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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.


A tasting at Verité

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Wonderful trip yesterday to Verité, the Jackson Family-owned property that quite frankly is killing it in Bordeaux blends. I’ve been on that opinion at least since I gave the 2006 La Muse a perfect 100 points, their first ever; but not their last, for Robert Parker recently gave no fewer than seven 100-point scores to Verité, an unprecedented fact that causes me to joke that he copied me. The winery was begun by Jess Jackson, who met winemaker Pierre Seillan, in 1996; Jackson wanted to know if Seillan, who was then working in Bordeaux, could “make a wine of equal quality to Chateau Petrus.”

Seillan has told this story over the years, always with an insructable grin on his face, but the fact is that, Petrus or no Petrus, he has succeeded at Verité in a huge way. So it was with eagerness (to say the least) that I drove up to Healdsburg in a heavy late August mist, the day after the big Napa earthquake.

The winery itself is fairly humble, on Chalk Hill Road, near where the appellations of Chalk Hill, Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley come together. The grapes come from various estate vineyards in Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Bennett Valley and Chalk Hill; the wines thus are blends. There are three in each year: La Muse (mainly Merlot), La Joie (based on Cabernet Sauvignon) and Le Desir (primarily Cabernet Franc); the precise cepage of course varies from vintage to vintage.

Here are six notes on the wines we tasted. All are easily twenty year wines, maybe thirty.

FIRST FLIGHT

2010 La Muse. Despite a difficult, cool vintage, the wine is flashy and explosive in cherries, blackberries, cassis, red licorice and toast. But it is very young and fairly tannic, a little soft, yet elegant. While bone dry, the finish is sweet in fruity essence and sweet spice. I would lay this down until 2018 and see how it develops through the 2020s.

2010 La Joie. The inky black color surely is from all the Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) in the blend. Huge cabernet nose, with intense black currant and cassis flavors, and a bracing minerality. Good overlay of smoky oak. Tight, dry, tannic, but extraordinarily powerful and impressive. Another wine that needs plenty of time. 2018-2030.

2010 Le Desir. The most expressive and feminine of the 2010s. Is that from the Cab Franc (50%)? Graceful, yet quite tannic. Sour cherry candy, red currant, cherry liqueur. Fabulous stuffing. A potential masterpiece, with time. Drink 2020 and beyond. This was indisputably the wine of the flight.

SECOND FLIGHT

2004 Le Desir. Smells a bit hot, with grilled currant and cherry, toast, and spice notes. Such heady perfume. Grace, power, elegance, finesse. A bit spirituous, porty, but not too much. An interesting wine, still fresh. Bone dry, sticky tannins, aging well. Could improve, but for me, the alcohol (14.7%) is beginning to show through.

2004 La Muse. At ten years of age, turning the corner, developing bottle bouquet. Primary fruits turning dry: dried cherry, tobacco, raspberry, sous bois (could this be the Merlot, which comprises 85% of the blend?), orange zest, lots of sweet spice and smoke. Huge extract, sweet in fruit, yet dry in the finish. So expressive now, pure, generous, fat. Very complex and spicy. Will last for many more years.

2004 La Joie. A huge wine. At ten years, changing, with the fresh fruit drying out and developing secondary bottle notes. Power and elegance combined. Extraordinary complexity. Dried fruits, minerals, dried herbs, sweet licorice, sweet spice, espresso, orange zest. For me, the top wine of the flight, balanced and pure; but then, the alcohol is the lowest (14.2%). Elegant, great finesse and structure. Very great now, and will take another ten years, at the very least.

We were fortunate also to taste through three vintages of Cenyth, a sort of “junior” Verite ($60 to the latter’s triple-digit release price). Like Verite it is a Sonoma County blend; in three vintages the blend has varied, from Cabernet Sauvignon-based in 2009 to Merlot-based in 2010 and Cabernet Franc-based in 2011. Pierre’s daughter, Hélene Seillan, is gradually inheriting the winemaking role.

2009 Cenyth. Rich, opulent, a “Californian” wine. Oodles of blackberries and cherries. Good grip, soft acidity, spicy finish. Lots of admirable qualities. Drink now-2017.

2010 Cenyth. Softly tannic, fleshy (that has got to be the Merlot). Some floral notes, blackberries, cherries, currants. Lots of sweetness, an opulent, generous wine. Drink now-2018.

2011 Cenyth. The most elegant of the flight, drier and better structured than the others. Good acidity highlighting chewy fruit. Very dry, great charm and finesse, not as apparently sweet as the ’09 and ’10, which for me was a plus. Hélene explained how challenging the chilly vintage was; I told her Nature had given her a lemon from which she made lemonade.


Talking about tasting room staff

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I spoke to a group of people last night—marvelous people, actually, employees of Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Education & Garden Center (I call it the chateau), in Fulton, just outside Santa Rosa. They had invited me up for a periodic dinner they have together.

They asked me about tasting, and here’s part of what I told them: How to taste wine depends on your background and experience. By that I meant that your actual physical and mental impression of the wine is based, not merely on the wine’s objective qualities, but on your mindset. Dr. Timothy Leary used to say that a person’s experience of an acid trip depends on “set and setting.” “Set” is the person’s mental state, a composite of everything he’s ever done, learned, felt and thought. “Setting” is the physical environment around the person doing the trip. Two tripping people might share an identical setting, but obviously they have two different sets: hence, they will have different trips, sometimes drastically different.

So it is with wine. I told them they my entire orientation for 25 years had been toward the consumer. The first obligation of a wine, I said, is to be delicious. Therefore things like “typicity” or alcohol level don’t concern me; they’re irrelevant. Now, someone else—a sommelier, perhaps—might be more concerned with typicity and therefore find fault with a big, fat, juicy, fruity California Pinot Noir for not being “Burgundian” enough, or not being like the Pinot Noirs from Burgundy that he likes, But the sommelier has a far different job than I had, as a critic. The somm has, in other words, a different “set.” We might taste the identical wine (“setting”) and arrive at two entirely different conclusions about it. And that’s okay. We have different jobs; we look for different things in wine; and we experience wine in different ways.

Neither way is better than the other; neither is right or wrong. They just are. Afterwards, a few people came up to say they agreed with what I said about a wine’s obligation to be delicious. I can see why. They work in the tasting room, a very hard job. All day long they encounter people’s reactions to the wines they pour. They’re the first ones to know that most people don’t buy a wine because they think they should, or because somebody gave it a high score, or because its name or region is famous, or because rich people were drinking it 150 years ago, or any of those reasons we can call “set.” No, people buy wines they find delicious. And what better reason could there be to buy wine?

Speaking of the tasting room, the K-J folks invited me up to spend a weekend afternoon working there. I’ve never done that. I have a great deal of respect for tasting room staff. Not only do they have to answer the same questions 400 times a day, all year long (“What’s the blend on that wine?”), they have do so pleasantly, personably, and with a smile. It’s a job that requires patience, a healthy attitude and above all, human social skills: a tasting room staff person has to genuinely like people. They also have to put up with the occasional a-hole who gets drunk or rude, and they have to do so graciously. And yet the tasting room pourer is often the public face of the winery. So I’m looking forward to the day when I work the K-J tasting room, and I will faithfully report on it here.

Have a great weekend!


A visit to an old-new winery in Carneros

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I’m in Carneros today, visiting one of Jackson Family Wines’ newest estates, Carneros Hills, on the site the former Buena Vista vineyard and production facility on Ramal Road, on the Sonoma County side of that sprawling appellation, just over the Napa line.

Well do I remember the acclaim and hope that greeted Carneros’s emergence as an appellation on the wine scene. Los Carneros (the proper name) wasn’t declared an American Viticultural Area until relatively late, 1987,* by which time its neighbors—Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, even little Suisun Valley and Solano County Green Valley—already were AVAs. Why it took Carneros so long, I don’t know; perhaps it was because it crossed county lines, which was something the TTB hadn’t encountered before. It’s not as if Carneros was a new place to grow grapes: the Carneros Quality Alliance says wine grapes were first planted there in the late 1830s, and by the 1870s, the first winery had been built.

With the formal creation of the Carneros AVA, the wine media went nutso over its prospects. This was just about the time I became a professional wine writer (although I’d been studying the wine industry and closely following developments in California for a decade prior to that). If I can sum up the general impressions conveyed by the then-famous writers, especially those in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was: At last! America’s (or California’s) “Burgundy” has been discovered! Finally Pinot Noir is being grown in the proper place, and vinified into wine by the proper winemakers! Now we’re going to see some world-class Pinot Noir! (Good Chardonnay, too, but it’s curious that Chardonnay has never “starred” in a California region or, to put it more bluntly, no region in California ever rose to fame on Chardonnay alone, the way Chablis, for instance, or Puligny-Montrachet did, in France.)

The excitement continued through, I’d say, the mid-1990s, but gradually subsided. Other Pinot Noir areas eclipsed Carneros: Russian River Valley (1983), Santa Lucia Highlands (1992), the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley now called Santa Rita Hills (2001), the Santa Maria Valley (1981), Anderson Valley (1983). It’s also curious that, while several of these preceded Carneros in the date of getting appellated, it was Carneros that generated the most excitement among the critical community at that time—at least, in my memory. The reason for that may well have been that wine writing in California in the 1980s and early 1990s was dominated by Bay Area and Northern California critics (it still is, although less so), who naturally would be expected to pay more attention, in those pre-Internet days, to their own back yard than to something far away.

By the early 2000s Carneros had lost much of its luster among that community. The reasons were varied, and had as much to do with law and social custom as with wine quality. One factor that led to the diminution of Carneros’s reputation was that the region, while a large one, simply lacked a critical mass of small, boutique wineries, the result of zoning regulations whose practical impact was that only large, well-heeled wine companies could afford to buy in. (The situation in, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley was the exact opposite.) We can argue over whether a large wine company has the will to craft small, artisan wines, or not; but what is unarguable is that the critical community loves small, artisanal wineries, and is prepared to give them more of a break (if you will) than it is to large wine companies—an inequality of treatment that isn’t fair; but it is what it is.

I myself, during my years as a wine critic, had no problem with Carneros. I gave lots of its Pinot Noirs high scores: Etude was one of my perennial faves, as were MacRostie, Donum, Saintsbury’s single-vineyard bottlings, Kazmer & Blaise (the small project from Michael Terrien), Hartford, Signorello and the occasional Acacia. As for Buena Vista, it fared well, but wasn’t exceptional: some scores of 90, 91 and 92 points, but nothing more dramatic. Why that was, is hard to say. The wines seemed unable to push their way through excellence to brilliance. It’s always hard for a critic to discern why this is with a winery; the temptation to yield to simplistic explanations should be avoided. But wine writers hate to say they don’t know everything.

The Buena Vista winery and brand themselves have, of course, undergone vast changes in modern times. Once California’s oldest winery (1857), it went through several ownership switches; I’ve lost track of all the corporate parent companies, although I certainly remember Beam’s overlordship, when the great winemaker (and my friend) Nick Goldschmidt oversaw its production (along with that of Clos du Bois, Atlas Peak, William Hill, Gary Farrell and others). In 2011, Jean-Charles Boisset bought the brand name and the original stone winery, in Sonoma Valley. The next year, Jackson Family Wines purchased the Ramal Road vineyard and production facility, and announced the formation of a new brand, Carneros Hills.

Which is why I’m here today. The company has high aspirations for the estate. It ought to be able to rise to levels unattained in its prior history; the terroir is just fine, and the Jackson family has sunk a small fortune into winery improvements. We’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out.

* I relied upon Wine Institute data for this 1987 date. According to the TTB’s website, the date of approval for Carneros was 1983.


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