Mountains from Molehills

Root WineMost Friday nights, relaxation consumes the pith of my free time.   Others might consider sitting by the heat vents book-in-hand a tad tame, even pathetic (Or in words of my little brother, a soul-crunching waste of my youth), but that’s just how some of us are put together.  There are those with the constitution to drink, carouse, and womanize all night.   If that’s all they’re capable of, God bless them, but some of us need a little bit more: travel, sword fights, damsels in distress, and that’s all before I even picked up my first tome.  With my family even the dullest chores or stagnant afternoons can emerge as a circus act, complete with clowns, lions, and jugglers (Shannon and Charley are still quite upset about that Belleek vase, Mom.).

The angle is the key, the difference between boredom and amusement.  As one of my old teachers and religious advisers reminded me, the value of these idle moments is akin to finding a peep-hole into the girls’ locker room: with the proper perspective and a little imagination, a world of untold riches unfolds before you.

One evening, in preparation for Christmas and the impending snowstorm, Mom and I drove out to the local liquor store and wine emporium.  What Borders and Barnes & Nobles is to me — that is a land of wondrous magic and adventure, from which my siblings often must drag me kicking and screaming, my hands clutching the latest Stephen King for ballast — so is the wine store to Mom.  In our most honest moments, adults revert back to childhood, peeling back the time-encrusted layers of restraint, reserve, and responsibility.  As we walked through the doors, I found her quivering with excitement.

“Okay Murph, we need a few bottles for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the next week or so until New Years.  They say it’s going to get below freezing and I might not be up for leaving the house until 2010.”

“Right, Mom.”  It was quarter of eight.  The liquor store I reasoned must close sometime around 10PM or so, giving us little more than two hours to finish our shopping.  I just hoped it would be enough.

Meeta Panesar CabernetSeriously the woman can spend hours staring at bottles, divining secrets of pomegranates and flame-burnt oak through green-tinted glass and labels adorned with yellow-tailed kangaroos.  Other customers skirt around her like a small craft around a rocky shoal.   After some five minutes, she begins to sway from side to side, smile to herself and hum Toby Keith, a musical collage of alcohol-related operas sung with a country twang, half-whispered, and off-key.  I leave her to her studies, scurrying off down the aisles to critique the artistry of bottle labels.  Most modern liquor stores are in truth an art gallery in miniature, offering an eclectic collection of landscapes, impressionistic reliefs, and abstract still-lifes with polyhedral grapes.  I spend the next hour or so staring at withered trees swallowed by fog; an Aztec dragon curling around the ornate vine; an antique home or castle sketched in charcoal.   Honestly, these glass-curled portraits are the only method I have for choosing new flavors.  Once home, we quickly drain the bottles of their respective juices, wash the inner chamber, and mount on the shelf for the world to see.

The lagers are even more intriguing: Bad Elf, Bastard Ale, Honeyed Meed, and even CopperDragon – Golden Pippen.  The geek in me giggled, while secretly regretting my utter distaste for beers.  If only the stuff did not taste of swill, I could picture myself with a flagon of ale, pwning fell demons and scale-skinned marauders from unholy lands online.   As Dad would remind me, if you don’t look the part, you’re always forced to prove yourself.  I might not possess the strength to wield a Viking axe — or even possess an axe — but many a bandit might reconsider picking my pocket if I learned to drink like one.

Cardinal Zin WineI find Mom still rooted near the wine racks, deciding.  Somewhere in my subconscious, I imagine her silently communing with the ghosts of Italian wine makers and liver-soaked drunkards of Christmas past.    The spirits convene over smoked gouda, Carr crackers, and a 1986 Mondavi Cab before passing out, leaving my mother to her own frugal judgment.

$17.95.  A Sterling merlot.  Everything else is too expensive.  I add several bottles of my own, feeling quite pleased with the decorative quality of my choices, and  lie about the price.  She’ll thank me later, once the snow begins to pile.

We finally leave, my arms and back laden by several box-loads of wine, beer, and assorted spirits (the drinkable kind).  Cars pile outside the store as families quickly replenish their supplies for a long weekend snowed in with their children.  The nearby bar appears packed, nearly brimming over into the cold night.  The air felt tense and still, as if the evening was just about to exhale.  The flurries began then, showering the car as we crossed bridges, through the woods, and nearly skidded down hills.  At home, the snow had started to cover the asphalt.  Brigid had stayed over a friends house and alcohol safely stowed inside, Mom sent me out to retrieve her.

Shefa Profusion wine bottlesIt’s the small things in life that matter.  Armed with my iPod and a playlist of epic soundtracks, I set off again into the night, snow piling on the roads like powdered sugar.  Oncoming traffic weaved between lanes as the line dividers disappeared; my car fishtailed into the shoulder near the bridges, nearly colliding with a few mailboxes after only a mile.  At one point, I thought I saw a yeti disappear into the trees.  Bree, my sister, nearly groaned when she saw me pull up to her friend’s house.

“Awww . . . I hoped that I could spend the night.  Could you leave me here, and tell Mom that you got stuck?  Or hit a tree or something?”

There are guys who spend their Friday nights bar-hopping around the city, having adventures that they can barely remember in the morning.  Each to their own.  Yet among the grind, chores, and duties of large families, other adventures surface.  It’s not about making excitement routine, as much as discovering the excitement in the routine.  Sometimes all it takes is a slight turn of the head, a blink of the eye, and BOOOM! you’re there.  You don’t even need alcohol . . . though I wouldn’t tell Mom that.

B Frank wine bottle

West Coastin’: Last Call

RT8_sushiIn those final days, our adventures kept us tethered close to Anaheim, cleaning our hotel rooms, gathering souvenirs, and worrying that the airport would not choose to jettison nearly a thousand dollars worth of wine (Mom’s frequent and incessant doubts, to be honest, worried me.  I imagined ourselves forced to drink thirty-six impounded bottles in the airport terminal only to miss our flight or have our stomachs pumped – whichever came first.).

At the time, we were quite content to remain within an hour of the hotel.  Mostly we focused on our stomachs, sampling local bakeries and restaurants recommended by various family and friends . . . and the internet.  I should note here that this form of research notoriously tests wills and tempers, breaking friendships and ruining meals to the tune of ‘But . . . but they said it was good!’ and ‘How can so many people be wrong?’

Advice as Tolkien writes often is a dangerous gift . . . as all courses may run ill.  Yet in the case of dining, this can be taken quite literally.  A bad meal can ruin evenings, sending the unlucky diner tumbling into the bathroom, hugging about the toilet for days.  Good advice is of course aimed to prevent this, yet even precluding sickness, the combination of high expectations, modest fare, and poor atmosphere alone may ruin any meal.

Many people have a habit of recommending hole-in-the-wall restaurants, small cramped cafes tucked away from the mainstream and thus more expensive dining halls, promising excellent fare and original tastes in exchange for unassuming environments (i.e. fly-encrusted tables and claustrophobic dining where you are practically sitting in your neighbor’s pasta bowl).  In such cases, originality and a good story or two is the true fare, not the food.  At one such diner back home, my efforts to dislodge myself from the table and visit the bathroom nearly forced the entire dining room out into the street.

I never relish throwing away money on expensive meals, yet the old maxim often holds true: you get what you pay for.

Yet as mentioned before, the driving force for this trip was food, and so we chose two restaurants recommended by friends and family back home before flying home.  In both cases, the restaurants were stationed an hour from Anaheim’s border, and so once again we boarded our Sebring for another road trip.

RT8_bakeryOur first stop gave us hope.  The Karen Krasne bakery in San Diego greeted us with dozens of freshly made cakes, pies, cookies, and assorted baked goods.  Apparently the selection constantly changes depending on the whims and moods of the cooking staff, thus no dessert menu is given; our waitress asked us to step up front and select from the gooey pastries, creamy custards, and chocolate dripped cakes.  Moreover, the entire staff was made up of well-dressed women, a charming feature for three guys on vacation.

“You guys should look in the back,” Dasad said, returning from the bathroom just as his chocolate sundae arrived layered in home-made chocolate syrup.  I dug into my own dish: shredded coconut blended with dark chocolate and molded into the shape of an evergreen tree.  Our waitress, a beautiful blonde model, smiled at three of us digging into our desserts.

“What?  Did you see them make anything?” I asked, patting the chocolate from my lips.

“No, it’s just that everyone in the back is rather . . . homely or male.  They must shuttle all the beautiful girls to the front.  Keep the . . . less than ideal staff in the back.”

“For presentation purposes?”

“Sure, helps with the elegant look, right?  If you’re running a restaurant, you don’t assign a cranky morbid waiting staff.  You get someone perky and energetic, keeps the customers happy.  Restaurants have décor, atmosphere: paint, landscapes, stained wood . . .”

“. . . basketball hoops, jungle gyms, giant rat mascots,” I added helpfully.  Jay ignored us both and stared without reserve at the bartender, drying martini glasses near the cash register.

“Shut it.  My point is why not hire attractive people too?”  Dasad asked pointing his spoon at me.

“Well, the reverse might be more accurate also,” I said, after some consideration.  “Happy competent people are more beautiful, thus more likely to serve food.”

“Perhaps.   Anyway, I’m not complaining and it’s not sleazy.  They don’t sell wings and tank tops.  The separation was just very apparent to me.”

“That’s cause you’re a perv,” I said, chewing on coconut.

“Shut it . . .”

RT8_cakesSatisfied both body and soul, we waddled outside with three slices of chocolate cake.  Our gastronomic odyssey continued.  Dasad’s cousins had made mention that a truly great roasted chicken dwelled in the heart of L.A. so after dessert we drove north to see about dinner, finding the small establishment in a small strip mall just off Sunset.  It was a little past four when we passed through Anaheim and collided with rush hour traffic into L.A.  Moreover, neither Jay nor Dasad knew where to go, and after consulting Google (Thank Heaven for the iPhone; without the maps, restaurant reviews, and Journey videos – ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ is essential for the long car rides – we would not have survived.), we located the place on the corner of what looked like a strip mall.

Parking was sparse, but we found a space wedged against the wall of the next building, adorn with graffiti and ‘Spaces for Customers Only’ signs.  We kicked coffee cups across the small lot before entering what looked like a school cafeteria: plastic neon orange seats, wobbling tables, overhead menus misspelling chicken with the number 1.  Not exactly what I imagined but honestly, having arrived, the unassuming atmosphere excited me a great deal.

“Finally,” I thought, “A genuine culinary diamond-in-the-rough, known to few, appreciated by only the culinary elite.   The perfect fried chicken . . .”

Yeah.  So the chicken was . . . well, chicken.  Nothing particularly interesting or special.  The seasoning – if any – was on par with the local supermarkets here in Maryland.  Based upon the recommendations, we had expected something extraordinary, a gastronomic masterpiece: savory chicken rotisserie, a roasted bird dry rubbed in garlic and oregano, dribbled with succulent juices, perhaps even infused with warm stuffing or berry compote.  Instead they handed us an animal one would expect beneath the heat lamp at 7-Eleven: good but hardly worth the commendation.

Our late night snack . . .

Our late night snack . . .

The meal had a similar effect on Dasad who as I recall cried aloud at the lack of hearty seasonings.   Yet last weekend, a month after returning to Maryland (our wine arrived safely much to Mom’s chagrin and utter joy) while driving out for a late evening flick (The Invention of Lying in case you’re wondering; another disappointment) I learned that online reports seem to have affected a change of heart:

“You know that chicken wasn’t that bad,” he admitted.  “In fact, it was probably the . . . best I’ve ever had.”

“You said it sucked at the time,” I countered calmly.  “That the bird had no real flavor.  That to Californians, chicken must be some rare delicacy in order for this ‘meal’ – I believe you used the air quotes – to entice so many . . .”

“I did not use air quotes.”

“Okay . . . but you did suggest KFC might be more authentic . . .”

“Yeah but . . .”

“Also if Gordon Ramsey had visited the place, he would have F-bombed the whole block to outer rims of Hell.”

“Alright already,” Dasad said, sighing behind the wheel. “I had expected more, but so many people online praise it.  We must have missed something.  Millions of people can’t be wrong . . . whoaaaa!” The car suddenly braked, veering to the shoulder as a herd of deer bounce nonchalantly across the highway

“Millions of people oppose hunting too,” I muttered as the Acura crept tentatively onto the highway again.  “Experience is everything.  My point is you tasted the chicken and left unimpressed.  I remember that much.  How can you be swayed otherwise?”

Dasad seemed to consider this a bit, diverting his attention every so often at the trees to the right of the car.

“No . . .,” he said finally. “We probably just did not order the right thing.  Like that In & Out Burger.  Apparently there’s a secret burger that’s not on the menu.  Everyone orders it, but you have to know.  We couldn’t because we didn’t.  Yet those who have tasted the burger say it’s incredible.”

“What?  Do they press two layers of paper-thin patties together?  Add more lettuce, tomatoes, and secret sauce to make the burger appear thicker?  To hide the absence of real meat?” I asked sardonically, trying to flush out my own feelings for these on-line gourmands.  Unrivaled majority support for anything only proves to heighten my suspicions.

“Either way you order it, dude, it’s still fast-food.  They don’t keep fresh ground beef stored in the freezer waiting for some knowledgeable customer to speak the secret code and unlock the invisible menu.  Pleease . . . just accept your own first impressions.  It sucked . . . deer to the left”

“See ‘em.”  This herd feasted peacefully in the middle median, potential torpedoes ready to leap into traffic.  “So what’s for dinner?”

“Uh . . . Sushi?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Good, a month after California and I’m dying for yellowtail.  The last month has been murder too.  Wanderlust has set again . . .”

“Ha,” Dasad laughed.  “Whereto now?  Montana?  Mexico?  Europe?”

“Or Japan,” I smiled.  “You know me . . . I won’t be happy until we’ve circumnavigated the globe.  In the meantime, turn up the radio.  You can hear my warbled voice until we reach the restaurant.”


And so our journey to the West Coast ended.  We’ve only opened one bottle of the wine so far – Mom learned of the cost and refuses to open more.  I’m still considering our next destination, possibly overseas or near a comic convention.  Dasad and Jay returned to their jobs in good spirits, while I returned to my laptop and my stories.  All in all it was a great time.  In closing, I wanted to post some traveling music, a song that sped up time through wine country and back down to San Diego again in our cramped Sebring.  Thankfully our caterwauls have been excluded from this version:


West Coastin’: Geek Out

RT6_kenwoodThe next morning after a breakfast of oatmeal and microwaved egg sandwiches, we emptied our rooms of bags and wine-stuffed boxes.  Now I mentioned earlier that Dasad had rented a Chrysler Sebring for our travels, a nice unimposing number with four doors, three passengers, and no retractable hood.  The little gray wisp of a car had wandered much of the state with us and performed admirably, but loading the car that morning, the lack of space proved quite a hindrance, much like stuffing an elephant into a clown car.

“So . . . um dude,” I asked, after loading our three wine boxes.  “Where are we going to throw the bags?”

In addition to Jay’s and my bags, Dasad had brought this immense rolling sea chest, which, apart from containing all his earthly possessions, did not fold or bend very well.  In the end we stacked everything in the backseat: suitcases, book bags, food, souvenirs, maps, and somewhere at the bottom of it all, Jay.   Leaving the hotel, I imagined our car as those station wagons you see in Walmart parking lots, stuffed to the brim with bags of clothing, Tupperware, trash, blenders, and every known species of plastic dog, bobbing their heads on dashboard mounts.

We visited Kenwood and V. Sattui Wineries to fill in those extra nooks and crannies left in our boxes, and drove back to San Francisco.

RT6_japantownNow as mentioned before, the driving force behind this trip lie with the stomach: to eat authentic Japanese cuisine and imbibe mass quantities of authentic Californian wine.  So far, so good.  Yet apart from the woman in Pismo with the Muppet-mouth, we encountered few instances that truly proved weird or unusual.  My soul thrives off that stuff, one of the reasons I suggested the Wizard World convention at the conclusion of our last cross-country trip.  Also because I like comics.  They make me happy.

As we retraced our steps from last night, I noticed a few of the streets had been closed off, barricaded for the festival.

“Look at the crowds here, dude.  It’s just like the con last month.”

“Yeah, but no sweaty basement dwellers.  The general public.  And if my eyes don’t deceive me, girls!”

“There were girls at the con.”

“The ones here aren’t dressed like Princess Leia.”

“Yeah, okay . . . so it isn’t perfect, but for authentic Japanese ramen, I won’t hold it against them.”

The street between the Kintetsu and Miyako malls, which we visited the previous night, and the NEW PEOPLE J-pop Center had been closed off earlier that morning to accommodate the expected crowds arriving for the center’s grand opening.  Long lines streamed out the three-story glass building, housing a menagerie of Japanese pop culture artifacts including manga, anime, art, cinema, and music.  An ideal locale to whet my otaku appetite, yet spying that the crowds nearly encompassed the entire block, we opted to return to the malls for lunch and some shopping.

"Soba, udon or ramen?"

"Soba, udon or ramen?"

Before finding the entrance, we walked through the street festival, sniffing at various foods and pouring through the works of local manga artists.  Dasad found a Bubble Tea stand, attended by kawaii girls in maid attire, who smiled and bowed as we slurped our tapioca.  In the town center, J-pop and J-rock bands sang and screamed (respectively), while nearby otaku tried forming mosh pits with proud parents and any curious visitor who happened by.  We found the mall’s entrance hidden behind a group of teens in Guy Fawkes masks, offering free hugs in addition to the sensation of being violated by a man in a mask.  No extra charge.

Inside we settled for a small ramen café near the hibachi grill from the previous evening.  Now for the record, Japanese ramen is good.  Very very good.  For those of you reading this, nodding your head with a Cup O’Noodles in your hands, I can only say that you know nothing.  The broth was delicious, the noodles fresh, the vegetables real.  I even splurged for a bowl of curried rice, as an apology to our waitress for trying to fake my way out of a language dispute.

“Ramen, udon, or soba?” our waitress asked.  Her accent and my bad hearing contributed to my confusion and ultimately not understanding what was being asked of me.

“Um . . .” I said scanning my menu for clues.  “Uh, I think I’ll try . . . white?  And an iced tea?”

Her eyes told me that I had guessed incorrectly.

“Uh . . .” I muttered, returning to the menu again.  Ummm . . .”  The type of rice?  Pick two sides?  Pork or tofu?

“She’s asking you for the type of noodles, dude,” Dasad clarified helpfully.

“Oh, uh . . . udon, please.  Thank you.”

She nodded and left gratefully, delivering the orders behind swinging door to spit in the white guy’s food unseen.

“You know, Murph,” Dasad chastened.  “You could have just asked her to repeat it instead of masking your ignorance.”

“I didn’t want to be a burden,” I sighed.

“So instead you made yourself a fool,” he noted.

“Yeah,” I groaned, my head in my hands.  “It’s just not in me to ask questions.  When in doubt, research.  If that fails, fumble about awkwardly until the question is repeated.  Thanks for the save, by the way.”

“Happy to oblige,” Dasad laughed.  “I just wish I remembered to pull out my camera and videotape the whole thing.  That lost-puppy look alone is like gold on Youtube.”

“Thanks,” I said, sighing again.

Ms. Teana-Lanster

Ms. Teana-Lanster

Despite everything, the food was quite good — with no evidence of our hostess’s displeasure.  We left then to sample some of Jay’s crepes and gaze at PVC figures of gun-toting ninjas.  Though hoping for some intriguing sculpture or game, I encountered nothing of interest, which disappointed Dasad some, I think, as my temperance afforded him no opportunity for ridicule.  Not that he refused to try anyway, drawing my attention to several poorly dressed heroines and loudly asking if I saw their pantsu, their panties.

“Oooo . . . black,” he squealed.  “Hey Murph, did you see these?  White and blue stripes! Kinky.”

I quickly left before my friend made his way to the adult ‘ero’ section.

In the next store, Jay drew our attention to the Japanese DVD release of the latest Miyazaki film, Ponyo.  The film had just been released at theaters with English dub, and I suggested we spend an afternoon at the theater soon.  My companions seemed eager to catch a flick; Dasad even suggesting we waste a whole day at the movies.

“A triple feature,” he said.  “After all the traveling up and down the coast, we could use a day to sit back and just relax.”

Stawberries, chocolate, whipped cream, and ice cream.  Mmmmm . . .

Stawberries, chocolate, whipped cream, and ice cream. Mmmmm . . .

It was close to two o’clock by the time we decided to leave.  The crowds continued to pour onto the streets, and even browsing through the claustrophobic aisles of the local supermarket proved slow work, like those squirrel mazes in the Ranger Rick magazines (Help Mr. Nibbles escape with his nuts to the old willow tree).  Our time in San Francisco had ended; we hopped into our overloaded Sebring and drove south.

Five or six hours later, just before reaching our hotel, hunger struck our small Chrysler, prompting us to stop at the local In And Out Burger in Burbank.  The parking lot was stacked with teenagers and other shady age groups including short old women in Cadillacs  and forty-year old accountants on motorcycles and mopeds.  Dasad felt certain we were going to die.  Or get robbed.  Or both and then sold to the local medical school for surgical demonstrations.

“Dude, I don’t think our car is safe here.”

“Don’t worry,” I said calmly.  “If anything happens, it’ll probably cascade into murder, not theft.”

“As long as no one takes our car, that’s fine.  Remember we still have thirty-six bottles of expensive wine in the trunk.”

Honestly, I had considered opening up a bottle for dinner that night, toasting our successful bounty from the north over burgers and fries, but glancing at the packed crowds inside, I thought better of it.  They might have insisted we share!

We ordered our burgers and sat down next to a group of college-age teens, discussing movie trivia, which I suppose is common among Burbank youth.  Jay came back with our food, and I dug into what was to be the worst burger I have ever eaten in my life.  At least for the three bucks I paid for it.  Admittedly, the vegetables were nice and fresh, but the meat, a thin sliver of beef, was non-existent, nearly half the thickness of a slider, nearly melting into the bun.  Thankfully I had ordered a milkshake too, and we quickly waddled out to the car left Burbank in our dust – which they probably collected, froze, reheated, slapped together with lettuce and tomato, and sold for three dollars.  Mmmmmm . . .

Next: Why aliens and humans will never breed, and Disneyland dreamin’.

West Coastin’: Popping Corks

RT4_grapesHaving arrived in Napa, we immediately passed out at the FairField Inn.  Just not from alcohol.  That was the second day.  The first day’s stupor resulted from the combined exhaustion of a long drive through San Francisco traffic, restless night’s sleep in a soggy Monterey motel, and irritation from discovering most hotels in Napa booked or overpriced.  Moreover, the sun seemed stronger in the heart of the valley, and after a busy morning watching fish and eating chowder, we needed a few hours to do absolutely nothing.  And a bathroom.  Again.

“So . . . uh, guys, I may have to use the loo soon,” I said as we left downtown Napa and its collection of occupied over-priced hotels.  “Just so . . . you know.”

“No prob,” Dasad said, now driving.  “Let’s check out Sonoma first.  It shouldn’t be that far away and I’m sure they’ll have something.  Can you hold it?”

“Uh, sure, I’m okay . . . for now.”

“Good.”

Of the many benefits derived from Catholic schooling, learning how to effectively hold one’s bladder ranks near the top of the list.  Leaving the classroom in the midst of lessons would often let loose Sister’s wrath, and so I learned to wait for hours ‘til break or lunch to slip out and do my business.  This skill has come into handy many times since: driving home early in the morning, sitting through organic chemistry lectures just before mid-term, The Lord of the Rings movies.  The trick is to focus your mind away from the body outwards, toward the world around you: simple things that do not require much analysis.  Like road signs.

“Welcome.  To.  Sonoma.  County.  Population.  Four-hundred.  Sixty-six. Thousand.”  Though typically, I only read aloud as a last resort.

“What are you doing?”  Dasad’s short drive to Sonoma after several lights and one slow-moving truck has taken fifteen minutes.

“Reading.  When the pressure gets too high I try to regain focus.  Otherwise . . .”

“Huh, does that really work?”

“. . . yes,” I muttered, calming myself.  We closed in on the truck.  “McDonalds.  Over One Million.  Served.”

“Shoot, okay.  Jay, look out for 12 North.”

“California.  AJ378K.”

“Should we head back?” Jay asked, laughing.  Something about my predicament seemed to humor him.

“Deally Lane.  Domaine Carneros.  Vineyards.  Next. Right.”

“Um . . .,” Dasad paused.  “No, we’ll be alright.  Hang in there Murph.”

“Love. That. Chicken from.  Popeye’s.”

“Better grab an empty Snapple bottle just in case,” Dasad said turning right.

RT4_vineyardFinally veering onto Route 12, we passed through a small town with a few banks and one or two small strip malls.  Dasad turned into an empty gas station.  I nearly tore my seat buckle off and, toppling from the car, walked quickly toward the station office.  The door did not open.  I tried it again.  And again.  Looking inside, I realized no one was there and that the station was probably closed or abandoned.  Unsure of where to go next, my feet carried my swollen body down the sidewalk, much like a sun-soaked legionnaire mindlessly chasing a mirage.  Faintly I heard Dasad yelling after me, but my legs ignored him for the bush in the adjacent yard.  Jay caught me before I drifted into traffic and pushed me back towards the car.

“There’s a Subway on the other side.  Come on!” he said.

“Five.  Dollar.  Foot.  Long.”  I mumbled seconds from exploding.

We parked, and I wandered inside, allowing Jay to order just in case the bathroom was for paying customers only.  Then I feigned nonchalance: “I’m going to use the loo real quick, while you’re ordering guys, okay?”  I stared at the cashier, daring her to stop me before ordering an Italian BMT.  Receiving no challenge, I rushed inside and experienced two minutes of pure bliss.

Dasad and Jay were hunched over, nearly laughing on the floor.  I just smiled and ordered my sub:  ‘Club sandwich, please, and a  large iced tea.’  Sometimes habit trumps wisdom, especially when tea leaves are involved.


The hills and valleys of Napa and Sonoma were rife with unexpected magic and beauty.  They were also hot as Hell, and with our bodies flush with wine, the cool breeze that arrived late in the day, as we toured Cline Vineyards came as a relief.  The cashiers at Cline’s likewise proved quite kind and generous with their samples, offering free tastes and ample volumes.  Walking off to join the tour, our glasses full with a subtle and delicious pinot grigio, Dasad and Jay began to waver some.

“Ugh, I can’t drink anymore, dude,” Dasad sighed.  “Anymore and you’re going to have to drag me to the car.”

We had began the morning at Sterling Vineyards, one of Mom’s favorite vineyards and lying farther up the road near Calistoga, the perfect place to begin our tour of the valleys.  In order to visit the vineyard, visitors must board a gondola which carries them to the hilltop facility and tasting center.  The whole ‘ride’ angle reminded me of Disney World and gave my imagination ample fodder to feed upon: Cask Mountain, Riesling of the Caribbean, and a stationary teacup ride, where you drink merlot until the world spins.

I suggested as much to Dasad, but he was busy practicing his Engrish to pay me any heed.

“Country rooooads, take me hooome . . . To da praaaace I berooooong . . .”

At Sterling, tours are self-guided with tasting stations scattered along the way.  We tasted pinot noir and an unforgettable white wine – whose name at the moment escapes me – taking pictures of steel vats and enormous barrels.  Occasionally we would . . .

“Me no want wahta.  Want ahss cream.”

Ahem, yes so . . . the Engrish. Throughout the drive, we encountered numerous non-native Americans, visiting or working here in the States.  As such, we played at mimicking accents, returning the favor for some sidelong glances at my Baltimore ‘O,’ hon.  Anyway it was a great way of wasting a few minutes, driving through the mostly unremarkable scenery from Monterey.  After several hours of hillsides and sun burnt grass, it grew into an addiction.  Then while walking to our rooms that morning, we passed an aging Asian grandmother in a roller, screaming at her grandchildren for Rocky Road.  It seems humor will always find a home reaffirming stereotypes.

“. . . ahss creeeaam.”

Our combined swag

Our combined swag

Returning to more pertinent matters  . . . between Sterling and Clines, while collecting various bottles of cabernets and merlots, I discovered the great secret behind Napa.  Wine tasting is much like shilling out $30 to knock over milk jugs at a carnival; you’ll win your Kewpie doll but still arrive home $30 lighter.  The scam is flawless.  At the wine bar, samples drizzle into your glass.  You sniff the liquid, taking in the rich bouquet – as instructed by the brochure picked up at the hotel lobby – and then sip, swirling the contents around your tongue.  If you’re naïve and sensible, you’ll swallow then.  Only connoisseurs taste and spit.

Your taste buds detect blueberries, chocolate, and burnt wood, just as the placard before you suggests.  Awesome!  The effects are immediately edifying: you feel intelligent, refined, aware.  Sherlock Holmes could not have detected as much in his first sip as you have.  Your server smiles.  A knowing wink.  No one else here can taste like you can.  In triumph, you buy ten bottles at a hundred dollars a pop to take home and flaunt before friends.

“Brian, taste this.  If you have the talent, you might just detect chocolate-covered cherries, mint and the subtle hint of 100-yr French oak.”

“Ugh, it burns my tongue.”

“That’s the oak!”

I wish we could admit we were not fooled by this shell-game, that we were smarter than these plaid-collared con artists, that we paid for our $5 glass of wine and left instead of filling our three boxes with thirty-six bottles of expensive wine that no one else, not even ourselves, can fully appreciate.

Well, we did not buy thirty-six bottles.  Dasad snuck two extra bottles into his luggage, totaling thirty-eight in full.  California is far richer because of our visit.

Still for all our ‘expertise’ the wine tasted good.  We bought what we liked, which in the end proved the true sounding rod.  Awards and all.

RT4_viewBack at Cline’s Vineyard, Dasad and Jay were pouring wine into my glass, when our tour group arrived.  A bus pulled up to the stone wall where we sat and unloaded.  The eclectic group of tourists mingled among the garden and chatted noisily just as a brisk but welcome blast of air drifted through the valley.  The air refreshed our drowned senses some and we watched the crowd, wondering if anyone here truly understood wine culture.  Judging from the dialects, most of the visitors appeared foreign: British, Australian, Chinese, Italian, and Korean.  Only a few held their glasses by the stem or sniffed subtle rose bouquets before gulping down their samples.  We relaxed.  They were like us: ignorant tourists but diligent alcoholics.

Our hosts circled the wall, filling up our glasses again with a sample of their red wine.  Dasad groaned, took a sip, and filled my glass again.  Jay poured it into the garden.  The tour guide talked for a few minutes about the wine, how it was one of his favorites, and how we could taste the subtle hints of apple and cherry wood, before beckoning us all to follow him through the winery.

Steadying Dasad who wobbled to his feet, I noticed a man walking by himself, a pink sweater tied around his neck, swirling his wine in his mouth and spitting into a large bush.  Ah, a connoisseur.  The man’s curly salt and pepper hair recalled to mind something about Leslie Nelson and Spartacus, slapstick and bare chests.  His locks fell long in the back, a trim but noticeable mullet that more than anything convinced me the man was foreign.

“Dude,” I said nudging Dasad, who was trying to convince the others we were Australian.

“Eh? Wot mate?”

“Take a look at that guy over there?” I pointed.  “The guy in the sandals and pink cardigan.  Doesn’t he look like Ricardo Montalban?”

Dasad stared for a minute or so before cracking up.

“KHAANN!!!”

RT4_cheeseWe stumbled . . . er walked into one of the large warehouses, behind the tasting center; Ricardo sulked off by himself to stare at the ceilings, looking devilish and European like old men in pressed suits and eye patches.  Inside large twenty-foot fermentation barrels lined the walls like giant beehives; stacks of smaller barrels sat idly on racks throughout the rest of the warehouse.  Our host offered us another sampling, merlot this time; Dasad managed to avoid the bottle by taking pictures.  I surreptitiously snapped a few myself of Ricardo, whose eyes never left the rafters: scheming warehouse infiltration and cask burglary perhaps.   Wine theft?!  Is there no end to your infamy, Khan?  From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!

We crawled out to the car – figuratively in my case, literally for the others.  Dasad threw me the keys, nearly falling asleep immediately in the back seat.  Arriving at the hotel, we pass out, our faces red from liquor and sunburn, only to awake hungry a few hours later.  Thus, we return to Sonoma for burgers and fish at Taylors, a California staple apparently.  Best fast food I have ever tasted at least.  Bellies full of fries and milkshakes, we drove back to the hotel to rest up for the Jelly Belly factory and Fisherman’s Warf.  Stay tuned . . .

The Fool’s Guide to Wine-Tasting

wine_bottle_glassThe first skill of any successful wine connoisseur necessitates the ability to speak the lingo or at least French. I reason that people are more likely to tell you what you’re suppose to taste if can correctly pronounce the label. This in turn allows the fake connoisseur to easily impress his or her friends while still having little to no idea about which you are talking. Take for instance Saturday’s wine tasting party at one of the local colleges, a lavish affair full of wine merchants and connoisseurs alike, the perfect setting to test my use of the vernacular:

“Yes, this particular white possesses a good finish with an oaky flavor, cultured for years by the French who as you well know, know wine,” the attendant laughed, after I had correctly pronounced Viognier. Vee-oh-nay.

“Oh yes, that is oaky,” I tell Mom and Tiff with a sip.  “I can taste the oak.”

“Can you?” Mom asks.  “Is that the sharp bitter taste?  Is that the oak?”

“Uh . . . sure,” I shrug.

“I don’t know about trees,” Tiff scowls, “but this definitely tastes like unwashed Frenchmen. Next table!”

Tiffany’s aim for the evening – apart from making goo-goo eyes at the chocolate fountain – which I had seen first and thus claim dibs – was to locate a brand of white wine as sweet and drinkable as Linganorre’s Mountain White.  In her efforts to locate said brand the countless sampling had induced a fit of intense giggling, which Mom echoed, much like a mother loon cooing over her child’s first manic dive into the water.

Station 5 featured two white wines and a Merlot, which Mom sampled.  Tiff chose the cabernet, while I sought the subtlety of the Pinot Grigio.

“And you sir?”

“Yes, can I have a bit of the Grigio, please?”  I said this nonchalantly, well-practiced in my wine-merchant slang, certain that the attending seller would immediately sense that cultured air – or at least the reek of wino.  Possibly he would proffer a full glass instead of the usual sampling to reward me.

“Excuse me?”

“The Grigio.  The Pinot Grigio,” My use of the vernacular was perfect.  I ordered my wine with suave charm, a Yankee-born Sean Connery introducing himself as the world’s foremost secret agent.  In true Bond style, I tried to straighten my tie but, upon finding none, feigned a neck rash.

“Uh . . . we don’t have any Pinot Grigio here.  Only a Pinot Noir . . . Um, sir, do you need some ointment?”

“Oh no, no, I’m.fine.  Just a bug bite.  You say pinot noir?”

“Yes, would you like a sample?”

“Um, sure,” I fumble.  My eyes glazed a little, refocusing on a spot just to the right of the man’s ear. “Musta’ve read the label . . . wrong.  That’s red, right?”

“Yes, sir,” the server smiled.  “Dry but an excellent wine.  This particular winery has been growing grapes for nearly fifty years in Napa Valley.”  He poured me a hearty glass – perhaps out of pity – and turned his attention to another taster.

Humbled, my feet shuffle me over to the girls, who naively – and effectively – decided their next selection solely on the color.

“What is that you’re have, Murph?” Mom asked while Tiff finished off her sample, coughing.

wine_basket“Oh some pinot noir,” I shrugged sipping slowly, rinsing away the unpleasant taste of humble pie.  “It’s not bad.  Dry though, not a lot of taste.”  That guy in the movie Sideways waxed poetry about pinot noir; therefore, until inspired or drunk, I would uncover its secrets.

“Ugh . . .” Tiff moaned.  “Like sandpaper in the throat.  I think I need a chocolate fountain to wash this down.  If only we had one near . . . oh, there she blows!*”  [NOTE: This last phrase was in truth not uttered at all but is merely the product of interpreting the speaker’s squeals (Kyaaa!) and the author’s latest literary excursion through the works of Herman Melville.]

My sister-in-law scampered off to cavort among the strawberries and pound cake, piled near the fountain.  Pat had joined us again when she returned, her cheeks full with chocolate-dunked fruit, her chin adorned with a chocolate-goatee.

“They turned the fountain off.  It’s just a chocolate pool now.  I had trouble dipping the pound cake without causing any to crumble,” Tiff said, stabbing a piece of chocolate-coated cake with her skewer.  “But if you pierce it lengthwise, directly in the center, all is good . . .”

Pat and I discovered the entrance to the kitchen and positioned ourselves appropriately in front, like roadside bandits lying in ambush.  Quickly we relieved our servers of their dainties: barbequed pineapple-chicken, steamed shrimp and peppers, spinach pasties, and warm asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.  Using complimentary glass clips, we attached our wine glasses to our plates as we walked around, giving Dad the opportunity to talk to some clients.  Mom sampled some cheeses that supposedly enhanced the taste of her merlot.

clip“Hey hon,” Pat said turning to Tiff.  “Do you want some che . . . uh, what are you doing?”  My sister-in-law was sucking on her glass clip.

“Awhaaa,” she laughed, re-attaching her clip.  “Some chocolate fell on it.  I was just cleaning it off.  Hey, Ms. Patty, we should try the other room again.”

Mom walked home with nearly twelve-hundred dollars worth of wine, procured with the wine god’s blessing in raffle.  The prize proved a double-edged sword though as upon discovering the one-hundred dollar per bottle price tag, she vowed to never open any of it.

Humbled I walked out, my head full of wine and empty of all pretension . . . or my precious jargon.

On the way to the car, lumbering under the weight of six bottles of wine and one faux copper-green fiberglass bowls each, Pat and I pleaded with our claustrophobic mother to take the elevator in lieu of walking down the required four flights of stairs.  Under the influence and fearing the safety of her swag she relented, confident that if the machine should fail ample rations – of the liquid variety – would be available until help arrive.

wine_grabAs the doors swung shut, sealing her inside, Mom’s eyes bulged with terror.  Wildly scanning our cell, she screamed: “Oh no!  Does anyone have a corkscrew?!”

We of course did not, but Tiff eased Mom’s panic with a little MacGuyver-ism.  “Don’t worry Ms. Patty, if we need to, we can just break off the neck and drink it that way.  You know, like pirates.”

Somehow this seemed to work, though honestly how she intended to break off the neck without breaking the bottle or worse spilling the wine is beyond me.  Still Mom calmly stood (or wobbled) while the elevator continued its ride down, choosing to breathe again only when the doors opened.  Laughing the girls met the cool night air, and discussed their favorite brands as we walked to the car.  Half-way home I managed to glance back at Mom, as she fallen fast asleep her arms gently embracing the two large tubs of wine, cuddled beside her.

Pished

Any other day, my family drives me to drink – an expression here which means “seek out escape through madness or perversion” – yet last night proved quite literally the reverse. As of midnight Tuesday morning, my brother Sean turned twenty-one and, like an Irish Cinderella, morphs from an innocent to a drunkard by the twelfth strike of the clock. Responsible adults that we are, we surprised Sean late in the evening while ignoring his protests of sleep and “work early next morning.” Covering his face with a black windbreaker, Katie, Mom, and I stuffed him into the back of my car like a kidnapped POW and drove off to the nearest redneck/biker bar in the county.

As I understand it, Sean loves this place, a surprisingly well-furnished roadhouse near the railroad tracks. The bar had been rebuilt years ago, reinforced now with new wood, fresh paint, and even poorer lighting than before, which I understand suits its patrons well. Many of my brother’s colleagues, fellow farmers and cattle showmen, frequent this roadhouse as a second home; thus Sean is no stranger to the sticky wet tables and peanut-blanketed floor. Whether he ever imbibed illegally at this establishment, I cannot say. I will say with certainty that tonight is not his first drink in the past five years. Everyone knows this, even Mom although she is quick to catch him admitting it:

My Pint“I want a Miller Chill,” Sean shouts through the windbreaker, his voice muffled yet clearly excited. “I’ve heard they are good.”

“How do you know?” Mom whips her head around to stare at him (which may seem absurd through his covering, but I swear that her eyes can burn holes through adamantium).

“Oh . . . um, well . . . it just looks good.”

Right. None of us buy that excuse. Neither does Mom, but at this point I suppose any argument is moot. A few more minutes and his past deceit will be wiped clean, purified with a laugh to simple childhood shenanigans and teenage memories. Her silence therefore is almost congratulatory, a vindication to crime, a medal of honor to duplicity.

We arrive at the bar, where we meet my aunt and uncle, the big partiers of my family and my godparents. Ironically enough considering how much my aunt and uncle drank and caroused in their youth, you would have thought that I would develop into more of a drinker, a pished product of my environment, instead of what I am: weekend chauffeur and designated driver. Somewhere in my education, they must have failed . . . or succeeded, depending on how you look at it.

Apart from our two cars, the parking lot is empty when we remove Sean’s shroud. He laughs, but of course, I believe that he had a good idea where we were going. Driving over the railroad tracks (with feet lifted of course, lest you never find true love – old superstition) was a big clue.

We advance to the door but find the place locked tight. Now someone – not me thank goodness – was suppose to have called the bar and made arrangements for our party at midnight. A big burly bartender sporting a colorful pair of boxers – and nothing else – informed us the bar was closed. About the time that we saw the sweat glistening off his rotund gut and his hand reach down to his nether regions for a scratch, I think Mom and my aunt decided not to argue. I for one was not going to touch anything that this hairy exhibitionist served me.

The three-toed sloth.  Thus we left deciding on another bar, an Irish pub a little further down the road, to toast and roast Sean until two in the morning. Now to me, the true joy of celebrating a twenty-first at a bar is in discovering what type of drunk my siblings were. My mom and aunt after a few shots become quite giggly and talkative: happy drunks. Alcohol however can twist and contort my sister, Katie, into a mean drunk at times. Once she stapled me a “Green Gremlin” when I offered to help her to her room, dismissing me with a wave of her hand and instructions to return to my cave. Apparently she had made other plans, you see. Choosing to grip the banister with both her hands and feet like a giant sloth, she shimmied and slid up the railing until falling on the – thankfully – carpeted stairs. She denies this, of course, but luckily I have witnesses . . . as well as a few pictures which I am saving for when she gets married.

Meanwhile, on the very few occasions when I have imbibed more than is sensible, I become a very analytical drunk, talking loudly, citing Coolidge, and inspecting my own state of delirium.

Once after four or so glasses of Jagermeister and Red Bull (a very dangerous combination, I have since learned), I discovered a shot of electricity shot along my arm whenever I stretched. This being my very first bout with alcohol, I spent the remainder of the night, trying to reason out the biology behind my condition – much to Patrick’s frustration:

“Murphey, don’t think! Just drink!” Pat rhymes when he drinks, and thus represents the poet drunk, an egregious teller of bad jokes.

“But Pat . . . Pat my arm gets so tingly when I straighten it. Like blood is suddenly surging across to my fingers. Or perhaps I am the son of Zeus. Is that normal?” I ask, flinging my arm out into several different directions to demonstrate.

My bane!Another instance – probably the worst – I had asked Pat to help me construct a few CDs, when he and I started talking about this girl I fancied who within days would be leaving for India. Distraught and foolish, we opened a cask of Crown Royal and finished off the whole bottle within a few hours. My exploits for the remainder of the night are lost in a cloud of bitter sensations, but I am told that I slid noisily down the stairs shouting “Bump!” as I rolled over each step, expressed my wonderment to my sleeping parents at this unique state of mind, and woke up Katie to discuss my love problems while citing Shakespearean sonnets, which I have since forgotten. The morning after was not pretty, but if I had won the Noble Prize for Chemistry Mom could not have been prouder.

“It’s good to break out every once in a while,” she said. I agreed, but as my head rattled and shook like a martini decanter, I promised never to find myself in that state again. Or more importantly allow anyone else to find me in such a state again.

Now Sean . . . as a blossoming lawyer, he enjoys arguing and irritating others. Drunken Sean is no different only he argues and irritates at a high volume . . . oh and he likes to sing too. Katie and Sean regaled us with several off-key refrains of Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass.” Later they joyously shouted out some imaginative lyrics to Journey and let loosed some water in the driveway. Ah . . . the memories. That in itself made the night well worthwhile.