A Blind Tasting in Oakland

The Nevada City Wine Diaries

Image: russellstreet

Oakland used to be a black city. Then white people decided it was nice. It is nice. It’s amazing. San Francisco feels like South Coast Plaza compared to Oakland. A lot of places in the United States have been gentrified and I have been to them and lived in some, but Oakland is a place where you feel you’re watching a robbery as it’s taking place that no one, certainly not you, will stop. I won’t go to Lake Tahoe and can’t even understand why people like it. I am not even a spiritual person and I swear to God that place is packed with about fifty furious Native American ghosts per square foot. Is Oakland somehow easier for me to take because it’s not over yet?

White people used to just gentrify places by moving there and telling black people to get out. Now they just move there, and they take up space, but they say they don’t want to take up all the space, because they love diversity, except, by that they mean “we will join you in the nice place that used to be yours and keep some of you around because you make the place nice, as long as there is room for us which means obviously someone will have to go, but let’s not talk about them!” And then with all their money they got by more or less being lucky, just being themselves, they dust that place off and shine it up and it looks nice and well…

After making fun of natural wine last week, or not really making fun of it but making fun of people who like it to the exclusion of all other wine — I went to a natural wine bar in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland that I go to a lot called The Punchdown. This place has been written about a lot, it’s a nice, spare pretty bar with high ceilings. The owners, a couple named D.C. and Lisa, are sweet, generous, and knowledgeable. Their demeanor when talking about wine brings to mind an elementary school kid showing you their experiment for the science fair. That’s not entirely accurate, but it’s that sort of perfectly charming and guileless enthusiasm.

What I like most about The Punchdown and its ever-changing list is that they have this blind-tasting choice — for $16, they bring you several ounces of 3 different wines and you have the menu and descriptions in front of you and you guess what they are. I am not good at it but I find it extremely entertaining. The first time I did I got two correct, and since then, I have done it four or five times and gotten none.

Lisa, who has a smile that suggests she’s about to unwrap a present, brought me one white and two reds. I began, as one does, with white. It smelled like a very cold swimming pool that didn’t have a lot of chlorine in it, “like the swimming pool at the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island might smell” I wrote down, even though, as it turns out, The Breakers has no swimming pool.

What else? It kind of tasted like chardonnay, but like a no oak, not super ripe chardonnay. It smelled like apples. I think we have already established that I am not one of those people who smells or tastes eight billion things in wine. I had eight choices:

I ruled out #6 and #7 because they both said “funky.” There was nothing funky about this wine. I was pretty sure I wanted to rule out #8 because wines from the Jura are weird. (Some Warby Parker robot in a wine store in Park Slope once sold me a wine from the Jura even though I told him I liked “interesting but not too interesting” — luckily the friend I was having dinner with was a complete alc, and after pronouncing it disgusting chugged it anyway, because it was expensive af.) This wine was not weird. What do I mean by weird? Principally sour, principally tasting of an anus dipped in ashes. I can take a little of this but not too much. Some people love it. (For more clues about why different people like different things please read Carl Wilson’s 2007 book about Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste.)

Just to be sure #8 wasn’t a contender I asked Lisa what sous voile meant. Her face alight with an infectious wonder, as if she were describing Narnia, she explained how in the Jura and the Jura only and not even everywhere in the Jura the wild yeasts produce this veil that grows over the wine and as the wine ferments beneath it, it takes on a very unique flavor. It seemed very unlikely that this clean, crisp wine had ever been under a veil of wild yeast.

As for #1, I didn’t get bruised apple and also this wine wasn’t that “round” — meaning, soft, or low in acid. By the way, acid isn’t a bad thing, it just means sharper rather than fruitier. Very, very roughly, like the difference between tomato soup (less round) and cream of tomato soup (more round). Finally, I knew it was not #3, because this wine wasn’t sweet enough to be a Chenin blanc.

I was down to #2, the aligoté from Burgundy, and #5, the chardonnay from Mount Shasta. And I definitely thought this wine smelled and tasted like apples and I didn’t know what an Aligoté was. That said, I feel like a lot of white wines smell and taste like apples. Aren’t apples just kind of like giant white grapes? I said it was #5 but it was #2. Lisa told me a bunch of stuff about aligoté and I nodded, fascinated, and then forgot all of it. If you see one, buy it.

The next wine, red as I mentioned, was medium, not terribly rich or extracted, but not light. It didn’t have big tannins. It smelled like…well, like a red wine that was made in Europe, or, of course, by a Europe-fixated American, which in this establishment was probably every winemaker represented.

I had eleven choices. Right away I eliminated #2 because it wasn’t chilled. (I know—genius.) I also eliminated #2 because it wasn’t funky, or light for that matter. I was also pretty sure that it was too dark to be #1 and too light to be #11. I eliminated #3 because I always think carignans have a licorice flavor and this did not. Do I actually know shit about carignan? I do not; I have had like five of them. But this did not seem like one.

Then I eliminated #4 because vibrant and alive means weird and weird means butthole and this wine wasn’t butthole, #8 because I didn’t taste or smell cocoa, #9 because I didn’t taste or smell orange peel and #10 because quite frankly it didn’t taste that cheap and I also come here a lot and they never give me The Tank. This left me with #6 and #7. I guessed #6, because I thought it seemed more French than Italian. It was #7. I said I had had her wines before — Elisabetta Foradori is a very famous winemaker — and Lisa said either “Yes, this wine is much less rustic than her other ones” or “This wine is much more rustic.” Pretty sure it was less but can’t be sure.

I am not going to take you all the way through the third wine except to tell you that it was #8, the 2014 Domaine L’ Anglore “Eyrolle” — a grenache — and that I got it right because I am amazing at this. Lisa showed pride and enthusiasm appropriate to the grand occasion.

I took a free shuttle back to my friend’s apartment in Jack London Square and read a horrible article about Yemen on my phone. I felt pretentious for even reading it, because there are people who know what’s going on and there are people who don’t and don’t we all live in pretty much the same way, consuming ridiculously, reaping enormous benefits we don’t see as such, working, spending, wanting, working, spending, wanting, bragging, crying, tweeting from airports. Some of us are more polite than others. We can talk about what we’re doing and why, but we’re all pretty much the same. We all live on stolen land, some of it was just stolen long enough ago that not only does no one care, literally no one cares.

The important thing to remember is that we all need to cultivate healthy self esteem.