So there I am, surrounded mostly by beer bloggers at the media's sneak preview of the new Total Wine & More store across from Laguna Hills mall, when a verbal stink bomb is dropped.
No, it was not the inevitable gas that comes after virtual ink-stained wretches are poured 10 tastes from the 2,500 different kinds of brews offered at the chain's 83rd wine, beer and booze superstore.
It was a chorus of boos for Pliny the Elder.
These were not foes of Roman emperor Vespasian's pal Gaius Plinius Secundus but the Russian River Valley Brewing Co. of Santa Rosa's double IPA that borrows the nickname for the author, naturalist, philosopher and military commander.
The boos came after a store manager had mentioned some had favorably compared the lesser-known Kern River Just Outstanding IPA to Pliny the Elder, which Beer Advocate has bestowed a 100 score ("world-class") and its reviewers have praised with hosanas like "One of the best DIPAs on planet Earth."
To be honest, I didn't know any of that until just now looking it up. I knew Pliny the Elder as one of the best things I put in my mouth during a recent driving trip that included tastings at more Sonoma County wineries than I can list here, as well as a pint or seven at Lagunitas in Petaluma, Bear Republic in Healdsburg, Firestone Walker in Paso Robles and the aforementioned Russian River Valley.
And my liver transplanter thanks you.
Anyway, I was so smitten with the Pliny the Elder growler that I had filled on my way up the 5 that I had it re-filled on the way down. It's not just the strong jolts hop heads appreciate and first and last blush. It's the complicated, layered flavors in the middle: malty, nutty and pilsner-y all at once.
But if Pliny the Elder is swill, I wonder what's to make of Kern River brew. Having been put off by too much grapefruit in a home brewing experiment gone terribly awry (a rye?), the hint at the beginning of the Just Outstanding IPA won me back. Overall, I found it more malty--and purposely more citrus-y--than Pliny is hoppy but . . . ah, what the hell do I know? I'd order 'em both. In fact, I took home three Kern River bottles from the store.
It was, indeed, my favorite of Total Wine manager Drew Wegrich's 10 pours, which included a Bruery Loakal Red from Placentia I'm quite fond of and a Rogue VooDoo Bacon Maple Ale I'd prefer to pour over waffles.
Our palates had been previously greased by glasses of 2010 Chardonnay and 2008 Cabernet from Cakebread Winery of Napa, listing for $35.99 and $64.99 a bottle respectively. Which brought to mind an old NPR story I heard where a wine expert suggested that, other than the price, there's not much difference between a $16 and $64.99 bottle of Cabernet from Napa. Please keep in mind this is coming from someone used to paying $1.99 for Big Kahuna at Fresh & Easy.
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Speaking of stores I like, do check out the Total Wine in Laguna Hills, as well as the one the recently opened in Huntington Beach. Some cool classes are coming up (check totalwine.com) and free guides to educate yourself are given out. As are tastings, of course.
Yessir, this place indeed had it all, as we were throwing district manager Greg Trala various types of vodkas, wines and beers and he quickly tracked them all--without even resorting to the mounted iPad that allows customers to look them up themselves.
After the inevitable fistfight over Pliny, of course.