Just got back from Santa Fe. I can still smell the smoke from the adobe style fireplaces as I wash out that town from my hair. It’s a magical place, Santa Fe. It has a soul, a quiet roar beneath its surface, an energy that pulls you through a wonderland of southwestern culture and its effect on the imagination.
My first stop there, however, was not so idyllic. My guy and I arrived at the St. Francis, a rather lovely boutique hotel that made the national registry, only to find a chemical laden room awaiting us. I am not a fuss whatsoever, but a headache from my boyfriend within twenty minutes and the start of wheezing from me, and we were out. We stayed, instead, at the less expensive yet equally charming La Posada, which, by the way, makes the best green chile I have yet experienced in New Mexico. When I asked if I could take some home, I was informed that it does not travel well, and that when green chile cools down, it loses its vigor. Sure enough, I then learned that they make theirs from scratch each morning and keep it heated continuously throughout the day.
The galleries, as always, were delightful. I always get a kick out of the range of talent…and subjects (who would buy an oil painting done in ’80’s colors of a large purple-eyed lime green woman singing opera with cats coming out of her mouth for $1700??). I even tried to talk my boyfriend into buying a pink leather cowboy suit with silver streams and glitter. But he wasn’t in the mood.
Then I fell in love.
Gustave Baumann–a German born woodcutter with an artist’s eye who fell hard for the southwest and produced a slew of magnificent art from 1910-1940 predominantly. He died in Santa Fe and has left his mark as one of the most prominent artists of his time with the medium in which he worked. His colors were startling, his subjects eerily silent, his spirit in every print. He had the marked of yesteryear but the relevancy and timbre of today. He provoked contemplation but was not above a cartoon undertone to execute thought.
I am looking at his woodcut ‘Three Pines’ in my boyfriend’s living room right now. Leaving without one just wasn’t an option.
We ate at The Compound the first night and savored an old classic, Alejandro Fernandez’s 07 Pesquera from Ribera del Duero, a spicy Spanish red that walks a tight rope as it is undoubtedly old world, dusty, leathery and weighted down with earthy minerality, but it nonetheless always manages to appease the new world palate with its substantial tannin, body and oak. A crowd pleaser for our table for sure. I had a number of little bites that night, but my favorite was the shrimp chorizo paella. No better match for my Spanish red.
The next day, we ventured to my favorite wine shop, possibly, in the world! It’s called La Casa Sena, but I refer to it as the Impossible Dream Store. See, it shares its inventory with the restaurant next door under the same name and ownership (God love other states than Colorado–I wish we had some looser liquor laws sometimes). As such, they can have a near $800,000 inventory (that’s cost, not retail price), and stock such prestigous labels as Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (they have just about every one of the seven vineyards, in fact), all five first growth Bordeaux, Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Vega Sicilia… The list goes on. You can drool with me if you’d like and check out the wine list online. Everything they offer at the restaurant can be purchased at a more realistic retail price within the store. It is a humble space, stacked with crates, laden with dust and run by gentleman who have clearly been in the biz for a while, as they move boxes of wine in their jeans and flannel. This isn’t snooty even the tiniest bit. But man, if any place could get away with it…
That evening we checked out La Boca–a Catalan inspired tapas restaurant just outside the city square. Sunday nights were half off wine bottles, and even though our first selection didn’t fall within pricing requirements, they let is slide. They had a small but impressive wine list, and we were in a super funky mood. So we first ordered an 03 Gravner Anforno. This is a wine from the Friuli region of northeast Italy that I have been wanting to try for a long time. It is, what you call, a ‘cult’ wine, as it attracts weirdos like myself who come to be devotees of the style, producer, varietal and/or region itself.
Back in the 70’s, when a lot of people were up for experimentation of all sorts, Gravner wanted to try a couple new methods himself…with wine. But for him, experimentation didn’t involve drugs, sex, or, in the case of wine, labratory creations to control acids, sugars, yeasts, oak enhancement, coloring, etc. That pretty well freaked him out, as it would anyone who really considers what those kinds of processes entail (sadly still widely practiced, too, though seemingly becoming less favored). From perfection of stainless steel fermentation and cooling to then perfecting barrique aged fermentation, he has had a very influential hand in bold styles of vinification. But even this tired him.
Ever restless to create new possibilities for wine, Gravner had a new idea. Probably his most daring method, however, reached back into the past, to ancient times, as he became a modern day pioneer of macerated-style wines. He scrounged up giant clay amphora from Georgia, threw the grapes in with no sulfur, no added yeasts and let them sit in their skins…for roughly seven months! He explains, “The amphora amplifies everything,” he says. “The color, which is very dark, is the most obvious, but there’s much more which cannot be explained…I don’t have the words to describe it. It’s like being asked to describe someone’s soul. The amphora wines have much more spirit.” (For this quote and more about Gravner, click here.)
Turns out, he’s right. I fumbled for any kind of description. It was served entirely too cold, so I impatiently held the goblet in my warm hands, willing it to speak, as its amber gold cidery hue stared back at me with malice. I know I went in knowing a bit about this guy, but its restraint on the nose came off more like mockery or temptress. I was forced to wait nearly 30 minutes after it was open to get a word from her edgewise.
But her first words kept me interested. They were of wet pebbles, moss, earth and shimmery minerality. She eventually said a little more that sounded of flowers, orange blossoms and young honey, but overall, I don’t think she was in the mood for friends just yet. This wine was still a baby. She needed more sleep. But it was worth cracking open no doubt.
We then had an 01 Chateau Musar Cabernet/Cinsault/Carignan from the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. I had never tried this producer, though the name has come up numerous times. Their vineyards hang high at about 3,300 feet of elevation, getting hours of sunlight which is necessary for such southern French varietals to fully ripen. Our waiter was clearly a devoted Musar advocate as he explained with utmost admiration and deadpan seriousness, “No matter how many times Musar has been bombed, they just keep making wine.” And it’s true, these winemakers and field workers grow wine under the extremest and riskiest of conditions many years. Gunfire and bombs is not far off for many a vintage. But they have never rested but for two vintages (’76 and ’84).
My first impression was Bordeaux as cedar and cherry were the first to come through as well as pie spice. There was a floral, elegant component that recalled Graves as opposed to the strength of those north in Haut-Medoc. The mid-palate found fresh jammy strawberries, and the finish a heavy hand of iron minerality. The finish lingers for nearly a minute, bringing back the sweet essence of cherry pie (with the crust!).
I can never pass up the opportunity to try a divey, sketch ethnic hole-in-the-wall restaurant on my way back home from any place (note: NOT on the way to the destination vacation). So when we saw a shady little stand alone restaurant called Johnny’s Mexican Kitchen in Las Vegas, New Mexico, I knew we had to stop. Let me paint the picture for you. The inside was a yardsale of sorts: antique tins of Pepsi-Cola and Crayola lined the wall, an inordinate amount of lighthouse lanterns were strung from one end ot the ceiling to the other, there were countless signed photos of ’80s soap opera stars on a ledge, dusty sombreros, sewing thimbles, oil cans, matchbox cars and ceramic Mary mother of Jesus statues. They had collected all those things everyone tries to get rid of each spring in their garage.
But the food was solid. The salsa rocked. I ordered a small combo plate with a taco and enchillada with beans, rice and both green and red chile. The taco dripped with every bite, the enchillada promptly found its way to my artery walls. I was full after a few bites. And I was oh so happy.
All in all, it was a satisfying hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint. Aside from the fact that they served no margaritas. But that won’t stop me from returning on my next trip home from Santa Fe.
(PS- Jonathan partook in a massive bowl of green chile did not feel as well as I did today. So I guess, the moral of the story is, those with stomachs of steel will enjoy this dive.)