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The perils of being a restaurant reviewer: Almost as bad as being a wine blogger

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Michael Bauer’s recent glowing review of Saison ignited a firestorm of reaction from people who felt that the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle was pandering to the one percent and blithely ignoring anyone who can’t afford $398 for a one-person “discovery menu” at the city’s most expensive eaterie.

Typical of those who wrote in to complain was saywha, who asked, “At what point does Michael Bauer spend time reviewing places that everyone can afford? I feel like his column has become just a review of the most expensive restaurants or the ones with the most famous chefs. Perhaps he can just start calling his column ‘The 1%. Sad.” Commented UltraGuy: “I wonder what Bauer would review if he had to pay?”

Even for politicized San Francisco, the debate turned pretty heated—and this is about restaurants, not Google buses or the high price of housing!

Michael was forced to reply to the critics. In a piece on the Chronicle’s online site, he dug himself in even deeper with his remark that “Maybe I’m a Republican when it comes to dining, because I believe in the Trickle Down theory.” His point was that top restaurants, like Saison, Meadowood and French Laundry, come up with “ideas” that “filter down to the mass market,” such as foraged foods, lettuce mixes, humanely raised animals and organic products.

It’s never a good idea in San Francisco to associate yourself with Republicans, even if it’s just a metaphor! Sflover2 wrote, “Stopped reading after this stupid sentence: ‘Maybe I’m a Republican’…”. FroggyBoyee commented, “As if a no-name place cannot innovate. However, as always, the high end places where 1%ers dine get more PR.” Meanwhile, Grenadine suggested “Bauer’s columns should be moved to the comics page.”

Here’s my take. First of all, anyone in public life in San Francisco—whether it’s a politico, a restaurant reviewer like Michael, a movie reviewer like Mick LaSalle, a wine critic like Jon Bonné or a rich entrepreneur—is going to be on the receiving end of a lot of carping from people who disagree with him or her. It goes with the territory. This isn’t the first time Michael’s stirred the pot, it won’t be the last time, and he handles it pretty well, with dignity and respectfulness for the bomb-throwers.

Michael ultimately justifies his praise of Saison by saying, “These high-end places may seem out of reach for most people, but they create ideas, techniques and combinations that seed other chefs’ imaginations and improve the dining scene.” It seems to me that we have to separate out our emotional reactions to the one percent enjoying “a barigoule of artichoke fortified with wild thistle milk [that] becomes a broth that surrounds a chunk of artichoke and scallop” from the reality that, just outside, homeless people huddle against the cold, and “ordinary” people struggle to find a way to pay the rent and feed the kids at the same time.

Those are social policy issues, and they can, and rightfully do, stir up passions on all sides of the political spectrum. We ought to be having discussions about these things, and we are. That’s good.

But politics aside, at some point you have to appreciate the contributions that haute cuisine, as practiced as Saison, makes to the general culture. While it may be true, as one angry person commented, that “I really don’t see too much of the flame-licked wood pigeon, sea urchin caviar, or any of the molecular gastronomy stuff trickling down to neighborhood restaurants,” it’s also true that the mere existence of a place like Saison raises the bar for other chefs, in terms of the adventurousness, creativity, philosophical approach and just plain deliciousness of their food. Nobody can deny that the Bay Area’s restaurant scene is more glorious than it has ever been—and while a lot of that is due to our wonderful mix of ethnicities, credit also has to be given to the high standards that the best restaurants lay down for everyone else.

I’ve eaten at Saison (courtesy of the restaurant) and came away suitably impressed—not dazzled, but it was a pretty cool experience. Would I pay to eat there again? No. I’ve said many times that I’m just as happy at Boot and Shoe Service or Hawker Fare or Tacolicious as I’ve been at Meadowood, French Laundry, Saison, the old Cyrus or any other grand palace of cuisine. So I’m not a snob, but neither am I a reverse snob—against someplace just because it’s expensive. So I say, give Bauer a break. He’s the senior restaurant reviewer in California, he frequently reviews restaurants for “the 99%”, he’s incorruptible, and if he can’t say something nice about Saison without getting kicked in the head, something’s wrong.


I support Beckstoffer’s idea to bring more tasting rooms to Napa city

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The most interesting thing about the Beckstoffer family’s purchase of the old [1905] historic building in downtown Napa was Andy Beckstoffer’s statement (paraphrased in the Napa Valley Registry’s article) “that Upvalley wine interests should invest in Napa city and build their hospitality facilities there.”

“Upvalley” traditionally refers to the northern parts of Napa Valley—St. Helena and Calistoga, although I imagine you could roll Rutherford into there, and by some stretches of the imagination (and I think this was Andy’s intention) you could even include Oakville and Yountville. For, reading between the lines, Andy is encouraging all wineries to “use Napa city facilities as a major part of their hospitality function.”

This makes sense from multiple points of view. The first, expressly cited by Andy, is that having wineries locate or relocate their tasting rooms, etc. in Napa city will “protect the integrity of the Ag Preserve,” referring to the 1967 act to protect Napa Valley’s agricultural heritage from the threats of population and development. Andy has long been active in supporting the Preserve, for instance in maintaining the lands bordering his Napa Valley vineyards.

There’s another reason why it makes sense for wineries to establish their hospitality centers in downtown Napa. For all the redevelopment that Napa city has undergone the last ten years or so—and it’s been nothing short of amazing to those of us who have watched it—there’s still a weird disconnect between the city and the valley that bears its name. For a long time, there was no reason for visitors to Napa Valley to even bother going to Napa city. There was no there there, aside, perhaps, from COPIA (which proved not to be so good a draw after all.) After the explosion of fine restaurants, hotels and other amenities since 2000 or so, there suddenly was, especially along the waterfront. But Napa city, despite its allures, still feels a little sleepy and rural, with entire blocks of downtown that seem to have hardly changed since the 1950s, and offer little of interest to the casual visitor. Bringing tasting rooms and other tourist draws will help build a bridge between Napa, the city, and Napa, the valley, and make Napa city a more thriving and interesting place.

There’s one other advantage to bringing tasting rooms to Napa: it will mean fewer cars on Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, including fewer drivers who are drinking. If people can stay in Napa city and do most of their tasting there, Napa Valley will be a safer place for us all.

Not everyone, of course, is happy with Andy’s proposal. Some want to keep Napa city “local” meaning, I suppose, a town of furniture shops and dress stores. Others have pointed out the irony (they would say hypocrisy) of Andy Beckstoffer being for development in the city but against Napa Valley wineries hosting weddings—a distinction so fine I fail to perceive it. And this all occurs against the greater backdrop of where to draw the line between too much development in Napa and not enough; this fast-growth vs. slow-growth battle that’s actually been going on for decades. For instance, in 1960, a city master plan called on expanding Napa’s population to 1.1 million people. (The population currently stands at about 79,000.)

I don’t think uncontrolled development is a good thing, but nothing comes without a cost. Leaving Napa “local” risks losing precious tourist dollars; over-developing it could make it into a wine version of Disneyland. But I think that Napans are smart enough to figure out a balanced approach, which is why I support Andy Beckstoffer’s idea.


On “progress” in San Francisco and wine country

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It had been a year or two since I was last in Hayes Valley. I’m not sure what I expected when I met Allison there for lunch yesterday (at The Grove), but gone were the second-hand shops I used to love to browse. In their place: shoe stores. Lots of shoe stores. Designer shoes, expensive shoes, three or for per block. And boutique clothing stores. Home décor shops. The obligatory wine stores. And tons of pricy new dining palaces, although a few oldies, like Hayes Street Grill, remain from the bad old days, when Hayes Valley was hidden in the dark, stinky shadows of the Central Freeway, and junkies and johns gave the streets a menacing frisson.

Then the Lesbians moved in, and suddenly all those old tenement windows sprouted pots of geraniums. It was the Lesbians who opened the second-hand stores, and the little tea parlors and cafés, too. I liked that era of Hayes Valley: it was still gritty enough to feel like traditional San Francisco, but it had that buzz of transition—not quite gentrified, but almost, an interesting neighborhood worth an exploration.

I can’t say I like the new Hayes Valley. There’s nothing especially unique about it anymore. It looks like every other neighborhood in San Francisco. If there’s an International Style to wine, then surely there’s an International Style of neighborhood. And Hayes Valley is the poster child.

So much new construction, a condo development on every block, sprouting like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. But are they edible mushrooms, or toxic Death Caps? I suppose if you’ve been forced out of your apartment by quadrupling rents, it’s pure toxic shock. If you have a good job and are making some bucks (I hesitate to say “techie” but that’s where the S.F. money is), then you welcome the new Hayes Valley—and the NoPa, TenderNob, Mission Bay, FulSoMa, South Park and all the other neighborhoods, old and new, that are making the same transition.

San Francisco still maintains the glory and wonder of the City I moved to in the late 1970s. It always will, no matter what changes occur. It has something that’s magically ineradicable—a soul that cannot be destroyed. But I know a lot of people who have been forced out of the City by unaffordable rents, and they’re pretty pissed. They feel like they have to be angry at someone: techies, Google buses, billionaires, landlords. I can’t blame them, although none of those entities is entirely to blame for the situation. People complained about crime and bad neighborhoods, and now that the bad neighborhoods are going away, they’re complaining about the new neighborhoods. I guess it’s just a part of human nature to gripe.

I can find a connection to wine in almost any cultural phenomenon. I’ve already mentioned the International Style as a concept linking both gentrified neighborhoods and the kind of wine that started with Cabernet Sauvignon and now sweeps across all varieties and continents. I find, too, this style sweeping across all wine regions in California. There seems to be an imperative that when the economy of a wine region improves, they have to start looking like St. Helena: the same fancy “wine country furnishing” stores that look like Martha Stewart’s brain on steroids—the same kind of chichi boutiques and palaces of cuisine you now see in Hayes Valley. There’s something ersatz, synthetic about it, and so boringly same. I can’t tell the difference anymore between Los Olivos, the Healdsburg Plaza or downtown Napa—or Hayes Valley, for that matter. But you might as well try to stop an oncoming train than to halt this “progress,” and I put that word in quotation marks because I’m not sure that it is.


Do we need another Sonoma appellation?

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I’m not quite sure how I feel about the proposed West Sonoma Coast appellation some people are proposing. On the plus side, it’s more compact than the existing Sonoma Coast AVA, which as everyone knows almost nobody likes because it’s so all-encompassing. On the minus side is that it’s still pretty sprawling.

It would have been nice had the proposed appellation’s boundaries been the original ones for the Sonoma Coast. They’re a lot more honest from a terroir point of view, since they hug the Pacific Coast more closely, which after all is what the Sonoma Coast, theoretically, is all about.

But we can’t undo the past; we’re stuck for all time with Sonoma Coast. So what does West Sonoma Coast do that Sonoma Coast doesn’t?

Well, it further delineates this vital stretch of the coast, which truly is an area unique unto itself. The problems, however, are manifold. For one, we know from studies that consumers already are puzzled by the word “Sonoma” on an appellation, which appears in Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County and of course Sonoma Coast (not to mention the rarely used Northern Sonoma appellation). Then too, there are lots of wineries with the word Sonoma in their name. So adding a West Sonoma Coast AVA to the list runs the risk, it seems to me, of further confusing the consumer.

Then too, it seems likely that at some point there will be smaller sub-AVAs even within this restricted version of the Sonoma Coast. We already have (and needed) Fort Ross-Seaview. Can Annapolis be far behind? Or Freestone and Occidental? If these appellations are on the to-do list, might it not make more sense to forego a West Sonoma Coast appellation, until we obtain clarity on the others.

Sonoma County’s problem is that in the 1980s it rushed forward to appellate more than any other California county. Napa by contrast took things slow and steady. They made sure their appellations were all nicely lined up, with few if any overlaps, and they were mostly named after the townships and the mountains. Sonoma by contrast ended up with a hodgepodge which almost everyone now regrets, but there you are: it can’t be undone. So the question is, where to go from here?

My own feeling is to let things lie for a while. Give consumers more time to absorb Sonoma’s AVAs, including Sonoma Coast, which seems to be gaining some traction. Why over-burden them with even more names to remember?

The reason why is because some vintners want these new AVAs, including West Sonoma Coast. They were never happy with Sonoma Coast (much less Sonoma County), and so they want a name they can hang their hats on—one moreover that connotes the quality and pedigree we associate with this “true Sonoma Coast” region of maritime influence, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay develop so magnificently.

Like I said, I haven’t made my mind up whether or not to support the West Sonoma Coast appellation. I’m torn between the “makes sense” and “doesn’t make sense” extremes. The West Sonoma Coast Vintners is a fabulous grouping of some of the greatest wineries in California; no matter what you call the region, it’s true name is brilliance. But, based on my long experience of writing for the readers of wine magazines, my orientation is toward consumers, not the egos or interests of local vintners. I always put myself in that shopper’s state of mind, so I ask myself: Will West Sonoma Coast clarify things, or hopelessly muddle them? Right now, I’m inclined toward the latter view.


Healdsburg’s growing pains

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One of the tradeoffs that comes with being a popular wine destination region is development. It’s as unstoppable as the seasons, but unlike the coming of Spring, not everyone likes it.

Healdsburg, as everyone knows who’s been there or just read about it, has become the quintessentially quaint wine town in California. It’s smaller and more intimate than Napa, bigger and more interesting than Los Olivos, and as for Sonoma town, well, with all due respect, Sonoma lost the battle to Healdsburg years ago for sheer glam.

I’ve been going to Healdsburg for well more than 25 years and even back then, there were folks around who complained it was getting too big. They’d recall the good old days when the hardware store had sawdust on the floor. Nowadays, of course, Healdsburg is rich and boutique-y, with fabulous restaurants, great hotels and wine country tchotchke shops where you can drop $1,000 on a vase (but don’t drop the vase!).

It’s all too much, apparently, for some locals, who have formed a group trying to slow down development, if not outright stop it. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat on Monday reported that the group, Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, recently sent out a voter survey they claimed supported their anti-growth stance.

This is a tough position for elected officials to be in. On the one hand, they want to be responsive to local residents’ conerns—and they themselves may feel that Healdsburg is getting a little too crowded. On the other hand, the tax dollars that development brings in do magical things for school districts, road repairs and other government functions. So what’s a City Councilmember to do?

I myself enjoy visiting Healdsburg. I like to stroll the main streets around the Square, browsing the shops and galleries, although I must admit I don’t buy too much. I like to grab a sandwich and cappuccino at the Oakville Grocery, and duck into the wine shops and see all the labels. I can see where some people might be bothered by the proliferation of hotels and the inevitable tourists they bring, with increased traffic and all the other nuisances that popular destinations attract. That doesn’t bother me—but then, I don’t live there. So I’m not weighing in on this particular matter; the last thing Healdsburg needs is for outsiders to be telling them what to do!

We’ve seen these sorts of fights for years in other wine regions. A few years ago there was the brouhaha down in the Santa Ynez Valley over Larner Winery’s plans to host special events on their property, a plan that was fiercely and successfully opposed by locals in a NIMBY-esque display of power. We’ve seen similar fights in Knights Valley, and the controversy over the Napa Valley Wine Train certainly comes to mind. I’m sure there are other squabbles I’m just not remembering right now or was never aware of to begin with.

The challenge in all these things is to find balance. We see this search for equilibrium going on now in San Francisco. That city rightfully is proud of itself for being the urban hub of high tech, which brings in so much money and is redefining entire neighborhoods. But San Franciscans also worry that all that tech money is pushing out its artists, musicians, secretaries, janitors, cab drivers and others who can’t afford the high cost of living. Politicians, whose jobs entail making laws about these things, live on the razor’s edge of this conundrum. I wish the Healdsburg City Council wisdom in making its decisions.


Some thoughts from a recovering wine critic

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Now that I am a recovering wine critic, and one moreover who used to employ the 100-point system, I am perhaps in a unique position to talk about it, with all its pluses and minuses.

I have written time and again that the awarding of a point score is nothing more nor less than my impression of a particular wine at a particular moment of time. Tom Wark, at his Fermentation wine blog, puts this more clearly: a wine score is simply a way of “communicating the momentary impact of a wine on a critic’s mind.” It has always seemed to me that the public understands this (which is the important thing), while a stubborn cadre of writers/critics/bloggers does not. Tom’s analogy with “a ranking of the top 10 Second Basemen” in the history of baseball is perfectly apt, as would be a comparison of wine scores with, say, the Top Ten Movies of All Time–clearly not a scientific measure of precision, but someone’s personal take on film. And to accuse such a listing of being non-scientific is neither to detract from its usefulness nor to make perusing it any less pleasurable.

The 100-point system was not difficult for me to embrace because long before I got my job as California critic for Wine Enthusiast, I had subscribed to Wine Spectator (and worked there for a few years), and so had gotten used to a numerical rating system of 100 points (which, as I always remind people, is not really 100 points, because the different periodicals have different bases below which they don’t go. For example, at Wine Enthusiast it’s 80 points, so theirs is really a 20-point system. I don’t know how low Wine Spectator goes. I’ve heard of scores in the 60s, so theirs would be a 35-point system or thereabouts. Even the blogger Joe Roberts, who goes by 1WineDude, some time ago went to a A-B-C-D-F rating system that includes minuses and pluses, so it’s really a 13-point system (if I’m counting correctly). It’s clear that consumers want (or, at least, critics think they want) some immediate way of appraising the wine, aside and apart from the verbiage; and these various numerical schemes give them just that.

We all know that Robert Parker is justly famous for “inventing” the 100-point system, but in fact he was hardly the first to use point scores. Harry Waugh, whom I’ve been referring to frequently over the last week because I’m re-reading his delightful books, used a 20-point (although sometimes it was only a 10-point) system, but he may have been the first to use the word “plus,” which is a sort of half-point; for example, in a tasting of 1971 Médocs, he scored Haut-Batailley at “17 plus/20.” Why he didn’t score it simply 17 or 18 is beyond me, but in this case we have to infer that his wasn’t actually a 20-point system, but rather a 30-point system (since, if Haut-Batailley could fall inbetween whole numbers, then so in theory could any other wine). I never heard anyone criticize Harry Waugh for assigning meaningless numbers to an essentially subjective, aesthetic experience, but then, Harry had the good fortune to live and write in an era of civility, which is not always the case today.

I won’t miss working with the 100-point system, not at all, although I suspect there always will be a part of me that mentally assigns a number to every wine I taste, even though I’ll mostly keep that to myself. I’ve nothing against just enjoying a glass of wine, providing, of course, it’s a good wine; but I do like putting the wine into the context of all the other wines I’ve had the opportunity to taste in my lifetime. How much more enjoyable it is to be able to single out a wine for special praise than merely liking it, as one has liked thousands of other wines. That’s part of the love of wine, too: having your mind blown. A wine that blows my mind is one that scores in the high 90s, maybe even a perfect 100 points.

I suppose that as time passes I may have some other thoughts about wine scoring but for now, my thinking hasn’t changed from before-Jackson Family to afterward. I still think that wine critics are needed in order to help the general public wade through the tsunami of wine that washes over us every day. I still think that not all critics are equal: Some are more credible than others, and just because someone has the right and technical ability to get their views out there on the Web doesn’t make those views worthwhile. I still think the 100-point system is a pretty good one, at least as good as any other number- or letter-based system, and possibly better since it’s more nuanced. I still think the job or career of wine writing is a noble one whose antecedents stretch proudly back into time. I still think wine is God’s gift to humankind, although a properly-timed vodka martini is not to be dismissed! And I remain grateful that this country has gone from one of woeful ignorance about fine wine when I started out, to a wine savvy nation where quality is the highest it’s ever been.


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