A very special Side Stories edition of Last Podcast on the Left will be at Death Becomes Us True Crime Festival November 8. Tickets for this show and all shows can be found at deathbecomesus.com
Travis Morningstar is one of the producers for Last Podcast on the Left but more importantly for this adventure, he is a certified sommelier. In his former, non-true crime life, Travis was a wine buyer for different wine shops and was a copywriter for wine businesses. One would think these two paths wouldn’t cross very often but when I wanted to know what wines would pair well with certain deathrow last meals he was the only man for the job.
Roger Casement: Communion wafer. He converted to Catholicism before his execution and said he intended, “To go to my death with the body of my God as my last meal.”
You can go the obvious route here with the wafer and do the blood of Jesus with a red wine but I’m thinking of the Communion wafer in the sense of “What is this snack, really?” It’s a chip. I have two recommendations for pairings for this chip, this lone single chip. One is an Austrian white wine called Grüner Veltliner. Grüner is this airy, light, crisp, refreshing summer wine that you can guzzle. It’s always served in a huge liter bottle with a bottle cap that you can pop off. It always has a very simple label and isn’t gussied up whatsoever. It’s refreshing and is something you would have with chips. It also matches the purity of a Communion wafer. There is nothing else going on besides this crisp, clean refreshing…with a hint of white pepper kind of taste.
Moving to the other end of the spectrum as far as price point, champagne would be amazing with a Communion wafer. Champagne and chips are made for each other. For the Communion wafer I would do a Blanc de Blanc champagne so that’s a 100% Chardonnay champagne, extra brute. You want this bone dry, laser beam acidity champagne that matches the sanctimonious of a Communion wafer and the single mindedness of this pure beam of light. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards champagne.
You have two really rich things but they are also fundamentally different. Pizza is savory and hot chocolate is sweet so it’s sort of a tough balance to accomplish as far as pairing but don’t worry, I got you. There is a red sparkling wine from the Lombardi region of Italy called Sangue di Giuda which is the Blood of Judas and it’s a light to medium bodied sparkling red wine made from the Barbera Grape. It’s slightly fizzy, slightly sweet and is full of crush red berry fruit. It basically tastes like an adult soda. A good wine can take you places. It can transport you to a different place when you’re sipping on it and this one will make you feel like you’re at an upscale Chuck E’ Cheese’s.
When I saw celery I thought, “This is a real psychopath.” It makes me wonder what is going on behind his eyes. Why pretend to be someone you’re not? With celery and cherries it feels like he’s pretending to be a human. I imagine this gentleman was wearing a full suit while eating this meal. I can see what he’s going for. It feels like he’s trying to have a family meal as part of his send-off. It all hangs so disjointedly and doesn’t really make any sense but there are wines that are able to attack all these different kinds of foods.
The one I would say that would be my choice is a Burgundy wine. Burgundy is just Pinot Noir from this particular region in France that does Pinot Noir really well. There is one particular region in Burgundy that I like for this and the region is called Chambolle-Musigny. These are very elegant, soft, supple Pinot Noirs, medium-bodied very stony and mineral-laden. It’s sort of alike a Greek statue sliding out of a wine bottle. These hit every single element of the pairing here. It’s all sort of perfectly balanced and the thing with this kind of wine is it’s so well orchestrated that it becomes almost suspicious. It’s suspiciously wholesome, like a Norman Rockwell painting whose eyes follow you around the room. It’s a family portrait where everyone feels like they are screaming on the inside but it looks very nice on the outside. This would be my chicken and french fry bonanza pairing. This food is also the making of baby food which makes sense for this guy.
This food is ordered by someone who is trying to body slam their palate. It’s a “good night sweet prince” sort of final meal. I would do a late harvest Zinfandel from somewhere in Southern California. Zinfandel is a pretty big, juicy red wine and from Southern California the heat really extracts a lot of the fruit from the grapes so you have these plusher red wines. Late harvest Zinfandel…they leave a lot of residual sugar in the grapes so you have a lot of alcohol but you also retain the sweetness because the sugar doesn’t fully convert to alcohol. You have this super full-bodied blackberry, mocha-flavored red wine that is a blanket of juicy, fruity chewy tannins. It’s 15 to 17% alcohol so you’re getting a pillow made of red wine pushed over your face and you just tap out. With 12 chocolate bars and ice cream you just want to say good bye cruel world.
Some of these final meals feel like people are declaring something with the food and aren’t necessarily enjoying the food itself. I think this guy is saying, “I’m a dirty piggy boy. I’m stinky and wild and barefooted.” You have to have a wine that matches that raw primal energy. There is a type of wine called Orange Wine. It’s not made from oranges. It’s actually made from white wine but they keep the skins on during maceration. It’s an acquired taste which is why it’s not super popular. They’re tannic and it’s hard to place what there is to enjoy about it.
The particular Orange Wine I’m thinking of is called Rkatsiteli and it’s from Georgia, the country. Rkatsiteli is a weird grape. It’s Eastern European and usually if you don’t make it into an Orange Wine it has this pretty, floral taste. What the Georgians do, and the particular one I’m thinking of is a producer called Pheasant’s Tears. They put the wine into an amphora which is a clay pot, where they age it. It has this grippy, tannic, ugly taste to it. They also oxidize the wine. Usually in wine production you need a little bit of oxygen to get the chemical processes happening but over oxidizing your wine can make it taste like poison…bitter almonds, desiccated fruits, burnt marshmallows. This is a meal that requires a wine that tastes like beer and feet. Orange Wine tastes like honey if honey wasn’t good.
Robert Anthony Buell: a single, unpitted black olive
This is in a dark cell with one swinging light bulb while he cuts it with a knife and fork. In France there is a region called The Rhone Valley and in the Northern Rhone there is a smaller region called Crozes-Hermitage and they do Syrah really well and Syrah is this black-skinned grape that produces pitch black wine. The wines are usually very very dense and aggressive. In this region the Syrahs become very smokey. They have a lot of black pepper to them, gaminess, almost like a beef fat kind of flavor to them. It has a rawhide kind of aroma, flavor. It’s like if one of the Xenomorphs from Alien was a wine…like a glass of wine designed by H.R. Giger. That’s exactly what this guy is going for with a single, unpitted olive. He wants to frighten everyone with his choice.
I assume this is a single green olive. I think this is almost a metaphor for life. You have this one olive…don’t fuck it up. It’s real life and death stuff. We haven’t spoken about vintages yet. Vintages can be lost on a lot of people, including wine people. If you don’t know the vintages it’s meaningless. All vintage is the weather of that year. Was it a good year for this particular part of this region.
You have one olive, one bite essentially and I think you need to make it count by choosing a wine from 1989 from the Chinon region of France. The grape they do there is Cabernet Franc. It’s a really mystifyingly fresh, leafy, herbaceous satin kind of wine with a lot of raspberry fruit. How is it fresh? Why is it fresh? It’s from 1989. I’m from 1989 and I’m not fresh. It’s nature shaking hands with art like Jurassic Park. You’re trying to capture this sort of lightning in a bottle moment which is this one olive right at the end of death row. You need to have this singular moment with this singular piece of food. This wine really represents capturing a moment, really contemplating life. It’s so old yet so present, smashing together everything in one sort of epiphany. This is a wine I’ve had an epiphany moment with.