My near-religious experience was inspired by mussels (see review, page 65); a guy I knew had a slightly less reasonable epiphany over a glass of wine.
Mark was a cook, a blackout drunk and all-around unsavory character I knew back in the early days of my apprenticeship. I was just past twenty; he was a few years older. We'd both started working around fifteen -- me stirring sauce and turning dough in a small but well-loved neighborhood Italian joint, him in the pantry of a somewhat famous French restaurant. Neither of us were bright enough to realize how lucky we were, how such places can act as springboards to gainful employment for youngsters with ambition and tenacity. We were, in a word, idiots who'd probably listened too little to the parents, friends and guidance counselors who'd tried to steer us toward success, and too much to our own base instincts that told us the kitchen life meant a steady paycheck, cheap dope, free drinks and a limitless and ever-changing supply of very liberal-minded waitresses.
Mark and I met while I was working as a line cook in a lace-curtain Irish pub/restaurant slopping out stringy corned beef and Killarney chicken to 200 covers a night under the watchful eye of an ex-Marine sous chef with the disturbing habit of whipping off his chef coat and showing me the three bullet holes in his hairy back by way of explaining why he couldn't work that night and why I had to work a double. I was often tempted to give him a fourth. Mark was just a few blocks away, sweating blood as a station cook under a psychotic German exec who kept two bottles of cooking sherry in the speed rack above the expeditor's station and had to drain both during the four-hour dinner rush just to stay on his feet. The crews with which Mark and I worked both drank at the same bars after work. We were loud, abrasive, narcissistic, ugly, foul-smelling arrogant bastards badly in need of serious, repeated ass-kickings. We knew the same people, chased the same girls (or guys, in the case of Lisa, who worked sauté at my Irish place and had skillfully bedded just about every poor, suffering line dog in town), would gladly drink with anyone stupid enough to find us amusing and, together, puzzled over what evil we'd done in a past life that got us condemned to the particular hells in which we currently labored -- all the while committing enough fresh sins to screw ourselves well into the next life.
Mark and I were good friends, tighter than brothers for the three or four months we knew each other, inseparable outside of our respective kitchens -- until the day he didn't show up at the bar after work. No-call, no-show on a Wednesday night, his crew members explained, shrugging their shoulders. Just gone. And since that's the way these things usually happen, no one (myself included) thought much of it. About a year later, I ended up in Mark's old kitchen, working under the German who was exactly as Mark had described him, except that it was vodka now, not sherry, in the speed racks. And two years after that, I ran into Mark in the dining room of a restaurant much nicer than either of us would have ever been allowed in three years earlier.
We barely recognized each other. The Mark I remembered was a rail-skinny grubber with a long goatee and stained check pants. The me that he remembered was a twitchy punk with more burns on his hands than skin, drunk all the time, and pissed off at the entire world. Now he was in a jacket and tie, forty pounds heavier, clean-shaven and a full-blown chef with a house of his own. Now I was sober and had a career: executive sous chef at one of the top three joints in town. We both wondered what had happened. He talked first.
For him, it was wine: what sommeliers and devotees of the grape call a "wine epiphany." And while I don't remember the bottle or the vintage that put him over the edge, I do recall him describing in reverent terms an experience finer than all the cheap, dirty, rock-star thrills of our youth rolled into one. He'd tasted something in one glass that turned his whole life around, transmogrifying the miserable, hedonistic two-bit station cook I'd known into an actual chef, a responsible member of society and a man with a mission. He'd been to Paris, to Northern Italy, to Napa -- chasing something he could barely describe in words. He told me I just had to experience it myself, that he (the stingy weasel) couldn't explain how it had changed him, but that I'd understand it when it happened.
I tried to tell him about my mussel revelation, but frankly, Mark was no fun to talk to anymore. He had that distant, affected air of someone who has suddenly gotten very deep into yoga, transcendental meditation or the films of Ingmar Bergman. No longer capable of relating to those who hadn't seen the light, it was like he was breathing different air. All that mattered to him now was trying to recapture the moment when his entire life had been changed by one sip of wine.
I don't know whether he succeeded, because I never saw him again after that. Odds are he's sitting on top of some mountain somewhere or slowly turning to dust in the tasting room of a French estate, but I'm still curious as to what became of him, because I've put away my fair share (and probably your share, too) of good grape and have yet to have an experience like his. Since spite and jealousy have always been two of the greatest motivating forces in my life, however, I've never stopped looking for that thrill.
Which is how I ended up talking with Doug Caskey, director of the Colorado Wine Industry development board, about the influx of Colorado vintages. "I think we have more of a connection to Bordeaux than California," Caskey said. "Our soil is actually more similar to the soils in Europe than California or New York."
Our soil may be similar, but compared to Europe -- hell, compared to California or New York -- our wine industry is still in its infancy.
Colorado's wine industry is mostly a boutique operation, with 42 licensed wineries working from a scant 650 acres of vines concentrated in the Grand Valley viticultural area (a fancy name for "grape country") between Grand Junction and Palisade and in various spots along the Front Range. By way of comparison, California's North Coast (which includes Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties) boasts roughly 89,000 vine-bearing acres. And because fully a third of those 650 Colorado acres were planted in the last three years -- vines take a minimum of three years, and sometimes up to five, to mature -- a large portion of the bearing acreage will be turning out its first crop this year.
The limited growing space leads to small harvests, which lead to small batches of wine, which lead to higher prices per bottle (as compared to New York, California or Australian wines, for example, which can be sold cheaper because of their massive volume), and problems with wineries -- most of which do their own distributing -- getting their product into restaurants because of difficulties in maintaining stock through an entire season.
"Retail is still the biggest share of the market," says Caskey, a wine-biz veteran of twenty years. "And product sold out of tasting rooms." But he's working on it. He understands that, if nothing else, the industry has room to grow -- no pun intended.
But that's the bad news. The good news is that the industry is growing. In the face of a steep national downturn in overall wine sales, Colorado's production rose 22 percent last year, and in-state sales of Colorado wine grew to 1.2 percent, up from less than 1 percent in 2001. That may not sound like much, but in a small industry struggling against some pretty entrenched competition, and considering both the drought and the general crappiness of the economy, you take what you can get.
And Caskey sees real progress on the Western Slope, where frustrated fruit growers are turning to vines for an economic boost. "They realize there's a value in grapes," he says.
With elevations ranging from 4,000 to 7,000 feet, Colorado's vineyards are among the highest in the world, with hot days and cool nights during the late-summer maturation period. "We get as much heat as Napa or Tuscany," Caskey points out. "It's just concentrated over a shorter time." That heat's good for the early-ripening varietals, while the cool nights help the grapes retain their acidic bite. "The climate and the soil lend a unique personality to Colorado wines," he adds. "And some people like that and some people don't. Colorado may be ahead of the wave in terms of regional wines. I think they stand up to anything the world has to offer."More booze news you can use: Okay, wine snobs, want to put Caskey to the test? First, visit www.coloradowine.com, where all of the state's wineries are listed according to region. Second, make plans to attend the Boulder Revel at the Dairy Center for the Arts (2590 Walnut Street, Boulder) on March 22. The event will showcase wine, cheese and mead made in Colorado and will include tastings from Augustina's Winery, Bookcliff Vineyards and Redstone Meadery, which makes (no surprise) mead -- that honey wine that everyone drinks too much of at Renaissance fairs, causing them to say unwise things to fair maidens and men wearing eighty pounds of sheet metal.
Chef Christian "Goose" Sorensen and his partner, Brian Klinginsmith, are now offering wine tastings at Solera (5410 East Colfax Avenue), with six to eight wines featured each night for just $10 a head. On March 18, the roster will be Spanish wines; Chilean vintages follow on March 26. Steve Mohler and Robert Hall, the owners of Above the Rim, a wine shop that opened late last year at 1936 Pennsylvania Street, offer tastings on the first Tuesday of every month at Pisco's (1120 East Sixth Avenue) and on the second Wednesday at the Painted Bench (400 East 20th Avenue). In April, they'll be pouring the wines of the American northwest -- reds and whites from Oregon and Washington State -- for $20 per person.
If you need much more than a taste, head over to Marczyk's Fine Foods (770 East 17th Avenue), where the recently added wine shop is doing Pete's Picks -- twelve-bottle cases containing six different wines. Owner Pete Marczyk came up with the Noah's Ark philosophy of doing things by twos. "Sometimes it takes a lot to decide if you really like something," he explains. "You could be in a bad mood when you open a bottle or something, and sometimes you need more than one bottle."
I couldn't agree more.
Pete's picks -- which this month are likely to be a tag-team event, Old World versus New World Cabs and Shirazes -- are not on the shelf at the time of their inclusion in the deal, so no one's able to go sniffing around the shelves looking at price tags or descriptions. Says Marczyk: "You just have to trust your palate" -- not your wallet or the experts. Case prices are always the same, $119.99, and since Marczyk himself tastes every brand, label and varietal that makes it into the store, he can confidently say that his picks will always be "good, solid juice. And that's the bottom line."
If you don't care about the pedigree of what you're guzzling, Marczyk's also has a special shelf labeled "I'm just drinkin'." The stuff here is perfect for when you don't want to talk about the legs, nose or leather of what you're imbibing: bargain reds, Chilean Cabernet and cheap Pinots, all vetted by Marczyk, who promises they're nothing "to be ashamed of drinking."
Leftovers: Frank Bonanno of Mizuna (225 East Seventh Avenue) and now Luca d'Italia (711 Grant Street) kicked ass and took names at Westword's Artopia Steel Chef competition on March 1. Bonanno's opponent, Eric Roeder (whose cafe-style French restaurant, Bistro Vendome, will be opening soon at 1424 Larimer Street), seemed to struggle under the tight constraints of the forty-minute time limit, still plating his own dishes while the judges (including yours truly, working incognito in a traffic-cone-orange polyester tuxedo and frighteningly lifelike latex Nixon mask) tasted Bonanno's five offerings. The highlight on Roeder's side? A red snapper (the secret main ingredient) tartare in a ginger sauce topped with black caviar, and "big-ass shrimp" mounted on top of poached snapper swimming in a citrus-butter emulsion. And on Frank's side? Everything. He fit a staggering amount of cooking into those forty minutes and didn't have a miss in the bunch.
Poached red snapper in a citrus-butter sauce too much for you? Try something lighter at Cava Greens, a recent addition to the Republic Plaza food court. The concept here is custom salads with ingredients all chosen by you, the consumer, assembled in front of you by chef Patrick Fox, then drizzled with a little oil and some aged balsamic vinegar and sold at fifty cents an ounce. (The cost is higher if you want something like shrimp or tofu in the mix.) You might want to pick up a salad to snack on if you're heading over to Sam's No. 3, now back in its original location at 1512 Curtis Street. The lunch crowd was so big on opening day that partner Patrick Armatas reportedly locked the doors to keep people from crowding in until the joint exploded.
Finally, from the "I can almost taste the irony" department, it was announced last week that Landry's Seafood Inc. has won the bidding war for the belittled and beleaguered Colorado's Ocean Journey.
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Let me repeat that: Landry's -- the Houston-based company that owns 280 fish restaurants across the country, including Landry's Seafood House, Joe's Crab Shack, Charley's Crab, The Crab House and Willie G's Seafood and Steakhouse -- has just bought Denver's aquarium. How the TV anchors were able to read this news with a straight face is beyond me.
Although Ripley's (as in Ripley's Believe It or Not) was the first company to put a bid in with bankruptcy court -- for a paltry $4.5 million -- Landry's president and CEO Tilman Fertitta was just waiting for the chance to bump the bidding up to $13.6 million. Why such a steep price tag? Think about it: Owning Ocean Journey totally cuts out all of those annoying (and costly) middlemen. Once Fertitta signs on the dotted line, it's no more fishermen, no more dock workers, no more shipping costs. Hungry aquarium-goers can just roll up their pant legs like Huck on the Mississippi, rent a pole and line and catch themselves a nice manta ray for dinner. And imagine how easy it'll be to get those recalcitrant sea critters to do tricks when you have a chef standing next to their tank with a boning knife and a hot skillet. Hell, I'll bet those damn lionfish will be doing Shakespeare inside of a week.
Landry's marketing division (in a fit of stunningly poetic creativity) has decided that Ocean Journey shall hereafter be known as Downtown Aquarium but will remain in its current location on the banks of Large Gray Waterway and in sight of the stunning Continental Geological Formations. And with the company planning to dump a few million more into this money pit, it will wind up creating an aquarium/dining/entertainment super-center that will surely rival in tackiness anything Ripley's could have imagined.
Hey, Tilman, I've got two words for you: otter dogs.