PORCUPINE RIDGE SYRAH (2012)—Fueling my worst fears while getting me hammered

My Fellow Inebriates,

Even though we’ve talked about this plenty of times, my parents broke one of our rules and bought a bottle of wine with an animal on the label. The bottle was in the Staff Picks section, so they thought, what the hell.

What the hell indeed. If you decided to bring home a bottle of PORCUPINE RIDGE SYRAH (2012), it might be because you employed a similar calculus. It’s not like the bottle notes reveal much. Apparently my parents were content to read about porcupines (nocturnal, potato-eating, snuffling, etc.) rather than select a wine for its winey characteristics. I did eventually find some tasting notes written vertically on the back label (“spicy, aromatic rich-textured, French-oaked and lingering”) beside an essay about porcupines, but not before we’d downed the stuff.

Porcupine ridge syrah

Porcupines are a nuisance in South Africa, where they eat pumpkins and potatoes in a noisy, grunting manner and seemingly impart a barnyard note to grapes cultivated in certain Boekenboutskloof vineyards. If you wanted to learn more about porcupines (estrus, copulatory plugs, freaky quills) you could consult Wikipedia, but you wouldn’t be looking for wine then, would you?

We made our rule about animals on the label for good reason, MFI. Particularly antipodal animals—and not exclusively marsupials. Nevertheless, my parents were persuaded by the Staff Picks sign, and so they picked up this Syrah, paid $16.99 for it, and brought it home.

porcupine ecardOne mark in PORCUPINE RIDGE SYRAH’s favor is its 14.5 percent alcohol, a kick-ass level that had me running for the decanter. First impressions: ripe, dark fruit with smoky, spicy chocolate on the nose. Snuffling around behind these promising chords is a hint of barnyard. On the palate, PORCUPINE RIDGE is mouth-filling and lively, with pepper and oak at the forefront. Gamey and earthy, it has palate-parching tannins and a tarry, anise finish, with wild-game notes never distant. For complexity, it’s well worth the experiment, but…well. It has too many notes.

You all know I’m an idiot bear, and who’s to say these notes I would have happily subtracted from PORCUPINE RIDGE weren’t the very notes well-trained wine enthusiasts covet? But somehow…I found myself wondering what porcupines smell like, and if we need them in our house.

“They probably smell better than you, LB,” said my parents, and again began discussing a future appointment they say I have with the washing machine. So I pounded as much PORCUPINE RIDGE as I could, because I was afraid, people.

Barry, I need you, buddy, I’m dry

Day three of another involuntary dry-out. The humans have failed me. Must…reach…out…to…other animals. This is a shout-out to Barry the Koala, a kindred soul even if our chromosomal counts don’t line up. If you haven’t seen the way Barry owns this video by beerbecue, you’ve gotta check it out.

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I think this might be an early pic of Barry, before he was captured.

Apparently that’s tea in the bottle…Long Island iced tea, methinks.

GEKKEIKAN SAKE—A prescription for violent animals

My Fellow Inebriates,

After Sunday night’s humiliation by Miss P, my friend Scarybear—far from not being himself—has been even more of himself. Which is to say: preoccupied with annihilation while somehow giving off a stronger funk.

He wasn’t always this way. Scary came to the house two years before yours truly—before any of the other animals. He dominated for two years. He had attention; he had snacks; he had unlimited television. (Renting from a cruddy landlord back in 2005, my soon-to-be parents retaliated passive-agressively by running their plasma TV eighteen hours a day with only Scary in front of it.)

Alone watching the Space Channel, Scary became an expert on every iteration of Star Trek and Stargate, not to mention crap shows like Andromeda. And when Dad came home, Scary got to watch those shows again. He had things his way for a very, very long time. He was the bear.

In December 2005 everything changed. Who knew a small pink bundle could effect so sudden and absolute a coup? Home for maternity leave with P, my mum now controlled the TV, exposing Scary to reality shows, news, and, worst of all, dramas. She parked herself in front of the plasma, surfing randomly while baby P fed. If losing the Space Channel wasn’t dreadful enough for Scary, he had to witness Mum being milked and was often a baby-barf target.

All of which was compounded by an onslaught of new animals: ducks, elephants, frogs, and bears.

Everything had been perfect. And now it sucked.

It actually altered Scary’s mind. Who knows—maybe he was always an asshole and nobody knew it because he always got his way. But now that he wasn’t getting his way, he became angry. He became morose. In his head he reran episodes of sci-fi shows he’d seen enough times to memorize, obsessing about the hazards of space until those dangers seemed immediate enough to gobble him up.

Unable to get out of his obsessive rut, Scary couldn’t find another crutch. One time I suggested we join forces and open a bottle of GEKKEIKAN SAKE. He kicked my ass! After that he kicked my ass all the time, just for something to do.

Eventually the bottle did get opened, though, without Scary’s involvement. At 14.6% alcohol, it could have mellowed him out. GEKKEIKAN is one of three bottom-shelf sakes stocked at our neighborhood booze shop and distinct for being bottled in the U.S. rather than Japan. There its distinction ends.

At its comparatively low price point ($10.99 for 750mL), GEKKEIKAN is a likely offering at cheap sushi outlets where Japanese provenance is unimportant. It makes perfect sense for American producers to get in on the sake game, especially with a lackluster public appetite for beer. For many sushi aficionados, a meal without sake wouldn’t be a meal, and doubtless this mentality assists sake producers in keeping a market foothold. Whether people drink sake without sushi is another matter. If anything, sake’s tether to Japanese food is probably frustrating for North American marketers wishing to expand the product’s reach.

Sake divides neatly into two camps: cold and warm.

  • Higher-end sake—the type found in small, picturesque bottles—meant to be drunk cold so as to appreciate its character. It is, after all, a type of wine, albeit made from rice.
  • Lower-end sake—bottom-shelf offerings intended for copious consumption with Japanese cuisine and drunk warm to mask any disagreeable characteristics.

Along with HAKUTSURU and Takara, GEKKEIKAN falls into the latter category. Still, I thought I’d better try it both warm and cold because that way I’d get twice as much.

Now, I am freaking terrified of the stove. I had to rely on my mother to get the sake to its optimal temperature. Child’s play, you might think, but she needs to be watched; previously she’s forgotten a saucepan of sake on the burner and allowed the precious alcohol to evaporate.

When the sake is warm-to-hot without boiling, smooth grainy flavors waft generously from the glass. On the tongue it warms and expands with medium body and hints of fruit and herbs. Much of this charm is carried in warm vapors; the heat is pleasant and alluring. Once you let GEKKEIKAN sit and cool, however, the charm is reduced.

Now that’s more like it. Eighteen liters.

This is the problem with cheap sake. Optimal temperature forgives a lot in a cheap sake; imperfections hide behind a warming sensation. Dropping to room temperature exposes both its off-notes and its simplicity.

Naturally the solution is to pound it before it cools. Keeping GEKKEIKAN at optimal temperature is an exercise in chasing the dragon. You don’t want it to disappoint you, but its sweet spot is narrow. Not that sub-ideal temperatures render it undrinkable. GEKKEIKAN is mostly harmless, although it will wreck you if you pound it for the sake of maintaining that ideal. Of course, if you’ve let it cool and can’t reheat it, you might pound it just to be done with it. It’s not offensive enough to push away because the temperature isn’t right.

Either way, it’s a recipe for getting drunk quickly.

In just the way heat masks flaws in sake, sake (I’ve often thought) could mask flaws in Scarybear. Except he’d probably be an angry drunk.