The 3 Rs of Zinfandel

It was several years ago that a wine buyer for a market told me I could not go wrong with zinfandel if I stuck to the Three R’s: Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum. I think there might be a 4th R and there are many excellent zinfandels that don’t start with R — but it was a handy, quick guide.

I thought of that a couple of weeks ago at the wine tasting at Marche Bacchus. We were tasting wines from Hahn Winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The Santa Lucia AVA is on the backside of the mountains that face Monterey Bay. I’ve been there several times and loved the Hahn tasting room and always ended up buying a couple of bottles. In fact, just the night before I had opened a Hahn Syrah with my friend Susan.

Good Hahn wines that don't cost a fortune.

Good Hahn wines that don’t cost a fortune.

So at Marche Bacchus, we were listening to the merits of the various wines when Tex sidled up to me and said, “you’re a zin fan, aren’t you?” “You bet!” I’d been to several wine tastings with that group and I guess I’d made my love for zinfandel pretty well-known.

“Look at this,” Tex continued in a soft voice — the tone suggesting he had found a hidden treasure and was trying to keep it under wraps. “Jeff [the owner of Marche Bacchus] just got it in.” A small stack of boxes was standing to one side. They all said Rosenblum.

This” turned out to be a case of Rosenblum Zinfandel from Sonoma Valley — Maggie’s Reserve.

“It’s a 2006,” Tex went on. “Needs to be drunk right now.”

“So do I!” I replied — an old and terribly corny joke.

“There’s more,” Tex continued, giving me a pass on my feeble attempt to be witty. “Look.” He pointed to one of the other Rosenblum boxes: “2006 Alexander Valley. Harris Kratka Vineyard. Jeff’s selling them for $13. I’m going to get some of this and some of the Hahn. There’s a discount on 12 bottles or more.”

You just can't go wrong with Rosenblum zinfandel!

You just can’t go wrong with Rosenblum zinfandel!

Tom had sidled up, glass of Hahn Chenin Blanc in hand, his IPhone in the other. “You gonna order some?” he asked Tex.

“Yeah. I was just showing Robin this Rosenblum Zinfandel. Jeff’s selling it at $13 a bottle.”

Tom fiddled with his IPhone a couple of minutes then said, “That’s a bargain. Everyplace else has it listed for $30.”

“I want four bottles,” I said quickly, “two of each.”  Tex scribbled on the back of his tasting sheet.

“Yeah, I want some, too. And some of this Hahn,” Tom told him. Everyone loved the Hahn, and it didn’t hurt that the prices were all less than $20. In spite of that, I resisted the Hahn. Outside of the Cabernet, the others were whites or Pinot Noirs. Perfect for summer, but I was a lot more interested in getting in on the bargain zinfandel.

The next week I went back with cash in my purse I’d no sooner walked into the restaurant when Tex spotted me, “Got your stuff in the car,” he said. “Don’t worry, It’s in a cooler.”

I happily took my wine home and checked the on-line reviews. Some were less than enthusiastic citing that the wine was 8 years old, which is a lot for a zin, and saying it was mostly spice, having lost its fruit. Others said it was a wonderful wine with a perfect balance of fruit and spice. But being a zinfandel, I really couldn’t judge without a nice juicy steak to pair it with. So I’ll do that this weekend and letcha know.

All I can say is that it’s rare for me to meet a zinfandel I don’t like. And I’m pretty darn sure this one isn’t going to be the exception.


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Berkeley re-visited

Even walking past all those tubs of flowers makes the heart glad.

Tubs of flowers at the Monterey Market. Even walking past them makes the heart glad.

I’m trying to think of how this fits in with either Phyllis Diller or wine, but it doesn’t. Rats. But it’s too much fun to let it go.

Berkeley has a lot of fun, unusual places. I’m wondering if all University towns are this eclectic. Or maybe it’s just cause it’s California. Probably a combination. In any case …

I have many “favorite places” in Berkeley: There’s Fourth Street, a shopping street with the cutest little boutiques you’ve ever seen in your entire life (insert teenage squeal here). Papyrus — a favorite card and stationery store — is sandwiched between Z Gallerie and a furniture store where you can buy a lovely $850 sofa, although it costs ten times that much. There’s a garden store with imaginative little statues and fountains and wrought iron patio furniture, none of which will fit in my suitcase — or my budget. But fun to look. And, of course, restaurants and shoe stores and baby clothes and …

Back on Shattuck Avenue is The Cheese Board, a cheese co-op/bakery which reminds me of the old butcher shop with the long counter and all the wares on display behind the shiny curved glass. The Cheese Board has hundred of cheeses and they give samples. For those of us who have a hard time making decisions, it’s a little bite of heaven.

“What would you like to try?” the man behind the counter asks.

“Um … a blue cheese.”

We walk 8 feet down to where the blue cheeses are displayed. “Something not too sharp,” I add. He cuts a tiny sliver off one of the scores of cheeses. “A little salty,” I say, and he says, “try this one,” and slivers off another tiny taste of a cheese wedge.

Of course, I never ask the price of any of the cheese and walk out with four or five little hunks of cheese and a baguette of French bread still hot from the oven, and a LOT less money in my purse. (When I was in Berkeley last time, my friend Lonnie paid for all those cheeses and I felt sorta bad when I heard the total for less than a pound of cheese. Shoulda just bought caviar — it couldn’t have cost much more!)

Now on to the Monterey Market to gather some mushrooms!

The Monterey Market is far and away my favorite haunt in Berkeley. It’s actually, I think, in Albany — slightly farther north. Never mind — it’s an adventure and I love it. They have the most unusual, divine food ever, mainly produce from local farms. And the mushrooms! Oh. My. Gosh. Mushrooms of a sort that most people have never heard of. At least not people who live where I live. Perhaps people who live in a university town are used to these multiple choices.

And are they expensive? Um, yes. BUT, mushrooms don’t weigh much so even the ones that are $15 or more a pound really aren’t all that expensive considering you’re only going to buy a couple of ounces. And now you’re going to ask me what KIND of mushrooms these are. I can only tell you they are delicious. Whoever heard of these black elephant ear thingies? Or the cute little hen-and-chicks. You know they’re going to be great.

“Oooh, fresh morels!” The lady next to me grabs a bag and gently begins loading it with the small black mushrooms. “They’re picked locally, you know,” she confides in me, (I didn’t) and you can only get the fresh ones in May.” Well, I gotta have some of those for sure.

“Lucinda,” she calls out to a friend, “Come quick. It’s morel season!”

don't these look like fun?

don’t these look like fun?

The rest of these, I’m clueless. Sure I’ve heard of Shitake and even Oyster mushrooms, but the rest of these are all new to me.

I think I could move to Berkeley just to be near the Monterey Market. When I got home, I sauteed them in butter and put them over omelets. With mushrooms like these, who needs bacon?

As Julia Child would say, “Bon Appetit!”


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Phyllis could always make them laugh

This morning I was at the Y doing the treadmill — dreadfully boring but now that summer’s here it’s too hot to walk outside even early in the morning. And of course at the Y they have the bank of TV screens to distract from the plodding — or even trotting — along the moving belt.

Bob Hope With Phyllis Diller

Bob Hope with Phyllis Diller and a furry friend

Usually the screens are full of talking heads solemnly pontificating about the meaning of the latest (fill in the blank) …, but this morning the screen in front of me was showing a Dean Martin Roast. Well, more accurately, a promo for the roasts — snippets of various stars saying funny things about the guest “roastee.” I suppose Saturday is not a big news day.

There were the cream of the crop of funny men and women — Bob Hope, George Burns, Don Rickles, Rich Little, Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, and many others. As I plodded along, watching the numbers on the treadmill — the distance, the time elapsed, the calories — crawl slowly upward, I kept glancing at the TV.

A man on his way out paused and stood watching as Nipsey Russell (remember him?) turned the microphone over to Lily Tomlin. After a few remarks, George Burns took her place. The man smiled at some of the jokes, then came Phyllis Diller.

She stepped up to the podium looking quite spectacular. I must say these roasts bring out the best in everyone’s wardrobe. The gentlemen wear tuxedos, the ladies are decked out in evening dresses and sparking jewels. Phyllis looked quite glamorous. None of the “flat-chested, skinny-legged housewife” here.

I didn’t catch everything she said — was watching the mile-tracker sluggishly turn over another tenth of a mile — but when I looked up, she was in the middle of a joke about her face lift and a moment later she delivered the punch line and at that point, the man who had been standing watching laughed out loud. Yes!

There’s a lot of information on the internet about women comedians and what they have to do to be funny. Usually that means looking funny as well as being funny. Phyllis herself said, “Grace Kelly could never be a comedienne.”

Grace Kelly - beautiful, sophisticated, elegant, but NOT funny.

Grace Kelly – beautiful, sophisticated, elegant, but NOT funny.

It also has something to do with attitude and being willing to expose your shortcomings to the world.

As I watched the man watching Phyllis, I was laughing, too — not at Phyllis but at the man who was enjoying himself as she rattled off a string of one-liners. She always could make them laugh. And as he walked away chuckling, I looked down at the little numbers on the treadmill mileage gauge and discovered I had reached my goal! Wa-hoo!

Thank you, Phyllis Diller!



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Blind Wine Tasting

Wine bottles lined the counter, each in a black velvet bag with a number on it. It was a blind tasting.

wine ready for us to taste -- and try to identify

Wines waiting for us to taste — and try to identify.

Irene King had just passed her level one Sommelier exam, and the night before led the American Wine Society’s monthly seminar. Tonight she was hosting our wine club at her house and had chosen the wines she thought we would enjoy and she also hoped would confound us.

“What on earth is Moroccan spice?” Gidget muttered as we sat at the table with a glass of wine in front of us. Gidget has an amazing palate and an even more amazing nose. If she says she’s getting aromas of ripe plum or lavender, you can bet on it. We were reading the description of the Hug Cellars red from Paso Robles: “Medium red violet color, has layered complexity with Moroccan spice, herbs, roasted meat and brimming with red fruits like raspberry and plum.”

“Who writes these things anyway?” somebody said. We all agreed that while this description was pretty tame, often the winemaker — or whoever was actually writing the notes — probably had over-indulged in the product.

My favorite description of the evening was of a white wine which read in part: “heavenly lift of candied ginger and crunchy, yet sweet white nectarine… notes of green papaya and pistachio, stone fruits hold sway over the sumptuous attack in mid-palate, finishing with the Marsanne’s nuttiness and a delicate hint of sea spray.” Sea Spray? Really?  Someone might be able to detect nectarine or green papaya, but I think the sea spray is a stretch.

Of the seven wines, I got all three of the whites wrong! Even with tasting notes to guide me, I couldn’t match the wine with the descriptions. Swell.

But back to the descriptions: I have read some that positively want you to NOT put this stuff in your mouth. Like, for instance:

the aromatics offer incredible aromas of dried flowers, beef blood, spice, figs, sweet black currants and Kirsch, smoked game, lavender, and sweaty but attractive saddle leather-like notes. Full-bodied and massively endowed, with abundant silky tannins, it possesses the balance to age for 30+ years.”

Well, let me say right here that no wine is going to age in my house for 30 years! Lucky to last more than 30 days.

Or how about this:

It might be called liquefied Viagra. An incredibly sexy nose of smoke, black fruits, cappuccino, and toasty wood is followed by an expansive, terrifically concentrated wine with a sumptuous texture, no hard edges, beautifully integrated acidity and tannin, and a long, 35 second finish.

I’m intrigued by the “black fruits.” That would be, uh, blackberries? Figs, maybe? Or hey — deadly nightshade has black fruit, but I’m guessing from the name that it’s deadly — not something you’re going to drink. At least not more than once. And, um, not to state the obvious, but you think liquefied Viagra would last longer than 35 seconds, wouldn’t you?

I really did like this French wine. I might even spring for a bottle ...

I really did like this French wine. I might even spring for a bottle.

After the whites, we moved on to the reds, thank goodness. Of the four reds, I only guessed two of them correctly. I particularly liked the French wine, the 2010 Crozes-Hermitage Cave de Tain L’Hermitage from the Northern Rhone. I’ve never been fond of European wines for the simple reason that they usually do not have that ripe, luscious fruit that I enjoy. This one, however, was yummy (how’s that for a wine description?) and actually in my price range at under $20.

I’ll never be an expert on wine but by gum, I’m not giving up! The secret, I understand, is to practice, practice, practice. I’m willing to give it the old college try, but I draw the line at liquefied Viagra!




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Speaking of Phyllis Diller

“Thank you for coming to speak to us.” After my most recent book talk a lady came up to chat. “I always loved Phyllis Diller. I saw her when she appeared here in Las Vegas back in the 70s.”

Me holding forth at the Centennial Hills library

Me holding forth at the Centennial Hills library — or am I conducting a choir?

“Wow! I was with her then. You saw her at the Riviera?”

“Yes. Back when it was the classy hotel. That and the Desert Inn.”

“Oh yes, I remember them well — the DI was the place for high rollers. It was beautiful.”

We reminisced a bit, she bought a book and left, leafing through the first few pages as she headed for the door.

It made me happy to connect with one of Phyllis’s fans. One of the things I like best about giving talks about Phyllis is that everyone seems to have loved her. I’ve not had a single person say anything like, “well, she was okay …” No. 100% of the people I’ve ever talked to have said, “Oh, I loved Phyllis Diller!”

A question that has been asked several times is, “what would Phyllis think about today’s comedians?” I cannot give an answer. For one thing, I worked with Phyllis 40 years ago — hard to believe — before most of the new crop had even learned to talk. And Phyllis herself changed over the years and according to some of the later Dustbiters; she became more political and more outspoken. When I worked for her, her fame was still pretty new.

One of the things I appreciated about Phyllis was that she didn’t use foul langauge and she didn’t have a temper. Okay, that’s two things. Did she tell dirty jokes? Well, yes, offstage with friends sometimes. But that was not her stock-in-trade. She didn’t swear. She didn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, and she didn’t have tantrums.

When I was pushed to articulate something I learned about show business while I was working for Phyllis, I had to say that the big stars — the ones who were on top — treated other people with courtesy. George Gobel, Alan Alda and Candice Bergen immediately come to mind. They were never rude or demanding; they always said “thank you;” they asked politely when they wanted something. The younger ones, the starlets and wanna-bes were often petulant and arrogant, expecting everyone to cater to them. I couldn’t tell you their names if I tried — they never “made it.” No mystery there.

As I go around giving talks, I am surprised that more people never saw Phyllis in person, but as a fellow writer reminded me, her audience is getting old and dying off. Yeah, I’ve noticed.

My friends Barb and Kathi cmae to cheer me on!

My friends Barb and Kathi came to cheer me on!

I’m sorry for the “younger generation” (that would be anyone under 50) who never saw Phyllis Diller on stage — or even on TV. She was fun and funny and made people laugh and feel good. It was a worthy talent and she used it well. A life well-lived.




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Russian River Wine

“I’ve got two maps of the Russian River wine country and I’m not afraid to use them!” I was preparing Lonnie for a wine jaunt as part of the Berkeley house-sitting gig.

View from Susan's back yard with the Golden Gate bridge in the background

The view from Cousin Susan’s backyard. The Golden Gate bridge is there, behind the big tree.

Cousin Susan was taking off for a week in Barcelona and had asked if I’d like to stay at her lovely little house in Berkeley and take care of her doggie, Rezzie. Rezzie is a dog who loves one thing in this whole world: walks. Not being a dog person, I don’t know if this is typical dog behavior but I suspect it might be. And walking in the Berkeley hills is terrific exercise and great fun. The houses are charming and individual. The trees tower — mammoth pine trees, some of which surely are redwoods, spreading sycamores sturdy oaks and lofty eucalyptus shade the streets and add gravitas to the houses. Dog-sitting Rezzie is pure joy!

And Berkeley is within easy striking distance of wine country. Last year I managed to get lost in wine country which by-and-large would not be a bad thing, but I got lost in a part that had no wineries. How could that be? Miles of grape-vine and vineyards, but not a single sign that said “Tasting room.” We finally stumbled into River Road Winery which, thank heaven, had a charming outdoor restaurant where we ate next in the shade of a  redwood and Rezzie was treated to a big bowl of fresh, cool water. This year I was plotting a course.

One of my priorities was the pet-friendly wineries. Another was picnic facilities. We were taking cold cuts and some exotic cheese from The Cheese Board co-op in Berkeley as well as a baguette of fresh bread hot out of the oven at the bakery. As soon as we got in the car, Lonnie broke off a chunk.

“Want some fresh bread?” I didn’t bother answering, but snatched it from him hand and took a big bite. Oh, yum!

Lonnie broke off a hunk for himself and we munched contentedly on our way heading north out-of-town. In years past, Rezzie would also beg a bite, but he was now only interested in snoozing in the back seat. Perhaps the scent of fresh bread no longer intrigued him.

Our first stop was not on my list, but after having exited Highway 101 and headed west, I was ready to stop at the first tasting room we came to. Once we got there, I remembered why it wasn’t on my list. Russian Hill Winery specialized in Pinot Noirs — not my favorite wine — but they also had one Zinfandel. When we arrived, a couple was outside dead-heading and pruning the roses. Their big dog, Chase, was watching. Because the weather was mild, we had no worries about leaving Rezzie in the car with a promise that at the next winery — which was listed as pet friendly — he could get out. The nice people, who turned out to be the owners, told us our dog was welcome to come in.

With Rezzie on the leash, we headed to the tasting room and Chase headed for us. “He’s friendly,” they assured us. He sure was — he was all over Rezzie trying to make friends in that unique “I’ll let you sniff mine if you’ll let me sniff yours” way.  Rezzie cowered against my legs. They quickly called Chase off and we made a bee-line for the door.

In spite of my best efforts, I cannot manage to get Lonnie interested in wine. I really don’t know why I try. After all, if someone isn’t drinking wine it’s all the more for me! Lonnie opted to take Rezzie out on the deck where they could enjoy the view while I worked my way through the Viognier, two Pinot Noirs and a Zinfandel. The pouring room man had assured me that many zin lovers really enjoy their Pinots, too. And he was right. I ended up with a bottle of Pinot.

Next down the road was Woodenhead and it was much the same story there — sans dog. This tasting room looked like it had been part of the house with a big stone fireplace and a balcony overlooking the valley. This time I opted for a bottle of their bold Zinfandel.

After Woodenhead we wound through the small roads stopping here and there, ending up at DeLoach, a big commercial winery. Although I normally avoid corporate wineries whose products I can buy at my market,  I had fond memories of DeLoach. I had gone there the very first time I dog-sat Rezzie and we’d had a picnic under their magnificent eucalyptus tree. Lonnie and I picnicked there this time too, and gave Rezzie his lunch which I’d  remembered to bring.

Our last stop was Hook and Ladder which — big surprise — has a fire-fighters theme. Although there was nothing that knocked my socks off, I tried to interest Lonnie in their dessert wine which he dutifully sipped. “Good, huh?” I asked. Shrug. “No, really? You don’t like it?” “Sure, it’s fine.” His enthusiasm was decidedly lacking.

Margaritas and gaucomole while watching the fog roll in through the Golden Gate.

Margaritas and gaucomole while watching the fog roll in through the Golden Gate.

Okay, I am going to have to seriously give up on converting Lonnie to a wine drinker. If a late-harvest Gewürztraminer doesn’t make a believer out of him, nothing will. So we came home and had margaritas.

And now I’m trying to figure out how to pack all these bottles in my suitcase so I don’t end with a bunch of glass and a couple hundred dollars worth of wine soaked into my jeans.

(Footnote: I wrote this two weeks ago in Berkeley and I’m now back home. The wine came through fine. I’ve already shared the Woodenhead with friends and have stashed the rest of my loot in the wine chiller. It’s hot back here in the desert and makes me enjoy the lovely, soft day in Russian River all the more. Sigh.)




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Living in Berkeley

I’m too fat to live in Berkeley. All the my-age women here are elegantly slender with their long white hair flowing freely unless it’s close-cropped in an “I’m too busy to mess with my hair” look. They wear no makeup — their wrinkles tell the story of a well-lived life; why would they want to cover that up?

The young women with their toned muscles stride along purposely pushing a stroller and holding onto an older child who trots dutifully alongside. They likely have a yoga mat in the back of the car.

The in-between women sit outside the little cafes sipping their lattes and discussing the latest book looking relaxed and casually put together in a way that makes me suck in my stomach and straighten my shoulders.

Rezzie the dog and me on the beach.

Rezzie the dog and me on the beach.


Back in Las Vegas, that casual thrown-together look would be the result of considerable time in front of the mirror matching and calculating “should I wear the blue striped shirt with the khaki shorts or the apricot tee with the black jeans?” followed by a swipe of mascara, artfully applied eye-shadow, a slight dusting of blush and the merest hint of lip gloss. Here I think it’s the real deal — women who are so self-assured that they can simply grab whatever comes to hand and still look like they are ready for an interview on the Today Show.

Oh, and the hats. No, not the elegant, lovely hats one would wear to church or on the opening day of Royal Ascot. No. These are the crushable, packable, all-weather hats you see in the L.L. Bean catalog. They are, frankly, ugly. But if it’s important to keep the sun off your head, then these will do the trick.

I used to love hats — the elegant lovely hats that we wore to church or, yes, to the opening day of the races at Ascot. I still have a couple on the shelf in my closet. Goodness knows why; hats went out along with nylons and gloves. I have gloves, too — the seven button that go to the elbow and the nine-button that go above the elbow. Formal gloves for wearing to evening occasions and weddings.

My last day in Berkeley as I was walking the dog, I saw people going to a wedding. They were wearing casual clothes — shorts, sandals, flowered skirts reminiscent of the Summer of Love in the 60s. No hats. Not the formal kind or the crushable kind. The men looked fit and well-groomed. The ladies were laughing as they walked up the steps of the house decorated with balloons and a big sign that said, “wedding here.”

Rezzie and I trudged on by — well, I trudged, Rezzie pranced, waving his flag of a tail and smiling. I just kept my head down and tried to look not fat.


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