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I didn’t know it at the start, but my day would take on a particularly English hue from morning to night last week. Between my liquid education in the morning and my burger at Ye Olde King’s Head Pub for dinner, everything was hinting at the old country. It wasn’t intentional but it might have been destiny as I was about to audition another highly recommended sandwich.

I started the day on “random,” having The Kinks be the first and last thing I heard as I ended my morning iTunes session before departing for my WSET course. I walked out the door with Preservation Act 1 in my hands, planning to learn the most about sweet wines and spirits. In my car I loaded the disc and not even three songs in I was at the Wine House ready to begin my five-hour class.

The WSET is an internationally recognized course that offers comprehensive education in wine and spirits. English in origin, the program affords participants/students the opportunity to master the finer parts of retailing, history and service while peppering Power Point slides with foreign spellings (flavours, ageing, etc.) and specific information as one works their way up, graduating, eventually, to the level of MW or Master of Wine. 

We sampled Eiswein, then transitioned into different types of Sherry (Fino and Oloroso) and Port as the first half of the course drew to a close. Back from the lunch we began the spirits portion where I became familiar with the different methods of distilling spirits, their origins and base materials. We tasted through Cognac, Scotch and ended on the truly English spirit Gin to feel the gist of the various methods in creating the spirits and recognizing the base ingredients in their taste, as we finished for the day.

With “Cricket” playing in the background, I was off to the English pub in Santa Monica. I was instructed to purchase a Crunchie next door for the barman (Raul), an insider’s tip by a friend before entering Ye Olde King’s Head. I was looking for “Raul” on arrival, but he had left a few hours before. The Crunchie would not be for naught. I met up with three friends at the back bar (“Bulldog Bar”), ordering a pint of Fullers London Pride; I fell in with them rather than having my druthers… wine.

Not too long after working on our brews we ordered. While others were inclined to go English, I avoided the bangers and mash, requesting the burger.

When the food hit the bar, I captured a few shots under dramatic lighting. It looked deceptive, a tad sloppy but I reserved judgment for my first few bites. The burger was also bigger than I’d anticipated. The meat was cooked to a flawless medium, but the texture of the patty was packed too tightly for it to be hand formed. The accompaniment, though disheveled in presentation, rescued the burger. The crunch of the raw red onion and the ripe tomato added a little depth to the under-seasoned patty. It definitely didn’t measure up to what I was hoping for. Serves me right for going domestic at an English pub.

My friends were happier with their selections and we all left full but this was another case of going in with elevated expectations. They weren’t met. I headed home to the sweet tune of “Sitting in the Midday Sun,” capping my average burger experience with a honeycomb treat. The chocolate bar and The Kinks helped me rebound from the unrealistic demands I placed on a pub that might be a better place to take in a traditional meal, a pint of beer, loft a dart or catch a game, rather than find the city’s best burger.

After the tasting it felt appropriate to select a burger joint hamburger, as opposed to any gourmet incarnation of the hamburger—glitz and frills were not necessary—we were hungry.

We packed up; wine in flask, strapped to our back pockets and made the trek to Santa Monica. When we spotted George’s Char-Broiled Burgers it had that genuine appearance, synonymous with summer, from the outside; it was the kind of place with one look you knew exactly what kind of burger you were about to eat.

On the inside however, it was barren. No customers to be found but a mess left in their place, the floors were the evidence of crapulous behavior and other components were amiss. I was beginning to doubt the place before we had even ordered.

With our expectations low, we kept the ordering simple, not veering too far from the standards like fries and burgers, except one of the group happened to have a craving for some zucchini fries.

When the burgers made the table, they came dressed in thousand-island spread, with rings of raw white onion, thick slices of hothouse tomato, leaves of iceberg lettuce and quarter pound charbroiled patties sitting between sesame seed buns. They looked picturesque and were definitely a nice surprise from what miserable burger-like thing I was expecting.

We worked the contents of the flasks around the table to be prepared for the first bites. We dug in and our eyebrows perked, we were content with the burgers; they were average—a little singular in their approach on the palate but honest and simple. The ingredients were fresh, the food was ample and the price was right. The wines (Redwood Creek Malbec and the Steak House Cabernet Sauvignon) married well with the charred meats.  Those zucchini fries on the other hand were below average, the batter was bland and copious, overpowering the vegetables on the inside. We were left pining those of Carl’s Jr.

I am happy we stuck it out and tried George’s (it had long piqued my curiosity as I drove to the nearby Whole Foods) because with the surplus of gourmet burgers in Los Angeles, it becomes increasingly harder to find the Charbroiled Joints and now I am aware of a decent one not too far away. With rash planning, I was able to throw a successful blind tasting, while dwindling my countdown (384 left on the year) and spending some quality time with friends over sharing one of my favorite foods. Imagine what I can do when given some serious planning time!

 

Rueda is a small winemaking region within Spain, northwest of Madrid, still developing its younger wines and thirty years ago, granted D.O. (denomination of origin) status in 1980; winemakers there are on a mission to develop and introduce their own brand of white varietals to America and the world, feeding off of centuries of sherry-making experience. On Sunday afternoon I attended a Learn About Wine tasting event held at Josie Restaurant in Santa Monica, to imbibe these white wines.

Spain is already an enormous producer (third largest in the world)—red varietals and Sherry’s tend to dominate the landscape yet white varietals like Verdejo, Palomino and Albriño are also widely available.

However, whites have been on the decline—a stat thrown out by professional sommelier and instructor Ian Blackburn said that we are approaching a 4:1 ratio in favor of red wine to white wine bottles being drunk. I personally am guilty of facilitating the stat but do not shun any particular wine by color.

This class/tasting event showcased Rueda’s white wine characteristics—strong acid and bright mineral flavors, by pairing them with a wide range of fare. We began conventionally with cheeses moving to seafood (Baby Octopus a la Plancha), then escalated to Slow-Roasted Pork Belly ‘Porchetta’ and finished the pairings with Moroccan-Style Beef Short Ribs.

The head chef of Josie Restaurant, Josie Le Balch was on hand to prepare the meals and tell us about a lot of the dishes. That made the class much more special to have the chef walk you through her philosophy behind the plates and highlighting certain aspects that might have been overlooked while dining.

The glasses were laid out before us, two glasses to a course. All glasses contained a 2009-harvested Verdejo varietal (not always 100% Verdejo; sometimes a “kiss” of Sauvignon Blanc) from various producers. The flavor profiles were dynamic; some were grassy and herbaceous while others had strong citrus components like grapefruit rind on the nose with a little pear or apple. More surprising than the broad spectrum of flavors and aromatics between producers from the petite wine region was the ability to hold up to meat. The acid was equal to the task of the fatty ‘Porchetta’ and it also intensified the spices in the Moroccan-Style Beef Short Ribs.

For a wine with this kind of diversity it also has a great price point, between thirteen to eighteen dollars, more than enough to try the best of Rueda.

Sunday proved to be a first in many ways, like eating octopus, eating at Josie Restaurant and trying white wines from Rueda; I did not expect a lot other than exposure and instead was made a believer in white wines ability to pair well with bold flavors and definitely a fan of Josie Restaurant. With summer heat fast upon us, it will be nice to have some depth in the cellar with Rueda’s white wines.

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