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New wine reviews: En Garde


En Garde is a Cabernet specialist so it’s not surprising their Pinot Noirs are made in a fuller-bodied, heavier style. Fruit-forward is the emphasis.


2019 Pinot Noir (Los Carneros); $65. California-ripe raspberries and cherries are the predominant flavors, alongside sweet, smoky oak and a teriyaki exoticness. This is a big, rich, heady Pinot Noir; despite its size, it retains a certain delicacy and silkiness. There’s a spicy core, and the finish is long and satisfying. You might want to age it for a few years. Score: 91.

2019 Passion de la Reine Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $80. This shows the classic earthiness of Russian River Valley Pinots, with pomegranate, dried tomato, beetroot, cola, red raspberry  and sweet licorice flavors ending in a peppery bite. It’s very complex, and for all the richness, properly dry. The tannins are refined, and the acidity is nice and tart. A lovely wine that improves as it breathes in the glass, and perfect to drink now. Score: 92.

2019 Pleasant Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $65. Intensity of flavor marks this wine. It’s a concentrated laser-beam of raspberries and cherries, the quintessence of these fruits. Earthy complexity is added by the teriyaki, mushroom, cola and beetroot nuances. Intense acidity boosts and brightens the flavors; this Pinot needs rich, fatty foods, like lamb. For all the size, you’ll find Pinot’s silkiness and delicacy. A really impressive Pinot that straddles the line between power and finesse. Score: 93.

2019 Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $65. So rich, so front-loaded in raspberry and cherry fruit, that it lacks the subtlety and complexity Pinot Noir should offer. It’s a dry wine, but the jammy fruitiness makes it seem sweet, and while there’s good balancing acidity, the flavors are just overwhelming. Sometimes, less is more. Score: 87.


En Garde’s muscular style suits Cabernet well. I’ve always found the wines super-ripe in fruit, full-bodied and delicious, with aging potential. These two 2018s illustrate the style well.

2018 Grand Vin (Diamond Mountain District); $115. This Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc typifies En Garde’s style of powerful ripeness, massive fruit, lots of oak and youthful precocity. The flavors are huge: black and red currants, intense and penetrating, with suggestions of violets, teriyaki beef and licorice. Those infamously hard Diamond Mountain tannins have been managed into submission, but they’re there, providing a structural framework accentuated by fine acidity. The result is altogether impressive. It’s not dissimilar from the winery’s Fountaingrove Cab, but considerably more concentrated and complex. Fine to drink now, with rich, fatty meats, and should develop in the bottle for at least a decade. Score: 96.

2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (Fountaingrove District); $90. A big, posh, plush wine. Almost all Cabernet Sauvignon, with a splash of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot, it explodes in red and black currants, showing how ripe the grapes get in California’s warm, dry summers. Oak is apparent, but not excessive, lending spicy vanilla and wood smoke to the flavors. There’s some warmth from alcohol. It’s a delicious, complex Cab, drinkable now and over the next decade. Score: 94.

The Oakland Firestorm: 30 years ago today


Today is the 30th anniversary of the Oakland Hills Firestorm, a disaster that impacted all of us who live in the inner East Bay.

I remember the day well. The fire had actually begun on Saturday, Oct. 19, but the Oakland Fire Department showed up, squashed it out, and thought it was over. In fact, most of us didn’t even realize there’d been a fire that day.

It was the next morning, Sunday Oct. 20, that the merde hit the fan; the fire flared up again, only the winds were much more ferocious. I had gone for my workout at the downtown Oakland YMCA and was leaving around noon, when I noticed the sky was turning reddish-brown, and ash and cinders were raining down. I heard sirens everywhere. When I got home, in those pre-Internet days (no Twitter to turn to), I switched on the T.V. to see what was happening, and KTVU was reporting on the fire. I went up on my building’s roof (I’m in Adams Point) and there it was, a huge column of smoke that seemed at least a mile wide. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen; and, of course, back then, we had very little experience with wildfires in the Bay Area.

My cousin, Maxine, was then working as Planning Director for the East Bay Regional Park District, which is exactly where the fire seemed to be. It being Sunday, she wasn’t in the office, but was home in San Mateo. I called and told her her parks were on fire. I gave her the details, as I understood them: the fire had jumped Highway 24. It had jumped Highway 13. It was roaring towards the Claremont Hotel, towards Montclair Village, towards Piedmont.

“Are you going to evacuate?” she asked.

“No. The 580 freeway is between the fire and my neighborhood.”

“But didn’t you tell me the fire has already jumped two freeways?”

Well, I hung up, packed my valuable papers, got the cat crate for Mr. P., and was ready to leave town!

Fortunately, at around 5 p.m. that Sunday, the wind shifted from offshore (fueled by the Diablos) to onshore, which brought cooling winds and fog; and the firefighters (who by that point numbered thousands) were able to establish their perimeter and let the fire burn back upon itself. I reported on all this in a December, 1991 issue of the East Bay Express, for which I interviewed firefighters for their own stories. The firefighters, who included a Battalion Chief, guaranteed me that, had the wind not shifted, it was likely that downtown Berkeley, Montclair, Piedmont and possibly even downtown Oakland would have burned.

A few days after the fire, Marilyn and I drove up Broadway Terrace to survey the damage. (The National Guard had not yet shut down the fire zone to non-residents.) Our tour lasted only about five minutes, before we were hit with a wave of guilt: What the hell were we doing, sightseeing among the carnage? So we turned around and got out.

The first time I saw the Firestorm Tile Mural Memorial, at the Rockridge BART station, I broke down in tears. It still chokes me up, all these years later. For me, personally, the Firestorm had a much greater emotional impact than Loma Prieta had. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because I knew those hills like the palm of my hand. I had run just about every square inch of them, at the North Oakland Sports Center, above the Caldecott Tunnel, up Tunnel Road and through the woods along Skyline. For many years afterward, whenever I took BART into San Francisco, there was a point in West Oakland where you could see the remains of the collapsed Cypress Structure, with rebar sticking out from torn concrete slabs, straight through to the Hills, with the vicious scars of destruction; and I would think, “These are two of the worst disasters in the history of America, and you can see them both right here.” I still think that, even though the scars and the freeway are long gone. Some things, you just can’t forget.

New wine review: A Lambrusco from Cameron Hughes


Cameron Hughes Non-Vintage “Soft Red Wine” Lot 841 Lambrusco (Reggiano); $15. Few wines illustrate the heterogeneity of the American public’s taste in wine more than this one. Some people will love it; others won’t. Count me among the latter, but that’s not a diss of the wine so much as an expression of my personal taste. To me, sparkling wine should be pale and elegant, not purple and rather heavy, as this one is. I also prefer dryness in sparklers, and this has a sweet, candied edge. So much of what we like about individual wines, though, depends on we’ve been exposed to, and it may be that my lack of experience with sparkling Lambrusco accounts for my reaction.

As for the wine, it is sparkling, but isn’t particularly fizzy. The froth is barely there, a slight prickliness. Underneath is fulsome fruit: cherries, strawberries, raspberries. The wine is very clean, and the alcohol level is very low, a mere 8.5%, making it by definition gulpable. It also has a bit of the carbonic zip of a young Beaujolais, for which it can be substituted at the table. No question but that it’s well made.

This is not a “serious” wine, if you know what I mean. It’s a “fun” wine, also an adjective that can be misunderstood. The price makes it attractive. The winery itself suggests pairing with charcuterie or hard cheeses; I can’t disagree. Make a platter of salumi (prosciutto, mortadella, salami), paté, olives, sharp cheddar or a hard Italian cheese (Bitto, Pecorino), carrots and zucchini, almonds, sourdough bread, roasted red peppers. Munch, relax, enjoy with friends, and don’t compare this wine with Champagne because it isn’t; but it is what it is. Score: 87 points.

Remembering Loma Prieta


Today is the 32nd anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. I was at home in Oakland when it struck, in the same place I still live. I’d recently decided to become a writer, and was lucky enough to get a freelance gig at the Oakland Tribune, where every day I’d walk over to the newsroom and get an assignment from my editor for an article that would appear the next morning. On that particular day, she’d assigned me to interview, by phone, a Walnut Creek father whose young daughter had won a kite-flying contest. (Yes, it was a lightweight story, but it taught me how to write, work with an editor, interview, and meet deadlines—all important skills that later served me well.)

I was talking to the father when I felt the first rumbling, at 5:04 p.m.

“We just had a little earthquake,” I told him.

“Not feeling anything here.” Walnut Creek is 17 miles northeast of Oakland, meaning that it’s that much further from the earthquake’s epicenter, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In my livingroom the shaking increased. “It’s not so little,” I said.

“Now we’re getting it.”

Suddenly there was a tremendous noise and shaking, and I heard things in my apartment falling to the floor.

“Gotta go!” I told my interlocutor. Hanging up the phone, I ducked underneath my kitchen table.

A few moments later, when the shaking stopped, I ran out into the hallway and banged on my neighbor, Robert’s, door. When Robert opened it, a cloud of marijuana smoke drifted out. Robert was a writer.

“Was that The Big One?” I asked him.

All the power was out, but Robert had a tiny, battery-powered T.V. He found one of the San Francisco news stations—I think it was KRON—that was still broadcasting by its generator. From that little T.V. we quickly learned that (a) the Bay Bridge had collapsed (which turned out not to be true) and (b) a sizable stretch of the double-decked I-980 Freeway, known as the Cypress Structure, had pancaked. As it was the height of rush hour, the news reporter said it must be expected the death toll on that 1-1/2 mile long freeway would be massive. (This, too, turned out to be an exaggeration. Although 42 people died under the rubble, the number would have been far higher had not the San Francisco Giants been playing the Oakland A’s at Candlestick Park in the World Series. Tens of thousands of commuters had left work early in order to watch the game and were thus not driving.)

The Loma Prieta Earthquake measured 6.9 on the old Richter Scale. It killed 63 people, injured thousands, and caused $12 billion in damage. And yet, it was not The Big One. That mythic, inevitable temblor is most likely to occur, not on the San Andreas Fault as Loma Prieta was, but on the Hayward Fault, which runs directly beneath Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland and the densely-populated bedroom communities of the East Bay.

As horrible as Loma Prieta was, far worse, in my opinion, was the disaster which hit Oakland just two years and two days later: the Oakland Hills Firestorm. I’ll write about that soon.

New Wine Reviews: Lang and Reed


I was glad that Lang and Reed Napa Valley asked me to review three of their new releases, because I’ve always loved their wines, and because of my admiration for John Skupny. I remember “way back” when Lang & Reed started up by focusing on Cabernet Franc. It was a bold, risky thing for them to do. Most people thought of Cab Franc as a blending grape to go into Bordeaux blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab Franc had long been, of course, a staple of Loire red wines, like Chinon, but was very little known on its own in America. I also remember when I used to visit the Sierra Foothills and taste their wines—this is going back to the 1990s and early 2000s–and concluding that Cabernet Franc was the emerging red wine from that region (Zinfandel was obviously the star).

But Cab Francs from Napa Valley were rare to the point of unicorns! Yet John was making fabulous ones. Now, after all these years, I’m glad to report he still is, and not just from Napa Valley. His “California” bottling is pretty darned good, and the Chenin Blanc is luscious.

Here are my reviews.

2018 Cabernet Franc (California); $29. All I could think of tasting this wine was food. Steak, braised ribs, duck, sausages, roasted chicken, or, if you’re not a meat-eater, a veggie meatloaf or omelet or quiche with mushrooms and spinach. Foods, in other words, that call for a red wine that’s medium-bodied, silky, spicy, fruity, softly tannic, slightly earthy and delicious. Which is exactly what this 100% Cab Franc is. More than 60% of the grapes came from the Sierra Foothills; the remaining fruit is from Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. A red wine like this does need some oak to temper it, but not much; in this case, the oak is what they call “seasoned.” This lovely wine will appeal to sommeliers in the best restaurants, not only for its inherent qualities but the price. Highly recommended. Score: 91 points.

2020 Chenin Blanc, Mendocino; $30. This white wine is deeply flavored, with peaches, pears, green melons, apples, tropical fruits and vanilla. But it’s super-balanced and dry, with excellent acidity and a bracing minerality. With just a touch of oak, it combines the richness of a fine Chardonnay with the creamy elegance of, say, a nice French sur lie Muscadet. There’s just a touch of almond-skin bitterness on the finish, but food will resolve it. The vineyard source is inland Mendocino (not coastal Anderson Valley), on the eastern side of the Russian River as it comes tumbling down from the highlands—an area hot during the day, but chilly at night. Complex enough to pair with fancy fare, like foie gras, spring rolls or—yum yum–oysters. But scrambled eggs for weekend brunch would be perfect in lieu of sparkling wine. A great price for a restaurant wine of this quality. Score: 90 points.

2017 Two-Fourteen Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley; $85. I really liked Lang & Reed’s 2018 California Cabernet Franc, but this is clearly a better wine, in several senses. It’s more deeply flavored. I find raspberry and black cherry purée, mocha, bacon, candied violets and sweet green peas, accented by a dark smokiness from oak. It’s also better structured, probably the result of its Napa Valley mountain origin. The balance of acidity and alcohol is just about perfect. With soft, pillowy tannins, it’s drinkable now at the age of 4 years, but I suspect it will benefit from a few more years in the cellar. Foodwise, the fanciness suggests high-quality fare. I’m not a big beef eater, but this beautiful wine might convince me to have a char-broiled Porterhouse at a white-tablecloth steakhouse. Score: 93 points.

Remembering Sept. 11


It was early on that Tuesday morning of Sept. 11, 2001, around 6:15 a.m. California time. I was making coffee when the phone rang. It was Marilyn. “Are you watching T.V.?”

No, I wasn’t. I switched on the T.V., as Marilyn described what she knew: a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I don’t think I turned the T.V. off until I went to bed that night. Like everybody else, I was glued to the tube.

And I was pissed. I’m not embarrassed today to admit that, from the very first hours when it looked like Al Qaeda and bin Laden had done it, I was eager for revenge. I kept what turned out to be a Sept. 11 Diary, and some of its first entries were BOMB AFGHANISTAN! This was my generation’s Pearl Harbor, and America needed to defend herself and take out the criminals.

Not too many days later, the U.S. House of Representatives took a vote on the AUMF, Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which gave the government permission to wage war in Afghanistan. It passed almost unanimously, with but a single vote against: that of Rep. Barbara Lee, who represented my Oakland district (and still does). I was outraged by what I perceived to be her stunningly bad judgment and cowardice, and I told her so, in an email. My language was intemperate, but then, most of my fellow Americans felt the same way I did.

Today, with the end of the Afghanistan War, and with many Americans now thinking it had been unnecessary, Barbara Lee has become a sort of heroine. Hindsight is always 20/20, of course. Historians will long debate the Afghan War (and the Iraq War, too). My own personal view is that we had to do something after Sept. 11. But President Biden was right when he observed that we should have declared victory and gone home after we took out bin Laden, in May, 2011. Instead, we stayed, and tried to nation-build, when it should have been obvious, post-Vietnam, that nation-building is not something America does very well, and perhaps shouldn’t even try. (I still think Rep. Lee was wrong, by the way.)

I’ve been back to New York City, my hometown, many times in the last twenty years, but I never went down to Ground Zero. Didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to feel like I was sightseeing where something so awful had happened, and where so many people suffered and died. I felt the same way after the Oakland Hills Firestorm, in October, 1991. Marilyn and I drove up to see the carnage a few days after the fire was put out, but we spent only a few moments looking at the scene—street after street of homes reduced to foundations and chimneys—before we felt unclean, and got the hell out.

There will be another Sept. 11. In one form or another, haters of America will attack us again. As far as I’m concerned, this attack could just as easily be from domestic terrorists as from foreign jihadis. We already saw forebodings on Jan. 6. Those Republican trumpers are still out there, violent, judgmental and homicidal. We know who their targets are: liberals, homosexuals, abortion doctors, reporters, Black activists, judges, Jews, Democrats, immigrants, Muslims. If I worry about terrorist attacks, it’s not from ISIS or Al Qaeda or Al-Shabab. It’s from the unvaccinated morons like the Proud Boys and all the other militia groups who want to burn the Constitution and establish a clerical-fascist dictatorship in America.

Sen. Feinstein must step down in the next 10 days!


It’s looking increasingly likely that Governor Newsom will be recalled in the upcoming election. I sincerely hope he isn’t, but because it could happen, we have to make contingency plans. If he’s throw out of office, then the Republican who succeeds him (whoever it is) will be able to appoint California’s next U.S. Senator, should anything happen to Dianne Feinstein, who is 88 years old.

Although the radically rightwing radio talk show host, Larry Elder, is said to be the frontrunner among Republicans to replace Newsom, any of them would be a disaster. They’re all confirmed Trumpers: anti-choice, homophobic, anti-science, anti-immigrant, and in favor of cutting taxes on the rich. Most of them have vowed to do away with all mask requirements, and to make proofs of vaccination illegal. We do not want any of those people to be Governor of California!

And yet it might happen. If it does, what about Feinstein? Everybody knows she could drop dead at any moment. With this in mind, she should resign immediately, giving Newsom the opportunity to name her successor well before the Sept. 14 recall election date.

She may not want to: she’s stubborn. A lot of people urged her to resign before the 2018 election, but she refused. That was then; this is now; the stakes are far higher. Dianne has had a good, long run in the Senate (nearly 30 years), has earned her place in the California history books, and is very rich. With whatever years remain to her, she could retire to a comfortable life, perhaps writing a memoir. Her mansion in Pacific Heights and lavish oceanfront home in Stinson Beach provide her with plenty of comfort. She can be proud of her stellar career.

If she steps down, Newsom would have a wealth of potential replacements from the House of Representatives: Adam Schiff, Eric Swallwell, Jackie Speier, Ro Khanna, Ted Lieu, Karen Bass, Linda Sanchez all come to mind (I’d love to see Maxine Waters in the Senate, driving the Republicans out of their minds, but we need someone who will remain there for a long time, and she’s already 83. Ditto for Barbara Lee, who’s 75).

There’s another good reason to vote NO on the recall: if God forbid a Republican is elected, government in California will instantly come crashing down into total gridlock. The Democratic-controlled Legislature will rightfully refuse to cooperate with a rightwing neo-fascist Trump supporter. This would be an ugly situation, and the ultimate losers would be the People of California.

If you agree with my thinking, please help to advance this message. Contact Feinstein and respectfully ask her to resign. I’ve been a strong Dianne supporter since she was Mayor of San Francisco; I was a young political activist working on transit issues, and she always took my calls and was very helpful. She’s done a great job over the decades as Senator, especially on gun control. But there comes a time in every career when it’s time to step aside and let a younger generation take over. For Dianne Feinstein, that time, urgently, is now.

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