Climbing Wine, Rolling Wine

Philip Shaw, the Australian winemaker between the new Rolling and Climbing labels, as well as his eponymous Philip Shaw label (in ascending order of price per bottle), is handsome as hell in a dark-eyes and silver-hair kind of way, surly and caustic like a good old Aussie curmudgeon, and a sweetheart on the inside. Or at least that was my take, after a dynamite tasting at his hands. I say at his hands because Shaw is a terrific wine geek, and he gave me a great education on a night when I wasn’t exactly receptive. I’d had one of those lunatic days: up at 5 a.m. to write, pancakes with L and our little girls from 7 to 9 (meaning syrupy faces and lots of sugar-crazed giggles), picking up these two brothers from Chiapas at 9:30, so they could crank hard on some remodel work I’ve got going, and then, while they started hanging drywall, a high-speed drive into the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District and down into the deep, dark basement of Staffan Terje’s spectacular restaurant, Perbacco, to pick up the 300-pound Berkshire pig he’d sourced for me and then helped me butcher. Zipping back across town, with an obscene amount of pork in the Subaru, I had to stop and pick up a bunch of tie-down bolts and concrete for a little cap I’m putting on my foundation, and some chemically treated two-by-sixes that won’t rot if they get wet. The boys from Chiapas—tiny pueblo, 15 days in the desert to get here, a buddy died along the way, one boy’s young wife has now died back home and he’s blowing all his earnings to fly back to his family this very night—can’t even believe how much pork I’ve got. But while they unload the lumber and concrete, the one who’s flying home gets teary-eyed and says his father’s probably going to kill a pig tomorrow night, for the family dinner welcoming him home.

Hours later, after much backbreaking work, I’m speeding to the San Francisco airport to put my Chiapas friend on that plane home, ending his big adventure across the border, and I’m paying him for that final day’s work, and he looks handsome as hell in all the new clothes he bought for the trip, and then it’s straight from the airport to a downtown building where Philip Shaw’s awaiting me. The drinking starts straight out because it has to, because I’m late, and because if I don’t start drinking wine soon, and getting into the mood, this isn’t going to work out. I’m going to spend the whole tasting caught up in complicated feelings about a sweet young guy who left his tiny pueblo and risked his life walking in the desert to make money to send home to his wife and his little daughter, only to have that young wife fall ill and die.

But the wine’s wonderful, and Shaw’s setting up these flights across his price point: a Rolling bottle, a Climbing bottle, and, finally, a Philip Shaw eponymous bottle. And at each step of the way, he’s offering a terrific little education about some fine point of winemaking, and how it has impacted the flavor distinctions between each price point. For example: the Rolling, Climbing, and PS wines come from progressively higher-altitude vineyards, and the flavors, in each, become progressively more bright, precise, complex, and balanced.

By the end, I’ve almost forgotten about the strange intersections in human lives—I bought that boy from Chiapas a new pair of sneakers, earlier that very day, because he wanted to bring them home—and I’m half in love with cranky old Philip, because I can see that this guy’s dream is precisely the life he’s led. Grew up as landed gentry, more or less, near Adelaide, and apparently took his first stab at making wine at age 14 with a bag of grapes—what a naughty boy! But all these many decades later, he’s still so enamored of the chemical mysteries of winemaking, and still so deeply invested in making good wines, that despite the slick haircut and the black silk shirt you can cut right through his crusty exterior by asking him a direct question about winemaking. He simply cares too much not to answer.

For example: “OK, Philip, I caught that wince when I said the Climbing Chardonnay had more acidity. Talk to me.”

He’s trying to be polite, doesn’t want to call me a fraud.

But I don’t care, because I’m not a fraud. I’m just a guy eager to learn.

OK, fine, he tells me, and out pours this bottled-up, compressed, and half-articulated diatribe about how everyone talks about more and less acidity and it’s often bollocks because nobody’s distinguishing between the amount of acid by volume, in a wine, and the actual strength, or pH, of that acid, or even the precise nature of the acid, because different acids, with different potassium counts, bind differently with various other flavors. I don’t need to bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that Philip Shaw, the man behind these curiously named wines—Rolling and Climbing—is an artisan in just the way you want your winemaker to be. And his wines are lovely.