Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Tastes Great, Less Thrilling-April 11, 2005

If you’ve never spent any time in California, I’d advise boning up on your knowledge of fancy-shmancy food and wine before you come. You don’t want to find yourself standing in the terminal at LAX ordering a hot dog from a vendor, not knowing whether you want a ciabatta roll with your andouille sausage or not. He might only be making $7.50 an hour, but at least that vendor knows whether he’s into ciabatta rolls or not. (My advice: go for the ciabatta roll and then give the poor guy a heart attack by telling him to put about a half-pint of French’s Yellow mustard on it.)

Don’t worry. You’ll catch on quickly. Any Italian-sounding bread should be fine. If you’re worried about pronouncing words like “panini” or “ciabatta” correctly, just say them really quickly and wave your hand dismissively while you order, as though it bores you just to think about it. Chances are, the person taking your order will interpret your nonchalance as knowledge (This is California, not Tuscany…what do we know?) and start copying the hatchet job you did on a perfectly decent Italian word. In your travels, you might also spot a salad somewhere in the state made from something other than iceburg lettuce. No need to panic and go looking for the nearest Denny’s. Whatever exotic sounding name the salad leaves have, it’s pretty much going to taste like someone took a chunk out of the yard and mixed it with blue cheese, walnuts and pears. Cover it with enough raspberry vinaigrette to smooth out the turfy edge.

Then, there’s wine. If you’re consistently disappointed by the wine choices in restaurants because they never carry the boxes you like, you’re going to find Californians’ attitudes toward wine complex and annoying. Some Golden Staters, lacking meaningful career achievements, family or even warm-blooded pets from whom to draw meaning in life, turn to their knowledge of wine for satisfaction, even if most of this knowledge comes from the label of the bottle they happen to be drinking at the time. To this weird crowd, status comes from being able to jabber in some detail about astonishingly dull differences between wines you’ve never heard of and won’t be able to tell apart from Ernest and Julio’s after 2 or 3 glasses anyway. It’s startling how truly uninteresting this topic can be. If you ever get trapped in a conversation with one of these people, listen politely for five minutes, then look them dead in the eye and explain how you make wine at home by sticking some straws in a plastic bag full of water and fruit rinds. That ought to stop their rant. For them, though, it’s like therapy: they feel like big shots who are better than everybody else, while still remaining committed to drinking during the daytime. There’s something to be said for that.

As you can imagine, there’s not a lot of agreement about the finer points of fine wine. In Sonoma County, there’s practically a civil war afoot between hippified forces of organic wine-makers and the big company phonies who buy out the L.L. Bean catalog before moving out to the country to play Dr. Frankenwine in their bio-tech based wineries. This November, it looks like residents of the county will be voting whether or not to ban the genetic alteration of wine grapes for the purposes of making wine. On the hippie side, the widow of the late uber-stoner Jerry Garcia of the Grateful dead has decided to commission a little film about the evils of genetically altered wine. The word is that she wants to make a “Fahrenheit 9/11” type of film wherein angry, hard-hitting criticisms of her political opponents are combined with total lies and blended together so that no one can tell. On the nameless, faceless evil corporation side, the leaders claim that if their side wins, they promise to come up with a new species of wine grape that makes you a great conversationalist that everyone thinks is hilarious after drinking just 4 or 5 glasses. The effects are only temporary.

They also think they can develop a strain of grapes that resists glassy-winged sharpshooters, who are a lot less armed and dangerous than they sound. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that, since I’m not a grape, which is what these little buggers feast on. I’m sure mother and father grapes tell their grapelings fairy tales about staying away from the Big Bad Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter before bed as a way to scare them straight.

Come to think of it, talking about glassy-winged sharpshooters is just the kind of eyelid-drooping detail that got this whole wine discussion started. I’m sorry I mentioned it.

The stakes here just don’t seem so high, so I think it’s safe for all of us either to ignore the whole thing or find a way to make ourselves feel better about ourselves at their expense for a change. Here’s my suggestion: when the millionaire hippie winemakers and the glassy-eyed big business grape farmers start debating if it’s best to breed super grapes or just to use extra horse poo to bring out the subtle-yet-pungent aspects of the flavor, just pretend you’re watching one of those old Lite beer commercials and picture the two sides repeating: “Tastes Great! Less Filling! Tastes Great! Less Filling! Tastes Great! Less Filling!”

Now THAT was a debate worth watching.


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