Like many in the Northeast and Midwest of the United States, I’ve been holed up at home lately, thanks to a big winter storm last week – and now – the polar vortex. Last week, we had over a foot of snow in Albany, New York, with some of the surrounding areas blanketed by up to two feet. The day after the storm brought even colder and gustier weather, with the windchill dipping down into the negative double digits. And this week has brought more of the same, but even colder. Needless to say, it’s been perfect weather for staying indoors for some feeder-watching, and not much else. Preferably with a warming glass of wine in hand, too – especially after coming in from shoveling the walks.

In his The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, Richard Crossley describes the bill of the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) as “dagger-like”. A slight exaggeration, to be sure, but it’s nothing compared to the straight-out-of-Hieronymous-Bosch fantasy of a corkscrew-beaked nuthatch presented on the label of this week’s wine: El Pico, a crianza from the Castilian winery Bodegas Illana.

El pico, of course, means “the beak” in Spanish (as in the pico de gallo of Mexican cuisine). Out of curiosity, I looked up the Spanish word for “corkscrew” – sacacorchos – which is even more fun to say, but makes for more than a mouthful as a name for a wine. El Pico it is.

In any case, this helix-beaked nuthatch is seriously equipped and looks like it means business – if that business is opening bottles of wine (and what else can one do with a sacacorchos?). While I had a lovely pair of White-breasted Nuthatches to watch while I enjoyed a glass of this wine, I was left to my own devices when it came to opening the bottle: my birds were much more interested in the frozen blocks of suet hanging in my backyard than in any bottle opening duties. With my hands still numbed by the cold, I really could’ve used some help in this, but alas, no corkscrew nuthatches visited my feeders that day.

While stuck indoors and enjoying this wine, I spent far too much time contemplating whether or not the Corkscrew Nuthatch can open its pico, or if its odd, prosthetic corkscrew fuses the upper and lower mandibles together. In a few more weeks it’ll be spring and I’ll be outside birding, rather than pondering such things.

Crianza is a Spanish term for a wine that has spent a year aging in oak barrels. Bodegas Illana grows seven varieties of grapes but only the best three are chosen each year to make their crianza. In 2016 – the vintage of this week’s wine – these grapes were Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Syrah, blended to a proportion of 43%, 32%, and 25%, respectively. The long aging of this deep crimson wine is evident in the bouquet and the palate, making it a warming and robustly oaky choice for a cold winter afternoon. But there’s enough dark fruit – mostly black cherry – to balance it out, and the year this wine spent in the barrel does wonders in softening the bite of El Pico, yielding a dry but mellow red that’s hearty without being overbearing.

Good birding – if you dare go out – and happy drinking!

Bodegas Illana: “El Pico” Crianza (2016)


Three out of five feathers (Good).

Written by Tristan Lowery
Tristan Lowery’s busy homebrewing schedule took a hit in 2010 when he discovered birding and found that scanning the waterfowl at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on a frigid midwinter morning could be just as much fun as standing over a steaming mash tun in a sweltering Queens apartment in August. While his growing commitment to birding has undeniably diminished his brewing output of ales - fine and otherwise - Tristan finds that birding still affords him plenty of excuses to at least keep drinking beer, especially when celebrating life birds, lamenting unsuccessful chases, and capping off an exhausting Big Day or Christmas Bird Count. After leaving behind a hectic cooking career in New York City’s fine-dining scene, Tristan moved inland to the New York's Capital District, where the relative abundance of Pileated Woodpeckers almost makes up for the fact that he’s only seen a single Sanderling in Albany County ever. When he isn’t birding his local patches in urban Albany, Tristan works in energy regulation for the State of New York.