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Thursday, September 07, 2006

The thrill of the chase
I've always been into film, and 'Sideways' in turn exposed me to wine, an even more expensive obsession. The main character of the film, pinot noir, is a less intimidating, sweet seduction that happened to open my doors to the reason why wine can be so fascinating (and painful). The 'Miles phenomenon' that caused an upswing of American pinot popularity, coupled w/ my favorite restaurant in New York, 'The Metro Cafe,' pinot became my training wheels to the vine.

Sweetly ripe California pinot has such a sensually overwhelming quality that all fanatics can truly appreciate. Before becoming a fully-fledged wine geek, I found it very difficult to put it into words why I became so smitten on a beverage that I used to consume from a box. Initially, it became a mission of locating that wine and buying a truckload of it. It must be that one special bottle, surrounded by a sea of liquid debris, which wound my clock. Then I progressed to reading up on the region (it took me months to properly pronounce 'appellation') and figured that California must have some sort of sweet spot for this grape. It started w/ the Santa Lucia Highlands and Gary Pisoni. I swore that god was a man w/ long mangy hair who drove around in a weathered jeep, smoking far too much weed. I did my research.

My fascination progressed to the Russian River and Mendocino cool county regions, w/ brief stints in and out of Oregon's Willamette Valley. Considering this was all happening before my era of dumping hundreds of dollars on monthly fees to the Wine Spectator and raging Robert Parker newsletters, I came full circle back to Miles and Jack in Sideways. It was time for the Central Coast.

I must have watched that movie 25 times. I memorized all the music, punch lines, and of course, the wineries. I got so transfixed on that film that I played the Los Olivos Cafe scene in slow motion just so I could discover exactly what bottles they were ordering on that drunken evening. Kistler, Pommard, Whitcraft....obsessed much?! The bottle that got me, for whatever reason, was Sea Smoke Botella. Why? Who the hell knows, the bottle looked cool. Everything they were drinking must be heavenly, c'mon this is Sideways! Miles won't soil himself w/ anything merely quaffable, right?

Upon my research I was elated to discover that Sea Smoke's Botella bottling was their cheapest in the line, retailing roughly at 30 bucks. Score! One minor problem, the two words that I would learn to loathe more than any other in the English dictionary...mailing list. You simply can't get it, and if you want it bad enough, be prepared to put up 3 figures plus for it. The concept of 'limited production artisanal cuvees' had yet to seep into my vernacular and burst my virgin bubble.

Long story short (fast forward 18 months, and plenty of midnight obsessing over elusive bottles I couldn't try); I planned a trip Napa Valley w/ my girlfriend. The Napa trip was special for countless reasons, with two major highlights.
  1. I proposed to my girlfriend in the Stag's Leap District (to which she thankfully accepted)
  2. We hightailed down to Santa Barbara County in an entirely impractical Jeep Wrangler (my childhood fantasy mobile) in search of the Holy Grail, the Sea Smoke.

Months prior to the trip I had regretfully signed up on Sea Smoke's limited members mailing list, only to discover it was laden w/ a distasteful 'points per purchase' system that I was basically screwed out of. My trip immediately became melancholy when I learned that Sea Smoke didn't even have a winery! Their wines were fermented and aged in rented space inside an industrial sector of a shady little town called Lompoc, where the locals referred to the collective park as the 'wine ghetto.' Believe it or not, it is quite a popular concept amongst upstart, boutique wine producers to make their 'garage wines' in such a fashion. My fiancée and I actually visited the ghetto for a showcase of Fiddlehead cellars renditions of sauvignon blanc and, of course, pinot noir.

Dejected, we went for a ride through the Santa Rita Hills gorgeous sweeping slopes of hallowed pinot noir vineyards. We passed Sanford & Benedict, Fiddlestix vineyard, and the oh, so sacred Sea Smoke. So now it was time to strike gold, a backyard smuggle…..

Or not, but there was still reason for hope. My fiancée telephoned a wine bar she found in an obscure news column that was located in Lompoc. No one answered, but an oddly exciting voicemail proclaimed that they specialized in 'hard to get wines' w/ particulars like Clos Pepe, Foxen, Sea Smoke were mentioned. I didn't get too excited, considering that dozens of New York City restaurants that I had visited in the months before claimed to have Sea Smoke on their wine lists, but alas we just sold out (a HUGE pet peeve of mine). What a tease, update your damn lists! I was willing to pay, regardless of your 100 percent mark-up. Don't you want my money?! Anyways, I didn't get too excited.

The trip out to Lompoc was eerie. The roads were desolate; the sounds of silence filled the air w/ an odd suspicion of foul play. Californians certainly don't pride themselves on directions, considering this was one of the various moments of our trip that we became hopelessly lost. Being lost in a town as sketchy and barren as this definitely leaves an odd shiver in your bones, but we pressed forth to the isolated street that the wine bar claimed to be on. Maybe the place closed down? Perhaps there'd be some half empty Sea Smoke bottles strewn across the cold streets? Hmmm, the odd facade to the bar did have a subtle beam of light peeking through the windows as we stepped closer. Here goes nothing!

I flew through the door w/ the awkward grace of a middle aged superman, beamed to the wine list (hopefully updated) w/ cautious hope and anticipation. The waitress answered my plea in a nonchalant fashion, 'of course we have Sea Smoke, what's the big deal?' I almost strangled here in disbelief, wanting to reach across to the bottle and suck down the ruby colored Bacchus juice. Price wasn't an issue, although surprisingly enough the menu was more than fair. All wines served were offered by the bottle, glass and taste. Sea Smoke by the taste? Hah!

I swished, swirled and swooned in my stem-less Riedel glassware during a moment that was tantamount to a young man's first experience w/ peanut butter and jelly. It was my Graceland, in the middle of a California ghetto w/ my soon to be wife...things couldn't be better! With wine there is this exhilarating sense of experiencing things again, for the first time. That 'first kiss or 'first love' can come multiple times, with a sting that's just as painful (especially w/ pinot). We would later learn that the owner of the establishment has particular favor w/ Kris Curran, the winemaker for Sea Smoke. You see Kris has no warehouse, nor cellar to store any of his wines (I guess that's a drawback to working in the wine ghetto). The owner, being a resourceful Lompoc local (and apparently a well-to-do pilot of sorts), offered Kim generous storage services in return for some extra favor on the vaunted 'mailing list.'

I later convinced the gentleman at the wine bar to part w/ one of his 2003 Sea Smoke Southing bottles in exchange for 125 dollars. The thrill of the chase continues to give me fresh excitement and enliven my passion for wine; much like those all too familiar junior varsity butterflies that the bench-warmer gets when called to action late in the game. The thrill of the chase also provides me w/ the peace of mind to justify all these ridiculously expensive wine purchases. If only my fiancée saw it that way.


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