Evenings of Wine and Coke

Photo by Amy TheiligI sure have a way with the ladies. When I asked Sali Heráldez, the grand dame of Santa Ana's wonderful Sol Art Gallery, if she would accompany me for a wine tasting held by La Maison Gourmet in Mission Viejo, I didn't mention her wine expertise, her gracious company or even the fact that I owed her dinner. I approached her during Sol Art's Thursday open-mic night, while we and others enjoyed a bearded Latino's impression of Paul McCartney mimicking Little Richard in “Hey Hey Hey Hey!” I said she'd be a worthy companion because—and I swear I said this—”You're not too classy.”

What I meant to say was that she's not conceited, that Heráldez is the type of woman you can take to a hoity-toity event and who will join you in lampooning the pretense and fakery of it all even while indulging in it. But instead, I insulted her. The friends around us groaned and laughed nervously. I blushed and stuttered out an apology. Heráldez, one of the world's few secular saints, accepted my offer without stabbing me in the face, as she had every right to.

We visited La Maison Gourmet one Friday afternoon. Every Friday for about two years, this charming shop on the edge of Lake Mission Viejo has opened its private lakeside patio for wine tastings. The events are a smash; reservations are required, limited to about 30 per session and best made at least two weeks in advance. But it's also a bona fide gourmand's treat. French-Canadian owners Marc Raymond and Louise Côté group wines from particular regions and hire experts to break down each vintage for guests by house, history and taste. July's tastings, for instance, focused on the wines of Argentina, Portugal and South Africa. When Heráldez and I attended, the highlighted regions were Champagne, Alsace and Bordeaux.

We entered the tiny La Maison Gourmet shop, which features various wines, jams, crackers and wine accouterments along its wooden cupboards. Heráldez flashed me a flask. It contained Coke. “I like to put Coke in my red wines,” Heráldez explained. “You didn't want classy? You won't get classy.”

What a gal, I tells you. What a gal.

Raymond escorted us to his serene patio, where we joined about 30 others, ranging from hipster rich to sweat-suited geriatrics, from married couples to group dates. Our resident expert would be Scott, a large, warm man who moved briskly through our evening of two champagnes, two pinot blancs, and three Bordeaux. Scott explained the different qualities of the soils of Champagne, Alsace and Bordeaux and how each influences the wines we would imbibe. He took questions from both newbies and experienced bon vivants. Heráldez and I comported ourselves rather well, though we burst into giggles when we read aloud a passage from an accompanying pamphlet that asserted a good red wine would produce “the sensation of having furry teeth.”

All of the wines La Maison provided were flights of nuance—some skewed sweet, others were reminiscent of coffee and oak. One of the chardonnays, Scott enthused, was “a big, buttery bomb,” and I didn't chortle. My favorite was our first selection: a sharp Deutz Brut champagne with wisps of green apples and white grapes. What did Heráldez think? “Minty,” she replied. Then she spit her wad of gum into a tissue.

The accompanying cheese wheel, drawn from the shop's deli case, also impressed. The food at most wine tastings tends to function as a mere palate cleanser, but the portions at La Maison were hearty enough to fill a sub—I'm thinking of the USS Amberjack.The Humboldt Fog goat fromage was light and salty; the Roquefort stung; the Brie sang of sweetness. Even more impressive was a salty goose pâté decorated with a jam made of red pepper and ancho chile that was actually spicy. I can't remember the different meats—I was pretty soused by then—but I do remember they filled. Was one spicy? My notes from the evening say, “Moral relativism is evil!!!” Yeah, it was spicy.

Throughout the evening, Heráldez was everything a great wine-tasting partner should be. We laughed at the birdlessness of Lake Mission Viejo. We wrinkled the brows of our tablemates by speaking in Spanish. Heráldez washed out her glass after each wine, since—in La Maison's only faux pas of the evening—no one bothered to provide different glasses for each pouring. And when the Bordeaux came, Heráldez broke out the Coke flask. “Have you ever seen bubbles on red?” she marveled as the Coke spread across the shapely glass. What a gal, I tells you. What a gal.


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