Avid road trippers, my wife and I enjoy hitting the road during this time of year. The autumn weather is inviting, its light easier on the eyes, and summer tourists are long gone – back at work – leaving restaurants, hotels, hiking trails and beaches quieter and less hectic. Alas, in this pandemic-inflected year, though we’ve both managed to avoid the coronavirus thus far, we’ve been struck by a different kind of relentless mental virus: cabin fever. During the summer, our cabin fever was ameliorated some as we made small improvements to our backyard, adding flowers and plants to the garden, an outdoor umbrella and a small Cuisinart barbeque.
Now that the cold weather has arrived, along with shorter days and longer nights, we’ve turned our attention to our evenings together; how might we make them a bit more joyful and a little less lonely this autumn and winter, especially since we’ve both decided to stay put this holiday season and not visit family.
Enter the television set. The telly. The boob tube. The idiot box. Call it what you will, but the quality of television has perhaps never been more diverse or exciting than it presently is. With the advent of streaming services, viewers can now watch current and past television series and films from around the world. If you’re like us, you hate spending an hour a night just searching for something to watch. Sometimes too many choices lead to frustration and indecision. Herewith, then, dear reader, are my favorite television discoveries this year, paired, as they are, with the wine discoveries that accompanied their enjoyment.
In 2004, actors Ewen Macgregor and Charley Boorman, longtime friends, embarked on a motorcycle ride astride BMW motorcycles, on a trip called Long Way Round, which took them from London to New York, traveling through Europe, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, across the Pacific to Alaska, then down through Canada and America. In 2007, the two joined up again for Long Way Down, which found them winding their way from Boorman’s hometown of John O’Groats at the northernmost tip of Scotland, all the way to Cape Agulhas on the southernmost tip of South Africa. Then, just last year, and airing currently, the duo met back up once more, this time for Long Way Up, which follows them from Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, up through Colombia, Central America and Mexico, and then to Los Angeles. Happily, all three trips were well-documented in a trio of Long Way documentary series.
This pair of affable, adventurous bikers are a pleasure to watch. Their curiosity and bravery are perhaps matched only by their humanity. During each extended trip, they carve out time to become familiar with the different cultures and towns through which they travel, often briefly joining forces with UNICEF workers in troubled areas to do volunteer work or facilitate the delivery of crucial supplies. We are invited during these excursions to learn valuable historic information about which many of us here in the West are not familiar, or simply don’t have the bandwidth or interest to investigate.
Viewers will also enjoy a rare, intimate look into the delicate inner workings of an old friendship. We share in their comfortable silences, their mutual concern for each other’s well-being, their silly, spontaneous sense of play and humor. The Long Way trilogy shatters the paradigm of the travel show, immersing the viewer not only in exotic locales, but also in the middle of a long, tender relationship between two human beings. That there are three seasons, spread across more than a decade, is a bonus, and feels like a gift this holiday season. This series provides viewers with ample episodes to dive into and relish with the soul of an adventurer. (The Long Way Up series may be viewed on Apple TV+.)
It’s hard to watch just one episode of this show without immediately hitting “play next” on the streaming prompter. Accordingly, the most memorable wines we enjoyed with the series are equally alluring, hard to put down and nuanced. Look no further than the wines of Napa Valley’s avid motorcyclist Ketan Mody for the perfect accompaniment to this series. Mody’s brand, Beta, creates spectacularly nuanced and layered Cabernet Sauvignons. Mody makes wines that are austere and poignant all at once. Wrapped around a deep blue-fruit tinged tannic grip, the 2014 Beta Cabernet Sauvignon, Vare Vineyard, Oaknoll District, Napa Valley, yields much dark-forest-floor mystery, crushed granite muscularity and petrichor depth after a solid 48-hour decanting. Following that, the wine only gets better, with the winding roads of the Long Way Up series accompanied by a light, after-dinner cheese plate of Manchego and Petit Basque. (Mody cellars his wines for a few years before releasing them to the public. The 2014s are his current vintage.)
Travel Man with Richard Ayoade is a comedic travel series currently available on Hulu. Ayoade, a British comedian gifted with a sharp wit, an alacrity for alliteration and an often vulnerable sensibility, is a winning host for this great bit of escapism. In each episode, Ayoade is joined by celebrity friends, who thankfully are all comedic delights themselves, including Paul Rudd, Rob Delaney and one of my personal favorites, Roisin Conaty. Each episode finds Ayoade journeying head-long into a hardcore 48-hour weekend in a foreign place, during which he and his guest will see as much of the local culture as they can muster. My wife and I got into the spirit of this show, and often shared an import while watching back-to-back episodes. We swiftly consumed seven delightful seasons while enjoying a number of immensely quaffable wines, among them the 2016 Renato Ratti Barolo Marcensasco. I cannot get enough of this splendid Barolo, which at $65.00 a bottle tastes like a steal. It delivered so much discovery and personality that it continued to evolve and reveal new charms over the course of a few hours’ worth of Ayoade’s Travel Man one cold night. We also fell in love all over again with Vinho Verde, a terrific Portuguese wine usually made with 100% Loureiro grapes, but sometimes blended with Alvarinho, which is the case with the 2019 Bico Amarelo (Yellow Beak), a brand that was launched by Quinta do Ameal in 2019. At $12.00 a bottle, it’s quite a find – an ideal, uncomplicated sipping wine that holds its own with a plate of grilled sardines. The 2019 Quinta do Ameal Loureiro devotes itself completely to Loureiro, and at $18.00 a bottle, it’s another terrific white wine that overperforms.
In these pandemic days, it’s been great to discover a number of winning comedies. Some are more feel-good than others. Ted Lasso delivers all the feels. The Apple TV+ series stars SNL alum Jason Sudeikis, proving here that he’s more than a gifted comedian. As Lasso, an American football coach hired to coach an association football (soccer) team in the UK, he demonstrates a Jimmy Stewart-like earnestness while exploring new emotional depths. The cast that surrounds Ted is equally nuanced here. Even Jamie Tartt, the shallowest of soccer jocks (portrayed effectively and convincingly by Phil Dunster), reveals glimpses of vulnerability and insecurity beneath his handsome exterior. The show’s exuberance put me in the mood for lifted, light-on-its-feet wines. The 2018 Bouchaine Unoaked Estate Chardonnay is such a wine. One hundred percent fermented in stainless steel for 8 months, this attractive white wine experienced no additional flavors from secondary fermentation, stirring of lees or oak influence. I couldn’t get over the just-cut-lemon-skin freshness on the nose of this wine. On the mouth, it expands with a bright, pleasantly acidic body of Asian pears and a distant saltiness. At $33.00 a bottle, you can’t go wrong with this wine.
Actor Phil Dunster shows up again on PBS’s The Trouble with Maggie Cole as the son of the lead, played with cringy charm by Dawn French. I love British comedies, because they’re always more than just simple comedies; they often offer up deeply flawed and complicated characters, or disarmingly patient ones, whose humanity is typically revealed slowly. As is the case in life, it takes time to get to know someone, and on the best of British comedies, each character’s arc takes time to develop and is often unpredictable. The gusto and impulse with which French’s Maggie Cole lives her life put me in the mood for a full-bodied, yet balanced red Rhône varietal wine. The 2017 Alta Colina Toasted Slope Syrah from Paso Robles is a generous wine, with layers of dark fruit buoyed just slightly by a provocative earthiness that leans toward mushrooms and white truffles. I’m a big fan of Alta Colina’s Rhône reds, but they require a degree of patience; I allowed this 3-year-old wine to breathe for five hours before funneling it back into the bottle for service. A wide-mouth pitcher is best in this instance. But the rewards are great; hours later, this wine revealed its evocative, dark beauty.
Mum, starring Leslie Manville, is another British Mike Leigh-tinged comedy that presents one of the lovelier romances I’ve experienced on television in quite some time. It blossoms between Manville and her on-screen admirer, the brilliant Peter Mullan, who played the cold-blooded Jacob Snell in Netflix’s Ozark. I’m a sucker for a good love story, and Mum offers uplifting viewing for the romantic at heart. Gameface, written by and starring Roisin Conaty (Afterlife), follows an aspiring actress, Marcella (played gamely by Conaty) as she tries desperately to keep her life on track on a daily basis, but barely manages. Marcella humorously recounts her challenges and failures to her life coach, an often-befuddled loon who is rarely confident in the advice he proffers. We’ve been enjoying sparkling wines at home lately with greater frequency, and the J Vineyards & Winery NV Cuvee 20 , at about $40.00 a bottle, was a delightful surprise. With an unusual but irresistible ginger snap toastiness on the mid-palate, the entire bottle went nicely with a few back-to-back episodes of both shows.
Even if you don’t know a stitch about chess, you may want to give The Queen’s Gambit a try. It offers a little something for everyone. Its pacing is just as riveting as any spy thriller. The game play is exciting to watch. Fans of well-developed characters will enjoy underdog protagonist Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon’s fictional journey from orphan to chess world champion. The Queen’s Gambit is a classic underdog tale, adorned as it is by lovely cinematography, costumes and earnest storytelling. Actor Anya Taylor Joy, who plays Beth Harmon, delivers a convincing wide-eyed gaze that she turns toward a world as wonderous as it is horrific. Harmon knows great joy in winning, perhaps because she has tasted the depths of misery, most notably her mother’s repeated, and ultimately successful, attempts at suicide. The character of Beth Harmon emerges as a quiet hero for the modern viewer. Her path to success is messy, with plenty of substance abuse problems along the way to cloud her judgments and muddle her choices. But, just as in life, the strongest among us persevere through our imperfections and failings, whether they be addiction, mental illness or … well, just the conundrum presented by being a highly evolved Homo Sapien in a world that seems to not want to accept that we are little more than animals unfortunately strapped with a pernicious, outdated egoic mind. Harmon pushes through obstacle after obstacle, often transcending the modern-day human’s typical penchant for living out daily life in either a flight or fight mode. Being a survivor, she seems to understand there is another mode of being – one that allows her to remain curious about the world, even as it appears to try, time and again, to crush her. If curiosity killed the cat, then satisfaction brought it back. Check mate.
The wines of Geodesy are a splendid, dynamic accompaniment to this series. Founded by geologist/vintner Judy Jordan in 2015, Geodesy is named for the Earth science of measuring the shape, orientation, and gravitational field of the earth. Jordan, who founded “J” winery when she was just 27 years old and sold it some 30-odd years later to Gallo, has established an inspiring brand with Geodesy. One hundred percent of the proceeds of all sales of Geodesy wines go to Jordan’s WG Edge Program (Women Gaining an Edge), which exists to advance young women seeking careers in agriculture. The WG Edge program has partnered with Santa Rosa Community College, granting scholarships which provide a solid path to a four-year college education. Along the way, the young women are mentored by some of the wine business’s top talent, including Judy Jordan herself, Gina Gallo (Gallo wines), Katie Jackson (Jackson Family Wines), Emma Swain (St. Supéry), Cathy Barnett (Editor, Santa Rosa Press Democrat) and Elizabeth Gore (CEO, Hello Alice), to name just a few. The wines of Geodesy – which include a beautifully balanced and elegant Bordeaux blend from Napa Valley’s Sage Ridge Vineyard ($175.00); a lean, shimmering Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Eola Springs Vineyard; and an arresting, well-made Chardonnay, also from Eola Springs – are palate-grabbing stand-outs. Perhaps snobbishly, I presumed these wines, like some other charitably-minded brands, would be mediocre at best, if well-intentioned. Quite the opposite, these wines shine bright and capture one’s attention with their purity of place, fruit and intention.
Another equally inspiring wine we enjoyed during this season was One Stone, a Central Coast-based Cabernet Sauvignon brand helmed by Amanda Wittstrom Higgins of Ancient Peaks fame, a well-established and ever-evolving Central Coast-based winery. A portion of the proceeds from sales of One Stone directly benefit Wittstrom’s Dream Big Darling, a non-profit organization she founded to advance the careers of women in wine. Last year alone, DBD provided 35 up-and-coming women in wine with full scholarships to the DBD Leadership Retreat, an annual event held at Ancient Peak’s Santa Margarita Ranch, just outside Paso Robles. The One Stone Cabernet Sauvignon, at $20.00 a bottle, is pleasant, well-made, and has a long, enjoyable finish. The wines are a delight to consume, and who doesn’t want to give back while imbibing a nice glass of wine?
If during these uncertain times, it’s schadenfreude you crave, look no further than HBO’s Succession, a multi-generational family drama that is nearly Shakespearean in breadth. It tells the salacious, irresistible and perverse story of a family media empire, helmed by a Murdochian tycoon who seems to relish torturing his three ambitiously lost offspring, dangling his leadership position before them like a cat terrorizing a mouse before putting it to rest with one final, gleeful swap of the paw. I’m not usually on the edge of my seat while watching family dramas. Often, I will tire of them after one season, as I did with This Is Us, which began to strike me as a sequence of emotional contrivances and cliches. Though I’m not a fan of watching characters whose lives are composed almost entirely of drama, Succession’s Roy family has one over other family dramas: it’s exceedingly well-written, snarky and often depraved. Frankly, I was addicted after one episode. With this riveting, fulsome drama, I enjoyed a series of heady, nearly over-the-top hedonistic wines. Though not usually the type of wines I gravitate toward, I enjoyed a string of big wines as genuine sippers, rather than pairing them with food, while bingeing through this series so quickly that it felt that only days passed before I had consumed twenty episodes! (There are two seasons currently available to viewers, purchasable across streaming services, with a third being filmed currently.)
There’s something exciting about enjoying a gullet-full of a rich red wine while watching wealthy people self-immolate. A perverse vicariousness that is not necessarily unsettling can be ruminated over with the help of a hedonistic wine. The Louis M. Martini 2017 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($45.00) and their 2016 Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon ($75.00) are equally powerful, sensuous red wines with fine-grained tannins and a supple texture that results in a luxurious drinking experience. Louis M. Martini’s 2016 Lot No. 1 Cabernet Sauvignon, at a whopping $250.00 a bottle, is meant to showcase the finest vineyard blocks at the winery’s disposal, but I could not identify place in this wine. It’s really all about oak and deeply extracted fruit, or at least it was for me. So I treated it as I might a lovely, after-dinner glass of Port. Enjoyed through this prism, it’s a suave, boldly flavored red wine that warms the body on a cold, wintry night.
Throughout five brisk episodes during Season Two of Succession, switching gears to something a bit lighter, I nursed an exceptional bottle of California-appellated 2018 CARBONISTE Brut. Though it retails for a mere $36.00, this energetic sparkling wine tastes more like three times that, offering up suggestive yet clean notes of oyster shells, lychee, summer jasmine and sea salt. Combining Chardonnay fruit from the Santa Cruz Mountains, Marin County and the Sta. Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County, this overperforming sparkling wine is at once indulgent and refined.
Alas, the pairings above are deeply personal and, in some respects – perhaps many – completely non-sensical, as many aesthetic imperatives are. But these marriages of wine and visual art worked for me, as I hope they might for you, dear reader. And, as this nearly apocalyptic-seeming year comes to a close, I wish you all much laughter and merriment as we collectively bid 2020 adieu.