“Pinot Noir sucks,” he said.
“Wow. How dare you,” I said. “Get out of my store,” I said, pointing toward the exit door.
This was one of the first exchanges between Kris and me. What followed was over two years’ worth of fun, friendly banter, fueled by a mutual sense of humor and my desire to change his mind about Pinot Noir.
Kris and his wife Connie became regular customers of mine. It was only a couple trips before he walked into the store, and sheepishly admitted he had been wrong about Pinot. Belle Glos did the trick. “I knew it!” I had said, beaming. I revelled in being right, as usual, and we became fast friends. We talked about wine, spirits, family, sports, hobbies, and neighborhoods. I helped them shop for several parties and nearly every holiday. Their smiles and conversations always brightened my day and I like to think I did the same for them.
Over time, Connie and Kris learned to trust me infallibly with wine choices. I remember the first time I forced dry rosé on them, skeptics to the core. Like most, they became converts immediately. We frequently chatted about vodkas and licqueurs, too. In December, they saw my eyes light up when Kris mentioned his homemade amaretto. I mentioned casually it was my favorite after dinner drink. Sure enough, just before Christmas he delivered a bottle for me, which comforted me on many a cold evening. It was one of the better, most thoughtful gifts I have received in recent memory. I can still smell and taste that delicious almondy goodness. Later that winter, the family came in shopping and regaled several interesting tales of their son’s 21st birthday party in Vegas. Needless to say I got to know him, too. I remember one instance they all caught me with my coat on, preparing to leave for the day. I apologized that I had to run out and introduced them to a colleague who could assist them. Somehow, instead, thirty minutes later their cart was full and my belly ached from laughter. Helping Kris and Connie shop never felt like work, and since I transferred locations, they are among the folks I have missed the most.
Shortly after that visit, I learned that Kris had passed away suddenly. When I stopped at his wake to give Connie and the kids my condolences, I was starkly reminded that life is short and opportunities for friendships don’t come around often. I meet thousands of people a year, and I try to help them all; but only a special few let me into their lives such as they had. I miss Kris immensely, not just for his delicious homemade liqueurs, but also his jokes, his way of putting people at ease, his demonstrative, genuine love for his family. He was a great man. To say we were close would be an exaggeration; but he made an impression on me that will last a lifetime.
I’m not quite sure where to start. So much has happened since my last post. Here are some highlights, in chronological order: I adopted and fell in love with a dog. This wonderful creature had two surgeries and close to twenty rehab visits in her first year with us. More on this later. I got a promotion. With this well-earned feat came a transfer to a location nearly thirty miles from home. Not surprisingly, I bought a new, more fuel efficient vehicle. I grew hundreds of tomatoes, cukes, and peppers in my organic garden paradise. I grew my cute little pixie haircut out and as a result wear my hair in a ponytail most days. My beloved Blackhawks won another Cup. I watched the entire series of The West Wing, Game of Thrones, and Sons of Anarchy. My husband got a fantastic new job. I hosted Thanksgiving. It snowed 56 inches so far this winter.
Other interesting events since my last post:
Thanksgiving is, without question, my favorite holiday. Food, wine and football? What more could a vintage girl ask for?! But more than those things, it’s a day we stop to remember and share our blessings. And I am grateful my life is full of them. I have an amazing husband who loves and accepts me just the way I am. I have friends that take good care of me, even when I resist. I have parents that continuously inspire me and have always supported me unconditionally. I have three amazing, hilarious, supportive (albeit dysfunctional) siblings I wouldn’t trade for anything. I have an extended family I am honored to be a part of. I have a beautiful home. I have a stable job in a field I’mpassionate about that challenges me and brings me tremendous joy. And I live in a fantastic country, where I’m free to talk and write about anything I please, in spite of my sass and questionable language. Life is good.
Now, as the culinary part of the holiday goes, of course I’m ecstatic. And this is arguably the biggest, baddest, best day of the year for folks like me. There are so many awesome food and wine pairing opportunities! The trick here is not to play only to the turkey. We also have to consider the stuffing, the green bean casserole, the yams, the mashed potatoes. Then there are the audibles: Some families serve ham; my dad always made a pan of lasagna. Each family has its own traditions. And, in some families, we basically have to set out to please the masses, so in many cases a good Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay is perfect. But generally I’m most enthusiastic about off dry-whites and light to medium bodied reds. Riesling and Pinot Noir really reign supreme; but there are many interesting choices.
So, without further ado, here’s some recommendations for your Thanksgiving table:
The day before Halloween, a woman told me she was shopping for Christmas gifts and I almost fainted. “I’m not ready for this yet,” I told my colleague.
But ready or not, the holiday season is upon us. And when you work in hospitality and retail long enough, you really loathe this time of year. The added hours. The extra stocking, cashiering, bagging, cleaning. The stress and hassle. The headaches, backaches, footaches. Underpaid and underappreciated. Missing meals, missing spouses, missing social lives. And if you live in a winter climate like I do, the hours of extra time behind the wheel due to snow, lack of parking, and terrible drivers.
And for what? I miss almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinner. My life is turned upside down. I can’t do my own holiday shopping because I’m working during normal shopping hours, and the last place I want to be during my time off is in a freaking store. I just want to hide under the covers. My family still doesn’t understand how difficult a time it is for me. I’m a bitchy zombie at home for a month straight. At work? My bosses work me to exhaustion and don’t give me a holiday bonus or a party. The sales expectations are ridiculous, although we exceed them every year. And the shoppers? Good grief. Most are hurried, stressed, crabby and haven’t done a lick of thinking ahead. “I don’t know if he/she drinks wine but I can’t think of anything else to give him/her.” Ugh. Maybe one in five customers is actually decent to me and grateful for my help. In over ten years in this business, one regular customer has actually given me a gift (a gorgeous $40 bottle of Aussie Shiraz that I’ll never forget.)
“There is nothing fun about any of this!” I want to shout, then punch the jolly smiles off shoppers’ faces. But instead I greet them cheerfully, help them choose the perfect bottle and send them on their merry way. My company does 23% of its business in the last six weeks of the year. And it sure as shit feels like it. Every single second of it.
I know I could have chosen a different profession. I could have holidays off, I could spend the time with my family, I could actually enjoy the month of December. But when it’s all said and done, there is at least one customer every year that inexplicably makes it all worthwhile. With a smile, or a handshake, or a genuine “Thanks Barb, Merry Christmas.” I hope this year is no exception, and I look forward to sharing that story.
At 6:01 PM on December 24th, when the last customer has paid and the doors are locked, I will say “Merry Christmas” and actually mean it. But until then, I’m just trying to get through the day without strangling anyone. Then I have six days of returns to deal with and mad NYE shoppers. So please understand if I’m a tad cranky this time of year. And don’t take it personally if I flip you off in traffic.
Many of my regular followers (and when I say many, I mean two) have been chiding me for not posting lately. Hey, Vintage Barb is a busy gal these days. Working 40+, taking care of the new house, fighting off the flu, experimenting with a new ice cream maker… It’s all I can do to even keep up with the news. Not to mention follow the NFL. And frankly, sometimes thinking and writing about wine just feels like more work.
But the truth is, I haven’t been inspired much lately. When I get into a rut it usually takes a real special bottle of wine to awaken my enthusiasm and get my blogging blood pumping. This time, there was not necessarily one such bottle; but several great bottles, some darn good homemade grub, and some terrific company.
I hosted my first dinner party in the new house a couple weeks ago. I spent most of the previous evening and that morning prepping and cooking. I had plans for wine but invited guests to bring something to share if they so chose. My wonderful oenophile friends did not disappoint. Everything was really fantastic. The real standouts were a white Rioja I’d been dying to try, compliments of a conscientious and generous rep, and a 2000 Bordeaux a friend brought from his cellar. But here’s the whole selection:
Desiderio Bisol “Jeio” Prosecco: A light, delicate and luckily, inexpensive sparkler from Valdobbiadene that’s always a perfect aperitif. Flavors of lemon, apples and sugar cane with just the right amount of fizz. We sipped on a couple bottles of this as everyone arrived and got to know each other. Also accompanied some nuts and prosciutto e melone. Delish!
Field Stone Gewurztraminer 2008: My dad sent me the newest vintage of one of my favorite FS projects. It was fresh, dry, and classically floral and spicy. It was quite nice with a light salad and almost perfect with my tuna tartare. We all wished for just a touch of residual sugar; in a do-over I would choose instead an off-dry riesling. But we enjoyed the wine nonetheless and agreed it would be better matched with a crab or scallop dish with slightly richer sauce.
Bodegas Palacios Remondo Placet 2007: This was the pairing I was most excited about. I chose this white Rioja for my potato and leek soup, which really brought out the smokey component. It was a very good combination, but the complexity of this wine really shone. It was creamy but balanced, with very distinctive melon, spice, peach and vanilla bean flavors. An enormous hit with everyone at the table, even the cola drinkers, with its only flaw being its $30 price tag.
Goldeneye Pinot Noir 2006: This wine inspired what may go down in history as the greatest thing I’ve ever accidentally cooked. I hadn’t planned a pinot course. I had debated for hours, knowing I needed something, but had been convinced by my spouse I was making too much food. Then, when more than one guest brought a pinot I knew I had to improvise. I had to give the people what they demanded! Luckily I’d bought some shitake mushrooms for my crazy vegetarian pal. So I ended up throwing together some farfalle with the sauteed mushrooms and a wave of truffle oil I’d picked up on the fly for no particular reason the night before. Sometimes things just work out. And there it was- after all my planning and prepping, this dish was ironically the best of the night. The pinot was, of course, a tremendous companion.
JC Cellars Rockpile Syrah 2004: Brought by a friend, this syrah was almost simply an afterthought. I opened it for the others to enjoy while I was cooking up some risotto. I poured myself some to sip as well, and was completely bowled over. Truly a remarkable syrah, with a lot of obvious new world flair. Several years in the bottle had softened up the tannins but the big, chewy wine was still driven by gobs and gobs of concentrated blue and black fruits. It could have slept in the cellar for at least another five years, but was quite exciting and impressive. I spared some for the main course and begged my guests to do the same. Ultimately, it was a fantastic accompaniment.
Clos du Marquis St Julien 2000: My friend arrived with this bottle around 5:30. We opened and decanted it almost immediately and didn’t touch it again until after 8. It was fairly tight and compacted, so a good amount of swirling ensued. What eventually came to life was an exceptionally elegant Bordeaux with all the trimmings: cassis, plum, spice, cocoa, a hint of licorice, and a slightly gamey quality that paired up quite nicely with my braised short ribs. A truly beautiful, albeit young, Bordeaux certainly worthy of its reputable sibling, Chateau Leoville Las Cases. Although, we did feel some of the subtlety was lost underneath all the sauce and spices of the dish, so I held some of mine and savored it once my plate was licked clean. A masterpiece!
Glunz Family Winery Angelica: This is a local company’s Sherry-style dessert wine I purchased a couple years ago on a deep discount and thought would be a nice finish to the evening. Very, almost excessively, rich and sticky, this wine was gushing with caramel and sweet nutty flavors. Not the best accompaniment to the rich chocolate chip bread pudding masterpiece I had created, but still very tasty. By the end of the long evening, we were all quite satiated, so the remainder of the bottle has made for fantastic leftovers.
All in all, I think it’s safe to say the first annual Vintage Barb Dinner was a success. I only have two regrets: One: Next time I will pre-cook the risotto. And two: I wish my new dining room table sat more than eight.
A couple months ago my stepmom asked me to help her find something special for my dad’s sixty-fifth birthday celebration. We going to have a “once in lifetime” sort of dinner at The Lodge at Torrey Pines in San Diego and we wanted to do something really unique. After a good amount of research and with a bit of a budget in mind, we decided to surprise Dad with a mini-vertical of Paulo Scavino’s Bric dël Fiasc Barolo.
A colleague who’s been collecting for a couple decades generously sold me an ’88 and ’89 from his cellar. I packed them very carefully and sent them off in my luggage, with a wave and a furrowed brow. Several times throughout the flight I worried not for my own life, but for the fate of those priceless bottles. I imagined myself on the shoreline, with the cast members from Lost, frantic over two bottles of Italian wine. When I arrived in reality in CA I eagerly found them still snuggled in their stryofoam amongst my t-shirts. I unpacked them and set them down carefully on my brother’s kitchen counter with strict instructions that sounded something like “Don’t touch these or I’ll kick your @$#%ing ass.”
The next day, observing all speed limits and taking each turn with extreme caution, I drove from Lemon Grove to La Jolla like this:
I arrived at Torrey Pines a little before sunset and took in the view. La Jolla is without question among my top three favorite places in the world. Then I very, very gingerly took the bottles from the backseat and walked through the lot. I fought back the anxiety of dropping one or both of them and tried to apply football’s four points of pressure technique. I made it safely inside and I gleefully handed off the bottles to my curious father. A round of hugs ensued, followed by a chorus of “I need a glass of wine” and we went into the restaurant.
The Lodge at Torrey Pines is certainly an experience. We arrived just in time to see the grandeur of the last rays of light shining on the fairway below, with the roaring Pacific just in the distance. The dining room was smaller than I expected, quaint and even a bit old fashioned, but extremely comfortable.
Our attentive server opened and decanted our Barolos for us while we sipped a superb demi-sec Champagne. The plan was to save some to accompany dessert. Yeah, right. We enjoyed our amuse bouche and ordered extravagantly. Sweet corn and crab soup for me, followed by an elegant seared duck breast with cous cous. Incredible! My parents shared something delicious I don’t quite remember and Steve had fish that wasn’t, thankfully, the salmon he almost ordered accidentally. The food overall was very good, although not wonderfully original or memorable.
The desserts however, were simply spectacular. To be fair, the pastry chef is the daughter of a friend of my parents, and was responsible for our royal treatment that evening. But what she sent us for dessert exceeded anyone’s wildest imagination. I remember figs, and apricots, a custard, and chocolate, and home made sugar plums…. plates and plates of creative gluttony that would put Willy Wonka to shame. I tasted each blissfully and flirted with both the remainder of the demi-sec and a fantastic 20 year tawny. If I were to re-visit this restaurant I would simply take in the exquisite dessert course.
As for the main event. The wines were extraordinary, although the ’88 took longer to open up. Once it did, it showed violet, truffle and hints of rustic raspberry. It was soft and refined, although not extremely substantial. The feeling was that while delicious, this wine was teetering on the end of its long, illustrious life. The ’89, on the other hand, was truly remarkable right out of the gate. It still possessed all the power of a great Barolo, but had softened and evolved into a beautiful, elegant masterpiece. It still tasted of ripe, exotic berries, plums, red and purple flowers and something rich and stewy. 1989 was a stellar vintage in Piedmont and this was an eye-opening experience in what a difference a year makes.
We had an amazing evening at Torrey Pines, thanks to good food, great service and incredible (albeit too many) desserts compliments of the lovely Jennifer Costa. But mostly this night was all about Paulo Scavino… and my pops.
Last month when we were in the process of moving, one of my many menial tasks was cleaning out the fridge. For a normal person, this means checking dates on condiments and lunchmeat and chucking expired mayonnaise. For me, it meant sorting through bottles of booze. The night before the movers arrived I packed up my treasures and put them in the “One of us takes these in our car” pile. Because who trusts movers with wine and good beer? But, in all my wisdom, I left a few bottles of beer in the fridge for moving day and future visits for cleaning and loose ends. Among these items were: the remainder of a 1.75 of Bailey’s my mother-in-law had given me for Christmas, half a bottle of bloody mary mix, a tired bottle of Bell’s Winter Ale, a couple bottles of Boulevard Zon, a Victory Golden Monkey, and a can of Paddy Pale Ale. In the freezer sat about two ounces of Sobieski, a darn good vodka for folks on a budget.
Moving day came and I was stuck at the condo with the movers. It was ninety-two degrees. On the second floor. Up and down the stairs with boxes. By four o’clock I needed a beer in a bad, bad way. So I opened the fridge and smiled at the Golden Monkey. I reached in, grabbed the bottle and hugged it to me like a mother to her newborn baby. I was trying to be discreet because it didn’t seem fair to the movers, who could only have gatorade. But I didn’t care. I put the bottle on the counter and opened the drawer where I kept the bottle opener………..
Thus began one of the worst panic attacks in the history of mankind. I was scrambling. Where… did I pack… oh my God….. No…. It can’t be…. Nooooooooooooooooo! They were gone. My old bartender’s tool, my magnetic bottle opener, all my winekeys. Everything. They were packed and already on the truck or in my husband’s car on the way to the house. I searched my purse. Nothing. How could I be so foolish?! I scolded the grinning Golden Monkey and tossed it back on the shelf in the fridge. Boulevard surely used a twistoff. No. Shit! This isn’t happening.Dammit. Even the old lonely bottle of Winter Ale wouldn’t budge. Fuck. My mind was racing. Maybe I could use the kitchen countertop like I’ve seen in frat movies. I looked at the bottle, then at the counter. Then again, we just spend $1500 on new counters and I’m pretty sure Jeff wouldn’t understand. The idea of a bloody mary sped through my mind but the thought of tomato juice on a disgustingly hot day made me a tad nauseous. Besides, all the glassware was packed. I opened the fridge one last time, hoping to spot a Goose Island or… something. Anything. Damn my beer snobbery! If I drank Miller Lite this wouldn’t happen and my thirst would be quenched.
Then, on the verge of tears, the clouds parted and one ray of sun shone down on the one and only option: Paddy’s Pale Ale. An amazing, brilliant, delicious, thirst-quenching craft brew. In a can.
Suddenly my colleague Pat’s voice echoed in my memory: “You should take this home and try it. You should know this brewery if you’re going to be living up there!” I looked at the can and there it was: Onion Pub & Brewery, Lake Barrington, Illinois.
The beer itself was a classic American Pale Ale. It was golden amber colored, smelled of fresh cut grass, lemon zest, and a hint of fresh biscuits. It was medium bodied, not overly complex, but extremely refreshing under the circumstances. For me the beer was just ok, but the experience was exhilarating and will last in my memory for many years to come.
Nine years ago today, I woke up to my phone ringing incessantly. I looked through blurred eyes at a clock that read 8:20. No one I care to talk to could be calling me this freaking early. Then I heard my brother’s voice on the answering machine. Something about “… and please don’t go into any malls or tall buildings today. I love you.” I awoke completely, startled and nervous, and turned on the television.
What I saw that morning, like all other Americans, was the devastation that was 9/11. I’ll never forget the feeling of horrified confusion, followed by sheer terror and eventually, outrage and utter heartbreak.
For two hundred and thirty four years Americans have celebrated the birth of our country on July 4th. But since 2001, unfortunately there is another day to stop and remember our great nation and all that have fought and fallen for us. To remember who we are, where came from, what we’ve been through, and the very best of what we can be.
This year on 9/11, I’m drinking some classic American wine and saluting our fallen friends, family, neighbors and heroes.