Thursday, March 26, 2015

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, MADD World of Pinot Noir--PART THREE

World of Pinot Noir isn’t an industry tasting, that is, a tasting that is invite only and aimed at the trade, but a large public tasting. There’s a considerable difference. The large public tastings need “anchors,” just as shopping malls do, to attract the public. Malls have Nordstrom or Macy’s. Pinot Noir tastings have Kosta Browne or Williams Selyem. WOPN had both. The anchors are there to attract consumers who might then also buy something at Radio Shack or B. Dalton books (yeah, I know, bankrupt and no longer, but that’s my point). Or, in WOPN’s case, taste the Pinot Noir from Michigan or Canada. But when you go to the mall, there’s never anybody in the Radio Shack, they’re all at Nordstrom. And when you go to WOPN, they’re lined up at Kosta Browne, while the person serving the Michigan wines is looking like the forlorn puppy in the ASPCA ads, the one about to be incinerated unless you help. As our culture struggles with the Grand Canyon between the Haves and the Ain’tGotShit, so, too, do new and small wineries struggle with getting anyone to care about them. Yet, most of the time, they’re making the most interesting wines. If you attend these kinds of tastings, I’d urge you to spend more time at the tables of the wineries you’ve never even heard of, and less time imagining that you’re hip and in-the-know because the guys at the famous wineries know you.

I do want to talk about some of the wines that stood out to me over the weekend, in no particular order. There were many wineries I wish I had had the time to visit. So it goes. I spent very little time with Russian River vintners because it seemed stupid to drive six hours to taste wines from my own backyard. I tried to taste the “oddball” wines, wines from other places like South Africa, Michigan, New Zealand, Canada and Australia, and also wines from producers I had never heard of, as well as the wines from winemakers I admire, which I use as a kind of touchstone. I would guess I formally tasted about 150 wines over the weekend. A few stuck with me.

I fell in love with a Tasmanian sparkling wine, Jansz NV Brut Rosé. The Jansz sparkling wine was the very first wine I tasted at WOPN, and I was smitten. No one would ever mistake it for Champagne, which is, in some ways, to its credit. It’s not trying to be Champagne any more than I’m trying to be Terry Theise. To my credit. Very fine bubbles, beautiful red fruit running up and down its sturdy spine, clean, refreshing, a beautiful Pinot Noir base wine, and all of $25. Jansz only makes sparkling wine (I think), and this was my first experience with any of their wines. While this certainly does not compete with the great Brut Rosés from Champagne, not in style and not in quality, it is as much fun to drink as any sparkling wine I’ve had in a while. I retasted it on Saturday, and liked it as much as the first time. If I were still a working sommelier, I would be serving this by-the-glass. Obscure and good? It’s what sommeliers live for. Though an awful lot settle for just obscure.

As long as we’re traipsing around the Southern Hemisphere, I want to mention a few wines that captured my imagination for their very strong and distinctive voices. You walk around a large tasting like WOPN, and the vast majority of the wines are of pretty high quality. I ran into a few wines I intensely disliked, but only a few. But another few, these from New Zealand and Australia and South Africa, seemed to sing their own songs, speak with a beautiful and distinct voice, show beauty and charm and quirkiness, and made me smile. Maybe that’s a definition of terroir, though it could as well be mental illness. No matter. I just loved these Pinot Noirs.

Firstly, Felton Road 2013 Bannockburn Central Otago. Felton Road is one of the great estates in New Zealand for Pinot Noir, the inspiration for so many others to believe in Central Otago as a great Pinot Noir appellation. I hadn’t tasted one of their wines in many years, but one sniff of this wine and I flipped all over again. It’s a red fruit nose, but laced with a bit of earthiness, and a clear streak of savouriness, that umami thing. If you ever wonder what wine writers mean by saying a wine has “great energy,” or as the French say, “nervosité,” just taste this Felton Road. It’s a living thing on your tongue, and who doesn’t like that? Truly gorgeous to drink, the red fruit is luscious, the wine vibrates beauty, and the finish is lingering and harmonious. Cool wine.

I was also quite taken with the Burn Cottage 2012 Central Otago. It caught me offguard when I tasted it at the Media reception. I’d never heard of Burn Cottage, so I glanced at the tech sheets and noticed that the winemaker is Ted Lemon, of Sonoma County’s “Littorai” fame. That explained it. Naturally, the vineyard is biodynamic, though in New Zealand the manure coils in a clockwise direction (due to the Cowiolis Effect). The wine is cherries and red plums, with a dash of anise. It’s powerful but with a really delicate touch, with that ineffable aliveness and energy that really good wines have. Ted Lemon’s wines always have integrity, not false note in any of his wines, a purity that makes them racy and alive. Though Burn Cottage sounds like where they hold Celebrity Winemaker Roasts.

When you think of great Pinot Noir regions, Australia doesn’t exactly kangaroo to mind. Drinking Australian Pinot Noir is like going to a sushi restaurant and ordering the chicken. That image may be changing, albeit slowly. I tasted two very interesting and dynamic Pinot Noirs at the Australia table at WOPN, neither of which, thankfully, was down under. The first was Ocean Eight 2012 Mornington Peninsula, a lovely, very bright and vibrant Pinot Noir, brimming with red fruits, underneath which is what I’d call a leafy character, which sounds like something out of Tolkien, an Ent perhaps, but isn’t. This is brilliant wine, in a very graceful and elegant style, that drew my nose back into the glass repeatedly. I’ve learned to notice how often I feel compelled to smell a wine, even as I converse with the sales rep, because it’s that complexity and interest that makes for the finest wines. Brutish wines, that is, big, chewy, extracted wines, can smell fantastic, and be very compelling, but just as you get tired of sniffing them when you're at a wine tasting, you will certainly also get tired of them as you drink them with a meal. I compare it to people. Who would you rather have to dinner, the big, loud, in-your-face person, the one who dominates the conversation with his bravado and bluster, or the person who’s bright, subtle, witty and endlessly interesting? Wine’s the same way at the table. This Ocean Eight Pinot Noir is perfect dinner company, it was endlessly interesting to me.

The other Australian Pinot Noir that intrigued me was the BK Wines 2013 Skin & Bones Pinot Noir from Adelaide Hills. I think I’d like to meet the guy (Brendon Keys) who made this Pinot Noir. I can’t say I’ve ever had a Pinot Noir anything like it, and as much as I liked it, I’d also caution anyone weird enough to ever take any wine advice from the HoseMaster that this isn’t at all typical Pinot Noir. The wine is macerated on its skins for 90 days, there’s a fair bit of carbonic maceration as well, it’s unfined and unfiltered, and probably spends six months in a marsupial’s pouch. Yet all that winemaking seems to be done with intent and focus, as the Pinot Noir doesn’t taste like someone’s science experiment. The nose almost reminded me of Nebbiolo, as did the rather pale color. But the carbonic seems to whip it back to the Pinot Noir fold, and the abundant red fruit is lovely in the nose, with just a hint of that carbonic, yet there’s also a lot of spice and even a bit of pepper, maybe even bacon fat. Yeah, I know, strange. Yet it holds together, delivers pleasure (which too many odd wines don’t), and was unique in a giant room filled with cookie-cutter Pinot Noir. If you’re feeling adventurous, try it. Just don’t expect Sea Smoke Pinot Noir.

I also want to mention a South African producer new to me, Storm Wines. At the first evening’s reception, I swooned over the pretty and precise Storm 2012 Vrede Hemel-en-Aarde Valley Pinot Noir. I kept going back to it, primarily for its haunting aromatics, red fruits and floral notes. It has the kind of delicacy mixed with power that draws me to great Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay). Foolishly, I did not try the Storm Wines from Santa Barbara (the winemakers are brothers). I have no idea why. I think I got distracted, as one does at large wine tastings, and wandered away. But I loved the South African Storms. Though they seem to be very small production wines and may be hard to track down, for which I apologize.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there had to have been at least 500 wines at each day’s WOPN tasting. I didn’t taste anywhere near even 15% of the wines available. Aside from the crazy numbers of wines, there are also a lot of distractions for someone like me who has spent a lifetime in the wine business. Having “HoseMaster of Wine” on your name tag doesn’t help. But there are also old friends in the business who are kind enough to glance surreptitiously at your name tag and pretend, relatively convincingly, that they remember you. Which comes from a place of kindness, so I didn’t mind. I’m not a memorable person in real life. I seem to cause blunt force head trauma just from meeting me, with serious short-term memory loss. I’m a walking NFL. I’m about as unforgettable as an Oscar speech. I just want to emphasize that I only tasted maybe 150 wines all weekend. So my notes are simply my experience at WOPN, not a genuine reflection of how another’s experience might have been. I won’t insult you with scores, especially scores appended to several hundred wines ostensibly tasted objectively. That kind of crap is just for winery marketing departments, and is essentially a blogger's lazy way of begging for more invites on junkets and more free samples. I don’t much care about either.

I don’t want this piece to be too long, I know the attention span of most of the people who read wine blogs is shorter than Sean Hannity listening to the truth, but I do want to give credit to the best Pinot Noirs I tasted. For those of you still reading. Both of you.

I’d heard their wines were good, but I still walked away from Dragonette Cellars very impressed with the two Pinot Noirs they were showing. Both the Dragonette 2012 Radian and the Dragonette 2012 Fiddlestix were terrific. You have to admire the sheer craftsmanship of these two wines, their purity and seamlessness. I’m tempted to say that they are almost too sculpted, except they’re also incredibly delicious. The Radian really impressed me with its power mixed with restraint, that lovely quality that allows a wine to unfold in front of your eyes over the course of a meal, the kind of slow striptease that makes up the best kind of seduction (if I remember correctly, or at all). It’s simply lovely, very sexy and unmistakably Sta. Rita Hills. Whereas the Fiddlestix was darker fruit, considerably more open-knit and generous right now, but still had the winery’s elegant fingerprint. I slightly preferred the Radian, but that’s so subjective and based on so little (a few sips of each) that it seems stupid to quibble. I’d gladly drink either one. (Sadly, both wines appear to be sold out at the winery, but I thought about joining their wine club based on these two wines—maybe you should.) I now understand the buzz about Dragonette Cellars, and hope I get to taste their Rhône varieties one day soon as well. In my experience, a winemaker who is good at Pinot Noir is usually also very good at Syrah and Grenache. (Why aren’t you at the Rhône Rangers Tasting, Dragonette? I’ll be there! Where are you?)

He doesn’t need my endorsement, but the wines of Paul Lato were the epitome of what I mean when I say I love wines that match delicacy and power. Paul, quite the charmer, was serving three of his 2013 Pinot Noirs, from Solomon Hills Vineyard, Sebastiano Vineyard, and Drum Vineyard. I slightly preferred the Sebastiano, but I seem to be drawn to this vineyard because I love The Ojai Vineyard’s version as well. But it’s fair to say that any of Mr. Lato’s wines are worth buying. His wines are all about purity and finely delineated fruit, the word “vibrant” appeared in every tasting note I wrote about his wines, and he just seems to be born to make Pinot Noir. Judging from WOPN, a lot of people think they’re born to make Pinot Noir, but, then, a lot of people think they’re born to review wines, and you see how foolish that is. If you love Pinot Noir, and the Pinot Noirs of the Central Coast, it seems to me you should certainly be on the Paul Lato mailing list.

Ryan Cochrane was standing quietly behind his table waiting to pour his eponymous wines, one of those Ain’tGotShit wineries in the crowded room, so, having never heard of him, I stopped and tasted. Hey, these are very, very good Pinot Noirs. He had both his ‘12s and ‘13s from the aforementioned Solomon Hills and Fiddlestix Vineyard. Ryan’s wines were, well, tasty. I love tasty. He seemed to use a bit of whole cluster fermentation, but that bit of stemminess was appealing and seemed to fit in perfectly with those two vineyards. I preferred the ‘13s to the ‘12s, they seemed to have better balance, better acidity and richness, perhaps part of his learning curve as a winemaker. Ryan, according to his website, came from advertising. Seller to cellar. I wish him luck. And all his Pinot Noirs were $43, which is eminently fair.

A quick mention of a few other wines that I loved. Charles Heintz 2013 Swan Clone was gorgeous, a bit earthy, very rich, very satisfying Pinot Noir. Heintz’s wines are now made by Hugh Chappelle, once Lynmar’s winemaker in the days they routinely scored huge numbers. I wasn’t at all surprised at how good Hugh’s wines for Heintz were.  The whole lineup of 2013’s from Cotiere Winery was excellent. (Formerly Luminesce Winery—poor guy got sued by somebody, I presume the makers of Luminesce face cream, which claims “cellular rejuvenation”—so rub some on your busted iPhone, see if that works. Who the hell is stupid enough to confuse anti-aging cream with Pinot Noir?—oh, that old woman with purple skin. Fucking corporate lawyers.) All five of his Pinot Noirs were interesting, had great juiciness and intensity, and, amazingly, all tasted different! That’s not often the case when tasting a winery’s single-vineyards. The 2013’s from Freeman Winery were also brilliant, but I always love their wines. The Freeman 2013 Keefer Ranch is a classic, from one of the great vineyards in the Russian River appellation. And the Freeman 2013 Akiko’s Cuvee is also wonderful; it just struck me as one of the absolutely prettiest Pinot Noirs of my weekend.

Who else? (I feel your attention wandering, friends.) The 2012 Hanzell was very rewarding, with a ridiculously long finish—though at $98 it’s no longer the steal it once was, yet it’s still nice to see this old guard Pinot Noir having a popular resurgence. The MacPhail 2012 Mardikian Estate also impressed me, but was probably the biggest Pinot Noir that I would be willing to drink. I don’t usually like my wines this extracted, and the pH seemed a bit high, and there was a lot of oak, but somehow it worked. Those lined up at the “anchor” wineries probably missed this wine, but they would have loved it. Patz and Hall worked their usual magic with their 2012 Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir, and their 2013 Gap’s Crown. The Hyde is all about texture, as most great wines are, and its subtly powerful fruit, where the Gap’s Crown is, even though younger, more ebullient and luscious.

Let’s end with someone who may be an up-and-comer, Cris Carter of Weatherborne Wine Corp. Here’s a classic “garagiste” winery (another word I hate, like “barista”, a fancy French word that’s completely unnecessary, like Gérard Depardieu), and the two wines I had, the ’12 and ’13 Weatherborne Sta. Rita Hills, both showed great promise. The ’13 was better, I thought, again, maybe just experience instead of vintage, but both were great examples of Pinot Noir from their appellation. Flashy and fleshy, yet bragging bracing acidity and vivid Pinot Noir red fruit, Weatherborne is a good way to get familiar with Sta. Rita Hills. And for $35, they’re a good deal, too.

This piece was way too long, and not nearly comprehensive. Sounds like my usual drivel. My thanks again to the organizers of WOPN who invited me and paid my way. And to all the folks who said kind things to me about HoseMaster of Wine™. The best thing anyone has ever said to me about my blog was said to me three times at WOPN by three different people who told me that they had never read anything on HoseMaster of Wine™ that wasn’t the truth.

People drink way too much at these things.

Monday, March 23, 2015

California's Dear Jon Letter

O Jon,

I guess I knew this day would come. Doesn’t make it any easier. I knew you were unhappy with me, that you were feeling the itch to move on. Did you ever think that itch might be wine business herpes? That you walked around too many vineyards with Red Blotch Virus waving your meat dowser around? Just a joke, Jon. Though I know you were sleeping around, you didn't exactly make a secret of it (you made me a laughing stock, thanks for that) sleeping around with those Natural Wine whores. Don’t bother denying it. I could smell them on you. You should wash your hands after you cheat on me—a little Brett might be fine for some, but for me, it smells like “fucked.” You fell in love with them, with their “natural” ways. They smell, Jon, and not good. That’s not terroir, Jon, that’s carelessness, not that you care. I dressed up for you, I was always perfect. I spent hours and hours making sure that I was polished and professional, not a flaw to be detected. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, Jon. Not like some “natural” slut who just steps directly out of the vineyard, doesn’t worry about cleanliness, doesn’t worry about preservation or beauty, just pretends to be about being earthy and open, but thinks smelling like a barnyard is attractive. Which it is. To pigs.

I’m sorry. I’m a little angry. Relieved, but still angry. And I think I have every right to be. You used me. You never loved me. I see it now. I kept thinking I must be wrong. That it was just my insecurity. I’m young, I’m still learning, I’m still growing. Those others you love, they’re older, more sure of themselves, and they’re French. God, I should have known when you went on and on about the French, making me feel like a second class citizen. The French wouldn’t have you, so you tried to make me French. Tried to make me leaner and more subtle, make me speak with an accent. Merde! I know what those French whores do for you. They make up for your insecurity, they make you feel like a man. I get that. But they don’t care about you, Jon. I care about you. Or I tried to. But you just wouldn’t let me get close. You fucked with me, Jon, and now you’re proposing we just see each other once a month? So you can just play me? Insult me in your subtle way. Say I’m full of potential while implying I’m overly alcoholic and clumsy? You want to just show up at our old place, where you first came into my life, and fuck me once a month? Are you nuts?


No, forget it. How can I forgive you, Jon? You wrote a goddam book about me. A book that praised me as “New.” But you didn’t mean “new,” did you, Jon? You meant Hopeless. The title you meant was “The Hopeless California Wine.” Admit it. You hate me. You traveled all over to find the smallest people you could find, wineries with less production than the prostates of the Vienna Boys Choir, and then praised them with all of your mightiest journalistic firepower. Can’t you see how that felt to me? You tell me you love me, but you only praise the freckle on my butt, the birthmark in my most intimate place, my quirky left nipple? WTF, Jon? What about the rest of me? I gave you everything I had. I let you inside places I never allow anyone else. And all you do is praise the places no one else can see or ever taste? How do you think that made me feel?

My friends warned me, but I didn’t listen. They told me that you saw me strictly as a fixer-upper when you first appeared in my life. That you saw yourself as Professor Higgins, and that I was your Eliza Doolittle. I was just your little ego project, wasn’t I, Jon? You thought you could waltz into my life and make me better, that with your infinite wisdom and perfect taste you could teach me to be better. You could teach me how to enter the world stage and fool everyone into thinking I was from somewhere else, that I wasn’t just some juicy, dolled-up, manipulated, hot tramp from California. And then you could brag about it, brag how you “fixed” me. I’m so stupid. I hate myself.

You knew I had low self-esteem from my last boyfriend, the one you have always been jealous of—Bob from Maryland. At least he loved me for what I am, Jon. Well, maybe not. He wanted me to get implants, to be the absolute biggest I could be, go with him to Hedonist retreats. Yes, he treated me like an object, and that made me do a lot of things I regret now, just to please him--a lot of foolish pandering and very sad makeovers just for him. He fucked me up for good. I was stupid with him, too. God, I’m such an idiot when it comes to men. Maybe I should switch to women—but Virginie Boone? Please.

You were just jealous of Bob, of his power and virility. His points were always bigger than your points, and you couldn’t get over that. I never should have told you when you asked me. I should have said, “Oh, Jon, you’re just as big as Bob, only your points are harder.” But I didn’t. I told you the truth. That Bob was bigger than you. Maybe that was the beginning of the end. I don’t know. I didn’t say it to hurt you. I see now it made you angry, and you made me pay. I did this to myself. You’re right to move on from such a loser. I don’t blame you.

O, Jon, what am I going to do without you? Who’s going to tell me when I’m going overboard? Who’s going to correct me? I think I’m this successful person, praise and success are heaped on me, everything you hate about me makes me the envy of the world, but I need you. Like the shark needs the remora. I know you’ll keep doing it, keep correcting me, but it will be from the safety of your true lover’s arms. I hope she knows what she’s in for. You’ll probably write another “Hopeless” book about her, "The Hopeless French Wine." One that will insult her in the guise of praise. Oh, you can write, Jon. But so could the Marquis de Sade. Maybe one day people will refer to gleefully painful wine writing as “Bonism.” Wouldn’t surprise me.

And yet I wish you luck, Jon. Our romance, if that’s what you want to call it, was brief. I like to think there were times you loved me, all of me, but as I look back, I see now it wasn’t very often. I was just someone you used. I was a stepping stone to something bigger. You got your book and your reputation out of me, and then you threw me away like a used condom. Well, I’ve been around bigger dicks, Jon, don’t forget that.

I’ll be fine. Bob still loves me, and I just might run back into his arms. Jim is steady and reliable, if a bit dull and, well, impotent. There are a lot of Fish in this wine critic ocean (Oh, God, please, no, not Fish). For a while I’ll look forward to those monthly “checkups.” But I’m forgetting about you right now, Jon. You’re fading from my life. You left me scarred, but unbowed. A little part of me will always love you. I plan to have it amputated.

Farewell, Jon,
I’ll Forever Be,
California Wine

Thursday, March 19, 2015

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of Pinot Noir--PART TWO

My Saturday at World of Pinot Noir began with a pair of wine and food seminars, given the umbrella title “Foodie Frenzy Seminar Pairing.” “Foodie” is one of those words I associate with a poverty of vocabulary and imagination. It sounds like “Groupie,” as though a Foodie is someone who tries to fuck great chefs. A Puckfucker. And a Frenzy was not something I wanted at ten in the morning after a long Friday tasting dozens of Pinot Noirs. Except that I was hungry, and not in the mood to eat a $20 bag of Funyuns from my room, so a frenzy of Puckfuckers seemed OK. The alternative was a Burgundy seminar. Do your best, friends, to NEVER attend a Burgundy seminar. There is almost nothing duller in the wine business, aside from a Michel Chapoutier presentation, than a Burgundy seminar. They inevitably slide into really lame comparisons. Different crus of Burgundy as automobiles (Volnay is like a Pinto—it’ll get you there, but everyone knows it’s cheap). Or Burgundy as some epitome of beauty, the supermodel of wine—some voluptuous, some clearly so lean as to be bulimic. Burgundy worship is banal and tiresome, and often espoused by people who know just a tiny bit about it. I love great red Burgundy, I was lucky enough to have tasted more than my fair share, but I rarely have the chance to drink it any more. I don’t miss it that much.

The first half of the “Foodie Frenzy Seminar Pairing” (could they have come up with a worse name?) involved mushrooms. Pinot Noir paired with mushrooms is a gimme. You’d think. The mushroom expert on the panel was Bob Cummings (anyone remember the comic actor from the 50’s TV show, “Love That Bob!”?—not him).  Mr. Cummings is a retired professor of mycology, and was a very engaging speaker on the subject of mushrooms; a man accustomed, it seemed, to speaking on a panel. He understood how to wait his turn to speak--it's always the smartest one on the panel that understands that. Coincidentally, I had recently been to a mushroom seminar in Occidental, so I felt I was already something of an expert on the subject, a Shroomie. But Mr. Cummings was charming and articulate and clearly passionate about funghi. I’m guessing he’s single. No matter, it was a lively 90 minutes exploring one of the stranger life forms on Earth. And also mushrooms.

The chef at Bacara prepared three small mushroom dishes to accompany three different Pinots. The winemakers of those three Pinots were part of the panel, and all of them, to some extent, were engaged with mushroom hunting. Luke McCollom, of Left Coast Cellars, is even trying to cultivate a truffle orchard, a regular Johnny Trufflespore. He was very intense and interesting on the subject. I wish I had found the time to chat with Luke. He seemed like an interesting guy to know, like that guy down the street who wears a helmet with a lot of antennae sticking out of it.

The mushroom and wine pairings inadvertently emphasized how food can sometimes highlight how much oak is on a Pinot Noir. One of the wines was the Gainey 2012 Limited Selection Pinot Noir. As soon as you see “Limited Selection” you know that’s code for more new oak—not just in Pinot Noir, but in any variety. It was perfectly fine Pinot Noir, but one bite of the savoury mushroom dishes, all that seductive umami, and the Gainey tasted very hard and woody. The pairings did it no favors.The Bouchaine 2012 Pinot Meunier was a nice addition to the lineup for the curiosity of the variety, but I found it a bit too lean and attenuated—nice balance and acidity, but short in the intensity department, an angry midget. Maybe unsurprisingly, Luke’s Left Coast Cellars 2012 “Truffle Hill” Pinot Noir was the perfect mushroom wine. The vineyard is planted to the Swiss “Wädenswil” clone of Pinot Noir, and its earthiness and bright red fruit coupled with the lively acidity the clone is noted for made it splendid with the mushroom dishes.

Every damned winemaker and marketing person will tell you his wines are “food wines,” but that’s a tired old slogan, and one that has almost no meaning. It’s like saying, “You know, these plates were made for food. They’re food plates.” When a marketing person would say to me that his wines were meant to go with food, or if that phrase were in a wine’s marketing material, I would usually get angry. And an angry buyer is a non-buyer. I hated to be treated like an idiot.

Many years ago, an Australian winemaker (I cannot remember the winery) showed me his wines and proclaimed, “I make food wines.” I was having a bad day, as usual, and I responded, “You know, just once I’d like to have a winemaker say to me, ‘I love this wine, it’s great wine, but it really sucks with food.’” A year later, the same winemaker appeared at the restaurant with his new vintages, and after he poured me his first wine he said, “I think this is really good Shiraz, but it sucks with food.” I’d forgotten my tirade, but I burst out laughing. And I bought a bunch of wine from him.

After a short break, during which I walked to Bacara’s Ocean House restaurant where a couple of cool sommeliers, Branden Bidwell of Wine Cask and Eric Hanson of Bouchon, were tasting what was left of a bunch of Burgundies from various dinners and seminars. They very kindly invited me to taste, and expertly guided me to the best of the bunch. Clearly, they had no idea who I was or they might have had me summarily evicted. Always nice when I’m just another nobody and not the HoseMaster of Wine™. That was a real treat. Thank you, Branden and Eric, for that unexpected and warm hospitality.

The second half of the Foodie Frenzy was devoted to uni. I was a little disappointed. I was a little confused, and thought the seminar was about Street Urchins, and had dressed as Fagin. Well, that was my story. I actually always look like that.

The uni and Pinot Noir seminar was maybe the highlight of my weekend. Stephanie Mutz, the sea urchin diver, could not have been more fun. I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of people passionate about wine. Stephanie had unbounded passion for sea urchins. Some people find their calling, even when it’s spiny and strange and underwater, like some kind of Mafia hit. I was skeptical, because I always am, about pairing uni with Pinot Noir, but the chef’s pairings, from sea urchin Stephanie had harvested the day before, were nothing short of enlightening. Gray Hartley, winemaker at Hitching Post, was on the panel, and, it turns out, had been a commercial fisherman for most of his life. He and Stephanie had great rapport, and a lot of stories. Again, maybe not surprisingly, Gray’s wine, I thought, paired the best with the uni dishes. It was the Hitching Post 2012 Santa Rta. Hills Reserve (equal parts Fiddlestix Vineyard and Rio Vista Vineyard). On its own it had lovely red fruit intensity, raspberry and black cherry, great reserves of energy and a lovely long finish. But with the uni, it soared. The uni brought out the wine’s earthiness and salinity, the old salt Gray contributing a part of his soul. A perfect match.

Another wine, the Zotovich 2012 Estate Pinot Noir (a producer new to me) I liked fine when I tasted it, it had some unexpected elegance and a nice finish to go with its juicy red fruit, but it didn’t wow me. It seemed on the simple side. But the uni made it better. I’m not sure the wine made the uni better, but the uni certainly made the wine better, emphasized the fruit, made the wine seem more whole. Funny how that works. The food made me think I’d underestimated the wine.

The third wine was Rocky Point Cellars 2012 La Colina Pinot Noir from Oregon, presented by the vivacious Amy Lee. This is gorgeous Pinot Noir, ripe by Oregon standards, with sweet blueberries and blackberries, a sexy texture, with all the vivaciousness of its maker. But I didn’t much care for it with the savoury uni dishes. Just too ripe, not much of the earthy character that made the other wines work with the uni (one dish dusted with black truffle). Yet it’s wonderful wine, as were Amy’s other wines (aside from a 50% new French oak, 100% barrel-fermented, 0% malolactic Sauvignon Blanc I didn’t care for—come on, Amy, you have great fruit, stop dressing it up like JonBenét Ramsey in a beauty pageant). Some kind of beef dish with a black currant sauce and her Pinot Noir is a home run. It was just the wrong wine for the uni.

The uni seminar was great. After the formal presentation, Stephanie had more sea urchins at the dais, and she showed those interested how to open them (who knew there was a kitchen tool to open sea urchins? I think it’s trademarked as the Uni-Bomber™), clean them, and then we ate them fresh. As she opened them, Stephanie pointed out which urchins were female, which were male. You could see the salmon-colored eggs of the females, and the cream-colored semen of the males. We ate appropriately. I had heard it tastes salty.

Such strange creatures with which we share this planet we’re ruining. Stephanie assured us as she opened the still-living urchins that, like Master Sommeliers, sea urchins have no central nervous systems and, thus, cannot feel pain. I wasn’t sure if I was glad, or a wee bit disappointed.