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Improving one’s skills in the wine world means tasting more wines. On the advice of a wine rep/importer I created a tasting group modeled after his, with a smattering of different professionals from the far reaches of LA who shared the same desire to learn more. Connected through a friend, we were half buyers and half reps, we encamped around a table for a scheduled Tuesday night tasting.

The overarching benefit of a tasting group is exposure—not only an introduction to unfamiliar wines (hopefully), but connections and friendships that seem to transcend the gatherings. It was the entire package that made the idea of orchestrating a tasting group so alluring and I looked forward to hosting my own.

We were an eclectic group, representing some diverse portfolios in Los Angeles; the initial gathering was meant for us to find a way to conduct further tastings.

Off to a good start, two reps, unfamiliar to me, were the first to arrive at my apartment ahead of schedule. Wine in hand, we introduced ourselves and proceeded to open the bottles for our preliminary tasting. On hand we had half old world and half new world wines beginning with a 2009 Brezza Nebbiolo from Langhe, a 2007 Bussola Ca’ del Laito Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore, a 2004 Red Car Syrah “The Fight,” and a 2008 Mauritson RockPile “Buck Pasture” Red Wine as one member brought food to help ease along the Italian wines and satiated palates.

The five of us sat behind our Riedel stemware and got started. The Valpolicella was first on the chopping block. With a combination of primary red and black fruit the wine was still in infancy, but considered off a pop-n-pour, our first wine, coming from probably the most notable producer of the night, was showing well.

We left the Veneto, heading west to Piedmont to sample the 2009 Brezza Nebbiolo. As we swirled the medium deep ruby contents in our stemware vigorously, discussing the format of future tastings, we agreed upon blind tastings in a set category—like Riesling—and observing a price point ($25-$35). We sipped the red with the option of spitting.

Brezza was new to me; the Italian producer had been around since the end of the 19th century, cranking out an interesting assortment of wines. The bottle was youthful, dry on the palate with notes of red cherries atop savory undertones of herbs and fungi. The Nebbiolo exhibited medium-plus tannins (round), taut acidity and was medium-full while possessing a tightrope walker’s balance.

We stayed on the Brezza a little longer, extracting the most from the glass that was possible before auditioning the domestic reds of Sonoma County. We started with the 2004 “The Fight” Syrah. Dark garnet with little sign of aging in our glassware—no bricking detected on the rim of the wine. Developing on the nose with a lot of blueberry and blackberry up front, while dark chocolate, vanilla and some black pepper could be sniffed out on the tail end, the wine was dry on the tongue with an overabundance of rich fruit and spicy notes in the Syrah’s full frame. The Fight left us with a generous finish that would be hard to say was not enjoyable though not sufficiently nerdy as a developing St. Joseph from the Northern Rhône.

The final wine (the 2008 Mauritson Rockpile “Buck Pasture” Red Wine) was chock-full of fruit and wood spice and still in the early stages of maturation. Heavy-set but not without definition (full bodied but not flabby), it was a bold way to end the night.

After we finished tasting the Bordeaux blend from Mauritson we each made our way back to our personal favorites. The old world seemed to rule the roost that evening and we quickly drained the 750ml’s of the Brezza and Bussola.

Successful on multiple accounts, I took away a new appreciation for Brezza while getting to reacquaint myself with Bussola during our meeting. The domestic wines, especially the 2004 Red Car Syrah still had its legs about it (in terms of aging further) giving me an accurate snapshot for developing it more in the cellar. On a personal note, the tasting also introduced me to some new friends in the area. We ironed out the scheduling for our next meeting and found a rendezvous time one month away to resume. More to follow.

In the penthouse of Peterson’s Automotive Museum buyers were treated to an exquisite Italian tasting last week. The Dalla Terra portfolio showcases some of my favorite Italian wines and their trade tasting had proprietors of the estates pouring their own selections for all in attendance. Better still, the billing was conveniently located a stone throw from my apartment and I happened to have a small opening (under an hour) in my schedule free between my retail post and the restaurant. I accepted the invitation from my Chambers and Chambers rep with wide-eyed enthusiasm as the stars were aligning.

I pulled up to the automotive museum around 1:50pm; early enough to get reasonable street parking and to not be swamped when making the rounds from table to table. After I checked in and grabbed a glass I prioritized the tables from the wines I sold to those I wished to. At first I tried to keep the tastings succinct, shimmying down the line in hopes of powering through the wines of Piemonte with a stop at Marchesi di Grésy. I realized quickly that it would be difficult to maximize my time when the owner/winemaker was pouring. I was encouraged to slow down, listening to anecdotes of school days in Italy while having Mr. di Grésy explain his single vineyard sites and their unique attributes. Small groups of buyers, sommeliers and representatives’ of Chambers and Chambers (hosts in conjunction with Dalla Terra) drew near, pitching their ears forward to absorb the arcane information. It would be the most informative session for many of us, unless you had been to the wineries.

I abandoned the idea of tasting through the hall with the fraction of time I had remaining, and tried to apply my best strategy for “tannin management” as I tasted the majority of wines I sold. I scanned the tables until I spotted another familiar bottle: Badia A Coltibuono from Tuscany. I walked through the lineup of wines, tasting the difference between exclusively Sangiovese based wines rather than those hailing from the Chianti Classico region (which in this case, were a blend of Sangiovese and Caniaolo) that I was accustomed to. Also on the agenda was a bottle of 1999 Chianti Classico Riserva which provided a snapshot of a how a wine with such bright acidity was able to age.

A little further in I stopped caring about tasting notes, and tried to focus on the particulars of what each owner was saying. At no stage was this more important than my brief time with Luca Currado of Vietti. To differentiate the many Barbera that the owner and winemaker would be pouring, I latched on tightly to his every word as he poured. Letting another intimate group of us in on what the differences were between Asti and Alba, as well as being schooled on the single vineyards that made up each bottle. I cruised through the Barolo “Castiglione” and Barbaresco “Masseria” until my mouth was coated with red fruits and Rose petals and my gums cried uncle.

I made a few more stops around the room, tasting Boroli, Maseria Li Veli, and Tenuta Sant’Antonio before ending on a reprise, trying the sweeter offerings from the same producers. One of the most fascinating wines was the Chinato Barolo from Boroli. It was incredibly herbaceous and armed with that quinine kick which was probably one of the most memorable things I tasted on the year. Shortly thereafter, I traded glasses and moved to the pioneer of Moscato. The winemaker/owner Paolo Saracco manned the table for Saracco wines, insisting that I begin by trying his Monferrato—a DOC in 1994, tucked in the Southwest corner of Piemonte—Pinot Noir before moving on to his two vintages of Moscato d’Asti. The Pinot showed textbook characteristics but it was the Moscato d’Asti that swept me away. Refreshing, low alcohol and a great blend of fruit and herbal nuance that left me with the perfect exit note.

Through it all, my only regret was not having enough time to taste all the wines, I picked and chose mostly the stuff I sold to gain more familiarity with the house style of the producers as well as receiving a wonderful download of information from the source. My time was over in an instant but this event, like the Chinato, was memorable and will go down as one of my favorites in a busy year.

It is great to have chef friends. They keep me honest (they taste wines too!) and up-to-date on culinary trends, share awesome tips on purchasing the ‘right’ knives, filleting fish, preparing sauces and can give excellent recommendations for serious foodie spots worthy of dining. Their training might be different, growing up in restaurants versus getting their feet wet at culinary school, and then entering professional kitchens between here and Chicago. With all their varying opinions on where the Los Angeles’s food scene stacks up, one thing that everyone can agree on is that Californians have exceptional produce. I was treated to a dinner recently by one of my chef friends that highlighted the quality ingredients of local farmers markets, playing to his strong suits by making an Italian-themed meal; my ticket for admittance would be a bottle of wine.

I accepted the invitation happily because I had not seen my friend for at least three months. He told me that he would be serving pasta but everything else was based on a whim, depending on what he picked up from the farmers markets. I was hoping to find something Tuscan or at least a red wine from Central Italy (Lazzio, Marche, Abruzzo or Umbria) in my possession, but alas, my stock was primarily filled with bottles from the Northwest—Dolcetto and Barbera*. Rather than over-thinking the dinner pairing, I opted for a bottle of Barbera d’Alba, thinking that the acidity in the grape would best handle the wide variety of fare that would be served. A bottle of 2005 Angelo Negro e Figli Barbera d’Alba was in my clutches as I shimmied through the congested boulevards to my buddy’s new digs in Culver City.

Once there, we discussed the latest happenings in our busy lives since we last talked. I readied the bottle as we caught up over each other’s current successes while he continued preparing the dinner. As the news petered out, the focus shifted to the ingredients garnered from his latest visits to different markets. I was prodded to eat all the fruits and vegetables, apart from their destined courses. He extolled the produce before I ingested any of it, and in my mind, I was certain that these market fresh items would disappoint. It was a weird experience to be forced to pay attention to a single leaf of arugula or carrot as if it were aged Brunet from Piedmont, Italy. But, when I listened closely they were singing brightly, full of flavor and much more complex than I had anticipated.

The food was plated an hour later and we sat down and shared cheers, sipping the wine before diving in. The Barbera showed cherry and blackberry cloaked in wet soils which proved to be a better match for the first few dishes of the evening but not really ideal for the main course of rigatoni all’Amatriciana.

I sat back and indulged in the flavors and freshness of the dinner, my friend had perfected some dishes that he was looking to incorporate into his repertoire. True to my Italian experiences, he kept the dishes simple, concentrating on preserving the integrity of the locally sourced ingredients with reverence. I knew that I had been missing out; I left his house resolved to take advantage of the many farmers markets in the area, weaning myself off my convenience-oriented food buying habits. I initially was skeptical of the “sourcing movement” afoot in the food world but after that illuminating meal I can see that it is anything but faddish.

* Next month (March), for the purposes of palate education, I will be taking a closer look at Central Italian red and Rhône Valley white wines almost exclusively.

I hadn’t envisioned myself in downtown Los Angeles the day after Thanksgiving making pasteles. In fact, I didn’t even know what they were. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened. One might have expected to see visions of Johanna before making the banana leaf-wrapped savory treats. I would spend an evening acquainting myself with the traditions of Puerto Rican culture—though thoroughly unfamiliar—through dance and food, meeting new friends and of course, drinking four more bottles of wine (124 remain) in the waning of the night.

Dejected after watching a tumultuous Ducks matinee tilt against the Chicago Blackhawks, I needed a spirit lifter. It came in the form of a call from a friend who resides downtown. He invited me to join him and a few of his friends, to battle their turkey hangover and enjoy some wine with a few appetizers. I was game, and looking for a palate cleanser, since the Ducks failed third period left an unwanted flavor in my mouth.

Making it there around 7:45 P.M., as to not look too over-excited about the invite, I had my entry pass, with a bottle of 2009 Jean Claude Thevenet et Fils White Burgundy in hand.

After a few knocks on the door, I was in, making haste to find my friend Johan, like any shy guest, waiting for a familiar face who would act as my shepherd, easing the introductions until I felt comfortable to roam about the loft. I quickly dunked the bottle of Chardonnay in the ice bucket, taking up room next to an already resident La Crema Monterrey Chardonnay.

I couldn’t refrain from comparing the two Chardonnays, not to prove which was better but to identify winemaking practices and see differences between two very different wines that shared a common varietal. A lot was determined in the few glasses of wine and after that I stopped being concerned with the glass and instead, focused on my surroundings. The music was wailing, and people were dancing. Before I knew what was happening I was prodded to dance, moving my hips as best I could without having my shoulders follow. It isn’t my forte, but after a quick break in the music we had centered ourselves around the production table, creating an assembly line for crafting pasteles.

Each person was involved in the making of these tamale-like bundles. I was in charge of cutting the banana leaves while the host had folding duties and others were parceling out the cornmeal and more were doling out the carne. When we had about forty finished we began to tire of the process and were starting to crave our handiwork. But before we could eat the official product, they had to cook, and in that time, we made the rice (in an interesting and sensual style with spices I had not expected to combine with rice) and I uncorked another bottle of wine. Now we were onto the Filus Malbec that had good red fruit but showed restraint for a value wine. It was an excellent accompaniment for the spiced pork filled pasteles. The flavors meshed beautifully and the cinnamon in the rice reacted favorably to both wine and food.

Almost immediately after eating a few portions, dancing restarted. I resumed my lessons with two girls, having a lady behind me physically maneuver my hips while my dancing partner continued to instruct from in front. I blamed my inability to effectively conquer the meringue (and other Latin dances) on the wine and my clumsy hockey feet. It was a weak excuse to proffer, but that didn’t stop the ladies and we rounded out the night uncorking a bottle of Pro-mis-Q-ous (sic), which was a fiery red blend that captured the attitudes of all in attendance that night.

As the evening wore on we changed settings, taking advantage of the nearby activity—in the form of a plethora of bars—we danced and enjoyed the early A.M. scenery of downtown LA. It was truly different and remarkable. I never expected to be dancing (seriously) or eating Puerto Rican food while searching for bottles to add to the countdown. However, I was happy to have had the experience to meet a new group of amazing people, to learn a new step and take in an unfamiliar culture through its food.

The Six has been a candidate in my almost-weekly-burger quest for the last couple of months, losing out to some other viable running mates in the race along the way. This week, however, I was looking to explore the highly touted restaurant off Pico Boulevard and Overland Avenue to celebrate a birthday.

I had numerous people build up this burger before I had ever had it and I was curious if it would live up to the hype, or lead to its own demise, suffering the Napoleon Dynamite effect. There were five of us celebrating my roommate’s brother’s birthday—he was turning 21—and we would be having what was billed as the “best” burger around, sharing a round of beers and one glass of wine while enjoying the inviting environment of the Westside eatery.

The Six was impressively designed, featuring a communal table, a booth and lots of smaller tables under wan lighting, fostering an intimate mood perfect for dates. The vibe was relaxed and eaters were all roughly our age—mid-twenties give or take—and everywhere we looked there were visual indicators, cues, like a group of six photographs hanging above the booth where we sat to remind us that we were eating at The Six.

We ordered our round of beverages, including four different beers and a Writer’s Block Cabernet Franc (#162). We made no bones about it; we were there for the burgers. Casual eating that suited our Friday night plans, the tough choice was how we wanted our fries or our burger cooked. In addition to the burgers all around I had put in for the White Bean Cassoulet.

The prices were steep, sixteen dollars for a burger and fries, which, unfortunately is becoming the standard price tag for a gourmet burger in Los Angeles. I could not mull it over for too long because the Cassoulet arrived in a cast iron skillet with a farm egg and finished with a fresh coating of shaved Parmesan. The white bean stew had a lot of fresh herbs coming through and tender white beans. It was excellent, not too salty, just an honest bean dish. Things were looking up.

Next up were the burgers that made the table in a similar fashion to another restaurant down Pico Boulevard—Upper West—with a knife piercing into the flaky brioche bun. The fries were served in a metallic cup lined with white parchment paper a la Upper West. Whether the presentation was a copy or not, I was impressed by the size, a generous patty, sharp blue cheese, tomato, onion rings, thousand island sauce and tender butter greens, all of which stood half a foot tall on the white porcelain plate.

The first few bites were difficult—it was a messy burger. The sharp cheese dominated the flavors and the sweet thousand-island-rejoinder could not balance it. And then the problems began to pile up… The most egregious of errors was an over-cooked patty that wasn’t limited to my burger. I had asked for medium rare and that burger was closer to medium well but to my surprise it was not totally dried out. The bun disintegrated under the little bit of jus that escaped from the patty and it made it tough to handle. I washed down my disappointment with the almost minty Cabernet Franc from Lake County.

Easy to say that the burger did not meet my expectations and the asking price was a little too pricey for a gamble. The balance of flavors is one thing that is subjective, it did not work for me but that is not to say it wont work for others. Cooking time though, is no joke. People rightly talk up Father’s Office and Umami because they are technically sound and will never over-cook an order. The Six got a lot of things right, I liked the ambiance, my fries and enjoyed the Cassoulet but one thing I might want to shore up before boasting that I have the best burger ever is the cooking time.

It was a very hot day and although the last place you want to be in LA is the Valley, that is exactly where my business took me. I was aiming to make the most of my Wednesday off, grabbing a burger and serving it with a Bordeaux at my buddies place.

On the agenda was Bill’s Hamburgers, a tiny shack with some serious history, located off Oxnard Street in Van Nuys. The burgery was charmingly petite, dedicated to its craft, the kind of unassuming place that had been griddling quality patties for years. Keeping things simple, the menu was sparse and dining space… intimate. No sides to speak of, no baskets of fries, except, they did vend bags of potato chips, bringing to mind Hinano Cafe—a great bar burger—in Venice without a deep fryer. I had to get my fixings somewhere else and on the bar-like seating I spied a large jar of pickled jalapeños, enough to accompany each bite of burger if I were so inclined—two sufficed.

We made our orders to go, for the following: double cheeseburger and a hamburger. Before our eyes we watched the griddle master set to work, toasting the buns searing the patties and administering a generous sprinkle of seasoning (Salt ‘n Pepper). We were out the door, with peppers in hand for roughly eight dollars.

Once back inside the air-conditioned domain of my friend, I poured the contents of the already-decanted*-Bordeaux into our beakers and readied our burgers for the camera. Burger to makeup!

They were small and densely packed with a standard accompaniment of veggies and spread. There were no surprises and I was not disappointed, unlike the many gourmet burgers that needlessly overcomplicate things—simplicity reigns supreme. My hamburger was solid and it paired well with the Haut-Medoc (#175). The 2005 Château Saint Ahon shown an opaque ruby in the glass with a powerful fragrance of dried red flower petals, leather and blackberry pie on the nose. The dry red had a kiss of blackberry but most of the fruit on the nose had disappeared and we were left with earthy, secondary flavors deep in the mouth and nice coating of fine and soft tannins and a medium finish. It did well to work harmoniously with the sandwich, not upstaging the classic California burger but to complement it subtly.

Despite the unremitting heat of the Valley and the stuffy drive back down the 405 I was content, not so much on portion size—next time I will order two burgers—but on flavor and quality. Bill’s Hamburgers lived up to the praise as a bona fide burgery. I was thankful my buddy insisted on it.

Last Friday I was craving burgers, putting the onus on my friends to find a restaurant that would please all of our palates—gourmet or not—and our wallets. I was not too concerned with price aside from my usual suspicions that are stitched to a twenty dollar price tag on a piece of beef nestled between the clam halves of a brioche bun, and whatever contentedness there might be for a three dollar griddled burger from Carl’s, even if the wine pairing would be a tad tricky. I was a perfect medium.

After my day retailing fine wine (and motivating for Croatian wines with authority) I was pleased to hear we had settled on a hip spot that had been in my sights for a couple years—The Rustic Canyon. Keeping my friends apprised on details our plans were quickly foiled, the growing number of our party and the time of night without reservations would have been difficult for us to wrangle—even a few seats at the bar—without an exhaustive wait. Luckily, one of my friends had an ace up his sleeve, recommending Le Petit Jardin in a reflex.

The restaurant sits in a fairly Orthodox area of Los Angeles off of Pico and Robertson, leaving it nearly deserted on Shabbos. The unique eatery doubles as a florist shop featuring the patrons’ homey take on French staples such as Escargot, Coquilles Saint Jacques au Pernod, Sole Meuniere and the requisite concession to the American burger, all while maintaining a BYOB take on beverages. We had two bottles of wine between the six of us: 2006 “Ancient Vine Mouvèdre from Cline (#188) and a 2007 Unti Vineyards Syrah (#187).

The environment was casual and the restaurant felt like our own little eatery in the big city, another rare feat. We decided to start the evening with some appetizers of escargot and carrot ‘n ginger soup before moving on to the burgers.

The burgers made the table open-faced, one half showing shredded ice berg lettuce, tomato and pickles and the other carrying sautéed onions, mushrooms piled copiously above a blue cheese dressed patty. The burger shared the plate with a bunch of nicely seasoned thin cut fries and it was apparent that this was a good value for fourteen dollars.

I wasn’t sure if it was my time away from burgers that made the initial presentation look so intriguing but I was ready to eat it, devouring the burger with my eyes before I could assemble the large house burger. The first few bites were delicious, the meat was well seasoned and the flavors of the fresh vegetables against the sautéed ones were a healthy juxtaposition that worked in concert to excite my taste buds.

I broke to finish the first glass of Mouvèdre that was a departure from the stinky and meaty kind of wine I expected. It was nice to taste the varietal in its purest form and the weight on the palate was suitable for the fare. I tried the Unti Syrah that was “aromatically challenged” but reluctantly gave off a hint of some red fruit and meat. The year younger Syrah juice showed ruby to garnet shades in the glass and had enough natural acidity to pair with the blue cheese in addition to the body to hold up against the generous meat patty.

Then a strange thing happened; I was tired of the immense burger, failing to keep my interest as I finished the last bite because…well, I hate to waste food. It was not bad by any means but it could not carry out the strong note that it started on and kind of slipped into a little-better-than-average territory. An uncomfortable anomaly.

It is easy to say that I will come back again, the vibe was private and the food was fairly priced but I will more than likely skip the burger and go full-fledged French. We continued the night in downtown Los Angeles pairing my countdown further with the Upper Cut Cabernet Sauvignon (#186) and the Meoimi Pinot Noir (#185) until the wee hours of the morning.  I was happy with the decision to get burgers and not the least bit disappointed with how the night turned out despite having a deceptively average burger experience.

With the original Fat Burger’s abandoned, decaying shell down the street, like a post-apocalyptic building out of The Road, and a slew of other fast food eateries vying for top dollar in and around Inglewood, I was headed to Master Burger with my posse of food aficionados to share a Malbec and consume a well-reviewed dive burger.

Inglewood is a haven for authentic fast-food eateries. When I exited the 10 freeway and headed south on Western, I must have passed at least two more joints that caught my eye—I was taking mental notes the whole way for future reportable junkets. I stayed on task and pulled into the busy parking lot.

My love for burger joints stems from those great childhood memories when my dad would usher me from his work (and my daycare) on weekends to grab a hamburger and a Mediterranean salad from Brea’s Best, breaking from the oppressive office building environs to enjoy the sun and some delicious grub. I strive to find burgers that make me as happy as those moments but I realize that context can play a rather important role in eating and drinking. I also know that you can find really exceptional foods in hole-in-the-wall-restaurants (and truck stops) so it was best not to judge before eating at Master Burger because the place was a far cry from Brea’s Best in terms of appearance.

We had a long wait (fairly typical of establishments of this ilk); our group of seven conversed while the endless queue dwindled slowly. We waited patiently, studying the menu like Bible verse until we could recite the differences between King and Master burgers. I ordered the Master burger with an egg (a good omen).

After the order I retrieved the bottle of 2008 Catena Malbec (#234), cut the foil and uncorked it, allowing the bottle to take a breath. I went back and continued conversing with the friends until the orders were ready—about ten to fifteen minutes later—meanwhile the Malbec opened up and relaxed.

The first thing that I noticed when I had my Master burger in hand, aside from the hulking size of the patty was the lack of accompaniment, the lettuce, tomato and mayo were present but smothered by the ½ lb free-formed patty. The patty was reminiscent of Fat Burger and it seems that a lot of these burger joints in the area are modeled after Fat Burger in style and only break the mold in price (being cheaper) and size. The meat was seasoned and griddled well but it was a little dry and the added benefits of the fried egg helped the burger ascend into upper echelons. The fries had a generous shaking of paprika and seasoning salts. They were good but they remained a side.

Washing the salinity and grease down with the fruit-forward Malbec was the best decision of the night. The fruit pierced the meat and the body and outstanding structure of the wine helped reign in my palate after the egg and meat ran amok with my taste buds. The burgers were very good and incredibly cheap. Realistically they warrant a second trip but I do not see myself hanging out in the neighborhood (food habits follow life contacts where you live—that’s what makes an expedition like this so much fun) so it would have to be a strong hankering for a soulful burger to lead me back down Western instead of dining somewhere closer to home. If you are in the area, then I would strongly recommend you visit Master Burger.

New memories were forged as the night continued (like my first time playing Apples to Apples) as we wound up in Culver City. Sharing one of my favorite Malbecs—that I have tasted—with a large group of friends over a respectable and gargantuan hamburger that blew its forebears away was definitely successful burgering. I think we were happily rewarded for staying focused despite the great number of interesting restaurants that lined the streets. It may have also quenched my soul burger mission for the meantime too. Though we received some great tips on other local spots that were not to be missed, those places and plans will be put on hold since I have a date to be in La Habra soon to taste a gourmet burger. Haven’t done one of those in a while.

After my class, my anticipation for the event grew exponentially; all quality Italian wines would be poured for the masses at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and I could not wait. I am not the biggest fan of large tastings (as I’ve alluded to this before in my Chateau Koivu article), being crowded out, mixed in with a majority that treat it as a time to furiously quaff rather than spit, trading the education for purely hedonistic delight. I could guarantee that a good-sized group of friends amassed from my tasting group and wine class would help ease my woes but nevertheless I was fearful of the tasting losing focus. My trusty group would also help me make sense of the overwhelming catalog of wines (red and white) after the big tannins decimated my taste buds and my teeth took on a darker shade of garnet. Oh yeah…this was Viva Vino!

The idyllic surroundings of the Skirball Center would play host to the tasting. A serene space that was a cross between modern and earthy, operating north of nearly all the bustle in LA, with ample space to allow a large group of people to comfortably taste and nosh. Just inside the venue, venders, vendors and importers had lined up tables, ready to showcase their products, introducing buyers and enthusiasts to assay wine that they might not encounter in any other setting. As the doors opened, people shuffled through, grabbing pens, booklets and glassware, beating paths to the nucleus of the tasting.

Once inside, our clique spotted our former teacher and consulted with him about which wine we should try first and if there was anything we shouldn’t miss. After accepting his advice, we made our way to our first producer—tasting the expressions of Sicily. We tried the Cyane—a hundred percent Muscato Bianco—Pollio Moscato di Siracusa DOC, the Solacium Moscato di Siracusa DOC before moving onto the reds like the Frederico IGT Sicilia Rosso which was a 100% Nero D’Avola. The Solacium Moscato stood out amongst its peers; it was crisp and lighter-bodied white, with a delicious nose of white flowers, Honeycrisp apples and some tropical fruits; it had a mouthfeel that packed moderate-plus acidity and a long, lingering finish. On the flip, the Nero D’Avola was fronting some cran-cherry notes in the nostrils and was totally dry, medium bodied red with moderate tannins and flavors of cherry, herbs, brush and some pepper on the buds.

We continued to Sardegna, moving through some Cannonau Di Sardegna with lots of cherry between sips and also some cocoa notes, but aside from the body being heavy, the finish was not as long as I would have wanted—at least on the three or four that I tasted. I was thankful for trying them all though. Our group leaped up to Piemonte in Northwest Italy, spending the most amount of time sampling an endless array of Barolos and Barbarescos, from various producers and sub-areas within the famous villages of the region.

Another standout for my palate was the noticeably brighter (ripe) cherry notes coming from the Eraldo Viberti Azienda Agricola 06 Barolo with medium acidity, soft, but ever-present tannins and a long finish that followed the nose and would not let go of the tongue; it showed well now. The wine felt young and decidedly fresh especially after tasting through countless austere examples that needed more age and would have benefitted by accompanying some Piemtonese cuisine.

Among all the Roero (Arneis), Valpolicella, Amarone, Sangiovese, Barolo and Barbaresco, my palate was thoroughly hammered. With the live band pumping out classic Italian tunes (at incredibly loud volume) and the wan lighting to make it incredibly difficult to see the real hue of the wine, the point of the tasting got away from me. I decided to close the complimentary notebook, sheath the pen, and just relax. Having friends to consult and laugh with during the tasting seemed to make all the difference because other aspects remained constant—the wines were not done justice, there were still a small amount of rude people, etc.—but in the end, it was not so much that Viva Vino became the new benchmark for wine events but rather an emphasis that it is imperative I travel to them with my friends. A lesson in self-discovery.

It was time to leave behind Tustin, trading it away for another destination, saying goodbye to close friends and newer acquaintances that would not be joining us on the trek to Compton. We arrived at the roadside eatery and took in the surroundings. A large field, with ample parking, horseshoeing around the center attraction—I had finally made it to Mom’s Burgers.

Piling out of the car we stood out, especially me, with a camera clinging firmly to my chest and my dark rimmed spectacles lining my mug. We were a mixed group of kids like a hipster clique in a different part of town.

Immediately we were asked if we were from the area, the person asking knew the answer and wondered how we’d heard of the place. He took an interest in us, walking us through the menu. His name was Devon and his recommendations were more than helpful when it came to ordering from the assorted list. Sifting through the popular items, he hinted that his favorite was Mom’s Soul Burger with added relish. That burger normally consisted of fried egg, tomato, shredded lettuce, chopped onion and apparently the relish was the only thing missing. He broke down all the burgers, listing the ingredients that had been missing from the names and when we felt good and ready about our decision we ordered. I respected our courier’s knowledge and requested Mom’s Soul burger with the extra relish and the others put in their orders.

After ordering we spied a chess set parked on a table in the seating area. We brushed up on our skills, over small talk and colorful conversation with another local by the name of Capone until we were called to retrieve our meal.

I found Mom’s to be the perfect spot to pour the Vietti Nebbiolo (#308) from Langhe—a pedigreed vintner with a penchant for beautiful labels. Nebbiolo is the grape of Barolo and Barbaresco, two of Italy’s greatest red wines that can handle a wide array of gamy meats like rabbit stew to heartier fare of big roasted meats. Best of all it was cloaked in affordability ($23 for a superior red wine). I knew this wine would have enough acidity to help subdue the grease while enough structure to prop up the patty and I was itching for the combination.

Unwrapping the burgers, the presentation was sloppy, the egg could barely contain itself and the relish was seeping out of the monster burger. It was jarring in comparison to the ABC burger I had had an hour earlier.

Presentation is never enough to stop me from devouring a meal so I jumped in, the depth players (tomatoes, onions, relish) assisted in the win for this burger on the palate, transforming a coarse, hand formed patty into to a bigger sensation. The egg also really melded the flavors with the tang of the relish, combined to make a salty, sweet combination that won over my taste buds. Enough to make it the second star of the night.

The wine did wonders too; with big notes of ripe cherry and earthy bramble the Vietti Nebbiolo was more than up to the challenge of hanging with the big shot burger. The acidity, as predicted, helped cleanse the palate and ready me for another bite. After a drawn out game of chess and a solid meal it was on to the next spot.

Now under the spell of eating too much meat, a brief respite from bovine seemed a marvelous idea. I met with another friend who happened to be a vegetarian and she insisted that we go to the Veggie Grill on Sunset Boulevard.

For two of us in the group it was our first time eating veggie burgers, I was nervous about them disappointing me because I have never been one for substitute meat, in fact the idea appeared farcical for a vegetarian to even want to eat such a thing. We pressed on, assuaging my fright and splitting the V burger.

A short wait yielded a nice, unhurried presentation—clean and simple. I recalibrated my jaw for the petite portions in comparison to Mom’s and took a bite.

The fresh vegetables were pleasant and in proportion but the patty was suspect. Not because it tasted awful but because it lacked flavor. To make up for that there was a spicy mayo assigned to disguising the patty. In a word the veggie burger was disappointing, not the fault of the restaurant because it was executed perfectly but it leaves some room for improvements on vegetarian patties. However, I was now over the hurdle of my first alternate burger experience and much more open to the possibility of eating another. Umami anyone?

By the time we left it was late in the day and traffic was becoming a reality, a five-minute drive to Stout waddled into a thirty-minute bob ‘n weave through Sunset Boulevard. We decided it was not meant to be to consume the fourth burger, and our stomachs’ collective sigh of relief was palpable. Trying to outdo my first Burger Bonanza reflected in the spots I chose and the amount of petrol I used to get there. Though I did not complete the four-burger benchmark it was a complete success filled with friends, good music, interesting variations on a burger and of course… wine. When April comes again, here’s hoping the Bonanza rides again.

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Wine of the Month

Roumier Morey St. Denis 'Clos de la Bussiere' 2008

Eatery of the Month

aguachile

Jesse's Camarones Restaurant

Musical Accompaniment

Glenn Kotche’s ‘Ping Pong Fumble Thaw’  by The Brooklyn Rider Almanac