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.
TO BE CONTINUED...YEAH, I'M PRETTY SICK OF THIS, TOO, BUT I HAVE SOME ACTUAL WINE TO TALK ABOUT NEXT TIME!