2016 has not been a stellar year. We have suffered great losses of iconic personalities, political strife, phobias of a vast spectrum, and we face even greater uncertainties in the years to come. In light of these dismal prospects, many of us are faced with the proposition of fight or flight. A knee jerk reaction? Perhaps. Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. I admit I was one of those people who checked out the Canadian website on November 9th at 4:00am. I also took a quiz and was informed that the Netherlands was well suited for my beliefs, but the Dutch wine thing deters me a bit. My second knee jerk reaction was to bury my head in the sand, not unlike the Ostrich, only to discover that they do that burying thing for a good reason - to dig holes and hide their stash. For the Ostrich, it’s eggs, for me, it’s wine.
Secret rooms, underground escape tunnels, hollowed-out corridors, trap doors, portals, bunkers, panic rooms, safe rooms, vaults, fallout shelters, caves, rabbit holes and boats, all depicted in modern-day cinema may seem to be indications of a post-apocalyptic world. But the truth remains that art imitates life, and these escape routes and secret hiding places have existed since history has been recorded. As far back as the Ancient Egyptians to Medieval Europe, dungeons, tunnels and secret rooms have been built into castles to escape enemies and send out for reinforcements. By the turn of the 20th century, nearly all castles and large estates throughout Europe had secret tunnels, hidden cellars and escape routes built into them. Many of these cellars were eventually converted into wine storage. Some were forgotten or abandoned as political geographies settled into place. Of course, WWII was cause for secret hiding places and “ratlines” to continue to be built. Wine cellars were repurposed or sealed up completely.
In 2010, a hidden chamber was found in at the Bollinger Estate in Ay, Champagne, France. Over 600 bottles of rare reserve Bollinger Champagne was discovered behind another wine cellar wall. This pre-WWII Champagne was the personal collection of past family members dating back to 1830, just one year after Bollinger was founded. This past November, Sotheby’s in New York City, held an auction where several bottles of these rare Champagnes were auctioned off: Six lots of an exceptionally revered Vielles Vignes Francaises (old French vines) from historic vintages made from pre-phylloxera Pinot Noir; Thirty-five bottles spanning four decades of Champagne from 1973 - 2000; and one bottle from Lot 40 - a 1914 vintage. The lucky buyer will not be able to store that bottle in their own cellar, or even take it out of the cellar. That person will be invited, along with three friends, for a private tasting at the Galerie 1829 at Bollinger. James Bond, Patsy and Edina are my pick for this once in a lifetime experience.
The United States has had its own share of reasons for creating secret rooms and escape routes throughout its relatively short history: From the Underground Railroad and slavery, to Speakeasies and Prohibition, to the threat of nuclear attack, the reasons are many. Currently, while San Francisco’s Planning Commission was considering a new hotel and housing project in the Tenderloin, a series of tunnels were discovered intact under numerous historic gay bars, which were connected to help patrons escape police raids. Believed to have been built in the 1930’s (perhaps earlier) they contained historical artifacts including a safe belonging to The Rainbow Tavern, and of course, booze. This project would destroy the tunnels at what could be a very important time to preserve them for, dare I say it, future use. “Run, Hide, Fight” may just be our life guide as we enter the New Year. Maybe it’s time to build that “wine cellar” and stock it with provisions...just in case.
Provisioning your safe room can be fun! Think Martha Stewart. Select wines and gourmet foods that will sustain and satisfy even the most discerning palate: Canned seafoods like Spanish Galician mussels, oysters and cockles from the Northwestern Coast of Spain pair beautifully with Albarino from Rais Baixas. This super crisp white wine with citrus peel, honeydew melon, lime zest and tons of crushed mineral, saline and quinine will ease your mind and calm your tastebuds. Your “wine cellar” should be a perfect 54 to 64 degrees to release all the aromas and nuances of your white wine, but if you must chill it a bit further, smack pack ice packs will do quite nicely and last several hours.
Sicilian anchovies caught in the deep waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea and packed in Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil are smaller and more delicate than the meaty Atlantic Portuguese variety. They add flavor and sustenance to that can of San Romano tomatoes. Add Italian olives and capers on stone grain flatbreads and it pairs beautifully with Nerello Mascalese red wine from the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. This light bodied wine, packed with red fruit and playful acidity brings the earthiness of the underground to light with just a touch of black volcanic soil to seal in the taste. It is similar to Pinot Noir, but its allocation is limited, so stock up now.
“Sicilian Sushi” is the pen name for almost any mediterranean seafood that is marinated in white wine vinegar and lemon juice. Tonno (the good kind of tuna fish), and sardines are an excellent source of protein and pair well with Vermentino, a white grape prevalent in Sardinia, Liguria and Tuscany. The aromas and flavors of tropical fruit and rosemary with a salinic finish will bring your spirits above ground.
Tired of all this seafood? Don’t touch that SPAM! Salted or cured meats like Prosciutto di Parma and hard Italian cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano from Emilia Romagna can be kryo packed and last for months. Pair it with that Brunello di Montalcino Sangiovese that you have been saving for a special occasion. The sour red cherry and plum flavors with hints of licorice and dusty leather will make this meal last...especially if it is your last.
Don’t forget your vegetables. Quality counts, and there’s no skimping on canned peas, white asparagus, artichoke hearts and other legumes. Austrian Gruner Veltliner is your go-to for all your vegetable pairings. This white wine has all the makings of a salad in a bottle. Flavors of snap peas, arugula, green beans and yellow beets topped of with white pepper, fennel and a touch of chervil will dazzle your senses. A nice dry Riesling from Alsace, France will work nicely as well.
Keep scurvy at bay with canned peaches, mandarin oranges and white pears. Add some almonds, walnuts and a nice Tawny Reserve Port wine and take the chill out of your “cellar” with the delicious vibrant flavors of red fruit, mint and eucalyptus.
Chocolate lasts forever. Okay, not really, but it does last a long time if stored in a cool, dark “wine cellar”. So when provisioning for the end of days, keep plenty of chocolate on hand. Add a drop of white truffle oil and pair it with Dolcetto from Piemonte. This early ripening red wine with low acid and ripe blueberry, orange zest and black tea flavors will surely delight an otherwise dismal day.
Although you can survive like a gourmet for weeks, even months in your “wine cellar”, there may come a time when you must leave and fight. Daunting as this may seem, keep in mind that the vine of which these magical elixirs that have sustained us for so long have had to fight as well. For it is in the struggle and strife in the life of a vine that it will be deprived of water. It will need to tunnel through rock and stone and shell and mineral to seek just a drop so that it can continue to thrive. It will fight the elements of frost, wind, hail and searing heat to stay alive. Its enemies are many. Diseases abound as well as insects and bacteria, yet it keeps forging on. For it is in “the fight” that the vine will reward us with the glory of that special moment when the bottle is opened and air gives new life to that single berry that started on the vine and completed its arduous journey on the lips of its survivors.
2016 has not been a stellar year. In fact, it has been downright ugly. But so is the vine when it has been stripped of its fruit and readies itself to lay dormant until next spring, when it will rise up yet again to work even harder at producing a more beautiful, yet uncertain tomorrow. It will fight against both new and familiar enemies, and never give up. So as we wind down on this shitty year, and play the role of the brightest, twinkling light on the tree, remember to be kind to each other and most of all to yourselves.
May all your safe rooms and bunkers become the wine cellars of your future dreams. Happy Holidays dear readers. Good riddance 2016 - and don’t forget the can opener!