Saturday, August 21, 2010

When you’re bored with Bordeaux, you’re bored with life.

(My apology to Dr. Johnson for mangling his famous encomium to London.)

“Bordeaux Loses Prestige Among Younger Wine Lovers,” went the headline in The New York Times of May 19, 2010.

The article, by the Times’s chief wine writer, Eric Asimov, said that Paul Grieco, at his oenophilic Manhattan restaurant Hearth and two serious wine bars, offers fifty wines by the glass and not one of them is a Bordeaux.

Asimov also quoted a thirty-year-old California importer saying, “I don’t know many people who like or drink Bordeaux….You’re never sure who is making the wine. I think for me and people my age, we’re going back to grower-producers—people who are there the whole way—and Bordeaux seems the opposite of that.” (The guy seemed to be quite proud of being a moron.)

“Good Bordeaux might start at $35 to $50 retail, and $85 to $100 in a restaurant, and soar from there,” wrote Asimov himself.

Which happpens to be total bullshit.

The great growths of Bordeaux do cost a lot of money, but there are dozens of small producers making splendid wines for very reasonable prices. I just looked at the web site of K&L Wines in San Francisco, and at the moment they have precisely fifty Bordeaux under fifteen dollars a bottle, and knowing K&L as I do I’ll betcha there’s not one of them that’s less than pretty good.

Some restaurateurs and sommeliers will tell you they avoid Bordeaux because they can’t afford to devote so much cellar space to wine that takes so long to mature. For most of the petits châteaux, in fact that need not be a concern: Nearly all of them are ready to drink as soon as they’re shipped. The predominant varietal in many of these lesser-known Bordeaux is merlot, but they taste nothing like the flabby, chocolatey, high-alcohol California cough syrups that have given merlot such a bad name. Even the little Bordeaux taste like Bordeaux, with soft, dusty tannins, enough cabernet for backbone, deep aromas of blackcurrant and loam, and low enough alcohol levels to bring all their complexity into balance.

(Okay, I know there are good merlots produced in California, but find me one for less than fifteen bucks.)

All this brings me to Daniel Johnnes.

Daniel has been one of my heroes for a long time—since 1985 or so, when Drew Nieporent opened a restaurant called Montrachet in a rather bleak neighborhood that had come to be known as TriBeCa (for Triangle Below Canal), and Daniel was a waiter there. The food was fantastic, the chef the then unknown David Bouley. As the name implies, Montrachet specialized in Burgundies, and they had very, very good ones, most of which, like their namesake, were very, very expensive. But knowing how much I loved red Burgundy that was true to the old tradition—pale, light on the tongue, at once delicate and intense—sometimes Daniel would find a bottle that embodied all that and also wasn’t murder on the wallet, and he would hold it aside for me.

Daniel’s story through the next twenty-five years is a rocket ride: sommelier at soon-celebrated Montrachet; wine director of Drew Nieporent’s growing collection of restaurants; Robert Parker calling him “our nation’s finest (and nicest) sommelier”; his own Burgundy importing company; magazine articles, TV appearances, a published book; making his own wines in Oregon (the Willamette Valley) and Burgundy itself (Gevrey-Chambertin); wine director for Daniel Boulud, the best chef in the United States, and Boulud’s international restaurant group; award after award.

Daniel Johnnes also puts on an annual series of dinners and tastings modeled on the venerable Paulée de Meursault, spread out across three days and nights, with a substantial piece of the proceeds going to charity. The Paulées of New York and San Francisco bring together many of the great growers of Burgundy and their wines, and for American lovers of Burgundy they are pretty much the ultimate party.

So: Mr. Burgundy. But a man who knows wine better than, well, better than just about anybody. Imagine my delight, then, when, last week, from Daniel Boulud I got an invitation to a wine-tasting dinner featuring “The ‘Other’ Bordeaux”:
While Bordeaux is known for the prestige and accompanying high prices of the classified growths, the region offers many small, quality-driven, family-owned properties along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. Daniel Johnnes, our Wine Director, has been traveling and tasting there to seek out lesser-known, value-driven Bordeaux to feature in Daniel Boulud’s restaurants.

To celebrate their arrival, Daniel will co-host a dinner with four châteaux owners, here to share their wines and their stories. Many of them are practicing sustainable viticulture and limiting yields to emphasize quality. Removed from the glamorous world of the classified growths, these wine makers are inspired to connect with you, the wine-loving public.

DATE: Monday, September 13, 2010

TIME: 7:00 PM

LOCATION: db Bistro Moderne, 55 W. 44th St between 5th and 6th Avenues

PRICE: $135/person, all-inclusive, 4 course dinner, 11 wines

In addition to wines from our four special guests we’ll also pour selections from seven other small châteaux, 11 wines in all, paired with a late-summer four-course dinner by db Bistro Moderne’s Chef Laurent Kalkotour.

Château Beauséjour
Patricia and Pierre Bernault

Château Jean Faux
Pascal Collotte

Château La Croix Lartigue
Stephane Derenoncourt

Château Robin
Jérôme Caillé

Château De Clotte, Côtes de Castillon
Château La Coudraie, Bordeaux
Château Saint-Dominique, Puisseguin Saint-Emilion
Château De la Huste, Fronsac
Château Saint Julian, Bordeaux Supérieur
Roc de Manoir, Côtes de Castillon
Château Mondésir-Gazin, Premières Côte de Blaye
Take that, Eric Asimov and all the rest of y’all wine-by-the-glass slurpers of blackberry-jam zinfandel, vanillafied chardonnay, ink-black overextracted pinot noir, and mud-flat merlot!

The price is quite a bargain, too. I do wish I could go.

Tonight, pals Dorothy Kalins and Roger Sherman are in from New York, and we’re going to the almost-sublime Hong Kong restaurant the Mayflower, way out in the fog and chill of outer Geary. We will bring our own Alsatian riesling—there's a whole other wine story—and we shall raise a glass to Daniel Johnnes.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Glimpse of Bad Luck in the State Founded on Luck

Lovelock, Nevada, August 2, 2010.

We count our blessings.

Last Day in Montana

Saturday, July 31, 2010.

My sixty-third birthday. God damn.

Also the day we must clear out. The house is leased to someone else starting tomorrow. I have packed and mailed five boxes home, and still my ol’ M3 is heavily laden. Elizabeth has decided to drive with me to San Francisco, along with Augusta the cat.

Augusta is a Montana native, having been abandoned in the snow—How can anybody do such a thing?—in November 1995, when we were living on the West Boulder Ranch and not yet married. She grew up among coyotes and bears, stalwart, valiant, a huntress. Mice, voles, and, yes, the occasional songbird she’d bite in half and wolf down. We left the West Boulder in June of 1997 to return to city life, but we have come back to Montana every summer, always with Augusta. At fifteen, with hip dysplasia, and after so much city life, she no longer hunts, and we must fear for her even near the house, for a coyote, an eagle, an owl could make a quick snatch of her that she’d now be too slow to evade.

Owls. There are always a pair of great horned owls across the creek and downstream a bit, though we’ve never found their nest. We had not seen their young either, till a couple of days ago, when I went down to the Sweet Grass to photograph its astonishing transformation, new cottonwoods forming bulwarks that may be foundations of new islands, the logjams growing thicker with ever more débris and themselves therefore also possibly creating new land, alders sinking roots into the rocks and sand deep enough perhaps to withstand even a runoff as brutal as this year’s. The birds had nested, the babies had fledged, many had gone, and the woods were largely silent till I heard a harsh loud shriek, repeated, repeated, nearby. I climbed the bank into the grass, now rank and knotted and in places taller than me. The giant coneflowers blazed yellow in the blackening green. Many of the trees were losing their charcoaled bark, turning from black to stark white. On one scraggly, twisted little dead sapling about six feet high perched a bird much too big for it, unquestionably an owl, unquestionably a great horned because no other is so big, but with puffs of down and white feathers sticking out here and there as from a rotting old pillow, and as I took a step toward it, and another and another, the doggone bird didn’t move, just kept shrieking at me. Finally I got it: This was a baby, it didn’t want to fly, or maybe even couldn’t, Where are my mom and my dad, what am I supposed to do? They never did show, but Owl Junior did in fact know how to fly, albeit not very well, and did manage to flap his way to a proper treetop. I should never have forced him to do so. Or, okay, her.

A birthday dinner with great friends at a genuinely local steakhouse in Livingston, not one of the woefully self-conscious “fine dining” establishments that cater to tourists and newcomers with menus of ghastly, recklessly complex concoctions invariably mispronounced so egregiously by your server (insert name here) that the pain is though not new nonetheless acute; here at the Buffalo Jump you get a well grilled steak of cow or bison, a baked potato in foil or French fries, and very surprisingly excellent green beans. Martinis. We bring wine, they don’t charge corkage. A grocery store cake. A damn fine time.

Summer's Circle Closing

Tuesday, July 27, 2010.

Time is slipping away.

Elizabeth is here. The Melville postmaster, Rick Schuler, has disapproved of her working so hard, spending so much time in frenetic San Francisco, and not being in Montana; he has greeted her return—for a whole week—with a hearty welcome and a soupçon of reprobation, along the lines of We want to see more of you next summer. Linda and Glen Westervelt, who keep the store (and are therefore Rick’s sole companions for much of every day, even now in high summer), are too shy to scold Elizabeth, but they have shown concern for my solitude. Sparse on the land though the citizens of Sweet Grass County are—3600 on its 1,187,200 acres, and half of them crammed into Big Timber—they are as social as New Yorkers, and, like New Yorkers, they wonder a bit at a person who likes to be alone.

I am happy that the folks at the B.S. Corner now understand that I’m not some wacko loner, that I like to come and linger over one of Linda’s excellent burgers to hear the midday palaver of busted gears and rusted gates and cows out on the county road, and that I do still have a wife.

We go to the prairie, this time with Anita Pagliaro’s sister, Carla, a painter. We find many familiar flowers gone (these I have indicated below by showing their names in red) but quite a few new ones as well, and dammit, I have forgotten to bring pen and paper. The fact that this list exists will be explained anon.

Potentilla, a new species, prostrate, on flat shale
Aster sp., new
Allium cernuum: nodding onion—new and abundant
Shepherdia canadensis: buffaloberry—newly in bloom
some other shrub I ought to know, pretty clusters of flowers, opp. lvs.
Oxytropis splendens: showy crazyweed—this has been blooming for weeks and is now fading, but I’m just now figuring out the ID
Liatris punctata: dotted gayfeather—new; the signal flower of latening summer
Grindelia squarrosa: curlycup gumweed—acts like a weed (roadsides, bare soil) but is in fact a native
Ratibida columnifera: prairie coneflower
Erigeron pumilus: shaggy daisy
Solidago nana: low goldenrod
Potentilla diversifolia: regular old cinquefoil
Potentilla hippiana: silver cinquefoil
Oxytropis besseyi: Bessey’s crazyweed
Lupinus sp., best guess is argenteus: silvery lupine—I’ll never get these straight—in its glory now
Gaillardia aristata: blanketflower—many fewer
Eriogonum umbellatum: sulphur buckwheat, now fading to pink
Agoseris glauca: false dandelion
Anaphalis margaritacea: pearly everlasting—lasting but not really in flower
Linum perenne: flax
Penstemon eriantherus: fuzzytongue penstemon
Senecio canus: silvery groundsel
Cryptantha celosioides: miner’s candle—mostly gone
Cryptantha flavoculata: yellow-eyed cryptanth—mostly gone
Arenaria sp.: sand spurrey—mostly gone
Helianthella: little sunflower, the last few, up high
Campanula rotundifolia: harebell—the last few
Orobanche sp.: broomrape—amazing dark pink, turning to yellow as the flowers open; bright yellow center of fl.—mostly fading
mystery flower, small orange five petals, phloxlike fl., grasslike lvs.
Allium style
Phacelia linearis: threadleaf phacelia
Potentilla fruticosa: shrubby cinquefoil
Sedum sp. (lanceolatum?): yellow flower, almost orange
Erigeron compositus: cutleaf daisy
Oenothera caespitosa: gumbo evening primrose
Castilleja sessiliflora: Great Plains paintbrush—a few still there but faded
Sphaeralcea munroana: orange globemallow
Achillea millefolia: yarrow
Gilia congesta: ballhead gilia
Hymenoxys acaulis: stemless goldenweed—last few, hanging on
Eriogonum sp.: another buckwheat, cream-white sparse balls
Gaura coccinea: scarlet gaura

And TWO flowers of the day, both new, neither a true clover:

Dalea purpurea: purple prairie-clover

And Dalea candida: white prairie-clover

And as we return, heading for the same old barbed wire fence at the precisely the same place where it tore my leg open seventeen days ago, where Anita and I the next day tried and failed to recover my notepad and pen, I see from the corner of my eye a color that does not belong: lilac. Winking in the wind. It is my notepad, rained on and shredded, my one page of notes long faded to nothing, but no longer litter. Carla comes over to share my astonishment, looks down, and says, “Here’s your pen.” It is stomped flat by who knows how many cows but it still writes.

Hence the list above.

Hence the completion of the circle of summer two thousand and ten.