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Global warming, Dungeness crab and congratulations to Lodi!

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It’s really shocking that State officials here in California have postponed the start of Dungeness crab season, and may have to cancel it altogether, due to the presence in the crabs of a neurotoxin, apparently as a result of the warm ocean temperatures offshore in advance of the coming El Nino.

Dungeness crab is not only a San Francisco tradition, it’s a multi-million dollar industry that employs, directly and indirectly, thousands of people. I can remember my first taste of the sweet crustacean. It must have been the late 1970s, maybe 1980. I’d invited an old college buddy over to my place. I had the crab (and sourdough bread and butter). He brought a split of Meursault. That was one of those wine-and-food pairings that lives on in my memory.

This whole climate change phenomenon is really gathering force. I’m still reading—slowly and delightedly—Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, where it seems as if every section on regions mentions “global warming” that is heating up Europe’s vineyards and has made England a wine-producing country. Without wading politically into the global warming mire, it does seem odd to me that in Europe the concept of man-made global warming has more or less been accepted by everyone, as opposed to this country, where—well, you know.

Other than warmer oceans, what have been the effects of climate change on the land and the vineyards? Dramatically warmer nights (not necessarily warmer days) are leading to earlier and earlier harvests. (I don’t know if the drought is a result of climate change. California has periodic droughts; when I moved here, in 1978, we were in the middle of a huge one.)

* * *

Moving right along: I did a little tasting yesterday of inexpensive, supermarket Cabernet Sauvignon from California, and was pleasantly surprised. It seems to be a lot easier to make a good $10 or $12 Cabernet than it is to make a good Merlot or Chardonnay at the same price. What is it about Cabernet Sauvignon that lets that be so? Is that why they call it a “noble” variety? But they say Pinot Noir also is noble, and you know that there is no good $10 California Pinot Noir out there. Cabernet ripens easily, is pretty resistant to mold, produces in good quantities, and can grow well even in the Central Valley (hence all the “California” appellations on these bottlings). Speaking of which, I was surprised, but kind of happy, to see Wine Enthusiast choose Lodi as their Wine Region of the Year (not that I’m saying Lodi is in the Central Valley. But it’s close).

I haven’t tasted much Lodi wine over the last 8 years or so, ever since Virginie Boone came to Wine Enthusiast and took over that territory, but it’s safe to say I hadn’t been much of a fan up to then, anyhow. The wines always seemed boring to me—industrial wines, sound, varietally proper, but blah. But that was years ago, and I’m prepared to believe they’re doing good, artisanal things in that complicated, fairly large AVA-in-the-Delta. Way to go, Lodi.

Chalone Doldrums



It has been terribly sad, for a veteran wine guy like me, to witness the trials and tribulations of Chalone Vineyard over the years. When I first got into this racket, in the late 1970s, Chalone was respected as one of the pioneering Pinot Noir houses in California. Bob Thompson, in 1980, gave it four stars—his highest ranking—and said the “splendidly isolated winery…under direction of Richard Graff” was producing “one of California’s closest challengers to red Burgundy.” That same year, Olken, Singer and Roby, in The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wine, praised this “much revered winery” whose “best [wine] continues to be superb.” Even fifteen years later (1995), Jim Laube, in California Wine, was praising Chalone’s Pinot Noirs as “great wines, capable of long aging,” but a hint of critical negativity was beginning to creep in: the wines, Jim added, “are also austere and often tannic to a fault.” The cracks in Chalone’s reputation were showing.

That accorded with my own experiences of the wines; the highest score I was ever able to give a Chalone Pinot Noir was 90 points, for the 2004, although I always found the Chardonnays richer and better. It’s fair to say, I think, that by the new Millennium, Chalone had firmly fallen out of favor among critics as a producer of great California Pinot Noir, eclipsed as it was by dozens of top houses extending from Santa Barbara County on up through the Anderson Valley (and, beyond California, to the Willamette Valley).

What was the problem? My own suspicion always was that Chalone, located politically in the Monterey County town of Soledad (think: Salinas Valley chill) but physically situated 1,800-2,000 feet up in the eastern Gavilan (or Gabilan) Mountains, was too hot a place for Pinot Noir. It might have been thought of as a “coastal” growing region, but it really wasn’t; Chalone’s own website describes the vineyard as “Region IV” in warmer years, a temperature span that U.C. Davis defines as measuring up to 4,000 degree days per year, which is suitable, says the website CalWineries, not for Pinot Noir, or even Zinfandel for that matter, but for “Malvasia [and] Thompson Seedless.”

On the plus side, the Chalone AVA soils are pockmocked with limestone (as they are at Calera, not too far away), and the nights are quite cool, with a diurnal swing of as much as 50 degrees. But those summer daytime high temperatures can be brutal. To my way of thinking, the hot climate and exaggerated U.V. sunlight at that altitude make the grapes develop thick skins—hence Laube’s “tannic to a fault.” The wines lacked delicacy and charm. And over the past twenty years or so, rugged tannins—once the darling of critics, whether in Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir—have fallen out of favor.

Poor Chalone suffered, too, in its ownership. Long held by Diageo, after the original founders passed from the scene, Chalone seemed to descend into a netherworld of three-tier doldrums. It maintained a visible presence in the marketplace, not, unfortunately, by dint of quality, but through the force of Diageo’s marketing and advertising budget: most of the major wine and food magazines ran frequent “advertorials” on Chalone (and Diageo’s other California properties, including Beaulieu and Sterling); I should know, because I wrote some of them. When a wine writer is paid to write an advertorial (which never reveals the writer’s byline), he must think of pleasant things to say about the wines: not so easy, in Chalone’s case.

Therefore it was not surprising to read, yesterday, that when Diageo sold a portion of its wine portfolio to Treasury, Treasury “turned down the offer to buy Chalone.”

Why? It’s true that Treasury didn’t want or need tons more Chardonnay, which Chalone produces plenty of, to add to its portfolio. Still, the snub added insult to injury. Now, Diageo, which pretty much wants out of the wine business, is seeking to sell Chalone to someone else.

Exactly who that someone else might be cannot be known until a buyer steps forward. Chalone is a large winery (166,000 cases last year), making it difficult to absorb if not indigestible; and, as Shanken News Daily also reported, given that it has “lost steam over the last few years,” why anyone would want it is a good question. Chalone does still have a strong brand presence, particularly in off-premise markets such as supermarkets. Throw in some recipe cards and manager’s specials, and the cash flow would seem to be there, provided the retail price is right. So I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Chalone by any means.

But we have seen the last of its glory days, which are rapidly disappearing in the rear view mirror. Could someone come along and resurrect Chalone to greatness? I really don’t think so, and it’s not just the terroir. Like Beaulieu, like Sterling, like so many other once-boutique wineries that got caught up in the corporate shuffle, Chalone made the decision to go for quantity over quality. That decision, once made, tends to be irreversible.

Why should no-tipping work in NYC when it didn’t in SF?



New York restaurateur Danny Meyer certainly made headlines yesterday when he announced that he’s eliminating tipping at all 13 of his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants.

The move caught the restaurant world by storm. Eater said it “would forever change how diners dine.” Slate blogger Jordan Weissman cracked that it “could be a tipping point.” Tim Zagat, of the Guide, quoted in the Daily News, said, “It means a lot…Danny Meyer knows what he’s doing [and] you better take him seriously.”

Well, of course, if someone in New York does something, it must be groundbreaking, right? New York is after all The Big Apple and as the Big Apple goes, so goes the nation.

Except…California did it first. Chez Panisse and The French Laundry have long included the tip in the price of the meal, but you could argue that those are exceptions because they’re not normal “restaurants,” they’re dining Disneylands. But earlier this year a flurry of other Bay Area restaurants followed suit: Trou Normand (love their charcuterie), Toast and Camino (both here in Oakland), the celebrated Atelier Crenn, Homestead and Bar Agricole, in the red-hot Mission District, and others.

But guess what? As I write these words, Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, broke the news that Thad Vogler, owner of both Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, “is ending his experiment and returning to the conventional model” of tipping.

Vogler’s reasons? “Staff retention.” He had assumed that other restaurants in San Francisco would follow his lead, but they didn’t. That meant his servers could make more money working elsewhere, so they quit. “[O]ur staff wasn’t happy,” Vogler said, adding, “[I]t felt like we were forcing an ideological decision” down their throats.

(I asked a friend of mine who works at Bar Agricole along with her husband, neither of whom is currently wait staff, how they felt about it, and she said they’re both in favor of ending the no-tipping policy.)

How do I feel about it? Well, last February, when the no-tipping trend really started getting reported about in the Bay Area, I blogged that “I’m in favor.” I had been getting most of my 9-1-1 on the topic from Bauer’s writings, and Bauer had eagerly embraced no tipping: Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit,” he wrote. But in retrospect, I didn’t really think things through carefully enough. And neither, apparently, did Bauer: in his post today, Bauer seems to be moving slightly away from his earlier embrace, remarking that “Not everybody is ready” to go to a no-tipping policy: restaurateurs, employees or consumers.

I can see that the move away from tipping is an attempt at modernizing a very old, and perhaps anachronistic, tradition that dates to at least the early 18th century. But I do wonder why the no-tipping policy should work for Danny Meyer in New York when it didn’t for Thad Vogler in San Francisco. Good servers, of the sort who work at Bar Agricole or Meyer’s Union Square Café, are at least as hard to find, and retain, in New York as they are in San Francisco. I wonder if, a year from now or less, we’ll hear Danny Meyer confess that, like Thad Vogler, he’s ending his noble experiment, and for the same reason.

The White House goes screwy! (Screwtop, that is)



Good for President Obama for choosing to serve a screwtop wine at last Friday’s State Dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping. I do believe that’s a first for this White House, or any other for that matter.

Historically, the White House has served very expensive wines, finished with corks, at State Dinners. For a long time, these wines were mainly French. Thomas Jefferson served Lafite Rothschild; JFK served Haut-Brion Blanc; and when Nixon was President, he loved Chateau Margaux, although an anecdote revealed in Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men” told how Tricky Dick would have his butlers discretely pour him Margaux, wrapped in a white cloth napkin, while the other guests got Mouton Cadet.

That all began to change during Reagan’s administration (he was justifiably proud of California wines), and today, it would be very strange for a President to pour foreign wine, unless it was from the country of the visiting dignitary (at last week’s Xi-fest, for example, the White House served Chinese Shaoxing rice wine). Many are the California wineries that proudly display a menu in their tasting room or office showing how and when one of its wines was served at the White House. And, of course, these tended to be expensive wines.

Four years ago, Republicans predictably and harshly criticized Obama for serving an expensive Washington State wine at a State Dinner for then-Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Tea Party website, Gateway Pundit, slammed the President for pouring a $399 bottle of wine to “Chi-Coms” [Chinese Communists], heading their hit piece “Sacrifice is for the little people,” and conveniently overlooking the fact that their hero, Ronald Reagan, also served very expensive wines: at one State Dinner, he poured a trio of California wines that, for the time, were quite pricy: Clos du Bois Calcaire Chardonnay, Carneros Creek Pinot Noir and Schramsberg Cremant Demi-Sec. More recently, there was President George W. Bush, who once served a Shafer Hillside Select ($245) at a similar dinner.

Perhaps it was criticisms like the one from Gateway Pundit, however selective and unfair, that prompted Obama to go screwtop. The particular wine he chose was a Penner-Ash 2014 Viognier, from Oregon, which retails for $30. It was paired with lobster (“poached in butter and served with traditional rice noodle rolls embedded with spinach, shiitake mushrooms and leeks.” Mmmm….but can we get rid of the word “embedded”?).

Obama’s screwtop embrace isn’t the most earth-shattering news ever. But it is a nice development in the sense of underscoring a new and, dare I say it, more democratic [small “d”] attitude towards wine that seems to be permeating across America, and that reflects an emerging sensibility that the most expensive things aren’t necessarily the best. Indeed, as I’ve long argued (and most critics agree), price is not always a reflection of quality; beyond a certain price point, you’re paying for image and psychological satisfaction.

Now, as to why wineries continue to be so resistant to screwtops, that’s another story!

How crowded can Napa Valley get?



There’s an ill wind blowing in Napa these days. The county seems torn about how it sees its future, which is really about how it sees its current status and its past. This all was the subject of a letter in the St. Helena Star newspaper written by Bill Ryan, who I believe is a columnist. Development versus non-development always is an issue in wine country, but Napa seems to be the most sensitive about it of all regions, perhaps because it is the most famous and most sought after destination for wine tourism.

Mr. Ryan’s letter is a reply to critics who he perceives are “trashing” Napa Valley’s wineries. He seeks to convince readers that all is not “doom and gloom” in Napa. I agree with him—up to a point.

Here’s my take. Traffic really has risen to insane proportions along Highway 29. It’s terrible, but hardly unusual; in post-Recession California, traffic has become worse than ever, from L.A. through the Bay Area to Sacramento and right up to wine country, and it shows no signs of getting better. In my opinion, Governor Brown ought to declare a State of Emergency, summon the Legislature into Emergency Session, and convene a committee of wise men and women to figure out where we go from here. I myself have no idea if there’s a solution, but that’s why we need experts to consider all the alternatives.

To the extent Napa is battling with traffic, concerns about new wineries or winery permits for special events are understandable. I would hate to have to drive between St. Helena and anywhere south, in the morning or during the evening commute.

Mr. Ryan correctly points out that Napa’s golden age, the 1960s and 1970s, accomplishedsomething that had never been done before in all of history – create a New World wine district that competed favorably with the famous regions of Europe.” Indeed it did. He is proud of his compatriots for so doing. I am too. He suggests that today’s men and women of Napa Valley can help to “find a positive pathway to aiding winery growth and prosperity,” a judgment with which surely no one can disagree. There are such men and women. I don’t know if outsiders who got rich elsewhere and then bought themselves a Napa Valley lifestyle are the kind of people who can lead Napa through its travails, as opposed to the families who have lived there for a long time. Maybe some of them are.

Mr. Ryan also puts his finger on a big issue: “Our key item, cabernet sauvignon, is quickly losing sales and position against pinot noirs and other more drinkable reds.” This is surely true. The reasons are not clear. Is it because of alcohol levels? My own pulse-taking of the market suggests that Cabernet may be down, but you can never count it out. In modern America, fashion has the lifespan of a gnat. Woe be to the winery that bases its long-range business plan on temporary trends.

If Napa Valley really is losing traction to “Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and Dundee Hills,” as Mr. Ryan fears, is it too late to reverse the trend? No. But Napa’s biggest enemy may be itself. When every winery in the valley started charging an arm and a leg just to taste a few wines, I thought that was a mistake. A weekend for two now in Napa, including lodging and good meals, will set the happy couple back close to $1,000. You can go out to Jenner or Boonville for a lot less, and less traffic, too. Napa Valley will never be a cheap place to go. But it really has to make sure that it doesn’t price everyone out except Silicon Valley millionaires and rich overseas tourists. The golden age that Mr. Ryan celebrates would have been shocked to sense that nobody except the uber-rich could afford to visit.

On Taco Bell selling wine



If more proof were needed that wine has become as mainstream in America as fast food, it was just supplied with Taco Bell’s announcement that the chain will begin serving wine at its stores, beginning in Chicago and San Francisco.

The Irvine CA-based company put out a press release on Sept. 15 stating its intention “to create a new experience as the brand expands into urban markets,” and part of that “new experience” is the creation of a concept they’re calling Taco Bell Cantina (TBC). The press release explains the reason: “Today’s consumers are living in more urban settings and our new restaurants cater to their lifestyle in adapting our traditional restaurant concept to fit their modern needs.”

Well, that sounds like Millennials, doesn’t it? They’re moving to cities like San Francisco in droves, and they are different from their parents and from their more rural cousins. Their “modern needs” include a desire to “live, work and play” in urban settings, where they don’t have to drive a zillion miles to get to and from work. Taco Bell Cantina also will feature “the local architecture of the neighborhoods each restaurant serves,” although so far, there’s no mention of sourcing locally-provisioned ingredients. Maybe that’s the next step.

Here in San Francisco, the new restaurant will be close to AT&T Park, arguably the city’s hottest neighborhood, and will “cater to [that] quick pace, tech savvy and vibrant community.” It also will be as green as fast food gets: “LED lighting, use of reclaimed elements where possible and recycling.”

Will coders cotton to Taco Bell Cantina? I’m sure they will. I never get the impression that the hoards of young developers you see all over San Francisco these days are particularly informed when it comes to food. They like big flavors, some hint of authenticity and inexpensive prices, which is what they’ll find at TBC. I haven’t been able to find a menu for TBC, but the San Francisco Chronicle reports the new foods will be free “of all artificial colors and flavors…by year’s end…Artificial dye Yellow No. 6 will be removed from the nacho cheese and Blue No. 1 will no longer be used in the avocado dip.” The press release says the foods will be “tapas-style…shared appetizers.” That’s very Millennial, too.

Sounds good to me!

I don’t know what the wines will be at the San Francisco location, or the beers, for that matter. It’s not open yet. The Chicago restaurant apparently had a soft opening recently that USA Today reported on. They said the menu included new appetizer items [such as] chicken tenders, rolled chicken tacos [and] mini quesadillas.” That also sounds good to me. I’m often running around looking for something healthful, tasty, fast and cheap. As for booze, USA Today reported that the Chicago location is selling something called Cantina Punch and Cantina Margarita, as well as Dos Equis and New Belgium beers and wines from two California brands I never heard of, Steelhead Vineyards and Stack Wines. Thanks to the miracle of the Google machine, I found out that Steelhead is a project “dedicated to creating a better world”




by supporting Trout Unlimited; the winemaker is an old pal, Hugh Chappelle, who was at Flowers and Lynmar and now works at Quivira. So I bet the wines are pretty good. As for Stack Wines, it seems to be easy-breezy, California-appellated wines-in-a-can made of glass-like plastic.

This is a nice step for Taco Bell to take. There’s a place for fast food in this country, and it’s cool that Taco Bell is lifting the experience up a little. I could see myself grabbing a quick bite next time I’m at a Giants game, which I will be for their final one of the year against the Dodgers, on Oct. 1.

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