Thursday, May 22, 2008

Road Trip: Pelicans Without Briefs

A wonderful bird is a pelican,
His beak can hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week;
But I don't see how the helican.

-- Dixon Lanire Merrith, 1910

Pelican sans briefs.

-- Ella Morris, 2008

Part Two: There and Back

Fourth Day Out: It's not often you drive over a thousand miles to meet someone, and then discover that person was born in the countryside less than five miles from your own birthplace.

Ella and I had arrived in Sebastian, Florida, on the Atlantic Coast around midday after spending the night near St. Augustine. Ella's mother's family -- the Websters -- were a close-knit clan of eight brothers and sisters who lived on a farm near St. Albans in the Kanawha River Valley of West Virginia a few miles downstream from Charleston. Nevertheless, half of the family decided to move to Florida within a relatively short time period, all settling in the Sebastian area south of Melbourne, while the other four, including Ella's folks, stayed on in West Virginia. All of the siblings are dead now, and only two of the sisters in law, one each in Florida and West Virginia, have survived.

Survived? No, that may not be a strong enough description for Aunt Bella. She has endured. We are sitting now in her living room, having carried our bags into the back bedroom for our two-night stay here. While we sip sweet tea, Aunt Bella sits in front of a needlepoint frame, and there are crochet hooks nearby. Crocheted lace doilies for table tops and the backs of couches (sofas) were standard issue in country homes when I was growing up, and Bella still creates lovely ones in both all white and in mixed colors.

Bella was born a Canterbury, and Canterburys were as plentiful as fleas on a beagle along Sandy Creek north of Charleston where we both had our childhoods a generation apart -- she at Frame and me a few miles away on Aaron's Fork. She left the creek in the 1940s and met Herman Webster. I left the creek in the 1960s and met her niece, Ella Alford. So, for a while, Bella and I play the "do-you-know?" game. We discover I went to school with some of her nieces and nephews, and she knew some of my aunts and uncles on both sides of my family.

Later that evening, we drive a few miles to Micco to visit Ella's favorite cousin, Connie, whom she played with when both were children in St. Albans before Herman and Bella migrated south. Their relationship is one of those where they might not see each other for years -- decades even -- and they pick up where they left off. Ella has met Connie's husband, Bob, before, but I have not. I like him immediately. He was born near Sebastian and was the first person Connie met when she was sent from the family car inside a small grocery store to ask directions to her uncle's new place. A few years later, she married Bob, and they now have grown children and grandchildren.

Like the Websters, Connie and Bob's family is close-knit, but even if they weren't relatives, they all share the same passion -- hunting and fishing -- so they would have crossed paths somewhere outdoors. They all know the same ponds, lakes, beaches, woods, streams and canals and what moves within them. Vacation and weekend retreats is a hunting camp a couple of hours drive away. They have hunted deer, alligators, frogs, and all the fishes in the deep blue sea. So with just a little urging, Bob brings out a venison sausage from one of the deer someone in the family shot that is densely packed and delicious. One link would provide chewing for a day. We also discuss gigging frogs and the best parts of an alligator and how they should be cooked.

The other thing we talk about is hurricanes. The Sebastian area has been the target of a few recently, and Connie and Bob tell stories about fleeing storms that have person first name or of hunkering down at home to wait them out. Perhaps even more horrendous are the stories of rising insurance rates, when insurance is available at all.

Fortunately, as we leave to go back to Bella's for the night, there is not a breeze stirring.

Fifth Day Out. Today, the Pelicans aren't flying. The wind has picked up this morning, so they are comfortable to perch on piers or hunker in the grass at Pelican Island National Wildlife Reserve. We have driven here with Connie and Bob from Sebastian across the bridge and causeway across the intracoastal waterway and past the multimillion dollar estates of John's Island. Bob remembers when there were dirt roads here and how he and his buddies would sometimes get stuck in the sand on their way to a fishing boat.

Ella loves pelicans and scurries among them taking pictures. Who knows why -- modesty, perhaps? -- but they sit with their wings gathered in front of them and peer between them like medieval warriors looking out at an enemy from behind metal shields.

Earlier in the day, we have met Cherie, Connie and Bob's daughter. Cherie's husband, Garrett, has build a thriving electrical business here, up from nothing to outfitting cell phone towers across the state. Of course, his business success is nowhere nearly as important to the family as is the fact that he is from Louisiana -- a Cajun -- and therefore loves to hunt as much as his brothers-in-law and father-in-law. Their two teenage daughters, both young beauties, have already bagged deer.

Cherie has for years been a quilt collector, and Ella has brought her one that Ella's mom and a sister-in-law created together some years ago, an heirloom that Cherie places in her special quilt cabinet, something that originated in West Virginia -- a hazy place already to the grandchildren -- and will now be passed along to generations in Florida.

Connie and I have a discussion about an article I wrote for Saveur magazine about a Thanksgiving in West Virginia. I brought a copy down for Bob because the family I profiled, who live near the New River in Monroe County, are also steadfast deer and squirrel hunters. But it is Connie who is most interested because the mother in the family is a Canterbury who was born in Kanawha County. Was there a link between this lady and the Canterburys in her mother's family? She is sure there must be, and she decides it is time to put on her genealogical hat and some time soon track that down the potential relationship.

Our visit is coming to an end, so we have a final dinner out at a rambling seafood restaurant along the waterway and say our long goodbyes. What a delight to have finally met, and spend a couple of days with, what we have referred to for years as "the Florida relatives." We agree to host Bob and Connie when they decide to take that long-planned trip north to visit New York City.

When we get back to our room, Bella is already asleep.

Sixth Day Out. It is about a six-hour drive from Sebastian to Seabrook Island, south of Charleston, SC., where Tom and Linda live. Like Mike and Patty, whom we visited in Wilmington, NC, on our way down, Tom and Linda are part of our old wine group that flourished during the late 1990s while we all had corporate jobs in the Delaware area (except for Ella, who was commuting to one in New York).

Along with three or four other couples, we would set aside one Friday night a month to sample 10 new bottles of wine and briefly discuss them. However, somewhere about the four or fifth bottle, side conversations would pop up. Randy, another camper, would thunder out, "Focus!" and Linda, in her East Tennessee drawl, would command, "Shut the shit up!" to restore calm. Almost as important as discussing the wines was guessing each bottle's price, with a door prize going to the best guesser. The wine tasting was followed by a communally prepared dinner, and more bottles would emerge from the cellar of whoever was hosting that evening. The group was so tight -- in more ways than one -- that we even went on road trips together to visit wineries and vineyards in Virginia and Long Island and, on a couple of occasions, even Bordeaux.

But, like the Websters of Ella's family, the group eventually split up. One couple moved to Philadelphia, close enough to still join us on an occasional basis, but Tom and Linda and Mike and Patty ended up in the South, although each family has a son still working in Delaware where they still see childhood friends. Tom is slightly younger than I am, but we have different philosophies -- often discussed -- about how to spend post-corporate life. He decided to retire cold-turkey -- no consulting, no "just for the fun of it" job as a part-time barista at a coffee shop or as a bookstore clerk. Instead, he lives as hectic a life retired as I do as a marketing consultant and writer. Tom does charity work, serves on committees for the community, keeps fit with lots of kayaking and golfing. Neither of us, we have decided, could be happy with the other's lifestyle.

Their house is within walking distances of beaches, yet it and the other are tucked along neat streets where trees outnumber lawns. Were it not for the fact that the house is raised above the garage to protect against storm surges and that an alligator patrols the canal out back, the community could be in central Ohio. As the day slips away, we go out to a nearby beach to view the sunset, as those of us on the East Coast seldom see sunsets over water unless we live on an island or on the east side of a bay.

Later, we reprise an evening with the old wine group on a scaled-down model. We drink wine, then drink more wine, as Tom grills and Linda prepares the side dishes, then more wine comes from the pantry. There are few true underground wine cellars on a barrier island. We talk about their trip to Machu Picchu a few days ago and ours there last year. Linda does not once admonish us to quietude, although once, for old time's sake, I sample Randy with a "Focus." And, like boys at a fraternity party, we decide to call someone -- Jennifer and Michael -- back in Delaware, not sure if they would still be up or asleep. The next day I can't truly remember the purpose of the call.

Seventh Day Out. Do you know Philip Roth? Ella and I both have read a lot of current fiction over the years, especially her when she was taking those daily train rides to New York, but I've always had trouble with Roth. I like the idea of his fiction often more than I actually enjoy reading -- perhaps only one book read to the end and a couple started with the bookmark permanently stuck somewhere around Page 83. The lure is his intelligence and wit, the fact that he is one writer who still discusses ideas and philosophy in his novels. But at what length! Try reading Roth while you're in bed, and you're asleep before the first page is turned. Read him at the beach, and you find yourself flipping through pages of ideas in search of action -- or even a plot. Would someone walk by topless to detract our attention from the page?

But Roth is perfect, we find, as a road book, even if his obsession with body functions (or lack thereof) surpasses even the levels of my late mother-in-law. (I give you Mrs. Portnoy's liver.) Anyway, we are now into the second or third disc -- one would never find an abridged audio version of a Roth book -- of Exit Ghost. Roth's lengthy ruminations on the human condition (including stains) seem perfectly delightful as we weave our way through rush-hour traffic around Charleston en route to I-95 north. Zuckerman's dilemma -- or one of his dilemmas -- of wanting to pursue a young lady even though prostate surgery has left him both impotent and incontinent seems fascinating when you're starting off on a long drive. And how fitting it all seems when we have to temprarily stop the disc after finally finding a suitable rest stop on the long drive through the woods along I-26.

We have decided to power through on the 10 or so hours that it will take us to get home tonight, and not stop in Virginia for an early evening and a two-hour final drive on Saturday morning as we had originally considered. We want our own bed and to reunite with our six yard cats, whom, we are convinced, can't wait another night without us.

As we turn off I-95 on US 301 then merge west of Annapolis with US 50, we begin to encounter weekend traffic from Washington for the Eastern Shore and the Maryland and Delaware beaches. Years ago, when there was only one two-lane bridge crossing the Chesapeake Bay, traffic would back up for hours. We find that it still does -- or at least the better part of an hour -- although there is now a second, multi-land span. Then the traffic gradually starts moving, first in fits and starts, then in a mad rush like a drain clog that has been loosened by the plumber's friend. I hate the new bridge -- it is higher and more exposed -- but traffic going east crosses the old one, so I am not too concerned about my acrophobia kicking in.

But as I go rapidly through the E-ZPass lane, we are diverted as a reward unto the right lane of new bridge, overlooking the cargo ships miles below heading for their berths in Baltimore. Meanwhile, west-bound traffic hurtles toward me inthe adjoining lane. Where are the distractions of Zuckerman's complaints when I need him? Several minutes later and safely across, I am sure than my fingerprints could be lifted from the underside of the steeing wheel without the need for any forensic dusting.

Finally, the road trip is over. I have managed to take my pilgrimage to Florida and back without getting a traffic ticket. For this week, the roadside alligators have snapped someone else's wallet. Nor have we brought back any cypress knees or Spanish moss, as my ancestors would have done, but more precious are a couple of Aunt Bella's handmade doilies, one which will in time grace our dining room table, the other a windowside wooden stand.

On the back deck, I give a whistle, and the cats slowly emerge one-by-one from under the steps and out of the woods. First Harvey, then Alfie, then Lyle, Clint, and Ernie. And, hanging back at the edge of the May apples that have popped up while we were away, there sits Mama Chester. They cluster around to rub our ankles or be rubbed as we admonish them as "bad cats." As they can attest, John Lennon was right -- "all you need is rub!"

"Where have you been?" they demand.

"We have stories to tell," we reply.

Until the next time....

Roger Morris

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Prosecco Picnic: How Extra Dry It Is!

Cartizze is the name of a prized hill in the Prosecco region of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene -- about 262 acres of vineyards that constitute the area's fabled cru. Several producers own a piece of this famous terroir, located about an hour's drive north of Venice, or at least have access to its grapes. The wine they make from these vineyards is usually a lightly sweet sparkling wine with good acidity -- generally a dry or extra dry and, occasionally, a brut. Fermented in tanks to preserve the Prosecco grape's floral characteristics, the sparkling wine from Cartizze makes an excellent picnic wine.

Which was reason enough to saddle up for an alfresco affair in Bisol's own patch of Cartizze to eat the elegant cuisine of Marco Bortolini (standing) of Da Gigetto restaurant in Miane and to drink the elegant Proseccos of the Bisol family (seated, rear table, at 11, 12, 1 and 4 o'clock), including a bottle produced from grapes grown around our picnic area. The author is at 3 p.m. at the rear table, and fellow writers Robert Whitley, Susan Westmoreland, and Tom Stevenson, along with photographer Peter Sukonik, are scattered among the tables. Behind the tree at rear, pointing skyward, is an ancient cannon to protect us from hailstorms.

How sweet, or at least off-dry, life is!

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Robert Mondavi: Napa Valley's Wine Messiah

Robert Mondavi, who died last week at age 94, was a transitional wine industry figure who grew up in one era and helped pull the rest of us into a different age. When Mondavi, already a mature 53 years old, founded his own winery in Oakville in 1966, very few Americans drank fine wines, and those who did drank French.

More than any other person, he changed all that.

Mondavi's challenge, as he saw it, was a two-step goal: Work unselfishly with his fellow Napa Valley vintners to make world-class wines, and then rapidly convince the rest of the world of this new reality. Not that he didn't have help. Andre Tchelitschef, Joe Heitz, Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski, and Jack Davies were all quality pioneers, but none had the leadership drive and capabilities to match Mondavi.

Having led this miraculous transformation of the Napa reputation by the 1980s, Mondavi sought to use his new-found wealth and admiration to become a world leader in winemaking, and, for a while, he was. But, like a tiring race horse at the head of the stretch, he and his business model began to stumble during the 1990s. By the time of his death, his eponymous winery (like so many eponymous California wineries founded during the heady 1970s and 1980s) had been sold to someone else.

Those of us wine writers who met Robert Mondavi and his sons Michael and Tim during the 1970s know that we are all marked by Mondavi's aura as well. We visited the Mondavi winery shrine in its glory days, heard the master's message, and all willingly and fervently spread it.

And, in our own ways, that's what we still are doing.

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Tasting Notes: New York Slate of Rieslings

Of all the classic grape varieties, Riesling is arguably the one most affected by its terroir. Of course, all grapes are influnced by their soil and climate and whatever other elements one factors into the T-word, but Riesling seems to be so delicate and sensitive that it can take up the actual taste of shale or slate or sediment from the earth of the vineyard where it is growing and transfer it into our glass of wine. So it may not be surprising that among people who drink a variety of wines, Riesling also appears to be one grape or wine where preferences as to what is great or merely good also varies most widely. Perhaps it is because there are so many variables within the glass that it is difficult to settle on one, or even a set, that best shows off the variety.

All this came to mind a couple of days ago when Joshua Greene, editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine, led a tasting of 10 selected wines at the 2008 Finger Lakes Riesling Summit at the Astor Wine Center in lower Manhattan. Greene is an expert at the region, one that he has staked out, but rather than being pedantic, he was like an museum curator who has put together an exhibit and wants you to understand what went through his mind in assembling it, including connections that may be tenuous even to his own mind. Ten wines was a workable number -- big enough to give a representational variety, yet small enough to examine in detail.

Which is what Greene did. He explained that his main theme was terroir, and he started with the geographic component, a distribution of locations around the three major lakes, Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka, assembling the wines into three flights according to their location. This geographic spread also allowed him to examine two other primary aspects of Finger Lakes terroir -- soil composition and the region's multiple lake effects, including those of Lake Ontario to the north. Which led to a discussion of the 500-pound gorilla in the room, in this case the far-larger glaciers that alternately gouged and flattened the landscape, creating deep lakes and plateaus. By selecting these 10 wines, Greene wanted to open the consideration of how these major points of terroir affected the grapes grown and the wines made. But it was also clear that he was not leading a rush to judgment, to tidily wrap up the causal factors in each wine's tastes.

"You get a lot of variability of factors that have nothing to do with terroir," he said, and easily brought many of them into the discussion, which was aided by a sampling of the wines. For example, the yeast used for fermentation. Or the rootstock. The clone. Age of vines. Drainage. Aspect. Density of planting. Yield per vine. Oxygen treatment. Acidity. Residual sugar. Levels of alcohol. And, of course, the philosophy of the wine grower. To be sure, we wine writers had been through all this before, in rooms with other regions and other grapes, but Greene's exploration seemed at once intellectual and entertaining, performed in a thorough yet casual manner.

More than anything else, I came away with the idea that soil, from the granular level to the fractured slabs of slate, has more to do with the way a Finger Lakes Riesling (or any Riesling) tastes than anything else, that ability of the Riesling grape to bring what is at its roots to the tips of our tongues. It is a marvelous sensory achievement, but it still leaves us with the difficult decision of which roots, and which winegrower who interprets those roots, makes the best wine.

As a group, the Finger Lake wines, all from the 2006 vintage, were good to very good. They reflected great minerality, balance, acidity in most cases, and food-friendly flavors. Were they as good as the German Rieslings -- or those of Alsace, Australia or New Zealand? The question is bound to be asked, and, to my palate, the answer is a qualified "no." Certainly, the wines are worthy of exploring further, of our rooting for them to improve with each coming vintage. So, very well-made wines, very enjoyable wines, very good wines for the price (mostly under $30), but not wines that dance around on the palate and through the brain.

So, for now, enjoy the wines. But don't schedule that Judgment in Wiesbaden.

Notes on the Wines Tasted

All wines tasted are from the 2006 vintage, and all are apparently made of 100% Riesling. Retail prices and availability not provided,

The Favorite:

  • Treleaven Dry Riesling. The only wine to exhibit much of the petroleum-like aromas so associated with German Rieslings, it has almost tropical fruit and citrus flower flavors, excellent balance, with a flavorful, yet lea, profile.
Not Far Behind:
  • Fox Run Reserve Riesling. Haunting pears and mineral aromas, followed by a wine that is initially in two parts: juicy tart apricot (pause) followed by stony minerality and a white peach skin finish. It melds the longer it is in the glass, so I would decant before serving, even if that isn't the current practice.
  • White Springs Red Label Riesling. Mote-like particulates in the glass (unfiltered?), but the wine itself has great Riesling juiciness and acidity. Not long on the palate, however.

In the Running:

  • Chateau LaFayette Reneau Johannisberg Riesling. Fruity on the nose and velvety in the mouth with nice white flowers framed by tonic-water prickling around the edges.
  • Red Newt Riesling Reserve. Very lean, raspy minerality, with ripe, red gooseberry flavors.

In the Pack:

  • Buttonwood Grove Dry Riesling. A little heavier on the palate with not as much finesse, the flavors coming mainly at the finish.
  • Sheldrake Point Reserve. Very nice aromas and tart orange flavors, but fuller, heavier with some tart vegetal notes and a constricting finish.
  • Standing Stone Riesling. Good balance, but not a lot of fruit. Most of its considerable character comes from the minerality.
  • Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling. Delicious nose and good flavors, but comes up short with some papery undertastes.
  • Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling. This is a wine I wanted to like even more than I did -- beautiful nose and a bundle of varietal fruits up front and even some dusty tannins, but it lacks finesse and is short on the palate.

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Road Trip: A Pilgrimage to Florida

Long before Republicans and the Cuban exiles, West Virginians discovered Florida.

Our early ancestors made the overland passage in ancient Fords and Chevies, their running boards caked with mud and squirrel and raccoon tails waving from the antennae that were capturing the country sounds of WCKY, Cincinnati One, Ohio, at that time our cultural beacon. We had earlier discovered Ohio, but it was even colder than the mountains in winter, and its post-war factory jobs there were then disappearing. So why not Florida? Employment was uncertain, but the weather was hospitable.
When these pioneers came home after a few weeks, their cars were decorated with brightly colored decals pasted to the wing glasses and back windows, advertising such exotic places as Tarpon Springs and Cypress Gardens. They also brought back gifts that the natives gave them for dollars -- clumps of greying Spanish moss to hang on the front porches, cut cypress knees suitable for making into lamp bases, and wooden cases full of sweet, fresh oranges. But they also told harrowing tales of the lands they traveled through -- the Carolinas and Georgia -- and of feral police cars that pounced from their lairs behind Mail Pouch and Stuckey's billboards and gas-station attendants who could cipher mysterious engine ailments just by raising a car hood.

Although we seldom talk about it among ourselves, those born West Virginian have a desire to some day get into a car and drive to Florida, no matter how far we have flown from our native state, no matter how long ago we shut that door.

Part One: Outward Bound

First Day Out. The lower third of the Delmarva Peninsula dangles south like the nude, tapering tail of a possum escaping up a hickory tree. The land is dead flat, laced with the watery fingers of inlets from the Atlantic Ocean to our left and the Chesapeake Bay to our right that masquerade for a few miles as rivers, their flows dictated not by gravity but by the mysteries of tides. Although the gas stations and convenience stores we pass by are thoroughly modern, the small towns and crossroads are not. There is a siren call of the past here, of a time when farming and fishing were everything to a young country, and it makes you want to stop and linger for a few days -- have a cup of everyday coffee at a small cafe and not read a newspaper, sit in a pasture under a spreading oak tree whose only worry is the occasional passing winds of a hurricane or a fast-moving Nor'easter on its way to Maine, dangle your feet off a decaying dock and look for water halos of fish below. We pass by signs for Assateague (where once I lugged in a half case of wine in my backpack for a weekend alfresco cooking jaunt) and Chincoteague, both barrier islands in the Atlantic. Other signs point to the crabbing and oyster-catching haunts of Crisfield and Smith Island, where the past clings to our consciousness like barnacles that can never be totally scraped away.

Ella and I left Pennsylvania this morning with cups of Starbucks latte nestled in the cup holders between us and a long, unabridged CD of Philip Roth's Exit Ghost nestled in her side pocket to entertain us later and in mine a tin box of curiously refreshing peppermint Altoids to give us quick bursts of fiery energy. We are Florida bound. First, to visit Ella's relatives, an aunt and cousins who went there in the '50s and never returned; second, to visit friends along the way, and, finally, to fulfill that Mountaineer urge to drive south.

The dozens of no-range chicken barns of Perdue and other meat manufacturers are now mercifully behind us as we prepare to traverse the long, beautiful Chespeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel that crosses from Virginia's Eastern Shore at the tip of Delmarva's tail to its Left Bank and the historical, military, and holiday haunts of Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach. Unfortunately, Ella and I are the Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat of topographical phobias -- she hates tunnels and all things underground, and I am terrified of high bridges and all things that suddenly drop off. But the tunnels are short, and the bridges don't really soar, so we touch down at the far side virtually unstressed.

By mid-afternoon, we arrive at the Outer Banks, our destination for the night, and are immediately disappointed. Never having been there, we had anticipated something pristine and, well, spirit-soothing. Instead, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head -- such free-sounding names -- turn out to be wall-to-wall beach houses stretching from the inlet up over the primary dune like a wave in reverse. Later, we drive south into the national seashore area, and the houses begin to fade away, so we become somewhat mollified. And we enjoy the Wright flight enclave carved out between beach developments and four-lane highways. Still, what does this place look like in the summer?

In the evening, we have our anticipated seafood dinner at Kelly's at Milepost 10.5. Although it is a sauce, starch, and quantity-driven place, everything is fresh and flavorful, and the wine list is good and fairly reasonably priced. When we return to our motel, there is a wedding party going full bore at a beach house down the dune. We decide to crash -- but not it.

Second Day Out. We stop at Grits Grill on South Croatan Highway barely five minutes after liftoff for a quick, Sunday-morning breakfast. Northern food critics like to fawn over grits, possibly because as children they never had to eat them. But the grill's name proves to be more a paean to the locale than it is to the character of its food. The eggs are fresh, the coffee superb, and the service very attentive for a place that has a takeout counter for Krispy Kreme donuts. You also have to love a restaurant that serves both breakfast and lunch all day.
Sated, if not wiser, we head westward across the Great Dismal Swamp, and here we suddenly have the beauty and solitude -- we seem to be the only car on the road -- that the Banks seem to lack. There are warnings of alligators in the ditches and canals that parallel the highway, then fork off into the woods along desolate dirt paths that promise to lead to remote clearings we've all experienced at arm's length in primal-scream slasher movies and Erskine Caldwell novels.
By midday, we are at our friends' home in the Landfall section of Wilmington, NC. Mike and Patty are former neighbors who, since leaving our docile environs, have dodged tornadoes in Oklahoma and barely missed wildfires in the hills of Southern California. Now they are permanently Tarheels, or at least until the next hurricane roars through. We go on a tour of Wilmington, lingering in the old town area along Cape Fear River, where the annual azalea festival is being held. At about every other house, mostly young women dressed up as pre-bellum Azalea Belles give us don't-move-an-elbow waves as we drive by. Beyond the pageantry, though, Wilmington does look like a nice town, the kind of place where you would like to sit down at a small cafe with a cup of coffee and finally read that newspaper.

Mike's and Patty's home is on a golf course -- an early hole -- and I watch Mike hit golf balls with his sand wedge to their young Lab retriever until Patty calls us in for spring lamb chops. As we have packed a few provisions in the car, we play the wine-drinking game of "Raise and Match," as in, "I'll raise your bottle then match it with another."

Third Day Out. We pull up to a motel outside of St. Augustine after a long drive down Interstate 95. It has not exactly been a boring ride, but the highpoint of the day was checking my Blackberry every 15 miles, being sure that the radar-toters hiding in the trees along the medians didn't scan us like a can on a checkout conveyor while I was answering e-mails.

Dinner is a pleasant surprise. Not wanting to overplan (as Ella generally accuses me of doing) or to predetermine how far we would drive each day, we did not consult any travel guides on Great Roadside Restaurants to Eat at While Traveling to Florida. But we did find one -- and a local delicacy as well.

Schooners Seafood on Colon Avenue in St. Augustine looks like the outside of any other 400-mile restaurant, as in, "I've driven 400 miles, and right now this place looks great to me." Inside, it's all booths, lots of local families who seem to know each other, and a menu that has everything from "gator tails" to conch to catch of the day to catfish, all prepared to your specifications, fried or broiled. The surprise is Minorcan datil peppers, which I learn were brought to St. Augustine by settlers from the Greek Islands. Today, a bottle of pepper sauce sits on every table as a condiment along with the mandatory ketchup bottle, and it's also a common ingredient in many dishes -- moderately hot and spicy. Along with some very good calamari, I try the Minorcan clam chowder, and the dish, I decide as I scrape the bowl clean, fits very nicely as the southern terminus of the great American chowder chain -- New England, New York, and, now, Minorcan.

After a Jack Daniels on the rocks in lieu of dessert (life is full of tradeoffs), I call it quits. Tonight, Jack Daniels. Tomorrow, the relatives.

Until the next time....

Roger Morris

Friday, May 2, 2008

Tasting Notes: Le Cirque de Solaia

I caught the train to New York this week for a tasting at the restaurant Le Cirque of 10 vintages of one of Antinori's groundbreaking Super Tuscans, the Cabernet and Sangiovese blend called Solaia, which is now celebrating its 30th year. Our small group of writers began by tasting eight of the vintages side by side in a tutorial led by the current marchese, Piero Antinori. I say "current" because the Antinori family has been making wine for more than 600 years, and he is not the first Piero to bear the title.

The second two vintages were served during an elegant lunch, at which time owner Sirio Maccioni casually strolled into the dining room like a guest on the David Letterman show and was greeted by Antinori, who hailed him as a "fellow Tuscan" who first agreed to take a chance at selling New Yorkers Antinori's expensive red wines at a time when Italian winemaking was known for the "Q" word that does not spell quality.

Antinori is on the cusp of 70, but he could pass for much less, a good advertisement, perhaps, for drinking his wines. During his introduction to our first Solaia, the initial 1978 vintage, Antinori gave credit to his older and better-known Super Tuscan, Tignanello. "Without Tignanello," he said, "we would not have had Solaia," explaining that there was a need to deal with the excess of French grapes beyond what was committed to the blend of that Sangiovese-dominated wine. The 1978 Solaia was actually 80% Cab Sauvignon and 20% Cab Franc. Interesting, Antinori had originally not planned to release the first vintage, not impressed with its initial showing and perhaps prejudiced by the fact that the vines were only four years old, a sign of the strega that was more worrisome to winemakers at the time than it is to today's generation. But it developed so well in the barrel that they eventually reversed that decision.

And with good reason. The 1978 is tasting excedingly well, a testament to the northern Italian tradition of knowing how to balance fruit, tannins, and acid with the casual skill of a juggler at a street fair in Siena. I kept coming back to it throughout the tasting, and it continued to hold firm. The next wine, the 1985, was not as fortunate, having a sooty aroma and not holding together well. A tasting from a second bottle confirmed that difficulty.

The native Sangiovese was added in the 1980s to play second fiddle to the Cab Sauvignon, Antinori says, and to better marry the Solaia to its terroir, giving the wine's finish what he called "the Sangiovese grip." It also became the flip side of the composition of Tignanello. The late 80s also saw Solaia gain more weight and stuffing, and the very good 1988 reflects that style with a meaty, earthier component. The 1990, which was also showing well, did not become the wine that Antinori had hoped -- "not as great and elegant as we thought it would be" -- but in 1994 he was rewarded with what he regards as a "great vintage, what we had in mind when we decided to produce the wine." It is full and robust with delicious fruit, yet with a luscious silkiness.

After 1995, the winery decided to use all new oak on Solaia, and, to my palate, it has resulted in more fragrance and oak "sweetness" in the wines. The 1999 is a big wine, full and fine, with a lingering tightness in the finish. The 2001 is still quite young but promises elegance as it ages. The 2005, bottled in December after an uncharacteristically long two years on oak, is still not ready for release, but it looks to be very big, very promising.

At the table, over a lobster risotto and a simply prepared loin of veal, the 1997 proved to be a wonderful wine, with great balance of fruit and acid, and the 2004 Solaia, served with the cheese course, was very well-structured with interesting flavors of dark chocolate. Both were served directly from the bottle, and decanting might have made them show, if possible, even better.

Earlier, Antinori made an interesting comment about attending many celebrations and anniversaries related to his wines in recent months. But, he said, he preferred the creative moments, launching something that might, further down the road, be cause for even more celebration. "Was there something specific you had in mind," I asked him later. He would not confirm or deny, but only noted he always loved to think creatively and that something could come up to lead to future celebration, even if he weren't around to be a celebrant.

Given Piero Antinori's track record, watch this space.

Until the next time....

Roger Morris