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A lifestyle blog by Allison Arbuthnot on The Whole 9

Allison was raised on the vine in Sonoma, California, and believes that life is too short to drink bad wine, count calories, or second-guess your destiny. She now lives in Los Angeles where she practices many things, the two most important being contentment and tricks for opening a wine bottle without a wine key.

A Cherry Pie Day

You’d think I was riding my bike down one of the many poor-excuse-for-pavement country roads of northern Santa Barbara County, foggy ocean breezes just beginning to flow from the west over the Solomon Hills into Santa Maria Valley and through my hair.  You’d think I was kicking up dust as I kicked down my kickstand, squinting my eyes to keep out the floating earth and the sun as I leaned over to pick ripe blackberries from an untamed bush taking over the side of the road.  You’d think I was dancing to an old Loretta Lynn song in a dark purple cotton sundress, twirling in circles in the patchy shade of a eucalyptus tree, bare feet dirty and soul showered in the sweetness of a day like cherry pie.

Really, I was at home in my kitchen, sipping the Santa Barbara Wine Company Pinot Noir, North Canyon Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley 2008, as the sunshine darted through the window to warm the beautiful silence of late afternoon.  But I swear, you’d never think it.

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Told you you’d like it…

That does sound like a pie in the sky day. All that’s missing are the tangerine trees and marmalade skies~

Thanks for the tip~

Mmmmm….sign me up for a couple of bottles!

quick someone get an I.V., though purple is my favorite color, I don’t know how I would look in the dress. I will have to try this. Thanks

Getting There at Bernardus

Twenty minutes before we were due to leave for the hike, it started raining.  We knew it was coming; the morning sun’s fleecy warmth had slowly given way to a zip-up, leaf-green fleece as the clouds crawled over Carmel Valley from the Pacific Ocean like dry ice from a bucket, chilling the air with moisture and shadow.  The hike we had planned was to the top of the northern end of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range where, looking over Carmel Valley and the Monterey Peninsula, we were supposed to be able to see the curvature of the Earth.  We were in the mood for adventure—we wanted to go there.  I looked at Tom and shrugged with partially real and partially feigned disappointment.

“Well,” I said, “Bummer.  I guess we can just go wine tasting in the village instead.”

Carmel Valley Road is long and meandering and deposits you into a compact hamlet hugged by green and golden hillsides.  It is speckled with a handful of restaurants, a market or two, and an abundance of wine tasting rooms.  Bernardus Winery, in the center of town, is about as sprawling a facility as there is in Carmel Valley Village, but when we arrived that rainy Tuesday afternoon, the large tasting room was blessedly empty and the only soul inside was Stanley Rogalsky, Tasting Room Manager.

Soon we were on our way.  We started out easy.  The Monterey County Sauvignon Blanc 2008 was like strolling through rolling foothills, the smell of fresh grass lifting from the packed ground beneath our feet, bright lemon-yellow sunshine reflecting off the dark green gooseberry leaves of the bushes lining the path.  Sloping gently upward, next we tasted four Chardonnays from three vintages.  The highlight of the four, the Rosella’s Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands 2006, brought us into a grove of Golden Delicious Apple trees where fallen, ripe fruit was baking in the afternoon sun where it lay scattered over rocky, mineral-rich soil.  Onward and upward we trekked into the first shade of the mountain’s incline.  A sampling of Monterey County Pinot Noir 2007 carried us over the damp hummus of the forest floor, past patches of wild mushrooms and blackberry brambles.  I could have stayed here a while, settling into a cushion of soft earth under a canopy of gnarled oak trees, eating the juicy, dark red fruit growing around me, but like all good adventurers, we forged on.  We sipped some water.  We ate some breadsticks.  We did what we had to do to continue.

Finally, breathless with weariness and exhilaration, we got where we were going.  The Reserve Marinus Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, a single-vineyard bottling from upper Carmel Valley and the Bernardus flagship wine, delivered us to the summit.  Up here the air was clear.  Cedar plank smoke curled from chimneys on from the valley floor below us as we took a seat on a fallen log and devoured our packed lunch of black cherry and plum compote with hearty bread, dark chocolate and cinnamon-spiced coffee.  My head was in the ethers.  I breathed in Carmel Valley.  I saw the curvature of the Earth.

Rain or no, we got our adventure.  I think Stanley said it best when, in speaking of drinking different kinds of wine, he said, “They all get you to the same place—it just depends on how you want to get there.”

Cheers.

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Sounds like a lovely adventure.

Brilliant extended metaphor! Terroir + so much more. I love Carmel, both the village and the valley, and have stayed there many times. Over the years I’ve had a number of Bernardus wines as well as Dan Karlsen’s excellent wines from Talbott and a variety of less prestigious but tasty offerings from other Monterey Bay vineyards. When it’s foggy and overcast near the ocean, it’s almost always sunny and warm within a mile or two East down Carmel Valley road. Whatever the weather, or season, it’s always magical. Your vivid sensory description makes it feel as if I were there right now. Thanks.

whenever i miss u i love that i have this bloggie to read and get my alli fix!

miss you tons!

*jamie & trini

Not being a fan of Chardonnay, I have always loved the Bernardus chard as it doesn’t hit you over the head with oak — loved it since the day it passed my lips back in 1997!

Through Rosé Glasses

Captured in this blown glass half bubble of a cup on the dark wooden table in front of me is that blushing sunshine of a summertime dusk.  It sits still and placid, a little liquid Buddha in meditation.  Looking through the bubble, I see the world upside down and somehow rounder, as if I’m peering through rose-colored, fish-eye lenses and standing on my head: the river in front of me babbles gentle through the sky and the redwoods stretch down from above like stalactites reaching toward me, sitting on one of the few cotton candy clouds resting below.

If you have never examined a summer vista through a glass of rosé and given your perception a good shake-up, I highly recommend it.  You will be in for a real treat, particularly if that rosé happens to be the Etude Rosé of Pinot Noir, Carneros 2009.

Friendly and unpretentious, this rosé is as simple as a summer day: smell, sight, and taste are uncomplicated—child’s play, even.  Indeed, the Etude Rosé of Pinot is a soft salmon pink, the color of innocence, and my first sip takes me back to the summer afternoons of my girlhood in Sonoma.  In a moment I am in my mother’s garden, side-stepping the cherries that have fallen from the trees in their abundance, their sweet fragrance mixing with the warm earth and rising up to my nose.  I am en route to my favorite chore: watering the strawberries.  Water droplets land on the dark leaves like tiny crystals and the smell of strawberries embraces me as I sneak a few of the most swollen berries for myself, lightly tart and warm from the sun, still holding on to the minerality of the soil that grew them.

When I’m done in the garden, I coil the hose on the grass by the rose bushes, and with the ease and playfulness of a child, I kick up to stand on my head and observe the world upside down and through rose-colored glasses.

Cheers.

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Love your writing. It’s precise, original, personal, highly sensual and evocative; poetic.

Alli,
Your memories of your childhood are so descriptive. What an imagination you must have had and still have. Never tire of reading your blog, look forward to more restaurant reviews.
love
mama Eva

Beautiful…my greatest hope is that my daughter looks back on her childhood and has memories like these.

Finding Karma

Like gravity, karma is so basic we often don’t even notice it.  ~Sakyong Mipham

This weekend, I planned a special evening at home.  The fridge was stocked with fresh veggies delivered a few days earlier by one of the true loves of my life, Fresh Farm To You, and a quick trip to the farmer’s market supplemented the only lacking produce, a big bunch of parsley for the potatoes.  At the market, I picked up a baguette, some artisan dark chocolate-covered honeycomb, and a round of Cyprus Grove Purple Haze goat cheese.  It wasn’t until I was perusing the wine aisle that I got stuck.  See, my special evening at home was for me and me alone.  I had come across the rare opportunity for a little solo time, a luxury so often forgotten in today’s world of chaotic connectedness, and I was very much looking forward to a little celebration of life with a long-lost friend—myself.  The challenge presented to me, however, wasn’t fear of loneliness nor the fear of eating the whole baguette to myself.  I wanted sparkling wine.  I needed sparkling wine.  But I knew I wasn’t going to drink a whole bottle, God help me.  My eyes darted back and forth between the bottles of bubbly and the still whites on display next to them.  Unwilling to compromise with a Sauvignon Blanc or a still Chard, my lips pursed, eyebrows furrowed.

Suddenly my wild eyes landed on a small, simple, miniature milk bottle-like container stuck on the top shelf, all alone.  It was called Karma California Brut, and it was the cutest little bottle of wine I have ever seen.  With the morning’s yoga still cursing through my body, finding this petite 187 ml gift felt like some cosmic intervention, a true Karmatic return for taking some time away from the world to reconnect with my higher self.

Back at my house, I sat on the porch, listening to the birds while I gazed lovingly at my cheese plate and sipped my Karma.  Once the twist-off was twisted off, delicate little bubbles danced toward the sky like so many tiny, ethereal yogis pushing proudly and elatedly into upward dog.  A surprisingly potent nose gave off rich scents of baking spice and nutmeg sprinkled over cooked apple that made my soul feel at home again.  The palate, zinging with tart lemon crème pie, fresh pear and effervescence, was the yin to my Purple Haze yang.  Even the milk bottle-esque container served a duel purpose as built-in flute…Yet another lesson in simplicity.  At $4.99, clearly I had done something right to deserve this good Karma.

The back of the bottle contains a message from the creator of Karma California Brut, a man identified simply as Patrick.  It reads, “Every day is a celebration!  That’s why I created KARMA.  Always have fun, be yourself and live consciously.”

Cheers to that.

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The name & marketing strike me as a bit too bright and clever for my taste. But disingenuous new-agey pandering notwithstanding, the wine’s surprisingly good; clean, crisp, and complementary to any number of comestibles. There’s no denying the little nipper’s cute as the dickens. Just the right size for a light lunch serenade or an after dinner refresher. Slip in a couple raspberries and it’s as innocent as a wink from Lolita.

Here’s to the Little Man

On a recent trip up to Sonoma, Tom and his family had a picnic at Larson Family Winery, one of my favorite small wineries dotting the road into town.  The tasting room is housed in an old barn, and while the lack of air conditioning can be a challenge in the summer months, the old-Sonoma cowboy appeal of the place never fails to woo me.  They make a simple and affordable zinfandel under their Millerick Road label that I used to pick up whenever I was in town, so when Tom told me he was helping the locals pack the dirt floor at the Larson tasting bar last week, I put in a special request for a few bottles.

Sadly, they were sold out and between vintages, so they directed Tom to the nearby CornerStone Gardens, a sort of landscape architecture/design/shop/wine tasting destination just around the bend.  CornerStone hosts a tasting room in their facility, and along with the current Larson Family wines, they also have on hand a zinfandel called Sumptuary, Amador County 2007.  The Sumptuary Zinfandel is one of four specialty wines produced by Sonoma’s Meadowcroft Wines.  I am a bit unclear on why the friendly folks at Larson sent Tom to a different facility to buy a wine that is, so far as I can tell, unrelated to the Larson winery itself rather than selling him one of their other bottlings instead.  I can only assume it was a combination of a neighborly back-scratching situation between the winery and CornerStone and pure and simple hospitality skills of trying to find the man what he was looking for.  Regardless, Larson Family Winery, I thank you.

The Sumptuary falls in the category of the lighter, zappier zins, the kind that glow a lucid garnet-red in the glass with explosive fruit characteristics that make your mouth water between sips.  It is a Saturday afternoon barbeque wine reserved for a weekend when you feel like misbehaving—not simply because of the 14.9% alcohol, but because of the playfulness of the wine.  With just enough brown sugar to keep it sweet and just enough black pepper to make it spicy, it brings to mind a favorite word of my father’s: rascal.  Smooth with just a hint of smoke, the wine is like a really good first date.

Following a quick Google search, I found that I am also fond of the Sumptuary Zinfandel because of its larger story, a classic David and Goliath tale of a small 15,000 cases a year, independently operated winery, Meadowcroft, challenged by Brown-Forman, one of the largest wine and spirits corporations in the country.  The label Sumptuary is seemingly too similar to one of Brown-Forman’s labels, a zinfandel called Sanctuary, according to the US Trademark office, and after a legal battle early this year following the first 900 case release of the 2007 vintage Sumptuary Zinfandel, Meadowcroft was forced to sell off all remaining cases of the wine at ridiculously low prices.  The insult to consumer intelligence aside, let’s hope that the irony of the name Sumptuary (“laws designed to regulate extravagant expenditures or habits especially on moral or religious grounds”) was not lost on those involved in this suit.

As Sumptuary winemaker and owner Tom Meadowcroft said, “Apparently corporate bullying and harassment is alive and well in the U.S.A.”  For us, this means you still might be able to track down a few bottles of this killer zin for around $10.  Go get ‘em.

Here’s to the little man,

Cheers.

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Alli,
Loving your blogs..behind on the tastings..can’t wait to visit with you and do a tasting of our own.
mamaeva

Hi Alison;
just read your post on Sumptuary. We have thought about changing the name of the wine to Brown’s Forman, or better” Forbidden”…
Meanwhile we will still make fun approachable wine under Meadowcroft wines. Thanks for your support and come visit and I will give you a tour of the vineyards. I will be looking for the Sparkling Karma that you have written about as well
Best wishes,
Tom Meadowcroft

Olé Luzon!

For the past few months I’ve been working as an assistant writer on a nonfiction book about WWII.  It’s been a lot of long days and late nights, and on Fridays and Saturdays, in trying to maintain some semblance of a weekend, we’ll indulge in a beverage or two while we sort through documents and hack away at the manuscript.  There are a number of Germans working on the project—translators and historians and the like.  Thus, it’s been can-cracking rather than cork- pulling for me lately, as beer tends to be the libation of choice for most of the team.

Last week, however, I discovered that one of the Germans is in fact a secret wine lover who has had a lasting affair with Spanish reds for years back home in Berlin.  Thrilled, I took myself to the corner store just outside our workplace immediately.  The corner store, called the Grog Shop, is the kind of place with dusty cans of Spaghettios and discolored boxes of Pepto-Bismol lining the shelves.  Cases of Bud Light and a $5 Chardonnay called Crane Lake dominate the booze section.  But after just a few moments of poking around amongst the dusty bottles, my eyes quickly found what I was seeking.  Like the matador’s fiery red Muleta blazing brightly in front of the charging bull, there it was, calling me to it: a Spanish red.

The wine was the Bodegas Luzon, Jumilla, Spain 2007.  The Luzon comes from the La Hoya de la Carrasca Valley, about 350 km southeast of Madrid within the Jumilla Spanish Denominación de Origen (DO).  Although no varietals are listed on the bottle, about 85% of the vines planted in Jumilla are Monastrell (better known as the Rhone varietal Mourvèdre), so it is a safe bet that the Luzon is just that.  It had a jazzy label, and the $18 sticker price promised me that it couldn’t possibly be too terrible, even for a Grog Shop purchase.

It wasn’t long before the top was popped on the Luzon.  The juice cascaded into and around my glass like the swirling deep magenta skirt of a flamenco dancer mid-spin.  By the time my nose came close to the wine, I could hear the dancer’s castanets clicking a Latin rhythm.  My foot started tapping, my shoulders swaying side to side.  I began to smell the packed dirt floor of the flamenco cave, the candlelight flickering in the breeze created by every swish of the dancer’s skirt, illuminating the giant bowls of tart strawberries and raspberries being carried to the kitchen for use in the house sangria.  Small platters of dark chocolate dot the tables, and the smell of vanilla floats lightly out of the kitchen.  With every spin she makes, every stomp, the hands of the audience clap in unison, caught up in the bright emotion of the dance.  The olive trees sway outside in the midnight wind.  The audience pleads for more.  The dancer spins again.

Cheers.

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I love the imagery connected to each wine described, lending a sense of place and time and scent how ever exotic or familiar.

I always look forward to your posts!

Days of Fine Fizz and Romance

Last weekend, I visited my mother to stand witness as she married a wonderful man.

The day was gentle sunshine drifting on a Florida breeze, tiny baby blue sailboats bobbing in the inlet 30 ft. behind the rustic outdoor alter, a basket of flip flops tied with red ribbon for ladies with heels sinking in dew-soft grass,  an immeasurable amount of love, and sparkling wine to match.

Indeed, as the weekend progressed, a glass of the fine fizz seemed to be attached to my hand like the Spanish moss clinging to the live oaks.  Luckily Mama has splurged for the occasion, and it while it was still an economical purchase decision, these bubbles were not the vengeful kind who can be so ruthlessly resentful of one’s celebratory mood by inflicting all sorts of cruel punishments the next day.  The wine was, in fact, quite compassionate each morning when I awoke, and thus we continued to get on very well.  The fizz was the Chandon Non-vintage Extra-Dry Riche from California, a golden hay colored, highly effervescent Chardonnay that tasted like first-press Vermont apple cider and lemon sorbet.  It was the perfect incarnation of Florida sunshine and happiness, yet another reminder that it’s never too late for champagne and romance.

Mom and Charles, congratulations.  May you have many days of fine fizz ahead of you yet.

Cheers,

Allison

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Om Boo

Argentina is not known for its Pinot Noirs.  I had in fact most certainly never had one before, but we had a bottle of the Ombu San Rafael Valley Pinot Noir 2007 in the house, a gift from a dinner guest a few weeks ago, and last night, I needed some vino.

I was doubtful.  An Argentinean Pinot?  From San Rafael Valley, right in the heart of Mendoza, one of the driest regions in the world and a mere 1,000 miles inland from the nearest ocean?  That is Malbec country, Cabernet country, tough, heat loving, thick-skinned gaucho country—no place for the tender, thin-skinned, fog craving, finicky Pinot.

My eyes danced over the purple and black label, enchanted by what looks to be a rendering of the Aztec calendar.  Aztecs in Argentina makes about as much sense as Pinot in Mendoza.  It was like the bottle was challenging me.  What do you know, it taunted.  The funky stacked letters of the name popped out at me: OM BU.  My inner yogi understood.  Om.  Let go of attachments, Allison.  Open your mind to new possibilities.  I know nothing, I told the bottle as I poured my glass.  Teach me.

Well, I’m afraid the lesson ends there, friends.  The Ombu Pinot, while a lovely and delicate tomato red in the glass, is a bit unsure of itself.  The juiced smelled like the Elks Lodge on Friday night (read: perfume and alcohol), and the palate was like looking at yourself in the mirror under florescent lights after a long night spent somewhere you never should have been.

I’m all about breaking outside of the box, pushing the limits and exploring new frontiers, but with some things, you have to trust tradition.  To be fair, I hear Ombu makes a mean Malbec.

Cheers.

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Copy that, Allison. No Ombu Pinot! I’m rather drawn to the good ol Oregon pinot noir anyway…

My! That does it for me…..no Ombu for us. I’ll stick with the Malbec

BioBuzz, Part II

The school of biodynamic winemaking preaches that the experience of a wine—the smell, the mouthfeel, the many ways a glass of wine engages the senses—will differ depending on how the stars in the sky are positioned on the day it is uncorked (although they are careful to avoid the hocus-pocus sounding term astrology in favor of the much more scientific astronomy).  So, to be fair, according to ArtCharts AstroBlog, on the day I opened the Patianna Vineyards Fairbairn Ranch Syrah, Mendocino, Sonoma County 2006, Mars sextiled Saturn, and the Moon was in Gemini (if you know what that means, by all means, do tell).

Tom and I had brought the bottle of Patianna Syrah to dinner at The Spot, our favorite little natural health food restaurant in Hermosa Beach (we thought it would be fitting), and as soon as the almost-black juice was poured into one of their antique-looking wine goblets, I knew the wine was as happy to be there as I was.  Syrahs are well known for their untamed character, their wild yet elegant demeanor, and the Patianna is no exception.

The nose of black cherry spiked with black pepper and clove was enhanced by a powerful earthiness of cedar and truffles.  The palate mimicked this precisely, layering the spice with a velvet richness, bringing me to a far-off exotic land filled with candlelight and incense, dark-eyed strangers draped in opulent fabrics, lavish Moroccan rugs covering packed-dirt floors, gold bangles clinking as delicate hands pour saffron tea.  The Patianna is a young gypsy woman, wild black curls falling over keen eyes rimmed in kohl.  Her deep violet skirt of soft velvet swishes softly as she moves with a grace beyond her years.  She understands the mystic workings of the Universe and lives in accordance with ancient teachings long forgotten in our world.  While today she kind and wise, enchanting you with visions of riches and oneness and transcendental powers derived from communion with the Earth, who knows who she might be tomorrow.  In this world, it all depends on the alignment of the stars.

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The wine sounds fabulous, but if Mars sextiled Saturn, and the moon was in Gemini, were there stars in your eyes that evening?

I’m definitely going to try the Patiana Syrah. Love your blog! It’s so imaginative and informative.

beautiful words, you may have convinced me to give wine a second chance.

That is a fabulous thing to hear! I hope you give wine a third chance and fourth chance and so on. Trust me, you will find something you like if you dig around a bit!

Wow. What a luscious, romantic little blog Alli my dear. I may have to go out and get this… could turn my uneventful Friday night into a celebration of that mystical goddess within… Cheers my lovely;)

BioBuzz, Part I

One of the greatest aspects of my old job leading wine tastings in San Francisco was that I got to peer into the mind of the wine consumer, both amateur and professional, to examine why they wanted the things they wanted.  I could watch trends rise and fall like the tides of the bay, consumers bobbing on the surface of the water like so many buoys in the harbor outside my window, not realizing that their occasional pitches and dips have nothing at all to do with them and everything to do with the motion of the ocean.  In the past year, if there was a lot of hoopla from Consumer Harbor over one thing, it was biodynamic wine.

Why? I would ask. Why biodynamic?

Because it’s good for you, they would say.  It’s the new organic.

Typically, there was not much further the conversation could go.  This is not to call the consumer uninformed—I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the practice of biodynamic farming.  It is simply that the way wineries implement the practice and the way it is marketed to the public are two very different things.  If ever a wine trend was shrouded in mystery, it is biodynamics.

Unbeknownst to many, biodynamic farming has its roots in the occult.  The method was delivered to the world in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and clairvoyant who founded a spiritual movement called Anthroposophy, in which he tried to, among other things, synthesize science and mysticism.  As the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association puts it, biodynamic farming is “a unified approach to agriculture that relates the ecology of the earth-organism to that of the entire cosmos.”  The soil and the vines and the bugs and the flowers are viewed as interdependent living organisms, each with its own life-force and interconnected with the phases of the moon and the alignment of the stars.

This approach includes a series of ‘preparations’ which are intended to enhance the life-force of the soil.  These preparations, which read like a witch’s book of potions, are considered the most important part of the biodynamic process (the “yeast in dough,” as the BFGA puts it).  They are also the aspect that is most guarded from the general public:  cow manure fermented in a cow’s horn, buried and left underground over winter to be unearthed on the spring equinox; ground quartz mixed with rain water, also packed in a cow’s horn and buried; yarrow fermented in a stag’s bladder; oak bar fermented in the skull of a domestic animal…you get the idea.  All of these ‘preparations’ are diluted and then ‘activated’ by a special hand-stirring process called ‘dynamization,’ after which they are most often sprayed directly onto soil or plants.

There is more to it than the preparations, of course, and all of these far-out practices go hand-in-hand with unquestionably sustainable and organic farming methods.  The greatest argument in favor of biodynamic farming is that you can hardly go wrong with all this added attention being given to the vineyard.  By encompassing all of the environmental factors of the vineyard, biodynamic wines are said to acutely express the individual characteristics of a vineyard—the terroir.  By keeping the farming methods 100% au natural, even taking into account the phases of the moon, the oats-and-granola crowd has flocked to biodynamic wine like hippies to hacky-sacks (although I’m not sure how strict vegetarians and vegans may feel about consuming a product that is derived by way of animal slaughter for horns and bladders, regardless of how ‘holistic’ it may be).

For me, it is a question of the product itself.  Enter the Patianna Vineyards Fairbairn Ranch Syrah, Mendocino, Sonoma County 2006, biodynamic through and through.

To Be Continued…

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