Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Notes From The West Coast, Part Three - Drink

Being the final installment of my three-part "what I did on my winter vacation" report, in which I discuss liquid intoxicants.

Russian River Brewing Company
I'd need to have a little more of their product to be certain, but this might be the best microbrewery in America. And if you're ever in Santa Rosa, CA in the late afternoon/early evening and you don't have to drive or operate heavy machinery later that night, their happy hour is one helluva deal, especially considering what Russian River beer goes for (if you can even find it) on the East Coast.

For a while, I'd more or less sworn off aggressively hopped beers, having decided that they really weren't for me, but I've been changing my position on this lately. I still don't have any use for beers that feature a lot of hops and alcohol just for the sake of being "extreme", but I can now admit that strong, hoppy beers can feature flavors, really good flavors, that you can't get in other styles of beer. And Russian River's Pliny the Elder is one of the finest examples of this. I'd like to try some of their wine barrel-aged beers - the Pliny finished me off before I could - but I'd sure prefer to do it at the source and at those happy hour prices.

I realize that wine is much more dependent on and tied to the place it's made than beer is, but northern California, with breweries like Russian River, Bear Republic, Anchor, North Coast and Lagunitas, might actually be a better "beer region" than a "wine region" in terms of how it stacks up to the rest of the world (I wouldn't say this out loud Napa or Sonoma, though, unless I was in a microbrewery at the time).

Anchor Humming Ale
Had this small quantity release at a bar in San Francisco's Mission District, near Flour + Water (discussed in Part Two). Actually the bar was not far from the Anchor brewery, but, unfortunately, I didn't make it to the source. I've been a fan of Anchor's beers for many years now, and especially their limited run stuff (the 2009 edition of their special Christmas Ale was a really nice one), so I was excited to try this.

I'm not sure whether to call Humming a pale ale, an IPA, an APA, or what exactly, but I don't think I've had anything quite like it. This is about all I can do by way of description: light color, on the refreshing/drinkable side, noticeable hops but not a "hop monster" - the hoppiness came through in the form of some (mostly bitterish) flavors I can't quite pin down. If I got the chance, I'd definitely try this again, if only to get a better handle on it. (The expert palates at Beer Advocate weigh in here.)

- Sonoma & Kermit Lynch
After a little while in the California wine country, my bourgeois-o-meter started going off. You can't swing a cat without hitting a piece of wine-themed kitsch decor, and visiting the wineries' tasting rooms brought me face-to-face with my fear that enjoying and being interested in wine will turn me into "one of those people" (or that my interest indicates that I already am). I caught part of Sideways on TV shortly after this trip, and it reminded me of one group of post-collegiates I observed somewhere in Sonoma County. They were led by a burly, ruddy, ball-capped fellow who nightmarishly embodied the worst aspects of the Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti characters from that movie - a loud, obnoxious frat bro with an oenophile's vocabulary.

All that being said, I did gain more of an understanding of what's going on in California wine from my brief off-season tour through Sonoma. I've generally avoided CA wine in favor of France, Spain, and Italy, mostly because I've found that you can get much better value and variety for $10-20 from Europe than from California (or most other US wine regions, for that matter). I've tasted some very good California wines (particularly Russian River Pinot Noirs - Kosta Browne, Capiaux, Gary Farrell - and even some excellent vintage sparking wine), but the prices are too steep to make them a habit. While I tasted some wines that embodied the negative California wine stereotype - cloying fruit, too much in-your-face oak and/or alcohol - the best California winemakers are able to avoid these pitfalls, making fruit and oak into well-integrated virtues without trying to precisely replicate a particular European style.

I'm still partial to "old world" wines, though, and if you want to find them in California, the place to go is Kermit Lynch's shop in Berkeley. Sharing a small parking lot with Acme Bread (see Part Two), Lynch's shop screams "wine importer" as loudly as Acme does "artisan bakery". It's essentially a large room with hundreds of stacks of boxes, with the top box of each stack open to display the wines, almost all from France and Italy. My only purchase was a half bottle of Sauternes for a New Year's Eve dinner with friends (this was my first encounter with Sauternes, and I'll say that it's reputation - apparently, the founding fathers were fans - is justified, the words "nectar" and "elixir" coming to mind), but it's hard to go wrong with anything bearing Lynch's "men in a boat" label.

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