We clinked our glasses virtually. I was on Facetime with C. and A., trying to enjoy a coronavirus-mandated self-quarantining happy hour: a “quarantini”. They were in Massachusetts, I in Westchester. The original plan had been for the three of us to be at a black-tie benefit gala in Manhattan, swishing it up until the early hours. Obviously that plan was shut down like every other public gathering in New York City, along with all the restaurants and bars. Those who could fled for quieter retreats. I was installed in my sister’s house in the exurbs, while they were in summer quarters on the New England shore.
I wish I could tell you that we’d had the creative energy to dress up in our elegant finery and laugh as if we were indeed flitting around the gala hotel’s ballroom. Honestly, I couldn’t muster the wherewithal to make that happen. I was just enthusiastic enough to pop open a Sierra Nevada, while C. sloshed wine into a coffee mug. Still, we showed up. We looked at each other over the video and did our best to be cheery. We chatted about giving class lectures over Zoom (A. is a professor), how to maintain a home exercise regime, the best technique for disinfecting food delivery packages, and whether or not the job I had interviewed for just before the apocalypse arrived would actually get filled on a human-scale time horizon. And it helped – both the conversation and the beer.
As social distancing started to feel like social isolation, more and more of my friends signed up for coffee dates and happy hours over Facetime and Zoom, Skype and House Party. I embraced the concept but realized that I was grossly unprepared, booze-wise.
In preparation for the coffee dates, I baked a batch of cinnamon apple muffins with brown sugar and oatmeal crumb topping to go with my Kenyan coffee beans. But I needed an alcoholic shelter-in-place plan, stat. This is not a drinking household; there’s no bar stocked with even the basic spirits, let alone my favorite Amari or cocktail bitters. The wine in the tiny wine rack is, shall we say, not to my taste, tending as it does to the supermarket-shelf variety that last minute guests often bring. And the only beer in the fridge is my brother-in-law’s preferred IPA, whereas I go for the ciders, sours, and saisons.
The supermarkets in New York don’t sell spirits or wine, our Instacart home delivery order couldn’t include alcohol, and it’s no longer safe or really even possible to walk into a liquor store and pick up a few supplies. Luckily for me, Wine Geeks, our incredible local wine store (which I later learned had been founded by the first wine director at the acclaimed restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which explains everything), had quickly realized how essential its services were during this stressful time and had installed a system of parking lot pickups for phone orders. Perfect.
I went online to peruse their wine list and jotted down a half dozen varietals or blends that I was interested in: Riesling and pinot gris; cabernet franc and Malbec; maybe a Montelpuciano d’Abruzzo or a Bordeaux blanc. Then I noticed that the store highlights its organic and biodynamic selections and also has a separate list for bottles $15 and under. An idea formed in my mind. Maybe I could turn my mental health necessity (or spiritual need, or personal growth agenda, or whatever) into an enjoyable creative challenge: how to put together a half case of wine consisting of different varietals from diverse world regions while maximizing my support for the vintners who are most committed to principles of sustainability. For those of you who read my writing regularly, you know this is my great passion in life. And doing so at a reasonable price point to demonstrate that eating (or drinking, in this case) organic doesn’t have to be super-expensive? Challenge accepted.
A plan in mind, I phoned the store.
Carol, one of the owners, picked up the phone and was more than happy to help me. I gave her my parameters – 6 bottles, in the $15 range, produced as sustainably as possible. She accepted my challenge, and I went down my list:
Malbec? Yes, the Finca Abril “Rapsodia” Reserve from Argentina. A classic flavor profile from Mendoza, black cherry, plum, smoke, and leather. The vineyard sits at 4,000 feet above sea level and the grapes are hand-harvested. This bottle exceeded my price target, but only by a few dollars. In fact, nothing I bought was over $20 and my grand total (pretax) was $96, only $1 per bottle over the goal.
Pinot Gris? None in stock. Damn. But then Carol said some magic words. “Do you know Pecorino?” OMG. I have not had pecorino since a fantastic food and wine trip to the Abruzzo and Marche regions of Italy several years back. Before that, the only pecorino I knew was the cheese. But while in Le Marche I discovered this delicious white wine, a local varietal that is very little known outside the region. Soft and slightly saline, the bottle I scored, the De Angelis Pecorino Offida, is hand-harvested, fermented with native yeasts, and certified organic.
Next I asked for Picpoul de Pinet, a French white from the Languedoc Roussillon region. If you don’t know this wine, it is the perfect casual quencher, often described as “zingy” in tasting notes. For years, my go-to weeknight wine was the Hugues Beauvignac, but Carol supplied me with the organic – and inexpensive -- Moulin de Gassac, with melon tones and a nice sharpness. Now my tasting notes will read, “pairs very well with Facetime.”
German or Austrian Riesling? Yes! A very slightly off-dry German, the Weingut Lucashof Forst, with peach notes balanced by a fresh, mineral finish and floral aromas (in case you can’t tell, a fruity wine with a mineral spine and soft floral scents is my favorite wine profile). It is from the Pfalz region and from what I could tell attempting to interpret the winery’s German website, it is family owned, with a commitment to high quality organic wines, and has a lovely hotel on the site of the old diocesan vineyards. Maybe when the planes start flying again I’ll go for a visit. If I keep buying wines under $15, which this one is, I’ll even be able to afford it!
Moving on, I asked Carol for a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, remembering with fondness the cherry flavors and delicate herbal quality of the wines I’d tasted across that region in Italy. Sadly, she was totally out. I settled for a Syrah, obviously a very different wine, but I guess I was in the mood for something fruity and juicy. She offered me an interesting version from Santa Barbara county, the Tensley Syrah Lite. It’s the light part that convinced me, as I’m not a fan of heavy, high-alcohol California fruit bombs. This wine strives for lower alcohol, from grapes picked at a less sugary point of ripeness, with some spontaneous fermentation to liven it up. And the vineyard has adopted organic practices.
Finally, I was interested in Cabernet Franc, a wine I had grown to appreciate while living in the Washington, DC area and exploring Virginia’s wine country. Carol supplied the organic Mas Barrau from southern France, an unusual region for this traditional Bordeaux grape. Tasting notes describe it as soft and lightly acidic with woodsy and brambly flavors – that will have to substitute for a nice hike in the woods during the social isolation days.
And now for the pick-up choreography. As instructed, I pulled into the shop’s parking lot and popped the trunk on my car. I called the store, Carol answered, and I told her which car was mine. A minute or two later, out she came with my half case and placed it in the trunk for me, using a hands-free elbowing maneuver to open it wider. I waved thanks to her in my rearview mirror and waited for her to move back to the store entrance. Then I stepped out of the car, closed the trunk, and drove off with my treasure. Back home, I took out each bottle, wiped it down with Lysol cleaner, then washed my hands thoroughly.
First into the fridge is the Pecorino, which will be the perfect happy hour accompaniment. And later that evening, I cooked up a kale and chickpea stew with tomato paste and smoked paprika, a riff on Alison Roman’s recipe for broccoli rabe and white bean stew with harissa. I’ll be cracking open the Cab Franc for this one!