We met on the internet: the virtual sommelier in realtime

Above: my buddy John Rikkers isn’t always this serious — only when he’s tasting 1999 Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino.

“We met on the internet.” It still sounds kinda creepy, doesn’t it? No matter how you euphemize it (we met via the internet?), the expression still retains a note of alienation, a coldness that belies the reification of our lives in this digital age. Maybe this is true only for those of us who still remember rotary dial phones.

Above: of the many Italian wines we opened Thursday night, the 2003 Monleale (Barbera) by Walter Massa and the 1999 Canalicchio di Sopra where my favorites. John bought the Canalicchio for a song in a local wine store where the clientele generally reaches for Bordeaux and California Cabernet.

Thursday night found me in the home of my friends John and Laing Rikkers. We met online in September when John emailed me (after disovering my blog), asking me to recommend some wines for him and his lovely wife Laing for dinner in New York City. We stayed in touch via email, trading tasting notes and restaurant tips. And then, in October we met in realtime at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego and we’ve been friends ever since.

Above: this chicken lives in the stable at their classic Californian 1920s ranch house in North County San Diego.

Jayne and Jon and I were invited to the Rikkers’ holiday party last Thursday at their gorgeous estate in North County San Diego. (They lost their home in the October fires and so they are currently renting a furnished ranch house.) When we arrived, John produced a fantastic flight of Italian wines that he had reserved especially for us. I began pulling corks and pouring wine for his guests and we all traded stories and tasting notes about the wines and our wine experiences. We stayed ’til the very end and the coda of our evening was a rendition of “Let It Be” by Jon (Erickson) on the beautiful grand piano in the living room.

I guess this blogging thing is paying off after all.

Recently tasted: Timorasso and Barbera from Vigneti Massa

Above: Barbera Terra by Walter Massa and the cheese board at Third Corner in Encinitas, CA.

The ever-pungent Terry Hughes, one of my favorite daily reads over at Mondosapore, often teases me that out here in far-flung San Diego, I’m living among the antipodes and that I should come to my senses and move back to the City (yes, there is only one city in Terry’s mind). Despite his antipodean chiding, I’ve been enjoying the ocean and the sun and the laid-back feel of “America’s finest city.” And to Terry’s surprise (and often to mine as well), I occasionally come across some interesting Italian wine here: case in point, wine director Brian Donegan at Market (in Del Mar) recently poured me a glass of Timorasso, a rare white grape from the Tortonese hills of Piedmont, nearly forgotten and extinct until Walter Massa of Vigneti Massa revived it some years ago.

Above: Brian Donegan, wine director at Market, is one of San Diego’s leading wine professionals. He always surprises me with his by-the-glass program: last time with a Vin de Savoie by the glass. My experiences at Market have been good, although I’ve heard that mileage may vary. To a New Yorker (which I remain in my heart, despite my California roots), it’s a strange confluence of high-end market-fare dining and So Cal “heavy metal” attitude (including sports programs on the constantly glowing flat-screens in the bar and a row of luxury SUVs in the valet parking lot). Brian divides his list into “New” and “Old World” selections, an editorial decision that I believe educates his patrons and informs their palates. But, unfortunately, he includes Californian-grown Italian varieties among the Italian lots — a blow to us terroirists.

According to Calò, Scienza, and Costacurta’s Vitigni d’Italia (Grape Varieties of Italy), Timorasso Bianco (also known as Timoraccio, Timorosso, Timorazza, or Morasso) was a popular grape variety in northwestern Italy until the advent of phyloxera, when it virtually disappeared. It was brought back to the fold by Massa, who makes wines in the province of Alessandria (Piedmont). The straw-colored wine was fresh on the nose and had more body than Cortese, the top white grape in a region where red grapes prevail. It also had a pronounced minerality that you don’t find in other Piedmont whites.

Above: in classic So Cal fashion, the bar at The Third Corner in Encinitas is also dominated by flat-screens and sports programs. I’ve always been a fan of the Ocean Beach location and although you won’t find me at the bar (wine and TV don’t pair well in my view), the main dining room in Encinitas is one of the warmest, most comfortable in San Diego.

Massa’s been on my mind: another one of San Diego’s sommelier stars, Alex Lindsay of The Third Corner in Encinitas recently turned me on to Massa’s entry-level Barbera, “Terra.” This stainless-steel, very reasonably priced wine impressed me with its earthiness and it certainly deserves its name (terra or earth). It showed natural fruit and vibrant acidity, pairing perfectly with the cheese board. I’ve not tasted Massa’s higher end wines (I believe he makes a Croatina and a single-vineyard Barbera, both aged in barrique — probably not for me). But I found this $15 bottle to be a great example of an affordable terroir-driven wine. Californian Barbera just doesn’t cut it for me.

Terry, I’m pouring Massa’s Timorasso tonight at Jaynes Gastropub if you’d like to stop by!