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Is the drive toward ever-newer wines a form of OCD among critics?

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The search for “the new” is the story of California. Whether it was the reinvention of the self, or the society, the Golden State always has lured those restless with the existing order, and anxious to replace it with something innovative and, they hope, better.

This reinvention reinvents itself constantly. Nowhere is it better reflected than in our cuisine, as Joyce Goldstein’s book, Inside the California Food Revolution, makes abundantly clear. But we have to look no further than the current contretemps over what makes wine “balanced” to see it in another, and possibly ideological, form.

Joyce wrote her book to chronicle the rise of California cuisine, with its emphases on freshness, locality and seasonality, but she turns her eye also toward the evolution of California wine. “As California chefs began cooking more innovative food,” she writes, citing names like Ridge, Chalone, Calera and Bonny Doon, “they began seeking more innovative wines.”

By “more innovative wines,” she meant wines that aspired to something greater than the jug ‘burgundies,” “sauternes” and “rhines” that dominated production up until that time (around the 1960s and 1970s). This surely was innovation which was needed; if California ever was to become a wine state (and it seems to have been destined to), it would have to turn more towards a European system of proper appellations and noble varieties.

It worked. But we also have to admit that there was much to be admired in those old wines, with their faux names. They were cheap, they were clean, they went well with food, and they were pretty good, if my memories of what I drank in the late 1970s (just as that era was trailing off) are correct, and I think they are. Those old jug wines were vin ordinaire that appealed to vast numbers of American consumers, and without them blazing the trail, the rise of the boutique winery would not have been possible. Far from condemning them, we ought to celebrate them.

Still, that period of innovation—the boutique winery era–was a good and necessary one. We come now to another period, which may prove to be more of a hiatus than a legitimate tipping point. It is characterized by a somewhat noisy cadre of wine writers, critics and restaurateurs critical of what they perceive as wines whose alcohol levels, fruit extraction and oak render them “unbalanced.” Rather, this cadre says, wines should revert back to their original purpose, of being less assertive and more amenable to accompanying food, rather than dominating it.

Which sounds rather like the role the jug wines played in this country post-Prohibition through the 1970s. They were wines to be enjoyed as part of the overall experience of dining and socializing, not wines that demanded to be the diva-like stars of the table. Now, it’s good that we have a movement that desires to see wine restored to its proper place in the hierarchy; but where the new critics have a bit of ‘splaining to do is this: there is nothing particularly affordable about the wines they celebrate. Unlike the jug wines of the past, which anyone could afford, these new darlings of the School of Balance can be as pricey as the big, oaky varietal wines they decry.

It would make more sense for a critic to scream from the rooftops the virtues of under-$10 wines that could slake the thirst of a nation that’s not as wealthy as it used to be. That would be one thing; I could jump onboard that train. Instead, the critics of the big California style are calling for a new elitism: of low-production wines, made by people they perceive to be personally interesting—wines with modest alcohol levels, and moreover made from grapes that in some cases aren’t even fully ripe. This is the result of the increasingly strident call for “more innovative wines,” which sometimes seem like it has more in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder than with providing us with wines of deliciousness. But then, every wine writer/critic also is a journalist, and journalism, in its essence, is the insatiable search for the new, the radical, the innovative, the undiscovered. That is the strength of good journalism: it prods a complacent culture onward. That also is the weakness of journalism that seeks simply to unearth whatever happens to be new that day, and disregards what is lasting. Innovation, for its own sake, is meaningless.


California cuisine and California wine: partners through life

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It had been years since I dined at the Stanford Court Hotel, on top of Nob Hill, so I was looking forward to meeting some folks there last night—not for dinner, just for a few drinks. Still, I wanted to check out the restaurant menu. Reading—no, make that devouringJoyce Goldstein’s new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, I was curious to see how the menu had evolved from 20 years ago, when Fournou’s Ovens, the hotel’s grand restaurant, served what I recall as rather rich food, French-influenced, and heavy on the meat.

Alas, the menu has evolved, but not as I’d anticipated; as it turns out, there is no restaurant at the Stanford Court, just a rather plain bar menu (sandwiches, steak and such). I asked the concierge about that, and he replied, “New ownership—changing times.” Indeed.

Which brings me back to Inside the California Food Revolution. The mark of a great book is that it gets you thinking. I loved the juxtaposition Joyce, and many of the chefs she interviewed, set up between the Los Angeles and San Francisco culinary scenes of twenty years ago. L.A. was “food as fashion,” in Joyce’s words, as well as “overdone, very over-manipulated…places to see and be seen,” according to another restaurateur. By contrast, S.F. chefs were obsessed with purity, quality ingredients, seasonality and eclecticism.

The problem with appealing to fashion is that, quoting the former owner of a famous L.A. restaurant, Citrus, “the life of a restaurant is very short [in L.A.]..very trendy. You’re good, you’re busy, and then, when a new restaurant opens, say good-bye to your business.”

Well, you can say that about any restaurant, to some extent (Daniel Patterson’s Plum just closed in Oakland, after a run of several years), but San Francisco and the Bay Area seem more willing to bless a great place, like Boulevard, with longevity than L.A. is. There is, of course, a wine tie-in to all this: I have often wondered about the lifespan of some of these super-expensive California lifestyle wineries, which pop into existence (often in Napa Valley) with the alacrity of mushrooms after an autumn rain, only to disappear just as quickly. With a hired “name” winemaker, the brand enters the “you’re busy” phase, which is quickly succeeded by the “good-bye” phase, unless the owner is so wealthy that he can afford to ride an ocean of red ink.

Still, there was one thing both the Southern and Northern California founders of the California cuisine revolution shared in common: a passionate ingenuity bordering on the naïve. As one of them told Joyce, “Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of chefs weren’t [classically] trained. That was freeing. You weren’t tied down to a set of rules and told, ‘You have to go this way.’ No, I don’t, because I don’t even know what the rules are.”

It was that disregard for “the rules” that enabled chefs, including Joyce Goldstein, to do their own thing. They figured that, if they liked something, others would, too. There’s a connection, I suspect, between that approach and the loss of Fournou’s Ovens: the grand hotel restaurant, with its banquettes, snooty somms, heavily-sauced food and pontifical atmosphere, is no longer suited to today’s dining needs, which are more casual. Joyce anticipated that at Square One, her own restaurant, when she opened it (after leaving Chez Panisse) in the mid-1980s. Today, I look at a place like Boulevard, which I think and hope will never close. It’s as California-cuisine-y as you can get: the California Lamb Prime T-bone, “wood oven roasted, served off the bone, with zuckerman banana fingerling potatoes with fresh turmeric, aleppo & coriander sauteed bloomsdale spinach, thumbelina carrots, our cardamom orange blossom yogurt, huckleberry molasses, sicilian pistachio aillade, and roasted lamb jus” is a triumph of World ingredients, a happy concoction of elements no one would have conceived of before the California food revolution tore down the walls. Yet Boulevard is noisy, happy, relaxed and fun—all the elements I associate with California (and Northern California, especially). And when you think of it, that’s what we want in wine, too, isn’t it?


Review: Joyce Goldstein’s new book on California cuisine

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In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was a fairly frequent visitor to Square One, the restaurant Joyce Goldstein had opened, in 1984, in the Jackson Square neighborhood of downtown San Francisco.

There, I was treated like a regular, mainly through my acquaintance with the sommelier, Peter Granoff, whom I had met earlier when he’d served in the same capacity at the old Mark Hopkins Hotel. Well do I remember strolling into Square One on any given night, usually by myself after an evening of doing something else that had brought me to the area from my home in Noe Valley. I’d take a seat at the bar and order something off the chalkboard menu—a little pizza or focaccia, some fettucine, wood-fired grilled shrimp—while Peter surreptitiously brought me tasting sips of the most interesting wines of the evening. Peter also held regular wine tasting classes in a small room of the restaurant. It was there that I learned, more than anyplace else, about Condrieu, Cote Rotie, Spanish sherry and other wines to which I would otherwise have had little access.

These were not mere wine tastings. Peter’s boss, Chef Joyce, provided delicious little plates to wash down the wine. One night, a blind tasting of Monterey County Chardonnays (Estancia, Morgan, Pinnacles, Talbott, Chalone, Wente and so on) was paired with a signature crab cake with mango salsa, and ginger-marinated pork loin on a bed of corn pudding.

That food was, of course, California cuisine, or what came eventually to be called California cuisine, although Joyce herself, after extensive research for her new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, writes that exactly who coined that phrase remains a mystery. Not mysterious at all, though, is what California cuisine means. Joyce Goldstein: “…restaurants broadened from formal and ceremonial to more democratic and casual. Kitchens that had been hidden were opened up to become part of the dining room. Chefs who had toiled behind closed doors in anonymity became stars. Ingredients such as arugula, baby greens, and goat cheese, virtually unknown previously, became household items…”. California’s fabulously diverse ethnic constitution, including Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American cultures, also became part of the mix that contributed to the new, complex combinations that constituted California cuisine, whose “one common element,” Joyce writes, was “fresh, seasonal ingredients, preferably raised nearby.”

I hadn’t known Joyce had written this book until I ran into her son Evan, an old friend, at a wine tasting event. I’d told him how much I’d always longed for a formal history of California cuisine, which was restaurant-based long before it became a staple of home kitchens. Evan smiled and told me there was one: He arranged to have the publisher, University of California Press, send me Inside the California Food Revolution. If you’ve ever hankered for an insider’s account of everything and everyone from Alice Waters and Chez Panisse to Wolfgang Puck, Jeremiah Tower, the French Laundry, Laura Chenel, Zuni Café and, yes, Joyce Goldstein (as insider as they get), this is the book. It recounts, in loving terms, what Mark Miller (Fourth Street Grill and Santa Fe Bar and Grill, both in Berkeley) describes as “California cuisine[‘s] revolutionary [nature], in terms of not only its fashion, its style, but also its culinary ethos.”

The California food revolution cited in Joyce’s title spilled over, of course, to the California wine revolution—or perhaps it’s fairer to say that both were the result of the revolutionary attitude that always has characterized California. In the book, too, you will find references to Paul Draper and Ridge (whose wines Alice Waters celebrated early at Chez Panisse), Randall Grahm and Bonny Doon, Josh Jensen (Calera), Dick Graff (Chalone), Bob Long (Long Vineyards) and others. Interestingly, Joyce, in retrospective hindsight, goes back to this period to foreshadow wines “with overly hard tannins, too much oak, and in time, higher alcohol levels”—shades of today’s ongoing debate. But that is another story.

goldstein


Thinking of Tchelistcheff on the 20th anniversary of his death

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Can it really have been 20 years since André Tchelistcheff died?

I met and interviewed the man they call The Maestro a couple times, in my guise as a reporter, although I can’t claim to have known him well. His heavily Russian-inflected English could be hard to understand, especially on the phone, but he was unfailingly polite, in an Old World, almost Victorian way; more importantly, he was the foremost mentor to several generations of winemakers. It’s amazing how often his name comes up in conversation even today.

To me, as an historian, André’s greatest achievement was bringing a European sensibility of winemaking to the industry, at a time—the 1930s through the 1970s—when that’s what was most needed. When he came, famously, to Beaulieu, in 1938, America still had its rear wheels stuck in the muck of Prohibition. What few Americans there were who actually drank wine had little besides ersatz “Sauternes,” “Port,” “Sherry,” “Vermouth” and unidentifiable bottles with proprietary names, like Don Juan and Mission Bell, to choose from.

One of the best ways to appreciate a historical person’s contributions is through the eyes of his contemporaries. Here, we’re fortunate that Tchelistcheff’s advent on the scene occurred at the same time as an explosion of wine books. (The two phenomena are not unrelated!) In 1948 the Chicago journalist Julian Street, in the second edition of his book “Wines,” praised Beaulieu’s George [sic] de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon—Tchelistcheff’s crowning glory—as “stepping up into another class,” while he called the Pinot Noir “among the best of its type.” Pinot Noir  was (I think it’s fair to say) Tchelistcheff’s own personal favorite variety, probably due to its challenge. He told the lawyer and amateur wine lover, Robert Benson (who quoted him in the latter’s 1977 book, “Great Winemakers of California”), that he, Tchelistcheff, had produced only three “high standard” Pinot Noirs in 35 years: the 1946, 1947 and 1968, successes he deemed “accidental” although, of course, they were no accidents; but Tchelistcheff appears at that time not to have realized exactly what he had done right.

Eleven years after Street’s little book, Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s older brother) authored “In Praise of Wine,” a book so dismissive of California wine that he relegated coverage of it to two pages in the appendix. Even so, Waugh managed to mention a handful of wineries he did “greatly enjoy,” and Beaulieu was one of them. By 1973, when the founder of the Wine Institute, Leon Adams, wrote his influential “The Wines of America,” he was able to state definitively that BV Private Reserve had become “the single most-praised and most-sought after American wine.”

Why did experts like it so much? We can only begin to guess what Private Reserve tasted like young. Michael Broadbent sipped a 1941 Private Reserve (from a celebrated vintage) in 1972; the then 31-year old wine was “extremely rich…with [an] extended finish,” and despite this rather abbreviated review, Broadbent awarded it 4 stars. But a few years later, he added a coveted fifth star to the 1946 Private Reserve, which Tchelistcheff himself had poured for him at a tasting; “the ’46,” Broadbent wrote, clearly in ecstasy, “was a great wine by any standards, perhaps Tchelistcheff’s supreme masterpiece.”

It was this accomplishment—the ability to make wine so good that even a confirmed Europhile like Broadbent would swoon in its presence—that was André’s great contribution to California wine.

By the 1990s, well into his own Nineties, André’s best days were behind him. He died in 1994, his intellect and humor intact. As Rod Smith reminds us (in “Private Reserve,” published by Beaulieu in its centenary year, 2000): “Just before [Tchelistcheff] died, he exclaimed, ‘We still don’t know what kind of rootstock is right for Carneros!’”

It was that unflagging drive to know, to perfect, to achieve that marked André Tchelistcheff. He was among the first to understand that Napa Valley’s temperature gradient between Carneros, in the south, and Calistoga, in the north, mandated the planting of different grape varieties—an axiom so fundamental to our knowledge of Napa Valley today that it’s hard to fathom that it was not always known. His work with Pinot Noir has never yet been fully acknowledged. His background as a technologist showed in his never-ending experiments with different kinds of fermentation techniques, including the malolactic. Robert Mondavi, who loved him, has written (in “Harvests of Joy”) how he “often turned to André for advice” after launching Robert Mondavi Winery, and paid The Maestro the supreme compliment of calling him “one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century American wine making.” André also put his stamp on stylistic matters. His remark (to Benson) that “oak in the bottle is nothing else but seasoning” and accompanying criticism that “Some people overdo it [oak]” surely were prescient and have been echoed by latter-day aficiendos of balance.

André himself wrote what could perhaps be his epitaph, although he meant it as praise, not for himself, but for Benson’s book: in its Preface, he called the book “full of depth, full of reflections of winemakers struggling to open the gates to tomorrow.” Those words easily describe André Tchelistcheff’s own triumphant struggle: if we now stand in tomorrow, it is because we have walked through the gates André opened for us what seems like just yesterday.

Andre


The critics, not committees, have classified California wine

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In the Spring of 1969, Roy Andries de Groot, who turned to wine- and food-writing when he became blind, was sent to California by Esquire Magazine to write about the state’s wines, on the 200th anniversary of Junipero Serra’s planting of wine grapes in San Diego.

de Groot soon realized that what he really wanted to do was what he called his “immense project”: “a Classification of American Wines,” he called it, based on the sort of official hierarchy that had been developed by the French, in the famous 1855 Classification.

(de Groot also went on to classify the wines of the Pacific Northwest and New York State, hence his reference to “American Wines.”)

As he notes in his 1982 masterwork, “The Wines of California,” de Groot had pedigreed precedence for his audacious project. There not only had been the 1855 Classification, but, a century earlier, “in 1755, a first attempt had been made to rank the wines of Bordeaux,” he wrote, followed by another in 1833. So the project was neither as audacious nor as radical as it might have appeared.

Here in California, others have attempted, from time to time, to classify the state’s wines into quality tiers. Perhaps the most controversial has been Jim Laube’s 1989 book, “California’s Great Cabernets,” in which the Wine Spectator writer rather self-consciously established five “Growths” (just like the 1855 Classification), which he populated with dozens of wineries functioning at that time. It was a worthy effort—but one doomed to failure, as California, unlike staid Bordeaux, was in the process (and still is today) of sprouting new wineries like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. When Laube wrote his book, for instance, there was no Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Verite, David Arthur, Jarvis, Araujo. The book was destined for obsolescence even before it was published. (It does, however, remain an interesting read and is important as an historical document.)

de Groot established, not five, but four tiers in his classification, although he did not numerically denote them but instead used the adjectives “Great,” “Superb,” “Noble” and “Fine,” in descending order of quality. (The only wineries he put into the “Great” category were Heitz, Schramsberg and Stony Hill.) But, just as Laube’s book of seven years later was condemned to early obsolescence, so was de Groot’s, and for the same reason. As we look at his list today, we’re struck, not only by the non-inclusion of so many wineries that simply didn’t exist in 1982, but by others that were functioning at that time, but no longer are, or that continue to exist, but not at a very high level. The list, then, is sadly out of date, although like Laube’s book, “The Wines of California” makes for good reading.

I doubt that any wine writer will ever again attempt such a hopeless task as classifying the wines of California! But then, in this modern era of, say, the last 30 years, the public doesn’t need an official list. That task has been taken over, in practical effect, by critics. Can there be any question that California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends have been unofficially ranked already, through the reviews of Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and others? This ranking has the appearance of mathematical precision because it’s based on scores of the 100-point system. Thus, in order to determine the placement of any winery in the critical classification, all you have to do is look up its scores over the years, and that will determine its position in the hierarchy. Before you object that this is a pretty flimsy basis, remember that the 1855 Classification itself—which we all hold so dear—was based in part on the prices the wines had historically fetched. Since today, price and score are irretrievably intertwined, it’s not ludicrous to base a wine’s placement by its score: the highest-scoring wines will generally be the most expensive (although the opposite is not always the case!).

There’s one huge, qualitative difference, however, between an official classification, like that of 1855, and the unofficial one created by scores. The former can never change, or does so only agonizingly slowly (Mouton-Rothschild, originally a Second Growth, was not elevated to First Growth until 1973.) But the latter, unofficial classification is constantly morphing, as wineries come into and fall out of favor, reflected in their scores. The critical classification, then, has the advantage of a built-in resilience that makes it more adaptable to change and thus more descriptive of reality, as well as more useful. A critical classification can never become obsolete, by definition.

Where things get sticky, of course, is with the proliferation of critics. In 1855 the French had a single committee to make their classification. There was nobody to challenge it (although disgruntled proprietors always have complained about their placement). Twenty years ago we had only a tiny handful of critics to make their de facto classification, and few if any dared to challenge them. Today, everybody’s a critic. This is why we have the phenomenon of multi-source rating compilers, like CellarTracker, where consumers can track reviews from multiple sources side by side for the same wine.

What I find fascinating about the new order, with its proliferation of voices and the coming of age of a younger generation, is how impervious to change the old perceived hierarchy remains. In Bordeaux the First Growths still rule. In California, the Harlans and Screaming Eagles remain at the top, although they may have had to allow some room for a few other aspirants. Something about wine—or, rather, the way we perceive it—is remarkably conservative. I wish I had a time machine and could see what the top wines are fifty years from now. For some reason, I doubt if I’d be surprised.


History and tasting go hand in hand when it comes to wine appreciation

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We tasted through a range of Jackson Family wines the other day with the staff of the Sonoma County Vintners, and my oh my, what an impressive group they (the SCV staff, I mean) were. I remember a time when the staffs (such as they were) of these regional wine associations weren’t as professional or informed as they should have been. Of course, the Napa Valley Vintners always was the best organized, but the others—as hard as they tried—just didn’t seem able to pull it all together.

The problems were twofold: money and politics. It takes dough, and plenty of it, to run a successful regional association, and most of them, aside from Napa, just didn’t have it. Wineries didn’t want to pony up the dues, and besides, many of them felt they didn’t need a regional association—they could do all the marketing and P.R. themselves.

Then there was raw politics. You’d think that all the wineries in a region would be eager to work together to promote that region. But that wasn’t always the way it rolled. The smaller wineries would resent the bigger ones (whose money bankrolled the associations) and felt that they were getting short-shrifted. The job of Executive Director of these associations was a perilous one; people came, got in trouble with the membership, often through no fault of their own, and left after a few years, meaning that the associations were always in a state of drift.

Well, that began to change some years ago. I suppose it just took a maturation of the industry. Competition became fiercer, and winery owners began to realize that (in Franklin’s words), “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

I’ve witnessed the most astounding improvements in the last seven years or so. My most direct experience (aside from Napa Valley) was with the associations of Monterey County and Paso Robles. In both cases, I was impressed by the intelligence and passion of their leaders. Whatever improvements you’ve seen in the wines of these two areas have certainly been due, in part, to the energy of their regional associations.

I had less experience with the Santa Barbara Vintners because I tended to arrange my own travels down there (with the help of some local professionals who were glad to help me). Which brings us back to the Sonoma County Vintners. For some reason, while I was at Wine Enthusiast our/my relations had minimized over the years. I’m not sure why. Mostly my relationships were with individual wineries and winemakers in Sonoma County, and given my long history with the county, it just didn’t seem necessary to work closely with SCV.

After last Tuesday’s tasting, I wish I had. I can’t tell you how diligent and curious that group, which numbered about a dozen, was. They wanted to learn everything they could, and I felt that I could draw on my rich and varied experiences, so that our tasting was just as much about history, personalities and anecdotes as it was about the hedonics of the wines. One of the advantages of (how shall I describe it?) getting gray hairs is that you can look back over your adventures and get some perspective on things. It’s often said that younger people have no interest in History. I don’t agree, at least, from the point of view of wine. A twenty-something year old employee of a regional wine association does indeed want to hear tales of bygone times, just as much as she wants to understand how that Pinot Noir tastes and why that taste is the product of the terroir.

Actually, the two concepts—hedonic experiences of wine and history—go hand in hand. In Old Europe this has always been taken for granted. In Europe’s case, it sometimes impeded wine progress, because their cultures got so mired in traditionalism that they couldn’t move forward, even when the way to do so was obvious. Here in California, our lack of tradition—which at first the Europeans derided—turned out in retrospect to have been a blessing in disguise. That might have led some pundits to conclude that history isn’t important in California. But it is. The lines of transmission from, say, Tchelistcheff to Joe Heitz to Richard Peterson to Heidi Barrett to the entire gamut of today’s cult Cabernets are living; no proper understanding of California wine can occur without at least some understanding of how we got to where we are today.

When I was speaking last week at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley I alluded to this topic of history and one of the students asked me to recommend some books. I’m going to do that pretty soon, right here on the blog. Reading about wine is, to me anyhow, just about as much fun as drinking it!


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