August 10, 2006


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Got milk?

Bringing out the dead
Cigarettes, beer and a wine-ing family
By Tim Protzman

When I was in college I used to watch Guiding Light. It’s a soap opera that chronicles the lives and generations of several Midwestern families. It’s a spin-off of a radio soap that started in 1937. More than 600 actors have appeared on the show, including Christopher Walken, Ed Begley, Joan Collins, Taye Diggs, Calista Flockhart, Allison Janney, Mira Sorvino, Billy Dee Williams (as Dr. Jim Frazier #1) and Peter Gallagher. The reason I like it is the main characters rarely change, they just keep inter-marrying and having kids, so you can go years without watching it and when you do catch an episode it’s like being at a family reunion.

This last week my step grandmother died at the age of 87. It was quick and she didn’t suffer. As her family gathered for the wake and burial I realized just how much this family was like the Bauers or Spauldings on Guiding Light.

Grammy, who liked Coors Light, was nearly disowned by her devoutly religious family when she married a divorced man in 1938. He had a 2-year-old son, who Grammy raised; he grew up and married four times. Grammy had two children of her own; one was my next door neighbor. She married my grandfather after her husband died. She had a younger brother who had two kids. One ran off with the carnival or something and came back with a baby. The four-times-married stepson has four of his own stepchildren, who all have their own children. One is an up-and-coming baseball player and the youngest is 3. The carnival baby is 15 and just completed a challenging survival training session in Colorado. I get remembered as the temper tantrum boy who threw a hissy when Rick, my stepmother’s dearly departed first husband, wouldn’t let me play with his 1:400 scale model replica of the Samuel B. Roberts, a Gearing class destroyer he served on when he was in the Navy.

My family learned years ago to never let me order wine on their tab. This shameful incident is referred to as “the time we let Tim order wine” by the family, even though I stopped at an ATM to reimburse them on the way home. We were celebrating my father’s 75th birthday and I noticed a 1999 Williams Selyem Rochioli Riverblock Vineyard Pinot Noir for $180. Everyone loved it until the check came. Williams Selyem is a boutique vineyard in Sonoma. The grapes for this pinot come from a tiny vineyard on the Russian River owned by Joe Rochioli, another cult wine maker. It’s supple and rich with cherry and fig fruit notes and a lean backbone structure that reminds you of petting a racing greyhound. Several people were eating duck that evening so I thought, how about a nice pinot noir. Big mistake. Aunt Honey looked at me shamefully and said, “I’d never order a wine that costs more than my monthly car payment.”

Now I just let them order their own — by the glass.

As we gathered after Grammy’s funeral for lunch, I took notice of the wines people ordered. Helen was into Beringer White Zinfandel, which is a light pink blush or rose wine that’s made from Zinfandel grapes. They crush the grapes and leave the red skins in contact with the juice until the wine takes on its rosy hue. The Beringer is light, slightly fragrant and very refreshing. It has a hint of cherry soda and pink lemonade. It costs $4.99 a bottle, but my family almost never orders a bottle, so they pay even more mark-up over retail by ordering a glass.

My stepmother is hardcore into pinot grigio. She pronounces it hesitantly; Pee Know Gri Gee O. She likes Pighin Pinot Grigio Grave del Friuli - $14.99, but only by the glass. She has something like 4000 shares of Aetna Healthcare stock, but she just can’t see paying over $10 for a bottle of wine. Pighin is the producer and Fruili is the province where the wine comes from. It’s northeast of Venice, on the border of Slovenia, which is an up and coming wine region. The wine is dry with lemon hints and a slight taste of lightly buttered toast.

Uncle Wayne is a little better; he drinks Heineken. His wife doesn’t drink at all but she loves exotic root beers — rich, spicy, earthy with a creamy head and thick froth. Root beer’s been around since Shakespeare’s time when it was a fermented mixture of sarsaparilla roots, berries, wintergreen, anise (licorice) and birch bark. Uncle Wayne’s wife (#4) prefers A.J. Stephans, Bulldog and Fitz’s. These homemade-tasting root brews contain no alcohol. (Although the earliest ones had about 2% alcohol and the root beer tonics of the late 1800s had as much as 40% alcohol.) The best are aggressively fizzy and natural tasting with little sugaring and big, bold spice. They’re great with vanilla ice cream, although true root beer purists prefer them chilled and straight up.

I didn’t really imbibe around my family as I was driving. But after the funeral, the mass, the burial and the luncheon catered by the Ladies Guild at the church, I opened a single can of Coors Light and lit up a Parliament that I snitched from Grammy’s last pack.

What we tasted this week: Rombauer 2005 Carneros Chardonnay $29.75. Needed something light and refreshing to beat the heat and tried this chardonnay for the Carneros, the southern end of California wine country where Sonoma and Napa meet. It’s cooler because of the San Pablo Bay and the AVA’s noted for its chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. Great wine, Justin thought it was a little “swampy smelling” but it finished smoothly with apricot and cinnamon taste notes.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at

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