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A wine from my cellar, plus Bordeaux at a Basque restaurant

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A few nights ago I pulled the Charles Krug 2008 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), which cost $75 on release. The color was still as inky dark as a young Cabernet, but after almost precisely ten years, the aromatics and flavors had turned the corner, picking up secondary (although far from tertiary) notes. The fresh blackberries and black currants I found when I initially reviewed the wine, in the Autumn of 2011 when it was three years old, were still there, but “growing grey hairs,” as they say, becoming more fragile, and showing leathery notes and, perhaps, a little porty, due to high alcohol, namely 15.7%.

In my early review, I wrote that the wine was “certainly higher in alcohol than in the old days, but still maintains balance.” In those olden days (never to come again, alas), Krug’s Vintage Selection, always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, hovered in the 12-1/2% range. Gerald Asher, writing in the early 1980s, credited Krug’s “influential legacy” (along with Beaulieu, Martini and Inglenook) as having contributed to “the seeds of all [stylistic Cabernet] options available to winemakers today,” a statement that remains true. His fellow Englishman, the enormously influential Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, went him one better. He gave the 1959 Krug Cabernet his highest rating, five stars, calling it “most perfect” and “a lovely rich wine,” and added, amazingly, that his friend, Edward Penning-Rowsell, who wrote the best book on Bordeaux ever (The Wines of Bordeaux), “could not fault it,” rare praise indeed from an oenophile who opined about his specialty, Bordeaux, for decades in the Financial Times. James Laube, the most important American wine critic after Robert Parker, was of more ambivalent opinion. While he called Krug’s Cabernets (first produced in 1944) “grand, distinctive [and] long-lived,” his scores on the 100-point scale were less impressive. In his 1989 California’s Great Cabernets he managed only two 90-plus scores over more than four decades of vintages of the Vintage Select (as it was then called).

I scored the 2008 Vintage Selection 93 points in 2011, and would do the same now. Admittedly, that wine took an enormous departure from the Krug Cabernets Asher and Broadbent loved. The high alcohol is a conceptual problem, and perhaps makes pairing it with food more challenging, but these are matters for our imaginations, not our palates. Organoleptically, the wine still provides good drinking. Even on release the $75 price was a bargain, when, for example, Grgich Hills already was $150, and Jarvis was a sky-high $315. Charles Krug had by then long lost its luster among the label chasers, a fickle bunch, and it must have been hard for Krug, used to being at the top, to be so overlooked, or maybe disrespected is the better word.

It’s always risky to predict the future of such wines, but I would not be surprised if the ’08 Vintage Selection is still purring away contentedly in 2028.

Tasting Légende Bordeaux at Piperade

In France “piperade” (pronounced something like “pip-rod”) is a Basque stew of onions, green peppers and tomatoes, spicy and garlicky. In San Francisco, it’s the name of Gerald Hirigoyen’s restaurant, which opened in 2002 and has long been a fixture on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list. It’s situated on Battery Street, an old-timely San Francisco neighborhood at the junction of North Beach, Chinatown and the Financial District, just below the cliff of Telegraph Hill: old brick buildings, lovingly restored, that now house tech hubs and architectural firms.

Piperade was where an interesting tasting of Bordeaux took place on Monday. I was invited despite my status as a retiree and had the privilege of being seated to the right of Diane Flamand, the winemaker for Légende, the Bordeaux brand that sponsored the luncheon. (I think this honor was because I was the eldest person in the room!)

Légende is owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR), which also owns Lafite-Rothschild. It produces five what might be called “entry-level” Bordeaux: a basic red and white Bordeaux, a Médoc, a Pauillac, and a Saint-Emilion. (This latter is, of course, not within DBR’s traditional wheelhouse, but was developed in response to the market.)

I have to say how impressed I was by all five wines. The white, which was served as a conversation starter before we sat down for the meal, was fine, clean and savory, a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon. The red Bordeaux was equally satisfactory, being dry and somewhat austere, although elegant. The official retail price of both–$17.99, although I’ve seen them for less—made me inquire where in the Bay Area I could find them.

As we progressed through the lineup, the red wines all showed true to form: the Médoc more full-bodied than the Bordeaux, the St. Emilion wonderfully delicate and silky, and the Pauillac the darkest and sturdiest of all, as you might expect. The flight was capped off with 2010 Carruades de Lafite, the “second wine” of Lafite-Rothschild, just for the sake of comparison. As good as it was–and it was!–the other wines had nothing to be ashamed of.

During the meal, where most of the other guests (about 15 in all) seemed to be bloggers, the topic arose concerning Bordeaux’s status and popularity in the California market. I weighed in, as is my wont : ) I mentioned that younger people are looking for unusual, often eccentric wines—the kind their parents never drank—which means they’re not drinking Bordeaux. But, I added, there’s a reason why Bordeaux has been the classic red wine in the world for centuries; and that, as they get on with life, I was sure these drinkers would eventually discover Bordeaux—especially reasonably-priced Bordeaux that shows the classic hallmarks of the genre.

At any rate, if you can find these Légende wines, they’re worth checking out!


San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?

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Spent the day yesterday with my family in San Francisco (only three BART stops from my house). We started with something that’s now become a bit of a tradition: dollar oysters with drinks at Waterbar at noon. I had mine with a glass of “J” brut, such a good drink with oysters.

Waterbar is an absolute joy to go to, with its expansive views of the Bay, the Bridge and the East Bay, which the Spanish Californios called “Contra Costa”: the opposite coast.

Normally, on a day as cloudless and sunny as yesterday, you’d be able to see Mount Diablo, the second-tallest peak in the Bay Area (3,849 feet). But the mountain was totally obscured by smoke hazing up the sky, drifted down from the wildfires up north that continue to ravage the state. My heart goes out to the people around Redding, who have suffered relentlessly from this scourge.

As a kid I wouldn’t have eaten an oyster if you’d paid me, but now, you can’t hold me back. They whet rather than satiate the appetite, even with bread and butter. Hemingway praised oysters “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away.” Afterwards, we sought lunch. Maxine wanted to check out the rooftop garden in the just-opened Salesforce Transit Center. I hadn’t been there yet, so we walked the few blocks and took the longest escalator I’ve ever seen up to the gardens. (They’re also going to open an aerial tram.) All I can say is, visit this place if you haven’t already. It’s an instant classic. The terminal itself is an architectural marvel (it’s probably the most earthquake-proofed structure in the world), but most marvelous is the rooftop garden. It must be a quarter-mile long, with twisting trails and little nooks where you can rest and eat. The entire site is surrounded by a wall of skyscrapers, including Salesforce Tower, the tallest building west of Chicago.

This is really a spectacular achievement for San Francisco, a futuristic marvel; I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the center of a big city. It’s part of a chain of stunning development that stretches from the Embarcadero, on the Bay, west to Moscone Center. Absolutely stunning.

This elicited lots of political talk between us about gentrification and people losing their places to live. It’s stunning to see the brilliance of imperial San Francisco at this, its greatest, richest moment. But it’s sobering to think of all the people forced out of their apartments, many of whom, presumably, are now living on the streets, in BART corridors and God knows where else. I actually wondered how long it would be before there are tent encampments in the Transit Center garden, which is free to access. I doubt that the authorities would permit that, but still…things are tough in the Bay Area if you don’t have money.

The same thing is happening in Oakland albeit at a lesser pace. In my neighborhood alone an entire city-within-a-city is going up, all in the space of the last year or so. I’m glad I got rid of my car (I’m now carless) because traffic here is going to be horrible once all the new residents move in. Being carless (it’s been a month now) has been hassle-free. In fact, I’m enjoying it. I gather that carlessness is more or less a trend among Millennials, what with all the options (Uber, Lyft and so on), which makes me think that all of my life I’ve done things I thought were the products of my rational choices but which, as it turned out, tens of millions of others were simultaneously doing, which made them trends. What does this say about free will?

Anyhow, I personally welcome this new development but I know lots of people adamantly oppose it, for all the reasons I cited above. I think you can’t stop progress. You can manage it intelligently, but you can’t build a wall around a city like San Francisco or Oakland and say, “No more people allowed” when so many people want to live here. And yet the homelessness is extremely troubling. With it comes an increase in filth, litter, crime, human excrement in the streets, and vandalism, and at night, when I’m out and about downtown, the streets are scary, something out of Night of the Living Dead: zombies roaming around, muttering to themselves, gesticulating crazily. I’m an old man now: it’s discomfiting.

And yet I have no more answers than anyone else. The extreme liberals in Oakland insist that the city pay for housing, food and healthcare for the estimated 4,000 homeless people who live here. They even go so far as to say that the Police Department should be defunded, with the money going to homeless services. That’s insane, and is not going to happen. But it is, I fear, the sort of talk that Trump and his followers use as wedge issues to appeal to their white followers, who want simplistic solutions to enormously complicated problems.

 

 


My road trip: Day Six. A little ranting…

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Drove from Portland to Olympia, Washington (where I write this), about midway on my road trip, and I have a few observations to make about some things I encountered.

Not to complain or anything, but the road people really have I-5 torn up, resulting in pretty massive backups. On the plus side, there are no fires this far north, a relief after Northern California and Southern Oregon, where the skies were leaden with smoke and the air thick with the stench of ashes for hundreds of miles. The temperature is a lot lower here than it was in Medford and Salem by a good 30-40 degrees or more. As I write, it’s about 63 degrees and overcast, with drizzle. But this is the Pacific Northwest! You want heat, go inland.

Now a word about Google maps. Two words, actually: YOU SUCK. Google maps is okay in wide, open spaces and on freeways, but it suffered a complete nervous breakdown in Olympia, which is not a particularly big city (only 51,000), but it is the capital of Washington State, and is wedged in between two gigantic freeways (I-5 and 101). Man, oh man, did Google maps get lost! It had me driving round and around the State Capital Building, a lovely, Beaux Arts structure, but all I wanted was to get to my hotel. And it babbled like, well, a Trump tweet. “Turn left. Turn right. Turn left. Turn right,” all in the space of one block. What’s a lost driver to do? I actually stopped by a gas station, told the clerk my plight, and before I knew it, a cadre of local men, bless their souls, was debating over the best way to get me to my destination. Between the collapse of Google maps and the rather turbulent conversation, I was ready to find the nearest bridge and jump off. But somehow, we managed to find my hotel. And with all that twisting and turning and braking, Gus lost it, and vomited in my rental car. Fortunately, I’m always prepared for such incidents. Gus rides in the passenger seat, which I always line with a clean, white towel. I now have four vomit-dirty towels; tomorrow morning, I shall do laundry.

Anyhow, that’s more than you need to know about my road trip! I’ve been out of touch with the news all day, but a quick check gave me fodder for a little Trump bashing—in this case, the son, Donald, Jr.

Now I have to confess to a visceral dislike of him. Partly it’s his Gordon Gekko appearance, with the slicked back hair and the designer suits. But Gordon Gekko, as played by Michael Douglas, at least was good-looking. Junior thinks he’s a hottie, but he’s ugly as a horse’s rear end, with his lips permanently twisted into smug contempt, and jowls already testifying to a life of gluttony. He’s in the news a fair amount, unlike his younger brother, Eric, so we’ve been treated to many quotes from him, and they’re usually nasty insults—like his father’s. He’s the typical mean, rich lucky sperm kid.

He made waves yesterday with his comment that Democrats are like Nazis. Really, Junior? You’re comparing Democrats to Nazis? Your father is the one American Nazis worship. Your father is the one white supremacists love. Your father—well, what’s the point in going on. Donald Trump, Jr. is a POS. Don’t you long for the day when we’re rid of that entire Trump kleptocracy?

Well, it’s been a long day on the road, so I’m ready, on this Thursday evening, for some booze and food. And so, for that matter, is Gus (not the booze; just the food). Have a wonderful weekend, and remember to VOTE, and tell everyone you know to VOTE.


Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

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I left Oakland for my drive north at noon on Saturday. The morning fog had burned off, and the sky was sunny and blue. I first smelled the fire 125 miles south of Redding, in Yolo County, north of Vacaville, even with all the car windows shut and the AC on. By the Colusa County line, the sky had turned a milky, opaque silver. It looked like fog, but wasn’t. It was smoke from the Carr Fire, drifting south. I parked the car to walk Gus. The smell! Dirty dog, like when Gus needs a bath. But it wasn’t Gus. It was ash, burnt wood, and lots of other incinerated stuff.

The farther north we got up the I-5, the darker and hazier the air became. Visibility was sharply reduced, and it was fiercely hot. At 3 in the afternoon on a late July day in the Sacramento Valley, that sky should have been blindingly blue, not mother-of-pearl.

In Red Bluff, 27 miles south of Redding, things were really bad. The haze was super-thick—this picture hardly does it justice.

And the sun was a weird, reddish-orange smudge in the haze,

the way it must look from Neptune. The smell was very strong, very bad: a burnt-out fireplace. People were wearing face masks.

We stayed that night in Red Bluff. A few days earlier, I’d had an email from a guy who reads my blog, name of Alain Teutschmann, who owns Mount Tehama Winery, in Manton, a tiny town (population 347) southeast of Redding, in the Sierra Foothills. He’d read on my blog last week that I’d be in Red Bluff and wondered if we could meet. Sure. He took me to a dive bar—my favorite kind—out in the boonies, E’s Locker Room. They don’t have a website but they are on Facebook.

Alain–a lovely, interesting man, with a great back story–had read my comments about “Red Trump Land” and wanted me to experience “Jefferson State.” Here’s a picture of Alain in front of E’s:

Here’s a poster on a tree that tells visitors they are now in the State, not of California, but Jefferson.

We met the owner and the bartender, two very nice, young (to me) guys. Hard not to like them: salt of the earth types. Alain’s girlfriend, Betty, had joined us. We talked pretty passionately—I did, anyway—about politics, and the owner and bartender listened, but didn’t add much. I mentioned the Jefferson demand for “Smaller Government.” Then Betty—who by the way had evacuated her home–asked an interesting question. “I wonder, if we were an independent state, who would pay for putting out the fire?”

“Good question,” said the bartender, without offering an answer.

I wish he had. This is what these anti-government, anti-tax types never consider. There are thousands and thousands of firefighters (some of them dying), rescue personnel, private contractors driving heavy equipment (also dying), doctors and nurses, cops and law enforcement—you name it, fighting the Carr Fire and helping the people. Someone has to pay them. Someone has to pay for the gasoline for the water-dropping planes and vehicles. For that matter, someone has to pay for the paved roads the firetrucks and ambulances drive on. Someone has to pay for all of the infrastructure. And yet these tea party types demand “no government, no taxes.” With all due respect, I think they sit around at night drinking and getting stoned and complaining about “Big Gummint” taking all their money and giving it to the Blacks and Mexicans. Yet when their community is on fire they expect the Feds and the State to come in and rescue them.

What can you say to such unreasonable people?

I awoke on Sunday morning to nonstop local T.V. coverage: evacuation centers, reports by officials on the fire’s progress, weather forecasts, road closures.

The weather was not favorable to the firefighters. The smell of ashes was stronger than ever. I departed Red Bluff northward with great trepidation, not knowing what I would find in Redding. Someone had said on Saturday night the I-5 was reduced to six miles an hour due to the gridlock of mass evacuations and ambulances and firetrucks. Getting through Redding, though, was easy. The freeway was mercifully free of vehicles. The good news, I suppose, was that the high temperature would be “only” 100 degrees, as against Friday’s 113. Humidity ten percent, winds gusting and erratic, exactly what the firefighters don’t need.

For the folks who live in these parts, the Carr Fire is a catastrophe. Redding has about 90,000 people. Add in a few thousand more for the little mountain towns to the west—the fire’s epicenter—and it’s still a small community. Thirty-eight thousand had already been evacuated—nearly half the entire regional population. Many roads were closed. And the death toll was rising: six by Sunday evening, with many areas still on fire, and thus unsearchable by rescue squads. As I drove on from Redding up towards my next stop, Medford, Oregon, I kept the radio on the local stations, and it seemed like everybody in the entire vicinity was volunteering to help: people offered their barns and pastures for displaced livestock, their homes for the evacuated, food, clothing, rides, cell phone chargers, prayers. That’s the best part of Jefferson State. But I like to think that would happen in Oakland, too, or anywhere in the U.S.

On the way to Medford, you pass Mount Shasta. Anyone who’s driven the I-5 knows how suddenly and awesomely it appears, this majestic, perfectly-shaped sleeping volcano, clad year-round in snow. There’s a Vista Point turnoff on the I-5. Here’s a rendition of what the mountain should look like from there:

Here’s what I saw:

Nothing. A nearly 10,000-foot tall mountain, totally obscured by smoke.

Even in Medford—200 miles north of Redding—the sky was filled with smoke, and the air quality was horrible. But there are fires here, too. There are fires up and down the entire West Coast. “Oregon is on fire,” the local T.V. news anchor in Medford said on Sunday evening. It’s terrible, horrible, heartbreaking. But Donald J. Trump and his allies tell us that climate change is a myth, that the weather isn’t getting hotter, that elite scientists and Democrats are lying. Please, Jefferson people, if you read this, think! Rise above your anger and use your God-given brain. You good people have backed the wrong side, and they’re screwing you blind.


Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant: an East Bay treasure

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When I moved to the East Bay, in 1987, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant was the first wine shop I wanted to check out.

Kermit—the man—had started the shop back in 1972. My trip there brought me driving down crowded, trafficky San Pablo Avenue, to an industrial part of Berkeley filled with auto body shops and Chinese restaurants. There, tucked along the side of a parking lot, with the Acme Bread Company kitty-corner next door, was a non-descript storefront leading to a not very sizable shop, where stacks of the most interesting wines I’d ever seen were piled up everywhere. And the floor staff did not make me feel like I didn’t belong, despite my jeans and T-shirt, the way they did at Draper & Esquin, the notoriously snooty wine store in San Francisco’s Financial District.

I shopped a lot at KLWM in the late 1980s and 1990s, buying the wines Kermit imported from Europe, especially those from France: Minervois, Fitou, Alsace, Chablis, Bandol, Chateauneauf and the occasional inexpensive red Burgundy. I went, also, to Kermit’s annual Beaujolais Nouveau party, which took place in the parking lot (rain or shine), with tons of aromatic purple wine, grilled sausages and delicious bread from Acme. And, of course, I eagerly read Kermit’s monthly newsletter, among the liveliest in California. But by the mid-1990s my career as a wine writer with a specialty in California took off, with the predictable result that I lost touch with the wines from anywhere except the Golden State. (When you’re reviewing 5,000 wines a year, it’s hard to drink much else!) It was a sad tradeoff. So I found myself shopping at Kermit Lynch less and less. I’d tell myself every month, “I really must go back to Kermit,” because their mixed-case sampler deals were so great. But it just never seemed to happen.

Then, a few weeks ago, I got an evite from Kermit Lynch’s marketing director, Clark Terry, inviting me to a Champagne tasting. It was at Jardiniere, the great restaurant over in Hayes Valley, in the shadow of City Hall. I asked Maxine to accompany me, and we went last Monday. What a treat. Not too crowded (as many of these walkaround tastings tend to be), with the wines properly organized, and piles of charcuterie and paté—the perfect pairings for bubbly.

I didn’t take official notes, but I will say that, in every flight, it turned out that my favorite wine was always the most expensive! That’s always been my problem: Champagne taste, Prosecco budget. For example, in the J. Lassalle Champagnes, the 2006 Blanc de Blancs blew me away. It was picking up bottle bouquet, toasty and clean; at $656 the case wholesale, a single bottle at retail, by my calculations, would run you a cool $110—not bad, actually, for what you get.

They had some still wines too, and in the white Burgundies, as I made my way from Kermit’s entry-level Dom. Costal Chablis ($240) through the seven wines, the final one—Bruno Colin 2015 Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Vergers”—was thrilling beyond my words to describe it, so rich and massive it awed me, although it needed some time. But once again, it was a very pricy wine: $1,008 the case wholesale. And exactly the same thing happened with the red Burgundies: they were all fine, from a rather ascetic Marsannay to a plumper Aloxe-Corton, but the star was a 2014 Nuits-Saint-Georges “Les Cailles,” from Robert Chevillon, that was so wonderful, I brought Maxine a glass, and we sipped together over fatty little chunks of paté with pistachios.

I was grateful to Clark for the invitation, all the more so because he’s well aware that I’m retired and really have no platform to write about those wines, except for this blog. The tasting brought back many happy memories of more youthful days, when I was a budding wine writer and getting a dozen or more tasting invitations a week. The new German Rieslings at Fort Mason – old Bordeaux at the London Wine Bar – Napa Cabernets at some now defunct downtown restaurant – Peter Granoff’s historic tastings at Square One – the Union des Grands Crus at the Palace Hotel – the fabulous tastings of Les Amis du Vin — or just the tasting bar at the old Liquor Barn, down on Bayshore, where I befriended the bar manager, who would open bottles at my request: Yquem, Lafite, Petrus. (I don’t think that would happen these days!) But somehow, at the back of my mind, always lurked Kermit Lynch. Just knowing it was there made me happy.

So, armed with these memories, I make a vow: One of these days, soon, I’ll make my way back to Kermit Lynch, to resume a practice I loved, but abandoned, twenty-five years ago: buying well-priced, carefully-curated French wine.


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