Los Pilares: Not so Natural but delicious in San Diego (it’s a small world after all)

it’s a world of laughter, a world or tears
it’s a world of hopes, it’s a world of fear
there’s so much that we share
that it’s time we’re aware
it’s a small world after all

I used to love that song as a kid (and still do) and I would sing it over and over and over again… my favorite ride at that twentieth-century experiment in social engineering otherwise known as Disneyland…

It was only natural (small n) that I would get a call asking if I’d like to taste the first bottling by Los Pilares in San Diego after our friend Alice Feiring wrote about the wine glowingly on her blog the same week that Tracie P, Georgia P, and I were visiting my hometown (La Jolla High School Class of ’85).

When the call (and connection) came, our friend — cancer survivor, author, local radio personality, and vibrant life force — Chrissa Chase informed me that she wanted to set up a tasting and a meeting with one of the winemakers, a nice gent named Michael Christian, a retired lawyer who, like many in his generation, grew tired of drinking concentrated, overly oaked, and excessively alcoholic Californian wines.

In the wake of the excitement that followed Alice’s post (and calls expressing interest in representation from the Garagiste and from one of the top distributors of Natural wine in California, said Michael), the San Diego folks began calling the wine a “Natural” wine.

But when I sat down with Michael — a super nice guy — I discovered that, in fact, the grapes had been sourced from local growers whose “Natural” credentials would surely be questioned by the Natural wine elite (had they been consulted). And of course, the wine had been inoculated for malolactic fermentation — a red flag among the self-appointed Natural wine auditors.

After a thirty-minute discussion on the Natural wine dialectic, the Natural wine elite in our country (a club I don’t belong to because as Groucho Marx once noted, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”), and what makes a wine Natural (as per Eric the Red’s recent op-ed in the Times), I turned to my host and her guest Michael and said, “who the hell cares if it’s a Natural wine or not? Let’s just taste it!”

I thought the wine — a blend of San Diego-grown Grenache and Carignane — was delicious: bright and fresh, with a lot of cinnamon and spice in the initial impression, giving way to ripe berry and red fruit flavors. And like Alice (I hadn’t yet read her review when I tasted it), I loved the low alcohol content (12.5%). Michael noted that the cool 2010 harvest in California allowed him and his partners to achieve the ripeness they wanted without the high alcohol. I liked the wine so much that I convinced Michael to sell me a bottle ($24) to taste with Tracie P at dinner the next night.

Maybe the folks in San Diego have come to the Natural wine discussion a few years late… Maybe the word itself Natural is just too sexy to resist. Ultimately, whether a wine is Natural or not is now irrelevant, especially considering the vitriol that the discussion has generated (the exact opposite of what Natural wine should mean, in my view).

In the end, the important thing to remember is…

There is just one moon and one golden sun
And a smile means friendship to everyone.
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It’s a small small world…

What to pour for Alice Feiring in Austin?

In a remarkable confluence of cosmic events, Comrades Howard and Alice both found themselves in Austin last night: he, to speak at the Austin Film Festival; she, to talk about Natural wine and her new book today at Whole Foods Market (Lamar) and tomorrow at Vino Vino.

When we all met for dinner last night at one of our favorite restaurants in the world, Fonda San Miguel, it was only natural that we would drink López de Heridia. After all, Alice wrote “the book” on the winery.

It may seem facile to pair Mexican cuisine with Spanish wine (for the overly obvious reasons). But the fact of the matter is that the attenuated fruit in the López oxidative style works gloriously well with the intense flavors of great Mexican cooking. The wine paired brilliantly with our mole, for example, where the gentle astringency of the wine played counterpart to the chocolate in the mole.

Tracie P and I are thrilled that Fonda San Miguel wine director Brad Sharp has continued to support these unique wines, even in a world where 99% of his guests ask regularly (and nearly exclusively) for Chard, Cab, Merlot, or Pinot.

After dinner, perhaps inspired by the brio of the evening, Alice insisted that we make a pilgrimage to the chicken coop out back behind Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.

Last night was 100% irony-free at Ginny’s and Sarah and The Tallboys, a country outfit out of Chicago, played a smoking set (imho).

Ginny and daughter Sharon are so sweet to me and Tracie P whenever we visit.

But their wholesome Texas hospitality reached its limits last night when Sharon had to kick out a couple for getting to frisky! Never a dull moment at Ginny’s…

Alice Feiring in Austin Sunday & Monday

It seems like a lifetime ago that Tracie P and I met Alice on our first trip to Europe together. Tracie P and I were in Paris to play with Nous Non Plus and Alice was there to write a piece on Natural wine and our paths happily crossed.

I’ve known Alice for more than 10 years and she’s one of our dearest, dearest friends. A big sister, a mentor, and one of the most fun people to be around on this planet, no matter what mischief we’re up to.

Alice has a new book, Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally, and she’s coming to Austin for a few readings: Sunday at Whole Foods Market on Lamar and Monday at Vino Vino. Both events are being presented by the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas.

Tracie P and I will be at both events, of course, and I hope you can join us to hear Alice read from her new book and taste some Natural wines with us.

Beyond our deep friendship, I support Alice in her cause to spread the word about Natural wine not just because I enjoy Natural wines but because I believe that Natural wines and the people who make them (and drink them) can save the world from the ills of our increasingly industrialized food chain.

In other news…

I’m making one last trip before Baby P arrives: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings of next week, I’ll be pouring wine on the floor at Sotto in Los Angeles where I’ve curated the wine list this year.

We’ll be debuting one last flight of wines for the fall before I take a break for daddy duty, including one of the best wines I’ve tasted this year… More on that later…

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

Sensuous world: Marx, Gramsci, Pasolini, food and wine

Just as nature provides labor with the means of life in the sense that labor cannot live without objects on which to operate, on the other hand, it also provides the means of life in the more restricted sense, i.e., the means for the physical subsistence.

—Karl Marx, Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts, Paris, 1844

One of the things I couldn’t stop thinking about on this last trip to Italy (where I stayed at a 5-star resort, ate in a Michelin-starred restaurant, and tasted verticals of some of Southern Italy’s most famous wines) was Marx’s concept of alienation (estrangement), Gramsci’s concept of reification (objectification), and Pasolini’s “fear of naturalism” (“the natural being”) and the insight that they provide us in viewing the current global epicureanism as an expression of the bourgeoisie’s (and I count myself and you, my readers, as members of this privileged class) deep-seated yet unanswered yearning to cast off the yoke of consumerism.

Even though we know that sunlight is bad for us, we all know that wonderful feeling of feeling the sun on our skin, watching a sunset, or walking through a park on a bright summer day.

And even though we know it’s not bad for us, a view of verdant pastures or ancient olive groves somehow soothes us. The same way we enjoy reading Virgil’s Bucolics, viewing an 18th-century painting of a pastoral scene, or reading about “hardcore” natural winemaking in Spain on a favorite wine blog, food and wine writing allows us to escape the workaday din of the consumer-driven, globalized, and frighteningly reified world in which we live.

Sadly, in the post-second-world-war industrialized and globalized world, our bodies have become mere objects and the nutriments which give us life have become mere objects and we have lost touch with the pre-industrial expressions of the one and the other. Even as we consume “heirloom” food and wine products, as good and as healthy and as wholesome as they may taste, we cannot ignore (however much we would like to) the fact that the chain of supply that has delivered them to our dinner tables has rendered them into mere objects for consumption (it has reified them) by polluting the world with its carbon foot print as it couriers otherwise nutritious sustenance to consumers.

Marx would have called this “estrangement” (or “alienation” is some circles of Marxist parlance). There are very few among us who have any direct contact with the origins of the foods with which we nourish ourselves. As for Marx’s worker, food as become a mere object for us, even though it is the very substance that gives us life:

    The more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: first, in that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labor — to be his labor’s means of life; and, second, in that it more and more ceases to be a means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker.

From his jail cell, as he witnessed Mussolini and the fascists industrialize Italy (“the trains ran on time,” etc.) and promote an exodus from the countryside and a migration to the great urban centers (because they needed humanpower to populate the factories), Gramsci distilled Marx’s estrangement into his notion of the cultural hegemony, whereby the capitalist cultural model drives humanity to negate its humanness.

Pasolini took this notion a step further, I believe, when he wrote of the bourgeoisie’s “fear of naturalism” and the “natural being.” As he witnessed Italy’s youth embrace the materialism and aesthetic models of middle-class America (in part thanks to the Marshall Plan and in part thanks to the emergence — for the first time — of globalized media), abandoning the values of the generation who had come before them, he recognized that this was a result of consumerism’s revulsion toward the natural being and the natural world (this theme pervades Pasolini’s work, from his early Friulian poetry to his last films; Pasolini was born in 1922, the year Mussolini marched on Rome and rose to power, and he was assassinated by a Roman prostitute in 1975, at the peak of the Christian Democrats’ hold on power and the hegemony of its capitalist model, both economic and ethical).

Now, more than ever, I am convinced that food and wine writing represents can represent, however powerless, a subversion of the hegemony of consumerism in the world today. Whether we take joy in reading or writing about a farmer who casts off chemicals to grow grapes and shuns industrial yeast to make wines that “taste of place,” we are subconsciously repelling the yoke of consumerism as we attempt, however unaware, to recoup, recuperate, and recover the humanness that has been negated by the human condition in the industrialized and globalized world.

Food and wine and food and wine writing offer us a historically unique confluence of the objectification of the sensuous natural world and the means for living. Unlike the natural substances transformed by Marx’s worker as she/he worked in a pre-world-war factory (like iron used to build arms, for example), food and wine as Marxist objects in today’s world are at once the transformed object and a source of nourishment. As such, it gives us a historically unique opportunity to express our humanity through its exegesis (and in many cases, its worship and fetishization).

This is the reason why I continue to post here on my blog and this is the reason — I hope — why you’re reading. Thanks for making it this far into the post.

And buona domenica

02 Joly at Alice’s Restaurant

More “wines and the city”…

While in NYC last week, I was so busy between writing sessions and meetings that there were no memorable restaurant experiences on the island of Manhattan (beyond white fish salad). But I did get to enjoy one of those wonderful late-night repasts at Alice’s Restaurant (ya’ll know whom I’m talking about), just like in the old days when I lived in the City and we’d often regroup chez Alice in Soho, bantering and listening to music until all hours of the night (who’s guitar pick was that on the WC floor?).

As Alice noted, there is so much bottle variation in Joly, you never quite know what to expect. But the stars aligned on a slushy, freezing night, and the bottle was fantastic (see Alice’s tasting note above).

Stinky cheese, crusty bread, some brined olives and roast kale and 02 Joly… You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant…

Burgundy and (homemade) pizza and NYC’s most famous bathtub

Arrived La Guardia last night and after leaving my blackberry in the cab (something I never did in over 10 years living here!) and then recovering it (!) thanks to the next fare (a super nice guy on the Upper East Side who wouldn’t take reward money, a true New Yorker Samaritan), I made my way over to Alice’s place for some old-school kibitzing, excellent 06 Burgundy (above) and delicious homemade pizza.

One topic of conversation was Alice’s famous kitchen bathtub, immortalized in the local paper first in 2004 and more recently in the society pages, where she discusses the myth of quotidian bathing in the Big City (scroll down to the bottom of the article for her quote and note the sliced bread on the side of the tub above).

Of course, there was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to use what many consider the most famous WC in Manhattan (if not the entire U.S.).

Hey, is that Anthony’s guitar pick on the floor?

Ribolla and guacamole, Nebbiolo and chili dogs with the Uomo Armadillo

chili dogs

Above: Italians and I are fascinated by hotdogs. Last night Tracie P and I shared a meal at Man Bites Dog and Torchy’s (south Austin) Trailer Park and Eatery with the “Uomo Armadillo” (Armadillo man, above left) and his daughter Marta.

Supreme Italian wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani will probably defriend me on Facebook for this: last night I paired 2006 Barbaresco by Produttori del Barbaresco with a lipsmackingly delicious chili dog by Man Bites Dog at the South Austin Trailer Park and Eatery.


And that’s not all: we also paired a gorgeous Ribolla from the new “Adriatico” label by Bastianich with chips, guacamole, and salsa. (The fruit for this transnational project by the Bastianich empire comes from Simčič vineyards.)


I know that it’s a sin but what were we to do when the Uomo Armadillo showed up with the 06 Barbaresco and the 07 Morgon by Lapierre in tow?

chili dogs

The 07 Lapierre Morgon was brilliant with the dogs, btw. The 06 Barbaresco was tight but opened up nicely… (Uomo Armadillo and his buddy Massimo, who was also there last night, have visited Lapierre for his annual blowout party and we all raised a glass to remember the iconic winemaker who left this world for another last month.)

This was certainly an extreme and decadent pairing but I also believe wholeheartedly that the folks who make these wines intend them to be served at the dinner table and with people you care about. In the U.S. we tend to fetishize our wines and are overly selective IMHO in how we “apply” them. Rest assured, they were applied very well last night!

And on the subject of chili dogs, here’s a less pretentious dog that I bit into a week ago Sunday at Ginny’s Little Longhorn when Alice Feiring was in town and we took her to play Chicken Shit Bingo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.


And in case you’re wondering about the Uomo Armadillo: we actually met thanks to Mr. Ziliani, whose blog we both follow. Uomo Armadillo (Alessandro) comes to Austin from Milan every year in the fall to get his honkytonk on. His happy obsession with the Groover’s Paradise even earned him a song…

Thanks for reading! More on Friuli tomorrow… And in the meantime, check out Tracie P on Fiano d’Avellino.

Orange Macabeo and inky Sumoll from Spain and Alice Feiring bids Texas adieu

Above: My super good friend Joe Pat Clayton (right) was as geeked as me and Tracie P to taste natural Spanish wines last night with Alice Feiring (right).

Alice Feiring hit the Groover’s Paradise like a Texas tornado. The few days she spent her with us were filled with honkytonking, two-stepping, great parties and great friends and lovers of natural wine, and a superb fish dinner prepared by Chef Esteban Escobar paired with a flight of Spanish natural wines last night at Vino Vino (the best little wine bar in Texas).

The two wines that impressed me the most were the Laureano Serres 2009 Abeurador Macabeo (above, 100% Macabeo grown in clay soils, vinified with 2 days of skin contact, no added sulfite [note by importer José Pastor]) and the Els Jelipins 2004 Sumoll (Sumoll with a small amount of Garnacha, grown in clay and limestone soils, whole-cluster fermentation in open-topped barrels, no added sulfite).

The Macabeo was rich and unctuous, tannic and chewy in the mouth and unbelievably delicious.

The Jelipins 2004 Sumoll was mind-boggling good. Impenetrably inky and viscous on the palate, a stilnovo sonnet with alternating rhymes of earth and fruit.

Chef Esteban’s excellent cooking has been reaching new heights lately but last night he took it over the top (especially considering the Herculean effort necessary to create a wine dinner using only Kosher fish and vegetables).

Kim and SO Alfonso also came down from Dallas expressly for the event.

Above, from left: Alice, Lewis Dickson (Texas Hill Country natural winemaker), Tracie P, Jeff Courington (owner Vino Vino), and Russ Kane (author of Vintage Texas, the top Texas wine blog).

And so this morning we took Alice to the airport (she stayed with us, of course). It was a great visit and we were sad to see her go. She certainly made a profound impression on the Texans she met. And I’d like to think that they also impressed her with the Texas-sized welcome they gave her.

We’ll miss her but somehow I think she’ll back sooner than later. Once you’ve danced to the rhythms of Dale Watson at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, there’s no turning back…

Vega-Sicilia Unico 1960 (magnum) for Alice Feiring

Many wonderful bottles were opened last night in the home of our good friends Patricia Winston and Bill Head to celebrate Alice Feiring’s first visit to Texas.

But it was Alfonso who gave her the BIGGEST Texas welcome with an unforgettable bottle of 1960 Vega-Sicilia Unico in magnum (!) and original wooden case. I was blown away by how savory and rich the wine was, vibrant and with an acidity that I frankly wouldn’t have expected in a wine this old. A truly amazing — in so many ways — bottle of wine.

Patricia and Bill had assembled a who’s who of Austin-based winemakers, collectors, and wine professionals for the occasion. But it was Devon Broglie (right, with me, center, and Alfonso, left) who stepped up to the plate to extract the cork. Nice work, Devon!

Even Alice looks TALLER in TEXAS! That’s our good friend, journalist, author, and radio personality Mary Gordon Spence (right).

What a great night, great wines, and great folks…

There might just be a few spots left for a dinner to be held in Alice’s honor tonight in Austin at Vino Vino. In her words, the wines we’ll be tasting are “hard-core natural.”