It probably comes as no surprise to the 5 or so people that read this blog that I’ve spent the last year out in Southern California, more specifically, in Laguna Beach. I can’t really think of a more beautiful and pleasant place to live. My commute in the morning took me by the Crystal Cove state park overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s a hell of a thing when your morning commute makes you smile. Well, like Frodo, I had an 11 month journey to and from the West Coast. I left California on June 19th and drove back across, back to Durham to my new job at Duke University. It’s a job with A LOT more responsibility than I’ve ever had or wanted, but I’m really excited at the opportunity to make an impact on the world and stretch myself intellectually.
Day 1: Laguna to Tucson
It got up to 116 in the Arizona desert. That is really ungodly hot. There were some really cool vistas at the California/Arizona. We stayed in the hills on the western edge of town, using all my Marriott points to stay at the Starpass resort. Gorgeous sunset. Had dinner at El Charro, a Tucson institution which looks the same, but has really changed since I was there. The food and service was nowhere near what it had been, before they opened other branches and the old owners were nowhere to be seen. Like they say, you can never go home again, or in this case, to your college town. The Hotel Congress has been gussied up, but it still has a cool vibe. I bought a Club Congress t-shirt to remind me of the old days when I was a young and full of hope and vigor.
Day 2: Tucson to Dallas
Some cool views, but not as cool as Arizona. Once we enter West Texas, things get UGLY. El Paso is a dump. We stop in Odessa for dinner, which is also pretty grubby, but had some pretty good Texas BBQ (not to be confused with actual BBQ, which can only be found in eastern NC). We then get completely pounded by an unbelievable rain storm, the kind you only get in Texas. I think this was part of the system that caused all the flooding in the Midwest. The rain got so hard that I couldn’t see the road, crazy. Got to the east edge of Dallas at about 2:45. Poured a huge glass of scotch and slept like the dead.
Day 3: Dallas to Birmingham
We stopped for an awesome breakfast at some diner on the Louisiana border. Made it to Birmingham with only a little more rain. Stayed at the Highlands Hotel which is an updated, hipsterized old hotel. The rooms are a bit tight, but that’s fine with me. The best part is that it right around the corner from Frank Stitt’s empire. We had dinner at the Highlands Bar and Grill, the original restaurant. The food was a bit dated, very 1990s, but it was perfectly executed. I had a cold cucumber soup that was soul satisfying, zucchini blossoms that were light as air, a grit cake with fresh mushrooms that was southern and yet French at the same time. For my entrée, I had veal loin and sweetbreads. My companion had the scallops, which she claimed were delicious, but I didn’t try. As an aperitif, we had peach Bellinis from fresh peach juice. Not as good as the original concoction, but fresh and delicious. We also had a glass of 2006 Nigl grüner-veltliner Kremstal which was good. With dinner we had a bottle of 2002 Chevillon Nuits Vaucrains which was tight, as I suspected of a young Vaucrains, but exhibited very good character for a 2002, a vintage I have found lacking in terroir. This wouldn’t be hard to pick out as Nuits blind, and if you knew the producer, this was most surely Vaucrains. It never really opened up, and in retrospect, I should have had it decanted. However, its class still shown through and the fat of my dish really did ameliorate some of the tannin. I’d check back in with this in 3-5 years.
Day 4: Birmingham to Nashville
Ahh, finally a nice easy day to my good friend jblackwood’s place. Watched the Dutch exposed by the Russians in HD (Arshavin was brilliant, in case you missed it), then went to the pool for a dip and mohitos before dinner. Nashville has generally been a restaurant wasteland, but the last two times I’ve been there I’ve had nice meals. Not Highlands nice, but good. With dinner we had a bottle of 1997 Castello di Lispida merlot which started with a very promising nose, but faded to be merely good, and a fantastic bottle of 2002 Montevertine. I was never as big a fan of the 2002 Pian del Ciampolo as John, but this was a different story. Snappy and totally alive, and utterly delicious. Straight sangiovese (with some canaiolo), no chaser. Back to the case and the pool for some healthy splashing about before a good nights rest.
Day 5: Nashville to Linville
What better way to follow up a wonderful day with John and Trinka than to stop in to see FlaJim at his mountain retreat. Upon arrival, we jumped right into a dinner party. Jim has posted about the wines on Wine therapy, so I won’t go into them here. Suffice it to say that the wines were good, but they were hardly the point. Friendship and relaxation were. The main thing was the lovely company and wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. Everything moves at a friendly pace, if that makes any sense, and it suits Jim to a T.
Day 6: Returning to the Shire
It’s been a very strange year for me. I have always been more of a creature of opportunity than ever having any real “life plan”, so when I had a chance to move to Southern California, I jumped at it. I had a marvelous time there, and was, frankly, loathe to leave. There is a lot to be said for the smell of the ocean and the sound of the waves smashing against the cliffs at Laguna Beach being your lullaby. I came a long way towards healing the wounds of a failed relationship and made some very real strides professionally, enough that I was recruited for my new position at Duke, one that promises to really challenge me. They say you can never come home again, and to some extent it’s true, I’m a different guy than I was a year ago (and it isn’t just the 10-15 lbs of Japanese-cuisine inspired weight) and although Durham is as familiar as an old pair of 501s, everyone here has moved on as well. In some ways, I am very much like a returning Hobbitt, I am a more serious guy than I was a year ago, with more purpose and much more responsibility (something I’ve successfully avoided my entire life).
I had a great time in SoCal and there were a lot of people who made it that way. From a wine perspective: Matt C. and the Lyleistas, Jim & Jim, Greg K at the wine pavilion, Dan and John at Hi-Times. Last but not least, the fact that anyone actually reads this blog is a bit humbling, so thank you and I hope to be back on track and updating on a much more regular basis.
Now if I can just find that bottle of Old Winyards…