subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Closure of Masa’s raises questions about cult wines


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.

Playing “what if?” with California wine regions


It’s really an accident of history that we here in the U.S. and in California decided to name wines by grape variety rather than by region.

We have Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and so on. In Europe, of course, it’s a different story. There (for the most part) they named wines after the regions they came from: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sancerre, Champagne, Chianti, Barolo, Rheingau, Ribero del Duero, etc.

The reasons why California went the varietal route as opposed to the regional route are many and complex. It made sense to men like Frank Schoonmaker, in the 1930s, following the Repeal of Prohibition, to get away from the false and misleading names of California wines like “Claret,” “Burgundy”, “Port” and “California Champagne”, and take a more honest varietal approach. Their hearts and minds were in the right place: simple, candid truth-telling on the label.

Unfortunately, it seems not to have occurred to them to name California wines after their regions. Think how everything would be so different if we’d chosen names like Oakville, or Glen Ellen [the town, not the wine brand], or Salinas Valley, or Geyserville, or Los Olivos, or Oakley, or Edna Valley.

If that had happened, we might have developed a regional-varietal family coordination like they had in Europe. Instead of having Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Tempranillos, etc. with an Oakley appellation, the pioneers of post-Prohibition viticulture and enology might have figured out that a red blend based on 2, 3 or 4 varieties worked best for their climate and soils. You’d be able to say “Oakley Red Wine” and know exactly what that meant, same as “Pauillac” means a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. As things now stand, however, “Oakley Red Wine” could be anything.

Red blends have become quite the thing lately, with more and more wineries mixing varieties willy-nilly. Some of them aren’t very good, and I get the feeling the wineries do it because they had the grapes or bulk wine available and couldn’t think of anything better to do except to stick them in a big tank and call the resulting wine some wacko name. Marketing departments also get involved, perhaps advising their employers that problems with existing varietals suggest staying out of that game. For example, the market’s already crowded with Cabernet. Syrah doesn’t sell. Nobody wants Zinfandel anymore. No one’s ever heard of Tempranillo. And we can’t call lit Moscato because it’s not. And so on and so forth.

However, there are some really wonderful blends out there. To mention a few, Seghesio San Lorenzo Estate, which is Zinfandel and Petite Sirah; Krupp 2009 The Doctor (Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cab Franc); Chateau Potelle 2009 Explorer The Illegitimate (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah), Shafer 2009 Relentless (Syrah, Petite Sirah).

Is it good or not so good that California went down the varietal path instead of the regional one? Hard to say. The government developed a system of American Viticultural Areas that kinda sorta looked to the French appellation system as a model, but differs from it in that the Tax and Trade Bureau doesn’t have any quality standards for an AVA. So really, an appellation doesn’t mean very much. Still, it’s fun to play “What if?” And there’s this, too: some of our better appellations have become so varietal- or varietal family-specific that they’re practically synonomous. Say “Napa Valley red wine” and most people will think of Cabernet or a Bordeaux blend. Say “Santa Rita Hills red wine” and most people will think of Pinot Noir. Say “Amador County red wine” and most people will think of Zinfandel. So, in a way, despite the fluctuations and randomness of human decision making, grape variety and region find each other in a most serendipitous way.

Where’s Napa Valley’s next Great Leap Forward in the 21st century?


I am, as many of you know, something of a student of the history of wine, and of California wine in particular. I’ve always had a hankering for history–any era, any country–although I do have my favorites: World War II is one (I have almost as many books on that as I do on wine), and I also enjoy the history of science, especially of modern physics. But my wine education began with a study of California’s wine history, and it’s still going on. That’s the thing about history: it keeps on happening.

I’m mindful of this, because I’ve been thinking about how Francis Ford Coppola is engaged in restoring the historic Inglenook name, which really had been dreadfully mauled over the years, since it passed from the hands of the great John Daniel, Jr. to a series of corporate owners, including United Vintners, Heublein, Constellation and The Wine Group. No disrespect to any of those fine companies, but that’s a pretty sad track record for a winery that had been as great as Inglenook, which was founded in 1879 and therefore has a legacy as important as any winery in California.

When I first started learning about wine, Inglenook already was in its dog days. It was mainly known for the Inglenook Navalle bottling, which hardly was great wine. Those of us who knew history appreciated and respected Inglenook for what it had been, not what it was. We hoped that, someday, the glory that was Inglenook would be restored. But that seemed impossible. Even after Francis Ford Coppola successfully repatched together the original Inglenook estate vineyard, in Rutherford, with a series of purchases, the name “Inglenook” seemed deader than a doorknob. Coppola named his brand Rubicon, not Inglenook, because he didn’t own the rights.

That’s now changed, and is why it was so exciting to hear that Coppola had bought back the Inglenook name (from The Wine Group) and plans on resurrecting it for the wines that had been Rubicon Estate.

Inglenook was one of the Big Four that kept the reputation of Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon going, post-Prohibition. The others were Louis M. Martini (now owned by Gallo), Beaulieu (Diageo) and Charles Krug, which thankfully remains in the hands of the Peter Mondavi, Sr. family. Each of these wineries is doing fine, although concerning Martini, I think the jury’s still out on precisely where the Gallos aim to take it. Beaulieu has been left marvelously intact by Diageo, who understands the truth of the old adage, If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, and Charles Krug remains an outstanding exemplar of how good Napa wine can be at relatively affordable prices. Still, I think it’s fair to say that none of those three wineries has aspired to be the very best in Napa Valley.

Which leaves Rubicon/Inglenook. Can Coppola push it back to the top? I, personally, have always thought a great deal of Rubicon, the Bordeaux blend that was the Rubicon winery’s flagship wine. The old estate vineyard, west of Highway 29 on the Rutherford Bench, is one of the glories of Napa Valley, just beautifully situated. I’ve always given very high scores to Rubicon (culminating in 95 points for the 2008, which I reviewed last October), and I’ve also always enjoyed the Cask Cabernet Sauvignon, which is consciously modeled after Daniels’ Cabs, made during Inglenook’s glory days in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. That Cask Cabernet, for my money, is pretty much right up there with Rubicon, although it’s a different kind of wine, more closed in youth and, overall, more elegant. But it’s also $100 less.

When I think back over Napa Valley’s amazing history, I’m grateful to those who came later, but advanced the cause. Robert Mondavi clearly stands out, head and shoulders above anyone else in the second half of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of André Tchelistcheff. But we don’t have to choose between them. I also give great credit to Bill Harlan. He came along at a point when pretty much everybody thought Napa Cabernet was as good as it can get, and then he made it better. Without Bill, I wonder if there would be Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Staglin, Hundred Acre, Colgin and all the rest of what we nowadays consider “cult wineries.” Bill Harlan showed that Napa could reinvent itself, even when nobody thought it needed reinventing.

Sodden thought: I wonder what Napa’s next reinvention will be, and who will lead it?

Bring back the Greek Symposium!


My friend Ryan Flinn, who is Bloomberg News’ San Francsco correspondent, alerted me to this article describing research done by a professor on “wine drinking cups over a 500-year period in ancient Athens” and how “[c]hanges in cup form and design point to political, social and economic shifts.” It’s a fascinating bit of original research, part of what seems to be new interest on the part of scholars in the culture of wine (think of that exhibit at San Francisco MOMA on How Wine Became Modern).

In the study of wine drinking cups (they weren’t called wine “glasses” because most of them were made of clay or metal), the professor, Kathleen Lynch, focused especially on the Symposium. Lovers of the classics will recognize the Symposium as the name of one of Plato’s philosophical books, but the word “Symposium” referred to a specific Greek practice that lasted “nearly a millennia”: an all-male drinking party.

In Plato’s Symposium, the men, who included Socrates, were required to drink (no teetotalers, please), and each in turn had to deliver a speech, in this case, in praise of love. The format seems not to have changed much over the centuries, but the kinds of wine cups the men employed did; and from an examination of them, Lynch is able to make inferences about shifts in the culture of “the ancient world’s ultimate cocktail parties, with established rituals and rules.”

The Symposium changed over time. At first, “The drinking gatherings (symposia) were reserved for the elite,” but over time, “the democratization of the political and social arenas” led to “the democratization of the symposium.” Didn’t the same thing happen in more modern times? In the 18th, 19th and for most of the 20th century, fine wine was reserved for a thin upper crust that ruled society. By the end of the 20th century, the love of wine had permeated the middle classes, with the result that the America of 2011 can be described as a wine-drinking nation. But by the time of Alexander the Great, in the period that represented the end of classical Greek culture, “the [Symposium] practice was again the prerogative of the elites as a luxury and display of ostentatious consumption.” Interesting…

(Another feature of Greek drinking habits was that, as time went forward, “The overall number of wine-drinking vessels increased dramatically.” Think Riedel.)

Lynch, in her study, didn’t deal with one of my favorite parts of the ancient Greek Symposium: the game called Kottabos. Hugh Johnson describes it in Vintage: The Story of Wine. Symposium participants–suitably inebriated, one assumes–would throw the dregs from their wine cups, from some distance away, at “a special stand…with a tiny statuette on top with its arm held aloft. On the hand, precariously balanced, went a faintly concave bronze disc. Halfway up the stand [was] fixed a much larger bronze disc. The idea…was to dislodge the top disc [with the dregs], so that it fell and hit the lower one…which when hit rang like a bell…Kottabos became the rage,” Mr. Johnson writes, “for no less than 300 years…”.

I’m trying to find our modern day equivalent of the Symposium and having some problems. It’s not at all like the big wine and food dinners a lot of us get invited to, like at the World of Pinot Noir, or the Wine Bloggers or Wine Writers conventions, or meet the winemaker dinners at great restaurants, or the big, fancy auctions that end in a fabulous meal. Those are formal affairs; guests typically don’t know each other, and much energy is spent just breaking the ice. At these things, because people aren’t really friends, but simply find themselves at the same place together, there’s a tendency to keep the subject matter light and, one might say, irrelevant. That’s completely in contrast to the spirit of the Symposium, which was deep personal conversation.

We also gather to drink wine at family occasions, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, and while we all do know each other–oftentimes too well–these are hardly occasions for philosophical deliberation and relaxation. (The stress of these big family get-togethers is a staple of TV and radio psychology talk shows during the holiday season.)

In a way, the Symposium reminds me of the classical literary salon, defined here, at Wikipedia, as “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase their [sic] knowledge of the participants through conversation.” I always wanted to have a salon. In my fantasy, I live in a big house with a garden and terrace overlooking San Francisco Bay (I was in Gordon Getty’s mansion a couple times and that’s what I have in mind). My salon guests are stimulating, outgoing, thoughtful, intelligent, successful at their careers and amusing; among them would be a few chosen for their beauty. (Needless to say, the “men only” rule would be dispensed with!) I’d have the heat on if it was cold, so nobody had to overdress. We would relax on couches, and I–as host–would define the topic. “Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to discourse on–” it could be anything. I’d have dainty little plates of tapas to munch, and only the greatest wines would be served (not by slaves, as was often the case in Greece). Around midnight, things would start getting interesting. We might even play Kottabos!

kottabos player about to toss his dregs

A trip down memory lane


With Fess Parker’s death, which was announced by the family yesterday, I started thinking about all the wonderful people who helped shape the modern California wine industry — not way-old-timey people like Harazsthy or Georges de Latour, but the ones who, from the 1960s onward, pushed, pulled, promoted and did whatever they had to do to boost quality, and then let the world know what California could do.

Coincidentally, there came to me yesterday an email press release from Napa Valley College and the Culinary Institute of America announcing a special May 8 dinner in honor of Belle and Barney Rhodes, to “celebrate the[ir] significant contributions and impact…”.

Now, I suspect a lot of you never heard of Belle and Barney Rhodes, who are a married couple. But I want to tell you a little about them, and about some of their friends, who, in the 1960s, were directly responsible for helping make Napa Valley what it is today. (If you’re interested in attending the dinner, you can contact Holly Krassner at 707-252-7281, or

I first heard about Belle and Barney when I read through all of Harry Waugh’s wine diaries, 30 years ago. Harry was a Brit who was long connected with the London wine merchant and auctioneer, Harveys of Bristol, and also was a director of Chateau Latour. Born in 1904, he was already of considerable age when he received an invitation to visit Napa Valley. This had occurred after he ran into Fred and Eleanor McCrea, who had started Stony Hill, one evening in London. They invited him to visit next time Harry was in the States, and Harry dutifully set off his journey, in the Spring of 1969.

Harry already had made the acquaintance of William Dickerson, who ran the “First Growth Group,” a like-minded group of wealthy connoisseurs in San Francisco. Dickerson, learning of Harry’s impending visit, arranged for Harry to meet with Joe Heitz on his Napa trip. Harry’s plane landed on March 28, and who was at SFO to meet him? None other than Belle and Barney Rhodes.

Belle and Barney showed Harry everything there was to know about the wine scene back then. They took him to Esquin’s (later Draper & Esquin’s), the city’s finest wine shop (long since shut). They introduced him to Milt and Barbara Eisele, and served to him “an entirely new name to me [Harry wrote], a Schramsberg, elegant, distinguished and very good indeed.” That was only one of the vinous revelations Harry discovered on that trip. He tasted Louis M. Martini Cabernets from 1955, 1952, 1951 and 1947 (preferring the latter), and three white wines made from another winery Harry never heard of, Hanzell. He tasted the Mendocino wines of John Parducci, and met Dr. Richard Peterson, then Beaulieu’s winemaster (and father of Heidi Peterson Barrett), who served him a Tchelistcheff 1968 Pinot Noir, which he (Harry) called “a huge rich wine…I would like to lay my hands on a case of this.” The Rhodeses also took Harry to meet a rising star vintner, Robert Mondavi…to Buena Vista, in Sonoma Valley…to Mayacamas, where he was hosted by Bob and Noni Travers and declared their 1967 Cabernet “another for my collection.”

I could go on and on, but the important point is that, when Harry went back to Europe, he talked up California wine to “the right people,” at a time when the smart money in London (and, by extension, Paris and Bordeaux) thought California produced nothing but movie stars and plonk.

The Rhodeses were to host Harry several more times on subsequent visits, and in his books Harry always referred to “the Rhodeses splendid kindness to me.” Years later, on yet another visit, they took him to “an extremely popular restaurant called Mustard’s,” and introduced him to yet another generation of boutique winemakers: the Trefethens, Cakebreads, Joe Phelps, Ric Forman from Sterling, Freemark Abbey, Dominus. And once again, Harry wrote about these wines, and connoisseurs the world over learned about Napa Valley, and the excellence of its wines, from an enthusiastic Harry, who probably would not have understood without Belle and Barney Rhodes to guide him.

It was my great privilege to travel for a week with Harry through Washington State, when he was already nearly 90 years old and a little shaky, and the state wine commission asked me to help him (he had come entirely alone). I feel connected to much in the past through reading Harry Waugh’s books and from actually having known him. Nobody should dwell on the past for very long, but it’s worth remembering, from time to time, that we didn’t just get here automatically, like Athena springing from Zeus’s brow. People, like Belle and Barney Rhodes and Harry Waugh, make things happen.

Next Entries »

Recent Comments

Recent Posts