Wineaux: Savoring the solstice with nectar of the gods

By From page A9 | December 15, 2011

I become a pagan in December. The waning light triggers some ancestral fear that darkness will this time prevail, arriving earlier, remaining later, until it envelopes the earth entirely.

Maybe the winter I spent in Scandinavia exacerbates the foreboding — aggravated further by a Ray Bradbury story in which a group of children on a dark planet lock one of their cohorts in a closet so that she misses the few moments of sun that will appear in her lifetime.

I count down the days to Dec. 21 (actually, the solstice occurs on Dec. 22 this year). I wouldn’t mind a frenzied ritual or two, along with a little blood sacrifice to hurry it along.

At this time of year, all those biodynamic rituals that people love to mock — ground quartz buried in a cow horn in the soil, planting by the moon — make perfect sense. If I heard that smearing goat blood on my gate or scattering chicken feathers in my garden would appease the goddess of the moon, I’d happily comply.

Of course, such appeasement may be — in debased form — what the season’s harried shopping and incessant eating is all about.

My own food cravings in the weeks before daylight reasserts itself are simple: pasta of any sort with red sauce and good red wine.

OK, and chocolate.

This evening I prepare son Jakob’s birthday dinner (one of many actually — it’s a big year). I go through the wines in my closet to choose the perfect accompaniment to the pumpkin-mushroom (porcini and cremini) lasagna. The wine has to be something Jakob hasn’t tasted. And I want a bottle with a story — we’re a narrative-loving crew.

I eventually choose the Fitzpatrick Pinot Noir. Over the past few months I’ve come to know and appreciate Brian and Diana Fitzpatrick. I admire their commitment to treating the earth well, evidenced in their beyond-organic vineyards, their hand-crafted lodge, and their near-exclusive reliance on solar energy. Their gradual building of the winery and the business make a good story — about a really good wine. Even picky-about-Pinot Jakob is impressed.

I realize, too, that in this season of heavy foods and tempting desserts everywhere I go, I want my wine to taste of fruit and spice and clean earth — which this wine does.

“You know,” said daughter Julian a couple of days ago, “you haven’t written about organic wine for a while.” I haven’t? It seems to me I write about it all the time. I’m certainly drinking it more and more.

“Natural” wines (I put the term in quotes because the definition is so contested) seem to me to be alive in the same way that organic vineyards are — the earth itself pulsing with the worms and soil bacteria that aerate and nourish; various soil-enriching crops pushing up among the vines; birds and bees humming and singing overhead. Am I only imagining that I can taste all this in that glass of Pinot Noir?

Fortunately, wines made with organic and/or biodynamic grapes abound. Pioneers like Bonterra and Benziger still produce, but more and more growers and winemakers are catching the bug, so to speak. Some might think the “trendy” factor motivates them, but wineries like Grgich Hills have learned the hard way that carefully tended soil, pesticide-free air, and, yes, ritual planting improve the health of the vines — and of those who work them. And the resulting wine? Sublime (in the right hands).

For many producers, especially in Napa and Sonoma and the Central Valley, the process of going organic can be arduous. It takes several years just to get toxins out of the soil. But many vineyards in European countries, especially the smaller ones, proudly worked by generations, have flourished for centuries without ever experiencing a pesticide or herbicide application.

When I long for a French or Italian wine (which, I admit, I often do, even though I’m quite passionate about local wines), I look for importers who have established relationships with such family producers and who themselves believe that the best wine comes from lovingly tended fruit that’s allowed to do its thing.

Most wines from Rosenthal (try the Italy-in-a-bottle Dolcetto or the France-in-a-bottle Counoise next time you have dinner at Monticello) and from Kermit Lynch (a few available at Valley Wine Company), for example, have no added anythings, are fermented by naturally occurring (wild) yeast, are unfiltered, unrefined, et cetera.

Berkeley-based Kermit Lynch has been in the forefront of ferreting out these treasures and carefully bringing them to us. These wines might not be labeled “organic” — not important for these small producers with their local reputations — but you can trust the importers.

I love to visit Kermit Lynch’s small, unpretentious, warehouse-like store (an easy walk from the Berkeley Amtrak station) filled with beautiful bottles and enthusiastic staff, who’ve tasted every one and are as happy to find you the perfect $10 bottle as the perfect $100 one. That $10 bottle is just as strictly vetted as the $100 one, too.

As one Yelper said, “I don’t believe that Kermit Lynch would allow a mediocre wine to pass through its doors.”

I actually read the KL newsletter that appears periodically in my in-box because I can’t resist Kermit Lynch’s passionate prose. Like this from the latest edition: “The Clape family in Cornas vinifies in large, old, wooden casks and makes majestically dark and brooding Cornas, layered with aromas of herbs and mint. Allemand (another winemaker) uses whole-cluster vinifications, gentle extraction and pressing, and minimal sulfur to make the purest expression of Cornas, and arguably the purest expression of Syrah the world over.”

I may not be able to afford one of those $80 bottles, but I know I can get something almost  as poetic in my price range.

I think I’ve just talked myself into a solstice treat: playing hooky for the day by hopping on Train 533 (leaves Davis at 9:25 a.m., arrives in Berkeley at 10:52 a.m.) and having tea and scones on the Café Fanny (a Chez Panisee offshoot) patio, while I wait for next-door KL to open.

As soon as it does, I’ll browse and consult and agonize over which bottle to take home for dinner. Dinner will include Acme Bakery (on the other side of Café Fanny) Edible School Yard bread (a 100 percent organic whole grain loaf) and a Café Fanny sweet for dessert.

If the weather’s fine, I might walk to The Cheese Board on Shattuck to pick up a chunk of something sheepish to add to the table — and a slice or two of Cheese Board pizza to fuel my walk back to the train station.

Not quite a Bacchanalia, but close enough. My inner pagan feels better just thinking about it. Happy Solstice!

— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected]

Susan Leonardi

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