1. Is the dive bar doomed?
I have two images in my head of the classic American dive bar. One is from the movies, where so many scenes of intrigue, drama and violence have occurred in them. I think of the Silver Bullet, the bar in Thelma and Louise, for example, with its country & western band, pool table and cowboy drifters chugging beer from the bottle. (You’d never order wine in such a place!)
The other image I have is from my own past. There used to be a place in San Francisco, South of Market, in Clementina Alley, which in the Eighties was not the yuppified haven it is now. It was called, for a variety of reasons, the Headquarters. On any given night you’d have drag queens and businessmen, Pacific Heights doyennes and dudes in leather chaps, hippies and hustlers and young straight couples out slumming, all playing pool or darts, or dancing on the postage stamp-sized dance floor to Blondie’s Rapture. I once brought Marilyn, who found it amusing, but, on emerging from the rest room, remarked that she should have brought her hip boots. That was the Diviest. Dive. Bar. Ever.
The dive bar played a role in America’s mythic development. The old saloons of the Wild West were dive bars, and so were the shadowy joints of film noir, if we go by Wikipedia’s definition: “Dive bars:disreputable, sinister, or even a detriment to the community.” Or, in Playboy’s view, “A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows—bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.”
Yet last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle headlined on its front page, “In boom time for booze joints, is it dive bar’s last call?” (The online version is headlined “Is it last call for dive bars in San Francisco?”) It seems that with rising rents and shifting demographics, dive bars are an endangered species, especially in neighborhoods like The Mission, SOMA and even to some extent the Tenderloin, that used to be their strongholds. I frankly doubt that the dive bar will go the way of the dodo bird, but the situation in San Francisco does bring to the fore a certain gentrification process that seems to be hitting many of our cities. Old-fashioned dives are turning into fancy little cocktail bars; bartenders are being replaced by tattooed “mixologists” for whom an appearance in The Tasting Panel is their Red Carpet; whiskey rocks has morphed into elaborate concoctions of flavored spirits, sweet liqueurs, bitters, candied fruits and sugar. Dashiell Hammett is turning in his grave. For that matter, so is Herb Caen.
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2. My gig at K-J’s tasting room bar
When I gave a little talk to the Kendall-Jackson tasting room staff a while back, and I told them I’d never worked a tasting room, they very kindly invited me to work in theirs! I thought it was a splendid idea, so we made a date, and on Saturday I drove up and did a six-hour stint.
I was as nervous as an opening night understudy as I “went on” but the truth is, there was nothing to be scared of. I quickly learned that all you have to do is be yourself. And since I’m a pretty sociable guy, I had lots of great conversations, always including but not necessarily exclusively about wine.
The visitors are from all over the place, America as well as abroad, but the main thing they had in common was that they’re happy to be in wine country, at a winery they like, on a beautiful summer day. When you’re with happy people it rubs off. I met a Dad from Atlanta who was taking his daughter on a tour of California after she graduated college. I met a surgeon from U.C. San Francisco Medical Center and his wife and baby. I met a pair of chiropractors who told me about nervous system health. There were several folks from my home town of Oakland—even from my neighborhood. I met a family of Cuban-Americans from Miami who love wine and cigars. There was a woman from Canada and a young couple from Silicon Valley. And on and on. People have such amazing stories. Wine-wise, they all have different tastes, of course. Some only like sweeter wines, like Muscat Canelli. Some don’t like Pinot Noir, some shy away from Cabernet Sauvignon. G-S-M is new to almost all of them. Most are eager to learn, and of course one does one’s best to share information with them in a respectful manner. It being a Saturday, in this last gasp of summer, the tasting room was very crowded..
One thing I noticed is that sometimes people are shy about asking questions about wine. You don’t want to lecture them in a high-handed way; you want to respect their privacy and personal space. So it’s a balancing act: you infer when it’s appropriate to talk about the wine and, if so, to what degree. With most of the people, I found that even the reticent ones opened up once the conversation got flowing, and then their wine questions and observations came out. As I’ve always instinctively known, but have to constantly remind myself, there are no dumb questions about wine.
Everybody’s shocked, shocked about what Rudi Kurwanian did, but faking wine is nothing new. Below is an extract from Cato the Elder (234 BC-149 BC), a Roman statesman, on how to fake Coan wine—a wine that should have been made from grapes grown on the island of Kos, but that, as Cato points out, can be fabricated using cheap Italian grapes. The addition of all the salt water was because Coan wine apparently was salty, perhaps like Manzanilla sherry.
“If you wish to make Coan wine (Cato says), take water from the deep sea on a calm and windless day, seventy days before the vintage, from a place where no fresh water can reach. When you have drawn it from the sea, pour it into a vat. Do not fill the vat, but leave an empty space of five amphorae [about 30 gallons]. Cover up the vat, but leave a space for the sea water to breathe. After thirty days, rack it off cleanly into another vat, leaving its sediment. After another twenty days, rack it again and leave it till the vintage.
“Leave the grapes from which you intend to make your Coan wine on the vines, and let them be thoroughly cooked and ripened. When it has rained and dried up again, pick them and expose them to the sun for two or three days out of doors if there is no rain, or if there is rain set them out on hurdles under cover, and pick off any moldy berries. Then pour ten amphorae of your sea water into a fifty-amphorae cask. Then remove the berries from the stalks and press them down into the cask with your hand until it is full, so that they may soak up the sea water. When you have filled the cask, close it, leaving a small space for the air to pass. After three days, take the grapes out of the cask, press them and store the wine in good, clean, dry casks.
“That it may have a good bouquet, do as follows: Take a pitched potsherd and put on it a glowing live coal, perfume it with various scents to be found at the perfumery, put it in a cask and cover it up, so that the fragrance may not escape before you put it in the wine. Do this the day before you rack your wine into the cask. Transfer your wine from the press to the cask as quickly as possible and leave it for fifteen days with a cover, leaving an air space, and then seal it up. Forty days later you will bottle it in amphorae, adding to each amphora a forty-eighth part of must boiled down to one half. Do not fill the amphora above the point where the handles start. Put your amphorae out in the sun in a place where there is no grass, cover them so that no moisture can get in, and do not leave them in the sun more than four days. Then remove them to the cellar.”
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So you see, counterfeiting wine is just about as old as wine itself.
By the way, speaking of the Ancients, when they described their wine, in their treatises and poems, they didn’t use the kind of language we do today, which is of comparatively recent derivation. (I mean the analogies to fruits and flowers, and talk of acidity and tannins and oak.) Our winespeak would have puzzled them, perhaps even appalled them, as hopelessly mean and barbarian. They saw wine as a gift of the gods, and when they wrote of it, they tried to grasp—sometimes with success—its essential mystery as well as its divine properties. They did not attempt to describe what wine tasted like (as we do) so much as what drinking it felt like (as we do not). Here, for example, is Bacchylides, a Greek poet who lived around the time of Socrates and Alexander the Great, on a certain wine:
“Sweet compulsion flowing from the wine warms the heart, and hope of Love returned, all mingled with the gifts of Dionysus darts through the brain, sending the thoughts of men to heights supreme. Straightway it overthrows the battlements of cities, and every man dreams that he is heir to a throne. With gold, yea, and ivory, his house is gleaming, and wheat-laden ships bring him from Egypt over the flashing sea, wealth beyond count. Thus does the drinker’s heart leap with fancies.”
Are we better off with “notes of blackberries and cherries”? Not really. But we’re stuck with it, for the time being.
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.
But it wasn’t always. If you came of age before the era of Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, you might be surprised to learn that, until comparatively recently, men were considered genetically and temperamentally unfit to cook.
That was certainly true when I was a little boy. Mom’s place was in the kitchen. Dad’s place was in front of the T.V., there to remain until Mom announced, “Dinner’s ready.” The only time dads were allowed to cook was in the backyard, over the barbecue.
I was reminded of all this when I bought a book in one of our great used bookstores in Oakland. “Cooks, Gluttons and Gourmets” was written by Betty Watson and published in 1962–well before the modern era of cooking began. Fifty one years ago, “cuisine” in America meant French food, snootily served in restaurants with heavy red leather banquettes. Italian meant lasagna, Chinese meant chop suey, Jewish meant corned beef, and that was that. It was the age of iceberg lettuce and frozen T.V. dinners. And nobody had ever heard of Julia Child.
In the 1960s that began to change, albeit quite slowly at first. “It was the popularity of outdoor barbecues that led most American husbands to take an interest in cookery,” Watson writes. “While the kitchen had come to be regarded as woman’s sphere from frontier days onward, cooking out of doors was different. It reminded grown men of Boy Scout days when they roasted hot dogs over campfires. [!!!] Building up a good fire in the charcoal grill was thoroughly masculine. So was the cooking of a steak.”
We’ve come a long way, babycakes! Building a good fire always makes me feel more masculine.
Yet Watson, in her research for the book, was “astonish[ed]…to learn…that cooking in ancient Greece was regarded as an art and cooks were men of stature.” For emphasis, she adds, “Men, yes–note that.” Citing Athenaeus, a second century Greek writer, she refers to his masterwork, Deipnosophistae, in which he “mentions by name twenty authors of cookery books and not one by a woman.”
(Incidentally, here’s one of Athenaneus’s recipes, for Gastris, a sweet nut cake:
Ingredients: 100g each of poppy seeds, ground walnuts, ground hazelnuts and ground almonds; 100g of dried and stoned dates and dried figs; 150g sesame seeds; 75g clear honey; 1/2 tsp ground black pepper; Olive Oil .
Chop the dates and figs then place in a pan with 30ml of the honey, 4 tbsp water and a little olive oil. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the fruits are soft. Take off the heat and allow to cool, then turn into a mortar and pound in the ground poppy seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and black pepper until your have a smooth, thick, dough-like paste. Turn into a pan and cook until the dough is thick and of a consistency that can be rolled out. Roll out the fruit and nut paste and cut into squares. Heat the remaining honey in a pan, dip the fruit and nut paste in this then coat in the sesame seeds.)
Men were the chefs to royalty for most of history, and even royalty took a turn in the kitchen. Peter the Great “would often go into the kitchens to knead bread dough with his own hands or pour cheese into molds,” Watson writes. Thomas Jefferson was as interested in food and cooking as he was in wine. Watson tells us he introduced spaghetti into the Americas, was “the first to serve French fries with beefsteak” (and we can imagine that at one time French fries were considered special), “the first to use vanilla as a flavoring,” and “learned to make ice cream while in France, writing down the recipe in his own hand…He imported olive trees” and grew “many rare vegetables such as broccoli and asparagus.” Once in the White House, he “personally supervised the planning of state dinners.” Can you imagine a modern U.S. President being a foodie? He’d be mercilessly mocked, especially by Fox News.
When did men drop out of the kitchen? It seems to have been a by-product of the Industrial Age and of the rise of American capitalism. The man was expected to leave the home early in the morning, work all day, and come home, late and hungry. The little woman was expected to remain barefoot and in the kitchen, and have dinner ready for her man. (See almost any episode of “Mad Men” with Betty Draper in it.) This model remained the dominant one throughout the first half, even the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.
By the 1980s, it definitely had changed. Why? Historians of American culture will have the last word on that. Certainly the re-entry of the man into the kitchen paralleled the rise of the boutique winery movement in California. I can’t prove it, but I suspect the two were related.
When Merry Edwards asked me to introduce her at her induction Feb. 18 for the Vintners Hall of Fame, my first question was “Why me?” I was obviously honored, but really had no idea why Merry selected yours truly.
Her reply: “Because you’re an historian.”
Well, my reaction was, “I’m a wine critic.” I didn’t say that, but the thought instantly rose in my head. Somehow, Merry calling me “an historian” seemed to cast my role as a wine critic into a secondary light. And I take being a wine critic very seriously: rating and reviewing wine is the essence of what I do for a living.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how silly that thought was. After all, Merry knows me, not just as someone who reviews her wines, but as the author of A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California, in which she has her own chapter. So to Merry, I’m as much an historian as I am a critic.
And then it occurred to me: Why do we pigeonhole ourselves into categories anyway? Critic–historian–writer–journalist–blogger–these are all part and parcel of what I do. They’re just words for the totality of my love for, and interest in, wine and writing.
Actually, in terms of which came first, Merry’s right: I was an historian of wine well before I was a wine critic. I mean, in the sense that I’d made reading about the history of wine a consuming interest in my life by the late 1970s, ten years before I was ever paid to write about wine. I’m glad that, by the time I took wine writing on as a career, I’d built up a very extensive knowledge of wine history through the reading of books. That gave me a basis later on for making qualitative judgments about wine. I was able to understand that wine is (among other things) a hierarchy. There is nothing fundamentally democratic about wine, other than the fact that anyone can drink it. (Thank goodness.) Wine always has been about elitism: if you were wealthy you could afford to drink better wine than a poor man, because it costs money to produce a quality wine. It did when the Caesars had their favorites (which presumably few others could buy), and it still does. In fact, the history of Western civilization can largely be told through the spread of wine from its ancestral homeland somewhere in the Caucasus up the river valleys of Europe and, thence, to the New World.
It frightens me to think that there probably are wine “critics” out there right now–blogging away–who don’t possess a single good book on wine. Worse yet: it frightens me that there are wine writers whose chief resource is Google. I can’t imagine anything more contrary to the spirit of wine to have someone send you a sample of, say, a Muscadet, and then Google it in order to know what you’re drinking. This isn’t because there’s anything fundamentally wrong with a quick Internet search. I use Google all the time. But I use my library more. Why is a real library “better” (in every sense I can think of) than Google? Because I have inhaled my wine books until their information informs my DNA like genetic code. The patient acquisition of detailed knowledge, lovingly and painstakingly assembled over many years, can’t possibly be compared to a quick Google search. That is an insult to all great wine writers, living or dead.
And so I gratefully acceded to Merry’s request. To put her contributions in wine into historical perspective (and let us hope Merry’s career extends as far forward into the future as it does into the past), one must know the history, not only of California wine, but of world wine in general. One must understand, also, how Merry sees her own place in history (which is the purpose of the pre-interview). The history of wine involves elements from almost every aspect of human study, from anthropology to chemistry to religion to gender studies. It’s so much more than “Here’s what I think.”
Grub Street, the San Francisco food blog, is reporting that “Masa’s, the fine dining staple opened by chef Masataka Kobayashi in 1983, is closing after 30 years.”
Masa’s is, of course, the Michelin-starred, legendarily expensive ($154 five-course wine-and-food tasting menu) restaurant, north of Union Square, that’s lured in generations of foodies. For sheer luxe, it’s had few rivals.
Founder Masataka worked at Auberge du Soleil before launching his eponymous restaurant. He was found murdered in 1984, a crime that has never been solved; subsequent chefs have been a who’s who of culinary superstardom (Julian Serrano, Ron Siegel, Gregory Short). Masa’s wine list was as celebrated as its food.
Why is Masa’s closing? Grub Street blames it on “formal, tablecloth’d fine dining [that] has gone out of fashion.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Inside Scoop” food columnist, Paolo Lucchesi, reports that the building’s owner “wants to install a more casual restaurant in the space.”
In San Francisco, many high-end restaurants have shuttered their doors over the years: Trader Vic’s, Stars, Charles Nob Hill, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton among others. All were hit by changes in taste that made them victims in the highly-competitive restaurant world, which depends on fickle customers always looking for the next hot spot. In the case of Masa’s, the Great Recession provided the coup de grace that finally put Masa’s out of its misery.
In fact, the continuing effects of the Recession are hurting restaurants nationwide. On Friday, Nation’s Restaurant News reported, via Lewis Perdue’s News Fetch, that “Restaurant operators [are] downbeat as sales, traffic soften.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that high-end restaurants are on the verge of extinction. For every Masa’s that closes, a replacement opens: Hakkasan, The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse, Katsu. Local reviewers go wild, and those able and willing to afford them flock to their doors.
Yet you have to wonder, how long will they last? Ten years? Fifteen? Or, like Masa’s, thirty? These numbers seem highly unlikely; a restaurant’s life span is getting shorter, not longer.
Which brings us to the subject of cult wines.
I would imagine that the proprietors of cult wines, especially Napa Valley Cabs, like to think their brands will be around for a long time. After all, Lafite is still here after, what? 700 years? (“the estate was the property of Gombaud de Lafite in 1234” – Alexis Lichine)
But many a Napa cult winery is no longer as culty as it once was. We must assume that some of the famous names in Napa were hit hard during the Recession, and that it was only the owners’ deep pockets that enabled them to hang on. Their hope was that, with recovery would come improved sales, at traditional prices.
Yet are these expensive cults not the wine equivalents of Masa’s, “formal, tablecloth’d” wines that just may be out of step with today’s more casual approach? People, especially younger ones, are looking for things other than show-offy wines: they want wines of interest, of deliciousness, from all over the world, wines that are different and unique and that tell a story and are easy to drink with food. Above all, they want wines that are affordable. I believe that the weltanschauung of wine has shifted irrevocably, due not only to the Recession but to changes in America’s demographics. We are rapidly becoming poorer and less white, changes that cannot bode well for super-expensive wines. In a sense—and I don’t mean to get political here, but it’s just the truth—some of these cult wines are like the Republican Party, out of step with the mainstream of where America is going. That’s why they lost so badly in the 2012 elections, and that’s why cult wines may be endangered in the next ten or twenty years.
Some will survive and even prosper. Brands as powerful and embedded as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate likely are the Lafites of Napa Valley, and will be with us for a very long time (assuming their family ownership wishes to continue them). But I have to tell you, there are a lot of Masa’s in Napa Valley—wines that were hugely popular in their day, but are now increasingly anachronistic.