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!
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, accomplished “something 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.
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.
The central paradox of wine tasting is this: While professionals indisputably have educated palates, nonetheless they disagree with each other concerning individual wines to a considerable degree.
How can this be?
The simple answer is that, wine tasters being merely human, and wine tasting not an exact science, you would expect variations in tasters’ conclusions, the same way that film reviewers will often come down on different sides about a movie.
Still, every wine company on the production side of the business has, or wishes to have, a core of tasters, whose competence cannot be doubted, in order to weigh in on such things as new SKUs, or how to improve existing ones.
So what is the difference between a “competent professional” taster and just anybody? Well, Mr. “Just Anybody” is as entitled to his judgments about wine as anyone else. It’s a free country, and there is much to be said concerning the value of the opinion of the non-professional. Since the majority of wine consumers are non-professionals, their voices deserve to be heard. Or so it would seem.
The most esteemed professional taster, at any given winery, is usually deemed to be the winemaker. We assume that winemakers have excellent palates, because they spend their time tasting wine, analyzing it both intellectually and in the laboratory, comparing the wines of different producers and in general being experts.
However, winemakers have their own deficiencies concerning their tasting abilities. For one, they may not be naturally gifted (in the sense of being super-tasters). For another, the winemaker is in constant danger of developing a “house palate.” Then too, you can’t assume that every winemaker is widely familiar with competitive benchmarks. They may not have the budget to taste deeply. (What does a bottle of Montrachet cost these days? $800? And that’s if you can even find it.)
Still, it’s essential for the decision makers at wineries to assemble a tasting team. Which barrels will make the cut for the reserve? How shall the Meritage be assembled? Can we raise the price on the Sauvignon Blanc this year? Which blocks do we use in the estate Pinot? These are tough questions; ultimately, they are questions concerning quality. And quality is the realm of the tasting professional.
You do not have to be blessed with a natural palate to develop a professional one. If fact, as I’ve said many times before, there are huge risks in having a super-palate. (If you’re more sensitive to, say, TCA or brett than 99.9% of the people in the world, you’re not really the most representative person to recommend wine.) What it takes to develop a professional palate is nothing more or less than repeated tasting, and note-taking.
But back to the paradox I spoke of at the top. How can it be that professionals disagree, and what are we to make of those disagreements? Fundamentally, this throws a monkey wrench into the works. How can we believe anything that the professionals say when we know that they can differ, sometimes radically, in their evaluations of a wine?
There’s really no resolution to this problem, except to pick the critic you trust and disregard the others. This, though, brings us to the notion of crowd-sourced wine tasting. The concept is that, if you have enough participants, you can eliminate the outlying extremes and find a consensus, right there in the juicy middle of the bell curve.
I suppose this makes sense, in a scientific way. And morally, “the majority rules” in a democracy. But does this middle way bring us closer to the truth in wine tasting?
Hmm. Talk about timing…
It’s been one of the big social stories for the last several weeks, this tale of the Black women who were escorted off the train. You know the facts; I don’t need to go through them. What I find interesting are (a) the reaction in Napa Valley itself, as I perceive it to be through letters to the editor at the Napa Register, and (b) what this says about race, culture and the very image of “wine country.”
Concerning (b), it’s no secret that wine country has always been pretty lily-white. It was in the 1970s when I first began visiting, and it still is today. Yes, you can find Blacks, Asians and Latinos in Los Olivos, St. Helena and Healdsburg, but not many—maybe more today than ever, but sightings are still pretty rare.
Why is that? The main reason, I think, is that people of color in this country generally make less money than white people. Wine is an expensive “hobby” and it’s even more expensive to visit wine country, which tends to be located in high real estate areas, with pricy restaurants and costly lodging. Add to that that the appreciation of wine has historically been a Caucasian thing. I think all races and ethnicities like to drink alcohol (provided they’re not on the wagon), but different races and ethnicities have preferred different alcoholic beverages, and wine, which really developed in Europe, has been a white drink. Finally, the “lifestyle” associated with wine has definitely been a white thing—and an elitist white thing, at that: Even many white people are turned off by the whole sipping-and-swirling thing. (Sometimes it even embarrasses me!)
I’ve celebrated the fact over the years that wine has become more and more appealing to non-white people. Based on economics alone, the wine industry can’t succeed simply by selling to a portion of the white population, it has to sell across all racial and ethnic demographics. That’s been happening, despite the fact that the wine industry was slow, very slow, to figure out how to appeal to non-whites—much slower than beer and spirits. I was pointing this out decades ago: the wine industry has to learn how to make itself appealing to non-whites.
The fact that the Black women’s book club was on the train in the first place is a good sign. That might not have happened ten years ago. So count that as progress. And what of “wine country”? Well, the concept of “wine country” is aspirational. It’s about making more money, living in a nicer house than perhaps you already do, in a nicer place, and being able to afford “the finer things in life.” There’s nothing wrong with aspirations. They’re a form of hope—and hope is important to staying alive and moving forward. I, personally, would not want to live in wine country, as I am city born and bred, and prefer the liveliness of the urban environment. But even I can see the graciousness, the cultivated ambience of wine country. Wine country doesn’t have to be lily-white—but it probably does need to be wealthy. I don’t see any way around that. And just because wine country is wealthy, doesn’t mean it’s bigoted or mean-spirited. In fact, the North Coast wine country has been represented in the Congress for many years by Mike Thompson, a good Democrat. So I don’t think there’s anything redneck or conservatively hateful or racist about wine country.
As to the reaction to the Wine Train event itself, the letters to the editor have been running fairly heavily against the women. The general reaction in the valley seems to be that the women were in the wrong, that they should have apologized (not the wine train), and that they’re only suing for the money.
I think that, until and if there’s a trial, and more witnesses step forward, none of us who were not actually on the train know what really happened. We know that at least one person complained; we have the Wine Train’s statement that the women were asked multiple times to tone it down, and apparently didn’t. There’s the issue of marching the women through several cars, but we don’t know why that was—many of the letters say that not all the cars are exit-able. I’d like to have more people who were on the train come forward and tell us what they saw and heard, but so far that hasn’t happened. We do know that the head of the Wine Train apologized and said that his employees were 100% wrong. If that’s the case, then perhaps the women do have a case. If the women really were obnoxious, and deserved to be removed (as apparently happens fairly often), then why did the Wine Train head say those things?
As for the charges of an ambulance-chasing lawyer, maybe the guy the ladies hired is, maybe he isn’t. But guess what? Suing isn’t a black thing or a white thing or a Latino or Asian thing, it’s as American as apple pie. We’re the most litigious country on earth, and, while I deplore that, it has nothing to do with the race of the lawyer or the litigants. If somebody thinks they can make a little money by filing a civil lawsuit, they’re going to do it.
We’re dealing, here, with the Rashomon Effect. It may never be possible to know exactly what happened. This is an age of “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Even if all the facts ultimately come out, people will argue about what they mean. So there’s always going to be some ambiguity.
I do think the discussion this has engendered in Napa Valley has been a healthy one. I don’t think the Valley needs to wear a hair shirt, but I do think that conversations of this sort always are helpful, even if they’re uncomfortable. I also think there should be a conversation in the Black community (as I believe there already is). I’m personally tired of some of the memes that are floating around: that there’s “Black behavior” as opposed to “White behavior.” I live in Oakland, one of the most racially- and ethnically-mixed cities in the U.S., and I don’t live in the Hills, I live downtown. I can tell you that when it comes to civility and respect, there’s only one behavior, and that’s human behavior, and it’s ultimately based on the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you.
The Bronx Wine and Food Festival! Who woulda thunk?
I am a proud Bronxite. I lived at 760 Grand Concourse for seventeen years, in the same 4-room apartment with my parents and older sister. It wasn’t until I went away to college, in Massachusetts, that I left The Bronx—and even then, I returned often to my parents’ apartment, on holidays. So I know the Bronx inside out—and believe me, The Bronx is the last place on earth I ever expected to have a wine and food festival! (Well, maybe Kabul is more unlikely…but not by much.)
When I lived there, The Bronx was home to the greatest number of Jews in the world, outside Israel. But it was a very ghettoized borough. Across the tracks, in the East Bronx, were the Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Scattered here and there through central and North Bronx were Italian and Irish enclaves, marked by the presence of 19th century Catholic churches constructed invariably of red brick. There were African-Americans, but not many: in those years, black people tended to live in Harlem.
In other words, these were not populations that drank wine! But they did celebrate their food traditions. Jewish “culinary” tradition consisted of the foods our Eastern European and Russian ancestors ate in the shtetl—what we today would call “deli”: lox, smoked whitefish, brisket, egg noodles, bagels and lox, boiled meats like corned beef and pastrami.
Over the decades after I left, The Bronx, particularly the southern end where I grew up, went through another demographic shift. The Jews left; Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean nationalities (Haitian, Dominican) moved in. Once, when I visited my old homestead in the late 1990s, most signs of the Jewish past had disappeared: there were bodegas instead of delis, but what was eerie was that the infrastructure of my childhood—the six-story apartment buildings, the old wrought-iron lampposts, Joyce Kilmer and Franz Siegel parks, the imposing statuary of The Bronx County Court House—remained. It was a very emotional visit.
Since then, I’ve followed media reports on how The Bronx has become “the new Brooklyn,” with invasions of yuppies taking advantage of cheap rents and easy subway access to midtown and downtown Manhattan. (They also call Oakland “the new Brooklyn.”) It is, I suppose, this upscale-ization of The Bronx that prompted the organizers to launch this Bronx Wine and Food Festival, which occurs in conjunction with—hold your breath—Bronx Fashion Week.
Well, The Bronx as cultural hatchery is nothing new. My borough was the home of Hip Hop; also of Anne Bancroft, Carl Reiner, Penny Marshall, Gen. Colin Powell, Calvin Klein, Dominic Chianese, Tony Curtis, Ralph Lauren, John F. Kennedy (yes, he was born in the Riverdale section). E.L. Doctorow, Danny Aiello, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Incidentally, why do I capitalize “The” on “The Bronx”? Because we were taught as schoolkids that the borough was named after an early Dutch settler, Jonas Bronck. He had a farm up there when it was all countryside. If people from Manhattan visited Jonas, they’d say they were going up to “The Bronck’s place.” “Bronck’s” became “Bronx,” while the use of “the” was akin to the way in San Francisco they say “The Mission” (for the Mission District) or The Sunset (for the Sunset District).
I’d love to go to The Bronx Wine and Food Festival. I won’t make it this year: maybe in 2016!