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Always fascinated with stars, galaxies, quasars… all things beyond me that have not let go my imagining. I dreamed of working for NASA, but that fantasy was dashed quickly… my math skills standing obstinately in my way. The infatuation with outer space went further than reading my father’s old copies of the John Carter of Mars series and can even be seen in some of my recent album purchases, which share an affinity for space. So I found it apt then that I had purchased a bottle of the highly touted Pleiades XXI to experiment with last week.

I had heard a lot of people that I respect in the wine industry sharing positive opinions about a winemaker that I found quite mysterious—Sean Thackrey. Their opinion was that his wines were always well made and worthy of a try. With great anticipation I picked up a bottle to try to uncover a little bit more about the producer and his wine.

I made it the centerpiece of the evening, cracking it with a few friends after dinner (and without food). Pleiades was unique, a blend of Viognier, Marsanne, Syrah, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, and Mouvèdre with many more unlisted varietals, that blended and co-fermented white and red grapes. Out of respect, I decided it was best to just taste it on its own. We collectively brought our stemware to our noses to smell the brilliant ruby colored wine. A brief perfume of Vicks Vapor rub blew off, exposing a more attractive scent of cherry starburst, eucalyptus, and earth that leaped from the glass. The wine’s body was deceptively sleek despite it boasting about 14.9% alcohol; the mishmash of grapes was graceful yet confusing for my taste buds. Pleiades kept me guessing all night as it constantly evolved and I really liked that quality… keeping me off-balance. I was never quite sure what I would taste with each glass.

With most wines focusing on concentration and skipping closer to homogenized flavors this wine was an exciting outlier—a distant star young in its cycle. It lived up to its praise and was able to keep me enthralled to the last glass. I have Twitter now to follow NASA, and Sean Thackrey to follow the stars.

Where La Tijera meets La Cienega Boulevard there exists a quaint diner, one where people hold open doors for others, busboys are genuinely interested in cardiac health, and the biscuits served might just be the best in town. Sounds idealistic and downright fictional but it’s not; it is very real and I’ve been there. Pann’s Restaurant & Coffee Shop is where I happened to spend my Martin Luther King Day—at least an hour—trying out a “Deluxe burger” in hopes of finding the perfect sandwich early in the year.

I pulled up with a friend and a bottle of wine—dead set on making up for last week’s unforeseen pairing dilemma—to a seemingly familiar site. The diner made an extended cameo in Pulp Fiction and was rumored for having the best burger in town, the house was packed. Luckily for us, there was no waiting for patio seating. Almost immediately two glasses were brought tableside and we would receive attentive and surprising bottle service for the duration of the lunch, by no means a given while dining elsewhere.

We ordered our deluxe burgers (ten dollars apiece with side) and enjoyed a glass of the 2009 Chukker red wine while we talked about the recent string of Ducks victories as well as exciting playoff football games. A couple sips into the democratic blend of Cabernet Franc (40%), Merlot (40%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (20%) from the Happy Canyon AVA—Santa Barbara—would be enough to see that this wine was destined for success with lunch. It was only up to the burger to carry its end of the bargain.

Moments later our burgers arrived, folded tightly into white parchment paper. Framed in a squishy sesame seed bun, a thick patty with American cheese melted better than an illustration, and a tomato thrusting out of its package. I had followed the lead of my counterpart, ordering a medium rare patty and after my first bite I was shocked to see it was cooked perfectly. I may have said in the past, that a burger here or there had been cooked perfectly but these guys really executed it flawlessly. The grind of meat was tender and generous. The extras like the sweet relish and cheese helped round out the flavors of this almost-perfect burger. One tiny hiccup though—there was little to no seasoning used on the fresh ground beef. I was willing to overlook the flaw because everything else was exceeding expectation.

The Santa Barbara red wine was pitch-perfect, bringing together all the flavors at the table with Dudamel-like-direction. Poised to capture best burger in town had it not been for a lack of salt and pepper; I am resolved to try Pann’s Restaurant & Coffee Shop again. I do not do this often, but my experience was so heightened by the conversation we had with the patrons next to us, the amicable service and the small-town atmosphere preserved in a bigger city shell that I strongly urge you to eat there! I am going back sooner rather than later.

Alright! Alright, you caught me. Sometimes I accompany friends and family to Costco to see the wine selections and their astonishingly low prices for enticing bottles. I am not normally drawn to low prices per se; I value quality much more than cost and will often have a clear-cut image of something that I want rather than buying it because it’s on sale. When I am not frequenting the wine shops of Los Angeles, I will occasionally do some wine buying at a local market. I wanted to share here some of my trials with the wine troves of supermarkets and wholesale retailers since it can sometimes bear a thrilling experience.

Nothing will ever titillate my senses more than the first time I walked into Amoeba music on Sunset Boulevard. A kid, fresh from the suburbs—albeit, the coolest in Orange County (Laguna Beach)—in the pantheon of music, in all forms… posters, films and the never-ending bustle of denizens from far reaching places inside and out of Los Angeles, on their own musical pilgrimage—me, alongside. A close second, for a very different reason occurred when I was living in Washington State. My hockey billet family took me to a Costco; it was the first time I had ever set foot in the massive retailer. Unfathomable. The parking lot alone brought to mind a stadium and the innards were cold and unfamiliar, aisles of food in abundant size, accessories, and electronics all under one roof. It was strange to take home a flat of blackberries as opposed to the one package to which I was so accustomed. Years later, Costco still wears that forbidden feeling for me because it provides me with too much for a single person, but when I throw a party I know that there are few better places that I can stock up from so affordably.

I cracked a few bottles from Costco last week, two very familiar producers that I had left over from my Christmas party. The first was a bottle of Cameron Hughes 2009 Meritage “Lot 234” from Atlas Peak in Napa Valley (#3). It had been some time since I met the man at my wine business class at UCLA Extension and had yet to fulfill my promise of tasting more wines from the California Négoçiant. With excitement, I cut into the foil and uncorked the bottle transferring some of the juice to my stemware to breath. I quickly sniffed the wine detecting scents of blackberries, black cherries and herbs. The bottle began on a high note, the fruity aromatics were powerful and I eagerly took my first sip. A curveball on the tongue, more grounded tones presented themselves; the wine was far different than I expected. An hour into the Meritage, it began to change, exposing more fruit flavors in the mouth and for a few coins over ten dollars I couldn’t complain.

A couple days later I uncorked another bottle from Costco, this time it was a 2008 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon (#4) for less than an Alexander Hamilton. I uncorked the cab with an ex-girlfriend. In the background we coursed through Son Ra and his Arkestra’s film score-esque work: The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra. In the past, I had enjoyed the Montes Alpha Carmenère immensely and was really excited about this Cabernet. Unfortunately the wine was not as kicky as I had hoped, paling behind Sun Ra’s synesthetic compositions. Five jazz albums scored the night during which we drank the Cabernet and caught up, while I lamented that this wine could not compare to the closely related Chilean Carmenère.

On Saturday, after a long morning inventorying my wines, I left with a craving for a homemade ragù . I gathered the necessary ingredients and decided to purchase an organic Italian Sangiovese from southern Italy—one that I had brought into my store blindly—for the purposes of partnering with my dinner. After cooking the sauce nearly all afternoon (four hours) I uncorked the 2005 Antica Enotria Sangiovese from Puglia (#5). My first whiff found unremitting red cherries, rose petals and a menthol-meets-eucalyptus scent buried deep in the glass. After an hour untouched, I tasted the brick red wine noticing drying but sensitive tannins, medium body, prominent cherry notes, and felt the heavy acidity that would make it a smashing success with the tomato sauce. I paid a little more for the organically grown wine but was content with the results.

Perhaps I put unreal expectations on my Costco purchases (I have had that haunt me in the past), in awe of the way Cameron Hughes spoke in my business course and crushing on the relative of the Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon might have lead to their less-than-resplendent showing. These two wines didn’t rouse my taste buds; it will not deter me from shopping the gargantuan wholesaler again. The Cabernet and Meritage wines are perfect examples of context wines, serving their roles they will shine, but giving them the task to carry the room would not be doing them a favor. The organically grown wine delivered more but for the price (twenty dollars) I demanded it. The markets are a curious study. Going forward I will start to write more regular installments, perfecting my picks and striking a fine balance between value and worth. There are plenty of awesome wines to be found in the markets and I will make a concerted effort to uncover many this year.

Tired of Yelp, I combed the search engines for best burgers in Southern California, relying heavily on the burgerwise of Chowhound.com. The results were fruitful, more choices than I knew what to do with. I was cynical at first, the initial entries on the threads were hackneyed at best, but quickly an avalanche of unusual spots surfaced. I began scribbling names of interesting places to eat, categorizing them by distance and price. With this huge list I was armed with enough fodder to get me well through the first quarter of the year. When my friend came over, I surprised him with a bunch of choices, burdening him with the first selection of the year. Masa of Echo Park would cut the tape as first burger of the year.

Once the place was decided, I called ahead to see if it would be okay for me to bring in a bottle of wine. I had high hopes for a successful pairing. A few errands and hours later we arrived at Echo Park, compliments of Sunset Blvd. to sample a reasonably priced Spanish burger.

We were seated very quickly in the spacious establishment. It was apparent early on that pizza might have been the house specialty; scents of deep dish were swooning our senses, reaching us far in the corner where we sat. I opened the menu and saw deep dish centered boldly on the page—further proof that we may have had the wrong mission. We stayed focused fighting through hunger pangs and overcame overt signals to shift direction, ordering two Spanish burgers with a house salad and fries.

The salad made the table rather speedily as did a fresh baked boule. A bottle of 2004 Mas de Maha (#2) hailing from Paso Robles was uncorked and divvied up between the two of us while we noshed. I don’t write a blog on salad or appetizers but there was little to complain about in the early stages of the meal. Everything was executed well and the burgers followed behind at a comfortable pace.

Open-faced, resting on a Cuban roll, a half-pound patty comprised of chorizo, onion, tomato and mustard served with melted Manchego cheese and some other raw ingredients left to our choosing were plated before us—an inaudible timpani roll sounded in my brain. I assembled the halves and took my first bite. My eyebrows lifted and I looked eagerly across the table at my friend. We had struck gold. The rightful star of the show (the patty) was showing gloriously. Full of fat drippings and spice that tasted better after each bite and better yet, the roll that supported the hefty grind was able to quell the juices that escaped. My choice of onion—for more bite—and tomato only added to the depth. No sauces were needed. It was almost perfect until my first sip of wine.

Mea culpa! On paper, a perfect match; a Tempranillo heavy blend (the rest: Grenache and dash of Mourvèdre) to partner with a patty loaded with spice and fat melting in harmony on a sunny afternoon. My pseudo-sommelier skills played it safe but yielded unexpected results. The wine wasn’t balanced, a little too much heat from the alcohol clashed with capsaicin, accentuating the spice. The wine was big bodied; exhibiting blueberries, blackberries, pepper and leather in a ripe display but was unable to complete the package. Through the course of lunch the wine would open up but the unbridled alcohol never let up.

The Spanish burgers were a great way to kick off my burger hunt. A coarse grind with a lot of added flavor lead this Echo Park burger to glory. Most surprising was the wine, not able to find its groove though it possessed a lot of attractive qualities like its polished tannins (aging undisturbed in my cellar for a couple of years) and a luscious bouquet. Nevertheless the outing was successful in more than one aspect and I imagine I will be coming back for that pizza in the near future.

Local and loving it; I had the chance to taste a really nice wine to kick off my count—a bottle of 2010 Rosenthal Viognier (#1) from Malibu Newton Canyon. I had championed local wines at my shop all last year, skirting Santa Barbara in favor of Malibu wines—my backyard—to bring awareness to some of the better producers in my immediate area. It was a tough sell but in time it should get easier… and thus it is an apt place to start my new count.

In the mood for some somber sounds, I scoured my CD’s until my fingers and eyes came upon my Dirty Three discography. Violin and percussion filled the ambient space in my apartment as I uncorked the bottle of Viognier.

With “She Has No Strings Apollo” playing in the background I was in the perfect space to enjoy a single glass of Malibu wine. The fresh white wine was terrifically fragrant; a bouquet of flowers and peach skins leaped at me. I barely put my nose to the glass and was in awe of the sweet perfume. The soft golden hued wine was medium bodied with a fair amount of oak (moderate), which rounded out the essence of stone fruits on the palate with some vanilla accents. The acidity wasn’t as prominent either but still there. The white wine was richer than I had expected, coming across fuller because of the 14.1% alcohol (which was balanced). It was pleasant and a perfect sipper as I enjoyed the warmth of a Los Angeles winter.

I feel ambitious as I get started, beginning with a fantastic local white wine. No clunker, something easy and enjoyable while satisfying my nerd quotient for the evening. Dirty Three and Viognier were an unlikely pairing, on paper or acoustically—but that night, the two were in stride and combined gracefully.

I am certain that this year will bring the lion’s share of great burgers to me as I sniff out historic hotspots and chic and trendy grub purveyors all over California. The road is endless and I see that we may be transitioning out of the feared burger Renaissance—the excuse to over-complicate a simple American staple and charge excessive prices (at least if you are in Los Angeles) for, in some cases, total drek—and hopefully entering a time of burger Reformation, where artisans may differ with orthodoxy but still produce simple and wonderful tasting burgers. Headlong into an expedition for exotic sandwiches, pairing them with wines as I go, I hope to finally make it down to New Mexico (Bobcat Bite) and possibly tour the east coast to audition classic burgers that grew up in very different environments. Before I leap carelessly ahead I want to take a look back to a very interesting burger from Napa to draw inspiration.

2011 was rough for people who, like me, support the Ducks (Anaheim), but outside the realm of hockey and in terms of food it was more than interesting. From all the incarnations of duck between Thai food on Sunset Boulevard or crispy duck in Monterey Park the best may have come from St. Helena—for its sheer originality.

At Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, after a busy morning spent tasting, we (my friend and I) stopped off for a highly touted duck burger. More accurately the “Chinatown Duck Burger” for $15.50, which would include fries and a house made shitake mushroom ketchup. The price was a little elevated but I was in the mood for some good fare and did not flinch too much when I saw the tag.

We sat at the bar to speed along our lunch and a few minutes of talk elapsed between the bartender and ourselves before our food arrived. We ordered identically and were plated nearly the same dishes. The presentation was clean and bistro-esque. A sesame bun enveloped the hearty duck patty, under some miso-glazed mushrooms for added texture and the ensemble rested over a few leaves of rocket (arugula). The burger was cradled by an ample spread of plain spuds. The idea was east-meets-west, a culinary fusion binding a tasty combination of ingredients that most anyone would love.

I took my first bite and found balance in the sweet and savory elements of the burger. Nothing was over-the-top and everything was in proportion. I had no distractions as the bun held up marvelously to any drippings of fat from the patty. However, that was my one bone to pick; among the many things that were executed perfectly, the patty was not—lacking fat and jus drippings. Not to say that they overcooked the meat but perhaps a different grind should be entertained (everyone tries to defat a duck but in this case a little more fat should’ve be incorporated.)?

The lunch was pleasant despite the sans fat issue. It was not cheap, costing me roughly twenty-seven dollars for a spirited burger and beer combo w/ tip, which was not without fault. It is something to build on, expanding my burger horizons until I am able to eat the foie gras burger in New York or at a Laboratory in Seattle. I want to find a burger that is not too small, not exorbitant, but warrants its price tag, and proudly marries simplicity with complexity. Will that be so hard? I remain optimistic.

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