For folks that allocate non trivial sums of their waking hours tasting fine wine and devouring information in appreciative support of things vinous, the ultimate reward occurs when the collage of food, wine, and human connection intersect with seamless harmony in one pinnacle vignette. My experience with this form of cerebral tickling generally takes hold during a meal around a table, with a single companion or small group of special people; often with surprisingly large dollops of intimacy and serendipity. I suspect it is a similar sensation experienced by golfers delivering that magical round at eight strokes below handicap or musicians performing at peak levels of fluidity, energy, and crispness on a night where everything flows as natural extensions of mind and persona.
Last weekend I slipped into this nirvana-like space as guest at a dinner party hosted by a cardiologist colleague, and his ex-New Yorker-endearingly frank and bright-New Hampshire legislator wife, of my soul mate-wiser than most-wife-the endocrinologist. I awkwardly tag everyone with these professional and personal distinctions for reasons of color and admiration, but without prejudice or intention to generalize. Like so many physicians I have met as husband to a doc for 25 years, on this second social engagement with my new medically professional friend I made a mental note that he too displayed that familiar aptitude to explore topical knowledge at depths that prevent making mistakes…ever. That is what physicians are trained for and why they endure inhumane rigors of medical school, internship, residency, fellowship, specialty and sub specialty testing, board certification, and on-call duty pinned to beepers that wake the deepest slumber. I have lived half my life in awe of this level of immense dedication and brain power.
In turn, they sacrifice their youthful twenties and early thirties studying one or two things to perfection. The innocent social exploration and discovery that their non medical peers wade through during this early life era is unavailable to the medically inclined until later, creating a paradox of experience and life stage. Preparing for a medical career is akin to military boot camp and basic training. Running through your career provides military-like privileges of rank, but never the permission to sidestep perfection. Each new patient in the batch of thousands is as wholly dependent on your decision making and action as the ones you treated 30 years ago.
On this very special evening our host also invited his practice partner and wife along with their Yankee/Giant/Ranger/Knick fan Bostonian (possibly the only other one in the State of Massachusetts besides my immediate family of four) malpractice attorney to revel in a “Julie and Julia” inspired meal that he spent parts of one whole week prepping for; boeuf bourguignon Julia Child’s way. I never had boeuf bourguignon before. The thought of it always reminded me of the bland braised pot roasts and stews my mother used to make back in Brooklyn which she ladled on top of over-boiled, limp kosher noodles (sorry Mom, everything else was DELICIOUS!).
Full time physicians don’t have lots of spare hours for hobbies and trivial entertainment. The class of physicians in their fifties and sixties seem to pick a fun thing or two that they can accomplish with limited and focused personal time supported by the deployment of some extra cash. I am convinced this is why I have come across so many docs that get into wine in a serious and thoughtful way. They commit themselves to an intensity of learning and achievement that mimics competency levels reached in medicine and the satisfaction they garnered knowing few people could perform better around their one single discipline. They chase new knowledge with an amusingly youthful curiosity and zeal (which is a most endearing quality to experience as it peeks through their structured medical rank and posture) and turn into sponges around sources of information that contribute to their pursuit of total achievement.
This evening’s host had chosen cooking and cross country skiing as extensions of his professional life, moving around the world to cooking schools and challenging terrain in his limited personal time. He has spent hours and days on treadmills with loaded backpacks draped over his shoulders to prepare for cross country treks at high altitudes where only few have ever ventured.
If anyone could craft classically styled boeuf bourguignon to its intended state of perfection, my money was on my new cardiologist/chef/skier friend. Hoping for the best, I carried along a couple of bottles of Pinot Noir, 1996 Talley Rosemary Vineyard and 2005 Radio-Coteau La Neblina, that had been resting quietly in my cellar. The boeuf bourguignon not only surpassed the pot roast/wet noodle imagery that served as the root cause of my newly discovered lifetime deprivation, it was magically delicious! The rich Cotes du Rhone, butter, and bacon enhanced sauce supported by meticulously prepared home made stock coated the beef and noodles in silky hedonism that provided a perfect stage for the most ultimate seared beef smokiness that enveloped my senses. Four minutes of this and ten minutes of that, and then 3 minutes of something else were in his litany of prep and cooking stages that disqualified me from ever trying it myself on the grounds of “too many details”. But, holy cow, was it satisfying!
My wines were now safely in excellent company and ended up as the perfect pairing, as well as the second critical ingredient to our ultimate evening. The Talley Rosemary’s, with a dozen years of bottle age, showed advanced flavors and a nose comprised of earthiness, mushroom, oregano, and fennel that knitted with the seared smokiness of the beef to bring wine and food together in one amazing sensation. The mild flavors of black cherry were unleashed with a silky mouth feel and enough acidity to provide good balance to the wine. It was drinking perfectly.
I first met Brian Talley in the mid nineties when he outlined his bold plans to launch his interpretation of the best use of central California coast land that previous Talley generations chose to farm vegetables on. Mushroom fanatic Ken Ottoboni, then proprietor of foodie heaven 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo where I hung my hat during a dozen years of Silicon Valley visits and where Madame de Lencquesaing of Pichon Lalande hinted at two Michelin star quality, suggested I meet Brian since he was succeeding at creating Central California Pinot Noir in true Burgundian style. Brian’s estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and single vineyard Rosemary and Rincon programs in full swing, he fulfilled a wine making vision and made me a fan forever. This evening brought together the expertise of cardiologist and winemaker in that region’s wine and food roots.
The second wine, the 05 Radio-Coteau, was excellent but did not have the advanced and earthy flavors to create the unison we experienced with the beef and Rosemary’s. The nose consisted of flowers, eucalyptus, caraway, and very black fruit. The finish was long and rich and the wine will continue to benefit from bottle age that should one day provide the perfect foil for boeuf bourguignon made by someone other than me.
The final piece to this night of perfect harmony was our company. Unfortunately, our host’s partner was on call and was paged way from our dinner for an hour and a half to perform some kind of electrical shock treatment on a very sick heart, requiring his years of experience and expertise and not to be passed off to hospital staff or covering physicians. He left without thought or hesitation, as a warrior woken in the middle of night to join his battalion would. Like the warrior, he returned and suppressed the intensity of his garden variety life and death experience in the field enough to reconnect with the flow of the meal around him. The sincerity of everyone around the table combined with mature but playful explorations of newly perfected food and wine passions to provide a pathway around everyone’s serious-as-a-heart attack professional identities. We smiled at each other, all experiencing this pinpoint balance of wine/food/human connection, and promised another attempt to recreate this level of reward after respective returns from upcoming northern California, Beaune France, and Bristol England wine and food pilgrimages.
With the final touches of a finely sauced fennel accompaniment, artisan breads, tarte tatin, and home made limoncello, I floated into an ethereal comfort zone and was thankful for 10 years of patience with Brian Talley’s work, affording me the opportunity to play a part in the evening’s perfect symphony.