wine

My Wine Post, Part II

Last week I finally got around to writing a post about wine. I touched on pairings and varietals, and I was getting ready to delve into the best wine region, but I thought I’d hold off. Because I’ve got quite a few things to say about the wine-producing regions of California. And what should, and should not, be considered “wine country.” And this needs a post of its own.

My curling club is called “Wine Country Curling Club.” We were founded in Vacaville, about 30 miles southeast of Napa. But in 2011, the club moved to a suburb of Sacramento. This has occasionally led to some debate. Sacramento, the argument goes, is nowhere near wine country. Sure, there are a few wineries that dot the landscape in and around Sacramento. You can wine taste for an afternoon in Clarksburg, and maybe the better part of the day in Lodi. Midtown Sacramento has a few tasting rooms but no grapes, and  Placer County, where our curling club is actually located, finally threw in the towel and renamed their wine trail a “Wine and Ale Trail,” which includes a microbrew every other block, just like every other city in America these days. It’s great for curlers, who tend more toward beer than wine, anyway.

Some people think we should change our name to avoid confusion or disappointment. And while we’ve unofficially gone with a generic “Curl Sacramento” route, the name that has been floated the most often is “Gold Country Curling Club.” Because gold was discovered in the foothills near here and Sacramento was the main destination for most of the 49ers heading west. The area around highway 49 (named for the gold rushers) from Auburn (about thirty miles northeast of Sacramento) to Placerville (forty miles east of Sacramento) calls itself gold country, and Coloma, where gold was first found, is smack dab in the middle.

But here’s where they lose the argument, and here’s where I get riled up. Because Placerville, old Hangtown, is pretty much the capital of Gold Country. And if we’re naming ourselves after Placerville, then we need to call ourselves Wine Country. Because Placerville is at the north end of what is, in my estimation, one of the best wine regions around. And more than the best wine region, it’s, hands down, the best winery region.

Some people say Amador County is what Napa County was in the eighties. And what Sonoma County was in the nineties. A nice, bucolic masterpiece of rolling hills with wineries who are happy to see you visit and employees who can talk to you about the wine they are pouring beyond the tasting notes that were printed by some conglomerate. Heck, the person pouring your tasting on any particular day might be the winemaker himself.

Last September, we found an out-of-the-way winery near Plymouth, California. Which is a pretty impressive feat, considering that Plymouth itself is already about as out of the way as something can get. You have to go through twelve different dead spots in cell coverage to get there. The town has one restaurant. And, as I found out at my last anniversary, if the one bed and breakfast owner in the town has had a cold in the past month, you’re pretty much sleeping under a tree or hoofing it back to Sacramento for the night.

But this particular winery is even out of the way for Plymouth. It’s not on either of the two or three main winery loops in Amador County. The only reason we found it at all was that we were looking for a back way into Fiddletown. And no, that’s not a euphemism. There’s a town called Fiddletown. Okay, “town” is being generous. There’s a place called Fiddletown. There are only two ways to get there. You can take Fiddletown Road or you can take the back road. And on the back road, way at the top of a hill, hidden from view of just about every human being in existence, is a winery called Distant Cellars. Get it? Distant! As in “no cell service.”

Anyway, when we stopped by this particular winery on a September midday, we were greeted by a spectacle of an employee. Or maybe he was a drifter. Dude was dirty and sweaty, wearing a beat up t-shirt. Wife and I pass a little bit of a look between us. I mean, I don’t need my sommelier to be wearing a tuxedo or anything, especially at a winery that only one customer stumbles upon per day. But Jesus, dude, would it kill you to bathe a little bit before you come into work? We’ve all had those hungover mornings, but you gotta fake it till you make it.

Except this wasn’t a rando employee suffering from too much Friday night. And it wasn’t a hobo, either. This was the owner. Sort of. He was the caretaker, the guy who ran the winery. His sons are firefighters and they bought the winery land as a retirement plan. Only they’re not retired yet, so it’s up to pops to run things in the meantime.

And of course, the reason he was dirty and sweaty and wearing a beater was because it was September, and September is harvest time. He had been up since 5:00 that morning picking two tons of grapes. And now he was preparing for a six-hour stint in the tasting room.

That’s more or less what you can expect from Amador County. Allegedly Napa was this way in the seventies and eighties. I’m not old enough to remember that, but nowadays, the winemaker at a Napa winery is probably housed in some secret bunker behind five layers of computerized and DNA-based security, his child being held at gunpoint until he can verify the proper tannin level of the cabernet-syrah blend.

Oh, and did I mention you don’t pay to taste in Amador? You used to not have to pay in Napa or Sonoma either. I’m old enough to remember that practice, but barely. It started to go by the wayside in the mid-nineties. First it was just a few wineries charging a nominal fee that would be refunded with a purchase. Kinda makes sense. They’d rather have you buy a bottle, but if not, you don’t get something for nothing.

And of course, if you were friendly enough with the pourer, you might not get charged for the tasting fee, anyway. The tasting fee was basically just there to dissuade the people who are only looking to go from winery to winery trying to get a cheap buzz with no interest whatsoever in actually making a purchase. But if you talk to the pourer about wine, or about their lives, or about current events, or pretty much treat them in any way other than, “Hey, fuckface, give me free booze,” then they’d probably “forget” to charge you. Or maybe they’d think you’re purchasing from the other guy. Or maybe they’d legitimately forget, because maybe they’re now splitting their time between you and a group of assholes that have no interest in purchasing.

Regardless, the initial tasting fees were primarily there to discourage douchebags, not a legitimate money-making device. Of course, back then the pourers were usually connoisseurs themselves. They moved to Napa or commuted to the valley for the day, because they wanted to be able to take a sip from time to time and be able to talk to like-minded individuals about oakiness and complexity. Kinda like Amador.

By the turn of the century, a few of the wineries in Napa were starting to charge for tasting whether you purchased any wine or not. I initially assumed they would lose a lot in their wine sales. One of the stories in the original “Freakonomics” book was about a daycare center that started charging people if they picked their kids up late, then were astounded when the number of late pick-ups increased. Because charging took away the guilt of showing up late. Now a parent could justify coming in late. Similarly, I’ve been to plenty of wineries where I thought the wine was mediocre, but bought it anyway out of a general obligation for the hospitality of their few sample pours.

But clearly, bottle sales didn’t drop enough to stop the practice, because by 2005 or so, you couldn’t go anywhere in the Napa Valley without paying for tasting. And they aren’t five dollars anymore. It’s twenty bucks now, and that twenty bucks doesn’t get you closer to purchasing. Not even the fancy cheese they’re all running out of their deli. Sorry, charcuterie. Deli’s aren’t nearly hip enough for Napa.

Now they charge you up front, before they’ve even gotten a glass out for you. Some places, like the Castle, you’re charged by somebody up front before you’ve even met your pourer. And the pourers, in kind, are not interested in making a sale or talking to you about wine or really anything other than pouring the properly-allotted volume of predetermined liquid. Ask them what their favorite is, or how that unopened bottle tastes, and they’ll shrug and tell you it’s not in the script.

In Amador, if you ask how that wine in that bottle back there is, the owner will probably open it right then and there and take a sip of it first before pouring some for you.

And look, I’m not taking anything away from Napa. I mean, if you can charge someone for something or offer it for free and not have your sales impacted enough to matter, then more power to you. And I guess I never realized how many people went wine tasting without purchasing or ever intending to purchase. In my opinion, anyone that gets free tastes with no intention to buy is a piece of shit. If you don’t like their wine, fine. But if you like it, but only want to take it for free, then you’re the one who ruined it for the rest of us.

And Napa absolutely had to do something, because they were becoming a destination for cheap buzzes. Party busses, party limos, party trains. They all descend upon a winery, pushing the rest of the customers off to the side or, more likely, to another winery. Then they spend a half-hour being obnoxious, not engaging the staff nor purchasing any product, then they’re back into the bus or limo or train and on to shill the next winery out of its hard-earned product. Even the Amador wineries have taken to charging these groups, because they are clearly only there for the “experience.” And usually they cost a winery in lost customers. Any time I see a limo out front, I drive to the next winery.

But when a winery charges you to taste, regardless of whether you buy or not, then they’re in the same business as the limo tours. It’s all about the tourists and day trippers, not the wine drinkers. As a result, Napa now markets itself more as an Adult Disneyland experience than a wine region. And the quality of their wine has suffered now that they cater to customers who are there for the experience.

I mentioned the Castello de Amarosa earlier. They are the most egregious and most epitomal example of what Napa has become. It’s a castle. Like, a legitimate castle. Not a replica. The owners purchased a run-down medieval castle from some defunct principality in Germany and paid to move it, brick by brick, to the Napa Valley. It’s… well, I was going to say beautiful, but only fake castles are beautiful. (See above: Disneyland) The real castles were more concerned with “workable for purposes of defense” than beautiful. But the Castello de Amarosa is majestic, if not beautiful.

They charge you to get in. There are a variety of tickets available. One just allows you entrance to see the grounds to peruse on your own.  Another ticket will grant you a guided tour, but still no wine. If you want to actually taste the wine, you have to buy a separate ticket and find your own way to the dungeon tasting room. And no, I’m not being facetious. They literally have the wine tasting in the bowels of the castle, with a ceiling that a six-foot tall person would have to duck under. There’s no ventilation and a lot of people being jostled about as an automaton fills their glasses with all the regularity and grace of an assembly line worker. The Model T only comes in black and the castle only pours four tastings.

How was the wine? Well, as wine tasting goes… they have a very nice castle.

I suppose they’ve done a very wise thing to accentuate the winery itself, and not the wine. Because the wine was quite unpleasant. It was very young. They were serving a red wine with a harvest date two years earlier. And I don’t think they were the only Napa wines I saw that were eighteen months past harvest. Four years used to be the minimum, but now it’s all about turn-and-burn, baby.

Then again, I highly doubt the castle wine was going to cellar well. I’ve tasted some young wines, and done some barrel tasting, that age well. They are usually very smooth, probably even more accessible to a random non-wine drinker. The grape is the dominant flavor early on. The complexity comes with age. The Castle wine, on the other hand, tasted a little bit sour. Like maybe it’s best future would be mixed into a sangria. Or like its average customer has partaken in some of the two hundred wineries that lie closer to the Napa Valley entrance than it. And really, nobody’s here for the wine, anyway. Taste the good stuff first, then come look at our snazzy castle.

But hey, at least I got a good idea for a key scene in my novel, which is great, cause I sure as shit didn’t buy any wine. Nice to know the entry fee wasn’t a complete waste.

And that’s why I’ll also put the Amador wine up against most of what’s coming out of Napa these days. It isn’t just the experience and the hospitality that are better. These days, Napa is catering to Bay Area new-money newbies or travelers from afar, neither of which really want good wine. They might want expensive wine, but they want it to be consumed like craft beer. Chug, motherfucker, chug.

The typical winery in Amador County will have more varietals available for tasting and purchase. Napa’s pretty much doubled down on Cabernet and Chardonnay. Go to an Amador winery and you’ll see Barbera and Zinfandel and Primitivo and Syrah and Petit Syrah and Mouverdre and Grenache and Tempranillo. And there are white wines, too.

Their varietals have variety, too. Last September, we went to a Barbera Festival, where over fifty wineries were literally pouring only one varietal. But it didn’t get tiring, because the babera grape can go in a lot of different directions, especially with all of the micro-climates that occur in volcanic foothills. Far from the Napa Valley (and to a lesser extent, the Pinot-rich central coast), where they try to mimic the agreed-upon flavor as much as possible and the only variance is spectacular, good, mediocre, or castle.

So there you have it. My wine post, parts one and two. Now you can all dismiss my well-informed enlightenment and go back to your tannic cabernet and try to pretend it doesn’t feel like someone just scratched your mouth with a brillo pad. Or your buttery chard with its aftertaste of aftertaste. And hey, I didn’t mention it before, but a lot of pinots taste like Band-aids.

And when you’re done doing all that, check out an Alicante Bouchet from the foothills.

My Wine Post, Part I

I’ve been promising a wine post for a long while. Well, not really promising one, but it seems like every time I write about coffee or beer, I throw in a “Maybe I should write about wine someday. So I suppose that day is today.

And sorry, this is as far as I go. Weed may be legal in my state, but I’m hardly a connoisseur. I’ve heard there are different types of marijuana. Okay, if you say so. Is it the taste? Or the high you get? Or whether you crave Cheeto’s or Tollhouse afterwards? Someone probably knows, but not me. I hit the wacky tabbacky once every three of four years, so it’s hard to judge consistency or differences. And if I do more than one hit, I’m pretty much down for the count.

So wine, it is. What would you like to talk about?

Food pairings? Fuck that. If you want wine with your fucking food, then drink wine with your fucking food. And don’t get me started on the restaurants that are now suggesting beer tastings with food. Oh, you think this salmon pairs with a hefeweizen? Well, hefeweizen tastes like it’s been strained through soiled underwear, so that doesn’t pique my interest in how you prepare your salmon. If I order it with an IPA, are you going to look down your nose at me and clap for your sommelier to come arrest me and put me in posh jail? Wait a second, do sommeliers even make up the bogus beer tastings or did you just ask Fred, the resident lush at the bar? Because I think I’d trust Fred first.

Best varietal? Again, it’s up to you. I personally go for zinfandels when I get to choose, especially a zin from the California foothills. Zinfandels used to have one primary taste profile, but a decade or so ago, I started to see more variety. You can get a jammy zinfandel or a peppery zinfandel. Peppery used to be the norm in the foothills because of all of the volcanic rock up there. But then they started planting more zin vines in the north-facing valleys that get less sun because that’s what was sells better. I don’t mind the jammy, and just like with the IPA craze, I know when I’m bucking the trend in the market. I also like stick shifts  and time travel TV shows, but that ain’t what sells. So I’ve learned to just sit there, drinking my hoppy IPA and my jammy zinfandel while watching the series finale of Timeless, and shut the fuck up.

But man, when I encounter a place that still holds one of their zinfandels back for a bit o’ spiciness, it’s a little slice of heaven.

I know. I know. Who in the world would want to sully their grape juice with a nuance of cracked black pepper, right? You’re not alone. Pepper is for steak, not for alcohol. But, I ask you, what are you drinking WITH your steak. And you don’t have to have steak with your zin. Just think about steak while you’re drinking it, like a vegan who eats tofacon while dreaming of the real thing. If you imagine it hard enough, you can conjure the flavor. If I were a vegan, I’d stick to the booze to remind me of what meat was like. And I’d be one of the weepiest drunks in existence.

If I can’t have or don’t want a zin, though, I’ll probably turn to a syrah. Not a petit syrah, mind you. Syrah and petit syrah are entirely different grapes. You would think the latter would just be a smaller version of the former, but no. That would be too logical, and not intimidating enough for noobs. So a syrah’s got nothing to do with a petit syrah. A syrah is, however, the same thing as a shiraz. Sommeliers gotta sommelier, right?

Petit syrahs are probably the prettiest red wine. A good one is inky, almost violet. And they’re dense. My wife’s a big petit syrah fan. She’ll drink it by itself. I’m usually pretty good with them, but only paired with a steak or a meaty pasta. And yeah, ignore what I just said about no generic food pairings. You should only drink petit syrah with red meat.

My white flavor profile switches around a bit. Depending on the food or the weather or the time of day or my mood, I might want a fume blanc, a roussanne, a vermentino, a suavignon blanc (which, unlike the syrahs, is the same grape as a cabernet sauvignon). If it’s dry enough, I’ll take a Viognier, but most of those are way too sweet. And by dry, I mean the wine, not the weather. Dry is the opposite of sweet. Well, really they never use the word “sweet.” They say off-dry, just to be snooty dicks. Then again, some wineries call their off-dry wines dry because they tend to sell better.

This trend is going on with roses, as well. Roses are pink wines, which used to only be white zinfandels. But over the past few years, a number of the wineries we like have started to make dry roses which are quite refreshing. They’re like red wines that you can drink cold.  Then again, many places just recycled their old white zinfandel recipes and slapped a rose label on it. When we were in Denver last year, Wife ordered two different roses at two different locations, one of which called itself a wine bar. The server listened toWife’s complaint about the residual sugar in the first one she had tried, then brought one out with pretty much the same damn taste.

You’ll note there were two varietals I didn’t reference: those creamy chardonnays and robust cabernets. I don’t mind the latter, if it’s paired right, but any food that tastes good with a cab probably tastes better with a petit.

But that famous white varietal? Pass the chardonnay, please! Seriously. Please pass it right the fuck past me.

And yes, I know all about oak aging and stainless steel and malolactic fermentation and the magic egg that leaves the liquid in constant motion. I’ve tasted the creamiest of chards and the tangiest. And while there are a scant few that I can tolerate, as a general rule, I’ll just skip past that varietal and go right on to the pinot grigio, thank you very much. Unless I’m in Napa and chardonnays are the only whites on the tasting menu and I just paid twenty bucks and only get to taste four.

One time we went wine tasting with a friend and her husband. Wife’s wine tasted with the friend often, but we were a bit skeptical about his wine acumen. He’s a sales guy, so I’m never a hundred percent sure if he has any real reactions to anything. His answer to most question seems to have been play-tested for audiences of strangers who you are trying to build a rapport with. When we asked him what kind of wines he liked, he paused for a second, looked up the answer in his mental rolodex and said, “I really like full cabernets and buttery chardonnays.” Wow, is that what Madison Avenue thinks of California wines? Well, unfortunately for this dude, we weren’t going to Napa Valley that day, so he was shit out of luck on rich cabernets or buttery chards. Hopefully the tasting notes you cross-referenced and committed to memory last night know what to say about a barbera.

You know what? That’s what I should be talking about. Wine regions. Forget pairings and varietals and proper storage techniques.

Wait, did I talk about proper storage techniques? Bottle down. Not straight down, but at a slant. Most wine racks are built for the proper angle, but most people put their wine slanting upwards. Cause it makes the label prettier, I suppose. But the cork needs to stay hydrated, you see. Dry corks crack, and can break when you open them. Even worse, dry corks contract, which lets oxygen in to the bottle long before you try to open it. And once you’ve got oxygen in there, you’re no longer aging wine, you’re making vinegar.

So I guess it’s time to focus on the wine regions. I’ve been to most of the ones in California, and a few more besides. Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Paso Robles, Lodi. I’ve sampled some near Walla Walla, Washington and Willamette Valley in Oregon. Each has their own positives and negatives. I don’t think there’s one that can properly be called the “best” region.

That being said, I do have a clear favorite. If you want good wine in a laid-back atmosphere where the winemakers and wine pourers like your company and your business, there’s really only one option. It’s a county in Northern California with acres and acres of vineyards planted on rolling hills. But the county ain’t named Napa, and it ain’t named Sonoma.

Hold on, I’ve got a lot to say on this. Check out Part II if you want to know about the hidden gem that should be considered the “real” wine country.

Juan Valdez was a Hack

I’ve been a wine snob for almost as long as I’ve been drinking alcohol.

I come by it naturally, living in Northern California. There are probably more than 200 wineries within a couple hours’ drive. In my early twenties, even most of the wineries in Napa were free or had a very small tasting fee that went toward the purchase of wine. Until five years ago, Sonoma County was almost entirely free, and even today, most of the wineries in Amador County are free. Amador is closer to my house and even if they’re ignored by the greater zeitgeist, I will put their wines in the Pepsi Challenge against Napa Valley any day of the week.

At these wineries, you can do side-by-side tastings of different varietals. Sometimes you can taste the same varietals from different years. You learn what you like and don’t like pretty quickly. Or, if not, you at least get a decent buzz.

If you pay a little extra (or join the club), you can taste the good shit. The reserves at some wineries aren’t much different than their standard swill, but at other places, there’s a marked difference. Sometimes a run-of-the-mill winery, or a mass producer that you wouldn’t expect to have anything special, like Gallo or Beringer, make some pretty decent $40 wines.

Who knows, maybe Charles Shaw even makes a Twenty Buck Chuck.

In addition to a geographical inclination toward wine snobbery, I spent a good portion of my twenties waiting tables in a nice restaurant. There I learned the difference between truly upper-end wines and the rest. Just as I will put Amador against Napa, there are a ton of excellent substitutes for the Opus Ones and Silver Oaks of the world. I can’t tell you how often I encouraged a customer who wanted something like Silver Oak to try Rodney Strong Symmetry. They loved the change and the $20 they saved was usually redirected to my tip.

But don’t ever suggest any replacement for somebody that wants Opus One. They’ll be none too happy, and it won’t help your tip. I’ve personally never tried Opus One. A lot of people will give their curious server a swig of their specialty wine. One time, when a customer brought in wine from 1974 and I told him that was the year I was born, he refused to let me leave until I had a drink. It was very smooth. Like, almost water smooth. If he had kept it in his cellar another year, it might’ve been water.

But nobody ever lets their server take a sip of Opus One. So I can only assume it tastes like shit. Bitter, sour-grapes, shit.

The biggest secret weapon in my arsenal for anybody that was undecided was Treana Red, a tiny imprint of a small winery in the totally unknown wine region (unless you’ve seen “Sideways”) of Paso Robles. You wouldn’t expect Treana to be good. It calls itself a “red blend,” which brings to mind the horrors of Carlo Rossi jugs and Franzia boxes. But to say no customer complained after I suggested it doesn’t go far enough. Every customer I ever suggested it to thanked me and wondered how such an excellent wine could be so reasonably priced and unknown.

Seriously, go find a bottle of Treana Red. You can probably order one for less than $40 if your state doesn’t suck. Tell ’em The Wombat sent ya. They won’t know what the fuck that means, but it’ll be funny.

While my destiny as cork dork was determined by location, my evolution into a beer snob took an alternate route. For the latter part of my single years, I was a Happy Hour Hound. Needing to be sober and somewhat white-eyed, not to mention ready to teach, by 7:00 in the morning, if I decided to get blotto on a particular evening, or every particular evening, it had to be before 7:00 PM. And the best, cheapest way to get to that particular nirvana is to drink whatever swill is coming out of the middle tap. Did I know about microbrews and IBUs and ABV? Sure. If I drank a beer out at dinner, it would’ve been a Fat Tire or a Sierra Nevada or a Sam Adams. If I was grabbing a six-pack on the way home, it would follow a similar pattern.

But if I was sitting at a bar trying to get drunk, then it’s “Pass the Bud Light.”

There was a point in time I could distinguish between Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light. I was doing a “blind taste test” put on by the Miller Lite girls at a baseball game. I knew which was which right away, so I picked their brand to get better swag. She didn’t believe me. We tried it again. I was right again. She was still skeptical. Whatever, lady, just give me my light-up beads.

When I moved in with my wife, my commute extended to fifty miles. I need to be awake by 5:00 to be out of the house by 5:45. That doesn’t leave a lot of hangover time. I also have a child. The number of beers I drink on a typical day, week, or month seems infinitesimal compared to a decade ago. Drinking alcohol on a weeknight  is a rarity. As a result, on those Fridays and Saturdays where I feel like imbibing, my tolerance is virtually non-existent. Two beers, sixteen hours after I woke up, and I can’t even make it through my one half-hour of grown-up television.

Oh well, at least that episode of Dora the Explorer was especially scintillating.

A six-pack in the fridge will now last me a few weeks, not halfway through a Friday night. And if I’m only having one or two beers, I ain’t wasting them on shit.

It was a casual process, but I remember a moment last year when I met a friend for happy hour before going to a baseball game. I was three good beers in when I got to the game, which happened to be celebrating that most ubiquitous of all minor league promotions, Thirsty Thursday. I figured since I was already three beers in, I could probably switch to shit beer. After all, even Jesus said to drink the good wine before the crappy wine, then you won’t notice it as much.

Maybe wine, Jesus, but not beer. Holy crap, that was the most horrible thing I ever drank. Then I did the unthinkable: I paid for a $9 Sierra Nevada instead of the $1 Bud Light. The 30-year old inside me cringed.

But I make more money and drink less beer than the 30-year old me. So it’s quality over quantity now.

Then again, I’m not the best example of a beer snob, because I don’t like any of the hipster beer movements sweeping every microbrewery in town. Or the fact that every town has a microbrewery now. But that’s probably a story for another time.

What I’m here to talk about today is a third bit of liquid snobbery that I didn’t even know was possible, much less that it applied to me, until recently.

My name is the Wombat. And I am a coffee snob.

Did you know that there are still people in the world that drink Yuban?

Hoo-boy, there are some crappy coffees out there.  I guess I kind of knew they were out there. The coffee aisle at the grocery store is full of them. In fact, now that I mention it, the part of the coffee aisle that I actually shop from is a small portion at the very end. I assumed the rest of the aisle was taken up by, I don’t know, tea and powdered creamer. Maybe filters. But I’ve seen an awful lot of Sanka in my peripheral vision en route to the cereal.

The coffee snob started innocently enough. There’s a hipster in my department who brought in a tea kettle and a pour over kit. We have a fifteen-minute brunch between first and second period, during which we can heat enough water for two people to have a freshly-crafted brew. A couple others can brew theirs during their prep period right before or after, and the pour over spot became the modern-day equivalent of ye olde water cooler. Could we have gone standard coffee maker? Sure, but then we’d come in, pour our cup, and lose the sense of community that comes with the slow, agonizing second-half of the pour over process. Seriously, I bet an opium-molasses hybrid would strain faster than the last few drops going through the waterlogged grounds.

Hold on for a moment while I go patent Opium Molasses.

Unofficially, the “Pour Over Club” brings coffee whenever we’re running low, but it’s pure communism once the goods have been procured. Somebody might be milking the process, but as a general rule, we all need the caffeine enough that we’ll make sure there’s enough coffee. One day, nobody remembered that we ran out the day before and we had to go without. The next day, our prep area looked like this:

coffee

This is when I started to realize I was a bit of a snob. Somebody brought in Lavazza. Sounded interesting. Italian name, so it MUST be good. Turns out I wasn’t much of a fan. I figured it was just a taste thing, like an IPA, which I don’t care for but I know many beer enthusiasts love. Still, I struggled through it, because it was the only thing present and even the ugliest hooker in the whorehouse can service some needs.

Six months later, I accidentally brought some more Lavazza in. It was on sale, and I thought, “Italian name, so it MUST be good.” Maybe a little more caffeine would’ve helped me remember. The next day, two of my co-workers had brought in replacements. Turns out I wasn’t the only one that thought it was subpar. It’s not terrible, just not that great. So we kept it as a backup for the next time we ran out. It lasted most of the semester.

But one day I came in, to my horror, to discover a giant vat of Folgers waiting for me. I thought it was a joke. “Who the fuck brought Folgers?” I demanded of everybody in my department. A few of my fellow teachers don’t really drink coffee, and when they do, they sully it with flavored creamer. I started my accusations there. They all denied it. I went in backward order of who I assumed to be the most kindred coffee spirit. By the time I made it to the other snob, I thought for sure someone had lied. Except the final interogatee admitted that yes, he was the culprit. It was leftover from some function he had gone to over the weekend. One of those get-togethers where they have a huge urn full of drudge. His wife asked if we might use it at work and it was either that or throw it out. He figured, “why not?”

I thought my derision would indicate “why not,” but that wasn’t even the biggest factor. A few days later, he brewed it once to prove a point. Even the non-regulars, with their Irish Creme creamer, took a few sips and opted out. The entire thirty-ounce tub sat patiently at the back of the area until the end of the year before we dumped it. There had been a day or two with no coffee available, yet we still didn’t bust into the red vat of mediocrity. Better to go dry for the day. The headache I have on the way home will remind me to stop off and buy some more coffee.

Incidentally, after we mocked the creamer-user enough, he tried some of our coffee black. It wasn’t the bitter crap he had assumed it to be. A week or two later, he admitted that he was now drinking black coffee at home. And now that he was drinking it black, he couldn’t do the Maxwell House. But the good news was that the money being saved on creamer could go toward buying better coffee.

It’s amazing how, once you actually start tasting the coffee, you want coffee with taste. A good portion of the industry hopes you never discover that coffee can taste good.

Fortunately for me, my snobbery seems to be coming at a perfect time. There’s been a resurgence (or maybe just a surgence) of good coffee shops of late. I wouldn’t have believed it five years ago, when the common narrative was that Starbucks pushing everyone out of business. As much as I love me some gingerbread latte, Starbucks isn’t a coffee business. At best, it’s an espresso business, although with all of the specialty Frappuccinos coming out, even that moniker is faltering. Notice how few of the mermaids, dragons, and Christmas trees have coffee as their base flavor? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered the coffee frappuccino and had to send it back when they gave me a caramel one. “Oh sorry, we’re not used to people ordering coffee flavor.”

I’ve settled on ordering an espresso Frappuccino. They’ll give me an off look, but at least the order will be right. Or better yet, I’ll just get a Javiva at Peet’s.

But I feel like the “as sweet as possible” trend is reversing. Competitors are returning to what we now call “drip coffee,” aka coffee. The mom and pop shops have been replaced with hipster locales where they don’t crinkle their nose after I say “no cream or sugar.” Single origin, French press, Clover, and the pour over are becoming increasingly common. And don’t get me started on the wonderful things they are all doing with cold brew.

My favorite spot in this new trend is Philz Coffee in the Bay Area. Their motto is “One Cup at a Time,” and every single coffee they serve is a pour over. They have about fifteen varietals, each with tasting notes, and you can even blend more than one varietal into a single cup of coffee. After you order it, they grind the beans and “brew it” right there in front of you. When it is handed to you, there is a layer of bubbles on the top, and if you slap that lid on before you have slurped up some of those bubbles, the barista might have a nervous breakdown. How cool is that? They want you to sample the cup of coffee like it’s a bottle of wine. The entryway to snobbery is open and widening.

Unlike beer, where my preferences are very specific, I’m not particular about the coffee varietals. Dark roast, medium roast, light roast. All are fine, especially if the brewer knows that dark roast need not be the consistency of crude oil. Guatemalan? Honduran? Kona Blend and all of its attendant controversies? Sure.

Even decaf.

I’m just kidding. Decaf is a demon-spawn cocktail filtered through the devil’s own anus. Non-alcoholic beer is bad enough, but I can at least get my head around people who want to avoid alcohol. There is no reason on the planet that someone should opt to avoid the wonder that is caffeine.

And I’m not going to lie and say that I can actually taste all of those “notes of” that the descriptors say. Wine? Yeah, I can definitely sense the grapefruit in a sauvignon blanc. With zinfandel, I know I prefer a peppery one over a jammy one. But when the coffee says it tastes of hazelnut and cardamom, I’m just going to have to trust them. Even the very basic flavors or “fruity” or “nutty” doesn’t come through on my palate. I’m skeptical it’s on anybody’s. I wonder what temperature it needs to be at to get that flavor.

Whoever heard of “fruity coffee,” anyway?

But that’s okay. I’ve come to discover that there is only one flavor profile I need my coffee to have. It’s a flavor that might be a rarity in the coffee world but, thankfully, is becoming easier to find.

That flavor is: good.