The Final Touch

I wrote recently about a wine I enjoyed a great deal, the Girard Napa Valley 2004 Artistry Proprietary Blend, and also about my conversation with Girard winemaker Marco DiGiulio. But wine, as we all know, is best experienced as an adornment to life, a single instrument in a larger symphony that includes friends, family, food, and even the commonplace anxiety of your average weeknight. And the truth is, that’s how I really drank the Girard Artistry: opening my bottle offhand before dinner, as the girls ran screaming around the kitchen and L tried to set the table.

I was making a recipe for Middle Eastern–style lamb stew with dried apricots from the Chez Panisse Fruit cookbook. I’m interested in braises right now; I’m trying to make enough of them to internalize some of the basic principles and move toward the freedom to improvise. And I liked the sound of this recipe in part for its simplicity: Soak the apricots in warm water while you season and brown the lamb cubes. Remove the lamb from the browning pot, pour off excess fat, cook the onions in the remaining fat, put the meat back in with some spices—coriander, cinnamon, ginger, saffron—add enough water to come just to the top of the meat, and simmer for an hour and a half. Skim any fat or scum that rises along the way, and also toss in those plumped apricots about halfway down the line. And … voilà. Lovely lamb stew.

The recipe also included one of those “optional” notes that usually denote a flourish the writer doesn’t consider essential, or doesn’t want you to find off-putting. In this case: 1 teaspoon rose water. I’m trying not to be so tyrannized by the particulars of recipes, so I didn’t consider tracking down the rose water. But only moments before dinner, I noticed Audrey, my two-year-old, playing with a little spray bottle of culinary-grade European rose water. It had been a gift, I remembered, from the people at Domaine Carneros, part of a package for making a cocktail with their Domaine Carneros NV brut rosé. It’s a lovely wine, and afterward I’d let the girls enjoy spritzing themselves with the rose water. But now, suddenly, with a warm stew on the table and this bottle of Girard Artistry breathing, I realized I could go the final mile on the recipe.

The stew had deep, soothing flavors even without the rose water, and it went beautifully with the plush, earthy Artistry—the apricot and spice notes bringing out the fruit and spice in the wine, and the wine’s good acidity cleaning up the palate between bites. So I didn’t want to just add rose water to the pot and stir; I didn’t want to risk ruining a good thing. Instead, I held up a forkful of stew, positioned the spritz bottle back a ways, and misted a single mouthful. Beautiful! A moment of true affirmation in my Chez Panisse faith: An ingredient that sounded so flighty and unnecessary really did add an ethereal note to the stew. It had something to do with the precise play of flavors in those Middle Eastern spices and the apricots, and the way the rose essence mirrored them at a higher, lighter, more airy tone. Then I took a sip of wine and had one of those funny, delightful moments that come with paying attention to what you eat and drink: The rose essence caught something in the wine just exactly right, lifting the combination to the level of a fleeting, eye-closing little daydream that was only broken when I heard L saying, “Honey? Honey? Hello? Are you in there? Audrey’s trying to get your attention.”

And so she was, my beautiful kid, climbing into my lap and wanting to smell the rose water and have it spritzed on her own stew and learn what all the fuss was about—a gift, of course, from her to me, a way of giving and receiving love.