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From Houston: Michelin won’t come here? Really?

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I’m told by my friends and hosts here in Houston, Texas’s biggest city and a financial and oil hub, that Michelin won’t come here to review restaurants. If that’s true, and they swear by it, it makes no sense. Houston is a great city, a port city that prides itself on its international culinary influences. I’ve now enjoyed the food in four places here, and I gotta say, Kudos! Good food. Interesting food, including a popup presided over by a James Beard award-winning chef. Why would Michelin ignore Houston? Don’t know. Just asking.

Anyhow – forgive me for short-shrifting my readers the last few days in terms of content and word length. Long days, and triple-digit temperatures with high humidity conspire against me being creative when I finally get back to my hotel room, usually after copious amounts of alcohol. (I will say they know how to make a proper vodka gimlet in this town!) On tomorrow (Wednesday) to San Antonio, then on Thursday, Austin. I like to remind people here that I consider myself half-Texan and Oklahoman. My mom’s parents moved to Oklahoma–which was then Indian territory–in 1907. The family quickly spread to Texas. All my cousins on that side of the family are from down here; I used to visit in the summers, and once, at the age of seven, I spent a good part of the summer digging a ten-foot-deep hole in my uncle’s Oklahoma City home looking for oil (which I never did find).

I’ve met some great people on this trip, including Sean Beck, the sommelier at a group of restaurants including Caracol, where we had some fantastic Gulf oysters, but more to the point, Sean is of like mind with me when it comes to today’s rather bizarre tastes in sommelier-driven wine. I won’t attempt to quote him, but it’s refreshing to know that not every young somm thinks that  wine has to be low alcohol and have a lot of funky dirtiness in order to be interesting. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the point…and as I told Sean, I think this temporary insanity in favor of so-called “natural” wines (a meaningless term) is coming to a merciful end, as the demise of In Pursuit of Balance symbolizes (and Sean, like me, scratches his head when it comes to defining “natural”).

Well, that’s it for tonight. Have a great Wednesday!


Live! From Houston! It’s a road warrior

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On the road again, this time in Houston, a town I have family roots in but can’t claim to know at all. They have a beautiful skyline but apparently the collapse in oil prices has hit it hard. I’m staying at The Houstonian, which I’m told used to be George H.W. Bush’s estate, and I must say, the grounds are pretty fancy and my room is great. The temperature on arrival was 103 with 70% humidity; I’m glad I don’t have to do manual labor out there! I was tired after a long day; those seats on United seem to get more cramped with every flight. Fortunately I was sitting next to a cool dude, a young Louisianan who had flown to San Francisco for the Marathon, so we were able to chat about running, which I don’t really do much anymore but in my heyday, wow, I was pretty good, my best performance ever having been coming in fourth in Bridge to Bridge in my age group (40s), which if you know that race is nothing to sneeze at.

My host here is young Zach White, a regional sales manager for Jackson Family Wines. I love meeting these young road warriors. This life of selling wine isn’t for everyone, but the ones who have chosen it are really into it. I’m a big fan of Alexander the Great, the way he inspired his troops to march with him halfway around the world, through deserts and inhospitable mountains, always meeting hostile tribes whom they had to fight. Why did those men follow Alexander to the ends of the earth? Because he inspired them, gave them something to believe in—not just gold and treasure, but the spirit of achievement. It’s the same with these sales guys. The work is hard, brutal; endless driving, schmoozing. Zach was telling me some of the stories about how he won certain accounts through sheer persistence. He did things when many others would have given up. I can relate to that: I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, the same way. I refused to accept “no” for an answer. I banged at their door every day until, finally, they said yes. That’s why I’m a big believer in the American Dream. You can pretty much accomplish anything you want—but it won’t be handed to you on a silver platter. You have to work your guts out to get it.

Anyhow, from Houston it’s on to Fort Worth and Austin. Like I said, I have deep roots in Texas, on my mother’s side, so it’s a delight to be down here. I was telling Zach how, when my Texas and Oklahoma uncles used to visit us in New York, their drink of choice was “bourbon and branchwater.” Zach is big on bourbon but had never heard the term “branchwater.” I didn’t know what it meant either, so we Googled it. “Branchwater” is simply “still” water as opposed to seltzer. I don’t know why my uncles called it “branchwater” and not just “water,” but I love that, it’s so poetic. I’m sure there’s a story somewhere but I like to think it has to do with the South’s love of romance and evocative language. Doesn’t “branchwater” sound ever so much more romantic than “water”?

So it’s off to bed in my hotel room, with a half bottle of Veuve Cliquot and some charcuterie and crab cakes from the restaurant. All is good. I hope your night and day are pleasant.


Tasting Paso Robles wines in–Oakland!

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The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance held a big tasting at the Scottish Rite Temple

SCottish

(and don’t ask me what those Scottish “rites” are, cuz I don’t know!) yesterday. As this is just a hop, skip and jump from where I live, I took a walk along the Lake to catch up on what’s been happening down in that beautiful part of the Central Coast, whose wines I was one of the earliest national wine critics to commend.

LakeThis is Lake Merritt, across the avenue from the Scottish Rite Temple. My house is just behind that big brown building, which is a retirement community owned by the Episcopal Church.

(Incidentally, thank you to the Alliance for choosing Oakland. This is a great city to have wine events in, and I’m grateful for you for selecting us!)

Since 2014, Paso Robles has had eleven sub-AVAs within its greater borders but, as the Alliance’s communications director, Chris Taranto, told us, it took seven years to make that happen! Which sort of made me shudder, because as you probably know I’m trying to get a new AVA up in Willamette Valley. But I don’t think it’s going to take seven years…

I’m not going to publish all my tasting notes from the event. But here’s one I really liked:

Jada Vineyards 2013 Strayts, $50. This is a blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol is a hefty 15.2%, but the wine isn’t at all hot…I’d call it mouth-warming. Black in color, with impressive aromas of dark chocolate, bacon, violets, blackberry jam and smoky oak. A big, thick, dramatic wine with a wonderful texture: caressing and lively. Rich in tannins, sweet in fruit, but fully dry. I thought the wine is best consumed early, to appreciate its fresh, vibrant fruit, and scored it 92 points.

Paso still seems to have that element of experimentalism that always made me admire it. When I was at Wine Enthusiast, I wrote (and blogged) about how some Napa Valley winemakers were migrating there because, they told me, they felt that in Napa their hands were tied, making expensive Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas in Paso, they felt they could be free. Since Paso had no overwhelming reputation for any particular variety or style, they could make anything they wanted, any blend, no matter how weird or unconventional. I think Paso Robles still has that admirable quality: a place that, like the Wild West, lets you be whatever your aspirations envision.

Before the big tasting, they had a seminar, and, having been on a zillion of those in my time, it brought back memories of sitting on panels and hoping to have an excited, happy audience. I must admit to thinking there’s got to be a better format for these things. As it is, everybody sticks the winemakers at a table on a dais in front of the audience. There’s a moderator, the audience tastes wines in turn, and the winemakers talk about their wines, usually in technical terms. You can see people zoning out, in some cases, as the winemakers go on and on about clay and fog and barrels. I wrote, “We need a new conversational model for these things. How can we make them more lively and interactive?” I admit I don’t have any good answers. I’m good at diagnosing the problem but the solution, if any, is eluding me. Maybe there is no solution; it comes down to personalities. Some speakers are more exciting than others. And some audiences are more participatory and more willing to get involved than others. Whenever I’ve been on a panel, I try to stir things up a little bit, and whenever I’m in the audience, I feel like I have a responsibility to make this thing a success, so I ask a few questions and make a few remarks. It takes a village to pull of a successful wine event.

Have a lovely weekend!


On the road in “everybody’s favorite city,” San Francisco

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Spent a delightful and as always an educational day yesterday accompanying some of our Sales people to a couple San Francisco restaurants. I always look forward to these trips, because they are sheer adventure. You never know what you’re going to get.

We went first to a small eastern Mediterranean place in the Mission District, Tawla, which has been getting huge press lately. It’s on Valencia at Duboce, a neighborhood that’s been undergoing a lot of pressure lately due to gentrification. But you know what? I was hanging out there 35 years ago, and it hasn’t changed that much! Still gritty, with (let us say) an interesting local street population. The somm was a guy who’s worked at a lot of Michelin restaurants but, he explained, wanted something smaller, where he could have a more creative, curated wine list.

Then it was on to Perbacco, a great place I’ve always enjoyed. We had lunch there (amazing pasta) with the somm from Flatiron, the new wine shop in the Palace Hotel. Then onto Scoma’s.

SCOMA

Now, if you don’t know Scoma’s, it’s one of the mainstays of Fisherman’s Wharf. As I told the wine guy, who’s been there for 20 years, he’s probably served several generations of my family over the decades.

Each of these places and people was totally different. But each is part of the mosaic that makes up San Francisco. Although I’ve lived in Oakland for close to 30 years, I lived in San Francisco for a decade prior to that, and I still love going there. It’s only 3 subway stops away from my place, so it’s easy; driving and parking in S.F. is a total nightmare. Everybody gripes about housing prices in the City, but when I moved there, in 1979, everybody was griping then about the same thing! As I suppose they were in the 1940s. So the more things change… I think San Francisco is fundamentally unalterable, and I mean that in a good way. You can bend it, stretch it, but you can’t break it. It’s the old Barbary Coast: a little bit nice, a little bit naughty, and heart-achingly beautiful.

You know, some people have asked me if it’s not odd for me to have gone from being a wine critic to working for a wine company. My answer is always the same: not at all. I’ve always been a bit of an iconoclast (if that’s not already obvious) and I still am. I didn’t fit into a neat, tidy little package as a wine critic, and I don’t fit into a neat, tidy package working for Jackson Family Wines. The most important thing to me, in the intellectual sense, is honesty. I don’t lie well, I don’t spin well, it’s hard for me to hide my feelings (as my Facebook friends and Twitter followers no doubt are aware). When I meet people at restaurants and wine stores on these sales trips, I act exactly the same as I would at a cocktail party: put on a smile, try to engage, find things in common to talk about. If the people want to talk about the wines, I’m down with that, and the Jackson sales people I’m with often know more about the technical details than I do; together, we can answer any question (almost).

But from these trips I’ve learned something I really didn’t understand when I was a wine critic, and that’s the value of relationships. Wine critics don’t need to establish relationships in the industry. They can, of course (and we all do), but the essence of being a wine critic is that you’re a loner. I was a bit of a loner as a critic. You have to be; you have to keep your emotional distance from people whose wines you might have to trash. In sales, it’s different, and I truly enjoy making these connections. People are fabulous treasure troves to dig through, to discover who they are, where they’re coming from, what makes them smile. Which makes me look forward to next week, when I’ll be in Texas, from which I hope to be able to blog every day.


Notes from the road, on AVAs, and a frown on orange wine

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Driving back from Oregon to California, I was really struck by how abruptly the climate changes in a relatively short distance.

I had stayed the night in Medford, in the interior section of Oregon, right on I-5. The daytime temperatures were very hot, well into the 90s. Then you climb into all the mountains—the Siskyous, the Klamaths, Mt. Shasta—where the temperature is still pretty warm, but this is also a very wet climate: hence the thickly-forested stands of fir (and so many ugly scars from clear-cutting).

Then, when you hit California and get into the top of the Sacramento Valley around Redding, how quickly things change! Suddenly the thick stands of trees are gone, and so is the greenery, replaced by mile after mile of the sere, golden hills that give California its nickname, The Golden State. Where there are trees they are drought-resistant eucalyptus. Otherwise, in this barren, droughty part of the state, nothing grows, except where it is irrigated. All this, within a few hundred miles.

* * *

I read in the news that the Petaluma Gap AVA petitioners still are waiting for TTB to approve their application (or not). I wrote about the effort in Nov. 2014, stating that I was “heartily in favor” of it, and that TTB would probably approve it “sooner rather than later.” Well, here we are, 20 months later, and still no approval! I don’t know if that qualifies as “later,” but it is what it is, and I still think the feds will allow it, although one of the petitioners was quoted in the article as saying, “It’s possible it could all be done this year,” which would definitely be “later” than I’d thought.

Here’s a list of all the other pending AVAs waiting for TTB action. As you can see, three of the nine are in California (although four of the nine are mere “expansions” rather than brand-new appellations). One of the pending ones is the Van Duzer Corridor, up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. That’s where I’ve been spending time: the “Corridor” is a gap in the coastal hills, similar to the Petaluma Gap, that allows cool maritime air and wind to funnel in from the coast. Jackson Family’s Maple Grove vineyard is a little too far south to be influenced by the Van Duzer Corridor, so it wouldn’t be included, which is why we’re looking into an appellation for our area.

* * *

I’m sorry, but I still think “orange wine” is a flash in the pan. Just because pre-scientific winemakers made this kind of dirty stuff thousands of years ago doesn’t make it romantic if it tastes weird. It just means we humans have learned how to make clean wine.


Learning Willamette, one step at a time

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I just got back from up in the Willamette Valley working on that AVA project for Jackson Family Wines. Our particular vineyard is west of the town of Monmouth, in a part of the valley that does not have its own sub-appellation. That’s something I’m looking into, with the idea of coming up with a name that will satisfy our neighbors as well as the Tax & Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the agency that oversees such things.

It’s been a long and winding road, so far, but I’m making good progress—I think (and I’m knocking on wood as I write this, being a superstitious type). My initial plan, for a larger AVA that would have included many more of our neighboring grapegrowers and vintners, seems in retrospect to have been a little too ambitious. I’ve since scaled back, towards a smaller, more focused appellation, which seems like a better idea anyway, because smaller appellations tend to make more sense (from a terroir point of view). I mean, I’ve been the first to criticize gigantic appellations all my years as a wine reporter. So I’m glad we’re able to aim for something smaller, which is easier to understand, and to bring our neighbors with us.

One thing I’ve discovered about TTB is, they do not want to get in the middle of somebody else’s fight! And I can’t say I blame them. They’re probably understaffed; they’re in no position to play Judge Judy. It’s not their job to intervene between quarreling neighbors who disagree about where a boundary is or isn’t. TTB wants us—the petitioners—to get our act together and come to them as a united group that has fulfilled TTB’s basic requirements for approval of a new AVA. That’s not asking too much of us.

Another thing I’ve come to appreciate is how important it is to really understand the land you’re trying to get appellated. I understood, back when I made my first visit up here (last Fall) that it would take me a while to “get” the physical parameters of this part of the valley. Now I’m on my fourth trip, and it’s starting to sink in: I am beginning to understand the slopes and contours, the directionality, where the hllls are, what the elevations are, where the pinot noir thrives and where the it’s better for hazelnuts. I’m getting the roads, too: no more need for GPS. More than that, I’m figuring out the big view: the macro-terrain, where the bowls are, the amphitheaters, the natural topographic features on a many-miles scale. I now have my eye on one such: it seems like a consistent place (in fact it reminds me of the Coombsville appellation in Napa Valley, it’s so compact and geometric). The soils seems to be more or less the same throughout, so does the rainfall, and—well, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But for me, this is the kind of stuff I love, the sleuthing, the research, the trying to make sense out of a whole lot of unconnected stuff until you begin to see the connections. And, of course, the people we are working with: growers and vintners. Hanging with them, picking their brains, sharing my thoughts, hearing theirs…it’s all so rewarding.

I’m still obviously an outsider, but it strikes me that the Willamette Valley is a huge place, 3.4 million acres, or 35 times bigger than the Russian River Valley; and lord knows, the Russian River Valley seriously needs to be sub-appellated. Willamette Valley already has six sub-AVAs (Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton and Ribbon Ridge), but it seems to my outsider eye that it will take many years if not decades to really figure this place out. I mean every nook and cranny, every slope, every orientation; and this isn’t even to mention the potential Grand Crus. The area to the west and south of Monmouth, which is where I’m working, is very little understood, but I’ll wager it’s going to be important. The little city of Independence, just two miles to the east, has serious plans to develop a winetasting infrastructure on the banks of the Willamette River, and Monmouth is popping up with cute little tasting bars and restaurants. The tourists aren’t flocking here quite yet: they’re going a little further north up the 99, to Eola, Amity and McMinnville. But that’s the beauty of path-breaking winemakers: their curiosity. Tell a winemaker that there’s the potential for beautiful Pinot Noir in an undiscovered region, and light the fire in her eyes. I’m not a winemaker, but it’s fun for a writer to be part of the discovery process, too.

In the end, though, you have to wonder what makes a great AVA—or, at least, one that’s perceived as great. It can’t just be the mere establishment of a perimeter. It can’t just be the petitioner’s claim that the appellation is unique (for most AVAs aren’t, to be perfectly honest). I guess what it takes is a long track record of producing great wine, which doesn’t happen overnight.


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