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the ring

My brother has bought a ring. He tells me his plan, and it is all there, everything pretty and earnest and perfect. I know our mother overhears our conversation; I can hear her crying in the background.

I remember my brother: When he was 3, he re-named himself Fat, hid in the closet and called it Fat's House. Once, he threw my doll in the toilet. Another time, he put Vic's Vaporub on everyone's toothbrush and wrote on the walls with red pen.

Now, he lives in Chicago. He owns his apartment. He goes to medical school. He has been saving for this ring for months.

Later that evening, my father calls. He is home from work, finally. He leaves a message. He pauses a lot. "I'm sure you've talked to your brother today," he says. "I am happy and sad. This means he is a man now."

And just like that, we become 10 years older.

wined out!

So in the past 48-72 hours, I think I may have actually had too much wine. Why? I've been working at Napa Valley's major trade-only wine auction from Friday morning to yesterday afternoon.

I don't think the average person really ever hears about this auction because average people don't attend. The event is strictly for trade -- restaurateurs, retailers, etc. And not just any trade, the crème de la crème of wine buyers, people who can and will spend $40K (and sometimes more) on five cases of wine that they then re-sell to serious collectors and their best customers. (Just imagine what the mark-up on a bottle will be -- if you break it down by auction price alone, one bottle is $300 or so. So think of what a bottle will cost when it is actually on a wine list or in a catalog. $500? $600? More?)

Of course, these five cases aren't ordinary wines. Each winery creates a special barrel lot for this auction, so these are one-of-a-kind wines you won't be able to find anywhere else.

Because so much money is involved in this auction, wineries pull out all the stops to court potential bidders and encourage them to bid high on their lots. The Friday before the auction is always jam-packed with winery open houses and special tastings. (I worked at the Vintage Perspectives Tasting at the Culinary Institute on Friday morning. It started at 10 a.m., so I was uncorking and tasting through 18 bottles of wine at 9 a.m. -- before I had even had any breakfast! Thank goodness for the spit cup.)

And then it was off to the open house events. My friend Jessica writes about wine for a newspaper, so she got all kinds of invites. When I got off work on Friday, I joined her as her "plus one" at two of the events, Duckhorn and Frog's Leap.

When I say people pull out all the stops for this, I mean it: Duckhorn was insane -- valet parkers, live jazz music, barrel tasting, verticals of library Merlot (the 94 was my favorite) out of gigantic bottles (12L?), sparkling from Schramsberg (um, amazing), etc. etc. And everyone was there -- I kept bumping shoulders with people, and I think I may have annoyed some women when I accidently hit them in the rear with my too-large purse. I even recognized the guys who won our auction lot last year. It was a little overwhelming for me.

Frog's Leap was more my speed (and their party went until midnight, which was pure genius since there is zero nightlife in Napa). Their new hospitality facility is like a gorgeous three-story Craftsman home, so going to their open house felt like going over to a (very rich) friend's place for a fabulous get-together. (Also, the staff is really, really warm -- you really do end up feeling very welcomed and very at-home.) They were pouring library wines (86 Cab was beautiful), the winemaker was cooking up mini hamburgers in the kitchen and there was a game of pool going downstairs. Nice! But alas, we didn't stay for long. I had to work at the auction the next day, and Jess was covering it, so we left at 10:30.

Which brings me to the actual auction. Vintners had to arrive by 9 a.m., and the tasting of the auction lots started at 10:30. So once again, it was wine first thing in the morning. And I had to be on too -- the event was full of media -- Steven Spurrier of Decanter and the infamous 1976 Paris tasting (meeting him is pretty much like meeting a legend), for instance. And there were also some serious VIPs. (Question: How does Alex Smith, quarterback for the 49ers, get bidder status at a trade-only event? Also, in person, he is smaller than I expected.)

Our lot -- Pinot Noir from clone 667 -- was beautiful, and we got some nice compliments on it from the media who were there. I made it a point to taste all of the Pinot lots in the auction, just for comparison's sake. (There weren't very many -- Napa is known for Cab, so almost every lot was Cab or a Cab-based blend.) So I took my tasting glass and tried Ceja, Cuvaison, Saintsbury and Bouchaine Pinots. And I also tried to sample some of those cult-level wines that everyone goes nuts over but I will never be able to afford: Shafer, Staglin, Amuse-Bouche, etc. And of course, I had to taste my usual favorites, Corison and Schramsberg (Schramsberg more than once -- they were pouring next to us, and their wine was just gorgeous -- wasn't spitting that one out!).

So yes, by the time I left the auction at 3 p.m., my palate was done. And I found myself really, really craving a beer. And a long nap.

wine or porn?

Right now I am writing the tasting notes/fact sheets for our 2003 and 2004 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignons.

And I'm realizing just how X-rated these descriptions are. For example: "Rich, powerful entry." "Explodes in the mouth." "Long, long finish."

I'm trying so, so hard (ha ha -- I said "hard") to resist the urge to turn these tasting notes into little paragraphs of erotica.


Yes, I'll admit it: I'm experiencing San Francisco Withdrawal Syndrome. It's tough. And a lot of it has to do with the food. I miss the burrito place down the street. And fabulous Citizen Cake, which has the best brunch. I miss dim sum. Bok Choy Garden. Pizza Orgasmica.

I miss my old neighborhood sushi joint, where the nigiri was cheap, there was a tofu teriyaki rice bowl on the menu (it was my favorite non-sushi item) and the servers knew me -- and gave me a hard time if I stopped in too close to closing time. (One actually asked me why I eat so late. This kind of reminded me of something a family member would say. And strangely, it sort of felt comforting.)

We tried the "best" Japanese restaurant in Petaluma on Friday night. (Note: There are only two Japanese restaurants in all of Petaluma.) Sadly, it was just so-so. The fish was fresh and the sake was good, but prices were high and service was bad. (Our waitress spent at least 15 minutes trying to figure out where the sake glasses were.) I actually went home that night after dinner and felt a little depressed.

Thankfully, I got a nice fix and made trips to the city Saturday, Sunday and Monday and tried all kinds of places -- some new, some newly discovered. We hit up District, a new wine bar near the ballpark (see my photo above). This was its opening weekend, and it was already packed -- the vibe was more like a bar than a wine bar, if you know what I mean. Still, the wine list was great -- lots of interesting flights -- and the service was awesome. I'd go back.

Then it was off to Bong Su for Jessica's birthday dinner. I have to say that I don't understand the hype about this place. I was pretty disappointed, and largely because of the service. We were part of a big group, so we were going to eat family-style, but our server totally skipped over the bf and me, even to the point of leaving our menus on the table after she took everyone else's, so we never got to order any of the entrees we wanted (which is rough since I'm mostly veggie and he's almost always veggie). And basically we hardly ate anything at all for dinner. And paid a nice price for it. (At least I got a glass of Tokaji Aszu at the end of the "meal.")

Luckily, Sunday night's excursion to Powell's Place was redeeming. I am still dreaming about the hushpuppies and black-eyed peas and fried okra. So freaking good. And inexpensive. And we followed the evening with some pool at Family Billiards, which actually has its own parking lot with free parking (totally unheard of in the city).

And I found myself asking: Why, oh why, didn't I find these places earlier?

cream puff heaven

Yesterday, after getting massages (it sounds decadent, I know, but really we were just trying to use up a series of gift certificates before they expired), he said: "Want to go to Beard Papa?"

My response: A resounding yes.

Beard Papa, the birthplace of cream puffs so fabulous they have reached cult status, has been at the top of my must-visit list of restaurants/food shops/bakeries/sources of gastronomical ecstasy since the place opened.

Just walking to Beard Papa is an experience. As you get closer to the door, you start to smell something so wonderful, so delicious -- like someone opened an oven and the Cream Puff Fairy escaped and now she is wrapping her magical cream puff arms around you in an aromatic embrace of fresh-baked goodness.

I ordered two puffs -- a vanilla bean and a chocolate. He ordered pumpkin, which was the flavor of the week.

Then we sat at a little steel table outside and chowed down.

Wow. Amazing. The outside was fluffy, flaky and just barely dusted with powdered sugar. And inside: A light custard -- thicker than typical cream puff filling and so much more flavorful. The puffs were a little messy to eat (they don't skimp on the filling), but so good that I licked every last bit off my fingers. Yum.

And you know the best part? That was just the vanilla puff. I still have the chocolate one. And I'm going to eat it right now.

the holiday we don't celebrate

I do not like hearts. Or roses. Or those tiny candies with cheesy sayings printed on them. (Why don't people realize they taste like chalk?)

I do not like the way many restaurants gouge diners on Valentine's Day. (No self-respecting foodie will put up with this.) I do not like competing for reservations. I do not like "going out" because that's what you're "supposed to do" on this "holiday."

I do not like crowds.

We stayed home, much like the way we did the night before, and the night before that. There were no flowers or balloons or sappy cards (although his parents sent us an awesome card with kittens on it -- and I can't resist anything with kittens, especially if they are ginger kitties, like our kids). And it was nice.

He did make dinner, though: Orange Roughy topped with a wild mushroom sauce, asparagus seasoned with Meyer lemon juice from the tree outside, brussels sprouts with mustard, all paired with sake.

It was fabulous. And I almost fell asleep on the couch immediately afterwards.

I am such a romantic.

hello, chickenland

We moved on Saturday. We left the city. On the front step of our apartment, there was a paper heart cut out of construction paper. We shut the door.

Our new house is small and square and smells like new paint. The back door creaks when you open it. The toilet seat is hot pink. A Meyer lemon tree grows outside. We will have a vegetable garden. And a clothesline. I want to plant lavender. And take more pictures -- the only photo I have in our new house is this one of Mari on the wok box (her favorite spot).

It is raining. Our first rain in our new house.

all together now

After months and months of talking about forming a wine-tasting group, my friends and I finally got our act together and did it. Our first meeting was last Saturday. (Apologies for the late post -- my life is dominated by cardboard boxes and packing tape right now. Tomorrow is the big move. I am tired of wrapping things in layers of newspaper. And can anyone tell me why on earth I have not just one, but two egg cubers?)

Comparative tastings are great, especially when they're done blind. You always find something that surprises you, and you learn so much. And I love tasting with a group of people who have different relationships with wine and like totally different styles.

The focus of our first gathering: 04 Pinot Noir. (And no, no one brought Burgundy, or even something from Oregon. We were California-centric.) We tasted a total of six wines, and everything was done blind.

Here are my notes and rankings. (I'm only including my observations because I don't want to speak for someone else. And honestly, I can't remember and didn't write down what the group's final vote was, except for the No. 1 and No. 6 wines.)

1. Clos Du Val 2004 Pinot Noir, Carneros: Obviously, this is the bottle I brought. And obviously, I have a house palate. I could tell what it was, even though the tasting was done blind. (Our wines have a distinct nose. I don't really know how to explain it, but I can definitely pick them out when I sniff them. And also, I absolutely love this Pinot, so I know it pretty well.) But I wasn't alone in my vote; I think four of us ranked this wine No. 1. Anyway, I got aromas of cherries, spice and earth, and in the mouth, the wine had a very nice complexity, lots of bright cherry flavors and a touch of pepper. And the finish was fabulous -- long, long, long. I love my job.

2. Sterling 2004 Pinot Noir, Central Coast: So this was my surprise wine. I wouldn't have guessed Sterling because I just don't think of Sterling when I think of Pinot Noir. But I liked this wine. It had ripe cherry and strawberry aromas. In the mouth, I got a combination of fruit and leather.

3. Bouchaine 2004 Pinot Noir, Carneros: Probably the lightest Pinot of the bunch, both in color and in body. The nose: cherry, some pepper and a hint of fresh herbs. The mouth: light-bodied, soft, not as much flavor up front with everything coming at the finish. To me, this was a good wine, but it wasn't incredibly memorable. I ranked this wine third because I wasn't very impressed with the wines that came afterwards.

4. Gundlach Bundschu 2004 Pinot Noir, Rhinefarm Vineyard, Sonoma Valley: I got lots and lots and lots of oak here -- bordering on overkill, at least for me. The nose was full of toffee, and in the mouth, the wine was big and leathery. I thought it needed to age a little more in order to be more approachable. (Funny, though -- the winemaker/brewer/organic gardener boyfriend ranked it first. And he thought the Clos Du Val Pinot needed to age. We debated this in the car on the way home. And throughout parts of the morning the next day.)

5. Patz & Hall 2004 Pinot Noir Chenoweth Ranch, Russian River Valley: Patz & Hall is an excellent winery. It wins awards left and right. And this wine received a 93 from Wine Spectator. But it is just not my style. I am not a fan of big, knock-your-socks-off wines. But for those who are (and you can count yourselves in the majority -- most people like bigger wines and aren't lean freaks like me), this is probably the most fantastic Pinot ever. For me, not so much. I thought it was too big, there was too much wood, and the mouthfeel was sort of fizzy. And I got some heat on the nose when I sniffed it. Too much for little me.

6. Concannon 2004 Pinot Noir, Central Coast: No one in our group really liked this wine; everyone ranked it last. I liked the color (a nice, pretty ruby-red) and the nose (bright cherry), but when I tasted it, it was actually sweet, like it had some residual sugar or something. Also, there was no finish. And no complexity. It was kind of like fruit punch.

So there you have it. Our first wine-tasting group meeting. And after the "serious evaluation" was done, we polished off all six of these bottles and then some. It was a good night. I look forward to the next!