His: I am sitting here on my porch in Queens, NY, on a night where the temperature is about 7 degrees above normal. My neighbors are pretty much all asleep or within the safety of their homes. Next to me sits a citronella candle and the bottle of Campo Viejo I purchased earlier from Buy Wise Wine and Spirits on Main Street and Union Turnpike. The porch, like the rest of the house, is in need of repair, and I hunger for something pure and luxurious.
Her: It’s seven AM in Rioja, Spain, and I am at the hotel Los Bracos in the town of Logrono. Birdsongs are soaring through the window. I have been wine touring all week in this beautiful region in Rioja, Spain. Last night, I was on a Tapas crawl, and for breakfast I will be tasting wine in the town of Logrono. Undoubtedly, I will be immersed in a vat of wine later this afternoon.
His: I find it amazing that we can be an ocean apart and tasting the fruits of the same vine.
Her: That collective “vine,” the wines of Rioja include stunningly fresh, oaky whites, and “explode on your palate” Tempranillo.
His: All I know is that when I raise the glass to my lips, I can smell a hint of orange hiding within the crevices of the oak barrel, as if the grapes are searching for it in a group effort. The taste is bold yet light with a tangy finish that is worth every diminishing pulse of my taste buds. Does this have something to do with Rioja?
Her: Rioja encompasses a wide swath of regions that play host to a myriad of flavors. Some of the whites I’ve been tasting have the bright acidity of an expensive pinot grigio along with the oaky full mouth of a great old-fashioned chardonnay. The reds are equally varied: some bright and pungent, some velvety smooth like chocolate and dark berries.
His: Perhaps a wine tastes different depending on where it is imbibed. Queens is a bit bucolic, lacking the glitz and glitter of Manhattan. When I taste the Tempranillo, I try to imagine how it tastes while breathing in the air of Rioja, rather than taking in the aroma of Metropolis.
Her: The air of Rioja is fragrant with grass, lavender, herbs and the smell of burning oak. I’ve smelled that wonderful aroma in almost all the wineries where I’ve been tasting: the smell of barrells toasting in the cooperages--cooperages are the places where barrels are made and cured and a barrel maker is called a cooper.
His: Down the block, I can hear a car approaching with Spanish music blaring, a bit loud for my taste, but it brings me that much closer to Gretchen’s experiences an ocean away. I take another sip of the Tempranillo and see the bottom of the glass make its first appearance. This wine had a taste that is new to me, and I like that because I would feel that about everything I would have experienced had I been able to join her in Spain. This is what a great wine accomplishes - it gives the consumer an experience that eclipses the rim of the glass.
Her: I’m not new to Spain. My very first trip to Europe was when I was 13 and I came to Barcelona on a student program. Now I’m back and yes, it’s different, but it also feels like coming home to the younger me: the warmth, the people who kiss you when you say hello, the vibrant wines, the sound of the Spanish language flowing over me. There is a saying that when you want to make love you speak French, when you want to do business, you speak in German but when you want to talk to God you speak Spanish: a saying that makes sense here in this divinely beautiful landscape of Rioja.
His: I was really proud to bring Gretchen to, arguably, the oldest tavern in New York City. There is some debate about that, but I am a Queens boy, and a bit biased. Neir’s is one of those mainstays of Queens culture, especially if you live in the Richmond Hill/Woodhaven area.
Her: I loved the fact that Mae West used to sing in this-the real oldest bar in NYC (1810). Neirs has a King of Queensy-guy feel and celebrates the fact that scenes of Goodfellas were filmed there (I could never watch that film all the way through—and when they start laying out plastic tarp, I’m out). But, despite the testosterone-rich environment (or perhaps because of it) I could definitely imagine Mae strutting in and doing her “Come up and see me sometime, fellas” routine while locals sipped their bathtub gin and backdoor whiskey.
His: Well, since I used to live in Woodhaven, I feel a certain nostalgia for Neir’s (even though I was only there once before). Maybe, since I did sit through Goodfellas all the way through, I feel it substitutes for going there. Nonetheless, I really like the old-fashioned look of the place, the tin ceilings, mahogany wood and steel bar, equipped with an ice box built into the bar and festooned with a rainbow of liquors in their illuminated bottles.
Her: We ordered their signature drink—a “Mae West” (see the recipe in our First Round Fridays section. It was big and blowsy, just like its namesake, and lipstick red from a deep splash of grenadine and varieties of intoxicants. The owner, Loycent Gordon, came over, and it was actually moving to hear him talk about why he saved the place from imminent destruction and transformation into a bodega. Loycent is a working fireman (so cool) and said his love of what the city means to him, its history and culture deepened after 9/11, and that love and feeling was what led him to spring for the bar and the money it took to restore it. But don’t think you’ll be getting a “reinvented” experience here. The place looks very much like it must have appeared to Mae back in the day. There’s even a big sort of die-cut image of Mae West on the wall that looks like it must have gone up just after she appeared in “She Done Him Wrong” back in the 1930s.
His: Another thing that was cool was that we competed in a trivia contest that was going on as we were sitting there. Gretchen and I really know our stuff, except when it comes to the finer details of recent pop culture…there we saw a chink in our armor and started to fall behind the younger crowd. But we still made it competitive, and you can’t win them all, right?
Her: OK, Michael…don’t sign us up for AARP yet. The trivia quiz reminded me of London’s ubiquitous pub quizzes. It made me a little sad because it reminded me of my former (jerk) boyfriend who would never miss one. Happily, I had a giant pulled pork sandwich and some nicely done sweet potato fries into which I could drown my sorrows. Yum.