Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Grape: From Soil to Sip

This past Saturday, the last of September, was a great day for getting into the wine spirit. I started by trekking up into the Santa Monica Mountains early that morning to visit the vineyard of a local winemaker, someone who actually grows wine grapes within Los Angeles proper. I’m discovering that, as it turns out, a number of people do.

The angle of various aspects of the mountains to the sun and their proximity to the ocean create varied micro climates which produce an array of wines in a relatively small area. Backyard vintners are beginning to craft wines that, while not on the production scale of the big boys in the outlying areas and upstate, are artfully done and quite special. And, truthfully, these people are not interested in competing with the big boys. This is an enterprise of love.

Cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapevines hugged the steep mountainside as the sun bore down on them--and on us--with the intensity of a summer reluctant to depart. The grapes we sampled were sweet and juicy and filled with the more complex flavors of grapes that are NOT intended for juice production. Our host instructed us to press the grapes in our mouths with our tongues and push the seeds to the side. After we'd savored the grapes, he told us to bite into the seeds themselves to register their bitterness on the sides of the tongue. Adequate bitterness and astringency in the seeds, he explained, are the real indicators of whether the grapes are ready to harvest. They still had just a bit of time to go before picking, he said.

Peek-a-boo! Netting over the grapes prevents birds and most bees from getting to the fruit, while allowing the sun, soil and vine to work their magic.

Row upon row of these veiled vines have a wacky hillside-full-of-Miss-Havishams look about them.

This was an admire-the-vines visit, not a tasting visit. I'd mentioned to one of my fellow visitors, Susan, that Andy and I planned to do some wine tasting that afternoon. She immediately suggested Palate, a new restaurant in Glendale. It turns out her husband Octavio is the chef/principal. By the time Andy and I arrived at the door a couple of hours later, he and wine director Steve were waiting for us!

Palate is not just a restaurant, not just a wine bar and not just a wine store. It's all of the above, along with wine storage facilities and even a food and wine library!

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and we had the wine bar to ourselves, as most people converge on the place at dinnertime. Steve, who is filled with equal parts wine knowledge and wine passion, clued us in on the pedigrees of the wines we sampled and later selected to carry home.

Andy & I appreciate a wine bar where you can consider the offerings on the chalkboard while you're sipping and sampling.

We spent a pleasant couple of hours sampling their wines, which were all appealing, decidedly eclectic--and affordable!--and munching on a variety of artisanal cheeses, salumi, Berkshire pork rillettes, delicately pickled vegetables and homemade butter. (If you've never given butter a second thought, just go looking for the good stuff. You won't want to bother with smearing it on bread--you'll want to eat it right off the plate with your fingers!)

Homemade butter, homemade bread . . .

Pork rillettes, pickled onions and pickled lemon cucumber, backed up with buttered, toasted bread sliced so thinly that it seemed to have only one side!

These guys even feature lardo on their charcuterie plate.
Why would anyone ever trim away the fat--except to showcase it like this!

Chef Gary Menes stopped by with an armload of salumi for his appreciative audience. We ooh'd and aah'd respectfully as thinly-shaved slices of porky heaven melted on our tongues. (Sorry! I'll try not to wade so deeply into Ruth Reichl's food porn territory!)

Chef Gary and enough spicy, cured pork
to keep L.A.'s food enthusiasts purring for awhile.

After sipping and sampling and chatting with Steve, Octavio and Gary, we made our wine purchases, and then trundled home for our postprandial snooze. We didn't eat anything the rest of the day. We didn't need to, as we were quite satisfied with the quality and quantity of our midday meal.

From grapevine to wine stem, it was a good day to be a wine lover.

P.S. I spotted a bucket of wine corks sitting on a window ledge and had to shoot a couple of pix. This is the new desktop photo on my computer.

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