I wasn’t allowed to eat very many TV dinners when I was growing up. As an adult it makes pretty good sense, but at the time it felt like cruel deprivation. I loved the packages, the compartmentalized trays. I loved the easy, rich flavors. I loved TV dinners, and Swanson was always the best. Swanson’s fried chicken and mashed potatoes was my specific favorite, though, to be honest, it didn’t matter very much.
Now, I’m not sure the Swanson people will like the line I’m about to draw because there is no place on the Swanson Winery’s website that acknowledges that it is, in fact, the same Swanson of TV dinner fame. It’s more like something you’ve got to just learn. But now that I’ve learned it, I have to say that the Swanson wines give me a similar rich and easy pleasure. I know it seems like I must either be insulting the wine, or that I’m a horribly uncultured idiot to compare wine to TV dinners, but I’m going to stick to this and say that the Swanson family knows how to prioritize comfort, as has now been demonstrated in two very different fields. And, lest you think that I’m speaking of this wine as if it were not of a high quality, let me just remind you, because I think we all know, that there is nothing comforting, rich or easy about cheap wine.
I recently learned that the color blue doesn’t come up once in classical literature. Homer, it turns out, uses color in really bizarre ways, including describing honey as green, which, ick. The most bizarre of all, though, is that the color blue is entirely absent, and not just from Homer but from his contemporaries as well. Some say the ancient Greeks didn’t have access to the same visual spectrum that we do now. Others say, instead, that it’s a failure of language, that they just were describing the world differently than how we do it now. The only thing that’s really true, in the end, is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to know for certain why Homer’s sky wasn’t blue.
Blue is a color that, in this modern world where we agree that this word blue refers to the color of the sky, symbolizes tranquility, but also sadness. When someone says they feel blue, everyone knows it means they’re down. But if you were to wander over to, for example, crystalcure.com, you’d learn that blue stones are used to “promote peace and…calm ragged emotions.” Down, when you get into it, can mean not so happy, or just not crazily up with agitation.
All this to say that we’re serving a wine in our bar now that’s named Blue Rock, taking its moniker from the fact that its grapes actually grow out of blue rocks in the soil of their vineyards. What does the color blue bring to this wine? Well, we can know for sure that it’ll be a different wine drinking experience than anything that was happening in ancient Greece. But will it make for the kind of sad drunk where one has to revisit all of life’s mistakes? Or, instead, the kind of ease where every sip leaves one anther pound lighter. There’s only one way to find out, I suppose. Good thing it’s free.
We’ve recently begun ordering wine from the Zotovich Family Vineyards, a winery about an hour north of Santa Barbara. It’s a new operation, only in operation since 2010, and a collaboration between an uncle and his nephew, hence the word family. The nephew is young, the ink on his undergrad degree in wine and viticulture is probably still not quite dry, and the uncle doesn’t even bother to mention his own credentials, whatever they may be. There is no sense, however, of the humble up-and-comers hoping to make their way in a venerable old art. Rather, they seem to be taking the position of brazen young rebels, thumbing their noses at Napa. Perhaps not unlike Napa once thumbed their noses at the French.
Here are a few select quotes, because it seems that they make the point a lot more colorfully than I could:
About going winetasting in the “Lompoc Wine Ghetto”, a string of wineries within walking distance of one another, they say, “No more roshambo with friends where some unlucky sap saddles up on a Saturday as the designated driver. That would be so … Napa.”
About their rose wine, they say that it “pairs extremely well with… warm weather and patio furniture.”
They have a winemaker named Dan Schuler-Jones whom they say has his degree in Underwater Basketweaving, which, if you’re unfamiliar with that old joke, means that he did nothing useful in college and seems, in this case, to mean that he was a college buddy of the younger Zotovich, hired with no experience or training.
In talking about a low yield crop they say that it’s because Mother Nature was “stingy” with them.
All this is great, the arrogance and bravado, the open sloppiness. It’s human and it’s, in a way, the most lovable form of brash American entrepreneurialism. And lucky for you, we’re buying your first taste.
Sparkling wine isn’t necessarily a staple at our bar, but we’ve always got a bit floating around for special occasions and you can always request a bottle or two if you’ve got something worth toasting. And whenever we bring out the bubbly, it’s Chandon. We love Chandon and you will probably not ever find another sparkling wine in this hotel.
Well, this is the 40th anniversary of the Chandon Winery and so it’s been in the news. Turns out it was the first California winery opened by a French company, a big experiment because the French didn’t trust that the Americans had a discerning enough palate to appreciate a high quality product that they would have to pay money for. What a bunch of jerks! And yet the company that started Chandon is the same company that makes Dom Peringnon and in spite of the fact that they did it with such obscene snobbery and condescension, they brought us such a beautiful sparkling wine.
It’s been long enough, now, and the French have long since had to admit that we know how to handle our wine out here in the Wild West. It’s OK to love a French wine, even more so to love a California wine made by a French company and even more so to love a wine made using all the knowledge of Dom Perignon, but priced and located in such a way that we don’t have to feel like it’s a scarce rarity that can only come out on the occasion of winning a Nobel Prize or something. Have I justified this enough for us to all continue on with our Chandon affair? I hope so, because I don’t want to give it up.
The story of the Longoria Winery is the story of Rick Longoria, owner, founder and winemaker. So, let’s start off with by saying that Longoria was a student at UC Berkeley, when the decade was changing from the 60s to the 70s. While there, he developed a fantasy about joining the winemaking business, because he felt that it was in tune with the counterculture principles he was being steeped in. Still, his first impulse was to dismiss the fantasy of winemaking and go to law school. While traveling through South America, though, he discovered that there was no other path for him besides that of winemaker.
And so, returned to America, clear on the path he was to take, Longoria got himself up to the Napa Valley and apprenticed himself to the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff. A career had begun, but still there was another shift to make. Longoria found that the winemaking lifestyle in the Napa Valley was too hectic. Which, if you’ve ever been up to the bucolic Napa Valley, speaks volumes about this man. He chose, instead, to take a job at a little place down near Santa Barbara, which was, in the late 70s, not really known as a winemaking region. He stayed there, at the J. Carey Cellars, for a few years, then moved over to the Gainey Vineyards for a bit, always making his own Longoria Wines as a side project.
When, in 1997, he felt that his side project was strong enough, Longoria let it take center stage in his life. Now, as Santa Barbara wines have become known, Rick Longoria is a part of how that happened. His is a story of having found the particular path his life should take. He did it by whittling away the more obvious choices, by choosing less glamour and more patience, and, in the end, that way started winning him awards. If these are the lessons to be had from Berkeley in the 60s, well, they look pretty good on Rick Longoria.
We’ve recently started, in our bar, serving wines from the Swanson Winery, which seems to be a very interesting operation. There are two winemakers on board, men who represent very different aspects of contemporary winemaking. The first is Chris Phelps, a California native who, early in his life, became a devout Francophile. He studied at the Institute of Enology at the University of Bordeaux and then worked as a winemaker in the Bordeaux. On returning to California, he worked at a few different wineries, but when he came to Swanson it was to dive back into his dedication to merlot, the biggest red variety in Bordeaux. He’s a minimalist who prefers to grow and harvest the grapes perfectly and then do a minimal amount of technical intervention during the winemaking. Old school French, in other words.
Marco Capelli, by contrast, is more of an innovator. Yes, he studied in the old world, crediting the Italians with teaching him that wine is food and an important part of the daily meal. He also, though, went to Australia to study their techniques which, apparently, evolved parallel to, but relatively uninfluenced by, their European counterparts. He was thus able to bring cutting edge innovation to Swanson, an example of which is that in 1992 he started making sweet wines, becoming one of the only, if not the only, sweet wine specialist in the country.
So, there you have it. You have the option of a refined merlot made the ancient way, or the rare experiment of an American dessert wine, both from the same winery. But, then, since it’s free when you’re with us, you might just want to try both!
The Blue Rock Vineyards are all about size. Tiny, small, modest, to them, are synonymous with individual, personal and unique, which actually doesn’t sound so foreign or crazy, but it’s just not what we’re typically told by wineries that may be perfectly happy to invest in their small businesses, but would not be so unhappy to see those little ventures grow up and out, either.
Blue Rock is different in that it is the second career of a man who worked in finance and wanted to be, not a winemaker, but an artist. Where others seem to come into this out of an interest in farming, in the land, in the history or tradition of viticulture, Nikitas Magel came in because he got fascinated with the beauty of a single bottle of wine and wanted to learn to do that as intricately and gorgeously as a painter wants to paint on a single canvas. He tells a story about a man he knew once, not a wine maker but a wine collector, who collected because he loved the wine and started selling them because it had become impossible for him to drink them all. I suppose Magel would style himself in the same fashion, only selling his wines because he’s made a few too many for personal consumption. Of course, where he professes admiration for this man he learned from selling his rare wines for $2 a bottle, he sells his own artistic excess for $45-$100 a bottle. Lucky for you, we’re giving it away for free here in our bar, as you know, from 5-7pm every night.
Just for the fun of it, I’m going to take a little bit of a leap with the use of this space this month. Normally this is a place to learn a little something about one or another of the wines we serve in our bar. In the last few months, though, I’ve dallied a bit, telling you about my favorite trips to the places where the wines we serve in our bar are made. This month I’m going way off track and trying to try to send you away to The Picchetti Winery, where wine that we don’t serve in our bar is made. Seems a bit silly, I know, but maybe you’ll get my enthusiasm when you hear that this winery is right here in Cupertino. Which, to me, sounds like such a great opportunity for a bit of an exotic, California adventure, just randomly after work someday.
And then, because it’s such an easy little early evening adventure, you can come back to the loving embrace of our little bar afterwards, where we’ll have plenty more wine waiting for you. How could we be jealous? It’s ok with us if you want to go out and pay, every now and then, for what we’re giving away for free. Plus, I hear they’ve got a real nice port and, you know, if those are the kinds of needs you have, it’s probably better for you to find someplace else to get them met. But, remember, if you’re gonna make that your choice for a night, we’re not going to wait up for you. Our bar closes at 11.
The story that the Trefethens, of Trefethen Winery, tell about themselves is distinctly American. When the Trefethen family decided to buy land in the Napa Valley in the 70s, they say, it was an “agricultural backwater” and they were thought crazy for their dreams of a winery. They make the point by saying that there were “fewer than 20 operational wineries” in the area when they came in. Not such a small number; they weren’t quite the inventors of the idea of wine in Napa that they might like us to believe. Still, it was early, we can grant them that.
Next they would have us believe that John, eldest son of the founder, developed a passion for fermentation that led to his blowing up a friend’s college dorm room attempting a batch of cider, but that a mere three years later this same plucky youth was the mastermind behind a Chardonnay that was named best in the world at the wine Olympics in Paris. That’s right, in three short years, this mere boy outdid centuries of French winemaking tradition. I wonder if he had any help? Still, the award is real and both winery and boy were very young.
Now that boy is the winery’s head and his children work below him. One family, one estate, one passion is their motto. It’s the Trefethens against the world. I, personally, don’t understand why we Americans must declare that we’ve invented everything that we do, totally ignoring all the learning that we’ve leaned on along the way. Still, it’s a good wine and you, our guests, can come drink it for free in our bar every night that you spend with us.
This will be a bit more about Rombauer, if you all will indulge this month’s love affair.
Normally there are two kinds of stories that get told in this space. One is a story of history, tradition and practice, passed down over the centuries. French history, tradition and practice, that is. The other is a story of modern innovation, American entrepreneurialism and Californian style. Rombauer offers us something different. The Rombauer family comes from a German winemaking tradition. And, what’s more, the family’s love of wine, almost a century ago, led into a love of all things gastronomical in Irma Rombauer, grand aunt to the founder of the Rombauer Winery, and inspired her to write The Joy of Cooking, which has been published continuously since 1936, has been one of the most popular cookbooks in this country ever since, and has probably sat on many of your kitchen shelves over the years. So when this modern generation of Rombauers started making wine, their work came not only from a different geographical region than California is used to, but also from a different kind of family lineage.
You can see it immediately on their labels. Those strong block letters and practical, unromantic color choices are neither romantic, nor are they coolly contemporary. That, friends, is German practicality. But I don’t mean to sound dismissive, there’s a reason “German engineering” is a phrase we all know. This is a powerful, correct set of wines. And if you’re wondering what that could possibly mean, stop by our bar on your next visit. Any wine you want is, as always, complimentary for you, our guests.