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Au revoir, awesome Austin!

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I’ve always wanted to come to Austin. I’d heard so much about how it’s the “San Francisco of Texas.” My friend Terry, from the tattoo shop, spent a year there, and loved it. My local drive-around buddies were from Republic distributors, Scott

Scott

and Chris (whose picture I forgot to take). Scott actually drove me all the way from San Antonio, and between him and Chris, I feel I got to know this city of nearly 900,000—Texas’s capital—pretty well. I took this picture of the downtown skyline from his car.

Austin

Despite its size, Austin has a small-town feeling, especially the downtown area and Sixth Street,

SixthSt

which was so like Oakland, and also reminded me of the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon: young, energetic, lots of hip clubs, bars, wine stores and tattoo shops, and cool, creative little restaurants. The temperature was very hot, above 100 degrees, but, being inland, it didn’t have the humidity of Houston, so I found it very comfortable. (Of course, we were going from one air-conditioned place to another.)

We had lunch at Mongers,

Mongers

which may not look like much from the outside, but is one of the better seafood restaurants; their ahi tuna poke was fantastic.

My friends brought me to some wine shops: Beverage World, a fine little venue with a really friendly, loyal clientele, where I hosted a tasting with the chef and buyer, Eric Pelegrin,

EricBevWorld

a Frenchman who is a man after my own heart. Wow, did we have fun with the customers, nearly all of whom brought their dogs (and made me really miss Gus!). We also tasted with John Roenigk, owner of the Austin Wine Merchant,

AustinWineMerch

the kind of wine store I just love to poke around, row after crowded row of interesting bottles (and I joked that I wouldn’t mind getting locked in there some night!). We also visited The Grove Wine Bar & Kitchen, where I met the proprietor, Reed Clemons,

ReedClemonsGrove

and what a success story that is: Reed now has four branches of this fun, lively restaurant, with its modern decor and highly curated wine list.

I stayed at the Omni. This was my last dinner before heading home:

LastTXDinner

crab cakes and mussels, washed down with a vodka gimlet. Fairly standard hotel fare, but I’m not complaining. The vodka was local, from Tito’s, which I’d earlier had in San Antonio, and it was quite good. I always try to drink local on these trips.

At the Austin Airport, on my way back to San Francisco, I saw this poster in one of the shops. “Keep Austin Weird” is, I guess, sort of the town’s motto.

AustinWeird

I felt like I’d done my part, however briefly, to do exactly that!

And now, it’s on the road again this week, to Southern California. I’ll do my best to report. Take care and be well.


Live! From the road–San Antonio

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Gotta say that I’m really digging San Antonio. After big Houston, San Antone has more of a small town, neighborhoody and, dare I say it, soulful thing going on. Great downtown, lots of old brick buildings (and The Alamo!),

Alamo

and neighborhoods that are being rehabbed with cool new restaurants, clubs, bars. It reminded me of old-town Baltimore, Portland’s Pearl District, and my own, beloved Oakland, except a lot hotter: the temperature has been about 100 since I’ve been in Texas, but Houston was so humid, whereas San Antonio—inland—is more of a dry heat, which I can dig.

One of my hosts showed me the River Walk along the San Antonio River.

RiverWalk

 

Wow. This photo hardly does it justice. My first impression was it’s like Costa Rica. Love it, love it, what a beautiful place to have in a big city.

We also went to a restaurant, Paesanos, and as soon as I walked in I “got it.” I told my friend, “I bet this place is a tremendous success.” It just had that formula: family friendly, but upscale. The ability to combine those two elements has got to be one of the hardest balancing acts in all of restaurantdom. The somm there, Roberto “Robbie” Pacheco, was so proud of this device he has that stores wine under argon gas.

Resto

I don’t know if you can read all the labels, but he has some very expensive bottles in there, including Latour 2000; a six-ounce pour will set you back $300, a bit beyond my budget! But I was glad to see Verité in there.

Had lunch with a cool guy, Fabien Jacob, the somm at a steakhouse, Bohanan’s, which I understand is very popular (we actually ate at a different restaurant). From Fabien I got a hint of the wine habits of folks down here. Turns out they love California Cabernet Sauvignon, which I did not know; even in this heat, they’ll drink it with everything. Mazel tov San Antonio! I also met a very young, cool dude, Scott Ota, who’s launching High Street Wine Co. in September. His ambitions are very high: to have an eclectic wine list, personally curated by him. He’s still putting together all the pieces, but his passion and understanding of wine blew me away, especially for someone of his tender years.

Finally, a place I hope to return to for a longer time. Smoke, the restaurant, occupies three floors of an old brick building, beside the railroad tracks, a retro sort of place that was actually a stop on the Underground Railroad! They have bars and big, happy, loud dining areas where I could see myself any night of the week. It’s a barbecue joint. As soon as you walk in, you get the smoky, charry scent that makes your tastebuds whistle.

San Antonio reminded me in so many ways of Oakland: a town that was, possibly, a little run-down at some point, but with tremendous potential, in terms of the charming old buildings, history, and the presence of a budding population of young people who are looking for authentic local places to eat and drink. I drank the local vodka and the local wine, and thoroughly enjoyed this, my first visit to San Antonio, which I hope will not be my last. I stayed at a Hyatt, which was entirely suitable, and ate at the bar: homemade spinach, artichoke and chicken flatbread, with a Central Texas Fall Creek 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, which had plenty of Sauvignon character. At the hotel bar, as the sun sets here in San Antonio, I am a happy camper.

SauvBlanc

You know what? I don’t need Michelin. Sometimes good, honest fare completes me. Tomorrow, it’s onto to my final stop, Austin, which my friends tell me is the San Francisco or Berkeley of Texas. We’ll see…


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.


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