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.
One of the most satisfying parts of my job is traveling. I love hitting the road and spending time in California’s various wine regions. I nearly always have, at the outset of a journey, a childlike sense of impending adventure, as though anything could happen.
We all have our little traveling rituals, I suppose. Mine begins with a sheet of paper I have held to my refrigerator door by a magnet. The paper is entitled “Steve’s traveling shit” and consists of a list of things to bring, or to not forget to do, before I walk out that front door. It’s been growing lengthier over the years. One entry reads “be sure which road you’re taking” because, once, I set out for Santa Rosa, only to find myself on the way to Stockton because I was sleepy and not paying attention.
The word “clothes” is also on there, hastily penned in, after a trip I made to the Central Coast, two years ago. On arriving, I discovered, to my horror, that I’d left my packed suitcase on my bed, at home; I was forced to go to a local K-Mart and buy myself 3 days of shirts, pants and underwear. Also on the list are headphones (for airplanes), hand sanitizer and sunglasses. I’m always forgetting my sunglasses, and have about 6 pairs of those clip-ons I’ve had to buy over the years.
I like to leave Oakland after rush hour, around 10 a.m. or so, depending on where I’m driving. Napa is about an hour away; the Russian River Valley, 1-1/2 hours. Paso Robles is a solid 3 hours or even longer. There are certain bottlenecks that always threaten to slow down the trip. I-80, through Emeryville and Berkeley, is one; there’s no way of avoiding it; you just have to keep your fingers crossed. The 101 approaches to Santa Rosa are dependably jammed. Heading south, toward the Central Coast, the problem spot is the “Nasty Nimitz,” once voted the Bay Area’s most hated freeway. Once you break through to 101 South, at San Jose, things even out. But you can run into the odd jam anywhere.
I like the anonymity of travel, of being thrown, temporarily, off my routine. There’s something to be said for not knowing anyone around you, and vice versa. I guess there’s an element of fantasy. Freed from regularity, you can experience the irregular, with all its tantalizing possibilities. But a wine writer never is completely alone on his travels. You meet with winemakers or P.R. people or the heads of regional wine associations, and of course with many other people, from chefs to mayors. You go to lunches and dinners or, alternatively, try to avoid them, because on such a trip it would be easy to find yourself invited to 4 lunches and 8 dinners each day, and there’s neither time, nor room in my stomach, for such grueling gastronomic gluttony. Sometimes, all I want is a supermarket broiled chicken, which I’ll devour holed up in my hotel room, watching TV. At Wine Enthusiast, I’m known as a “cheap” traveler, because of the frugality of my spending habits, acquired over a lifetime. This, of course, suits management.
I mentioned regional winery associations, and now I want to praise them. I’ve always heard criticisms of them, but for myself have to say how helpful they’ve been, in so many ways. From Temecula and Santa Barbara northward through Paso Robles, Monterey, Napa, Sonoma, Lake County and up into Anderson Valley, you need only to pick up a phone or email the association chief, and your needs will be met: wines set up to taste, wineries made aware of your visit, meetings arranged, itineraries established. Thank you to the wine country regional associations from a grateful writer!
Sure, I’ve seen a million vineyards and bottling lines and barrel storage rooms, and have crushers and destemmers coming out of my ears. I’ve gotten mud in my sneakers in winter and dust on my boots during dry, parched summer. I’ve had the intricacies of cluster thinning and pumping over explained to me ad infinitum by an endless line of winemakers. Sometimes my eyes glaze over. But not always or even usually, for there is always something new to learn, some new personal connection to be made, and, of course, new wines to taste.
It’s with these thoughts that I set off this morning for three days in Paso Robles, where the Vintners & Growers Association is kindly arranging a large tasting, blind, of currently released red wines. I will try to blog from the road, not always an easy thing to do.
R.I.P. Ed McMahon
Defining winery P.R. in a new era
Winery public relations used to be so simple. You got hired, usually on a retainer basis, to get your client’s name out there in the public sphere, with as spiffy an image as you could. It was a good way to make a living. But winery P.R. is hurting now. The recession has severely impacted it. I was talking the other day to the owner of a small winery P.R. firm who told me they’re worried about their financial future. They’ve lost clients, not because the firm isn’t well-regarded — it is — but because wineries themselves are hurting and many can no longer afford to keep a P.R. firm on retainer. When a winery has to cut costs, P.R. often is one of the first items to be slashed.
Meininger’s Business International reported yesterday on the “domino effect” of the worldwide economic slump on winery P.R. firms, as “activity budgets have been slashed and the incremental project work is simply not there. Vehicles such as the long lunch – led by a winemaker to showcase their range – are long gone.” (Well, the long lunch hasn’t entirely disappeared, but wineries aren’t doing as many as they used to. Or dinners.)
Another problem for standalone P.R. companies is that bigger wineries generally have in-house P.R. departments. I know a small P.R. company that recently lost a client, Bill Foley, because as his winery empire grows by leaps and bounds, he felt the need to bring the public relations in-house rather than continuing to farm it out.
Maybe the emergence of the wine blogosphere means that winery P.R. firms are no longer needed. That’s one theory, but I don’t buy it. I think, with such an explosive increase of in the number of potential platforms, it’s going to be more important than ever for wineries to hire savvy P.R. pros to help them break through all the noise and clutter and be visible.
And as if Parker didn’t have enough troubles,
Now the famous critic “has been ordered to stand trial in France next month for allegedly defaming a former assistant,” the Associated Press is reporting. The case is about a former assistant of his who wrote a book called (translated from the French): “Robert Parker: Anatomy of a Myth.”
And congratulations to…
Bailey Ungewitter, a Sebastopol gal who was just chosen as the Sonoma County Fair’s 2009 Miss Wine County Rodeo. Ride ‘em, cowgirl!
Paso expansion goes through
Last Nov. I blogged on a petition to expand the Paso Robles AVA by 2,635 acres — about 4% of the current total — in a cooler region that’s a little closer to the Pacific Ocean. This was during a period of confusion at the Tax and Trade Bureau, the arm of the Treasury Department that approves AVAs. Well, effective Feb. 20, the TTB approved the expansion, according to their press release, based on the usual parameters of climate, geology and soils. I don’t really care one way or another. Its just one more AVA expansion; there have been many before, there will be many to come. The key sentence in the TTB’s statement is “After careful review of the petition and comments  received, TTB finds that the evidence submitted supports the expansion…”.
Now, anyone who’s ever worked in a government office (and I used to) knows how they work. This is from the same Federal govenment that “reviewed” Bernie Madoff’s outfit and found nothing out of order! I can imagine how the discussion went in the TTB’s AVA branch:
Boss: Jim, I want you to carefully review this Paso petition.
Jim: But boss, I’m swamped! I’ve got Leona, Calistoga, Snipes Mountain and Tulocay on my plate — and you just fired my assistant.
Boss: Well, times are tough. Have your decision to me by the end of January.
[Later that night]
Jim [to wife]: Honey, he wants me to do another expansion. This *&%$# is killing me. How am I supposed to get my work done when I don’t have any help?
Wife: Did any of the commenters object?
Jim: Out of 7 comments, only one.
Wife: Was it an important person?
Jim: No, just somebody little.
Wife: Well, screw it then. Approve it, and say you were really careful to examine all the evidence.
Jim: Gee, I guess you’re right. Hey, what’s for supper?
At Wine Enthusiast’s recent Wine Star Awards, which I reported on yesterday, one item making the conversational rounds was the dismal state of affairs in Australia’s wine industry. “Too many grapes” seemed to be the conventional wisdom. It’s the old story of supply and demand. Poor Australia.
Wine judges “inconsistent”? Say it isn’t so!
The recent issue of Wines & Vines reports on a new survey suggesting that wine judges are inconsistent when it comes to judging big competitions like the California State Fair. For example, the judges on one panel were given the same wine three times, without knowing it. They rejected it the first two times, then loved it the third time. It went on to receive a double-gold medal. How embarrassing!
Yet how true. It’s not only judging panels that can be inconsistent. So, too, can individual judges, a truth I’ve pointed out here many times. There’s no loss of face if you rate a wine different ways at different times. Anybody who tells you a judge should give the same rating to a wine over multiple exposures is lying, or seriously misled. That’s why wine judging should be taken for what it is: A considered opinion at a particular time and place. It’s just like a movie review, in which the reviewer can change his mind at a second showing. Does that mean wine reviews are irrelevant? No. They’re have some value — and an individual wine review is better than a panel, which is why I’ve never participated in any of these big fairs, and never will.
Wine Writers R.I.P.?
Alder Yarrow had an interesting — and upsetting — post yesterday over at Vinography. It’s called “Tough Time to be a Wine Writer,” and to tell you the truth, Alder sounded a little down in the dumps. He wrote about how wine magazines and newspaper wine sections are folding as advertising dollars evaporate and the jobs dry up. As a wine writer myself, it’s worrisome to see the words “wine writing” and “panhandling” in the same article!
Unemployed wine writer
Alder may well be right. If the Ship of State is going down, then so will all the deck chairs sink with it, including wine writers. On the other hand, we have the inspiration of President Obama. But there may be nothing he can do in the short run, and the short run looks pretty bleak.
On the Cecchetti-Racke Merger
Yesterday I blogged on Greg La Follette selling his Tandem brand, and I quoted him as saying there could be “a bloodbath for small wineries” because they don’t have the time or money to travel the country to sell their wine.
This seems to be the rationale behind the Cecchetti-Racke joint venture announced yesterday. The key sentence is “Cecchetti Racke will be reviewing their current distribution network in all markets across the United States with an eye to maximizing the company’s portfolio of wines.” Roy Cecchetti is an industry veteran who’s built up many a brand in the past. With his brother-in-law, Don Sebastiani, he launched Pepperword Grove, and later he created two inexpensive brands, 39 Degrees and RedTree, whose price points are in the comfort zone of today’s value-oriented wine consumers. The man knows how to sell in a down market.
Chill with Obama’s chile
There’s been a lot of talk about what kind of wine Barack and Michelle will serve in the W.H. but here’s a recipe for the President’s own homemade chile. Personally, I’d drink beer with it, not wine, but that’s me.
The link also contains a video of Obama’s 2001 appearance on the Chicagoland version of Check, Please!, a PBS-aired television show hosted here in the Bay Area by Leslie Sbrocco. Maybe all of us unemployed wine writers can get new jobs as restaurant critics. No, wait, there won’t be any restaurants if this thing gets worse. Oh, well…
Be thankful I don’t take it all
Wine Institute Chairman Bobby Koch sent out an emergency email late yesterday to all W.I. members, as well as the media, urging “immediate action” in writing Gov. Schwarzenegger to oppose his proposed excise tax increase on wine. “lost jobs at our wineries” will be the result, Koch says. There’s a real note of desperation in his tone. It’s not just that a tax increase will hurt wineries, it’s that to do so during this perilous economic downturn might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I’d hate to see a tax increase on wine, but with California’s $40 billion budget deficit, it’s going to be hard for the Legislature not to scramble for every dime they can find.
It’s early morning on New Year’s Eve, and a thick ground fog covers the Bay Area. Visibility on my street is about one block, and it’s eerily quiet out there. Not even the starlings and gulls are around and about. They’re hunkered down in their resting places, just as most of us humans are.
This gloomy day seems symbolically fitted to end 2008, a year that will be remembered for many things, but particularly, I suspect, for the dramatic collapse of our country’s economy following the September bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. The San Francisco Chronicle reports this morning that home prices in the city dropped 31 percent this year, the sharpest on record, and a reminder that not even The City by the Bay, with its fabulous wealth and glamor, is immune from the economic meltdown. A radio report this morning, from the local NPR affiliate, said the restaurant business in San Francisco is in a state of collapse, with restaurateurs bracing for the worst in 2009. People just aren’t eating out any more, and if they are, they’re scaling down from entrées to appetizers, from 2 glasses of wine to one, or from wine to water. That has the waiters grumbling, but what can they do.
The fog is an apt metaphor, also, for the internal mood many Americans feel these days. One tries to peer into the future to glimpse what lies ahead, but that future is blanketed in an impenetrable darkness that masks everything. Best not to think too far ahead in times like these, people tell me. Focus on one day at a time, which means one moment at a time — the Now. It’s easier said than done.
But it’s important to remember that everything passes. The fog will go away, and by this afternoon the Bay Area will once again bask under blue skies and bright sunlight. The birds will be out in a little while, filling my street with sweet birdsong. Perhaps the little hummingbirds will visit the begonias outside my window, which are in full crimson bloom.
I know this, too: 2009 will be a better year. So tonight, when my family and I cheer in the New Year with a glass of champagne, I’ll say a special toast for President-elect Obama and for our country. We’ll see our way out of this. The fog will lift.