SonomaWino: Gallo Family Vineyards

There's a mouse in my bottle, eh.Finally, an excuse to pop a cork and wear Mickey Mouse ears without shame: Researchers at the Harvard Medical School and the National Institute on Aging report that a naturally occurring substance found in red wine offsets the negative effects of a high-calorie diet in mice, significantly extending their tubby rodent life spans.

The property, “resveratrol” (a name that sounds ready-made for marketing by the pharmaceutical industry), is found in the skin of grapes, which is where red wine gets its color. It’s conjectured that resveratrol plays part in the so-called French paradox, the baffling fact that the French can enjoy heaps of brie and smoke Gitanes without dying as frequently as we ugly Americans.

This brings me to an unrelated but equally annoying paradox, which is that the size of my bank account seems to grow in inverse proportion to the maturation of my palate–the more I become accustomed to fine wine, the less I am able to afford it. I attempted to address the issue by e-mailing Harvard Medical School and suggesting that they ditch the frat-rats and do their vino studies on me and a few of my pals. Dr. David Sinclair, who helmed the resveratrol study, couldn’t be bothered to reply to my offer (probably too busy taking orders from Pfizer), so I resolved to start drinking cheaper wine.

Before there was the box, there was the jug, and among local producers, Gallo has long been a favorite. One need only utter the words “hearty burgundy,” and I flashback to the junior college campus and my first citation for “minor in possession of alcohol.” Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Gallo has plugged the jug and ramped up an impressive array of premium wines under their new Gallo Family Vineyards banner.

The rich 2004 Winemaker’s Signature Pinot Noir is raspberry sauce drizzled over cheesecake, followed by some smart chat about the use of butane torches in the kitchen. The 2004 Winemaker’s Signature Barbera, by contrast, is a lean wine, rife with berry notes that build in complexity toward a creamy finish–imagine “fruit at the bottom yogurt,” but upside down. The 2003 Winemaker’s Signature Meritage is a gratifying whiff of dry parchment, splashed with boysenberry that finishes like a long kiss goodbye. All these wines can be had for under $30, which does little for my paradox, but everything for my self-respect.

Gallo Family Vineyards, 320 Center St., Healdsburg. Open daily, 10am to 6pm. The tasting room offers various programs ranging from complimentary to $10. 707.433.2458.

Nomaville: Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Blonder

Green Faerie to Midland.Wormwood. Wormwood will be my “rosebud.” Here’s how it goes: At the beginning of “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles, in his titular turn as a newspaper magnate, exhales this final phonemes thus launching a plot to decipher its secret meaning. (Spoiler alert: it’s a rugby jersey!) I’ve often thought that in my ideal death scene, my last word would come billowed aloft a wheeze of licorice breath as the la Fée Verte dances me gaily into the light. (In this version of my death, of course, I’m a rheumy-eyed old gent aged “infinity” and still decadent enough to be imbibing absinthe on my deathbed, surrounded by the beautiful and damned – as my widow-to-be, the Contessa, dolefully shakes her head.) In my not-so-ideal death, my last words would likely be any of a number of expletives, or perhaps some mundane turn of phrase such as “oops,” or “no, really, I simply couldn’t stand another éclair,” or “is that really a thought-crime these days and what the hell is state-sanctioned termination-parlor, anyway?”

Note: wormwood, you see, is the secret ingredient in absinthe.

Anyway, not long before being lured by the sirens of Sonoma, I did a brief stint south of Market, trawling for pillow-talk amongst the heartsick and reckless sylphs who just as soon kill as kiss me. Autumn had passed before I realized that the tragic beauty I was dating (whose soul had gone gaunt from the wrong mix of booze, cigarettes and literary theory) really meant it when she said she hated loving me. At the apex our boredom, when the novelty of drunkenly unlocking her door with my own key began to wane for both of us, she dispatched me to her girlfriend’s apartment with the ominous suggestion that “It might be interesting.” It wasn’t. The woman and I watched a movie, limped through some awkward conversation and, finally at a loss for anything more to say, she asked in her Checkpoint Charlie accent if I “Vould you like some ice cream, or perhaps some absinthe?”

“Both,” I replied. I had, after all, always wanted to try ice cream.

She smiled darkly. The rocky road had freezer-burn so we abandoned it, spoons clanging into the sink. The woman then produced two glasses, a fancy slotted spoon and a pair of sugar cubes, white like blind dice. Spoon in hand, she suspended the sugar over our glasses and ran tap water through it. The pale emerald below fogged into a milky pearl.

“This,” she said, raising her glass, “is going nowhere you want to go and everywhere you want to be.”

“But I just came from there.”

She nearly yawned, but then suddenly put the drink back like whiplash. I did the same. Regret, this night, tasted like anise. Especially, by the fourth round.

Issues of transubstantiation loom large for me: I can turn wine into ink and ink into wine but neither into the blood through which they’re filtered. This is fine. I have enough blood. I am, in point of fact, a man of sanguine humour. However, this disposition suddenly curdled into brackish melancholy, as cream forfeits to the pitiless pucker of a lemon rind: worm holes were bored through the wooden puppet head that stowed my mind.

I rallied my wits back just long enough to slip from the woman’s flat before her harpy wings could completely envelope me. I staggered the rain-slickened streets and staved off madness just long enough to find a friendly couch (at my pal Meerschaum’s) where I rode ride out the rest of the pageant of beasties dancing on my dendrites. But they’re still there and likely will be until all my muttering is scrubbed from this earth. More later.

SonomaWino: Sbragia Family Vineyards

It's rude to call the French The term “sommelier,” or “som” as those in the biz like to breezily abbreviate it, loosely translates from the French as “wine dude.” It hails from an Old French expression for “an officer in charge of provisions” or “a pack-animal driver.” This second definition seems especially apropos, since “sommelier” is a variation of sommier, meaning “beast of burden.”

I witnessed the burden firsthand when sommelier pal Christopher Sawyer (recently seen pairing wines and films in Esquire magazine, of all things), called late in the evening last week and invited the Contessa and me to an impromptu 42-bottle tasting at a local bistro. Apparently, an eager-beaver publicist had delivered the cache of wines (some sourced from Monte Rosso vineyards on the Sonoma side of Mount Veeder) with the hope, I suppose, that Sawyer would approve selections for his list.

The bottles covered every square inch of a cocktail table, save for the space reserved for a dump bucket mercifully wedged into the center. Sawyer had recruited a motley coalition of the willing from the bistro staff–among them a competitive “flair bartender,” a woman named Christy, a moonlighting ortho-tech and a photographer.

Good wines, bad wines–you know I’ve had my share. But my philosophy is why chase bad wine with good ink? To wit, I write about the wines that make my puss purr, and living in our bucolic wine country, that means a lot of purring. In The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, under a chapter helmed by the starchy heading “Vinification,” Tom Stevenson makes the declaration that “with modern technology, good everyday-drinking wines can be made anywhere that grapes are grown.” The scientific determinist in me is inclined to believe this notion, though I’m not as convinced when he later chides, “When not even good everyday-drinking wines are made from fine-wine vineyards, it is usually due to a combination of excessive yields and poor winemaking, and there is no excuse for either.”

Winemaker Ed Sbragia, however, doesn’t need any excuses. Consider the flavor profile of his soon-to-be-released Sbragia Family Vineyard 2004 Cabernet Monte Rosso, which uncannily recalls raisin bread French toast, patted with powdered sugar and doused in fine maple syrup. Though not a breakfast wine by strictest definition (trust me, there are some), this cab is a “come over for dinner, stay for breakfast” wine. If appropriately applied, this sexy, ambrosial elixir will raise more than merely eyebrows. Ahem. It will raise awareness of Sbragia’s fine family winery.

Now, only 41 more wines to go.

Sbragia Family Vineyards can be tasted at Cellar 360, 308-B Center St., Healdsburg. Open daily from 11am to 6pm. 707.433.2822.