by Cari Borja
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” —Soren Kierkegaard
Can you remember what kind of wine drinker you were when you first saw Alexander Payne’s iconic 2004 film Sideways , which takes place in Santa Barbara wine country? I do.
I remember who I saw it with, laughing uncontrollably, and how it lingered in my mind—not only the dialogue but also the seemingly impenetrable wine world. Looking back now, I remember thinking I had been there, done that in the most artificial of ways. I was the super goofy and unknowing Jack to my husband Lloyd’s sophisticated Miles … So how in the decade in between have I come to know that world of wine and become more confident conversing about it? To me it’s anthropology, and like field work you surround yourself with insiders and “locals.” It’s a way of thinking, doing and engaging with the world that leaves you ultimately transformed.
“I like to think about the life of wine … How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline … And it tastes so fucking good.” —Maya (Virginia Madsen) in Sideways
Fast-forward seven years to 2011, and my 40th birthday party at Chez Panisse, when I still didn’t know much about this cherished fermented grape juice; but I had taken classes with Jonathan Waters whilst doing an apprenticeship for three months at Chez earlier that year. Like the dialogue in the film, one gets the idea that the world of wine is just that—a world in its own right, but also one that parallels and intersects with the world of food. Both are seemingly complex and strangely simple—it depends which angle you see it from. For many people, wine is fairly straightforward and comes as a white, red or rosé, with not too much variation, but for many others, it is their living, their raison d’être, their obsession.
My interest in wine is two-fold—as Proustian madeleine and as an object around which people gather. The simplicity of the ritual around the act of drinking a glass of wine is fascinating to me and presents to the curious mind a world of discovery … so how does one enter it? My journey was slightly different and came from another way of thinking about wine. I make clothes with texture and silhouettes in collections that have a narrative thread. So once I used my own medium of fabric to interpret the idea of flavor, taste and the complexities of wine it brought me closer to apprehending its ambiguities, depth and structure—the way it changes over time.
For me, the art of gathering is all about the people; but bringing together guests for the salon dinners, which I started in February of 2012, meant weaving together personalities that overlap. Although many of the dinners have multiple thematic threads, one of the recurring themes is wine. The salonnières from the 18th and 19th century Italian and French salons used their gatherings to educate themselves. They brought together friends, but also people they wanted to learn from. The wine dinners are very much that—a community of people who intersect with that world. Over a dozen wine dinners later, I have gained an amazing amount of knowledge, and met many inspiring people who all have the common thread of a love of wine. Below is a collage of voices that speak around the role of wine in peoples’ lives—the philosophical and the functional—from the meaning of wine and its continual allure of discovery, to the pragmatics of how one decides what to bring to a dinner party or a special occasion, and simple ways to think about the choices we make and the wines we choose to share.
Alder Yarrow (author, The Essence of Wine ; blogger, Vinography) echoes some of my husband Lloyd’s thoughts on selecting wine for a dinner. (In fact, the other day before going to a friend’s housewarming, we went to Lloyd’s wine locker in Oakland, where Lloyd chose a case of wine for that evening and for Thanksgiving dinner.) Alder succinctly summarizes the thought process: “It can be fraught with options and indecision if you let yourself think too much about it. There are usually two key decisions for me—whether the wine will likely be opened, or just a gift for the hosts…If it’s likely to be opened and shared, I am usually thinking about two things: What are the folks at the party likely to appreciate, and, what do I want to drink that night?”
Paul Draper (winemaker owner, Ridge Vineyards), on his Proustian Madeleine: “Hiking Wednesday morning, and the smells because of the rain in oakwood, took me back to where I grew up and the oaks there, the wet earth, wet leaves and mushroom smell … Also, where I took you earlier into the cellar, where we walked briefly, it reminded me of when I carried my daughter Caitlin in a Snugli and took her to work. One year, when she was 18 months, we bought a Peugeot station wagon and went to France. Because of Alice [Waters] and Kermit [Lynch], we stayed with LuLu Peyraud [of Domaine Tempier], and we would have a glass of rosé. Jean-Marie [Peyraud] took us down to the cellar and Caitlin was in the Snugli, and she said ‘home’ because it was like our cellar here. I couldn’t believe it.”
Josh Jensen (winemaker/owner, Calera): “Wine is a living thing and not an object … What I’m drinking is Domaine Dujac DRC, Lafon Meursault, Montrachet; and when I have one of the Dujac wines, I feel like I’m visiting a friend and I[‘ve] called Jacques [Seysses] this morning about a bike ride we’re doing. That’s how I visit them. I connect through the delicious wines they make. It sounds tangential, but it’s a real connection.”
Rajat Parr (winemaker, Sandhi Wines and Domaine de la Cote; wine director, Michael Minna; co-author, Secrets of the Sommelliers ; co-founder, In Pursuit of Balance) on choosing Pierre Peters Les Chetillons 2002 for my 40th birthday gift: “I chose it because it was a producer I totally admire and eventually became friends with, and you want your friends to have the same idea and like what you like … I knew you knew taste and you’re very bubbly and your energy is infectious. That champagne made sense and has a good story … For my 40th birthday at Scribe, we had Pierre Peters of course, and a lot of big bottles. For your own birthday, it’s always about you, and you always bring the best of what you have. You want to share your favorite producers and vintages.”
Rajat Parr on the “Chef’s Night Out” blind tasting at Les Marchands in Santa Barbara: “I chose the Cornas because there were sommeliers and wine people and I wanted a classic wine, something interesting and with age. I chose the Alleman because he’s my favorite producer on the planet. He’s a legend. Every time I have the wine and meet the man—that is magic. It changes everything. It is true to where it comes from. The wine is so alive and has so much energy. I love every vintage, every wine. And my favorite food to go with it is Zuni’s roasted chicken; that is perfection right there … Sharing wine is very personal because you’re sharing your experience with others and introducing people to what you like and your closest memories.”
Evan Goldstein (Master Sommelier and co-author— with Joyce Goldstein—of Enoteca , Perfect Pairings , Daring Pairings , and Wines of South America: The Essential Guide ) : “Well, I would be remiss in not attacking it primarily based on what’s being served—if you can know in advance. Pairing is, after all, a driving motivation for me. Audience is key—what do they like? How open are they to experimenting? If there’s a ‘hot spot’ that excites me at the moment—South America is high on my radar right now—I may well select into that range both for interest and conversation-starting, and you have to answer the perennial query, ‘And what do you do?’ With wine it’s a form of self-expression, much like cooking when done with care, so your sharing it is a part of you—how much you care and how thoughtful you are are being … For your dinner with Raj, I brought a combination of some things fun and tasty—Spanish wines and older Riesling which Raj would appreciate, and would also go with the menu.”
Filmmaker Alexander Payne: “The reason I brought champagne to your dinner is I didn’t know exactly what you were cooking or what was being cooked, and everyone always likes champagne—it’s lovely and I can’t go wrong. Not that I could go wrong bringing a versatile red or hearty white … I’m pretty democratic and Catholic when it comes to food and wine combinations; but still, champagne seemed right … Also, it was near Christmas time, so it just had that air of festivity … I had a dinner party last night, and increasingly at dinner parties I like to open magnums of wine because I like the community aspect of everyone drinking from the same bottle. Last night I made turkey and served a 2006 Duckhorn Merlot magnum.”
Ceri Smith (owner, Biondivino; wine director, Tosca Cafe) on what wine to bring to a dinner party: “I kind of look at it like bringing an extra guest along and choosing a wine that is going to play nicely and get along with everyone else at the party. It’s going to have something to say, it’s going to be engaging and kind of start a conversation … It’s matching personalities to personalities, so if the wine has a personality that is exciting or different or interesting and unusual, and if you bring it to a party where the people aren’t used to that, they’re going to be a little more averse to it—or maybe they’re not, depending how adventurous they are. It’s like introducing somebody to a new friend, or bringing an extra dinner guest to the dinner table. If that person sits there and doesn’t say anything, it’s very awkward … If the wine isn’t speaking to the guest, or to the food, then the wine is like a guest who is sitting there silent and kind of uncomfortable. But if a wine actually has a voice and is interesting and intriguing, then the person reacts to it just like in a conversation. It’s kind of like taking an identity of a wine and matching it to the group of people you’re going to bring it to. If it’s something bold and friendly, everyone’s going to like it—of course it’s easy. If it’s a skin contact wine that’s a little more unusual, or a wine that’s sparkling red, it should go with the food and it should go with the guests.”
Shelley Lindgren (owner/wine director, A16, SPQR, A16 Rockridge; co-author of A16 and SPQR ) on choosing a wine for Salon Dinner #53, which was co-hosted with Bartavelle’s Suzanne Drexhage, who made a brussel sprouts risotto inspired by Yottam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More : “The Rovellotti Ghemme Riserva 2005 is a Nebbiolo from Alto Piemonte, a producer that really makes special wines. With its medium body and rose petal aromatics, it’s versatile. As it turned out, risotto is one of the mainstays of the Alto Piemonte, as it is one of the areas where carnaroli rice is grown for risotto. They say you are either in the rice or wine business there. I really love bringing festive magnums if possible to a group setting. so everyone is able to taste and enjoy the wine together. Just happened to have this one…”
Stevie Stacionis (sommelier and owner, Bay Grape), on helping me choose wines for Salon #54, co-hosted with the Toyota Innovation Hub: “You asked to stick with all California wines so as to introduce some cool local stuff to your guests. We thought that was awesome. We selected really amazing, changing-the-face-of-California producers because we think their wines tell an exciting story about what’s happening here now. There’s a movement away from higher alcohol, bigger body, more oak—towards more perfume, more acidity, more individuality from site to site and producer to producer. We think it’s one of the most exciting times to be drinking California right now, and we love sharing the stories of all these producers who are also friends of ours.”
Cathy Corison (owner/winemaker, Corison Winery) on the which-and-when of wines: “The holidays are a chance to share something special with friends and family, so we’ll tend to dig deep into the cellar. Dinners tend to have many components, so we try to choose wines that work with a good range of food. Good domestic Pinot Noir and Burgundy tend to be favorites. Though I almost never drink my own wine at home, I do pour my totally dry, Alsatian-style Anderson Valley Corazón Gewürztraminer on Thanksgiving. It is a match made in heaven for turkey … In a very real sense, if the cork isn’t pulled and the wine enjoyed with friends and family, did it ever exist? The whole point is sharing it and great food with others.”
Richard Hylton, on choosing wines for his housewarming in San Francisco last weekend: “I chose wines based on my conception of how the evening would break down. Early evening, eating oysters and appetizers around the kitchen and wandering about the house: Champagne, Rieslings and Chablis. Mid-evening first course of Tagliolini with Dungeness crabs: California Chardonnays and Chablis. Main course of roasted pork shoulder with fennel, roasted potatoes, and Brussels sprouts with bacon: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cornas, Barolo, and Côte-Rôtie … With all wines, you are building on previous tastes and the past; and after 30 years, it’s all about memory of the wines, and the countries and the people—the contexts. There’s a layering—a palimpsest. I sometimes think of that word because my life has been layers, building on building on building. It’s similar to wine for me. Hunting, food, wine, friends, literature to me are really about an ongoing conversation and dialectic. You can enter them and live in them if you want, but it’s helpful to have a well-stocked mind. It enhances your ability to appreciate these worlds, and they are worlds. And sharing wine is an essential part of breaking bread together. It is the bond of communion.”
Whether it’s a return to a sacred space or song, the memory of a lover’s scent or voice, the taste of a favorite vintage of wine or childhood cereal, or the re-watching and re-experiencing of a significant film, these poignant moments are the thread that make us who we are—they are our story.
“There’s nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” —Nelson Mandela
Come back to EatDrinkFilms next week for Justin Lowe’s look at the Napa Valley Film Festival’s recent 10th anniversary screening of Sideways and the resurgent popularity of Merlot.
Cari Borja began her career as a clothing designer while earning her PhD in anthropology and film at UC Berkeley in 2001. Since then she has created collections inspired by film and food and has become known for her salon dinners in her Berkeley atelier where she weaves together people from different disciplines and professions. Cari is currently writing a book with interviews with dinner guests featured on her blog, and also consults with start-ups and other companies curating dinners and connecting people. Read more about Cal Peternell, as well as other chefs, winemakers and guests at Cari’s dinners on Cari’s FashionFilmFood blog. Click here to read about Cari’s salon dinners in Berkeley.