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To Santa Maria Valley, and my dinner at RN74

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Off to Santa Barbara today, for a quick trip to the Santa Maria Valley and Cambria and Byron. I always like traveling through coastal wine country, especially at this time of the year; as you pass by the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the vast stretches of southern Monterey and the San Bernabe Vineyard – as you zip through the Central Coast, with Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley just to the east, marked by the Seven Sisters – as you come into Los Alamos and the vineyards pick up again, sprawling on both sides of the road – you get a real sense of the terroir of the coast. Always just to the west is the mighty Pacific. Sometimes you can see it, sometimes the road curls too far inland, cutting the ocean off from sight; but always you can feel it in the cool winds, and I swear I can smell it, a sort of ionized, salt-laden scent that reminds me of Manzanilla sherry.

This sense of terroir is very different from the more technical analyses that we writers love to engage in, but to get a more generalized sense of the lay of the land – one which you feel subtly in your fingertips but can’t precisely define – is perhaps the more important way to understand terroir. The emotive and intuitive sense always has been important in a thorough understanding of wine. I had dinner last night with the Master Sommelier, Sur Lucero, who spoke of perceiving wine in terms of colors and shapes. I, myself, do not. When it came my turn to describe what we were drinking, I turned to human characteristics, for different wines always remind me of different sorts of people. There are shy, reticent wines, boastful wines, wines of elegance and charm. There are common wines, rude and ill-raised; then there are what I can wines of breed. We drank, courtesy of the sommelier at RN74, an older Burgundy, a Latricieres-Chambertin, whose vintage was unknown; the label bearing the year had fallen off. Sur guessed it to be 1985. It was a magnificent specimen that changed constantly in the glass, never drying out even after several hours but always gaining in force. With beef tartare it was excellent; ditto with gnocchi, and at the end of the meal, when the server brought a little plate of chocolates and other sweet dainties, that Burgundy was a fine partner. As I ate my first little chocolate and sipped the wine, and before I could say anything, Sur observed – correctly – “Stripped away the fruit, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but still a good pairing.” With the fruit, which was massive, now having receded, one could appreciate the wine’s structure even more. Sur seemed to like that, so I continued. There is a concept, I told him, of being raised properly by one’s parents, to be kind and respectful to everyone, King and servant alike. I always had been struck by interviews with people who met Queen Elizabeth. “Such a nice lady” is the usual take. “Puts you at your ease. So easy to talk with.” This is the sign of good breeding. In the same way, that red Burgundy got along with every food I had it with. I’m sure someone could have come up with something it clashed with, but it was a wine whose very universality was perhaps its greatest recommendation. A wine like that possesses, not so much a distinct personality, as the absence of a personality: it is the Platonic ideal of wine, and as such embraces, with love, any food with which wine, even theoretically, can be enjoyed. For that reason it was what some people call a conceptual wine.

At any rate, it was a lovely evening, and even though Sur and I didn’t agree 100% of the time on things like In Pursuit of Balance, I was very grateful to benefit from his take on wine. He also has a great (if frightening and sobering) personal story of the Napa earthquake.

Have a great weekend!


The World Wine Guys on their new book

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Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, “the World Wine Guys,” have a new book out, Wines of California: The Comprehensive Guide, with a foreward by Michael Mondavi and a preface by Kevin Zraly. It’s quite good, certainly the best of the genre in a long time, and a useful companion for the wine lover’s bookshelf. We met up yesterday at one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, Chaya, where, over sushi and wine, we had a little chat. Mike and Jeff are, of course, the entertainment and lifestyle editors at my old stomping ground, Wine Enthusiast, so we’ve been buddies for years.

SH: Why another California wine book? It seems like there’s been a lot of them recently.

MD: Actually, it’s been a long time since there was a comprehensive California wine book.

JJ: The last book was by James Laube, back in 1995, California Wine, but it was really focused on Napa and Sonoma.

MD: There’s a number of books that have covered specific regions, or a specific area, for example The New California Wine, which covered some of the new producers. We wanted to cover the entire state, top to bottom, Mendocino down to Temecula. And we wanted to create a book that reaches people in different ways, because there’s geography, history, there’s an explanation of AVAs, major grapes, up-and-coming grapes, and specific listings on wineries we consider to be the most notable in the state.

SH: You guys live in New York, but you’re in San Francisco for your book tour. Where else are you going?

JJ: Wow. Besides San Francisco, there’s New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Boston. We’re really excited. It’s a big book tour.

SH: Do you like being on the road?

JJ: I love it. We’ll be traveling today, back to New York, then flying back here to go out to Lodi, where the winegrowers have invited us to do a party out there. Then Saturday night, we’ll be at Ordinaire

SH: In my neighborhood!

JJ: So for all your readers in the area, please come down to Oakland and see us.

SH: You guys started as lifestyle writers and now you’re doing wine.

MD: We like to do both. If you look at the book, we have interviews with wine people, but we also have recipes from noted wine country chefs. So we really do straddle the lifestyle, because wine in a vacuum might be more for your collector, but really, I think wine should be enjoyed with food, and with friends.

SH: Finally, what’s next for World Wine Guys?

MD: We’re actually working on another cookbook and another wine book. I’m not going to say what it is; we’ve done the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve done California. Next time, we’re doing something that’s more general, but we’ll talk about that when the time is right! And we’re working on a couple T.V. projects. We have a lot of stuff going on.

The World Wine Guys will be at Ordinaire Wine Shop and Wine Bar, 3354 Grand Ave., Oakland, this Saturday, Sept. 20.

Mike&Jeff
That’s Jeff on the left, Mike on the right


Tuesday twaddle: I moderate a panel and reconnect with a friend

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This Thursday, Sept. 11, Women for Winesense,cwhich hosts events on various topics throughout the year and also provides scholarships for women pursuing careers in wine, is doing a workshop and panel, and they’ve invited me to moderate it. I gladly accepted, for this is a great honor.

My six panelists—three mother-and-daughter teams–are Amelia and Dalia Ceja (Ceja Vineyards), Herta and Lisa Peju (Peju Estate Winery) and Janet and Delia Viader (Viader Napa Valley). The event will be at Silver Oak, on the Oakville Cross Road. It’s part of a silent auction; my panel begins at 7:15.

The topic of women in wine—and diversity in general—has been quite important to me for many years, for a variety of reasons. Wine traditionally has been totally dominated by men—white men, for that matter–in Europe as well as in California, although obviously things are changing rapidly, and have been for some time now.

My panelists are going to talk about their experiences and thoughts, and since the daughters are joining their mothers, it will be interesting to hear about the shifting perspectives of the generations. Maybe the mothers felt more acutely the difficulties of being women in Napa Valley; maybe the daughters don’t feel things that strongly. Obviously, the family connection plays a part in their experiences: they’re not just young women starting out in the wine industry, they’re second-generation kids of successful parents. Anyway, the changing face of the wine industry, which includes the advent of Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans, is a pleasure to behold.

* * *

Got my new Wine Enthusiast in the mail and scanned the “Forty Under Forty” cover story.cThat theme was a great success for the magazine last year, when I contributed to it, so it’s not surprising they decided to do a repeat. Of course, it’s somewhat arbitrary, this business of picking forty people under the age of forty; for every individual named, there are a hundred doing equally relevant work in the wine business. But I must say Enthusiast’s selection is an interesting one. I don’t know most of the people they chose: the one I know best is Alan Kropf, who by coincidence I have a phone appointment with today, on another matter. Alan did an article on me in an issue of Mutineer in 2011. I can’t find the link online, but here’s one to a cartoon he did prior to that that I really enjoyed. It’s very funny.


A tale of two bars: dives and tasting rooms

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1. Is the dive bar doomed?

I have two images in my head of the classic American dive bar. One is from the movies, where so many scenes of intrigue, drama and violence have occurred in them. I think of the Silver Bullet, the bar in Thelma and Louise, for example, with its country & western band, pool table and cowboy drifters chugging beer from the bottle. (You’d never order wine in such a place!)

The other image I have is from my own past. There used to be a place in San Francisco, South of Market, in Clementina Alley, which in the Eighties was not the yuppified haven it is now. It was called, for a variety of reasons, the Headquarters. On any given night you’d have drag queens and businessmen, Pacific Heights doyennes and dudes in leather chaps, hippies and hustlers and young straight couples out slumming, all playing pool or darts, or dancing on the postage stamp-sized dance floor to Blondie’s Rapture. I once brought Marilyn, who found it amusing, but, on emerging from the rest room, remarked that she should have brought her hip boots. That was the Diviest. Dive. Bar. Ever.

The dive bar played a role in America’s mythic development. The old saloons of the Wild West were dive bars, and so were the shadowy joints of film noir, if we go by Wikipedia’s definition: “Dive bars:disreputable, sinister, or even a detriment to the community.” Or, in Playboy’s view, “A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows—bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.”

Yet last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle headlined on its front page, “In boom time for booze joints, is it dive bar’s last call?” (The online version is headlined “Is it last call for dive bars in San Francisco?”) It seems that with rising rents and shifting demographics, dive bars are an endangered species, especially in neighborhoods like The Mission, SOMA and even to some extent the Tenderloin, that used to be their strongholds. I frankly doubt that the dive bar will go the way of the dodo bird, but the situation in San Francisco does bring to the fore a certain gentrification process that seems to be hitting many of our cities. Old-fashioned dives are turning into fancy little cocktail bars; bartenders are being replaced by tattooed “mixologists” for whom an appearance in The Tasting Panel is their Red Carpet; whiskey rocks has morphed into elaborate concoctions of flavored spirits, sweet liqueurs, bitters, candied fruits and sugar. Dashiell Hammett is turning in his grave. For that matter, so is Herb Caen.

* * *

2. My gig at K-J’s tasting room bar

When I gave a little talk to the Kendall-Jackson tasting room staff a while back, and I told them I’d never worked a tasting room, they very kindly invited me to work in theirs! I thought it was a splendid idea, so we made a date, and on Saturday I drove up and did a six-hour stint.

I was as nervous as an opening night understudy as I “went on” but the truth is, there was nothing to be scared of. I quickly learned that all you have to do is be yourself. And since I’m a pretty sociable guy, I had lots of great conversations, always including but not necessarily exclusively about wine.

The visitors are from all over the place, America as well as abroad, but the main thing they had in common was that they’re happy to be in wine country, at a winery they like, on a beautiful summer day. When you’re with happy people it rubs off. I met a Dad from Atlanta who was taking his daughter on a tour of California after she graduated college. I met a surgeon from U.C. San Francisco Medical Center and his wife and baby. I met a pair of chiropractors who told me about nervous system health. There were several folks from my home town of Oakland—even from my neighborhood. I met a family of Cuban-Americans from Miami who love wine and cigars. There was a woman from Canada and a young couple from Silicon Valley. And on and on. People have such amazing stories. Wine-wise, they all have different tastes, of course. Some only like sweeter wines, like Muscat Canelli. Some don’t like Pinot Noir, some shy away from Cabernet Sauvignon. G-S-M is new to almost all of them. Most are eager to learn, and of course one does one’s best to share information with them in a respectful manner. It being a Saturday, in this last gasp of summer, the tasting room was very crowded..

One thing I noticed is that sometimes people are shy about asking questions about wine. You don’t want to lecture them in a high-handed way; you want to respect their privacy and personal space. So it’s a balancing act: you infer when it’s appropriate to talk about the wine and, if so, to what degree. With most of the people, I found that even the reticent ones opened up once the conversation got flowing, and then their wine questions and observations came out. As I’ve always instinctively known, but have to constantly remind myself, there are no dumb questions about wine.

KJWEG


Is there a “glass ceiling” when it comes to scoring certain wines? (Hint: yes)

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The blog Gargantuan Wine has an interesting post, “Dark Secrets of the 100 Point Wine Scale,” that identifies a “pair of endemic faults” the author says are not only “shameful” but “which are seemingly never discussed.”

Well, never mind that they are constantly discussed, in blogs, newspaper columns and the like. The first “endemic fault” is what the author calls “glass ceilings for certain wines.” He points out that certain varieties never seem to get high scores, no matter how good they are. He cites the example of Beaujolais. He asks: “Why can’t a flawless vin de soif, or ‘quaffer’ — even if that very term conceals an unfair stigma — park itself in an upscale, 90 point neighborhood, without a stop and frisk? For some reason, we relegate even exceptionally tasty, inexpensive wines to an 86-88 point ghetto.”

This is true enough. There’s are reasons for it, which I’ll get to shortly, but first, I’ll point out that even when I was a working wine critic, I wondered about this. I myself gave comparatively few ultra-high scores over my career, but it is true that Chardonnay trended far higher than Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir trended far higher than Zinfandel, say, or Barbera or Sangiovese. Since I reviewed California wine, I didn’t have the pleasure of reviewing Beaujolais, Sancerre, Alsace, Hermitage or any of the other fabulous French wines I like. But I totally “get” Gargantuan Wine’s criticism, that a great Beaujolais seems to max out at 88 points regardless of how wonderful it is.

I said there are reasons for this. Here are two:

  1. In every sort of contest in which there are winners and losers, there are certain parameters. They may be spelled out explicitly, or they may be tacitly understood, but either way, they’re there. In the Academy Awards, comedies almost never win Best Picture. Why not? Don’t ask me, ask the members of the Academy who do the voting! But I can infer that most of them feel that drama has more importance, more classic virtues, than comedy. This may be unfair to a film like Tootsie, which lost out in 1982 to Gandhi; Gandhi was Cabernet Sauvignon, Tootsie Beaujolais. I personally think Tootsie is a better movie and will stand the test of time. But there you are. Like Tony Soprano always asked, What are you gonna do?
  1. The second reason is just as arbitrary: Generations of wine experts have determined that some varieties are inherently “noble.” These include Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and possibly Syrah. Everything else, no matter how good the wine might be, is less than noble. This, too, is unfair: it’s based on outmoded European systems of royalty and class. But again, there you are: it’s how the system works. No critic is going to give a Beaujolais 100 points (or 5 stars, or whatever), because no critic, in his heart of hearts, believes that Beaujolais is capable of that sort of perfection.

Of course it’s unfair, and Gargantuan Wine is well within his rights to be upset. When he asks, “Can’t a simple rosé…be scored properly for what it is?” I feel his pain. A few nights ago I drank a rosé that was so good, at that particular moment (a warm, muggy night, and I was tired after a long day), that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. But had I been reviewing and scoring it, which I wasn’t, I don’t think I would have scored it above 90 points. So I’m not defending the point system, so much as trying to explain why it is the way it is. Perhaps when a younger generation of wine critics takes over (which already is happening), they’ll get away from the “glass ceiling” and we’ll start seeing 100 point rosés and Pinot Grigios. That would be fine with me.

I don’t have much to say about Gargantuan Wine’s second “endemic fault,” what he calls “the deleterious effects of moderation drinking rationale.” It’s an interesting take, but when all is said and done, it’s just another version of the “alcohol levels are too high” critique, which frankly is getting a little stale.

Anyhow, I like Gargantuan Wine as a blog. It’s smart, witty and informative. But I do wish the “About Me” section contained more information. The author’s name, location and employment may be hidden somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. I don’t like “blind reading” blogs; I want to know who the writer is.

Have a great weekend! I’m having an adventure tomorrow: working in the tasting room at Kendall-Jackson. I’ve been in a zillion tasting rooms over the years, but this will be my first time on the other side of the bar. Will report on it this Monday.


What makes a winery great?

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I took a rare day off from the blog yesterday, and I know you notice when I do, because I hear from you! Which I’m grateful for. I sometimes refer to my “Thursday Throwaway” and “Friday Fishwrap” posts, because I well know we writers must be appreciative of every individual who reads us—we shouldn’t assume anyone actually does–especially those readers who come every day expecting something new. I try to deliver—and usually do—but not always, as yesterday shows.

The reason I didn’t post yesterday was because I was up in Santa Rosa, working. And the nights were long. I won’t bore you with the details, but I was amazed to wake up in the morning (today, as I write this, yesterday as you read it) without a hangover. Yes, friends, it’s true: If you work in the wine industry, chances are you like to drink wine—and beer—and liquor. Sometimes all three together. So thanks to the Hangover Gods for sparing me.

The wine industry is a big place. I sometimes think consumers don’t know how big, or how complicated. Winemakers and owners tend to get 99% of the media ink (well, it’s not really ink these days, is it?). Growers occasionally are given a little credit. Left unsung are the teams that really make winemaking into a business: marketing, sales, distributors, the digital people (increasingly vital), the tasting room staff, and not to forget the payroll, human resources and other way-behind-the-scenes departments that keep teams running, healthy and paid on time. And the vineyard and winery workers! To all of them, we who love wine should give our profound thanks.

I’m fascinated by the different cultures each specialty has developed over time. These are broad-brush descriptions, but I think by and large they’re true. Sales guys—men and women—like to party hard at night. They’re on the road a lot, away from home and hearth, living the vagabond life, and it’s a bloodbath out there, as everyone in the business knows. You’re constantly trying to get people to buy your wine—people who are just as constantly trying to get you to lower your price. It’s trench warfare. No wonder, at night, when they’re back in the hotel, they hit the bar. I like hanging out with sales people at night because they’re funny and irreverent, with great senses of humor. They’re usually extroverted, which you have to be to be in sales, and since I’m rather introverted, they get me to come out of myself, which is fun. Distribution people tend to run along the same lines, although maybe they’re slightly less the party animals.

I like marketing and communications people too. I’ve written before here that many of my best friends in the wine industry are from P.R. They’re not the manipulative monsters they’re sometimes painted out to be—at least, not the better of them. They don’t want to lie and spin to people any more than they want to get lied to and spun. But we need to clear up something about marketing that’s always bugged me, and that’s the perception that it’s nothing but hype. Look, everybody markets something. You’re on a first date, you’re putting your best foot forward. You’re Screaming Eagle, you’re sending your winemaker out to meet-and-greets. You’re at a party, you smile and put on the charm. Nothing phony about it, you’re trying to get people to relax and like you, and you’re trying to like them. That’s all a good marketing or P.R. type is doing: smiling for the company that employs them, making friends, talking and listening.

I said before that winemakers tend to get all the media attention, but you know what? Winemakers love the teams that help them behind the scenes. They know they couldn’t do it alone, without the help and support of the staff. It may be a tiny little staff—at a mom and pop winery where Big Sister’s doing the financial stuff and Little Junior is tweeting and Instagramming. Or it may be a big company with hundreds or even thousands of employees. It’s all the same: a team. And it’s a curious fact, or maybe it’s not so curious, that the best wine seems to come from wineries with the happiest teams. I can’t prove it—but I’ve known an awful lot of winery employees over the years; some wineries have a “bad vibe” about them, with crazy, unempathetic bosses, and those are the wineries whose wines tend to be “Who cares?” But a happy winery—ahh, there’s a winery that makes good wine, because happy people don’t get behind B.S. wines based on B.S. hype and B.S. practices. They may work at such a winery, but they won’t be happy campers, because the essence of that winery is negative, and you can’t be happy working at a company ruled by negativity that comes from the top down.

A great winery is so because it was started by a great founder. Wineries don’t begin indifferently, with an ill-formed vision, and accidentally stumble into greatness. Great wineries are the manifestation of the visions of dreamers who know how to make their dreams come true. Andre Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi, Bill Harlan—we know who they are. Dreamers can be difficult—witness Steve Jobs. But for all the people who complained he could be a total bastard, they all agreed that he pushed them beyond their limitations and forced them to do things they didn’t think they were capable of. Or, to put it another way, Steve Jobs didn’t force them; they forced themselves to be more than they were, because they were inspired by Steve and wanted to live up to his expectations and gain his approval. I don’t know of a single great winery in the world that doesn’t operate according to that principle, where the expectation is utter greatness. It feels dreadful not to live up to that expectation; to succeed at it is divine. May it be ever thus.


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