it was loud and had a beat you could follow.

(Look at these goobers. You’d drink too if you were stuck here)

But damn if I didn’t lose my favorite pair of sunglasses.

So I’m offering a reward. You’ve seen them on this very website. If you spot some idiot bragging about finding a pair of excellent Maui Jims at Clancy’s on St. Patty’s, GET THEM BACK FOR ME. Use gratuitous violence.

Cash money is involved.

We are, after all, professionals.

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(Photo: Holmes & Watson: The Case of the Case of Missing Pinot)

In a high school made of wine, Cabernet and Chardonnay are the jocks and cheerleaders; big, robust and popular. Merlot makes up the rest of the student body; unremarkable, generally helpless and inoffensive. And then there’s Pinot.

Pinot Noir is the emo kids and theatre geeks. Pinot is arty and fickle, thin-skinned and therefore prone to complain about any little thing. It rarely does what it’s told. And it delivers even less often than that. But when it does…

Oh man.

Think back to high school. That cheerleader, that jock, today they’ve muscled their way into a death in middle management or are waddling around a brood of unexceptional offspring. But I guarantee you, if you look up the weirdest people you went to school with, a disproportionate amount of those freaks and risk-takers are well-adjusted and content.

More important: one or two of them are doing something amazing.

In Sonoma it was cold and overcast; the perfect weather for a Pinot grape or emo kid.

Karmyn, Andy and I were grabbing a nosh from her car in the parking lot at Merry Edwards. We were a little confused from the cold treatment we’d just received in the tasting room, so I made some off-color sexist remark that Andy immediately ratified and Karmyn quickly condemned. Our final feeling on the matter was: Phooey, who needs them? We’ll take our money and palates somewhere that appreciates us. (Editor’s note: since then I’ve dined and purchased at least two bottles of M.E. Pinot. What can I say—I guess I like a mean woman.)

That led us to nearby Lynmar and their tres-cool, ultra modern tasting room.

(Photo: At midnight during a full moon this turns into the fireplace from “Beetlejuice.”)

Inside, it’s high ceilings and light wood; windows overlook vineyards in almost every direction. It’s a phenomenal place to enjoy a glass of wine, and maybe a little introspection.

(Photo: The Author at rest. Be careful not to disturb him; a novel could spring forth at any moment!)

We told the gent pouring for us we had a date to keep and he was careful to keep us on track. Andy book-ended our day with reservations at wineries; we started our day at Siduri, and we were going to end it at Littorai.
You may not have heard of Littorai. I think that’s how they like it; they don’t really sell their stuff through wine stores and restaurants often have to get in line to put them on their wine lists. Why? Because winemaker Ted Lemon is known as one of the most brilliant Pinot-geniuses in Sonoma, if not California.

(Photo: The fencepost is like that because I got excited being around all those grapes.)

Andy told me that a visit to Littorai is so sought after, they use a dummy address to keep all the normal, everyday non-Elites away. Now that’s pretension I can relate to!

In all seriousness, the trip to Littorai did take us off the beaten path; while wineries in Sonoma aren’t as tightly packed as, say, the wine trail in Napa, we not only had to take a road that looked strictly residential, we had to enter a super-secret password to open the gate.

That let us onto a mile or so of road that, what with all the mud, ruts and speed bumps, kept us at just under a crawl.

(Photo: Christopher Lloyd lives here. No, not really.)

Littorai boasts being 95% organic and biodynamic, which gave me some cause for concern. I’d tasted a fair amount of organic/biodynamic and found it—like most of the rest of the hippy nation—well, hippy-ish. Think about any food product claiming itself “All Natural” or “Green” or “Eco-Friendly,” and you know its sole concern is protecting Mother Earth and doesn’t bother with trifles like flavor or quality. And good for them and Mother Earth. But, well, bad for me.

(Photo: At Littorai, skinny dipping in the biodynamic rain collection pool is STRONGLY discouraged.)

So you can imagine I was more than a little worried when our very friendly tour guide began talking to us about how Lemon designed the vineyard to use and reuse as much of the existing resources as possible; rainwater is collected and used to water vines, wild herbs are picked and brewed into teas that feed the grapes, and anything that doesn’t go into the bottle gets composted to fertilize later plantings.

I like my wine knowledge on the simple side.

(Photo: Grapes go in, wine comes out.)

After checking out the fields, we were led to where the grapes are initially processed and barreled. It was here that things began to make sense to me; opening a bottle at home, you rarely consider all the effort going into that bottle of wine. You believe in some vague way that men in rolled cuffs are somewhere sunny, stomping barefoot in a giant wooden vat, that the product you’re about the enjoy must be married to the earth, and is therefore pure and natural and delicious by the nature of its being “wine.” But the sad fact today is that this fantasy has become so far removed from the reality of modern, mass-produced wine, most companies rely on that thin veil of illusion to sell their product, and not the quality of what’s inside. Consider that the next time you spend six bucks on a bottle: you’re not tasting wine; you’re tasting the idea of wine. This is wine whose quality on its own is so poor they’ve had to find inexpensive tricks to give impressions they believe people will find favorable. Americans like sweet stuff; so maybe they’ll add copious amounts of sugar. People often also like a lot of oak; well the companies can’t afford to barrel it but they can soak wood chips in it.

There’s a reason expensive wine is expensive, and you can generally reduce it to this: they didn’t take short cuts.

Here it is another way: there’s a killer burger at an eatery in New York that costs $175. McDonald’s has one for $0.99. You could probably tell the difference between the two and yet they’re both called burgers. How is that fair?

OK lecture over. I’m tired of bitching. I began to see Ted Lemon doesn’t take shortcuts with his wine. He also feels a responsibility for the land he grows his grapes on, so much so that he uses local hay to insulate his buildings, instead of that artificial cotton candy stuff.

(Photo: The first pigs’ house was made of straw…)

At this point I was prepared to pull a knife to get a taste. I think our tour guide saw the desperation burning in my eyes and so opened a few bottles.

(Photo: Barrel storage at Littorai. Below, a map of Delicious Town.)

Andy and I almost emptied our wallets when it came time to buy. But the glass doesn’t lie; it was worth it.

We made such good time that we had enough time to squeeze in one more place before closing time. Instead of making a well-though-out decision, we just decided to go to the first place we stumbled on.

(Photo: Yes, we really are this awesome.)

You can guess how that turned out.

After a day of enjoying subtlety and nuance, we landed at Dutton Estates, and everything they poured into our glass tasted like a cartoon: over the top, loud and sweet. I knew we were in trouble right away, but my man Andy, he’s a personable fellow, he loves to strike up a conversation, even if the young lady doing the pouring is less than, say, attractive.

“What are your impressions of this, Chris?” he asked, in front of the girl. I know he was hoping I’d tear it down in front of her, berate her for its imbalance and lack of structure, accuse her of lacing it with Kool-Aid and cough syrup. Andy’s a sadist; nothing makes him happier than watching young women cry.

I played it safe; I pretended I didn’t hear the question.

(Photo: Hmmm…suddenly the inside of my empty glass is VERY interesting to me. I’m sorry did you ask something?)

In any case, Andy’s charm got our tasting fees waived, which I consider tantamount to a free punch in the stomach. Needless to say we didn’t make a purchase at our last stop.

Oh well. There can’t be any winners without at least a few losers.

(Photo: The Author Never Rests; pen in hand, even while wine tasting.)

all-Pinot tasting flight

Posted: March 11, 2010 in Pinot

CalWine&Chz in Monrovia is doing an all-Pinot tasting flight. Go there NOW and watch for my write-up in two weeks! When you see ’em tell ’em. Mr. Cobb says hi!

2006 Joseph Swan pinot

Posted: March 9, 2010 in Pinot

Tonight K and I enjoyed a 2006 Joseph Swan pinot with my friends The Hatchmans!. Nummers. Blew my Gary’s Vineyard from Loring out of the water!

Ah, Sonoma. For too long people have called you “Almost Napa,” and that’s just not fair.

Both places put out exceptional Chardonnay. But where the Napa Valley is known for growing huge, bold, killer Cabernet, Sonoma’s closer proximity to the coast ensures perfect weather conditions for the fickle and infinitely more nuanced Pinot grape.

Which is what I’m all about right now.

So I packed up the car and grabbed the girlfriend and escaped the LA smog to enjoy a day of tasting with my New York counterpart, Andy from the Bin End.

A note on my man Andy: This guy knows his grapes. He just earned his Level 1 Sommelier Certification and manages a wine store in the financial district of Manhattan. He’s also one of my best friends. He completes me. He’s Holmes to my Watson. Without the gay undertones…well MOST of them, anyway.

If you want to LEARN about wine and ENJOY doing it, I advise you to YouTube his video blog by searching The Bin End. The man is a riot-and-a-half. Careful, ladies: he’s single and ready to mingle.

Okay. Tasting with someone in the wine industry is great because it opens doors that won’t open for us regular, normal-like Sarah Palin Americans. This is especially great for Sonoma because the geography of wineries and tasting rooms is not as concentrated as, say, the Napa Wine Trail. Therefore you can’t take a Monday and go tasting on a whim and expect every place to be open and willing to serve you. You’ve got to have a plan.

Andy had a plan. We book-ended our day with private tastings and compiled a list of places suggested to us (special shout-out to Chris Mangandi and Friends for the assist) that took walk-ins. Once we hit town we found the local Trader Joe’s and stockpiled relevant foodstuffs (I was still smarting from the misadventure at PinotFest).

Yes we’re drinking and it’s before noon. It’s what wine professionals do.

Siduri was our first stop for the day. Siduri is the brainchild of Adam and Dianna Lee, a couple of Texans who realized they were blessed by the wine gods to give the world PRIMO sourced, single-vineyard Pinot, just Pinot and nothing but the Pinot.

We got to meet Adam briefly and shake hands; he was taking some people far cooler than us on a private tour. They may have been far cooler but they were far less attractive. Regardless, shaking hands with Mr. Siduri was a treat in itself.

The tasting room was jammed in the rear of an industrial mall in Santa Rosa. Because 100% of their juice is sourced from elsewhere, they don’t have the super-romantic tasting room nestled among acres of vineyard. But the bottom line is they don’t need it. The quality of the wine speaks for itself.

So instead you’re in this chilly space with concrete floors and barrels for a tasting area. Behind you are the vats processing next year’s vintage. Like all good Texans, the Lees are also serious football fans, and have labeled their vats after their favorite Dallas Cowboys.

Studies show Pinot tastes better from vats named for Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

Everything we tasted was excellent, but Andy and I preferred different wines. Andy was more into stuff out of the Sonoma Coast, which he maintains carries a lot of the personality from the land and sea air. I preferred Russian River Valley, which tended toward fruit-forward. Both of these AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) are sub-sections found within Sonoma, among a whole mess of others. Sonoma itself belongs to the “North Coast” wine region of California, which also includes Napa. Blah blah blah, lecture over. Wikipedia the rest of this if you’re interested.

Because Siduri is Pinot only, the Lees began a new label, Novy (Dianna’s maiden name) to put out everything else. The highlight, however, was their 2008 Willamette Blanc de Noir, a naked Pinot Noir. So they peel the grapes instead of macerating the skins and stems at the start of fermentation. And yes, if you’ve seen “Sideways” you know it’s the skin—not the berry—that gives a wine its color. In any case, it was so nummers in my tummers I bought two bottles.

“If you’re thirsty, we’ve got barrels. If you’re REALLY thirsty, we’ve got vats.”

After Siduri we headed over to Merry Edwards, which has one of those super-romantic tasting rooms nestled among acres of vineyard. Fortunately, the quality of the juice in the glass matched the quality of their interior designer. Where Siduri buys grapes from everywhere and does some kind of gyspy magic to it, Edwards has spent the last 15 years buying up vineyard acreage in and around Sonoma for her product.

The Bin End’s Andy sings a hymn in praise of Pinot.

Merry Edwards, whose parents probably didn’t know they trouble they gave her when they named her, does two thing well: Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Of course, I only concerned myself with the latter.

Two sexy bottles of Merry Edwards…now KISS!

Which reminds me…to all my great friends who took part in the poll in the upper-right-hand corner of the blog, Thank You So Much. Apparently you thought Option C should win, even though it would define “drinking” as something that doesn’t even involve swallowing. So in terms of wine tasting I couldn’t even swish and spit any other varietal. Well, I forgot to mention my vote counts for 10 votes. And I voted for Option B. That wins. So there.

Yeah, forget you people. You must hate freedom and America.

The pinky is ALWAYS raised: The Author enjoys his Pinot like a true gentleman.

In any case, this wasn’t an issue at Merry Edwards. They were pouring all Pinot and it was all delicious. So much so I picked up a bottle of the 2007 Klopp Ranch.

Even though the location was beautiful and the wine was really good, one thing sort of turned us off to the Merry Edwards experience; the customer service. As wine tasters we don’t expect to have rose petals thrown at our feet and we aren’t after freebies, but we shouldn’t have to feel like the place we’re patronizing is doing US a favor when we show up. It’s not complicated and it’s not difficult. Sometimes it’s as simple as a smile.

It doesn’t even have to be sincere. It just has to look that way.

The patio outside Merry Edwards’ tasting room. Hey is that a human skull in the fountain?!

Oh well. The wine was still great.

And that was just the first two places! Tune in next week to dig on the inside scoop from Littorai, Sonoma’s Fort Knox of INCREDIBLE Pinot.

To Be Continued…

Take that, January! And for that matter February too!

It has been two months since I’ve enjoyed anything other than Pinot Noir and I have to admit I don’t miss other varietals, beer and cocktails as much as I thought I would. What started out as an Impossible Task has since turned into a Highly Unlikely one. That’s progress, right?

Of course, I still have over 300 days to crash and burn.

It helps when there are events dedicated solely to the pleasure of Pinot, and that is how I capped the month of January; tooling about the famed University Club on North Oakland Avenue, host to the 2nd Annual Pasadena PinotFest!

Okay stop your giggling. I understand that when spoken quick enough the name of the event could possibly sound like some other, more male-oriented event. Or at least that’s how most of my degenerate friends chose to hear it when I told them where I was headed.

“I’m going to PinotFest!”

“Good luck bro. And uh, don’t forget to wear protection.”

Created by restaurateur Mike Farwell, the event brings together winemakers and wine lovers from all over California, in a free-for-all wine pouring smack-down that benefits kids in some way; I can’t find in my notes or their website how these kids are benefited, but I do remember buying a pile of raffle tickets when I arrived and have the vaguest memory not winning a single thing and being very sour about it.

Oh well.

 
As someone banished from most aisles of the liquor store, you can imagine my enthusiasm at the idea of PinotFest. However, like most rookie drinkers too eager to enjoy, I made a number of crucial mistakes that probably inhibited my wine tasting experience:
-I didn’t sleep well the night before.
-I didn’t stay hydrated.
-I didn’t eat a huge meal prior to tasting.

Know that this was not a smart choice.

No matter. I didn’t think too much about it. Instead I wasted no time jumping in, combing the labels on tabletops, trying to find the ones recommended by wine lovers who heard I’d be in attendance.

 
Imagine being at Disneyland right when they open and you think to yourself, WHAT DO I RIDE FIRST?

Except at PinotFest, every ride you go on gets you that much drunker. You’ll notice in many of these pictures there are white buckets liberally laid about. Those are spit buckets. You taste the wine, swish it around in your mouth, and if you care to, you pick up the bucket at a bit of an angle and spit onto the inside wall (to avoid splashing back into your face). This stops you from going sideways too quickly. If you choose NOT to spit, well, let’s say that pretty soon you won’t be able to tell the good from bad wine and you won’t care.

 
If you find yourself at a tasting event and you’re not sure where to hit first, take a look at where people are clustered. Wineries bring a certain amount of wine and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Wine lovers know this and will try to hit the nicer stuff first, to make sure they get a taste. Plus, if you’re among other people you can ask them, “Hey, where should I taste while I’m here?” Wine lovers and the winemakers doing the pouring won’t intentionally steer you wrong.

 
There were four long rows of tables with winemakers pouring every four feet. The place was also catered by Claud Beltran (exec Chef at Noir in Pasadena), but even his superior tapas-style spread was no match for the siren song of Pinot.

When attending a bacchanal like PinotFest, accidents are sure to happen. SO you want to make sure the outfit you’re wearing is nice enough the wear in front of a judge if necessary, but also is of a color that can withstand a few splashes and doesn’t fall victim to a Jackson Pollock-style attack from overzealous wine pourers.

All the wine pourers deserve a medal from that night. I’m certain more than a few are suffering PTSD from the crush of patrons, if not a wicked case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from the repeated tilting of bottles.

 
At this point in the evening, things get a bit fuzzy. Looking over my notes, the loops and whorls take a messy prominence and I have to spend more than a bit of time figuring out what the words “Lompoc,” “Cowboy Hat,” and “Finnish Winemaker,” are doing together in a sentence.

 
Well. I should point out my grateful thanks to a good friend of mine who filled in for my girlfriend when she couldn’t get out of work to attend with me. My pal Kelly did his best to wrangle me into some form of human decency fit for public consumption, and for the most part he succeeded. And where he failed, well at least he got photographic proof.

 
Like below. What am I doing there? Was I attracted to the bottle because it was shiny? Or maybe it was a bad wine and, sorry I didn’t have anything nice to say, felt compelled to compliment the winemaker on his choice of bottles.

 
I’m sure it was important at the time.

But like all good things, PinotFest also had to come to an end. The winemakers, eager to enjoy the rest of their Saturday night, rushed to pack away the empties and pour out all the spit buckets. However, some patrons insisted on getting one last glass.

 
Pasadena PinotFest 2010. See you next year.

 
If you’ll let me back in.

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.

DIG IT:
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!

BUY IT WHERE I DID:
www.TheDerbyArcadia.com
www.caWineAndCheese.com 

(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.

RAW DATA
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.

Wow.

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.

RAW DATA:
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: www.PopChampagneBar.com

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.

RAW DATA:
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: www.GruetWinery.com
Buy it where I did: www.MissionWines.com