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On Bauer’s Top 100 Restaurants

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Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s influential restaurant critic, is out with his Top 100 Restaurants list for 2016. A close reading of it provides some glimpses into dining and other trends affecting the Bay Area.

For one, we’re definitely out of the doldrums of the Great Recession. In the dismal years 2009-2012, there was a steady drumbeat of restaurant closures in San Francisco. My town, Oakland, was the beneficiary, because lots of chefs moved their restaurants here, thus helping to fuel Oakland’s growth, especially Uptown; but it was sad to see so many places close in S.F., and so many staff lose their jobs.

Now, San Francisco’s restaurant scene is livelier and more diverse than ever. Bauer pays homage to this diversity, featuring not only old standbys like Acquerello, Commonwealth, Piperade and Boulevard, but newer ones, including Al’s Place—an inexpensive, veggie-centric (but not vegetarian) spot in the Valencia Corridor, Belga, which as the name suggests stars Belgian food, and Comal, a Mexican eaterie that’s actually is in Berkeley (and is owned by Phish’s ex-manager). In fact, I can’t remember so many Mexican restaurants on previous lists as there are now on Bauer’s.

Bauer’s range of cuisines and restaurant styles is eclectic. As he writes in his introduction, among the “predominant trends we see today” are “shorter, more focused menus…increasing use of the prix fixe format…” and—importantly—“the elevation of casual-quick service to fine-dining standards.”

Each of these trends is noteworthy. Shorter menus (and wine lists) are a welcome development; people don’t want to wade through reams of data and then feel overwhelmed in making their choices. In complicated times like ours, we want simple pleasures when we dine out. It’s true, also, that a shorter menu means the kitchen can focus more on what they do best (instead of spreading their time and talents too broadly), and the chefs also can adhere more closely to farm-to-table and locovore standards. The prix fixe format is connected to this trend towards brevity: no fussing and mussing over who pays what (we’re all sharing everything today anyway, aren’t we?), no fussy deliberation over what entrée goes with what side dish, a more relaxed experience for the diner, just what-you-see-is-what-you-get. I like that Prix fixe also means the chef is doing food she loves and wants to concentrate on.

But it’s “the elevation of casual-quick” that I really like. We’ve seen this coming for years, with the increasing quality and interest value of bar food to the to-go cuisine of markets like Whole Foods and Wegman’s. When I moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s, there were “good” restaurants you had to dress up for, and “family style” restaurants you didn’t. I first noticed the change at the old Lulu, South of Market, where the food was incredible but it felt more like a block party than did Ernie’s stuffy atmosphere, and you could wear jeans, sneakers, whatever, and still dine like a king or (more appropriate to San Francisco, a queen). Lulu’s wine list also was revolutionary: it moved away from the standards to feature interesting, inexpensive wines by the glass from places around the world. In the last few years we’ve seen this repeated time and again; here in Oakland, Boot & Shoe Service and Pizzaiolo (also on the Top 100 list) were just such spots, catering to a tattooed hipster crowd, but with food that’s absolutely divine. Perhaps the poster child for this casual-but-upscale is Hawker Fare, also on Bauer’s list, and just a few blocks from my house.

The same trends we see in restaurants can be discerned in the wine scene. “Casual-quick” is what diners, especially Millennials, are looking for in wine, too: easy-drinking, interesting stuff that won’t cost an arm and a leg–generally lower in alcohol and oak, more streamlined, but no less “fancy”—wines that can elevate a meal, but that in turn can be elevated by the food.

One unfortunate trend that’s hit San Francisco and Bay Area restaurants, though, is rising prices, due not to the greed of owners but to mandated fees imposed on them by cities: a rise in the minimum wage is the latest example. Then again, of course, the local economy in the Bay Area (and wine country) is on fire: I’ve never seen people spending money so fast. It’s a carpe diem mentality out there, people are partying like it’s 2099, and the restaurant scene is explosive. Is this another bubble? Perish the thought.


More adventures on the sales road

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Saturday afternoon, in-flight on United, somewhere above Iowa

Returning from my four days back East on a sales trip to the “DMV”—my friend Liz Kitterman’s acronym for the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia circuit she covers. I’m struck by the many kinds of people I interacted with as part of the job. Some were somms or other buyers for upscale restaurants, like The Capital Grille. Some were buyers for supermarket chains, like Wegman’s (and wow, what a foodie paradise that is), or for their own small wine stores, like finewine.com, which despite the dot-com is a bricks-and-mortar store, and a good one.

Some whom I met were floor staff at restaurants; some were “just the public,” people who don’t work in the wine, food or hospitality industries, but love wine and are curious enough to go to an event to learn more about it, like the lovely people I met at the chic and genteel Chevy Chase Club,

CHEVY

where we showed six wines over a nice dinner that included a first-timer for me: Maryland soft shell crab.

Each of the people I met is different, and yet each is motivated by the need, or desire, to “up” their level of knowledge of wine. As the educator (I don’t really like that word, it sounds school-marmy, but it’ll have to do), it’s my job to have a mastery of all the information pertaining to the wines we’re tasting and talking about, but that’s not all, because the amazing and delightful thing is the unexpected questions people ask. You have to be able to think on your feet. For example, Friday night, at Chevy Chase, for a while there I felt like I was on the witness stand with the D.A. cross-examining me. Afterwards, a couple people came up and said, “Man, they were really grilling you,” and I replied, “I love it!” Because I do. There are two ways to go about this job. You can memorize a set of talking points, like a politician giving a speech, and hope they don’t ask you tough questions, or you can encourage people to use their noodles and think; and if that means they ask you tough questions, then great, because, let’s face it, honest people have nothing to hide, smart people like to have their intelligence put to the test, and sociable people like to engage. Tough questions are enlightening, not only for the asker, but for the askee.

Not that I don’t have my talking points. I’m out there to work: there are certain Jackson Family Wines that are being emphasized at any given event– the ones we’re pouring for the people–so I have to pretty much know everything about them. I always ask my colleagues at JFW to please tell me in advance what wines we’re going to be pouring, because JFW has more than fifty wineries on five continents, and I don’t think anyone, not even a Jackson, not even someone who’s worked there for thirty years, not even a Master Somm, knows everything about every SKU: history of the winery, elevation of the vineyard, age of the vines, fermentation regime, alcohol level, barrel type, precise nature of the soils, weather at harvest time, the blend, the clone/s, the latitude of the vineyard/s, how many acres of that particular variety are grown in France, or America, or wherever…that sort of thing; and all of those things have been asked of me. So you have to do your homework before you leave the house, and that’s why I ask my colleagues to please tell me which wines we’ll be pouring. (And, yes, I do have cheat sheets!)

We had long days and nights, and I got tired, especially with the jet lag, and sometimes, before a particularly big or important presentation, there’s some stage fright. But I’ve learned two things about myself. One is that, no matter how nervous I get right before I go “onstage,” it’s natural; the nervousness immediately disappears once “the curtain rises,” and I feel like the seasoned trooper I am: you have to have a bit of the ham in you to do this, and I am perhaps an actor manqué. Besides, there’s something strangely familiar and comforting about public speaking, which I did a lot of at Wine Enthusiast and when I wrote my books. Another thing I’ve learned is that fatigue can be illusory: you may think you’re tired, when in reality you’re really not, but instead you possess hidden reserves of energy just waiting to get out. After the big Friday night event (which followed a full day of things, which followed an equally busy Wednesday and Thursday), I was ready to hit the sack at my hotel, having already been sleep-deprived for most of the week, and needing to wake up at 5 a.m. the next morning to catch my flight back to SFO. Alas, my colleagues prevailed upon me to go with them to Black’s Bar & Kitchen, a supercool nightspot in Bethesda. I begged off; they insisted; I went, expecting to have just a quick nightcap and then go back to the hotel and blessed sleep. But such was the energy at Black’s, and so restorative were the oysters, and the fried clams, and the charcuterie, and my Ketel One Gibsons, and our server, not to mention the delightful company I was with, that I suddenly felt no fatigue at all; on the contrary was happy; and when confronted with the certainty of yet another sleep-deprived night, I thought to myself [rhymes with “bucket”], laissez les bon temps rouler. You need to savor the good times when they come, for they may not come again.

So now (Saturday afternoon), maybe over Nebraska, feeling sleepy yet peaceful, I write these words. I’ll catch some zzz’s here in seat 25-A before we land, then it’s a taxi ride home for a much-awaited reunion with Gus.

GUS


A wine trip back east, to the D.C. metro area

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If you’ve been reading me for years, you know that I was arguing in 2009, 2010, 2011 that (a) print newspapers and magazines are NOT dead (as so many bloggers were predicting and hoping) and (b) social media was NOT the be-all and end all for wineries. Well, I was right on both scores! USA Today has an article out, “Why People and Companies Are Lining Up to Buy Newspapers” that explains how newspapers are hot-hot-hot, which is why the paper’s owner, Gannett, has offered to buy Tribune Publishing.

I’ve always subscribed to newspapers. I’m going on 30 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I’ll frequently pick up an Oakland paper and the New York Times as well. Yes, I’m a Boomer, and old habits die hard; everyone my age says they like to wake up in the morning and have their coffee and breakfast while reading the paper. But all those years when the bloggers were guaranteeing that “print journalism is dead, it’s all online now,” I was saying, Not so fast.

As for social media, I always had my doubts, especially about Twitter, which never appealed to me (although Lord knows I tried). I’m a huge Facebook fan, but Twitter’s abbreviated limits just didn’t allow me enough space to express what I want to say. Well, now we see the trouble Twitter’s in—and how fantastically well Facebook is doing. The same issue of USA Today has another article headlined “Facebook defies tech earnings gloom.”

Anyhow, I’m on an extended trip back east on behalf of Jackson Family Wines, and loving it. Washington D.C. is really one of the most beautiful cities in America, and yesterday I got an up-close-and-personal experience of Baltimore, a city I’d never been to but have read much about, particularly their downtown revitalization, and what a great sports town it is. Fantastic architecture: some of those buildings are showstoppers. We’ve been going to some great restaurants, and yesterday went to the Maryland Club, the kind of place that barely exists anymore: a private club for locals, where you have to be vetted to be admitted. There were some gray-hairs (like me) but also some Millennials, so the blood is being refreshed at this 1857-founded social institution. They are very serious about their wine, and we had a great seminar and tasting. I also have been meeting some of the most interesting people, including the leaders of the soon-to-be-opened Trump International Hotel, here in D.C., and a young guy, Jason Larkin, who is the wine expert for Secretary of State John Kerry, over at the Department of State. I hope to arrange a Q&A with Jason here on the blog, and to learn more about his fascinating job.

I am fascinated by Washington culture. I know little about it, except through movies and House of Cards and political thrillers. Coming from a very distinct culture myself (San Francisco and the Bay Area), I understand how easy it is for outsiders to have stereotyped views. As we walk and drive the streets of the District I look at all those other people and wonder what branch of government they work in and what secrets they hold. Probably they’re just normal people like everybody else. Someday, on my bucket list is to spend a week here in the nation’s capital and do all the usual sightseeing. Maybe next Spring.

Lots of rain today in D.C. but it isn’t dampening anyone’s spirits, especially mine. We have another big day and night planned. More tomorrow.


A pinky of wine for baby: Are you creating a future alcoholic?

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For yesterday’s flight from SFO to Reagan Washington Airport I bought a New York Times, which always gives me a couple hours of good reading when I have the time—and what else is there to do on a long flight?

So in the Science Times section (sorry, no link—firewall!) they had an article called “Alcohol’s Parental Gateway.” Some inflammatory words in that header: must read! It dealt with the question of whether parents who give their young children even “a token sip of wine at Passover” somehow contribute to their children’s later drinking problems.

This sort of “gateway” issue has worried parents for decades. No mom or dad wants to suffer the guilt and pain of thinking they somehow contributed to their child’s mental or behavioral aberrations. Once upon a time, I don’t think parents even worried about this sort of thing, but in our post-Dr. Spock era (Benjamin, not Star Wars), they do. Books, academic studies reported in the media, talk radio and pseudo-scientific T.V. shows like Dr. Phil’s provide endless fodder to make parents wonder if they’ve done a good job or a horrible one raising little Johnny or Susie. The very difficulty of determining precisely what leads to a teen’s or adult’s drinking problem means that the answer is largely unknowable; hence, the never-ending proliferation of studies of the type the Times article cites, which—it seems to this childless adult—only pile on the confusion ever thicker. (It is the pH.D’s full-employment act.)

The Times’ writer, Perri Klass, herself an M.D., asks a lot of questions of the “what does it all mean?” genre, without venturing her own opinions. What does “early sipping” do? Is there a connection to “high rates of alcohol use in adolescents”? Is childhood sipping “a risk factor for a lot of other problem behaviors”? Some psychiatrists and other professionals quoted seem to imply answers in the affirmative.

Now, someone once said that journalism—even the kind of even-handed journalism practiced by good newspapers like the New York Times—cannot by its nature be objective. The writer’s biases, sometimes unconscious, sometimes barely concealed, shape the narrative: what questions get raised, who is quoted, what direction the article seems to point in.

And so it is here. A reader who knows nothing about this particular epidemiological issue would not be faulted for coming away with the impression that parentally-sanctioned childhood sipping is, if not overtly dangerous, at least ill-conceived. Dr. Klass even seems to debunk the European theory that by “providing sips of alcohol to children, we are actually protecting them against problem drinking,” which is the theory I’ve long heard and believed (and which Thomas Jefferson apparently subscribed to, especially when wine is not expensive).

My own feeling is that some academicians, perhaps in the thrall of publish-or-perish, make too much of this childhood-sipping non-issue. We’re not talking about unfit parents who put vodka into baby’s bottle; we’re talking about civilized, responsible parents who believe that, starting with the lick of a finger dipped into wine, and graduating upwards to a full glass by, say, the age of thirteen, a growing child will learn to respect wine—and all alcoholic beverages—and therefore to drink responsibly. I think that is true: do we really need more studies to prove it?

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By the way, on the drive from Reagan International to my Bethesda hotel, we passed the spotlit United States Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Truly beautiful and awe-inspiring.


SF’s housing woes spread to wine country

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Picked up the latest issue of the Sonoma County Gazette at the Starbucks in Fulton, and came across this article, Healdsburg at a Crossroads, that underscores just how acute that tony town’s housing crisis has become.

It recalled an era that was just coming to a close when I first visited, some 35 years ago, when Healdsburg was “a rough farm and lumber town with more bars than churches.” But by the mid-1990s, things started turning fast, as Healdsburg got “a dose of Windsor-like development” and the area around the Town Square began to look like a smaller St. Helena, with posh restaurants and upscale boutiques and galleries. By the 2000s, my former magazine, Wine Enthusiast, was writing stories about this must-visit showplace of Sonoma County wine country. (I know, because I was writing them!)

Nowadays, the cost of housing is such that the town is in a bit of a quandary over what to do about it. As are the citizens of San Francisco and my own home town, Oakland. All over the Bay Area and wine country, the tech boom has ignited a housing frenzy, forcing the poor and middle class out and bringing in a new class of wealthy individuals. The question confronting Healdsburg, as posed in the Gazette article, is whether to “try to ‘manage’ growth” or conduct “an aggressive community building program.” Both of these present difficult choices, and both approaches have solid blocks of citizens for them and against them.

All this would not be happening in Healdsburg were it not for the fact that the town is so ideally located in wine country. It’s at the juxtaposition of Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Chalk Hill, making it a great place for tourists to stay. And man oh man, are the tourists showing up. That, in turn, is leading to quite a forceful little argument over how much tourism is too much. Just last Sunday, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat ran an op-ed piece whose writer warned Sonoma County officials that Tourism can only be sustainable if planning is carefully managed so that the financial benefits are not permitted to outweigh the negative impacts on the community.” People like the money that tourists bring to their regions, but they don’t like the traffic, litter, crime, increased housing costs and other impacts that can accompany tourism.

Nor is the issue just a California one. As I was writing this post, I got the e-issue of wineindustrynetwork.com which contained this article on Iowa’s burgeoning wine industry. Where before “mile upon mile of fields of corn and soybeans” dotted the land, increasingly the “Iowa Wine Trail” is marked by vineyards. And with the wineries come—you guessed it—tourists. Iowa, in contrast to California, is only in the earliest stages of developing a wine tourism culture; a few years ago, an Iowa State U. professor cited a study touting the “economic boom” the wine industry is bringing to the Hawkeye State. One wonders, though, how long it will be before the small towns impacted by the new tourism—Decorah, Fredricksburg, Waukon, Marquette—might find that unrestricted tourism is not an undiluted positive.


Is California running out of new AVAs?

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The state already has about 183 American Viticultural Areas, * which is a lot, but nowhere close to France’s 300-plus appellations, not to mention Italy’s 800 or so assorted DOCs, DOCGs and IGTs.

Most of California’s AVAs are along the coast, from Mendocino County down through the Central Coast to Santa Barbara, which is logical, since that’s where most of the vineyards and wineries are.

It used to be that new AVAs were big news. Carneros, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Rita Hills, Fort Ross-Seaview; all of the these carve-outs, in their day, excited wine lovers, and the wine media covered them heavily.

But excitement over new AVAs seems to have palled in recent years, perhaps due to the sheer number, but due also, I think, to a sense on the part of the public and the media that new appellations these days seem to be more about marketing than true terroir. The explosion of sub-AVAs in Lodi and Paso Robles may have added to this blasé attitude. In those cases, it will take us quite a while to sort through the finer distinctions between, say, Paso Robles Willow Creek and Paso Robles Geneseo District, and one may wonder if it makes any difference anyway, outside of the immediate area. Certainly, sommeliers will have a say: there’s no one like the somm community when it comes to driving interest (or the lack thereof) in a new region.

My own view? The Coast is pretty much nearly out of new AVA candidates, with a few important exceptions. As I’ve argued for many years, the Russian River Valley needs to be broken up. I have my own ideas concerning how; they tend to run along north-south (warmer-cooler) lines as well as east-west. Another important need, as I’ve also argued for years, is to appellate the Mayacamas mountains that rim Alexander Valley’s east side. This would most likely be based on a minimum elevation line. The fact is, not only do those high-altitude vineyards need their own appellation based on their unique terroir, but the public seems to have got an idea fixed in their minds of Alexander Valley wine (especially Cabernet Sauvignon), and these mountain Cabs are so different from the valley floor Cabs, it’s not even funny. There might even be room for two or more separate appellations up there, the way they did with Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak. Finally, the far Sonoma Coast should be further sub-appellated. Annapolis seems obvious, as does Freestone. Maybe Occidental. Maybe others.

So there are three glaring opportunities: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Alexander Valley. Anyplace else? You could tinker here and there, with, say, Anderson Valley, or the Santa Cruz Mountains; you could add Los Alamos, down in Santa Barbara, and Pritchard Hill, in Napa Valley. You could theoretically split Carneros into Haut and Bas. You could—dare I say it?—resurrect the old “Bench” concept in Oakville and Rutherford (at the cost of provoking a civil war). Could there potentially be important new appellations in Humboldt County or the L.A. area? Maybe, but I don’t see it anytime soon. Lake County? Not until the public takes more notice of that prime growing region. San Benito? Done. Monterey? Done. San Luis Obispo seems pretty well sub-appellated, with the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys. Ventura? I don’t think so.

It’s fun to play with the California wine map and try and figure out where it’s going in the future. But, of course, our glimpse into the future is “through a glass, darkly.” Who knows what the AVAs will look like in 50 years?

* According to Wine Institute’s compilation; the number is approximate

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


A Sauvignon Blanc tasting that raises questions about point scores

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We had a perfectly lovely blind tasting yesterday, 12 Sauvignon Blancs, six of them from Jackson Family Wines wineries, and the others from around the world. It was a bit of a hodgepodge but I just wanted to assemble a range that showed the extremes of style, from an Old World, low- or no-oak, high acidity, pyrazine-driven tartness to a bigger, richer, riper New World style of [partial] barrel fermentation. Here, briefly, are the results. The entire group of tasters was very close in its conclusions—a highly-calibrated group where we achieved near consensus.

My scores:

94 Matanzas Creek 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County

93 Robert Mondavi 2013 To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley

93 Matanzas Creek 2013 Journey Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County

92 Stonestreet 2013 Alexander Mountain Estate Aurora Point Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley

90 Merry Edwards 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley

89 Peter Michael 2014 L’Apres-Midi Sauvignon Blanc, Knights Valley

88 Jackson Estate 2014 Stitch Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) NOTE: This is not a Jackson Family Wine.

87 Francois Cotat 2014 La Grande Cote, Sancerre

87 Arrowood 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley

87 Cardinale 2014 Intrada Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley)

86 Goisot 2014 Exogyra Virgula Sauvignon Blanc (Saint-Bris)

85 Sattlerhof 2014 Gamlitzer Sauvignon Blanc, Austria

The JFW wines certainly did very well, taking 3 of the top 4 places. The surprise was the Matanzas Creek Sonoma County—it’s not one of the winery’s top tier Sauvignon Blancs (which are Bennett Valley, Helena Bench and Journey) but the basic regional blend. But then, I’ve worked with small lots of all Matanzas’s vineyards, and know how good the source fruit is. This is really a delightful wine, and a testament to the fact that great wine doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s also testament to the art of blending.

But I want to talk about the Francois Cotat, as it raises important and interesting intellectual considerations.

The Cotat immediately followed the Mondavi To Kalon, always one of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs, and the first thing I wrote, on sniffing it, was “Much leaner.” Of course the alcohol on the Cotat is quite a bit lower, and the acidity much higher: it was certainly an Old World wine. But here was my quandary. In terms of the reviewing system I practiced for a long time, this is not a high-scoring wine; my 87 points, I think, is right on the money. It’s a good wine, in fact a very good wine, but rather austere, delicate and sour (from a California point of view). I could and did appreciate its style, but more than 87 points? I don’t think so.

And yet, I immediately understood what a versatile wine this is. You could drink and enjoy it with almost anything; and I was sure that food would soften and mellow it, making it an ideal companion. Then I thought of a hypothetical 100 point Cabernet Sauvignon that is—let’s face it—a very un-versatile kind of wine. It blows you away with opulence, and deserves its score, by my lights. But the range of foods you can pair it with is comparatively narrow.

So here’s the paradox: The higher-scoring wine is less versatile with food, while the lower-scoring wine provides pleasure with so much. It is a puzzle, a conundrum. I don’t think I’m quite ready to drop the 100-point system as my tasting vernacular, but things are becoming a little topsy-turvy in my head.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


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