July 6th, 2010

Ironstone wine is pretty good. Not bad. Better than a lot of other wine you can find in the world, even. If you’re curious, we’re pouring it every night in our bar for free.

What Ironstone would like for you to know, however, is that they are “so much more than a winery.” They have a museum, a jewelry shop, cooking demonstrations, a 24-pound crystalline gold leaf specimen, an enormous lakeside garden and an outdoor amphitheatre. This summer Crosby Stills and Nash, ZZ Top and Faith Hill came through. Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow are on their way. “There’s always something interesting happening” at what must still be referred to as the Ironstone Vineyards, if only because those vineyards are kind of sort of the foundation on which all the other fun stuff is built on. But don’t let those ubiquitous alcohol references give you the wrong idea, this is also a kid friendly place. Gold-panning is only one example of the kind of fun that’s in store for your little ones at Ironstone.

Like I said, the wine is good. It’s also good that you and I both can drink it for free at night in this hotel’s bar. Because, actually, I like to drink it, but that was a surprise. At first I was scared by a winery that wanted to be much more than a winery. Maybe I’d go see a show there sometime, I thought, but if their focus isn’t on their wine, why support that part of the project? Well, it turns out that, somehow, the wine is good enough. Good enough to drink for free, good enough to maybe even pick up a bottle every now and then. Pretty good, like I said.

May 4th, 2010

For years I’ve been hearing rumors about all the property that RJ Reynolds is keeping. This land sits patiently on hold, people say, as marijuana weaves its path toward freedom. Millions of acres waiting to turn into billions of dollars, or so the story goes. It’s a bit scandalous, this anticipation, but not nearly as scandalous as the stories of all of those who have chosen not to wait. Marijuana is a multi-million dollar industry in California; cash only, no taxes. Now, as it seems that we are preparing to legalize it, the conversation is about who will profit and who will lose. Will all those people who’ve spent decades perfecting cultivation techniques be able to transform themselves into a legitimate boutique industry? Or will RJ Reynolds and the like plow in and mass-produce all the little guys away?

I’m reminded of this question when I read that the Merryvale Winery was the first to open in California after Prohibition. It’s a fun little fact, all these years later, but it makes me wonder about the back-story. Certainly they did not, on the day after Prohibition ended, say, “Hey, I know, let’s start making wine.” This is not the path toward being first. Was this a family that had been making wine to drink with, and distribute among, friends, and possibly friends of friends, if they seemed cool, the way marijuana is sold now? Prohibition ended and they got themselves a little organized, perhaps. Found a bigger, more obvious place, since they could be out in the open. Or was it a shrewd business plan launched with cool detachment by someone who had been successfully monitoring the political climate and knew just when to strike? A few men in suits, maybe, who never drank themselves, and so were able to get up early enough every morning to be the first. I don’t know. That part of the story isn’t being told anymore. What matters is that they won the race, not how. And all these years later, it’s hard to tell if the wine is good because of techniques that have been passed down with love over the years, or if it’s good because when you have a successful winery, you can afford to hire very well trained vinters. Either way, it’s good, and it’s free in our bar every night!

April 4th, 2010

Good wines are made here in Northern California. They’re famous, so that’s not a controversial sentence. A little past halfway through the last century, some people started planting grapes in the Napa Valley and it turned out well. But, let’s face it, the Native Americans were not making wine, the missionaries had other priorities, the gold miners were too busy and things didn’t really settle down in these parts until relatively recently. So, though these wineries are world renowned, it can feel a little embarrassing to when they boast of their histories. “Since 1971” they say, “Since 1980, “ even. I always feel like a company should not say “since…” until it’s been around at least 100 years.

It’s so refreshing, then, when Artesa proudly pronounces themselves the newest winery in the Napa Valley. They’ve got fresh energy, fresh ideas and this, after all, is how all things Californian get good. They boast of the entrepreneurship and youthful energy that pushes companies into the future, where others get tied down to their own pasts.

I guess it’s easy for them, though, to brag of newness. The Artesa Winery was started by the Cordoniu Group, Spanish winemakers who have been making wine since the 16th century. So, while it is a new venture, it lies comfortably under a very very old blanket. Is this the best of both worlds, or stodgy old Europe trying to fake young America’s élan? Come decide for yourself, here in our bar.

March 4th, 2010

I heard, recently, a story about Ernest Hemingway. It’s a famous story, so probably a lot of you have heard it already, but for those of you who haven’t, it’s worth boring the rest. He was drinking in a bar as, it seems, he kind of liked to do, and someone challenged him to write an entire novel in six words. On a cocktail napkin he wrote: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”

It’s said that Hemingway struggled his whole life to look like a manly man, always recovering from having been dressed up like a girl as a child. The terse, brutal writing style he developed, even, was part of the attempt to be cool and masculine, or so I was taught in college. I think that if Hemingway were to pick a wine from our bar it would be Turnbull’s Old Bull red. There’s the very obvious bull reference to start, plus the story behind the name of the winery, a man saving a king by causing a stampeding bull to turn. Then that their motto is Audaci Favet Fortuna, or fortune favors the brave. Plus that the name of the wine itself is just Old Bull. This is a strong wine, a man’s wine. This isn’t wine to sip slowly, picking through flavor references. This is wine to drink by the bottle, perhaps even from the bottle, though we won’t let you do that in our bar.

This wine, it seems to me, could make a man look rugged and hard. I’m sure that all of our guests are above such considerations, but, anyway, we always keep Old Bull behind our bar.

February 4th, 2010

I have never been to the rodeo. So, to write this story I will be drawing from my experience of movies, television and stereotype. I hope this isn’t too offensive. Anyway, based on the movies and TV shows I’ve seen, plus my general preconceived notions about rodeos, I always thought they were the kinds of events where people would drink beer. Coors, Bud, maybe out of cans, maybe out of giant plastic cups. I hope this doesn’t sound elitist or snotty, it’s just the impression I got. I was wrong, is the thing, so it actually doesn’t matter what my old idea was. It turns out that not only are people drinking wine at the rodeo, they’re judging it and giving out prizes too. Awards that winemakers covet and then boast about having received.

What does the bull-riding set value in a bottle of wine? Well, come find out for yourself. The Folie a Deux and Menage a Trois wines that we have right here behind our bar, and will pour out for you each and every night, have received several metals apiece from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I haven’t tried them yet myself, honestly, but I’m curious. Is this the tough version of wine? Gritty and raw, somehow? Or am I just giving free reign to my stereotypes again? Maybe it’s delicate and sophisticated and I’m a jerk for thinking otherwise. I’ll find out soon, maybe you will too.

January 4th, 2010

Having a conflict with a co-worker is tricky. Unlike people you know only socially, co-workers are non-optional parts of your life. If you are totally disgusted and hurt and feel that the mere sight of a particular fellow employee is like several daggers being plunged into your heart simultaneously, still there they will be tomorrow and the next day and on and on into the future. Resolution, it would seem, behooves you, impossible though it may seem.

Well, if world leaders are like co-workers to one another, and I would argue that they are, then the Cold War could be seen as a very good example of just what I’m talking about. So, while I can offer you no advice about any disputes you might be having, I can pass on a little piece of information that I’ve just obtained. When, after decades of standoff and a generation of children who grew up expecting nuclear holocaust in their lifetimes, Reagan and Gorbachev finally sat down to discuss their differences, the wine they shared was called Iron Horse. Can I really say that this had anything to do with common ground the two men soon found? Of course not. But, then again, no one can say that small details don’t matter. A particularly smooth, easy, calming wine could very easily have shifted the mood in the room, I think.

A lot of you come to us on business, perhaps some of you come here with people you don’t like very much. We do serve Iron Horse wines here. You may as well give it a try!

July 5th, 2009

The proprietors of the Bearboat Winery have made an unusual marketing choice. They have created a very strong internet presence. There are many, many people from all around the country on all sorts of wine drinking forums, asking why they can’t find any information about this excellent wine that they just drank. There are favorable ratings of Bearboat Wines to be found from more professional tasters and it’s possible to buy Bearboat Wines from a number of different online vendors. The Bearboat Winery itself, however, gives nothing. They have no website, no email address that I can find. It’s possible to find directions to their winery, on someone else’s web page. It seems strange that a winery should be reclusive, but so they are. They’ve created a real air of mystique around themselves and a lot of people are frustrated and confused.

Perhaps the right thing for me to do, then, is to suggest a pairing. Reclusive wines with reclusive authors. With a white I would go with JD Salinger. Franny and Zooey, I think, would be just right. It’s got an easy cadence with just a hint of melancholy that you’ll want the wine to help smooth away. But if it’s the deeper character of a red you want, then Thomas Pynchon is your man. For casual, after work enjoyment, something you don’t need a crystal clear head and a math degree to keep up with, it’s got to be The Crying of Lot 49.

Maybe stay away from their winery, though. I’ve heard nasty stories about what happens when people have, after extensive searches, finally found the two above mentioned genius men, and I would hate for anything like that to happen to one of you. We’ll always keep Bearboat wines behind our bar.

June 5th, 2009

The makers of Saintsbury Wine are interested in pinot noir, not quite exclusively, but almost. More specifically, they are interested in proving that grapes grown in the region they grow in, Carneros, can produce pinot noirs as good as their Burgundian counterparts. Both of the founders of Saintsbury are scientists, and the pragmatism and single-mindedness of science can be seen throughout this quest. Right now, for example, the most prominent feature on their website is a review acknowledging the improvement, over the years, of their pinots. The reviewer likes the 2007 product, but speaks favorably about it at the expense of the efforts of nearly all previous years’ wines. But, he goes pretty far into describing pinot noir cultivation in the region and commends Saintsbury for their work in general. Would another winery display such an article so visibly?

And then there are the screw-top bottles. True, Saintsbury makes three classes of wines and the screw-tops are only found on those in the lowest price range, but the lowest priced Saintsbury wine is still $20 a bottle and with Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck holding strong with corked bottles, it’s really not industry standard yet. But, here again, nerdy pragmatism prevails over the pretensions of their industry. A top that unscrews is infinitely easier than manipulating a cork, and so they are making wines with screw-tops.

May 4th, 2009

Normally this newsletter is divided into five sections. Of the five, one is reserved for some activity that I think visitors to the Bay Area might enjoy and another is used to tell you about a nice local wine you might want to sip at our bar. This month I am forced to bleed those sections a little bit because I want to tell you not just about the David Girard wines, but also about the David Girard Winery. There are, very nearby, quite a number of lovely estates where people can go to admire the landscape and tranquilly sip wine. There are lots of ways besides this newsletter to find your way to each of them and I can’t say this is not a great idea. I am not recommending that you go to David Girard because it is the best example of one of those wineries, I am saying that you should go because it’s something different. It’s a place where things happen, I place with a community around it. There are concerts, cooking lessons, grape stomping parties. There’s an audio book swapping library, in consideration of the long drives people take to get there. It’s full of energy and life, as, I imagine, David Girard himself must be. The founder of this winery started off working in a gas station in Detroit, went on to get an MBA, a law degree and a PhD. He taught, practiced law and ran marathons. And at some point along the way he went to France to learn the winemaking techniques of the Rhone Valley. This is the kind of man who makes me wonder if some people get extra hours in their days and just have to keep it secret from the rest of us.

But, to use this space more in its intended way, if you can’t get away, and have to settle for drinking your Girard wine in our bar, you’ll be drinking the creation of an overachieving, fun-loving, perfectionist. It’s not like it’s going to be a bad glass of wine!

April 4th, 2009

There’s something pleasantly simplistic in the Conn Creek Winery’s presentation of itself. Go to their website and the first thing that catches the eye, before any history or photo or romance of any kind, is a bold statement. “Conn Creek Winery: The Best Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Carneros to Calistoga.” This does not appear to be a quotation from any wine publication. It is not supported by any of the other text on the page. It simply stands alone, an assertion made by the makers of said cabernet sauvignon that they feel to be objective, stand-alone truth.

Another thing about this winery that catches my fancy is that they make a red called “anthology,” because it is made of a mixture of all the different red grapes they grow. I like this name, it reminds me of those fat, heavy tomes I lugged around in college that purported to contain the best of, say, all of American literature. Implying, as such a book did, that I need look no further than what I had already in my hands for anything of value on the subject, I felt safe in a knowledge that I was getting educated. Even if I later learned how much richer it is to read all of Leaves of Grass, instead of just the passages deemed “most significant” by those who named themselves authorities, still I appreciated being spoon-fed a little at first.

The clear and easy arrogance of this winery is comforting to me. I know that I if I choose one of their wines, I will get something good, if not deep and nuanced. I don’t always have the energy for deep and nuanced. I’m sorry to admit this if I’m alone, but I don’t think I am.