Big Gulp

Hillary Clinton likes Cabernet over ice cream, Bernie Sanders is a beer man, Donald Trump doesn’t drink, and Melania Trump will have whatever Michelle Obama’s having. As we find ourselves mid-convention, there seems to be no shortage of alcohol-oriented trivia to reel off about the major political players of the moment—from the weird amount of wine loot Sanders has inspired to the Virginia winery that Trump owns “100 percent” of (and also not at all).

But today, I want to briefly mention a drink inspired by someone who’s more of a bit player on the current political scene—albeit an endlessly fascinating one. So it’s time to pull out a mug, fill it with ice, pour the white wine, and enjoy yourself an Ivana.

Now of course Donald Trump’s first wife didn’t invent the wine-over-ice phenomenon—but it’s apparently a favorite of hers, according to an anonymous Home Glass source who was hired many years ago to remove the storm shutters from her Florida home. And never got paid. To be fair, when Ivana realized she was short on cash, she offered to pay her helper in Champagne—before further realizing she’d mislaid the key to her wine cellar. No matter, said helper was amply rewarded with an introduction to a beverage he named for his former employer and happily imbibes to this day—although he drinks his Ivanas in a glass.

Like Ivana, I won’t hesitate to plop an ice cube into a glass of white on a hot day—and I know that we’re in good company because the internet says so. Search “ice cubes in white wine,” and the first three results are articles about why wine on ice is “totally OK.” (The fourth says Diane Keaton does it, so . . . further evidence.)

A reasoned counterargument comes from my favorite wine expert, Jancis Robinson, who actually thinks white wines are generally served too cold—especially full-bodied whites whose aromas are constrained by too much of a chill. She writes that serving wine at the correct temperature “really can transform ink into velvet and, conversely, zest into flab,” and she recommends storing only the lightest, sweetest wines at the standard fridge temperature of 40º, serving the biggest white wines at closer to 60º. And forget about that mug—anything but glass messes with a wine’s mouthfeel, Jancis says, but even a paper cup is better than pottery.

I think it’s fair to say that encouraging aroma and optimizing mouthfeel were not Ivana Trump’s top priorities when her shutter-remover noticed her enjoying that mugful…. But the woman who famously said “Don’t get mad, get everything” presumably has no qualms about defying convention. If only she could do something about the one that’s happening right now.


I have an interest in the size of a wine pour that borders on pathological—just ask anyone who’s ever been in my kitchen. On the side of my fridge, a few inches above counter level, there are two pieces of blue painter’s tape. If you position a Libbey stemless wine glass on the counter against these pieces of tape, you see the exact measure of both a 4 oz. pour and a 5 oz. pour.

This compulsive bit of measuring dates back to my pregnancy, when I became just the teeniest bit obsessed with how much—if any—alcohol was safe to consume during pregnancy. My doctor advised that one 4 oz. glass a month, after the first trimester, was fine—but no more. That was when I learned the ugly truth about what a 4 oz. glass of wine really looks like. (It looks like a large sip.) And as this was not my usual pour size, Peter slapped some tape against the fridge to keep me honest. Post-pregnancy, we went nuts and added the 5 oz. measure.

If this all sounds a little crazy, well, it is. But no crazier than W. Blake Gray’s great pour-size experiment of 2013, wherein the esteemed wine writer went to four wine bars and six restaurants—all in San Francisco—armed with a carefully concealed Pyrex measuring cup. He ordered a glass of wine from each establishment, and when it arrived, his wife produced the Pyrex and quickly measured the wine pour before returning it to its glass. He found that the average pour size was just above 5 oz., with 4 oz. being the smallest (Terroir Wine Bar) and nearly 7 oz. being the largest (20 Spot). Upon reflection, he realized that the most generous pours came after he’d inquired about the wine and engaged his server in conversation. He didn’t necessarily have to take that person’s advice on what to order, but merely seeming interested in wine clearly influenced pour size.

Lately it seems that every time I go to a new—or at least new-to-me—restaurant, there’s an atypical pour size on the menu. AL’s Place in San Francisco’s Mission District offers wine by the glass, bottle, and “grip,” which is essentially a glass-and-a-half. Meanwhile, at 123 Bolinas in Fairfax, you can order a “smidge”—which is roughly half a glass. A friend in the business says he sees more and more places pouring against a measure—which could account for why restaurants feel compelled to offer a range of pour sizes, with pricing to match.

Perhaps one day we’ll walk into a restaurant and find a Home Glass (definition: as generous a glass as you’d pour yourself at home) on the menu. Back when I first wrote about the concept, my home glass clocked in at about 6 oz—but the burning question is, how big is your home glass? Please respond in the comments, and invite others to weigh in. Pictures welcome; I’ll start.

I recently wrote a magazine article about an expansive Healdsburg garden with a heavy emphasis on succulents and other low-water plants. After touring the garden with the woman who’d designed it, one glaring fact emerged: “low-water” does not mean no-water, nor does it mean low-maintenance. The garden’s lushness seemed to owe much to a sophisticated irrigation system (set in accordance with strict local limits on water usage) and a team of two gardeners who visit for four to five hours a week. In addition, an arborist visits annually to check on the trees, and a landscape contractor comes once a year as well, for a big late-winter cleanup.

This isn’t the first time that a “lifestyle” assignment has made me just a little bit envious, but with this one I found myself coveting not so much the garden as the team behind it. How we could have used these folks eight years ago, the first time we laid eyes on the 4000-square-foot pile of dirt and weeds that made up our new backyard. I for one felt woozy at the prospect of figuring out what to do with it, given that the outdoor spaces of my past dwellings had consisted of a small balcony, a fire escape, and a porch the size of a twin bed. Nothing green had lived for long on any of them.

At first we threw wildflower seeds at the problem. Peter, who had grown up gardening with his parents and had a natural affinity for it, always seemed to consider himself a farmer first, winemaker second. So he knew what he was doing as he dug out weeds, rocks, and roots; raked and rototilled; hand-sowed the seeds; fertilized; and watered. Sure enough by our first full summer in the house, the yard was an explosion of sky lupin, mountain plox, farewell-to-spring, and California poppy.

During those early years, we left the front of the house alone, mainly because its only green spot was a sloped triangle dominated by a tangle of acacia trees. Not much to look at, but they afforded some privacy. Then PG&E took issue with the acacias, which were growing too close to power lines, and cut them down. Suddenly that front “yard” was abruptly reduced to a big patch of stumps.

With work demands ramping up for both of us and a toddler in the house, this time we agreed to outsource, and we somehow found a designer who was willing to work within our limited budget—a woman in her early 50s named Julia who had grown up in Marin and earned her landscape architecture degree at Berkeley. She and I met a few times to talk about color and texture, and the realistic limits to what Peter and I could take on as far as maintenance and watering. Then we went shopping together at Home Depot, where we bought native grasses, succulents, kangaroo paw and lamb’s ear plants, barberry and buddleia bushes, irises, and an olive tree.

Peter worked with a helper on the installation, and our front garden emerged. It looked pretty minimal at first—reminding me of the gardening adage that various family members had invoked over the years: Sleep, Creep, LeapSleep applies to that first year after you plant new plants, when they’re busy forming a root system and nothing much happens above ground. The second year, the plant is still focused on its root system, but new foliage and flowers start to creep into view. Year three: leaping. The roots are established, and flowers and foliage finally look the way you’d hoped they would when you first planted.

Sure enough, a few years later Julia’s garden came to life. But by that time, our backyard was a different story. Those Year One wildflowers had lasted for a single season, and after that Peter had created a meadow by planting bunch grass and weeding dutifully, maintaining a certain controlled chaos. Until he couldn’t. I’m a learn-by-doing sort, and so one August day almost three years ago now, he walked me through each gardening task, offering careful and elaborate explanations. He could no longer climb stairs, so he watched from the deck above as I watered the four wine barrels he’d planted with strawberries and arugula—all the while providing a running critique of my watering technique, in a way that would have infuriated me a month earlier but now just made me laugh, and cry. And promptly forget pretty much everything he had just told me.

Big sloped yards that sit under eucalyptus and pine trees and are exposed to strong coastal winds don’t take kindly to neglect. Nine months after my gardening tutorial, with the chaos no longer controlled, the yard looked decidedly more “vacant lot” than “meadow.” So I decided to call Julia. It had been two years since we’d spoken, so I wasn’t too surprised that her number was no longer in service. Then I Googled her name to find her new number, and instead found her obituary. Bigger surprise. She’d died of cancer as well, two months after Peter. Briefly, my vacant-lot backyard seemed a fine fit for the state of things, for the loss of a lovely woman in her prime who had rowed in the Bay, tended her garden, was loved by her husband and kids.

Eventually I did find help from a surfer-artist-landscaper who owns a native plant nursery nearby. Dan listened as I talked, probably too much, about every last thing Peter and Julia had done to create and maintain the lush wildness we’d briefly enjoyed. Then he drew a sketch of a path that would meander through the yard, with small Sonoma fieldstone boulders and clusters of black sage, bunch grass, and coyote brush on either side. He and his partner worked on the plan while Willa and I were on a summer trip, and when we got back, I was struck by how a simple path that didn’t really lead to anything still managed to give a sense of order and beauty to the space.

The next spring, we planted artemesia, gumplant, and still more bunch grass along our driveway—an area that Willa’s now in charge of watering. Everywhere I look I see the things I want to do next, and I hope she’ll be my partner in crime. I’d like to put trellises or a living wall against the bare, windowless back of the house, plant wildflowers along a side path, and ring our front plum tree with stones. I’d like to find someone more artistic than I am to paint different images on a few of the wide mossy panels of our back wooden fence. Maybe we’ll paint one a year, creating something like the Lakota winter counts I learned about while editing an article years ago. Year of the Corn Feast, Year of the Last Great Buffalo Hunt, Year the Stars Fell. Year of the Path.


I have a friend who looks for the organic label every time he shops—not just for produce, but for all consumables. He lives in Portland, for the love of tiny houses and mushroom foraging—of course he buys organic! But when it comes to wine and this same friend sees the word organic anywhere on the bottle, he firmly takes a pass. “I find that whenever a wine person in the store or restaurant adds to their suggestion that it’s organic, I immediately think, ‘I don’t want it,’” he recently told me. “Organic is important to me in every food product I eat. If it’s available organic, I assume it will be better. But with wine, I assume it will be worse. It’s like a criteria I don’t want applied to wine for some reason. Like it screws it up. Am I alone?”

He is not. Quite a few wine experts complain that certified organic wine can veer a little to closely toward, well . . . vinegar. The problem seems to be this: producers of wine made from organically grown grapes can’t actually label their wine organic unless they bypass the use of sulfur dioxide in their production process. The omission of SO2 makes preventing spoilage a tricky business, and it sometimes necessitates storing the wine in a stainless-steel tank without letting it breathe. As a result, wine made this way either has a high potential of spoiling (vinegar) and getting a bacterial infection that could lead to odors of sauerkraut or paint thinner or the stainless steel storage process that prevents spoilage keeps the wine “closed” and lacking in depth.

For this reason, truly organic wines are quite distinct from wine made from certified organically grown grapes but not labeled organic. The latter simply means that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were used in the vineyard. More and more wines fall into this category these days, thanks to a mix of market demand and eco-consious vineyard management. Health concerns are much less of a factor, since the fermentation process seems to do away with any chemical residue in a wine that would otherwise result from the use of pesticides in the vineyard. And while the omission of SO2 makes organic wine the healthier choice for those allergic to SO2, for the rest of us the difference is negligible.

With all that said, here are a few quick and dirty tips for drinking organic:

Understand the difference. There’s wine that’s 1) made from organically grown grapes and organically produced,  2) just made from organically grown grapes, and 3) neither. If the environment is the big factor in your purchasing decision, there’s really no difference between No. 1 and No. 2. If the deciding factor is your health, all three are fair game.

Be prepared to pay more. Just as organically grown produce costs more, so does wine produced from organically grown grapes. Blame the added labor involved, and the cost of certification.

And, if you do go for full-fledged organic . . . 

Consider going directly to the source. Since organic wines can be more vulnerable to spoilage during bottling and shipping, the optimal way to experience these wines would be straight from the barrel. If you live near a wine region, look for opportunities to barrel-taste or bottle your own.

Choose typically robust and higher-alcohol varietals over lighter, more delicate wines. Big reds like Zinfandel are likely to fare better without the SO2 than something like Sauvignon Blanc.

Drink it soon. The omission of SO2 does not set the stage for graceful aging. The best strategy is to pick a wine that typically does age well (again, think big reds like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon) and consume it soon after purchase.


The options for drinking wine made from organically grown grapes are plentiful—and if you’re still a skeptic, one great place to start would be Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Sinskey winemaker Jeff Virnig started down the path of organic farming back in the early 1990s, moving to enhance vineyard fertility through composting, green manuring, and cover cropping. By 2001, all of Sinskey’s vineyards were certified organic.

Sinskey is probably best known for its much-loved Carneros Pinot Noirs, but this rosé is my personal favorite. I’ve also heard good things about this Pey Marin dry Riesling, made from organic grapes grown here in coastal Marin County, and friends rave about this Alexander Valley winery, whose vineyards are also 100 percent organic. For the PDX dwellers among you, consider following the musings of my favorite Portland wine correspondent, who often covers organic and sustainable viticulture practices.


Rescue Tomato Rising

Last week I had dinner at the best new restaurant in America—at least according to Bon Appetit, which honored AL’s Place with the Number One spot on its 2015 “Hot 10” list back in August. I was a little worried in advance of the meal that chef/owner Aaron London’s artful cuisine would be wasted on me, given that after my one meal at State Bird Provisions—which earned Bon Appetit‘s best new restaurant honors in 2012 and is often compared to AL’s—I felt like I hadn’t had dinner yet. That’s not a judgment on the food; it’s just that I’ve grown fond of a linear dining experience that roughly follows this formula: leafy salad, non-starchy main course, dark chocolate. And both State Bird and AL’s revel in a non-linear style—small plates served dim sum-style in the case of State Bird, and tapas-style in the case of AL’s.

Admitting this makes me feel a bit like the Caroline Aaron character in Big Night, the woman who insists on a side order of spaghetti with her risotto. “How can she want??” replies Tony Shalhoub’s purist Italian chef upon hearing her order. “They both are starch! Maybe I should make mashed potato for the other side?” Only I’m a Northern California cliché, and a big bowl of kale is my side of spaghetti.

This failure at food appreciation is not new. During my brief stint as a restaurant critic years ago, I did my best to write thoughtfully about food, but my focus often veered toward things like whether the meal was linear, or what the tables were made of, or what the servers were wearing, or how easy it had been to park. Sure enough, even though I loved my non-starchy, leafy-green meal at AL’s—baby lettuces with herbed avocado, cured trout, smoked brassicas, poached eggs, and a sunchoke and cod curry, washed down with a deliciously bitter aperitif cocktail called Mr. Blonde (yes, all the mixed drinks are named for Tarantino characters)—I found my attention diverted by the hair of the servers, idly counting man-buns (two) and jaunty ponytails (three). I do care about food—I’m not one of those people, like my cousin, who wishes he could eat a meal-substitute pill and be done with it. But minute details about ingredients and process that fascinate friends with more expert palates and culinary curiosity than I mean less to me than details about timing, ritual, tradition, mood, ambiance, and memory.

On this point, I’m out of step with both literary and culinary fashion. There was a time when food narratives—think A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun—were all the rage, with food starring as an unsubtle metaphor for the writer’s epiphany about the true art of living. These days, however, it’s the ingredients that get a starring role and a brand identity, as notably spoofed by the now-famous “Portlandia” skit in which a server not only details the diet (“sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts”) of the chicken on the menu, but feels compelled to add, “His name was Colin. Here are his papers.” Or more recently in the new show “Younger,” in which a similarly earnest server offers up “rescue tomatoes and day-of-expiration burrata.” There’s no question that the cultishness around the artisanal, the sustainable, and the locavore can still produce beautiful, meaningful writing—here’s a recent favorite of mine. But make no mistake: the Tuscan sun has set, and the rescue tomato is rising.

Cooking, as I often do, for only myself and my six-year-old hasn’t necessarily honed my skills or refined my palate, either. (“That’s not cooking, it’s production,” a friend recently commented). But I think my own childhood is the bigger factor. I grew up in an era (casseroles! Kool-Aid!) and a household where the occasion outranked process and ingredients every time. And the occasion really mattered.

With four children, eight grandchildren, and more binders full of parties than anyone else I know, my mother is a high priestess of production, and she rarely relinquishes her kitchen. But I remember one night when she did, several summers ago, on my parents’ 54th wedding anniversary. My sister and I came up with the menu, aiming low (a sautéed shrimp and pasta dish, farro salad) and delivering medium. Relegated to the bar, my mother made Bellinis, the Prosecco and peach purée cocktail invented by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Venice’s famed Harry’s Bar. The Bellinis were a nod to my parents’ courtship; after meeting at summer school at the University of Edinburgh, they had each traveled on their own in Italy, and—a la An Affair to Remember—made a date to meet for Bellinis at Harry’s on a certain August midnight. Or so my father thought, because my mother never got the message with the details, which he’d left at an American Express office. Dad waited and waited that night, and found out a day or two later that my mom had gone on to Florence. Several train trips and two telegrams later, they found each other in London.

At that anniversary dinner, it took all of us a minute longer than it should have to understand the significance of the Bellinis in relation to the day—but once we got it, we got it. The peaches weren’t rescue; in fact, they were probably canned. A triumph of meaning over branding.


Canned-Peach Bellinis (adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Store Cupboard Peach Bellini recipe)

One 15 oz. can of Del Monte sliced peaches, in fruit juice
750 ml Prosecco, chilled

Purée the peaches and their juice in a food processor till smooth. Divide the peach purée between 6 Champagne flutes, with about an inch of purée in each one. Gently top them up with Prosecco. Serve immediately.


I have a binder full of parties. It may not be as plentiful as Mitt Romney’s binders full of women (remember that?)—but extra points, please, for color-coding, elaborate labels, pre-party timelines and checklists, guest lists, menus and complementary wine selections, notes on table settings, a nebulous category called “inventory,” and post-party observations on what to do differently next time. There are lunch, brunch, and dinner parties, cocktail parties, barbecues, housewarmings, milestone celebrations, and a standalone section for New Year’s Day. Please note that I have not thrown this many actual parties, and the ones that I have were far less elaborate and well-coordinated than this level of detail suggests. But for a certain personality type, the binder is the party. And that, in my party-throwing heyday, was me.

When I looked at this record of past parties recently, in preparation for a cluster of holiday meals, most of what I read was vaguely panic-inducing. But I took great comfort in the post-event commentary—what you might call the Regrets Section. From Christmas Dinner 2011: “Next year: enough (and right size) tablecloths, iron them, enough chairs, figure out tables in advance.” From Thanksgiving Dinner 2012: “Halve rutabaga recipe.” From a winter dinner party in 2013: “Starting at 7 works well. Don’t do skirt steak on the grill again. BC can’t drink red wine if she expects to drink more than 2 drinks and wants to sleep.”

At least to me, these little bits give color to otherwise bland snapshots of parties past—a micro example of writer and self-proclaimed “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz’s premise in her 2010 book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. In a November 2011 TED talk promoting the book, Schulz admitted to a past tendency to drink “our great cultural Kool-Aid about regret, which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past is an absolute waste of time; that we should always look forward and not backward; and that one of the noblest and best things we can do is strive to live a life free of regrets.” She later came to embrace regret, and to insist that “if we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.”

My favorite Regrets Section in the party binder comes from a long-ago New Year’s Day brunch and was penned not by me but my cohost. His post-event commentary was always far more literary and nuanced than mine—frequently peppered with gossip and minute personal details (who might be pregnant, who called at 4:30 p.m. to say he had just woken up, who brought a Protea plant). He wrote,

Next year: some sweets, maybe cornbread, video for kids, buy a small bag of ice. Mimosas. KIDPROOF and try to relax about it. Set EVERYTHING up two days before. Set up bar/table, glasses, silver, napkins, planters, chairs, pillows, bathroom. Cover couch for fear of children.

[Name redacted] broke a Champagne flute. And within 15 minutes of arrival had poured himself coffee, Champagne, and red wine. But, he brought red wine, figs, cheese, and donut holes!

In hindsight, I’m grateful to Name Redacted—and of course to the chronicler of his indelible party presence. Yes, I’m down one Champagne flute, but I’ve also got a permanent reminder that at parties as in life, what you break matters less than what you bring, and the spirit in which you bring it.

I thought about this yesterday as I was making cookies with my daughter (who clearly was not yet around for that aggressively kid-unfriendly New Year’s brunch of 2009). At one point as she mixed the dough with characteristic gusto, little pieces of it flew all over the kitchen counter. I quickly grabbed the bowl and said I’d take over for a while.

“I make one mistake, and lose my chance,” she grumbled. Not a lesson I wanted to reinforce. I gave her back the bowl.



I forgot that Rieslings age well. It has something to do with a flavor compound with a 38-character name (TDN for short). Let this varietal age for too long and it starts to smell of kerosene—but if you give it just a few years, you’ll likely hit its sweet spot. This is one of those esoteric oenological tidbits my late husband taught me—filed away in a corner of my brain right next to the fact that Pediacoccus infections are bad, but Brettanomyces infections can be good—and that “aroma of geraniol” is an insult, and “aroma of pencil shavings” is a compliment.

So when a friend and I opened the last bottle I had of Peter’s 2008 Sierra Foothills Riesling this September, on the second anniversary of his death, I felt that I had to warn her: “This could be undrinkable.” Instead, it was delicious—“like nectar,” is how my friend described it. And in that moment, forgetting all of Peter’s lessons about Riesling, nothing about this wine made sense. Not its crystal-clear, pale yellow color, its delicate floral nose, its light, dry mouthfeel, its fruit. Not the absence of the person who made it.

Peter died at age 44, just 14 months after his diagnosis of non-small-cell adenocarcinoma. It was a mystery cancer of unknown primary origin that behaved like lung cancer, and upon diagnosis it was already evident in his lungs, right shoulder, and brain. For much of those 14 months, our family was able to live a kind of peaceful “new normal”—treatment cycles, breaks from treatment, quietly trying to observe and celebrate life’s big moments and small ones. His serenity and courage in the face of all of this was astounding, even to those who knew him well enough to expect nothing less.

For a while during this period, I intended to give The Home Glass—which began as Marin Magazine’s wine blog back in 2008 and which I continued to write until 2011—a reboot. I planned to document the reboot forced upon our lives, with wine, spirits, food, and family as the focus. But ultimately, even the few hours this would have involved seemed too much to give up in a year when time felt so precious and so fleeting. Better to spend those hours eating tacos and drinking margaritas with someone unparalleled in his talents for making both.

Oddly enough, it was stumbling on NPR producer Rachel Ward’s brilliant post on Medium, “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago,” that brought me back here—particularly these lines:

When you experience a loss like this, you get to see a really wild new amount of life. Suddenly the range of the type of sad you can feel, to the type of happy you can feel, is busted open. The spectrum from happy to sad isn’t a foot wide anymoreit’s as far as your arms can stretch and then to the edges of the room and then up the block and over into the next neighborhood.

I feel a version of this and have felt it almost since the moment we learned of Peter’s diagnosis. Everything was instantly amplified then and is amplified still: love, beauty, fear, longing, sadness, anger, more beauty, more love. It helps that my agnostic husband believed he’d come back to us in nature in some form—so when the trees catch light in a certain way, or a hummingbird watches closely as our daughter makes chalk drawings in our driveway, I have to wonder.

Willa often asks me how old her dad is. It’s almost never “how old would he be” if he were alive, because she’s six and is only just starting to wrap her mind around the conditional. I love answering all her questions about Peter except this one, because this one makes me stop and do an excruciating bit of math. Last Saturday he would have turned 47. When I think of Peter at 44, I can picture a 44-year-old person that I knew and loved and got to a spend a year memorizing. Forty-four-year-old Peter feels like a gift that I can still vividly recall and embrace and enjoy. But I don’t know 47-year-old Peter. I never will, and saying the age that he would have been out loud forces me to stare the magnitude of our loss straight in the face, in a way I almost never do.

Life doesn’t always make sense. White wines don’t age well, except for the ones that do. People grow older, except for the ones that don’t. Sometimes the best you can do is to sit back and take in that infinite spectrum from happy to sad. But one thing that always makes me feel better is observing and celebrating those details of life—domestic, culinary, seasonal—that remind me of Peter every day. And this seems a good place to record those details—once a month, at least. I promise that not every post will be this long or this personal—but do expect, on occasion, more home than glass.


As I sit down to write this post, the pressure’s on to make it a good one—given that it comes after a month-long blogging hiatus and will be one of my last, at least for a while…. Luckily I’ve got some good material to work with: notes on over a dozen Chardonnays, which we uncorked and tasted blind over the weekend.

Peter did a preliminary tasting of all the wines, proclaiming 10 to be worth a second pass. The thing that I found most notable about our results was that we both picked the same wine as our favorite. And, in a sea of Chards ranging in price from $13 to $48, it was the least expensive.

The winner: the 2009 L de Lyeth Sonoma County Chardonnay (the Sonoma County designation just means that the wine was made from grapes grown in different areas of the county, rather than just the Russian River Valley, say, or just the Sonoma Coast). It was more vegetal than fruity on the nose, with notes of straw and caramel. This unusual wine was delicately prickly on the palate and had a long and pleasant finish.

Runner-ups in the 2009 vintage included Kendall-Jackson’s Avant California Chardonnay ($14, medium-bodied and smooth, with a nice aroma of tropical fruit) and Clos du Bois’ Russian River Chardonnay ($18, lemon on the nose, lots more citrus on the palate, and great balance). In the 2008 vintage we liked Kendall-Jackson’s Grand Reserve Monterey/Santa Barbara Chardonnay ($20, a figgy aroma and notable residual sugar), Cambria Estate Winery’s Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay ($22, nicely balanced, with a bouquet of straw and a rough-silk mouthfeel); Mantanzas Creek’s Sonoma Chardonnay ($29, banana on the nose, light and smooth); and Waterstone’s Carneros Chardonnay ($18, grapefruit aroma, light and creamy).

Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve has moved on to the 2009 vintage, but given its impressive 2008 showing, the new vintage is well worth a try. And if you do try it, consider drinking a toast to Jess Jackson, the California wine industry giant who passed away on April 21st.

Believing in the mystical significance of the number 47 was practically a graduation requirement at the college I attended. So when I brought a bottle of 2008 47 Friends Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($18) to share with some college friends on a recent Saturday night, I was pretty sure the label alone would favorably predispose them to the wine.

Yet another college friend had tipped me off to the 47 Friends label—she had seen them on Facebook and knew instantly that there had to be a connection. Sure enough, 47 Friends is the “little sister” winery—read less-expensive wines and a Millennial-friendly Web presence—to Ancient Oak Cellars, a Santa Rosa winery owned by Pomona grads Melissa and Ken Moholt-Siebert.

But back to Saturday. We all enjoyed the 2008 Pinot; not terribly Pinot-y and the aroma was somewhat muted, but it had nice red fruit on the palate and made for extremely smooth drinking. And Peter—who never says this—said it seemed worth the price.

Still, our favorite 47 Friends so far are the blends — simple red and white table wines that sell for $10 a piece. On Tuesday we opened the red, which Peter guessed was bulk Merlot. It’s actually a Cabernet Sauvignon blend with some Zinfandel and Syrah in the mix—all of which make for a ripe wine brimming with blackberry and other dark fruits.

Remember that I spent four years of writing a column about $10-and-under wines, and based on that experience, cheap California reds make me nervous. That’s why this one was such a pleasant surprise: mellow, moderate alcohol content (13.8 percent), and versatile enough to pair with a wide variety of foods.

Thursday we opened the white blend, and Peter was redeemed when he immediately pegged it as Sauvignon Blanc (it’s got a bit of un-oaked Chardonnay as well). It had a strong, really nice aroma of melon and freshly cut grass, and it was light, tingly, and delicate on the palate.

Pairs perfectly with an early spring heat wave.

Spring finally seemed to have sprung today, but after enduring the wettest winter ever, I’m not counting my chickens. So while I did put a bottle of red in the fridge (gasp!) late this afternoon, around the time that our house began to sweat, I’m still not quite ready to start drinking white.

The solution? What this between-seasons moment calls for is really a lovely “medium red”—a Pinot, maybe a red blend or Merlot—anything that satisfies without feeling too much like a warm blanket. Here’s a roundup of some we’ve recently enjoyed, listed from north to south, inland to coastal, U.S. to Italy. Salute!

2007 Waterstone Napa Valley Merlot, $18. The pungent berry bouquet and tannic mouthfeel of this Merlot screamed Napa to me—in a good way. We also liked its not-very-Napa price tag.

2009 La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, $24. Lots going on in this offering from the land of lusted-after Pinots: an aroma of dense dark fruit, sweet smoke and spice, and a bit of cedar. It tasted of black cherry, with gamey notes and a little Chinese spice.

2009 La Crema Monterey Pinot Noir, $24. We wondered briefly if La Crema’s winemaker felt that these two 2009 Pinots were rushed to market a bit early. . . . Great potential was the dominant takeaway with this one, but we liked its dark fruit aroma, rough-silk mouthfeel, and pleasant finish. Not particularly Pinot-y.

2007 Intelligent Design Central Coast Cuvee, $38. I got lots of earth and oak on the nose of this Rhône-grape blend from Wesley Ashley Wines—and must admit that I missed some of what captivated Thomas of The Blog Wine Cellar last summer. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed his review and agree that it’s a wine worth trying. Velvety on the palate, with a long strong finish

2007 Lucente Tuscan Red Blend, $30. This simple blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cab earned its Super Tuscan stripes with a jammy aroma, smooth mouthfeel, and very nice, long finish. Our favorite wine merchant calls it “nicely made”—and he doesn’t dish out the compliments easily.

%d bloggers like this: