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The California style is better with our modern, rich foods

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For some reason I bookmarked this Decanter “tease” for an article two years ago (the full article requires a subscription), then forgot all about it until this past weekend, when I was cleaning out my old bookmarks and happened to read it. In the afterlight of what we know since then, it makes interesting reading.

We’ll start with Oz Clarke’s statement that “There is no style revolution in California: low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol is [sic] what Americans want from their wine and California winemakers will continue to feed that need.”

Well, Oz made this remark before it was clear there is a “style revolution”, so we’ll give it an accuracy rating of 87 points. While it’s true that Americans do like the big, fat, rich, ripe California style, it’s equally true that increasing numbers of winemakers are consciously attempting to make their wines leaner. Which does not mean “lean.” We see this most certainly in a wide swathe of Pinot Noirs that are below 14%, and sometimes nearer to 13%, as evidenced by Jasmine Hirsch’s and Raj Parr’s “In Pursuit of Balance” movement.

We see it also in other varieties (including Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon). So Oz said something that was mostly true, but not entirely; and cooler vintages may also be tipping the scale toward leaner wines.

However much Oz was or wasn’t correct, the larger issue centers around an inherent assumption: that there’s something fundamentally suspect about “low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol” in table wines. For, if you think about it, that assumption is the context of the conversation: Just as the statement “Americans drink too many sugary sodas” implies the context of widespread obesity. “Too many sugary sodas” wouldn’t be a problem if so many people (including kids) weren’t so fat. We can all agree on that. But what is the negative implication of “low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol”? There is, in fact, none (unless you say that higher alcohol wines get people drunker faster than do low alcohol wines; but this isn’t a qualitative critique of the former, just one of degrees, since low alcohol wines [and beer] can get you drunk too).

In fact, isn’t it possible that, if winemaking had originated in the New World instead of the Old, the standard for wine would be a 15.2% alcohol, low acid, velvety Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? In which case we might just find the upstart German and Italian wine too acidic and lean. One can envision, under such a scenario, a group of vintners and somms, perhaps located in Geisenheim or Florence, calling themselves “In Pursuit of Balance” and promoting wines of higher alcohol, greater ripeness and softness and increased youthful appeal. Stranger things are imaginable.

And what of food? Much has been said and written that our California style of wine is undrinkable with food; the conceit there is that the wines are so strong, they fight with the food, whereas wine traditionally is supposed to take a back seat to food.

Is this really true in your experience? It isn’t in mine. I suppose if you ate the kinds of bland, plain things Englishmen ate in the 1800s, a Shafer Hillside Select might not be the ideal accompaniment. When George Saintsbury relished “boiled Turkey” at a dinner partly held at an unnamed date, but probably in the early twentieth century, with it he drank “1878 Lêoville”, whose alcohol level cannot have been much higher than 12%, and which must by then have been a dry, somewhat light and earthy wine. But we don’t eat “boiled Turkey” today. Instead, we gorge on “Niman Ranch Hangar Steak with San Marzano Tomatoes, Garlic, Arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano,” to take but one item off the menu from Oenotri, the Napa restaurant; with it I might order a 2008 Staglin (alcohol 14.9%) or Anakota “Helena Dakota” (14.8%) off the list and be perfectly happy. In fact, something lacking in body might falter and be wiped out beside that dish’s mouth-filling richness. So, once again, you have to take these things in context.

I got so infatuated with the thought of food and wine pairing that I Googled “Boulevard,” one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, to find additional main courses that call for rich, opulent wines. With “California lamb T-bone, wood oven roasted, served off the bone with grilled Monterey artichoke, olive panzanella, pancetta-mixed faro, lamb juice, mint and orange (a dish that would have blown Professor Saintsbury’s mind) I could easily see myself drinking a Patz & Hall 2010 Chenowith Ranch Pinot Noir (14.8%) and smiling all the way. An old, dry, 13% Bordeaux or Burgundy? No, thanks.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    Leaving aside the fact that acidity is considered of paramount importance when pairing with rich foods–Chablis and lobster anyone–as both a means of cutting through the dish’s fat and offering a sense of palate cleansing refreshment between bites, I find this whole take erroneous in its general assumption.

    The reality is that food–particularly high end dining–is considerably lighter today than it was back in the excess days of the 90s (Charlie Trotter, anyone?) much less the halcyon haute cuisine days of Lutece, Le Francaise et al. Aside from a lighter touch, one also sees the strong influence of what can best be called European peasant food (tapas, simple charcuterie plates, Provencal cooking) infiltrating even the finest of dining menus. All of this would argue (under your general thesis) that massive California wines would be less–not more–compatible with today’s food.

    Those wines had their day (decade?). They were all the rage. American palates, however, are increasingly maturing and gaining an appreciation of nuance over extraction, and those days are quickly coming to an end. Those California wineries who can adapt to today’s more mature palates will undoubtedly find a market. Those who refuse to even acknowledge–much less accept–that change will be looked at as odd relics of a somewhat embarrassing fad sustained only by the occasional listings in country clubs and chain steakhouses.

    There is a quite telling joke going around the wine industry these days: “Having a wine list full of cult Napa Valley wine is like having a closet full of leisure suits.”

  2. Interesting to read today’s post and your original post on the Clarke almost exactly two years ago (I assume this is why you bookmarked the article…).

    http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2011/08/05/low-alcohol-trend-in-california-i-dont-think-so/

  3. Dear BIll Haydon, what you say is true, but only up to a point. Certainly if I were having tapas or charcuterie, I wouldn’t drink a Napa Valley Cabernet! But I would have a Cab with the kinds of foods I mentioned — which continue to be enormously popular at high end restaurants.

  4. The battle between “which is better” always seems silly to me, whether it is about high alcohol wnes, natural wines, or anything else. The American palate will be truly mature when it can appreciate both high octane Napa Cab and subtle Red Burgundies. To say that one or the other is “better” is surely a sign of immaturity. A good wine is a good wine

  5. This is all clearly a matter of personal taste.

    Steve, you and I, when we splurge, are eating in different restaurants. Again, personal taste.

    I’d rather eat at Commonwealth or Rich Table or State Bird Provisions (if I could develop my own reservation bot) or Bar Tartine, to name just a few.

    There’s wagyu beef on tonight’s tasting menu at Commonwealth: waygu beef, snap peas, broccoli rabe, spring onions, horseradish.

    At Rich Table, I like pappardelle, dry aged beef, broccoli, mint.

    Bar Tartine’s only beef dish tonight is beef tartare on koji toast with green horseradish.

    Now you know why I like the wines I like — it’s the foods I like.

  6. Dear W. Blake: True dat. It’s not the way we normally eat — and Napa Cabs are not the wines we normally drink — unless they’re sent to us for free. But that is not to dismiss their charms.

  7. Michael Donohue says:

    I challenge your assertion that wine historically took a back seat to food. We could argue that food is essential and wine a luxury, but in a gustatory sense, they are equals. Wine is every bit the enhancement of squab or scallop or filet. They are peers – like you and me bro! Do you think Conti would have achieved such fame if the princes weren’t pleased with their palate?

  8. STEVE,

    SEE THESE TWIN POSTINGS FROM JANCIS ROBINSON.

    ~~ BOB

    Excerpts from Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine website
    (posted December 31, 2001):

    “How Our Taste in Wine Styles Has Evolved”

    [Link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/jr415/layout/print.html

    . . . TODAY’S WINES ARE SO MUCH MORE OBVIOUSLY FRUITY, whether they be lowly table wines - red, white or pink - at the very bottom end of the price range or classed growth Bordeaux with a possible life expectancy of 30 years. [Capitalization added for emphasis. – Bob]

    I feel sorry for modern wine producers and happy for today’s wine consumers. To stay in the race producers have to keep on raising their game with every vintage as their competitors all over the world do the same. Today’s consumers are spoilt, I am delighted to say.

    WE WANT FRUIT, BECAUSE WE IDENTIFY THAT WITH PLEASURE AND FLAVOR. WE WANT SOME STRUCTURE AND TANNIN BECAUSE WE WANT TO BE ABLE TO CELLAR A WINE IF WE DON’T FELL LIKE DRINKING IT STRAIGHT AWAY. But consumers in markets such as the United States, Australia and much of northern Europe don’t want just any tannins. WE NOW WANT THE RIGHT SORT OF TANNINS. We have reached the stage where, for example, we fuss over not just the tannin levels in our wines but whether the tannins are green, ripe, hard, fine, tough, wood, grainy and many other sorts of tannins besides. (The Australians are apparently developing a “tannin wheel” for use in describing tannins to use alongside the aroma wheel of Ann Noble of Davis, California.)

    WE HAVE VOTED VEHEMENTLY OVER THE LAST TWO OR THREE YEARS AGAINST EXCESSIVE OAK, with more obvious success in white wines so far than reds.

    We say we don’t want sugar (unless there is an awful lot of it and the wine is very expensive), so medium dry wines such as those from Germany and the Loire are finding it harder and harder to win friends abroad. But on the other hand many of the best-selling commercial blends, especially those labeled Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, rely quite heavily on heavily masked sugar for their appeal.

    WHAT WE CLEARLY WANT FROM WINE AS FROM EVERYTHING ELSE IN LIFE IS IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION. We want our wines to come at least halfway to meet us. We would rather not have to make an effort to like them, to have to forgive any youthful imperfections.

    . . .

    What the rest of us at the sharp end of this trend must now guard against is that wines become too facile, too precocious, too similar, too self-conscious, too manipulated, in a word, too modern.

    AND THIS:

    From Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine website
    (posted (December 31, 2001):

    “Matching Food and Wine: The Paradox”

    [Link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/jr406.html

    Am I the only person in the world with a cellarful of red wine and a preference for white wine food?

    HERE’S THE PARADOX. To judge from what's in our glasses, THE WORLD’S WINE DRINKERS INCREASINGLY CHOOSE RED WINE IN PREFERENCE TO WHITE. BUT TO JUDGE FROM OUR PLATES, WE’RE LESS AND LESS INTERESRTED IN THE SORT OF FOOD THAT RED WINE HAS TRADITIONALLY BEEN DRUNK WITH. [Capitalization added for emphasis. – Bob]

    Red meat? No thanks, say more and more people — and not just committed vegetarians or those living in a foot-and-mouth zone. Apart from the ritual of the barbecue, the (to me) incomprehensible allure of hamburgers and an occasional nostalgic steak, MODERN EATING PATTERNS SHOW A DISTINCT MOVE AWAY FROM CHEWY DARK MEATS TOWARDS FISH, PASTA, VEGETABLE DISHES AND, OF COURSE, THE UBIQUITOUS CHICKEN. YET ACCORDING TO TRADITONAL FOOD AND WINE MATCHING ADVICE, ALL OF THESE ARE BETTER WASHED DOWN WITH WHITE RATHER THAN RED WINE.

    MAYBE THE TIME HAS COME TO TEAR UP TRADTIONAL FOODE AND WINE ADVICE. After all, when it was devised, red wines in particular tasted very different. Tannins were much more aggressive. Acidity was often more pronounced. And wines of all hues were generally lower in alcohol. Certainly young red wines made before the 1980s demanded food as chewy as red meat to make their own very obvious tannins seem less unpleasantly chewy.

    But MOST MODERN RED WINES TASTE MUCH MORE SUPPLE. They may have a quite respectable tannin content, but the tannins themselves are much riper and less aggressive. Velvet rather than sandpaper is more typical of modern red wine texture. Put them together with a steak or a slice of rare roast beef and you have two quite different, not complementary, sensations.

    MODERN RED WINE HAS BECOME, IF YOU LIKE, LIQUID CHICKEN: INOFFENSIVE, VERSATILE AND HARD TO AVOID.

    IN FACT, YOU CAN DRINK MODERN RED WINE QUITE HAPPILY WITH ALMOST ANY FOOD, SO LONG AS IT’S NOT TOO SWEET. I mean sweet as in chocolate, rather than sweet as in so many supposedly savoury dishes today. Incidentally I would maintain that while red wine has been getting steadily riper, the food typically offered around the world – certainly in many restaurants – has become progressively sweeter. Consider the California style of cooking, Pacific Rim cuisine with its liberal lashings of relishes, fruits and nuts, and the rise of the sugar- concentrating confit.

    But the sweet tendency is as nothing compared to the increasing spiciness of the food we are offered in the world’s restaurants. I use the term spicy in its most general sense and of course the range of spices varies enormously, but WINE TODAY IS BEING DRUNK WITH ALL SORTS OF THINGS THAT THE TRADITIONAL WINE AND FOOD ADVICE WOULD NOT COUNTENANCE. In my opinion, one of several great side-effects of the Asian wine boom has been an increasing willingness everywhere to experiment with matching wine to a wide range of Asian cuisines. Indeed my only complaint about this phenomenon is that it is not even more widely practised. I would love to see the gastronomically fastidious Japanese, for example, abandon completely the theory that with French wine only French food should be served.

    (FRENCH CUISINE IS AN EXCEPTION TO ALL THAT I HAVE SAID SO FAR. THE FRENCH LIVE AND EAT IN VIRTUAL ISOLATION FROM INTERNATIONAL FOOD TRENDS. The closest most French chefs get to a dalliance with anything spicy, Roellinger of Cancale being an obvious exception, is to put an occasional pinch of curry powder in a creamy sauce.)

    My own position on the tricky and extremely popular question of wine and food pairing is that (a) it is very difficult to get it completely wrong and that (b) it is very, very rare to get it completely right.

    The only place I expect to encounter an absolutely perfect food and wine combination is in a classical three-star French restaurant. Here the menu changes only two or three times a year and part of what one is paying for is surely that the sommelier should know exactly how each dish tastes and which of the wines in his or her care – at several different price levels, please – provide a perfect match.

    In a more informal establishment, where dishes may come and go overnight, it may be difficult for waiting staff to offer such tried and tested advice. And in our own homes, life tends to be just a bit too hectic to do in-depth comparative tastings before every meal.

    THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER IS THAT IT IS PERFECTLY POSSIBLE TO DRINK MORE OR LESS ANY WINE WITH MORE OR LESS ANY FOOD. No thunderbolt strikes down the diner hapless enough to drink classed growth red bordeaux with sole or Zinfandel with oysters. We all experiment with this sort of thing in the company of our nearest and dearest; it’s only when we are entertaining that we feel we have to follow certain rules and that we will be judged according to them.

    All it takes is confidence, the confidence to flout the old rules and know that so much has changed on the gastronomic landscape since those rules were drawn up that we really shouldn’t care a hoot.

    Of course there is a major problem with the scenario I have just outlined. Many of us may have decided that we love fish, but if the world cannot do more to husband the resources of its seas, lakes and rivers, fish may become the rarest of delicacies.

    People in the wine business are always trying to forecast the next big thing. (Everyone was taken by surprise with the speed of the swing to red wine — and now in Australia at least some winemakers are being caught out by a shortage of Chardonnay grapes.) What is it that might encourage a swing back in the opposite direction towards white? In theory it could be the fact that more and more people are eating white wine food, but for the reasons outlined above, that looks unlikely to persuade us to give up the new, suave reds.

    No, it could be something on a bigger scale entirely.

    GLOBAL WARMING MIGHT BECOME SO SIGNIFICANT THAT THE WORLD’S WINE DRINKERS WILL START TO DEMAND THAT THE FIRST DUTY OF A WINE IS TO BE CHILLED. AND THAT REALLY WILL BE A TEST OF MODERN RED WINE’S SUPPLENESS.

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