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A mid-winter Bay Area evening

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Had dinner last Thursday night with Keith at a little place in San Francisco, Paul K restaurant, I can definitely recommend.

It’s in Hayes Valley, on the corner of Hayes and Oak. Twenty-five years ago that was a disreputable neighborhood. It lay under the dark, cold shadow of the Central Freeway; the local population seemed to consist of drifters, prostitutes, drug casualties and other unsavory types. There were a few mom and pop markets, a hardware store, a junk shop or two. Even though Hayes Valley was just a few blocks from Civic Center and City Hall, it was not a place you wanted to go.

The first sign that things were changing was in the mid-80s. Suddenly you started seeing Lesbians. This is always an early indication of a rising neighborhood. Because the rents were super-cheap compared to other parts of San Francisco, and because Hayes Valley was so centrally located, they began colonizing it, opening little shops and tidying the place up. Following the Lesbians came the gay boys. After them came the Yuppies, and a wave of condo conversions. Yes, some people complained about gentrification, but not me.

Today, Hayes Valley is a cool, hip urban center of restaurants and cafés, wine bars, nightclubs, chic clothing shops, art galleries, theater and dance studios. They tore the ugly old Central Freeway down after the ’89 earthquake, opening the streets up to light and warmth. Hayes Valley now has that eclectic, exciting buzz associated with neighborhoods where people want to live, work and visit. The streets are crowded, the restaurant windows aglow at night. It feels fine to be there.

I’d never been to Paul K, but Allison, at the magazine, said she liked it a lot. I arrived early and sat at the bar, where a friendly mixologist poured me a crisp, dry Sancerre. I’d brought with me, from my cellar, a 1996 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon. I’d opened it at home just to make sure it was okay, and it was, although it was still very dry and tannic. I hoped it would blossom in the bottle.

Keith and I split a big appetizer plate of pomegranate braised lamb riblets in a garlic yogurt sauce. The four riblets were perfectly tender and juicy. The yogurt sauce was a little unusual, Middle Eastern or North African I suppose, but it worked. Keith drank a Caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail he’d heard about, which was a little too sweet for me. I nursed my Sancerre, and started in on the Mayacamas.

For dinner, he had the grilled hanger steak with shoestring potatoes (mmmm), mushrooms and harissa butter. I ordered the milk-braised pork shoulder with grilled radicchio and a very buttery polenta. Both dishes were awesome.

The Mayacamas was an interesting wine. To begin with, the alcohol was 12.5%. How ‘bout that! It was an old-fashioned trip back to the way Napa Cabernet used to be. Mayacamas has gotten riper over the years, but is still pretty earthy compared to most of Napa Valley. The 2005, which I reviewed last summer, clocked in at 13.8%, very low for a Napa Cabernet. The ’96 definitely was not one of your big, fat, sweet cult wines (and I’m not putting them down, I’m just sayin’). It was still tightly wound in tannins and acids and, even after the bartender kindly brought an unsolicited decanter and the wine sat in it for a while, it remained lean and minerally. But the food teased out sweet blackberry notes and it was really a very nice wine to drink. I suspect its best days lay ahead.

Later, back in Oakland, I stopped by the new wine bar in the hood, The Punchdown. It’s at the same site where the old Franklin Square Wine Bar used to be (it folded a year ago). Rick Mitchell still owns the property, but the management is different, a young couple, D.C. and Lisa, who decided to try living their dream. It’s a tough economy out there, and this area of Oakland, or “Uptown” as people are calling it, is edgy despite the burst of restaurants, galleries and nightclubs that have arisen lately. Maybe the edginess makes it interesting. As D.C. noted, what Uptown needs now is retail. Uptown reminds me of nothing so much as Hayes Valley, twenty years ago. It’s gathering momentum.

Anyway, I wanted one more glass of wine for the road (or the sidewalk, so to speak, since it’s only a 10 minute walk home), so I asked D.C. to recommend something. He immediately suggested a 2009 Commanderie de Peyrassol, from Provence, a rosé. I just looked it up in Wine Enthusiast’s database; the great Roger Voss gave the 2006 90 points, and the retail was only $17. At The Punchdown they’re selling the ‘09 for $11 the glass, but it’s a big pour, easily a good six ounces. The blend is Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvedre, and while we have similar blends in California, they don’t seem as cleanly structured and crisp.

It was a lovely night to stroll home. After our bitterly cold December and first week of January (cold by California standards, that is), on Jan. 12 the pattern completely reversed itself. Except for a little storm on Jan. 30 that barely washed the dust off my car, the weather has been gloriously sunny and warm, with temperatures approaching if not exceeding 70 in Napa-Sonoma (and on Sunday night, as I edit this, it was 80 today in Oakland!). And things don’t appear to be changing anytime soon. The long-range forecast shows the possibility of light rain on Feb. 13, but nice until then if not quite so warm. This is what I love about the Bay Area. Great weather, exciting, vibrant neighborhoods, cool people, wonderful food, and wine country just a short drive away.

  1. I had the milk braised pork shoulder at Paul K myself just two weeks ago. Great food, really fun server if I recall, and yes, a wonderful neighborhood. We really do get spoiled here, don’t we.

  2. DC and Lisa are awesome. Great spot.

  3. Steve,

    As to: “The Mayacamas was an interesting wine. To begin with, the alcohol was 12.5%. How ‘bout that! It was an old-fashioned trip back to the way Napa Cabernet used to be.” I don’t know this particular wine, but I wonder if it was really 12.5% (which would require picking at about 22.0 brix). As you likely know, labeling regs are such that this wine could have been as high as 13.9% and still be legal. Especially in the past, many wineries just kept the label at 12.5% year after year. I recall seeing a Decanter review a couple of years ago praising a well known Napa Cab producer for bucking the high alcohol trend, but their wines were quite brawny, and not likely picked at low brix. I am a fan of restrained, balanced Cabs, but it seems unlikely that harvesting @ 22 brix gives enough ripeness (or maybe that is possible in old virused plantings that have a long hang time getting to that sugar level).

  4. ‘…the local population seemed to consist of drifters, prostitutes, drug casualties and other unsavory types. There were a few mom and pop markets, a hardware store, a junk shop or two. … it was not a place you wanted to go.’

    Ok that is one mans opinion. I hope the hardware store is still there.

    I like the euro style of Rose also due to the structure and mineral content too.

  5. A minor point, but I can’t miss pointing out something to a winemaker as accomplished as Mr. Dyer. The Mayacamas wine could actually be higher…. 14.0%.

    PART 4—LABELING AND ADVERTISING OF WINE

    4.36 Alcoholic content.
    blah blah blah….
    “and of 1.5 percent, in the case of wines containing 14 percent or less of alcohol by volume, will be permitted either above or below the stated percentage.”

    Beyond that, since the analytical methods have a margin of error, I would think the TTB would give you that as well; so a wine that was 14.2% might well be close enough to 14.0 to be labeled “table wine 12.5%.”

  6. Morton, I wonder why Mayacamas would have lied about the number. Back then, people weren’t upset about high alcohol, were they? So Mayacamas would have had no motive for not stating the true number.

  7. Steve–

    You are making me feel old–which is probably pretty easy, but nonetheless, “back then” has the ring of prehistoric.

    The fact is that back then, when no one was worried about alcohol and most wines were under 14%, a large percentage of wine labels simply stated 12.5% because it covered the allowable waterfront from 11% to 14% and there would never be a need to change that part of the label. That would be particular true if the vintage date appears on a neck label as opposed to the main label.

  8. Morton is quite right, but to put a finer point on it, I recall a conversation with a compliance consultant (yes, there are such people, and as a winemaking consultant I had a situation where the second decimal point became relevant) in which I was told that the actual tipping point between the tax categories is between 14.04 (which rounds down to 14.0– only one decimal point is allowed in labeling) and 14.05 which rounds up to 14.1.

  9. Bill Dyer, why are these alcohol arguments like Talmudic discussions between medieval rabbis? Can’t we get something that works for both producers and consumers?

  10. Steve,
    I agree. The current regs go back to prohibition mentality of taxing for higher alcohol content. Drinking a 15%+ table wine should be taxing enough, so if anything we should get a credit for even trying one. Why not just require a winery to report alcohol to the nearest 0.5%, with no tax consideration factored in? Eubulliometers (which used to be common in winery labs) are accurate to +/- 0.2%. That should be good enough…I doubt most tasters can differentiate +/- 0.2%.

  11. Pinot Noir with medieval rabbits, Oh wait… dust on my monitor.

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