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A short history of why Cabernet is King in America, and why that could be changing

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Whenever people of similarity spend most of their time together they tend to develop the same esthetic tastes. This is known as class identification and has been developed through evolution to keep tribes cohesive.

When it comes to wine one singular and rather insulated tribe defined for centuries what was good and bad. This tribe was Caucasian, Western European, male and wealthy, and thus deeply conservative in its social and political outlook. It consisted mainly of the British upper classes, an amalgam of landed gentry, aristocracy, academics and clergy. What they favored was Bordeaux. Without this group of what, today, we call tastemakers or gatekeepers, Bordeaux likely would not have reached the pinnacle of wine fame it  still enjoys today.

The tastemakers eventually branched out, a little bit, to appreciate a few others wines: Burgundy, Port and Champagne, but Bordeaux remained their obsession and exclusive province. When our own country, America, was formed, it was mainly by the descendents of those Britishers, which is why we saw the founding fathers similarly obsessed with Bordeaux . (Madeira too appealed to them, but there were other economic reasons for that.)

As long as America remained a fairly tight little country, with poor internal communications, the tastes of these original British (and some German) founders dominated the country’s esthetic. (We might credit the Germans with establishing the beer culture that has always gone hand-in-hand with the wine culture, and more than occasionally dominated it.)

Even as late as the 1960s, the country’s internal communication was fairly dismal. The large newspaper chains tended to speak with one voice; wine writing and criticism remained in its infancy, with a “preaching to the choir” mentality in which, yet again, Bordeaux was extolled, now joined by its California cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon. Some insiders understood that it would take a revolution to shatter this template, but what would the revolution be?

We know now: The internet. More specifically, the proliferation of social media. All the old institutions in this country are being fractured and disrupted. We see this in politics first and foremost, with the rise of movements as disparate as greens/environmentalists, on the one hand, and the Tea Party on the other. We see it in the wild fractionalization of popular music. No longer do we simply have rock and roll, jazz and classical music; nowadays the most particularist genres appeal to their tribes. Ditto with the multitude of televised broadcast sources we have to choose from: hundreds on my cable system alone. We see it in the very diversity of the American people: California is no longer a white-majority state, but is the first truly rainbow state in the nation.

How long will it be before this stranglehold of a handful of wine varieties is loosened? Just today, a local wine writer and restaurateur writes in the San Francisco Examiner of the world “beyond the 93 percent prime grape varieties” that are “opening the eyes” of sommeliers, leading one to remark that “The potential [for new varieties and wine types] is something we haven’t even scratched the surface on.”

I’m seeing this up close and personal. If you go into a wine bar, nobody is ordering Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Visit Uva Enoteca, in the Haight, and you’ll find lagrein, schiava, refosco, gattinara, nero d’avola among reds by the glass. Head over to Hotel Biron, in hot-hot-hot Hayes Valley, and you have your choice of Mendoza Torrontes (a variety that’s quickly grabbing my attention), South Portuguese whites, South African Pinotage, plenty of German Rieslings, and a nice range of a California wine that deserves to be consumed in restaurants more than it is: Zinfandel.

This is encouraging news. It means that a new generation of wine drinkers is willing and able to expand their experience well beyond where their parents and grandparents went. It doesn’t mean that Cabernet, Chardonnay and the rest of the 93% “prime grape varieties” are going away anytime soon. But it does bring a welcome diversity to our wine (and restaurant) scene, and it seems particularly strong here in the Bay Area, where so many cultural trends begin.


Cocktails and varietal promiscuity

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I’m not a big cocktail drinker, but I do like one or two from time to time when I’m having a nice dinner at a restaurant. My preference is vodka. The taste of Scotch has never appealed to me, although I do appreciate the complexities of a single-malt. Rum and bourbon, ehh, I sometimes like to venture over to Pican on a late night and have some of their Bourbon classic cocktails, but I have to be in the right mood. On my to-do list is to explore tequila. Now that I’m not immersed in a tsunami of California wine, like I was for so long, I have the time to explore other beverages!

I used to be a dirty vodka martini guy, but the excessive salt in the olives and brine eventually bothered me. So I asked a bartender at a hotel where I was staying to recommend a vodka drink that was simple but not salty, and he gave me a gimlet. Now, that particular gimlet was not very good. It was too soft and sweet and simple. So when I had dinner recently at Ozumo, I tried again, and bingo! That was a superb gimlet, as were the two I had the other night at Boot and Shoe Service, here in Oakland. I asked the bartender lady why it was so good, and she said it was because they freshly squeeze their own limes, instead of using the classic Rose’s Lime Juice, which to my understanding is sweetened. Perhaps that was the problem with that hotel gimlet, which tasted like liquid candy.

Before I was a wine writer, I drank widely and prolifically. My old tasting diary is filled with notes on Alsace, Chianti, Bordeaux, Germany, the Loire—not so much Italy, alas. These are the wines I plan to start re-enjoying in this new phase of my life and career. But I’m sure the majority of the wines I drink will still be from California.

When I began enjoying California wine, the state hadn’t yet turned into what we may today call the appellation-varietal complex (a term I borrowed from Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”). Even in Napa Valley, which shortly was to become a varietal monoculture, with primarily Cabernet Sauvignon planted, you still saw vineyards with Zinfandel, Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet next to each other. When Harry Waugh visited the valley, in the mid-1980s, he was astonished to see, at the S. Anderson winery, only Chardonnay and sparkling wine produced, which he called “another new trend…What a contrast [to when] every winery used to produce and sell half-a-dozen varietals!”

I’m not here to defend varietal promiscuity in a vineyard, but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world in the 1960s and 1970s and it wouldn’t be today, if someone did that sort of thing. We got into this topic last week on my blog, where someone wrote critically of Trefethen for having Riesling growing in the same vineyard as their Cabernet. That person felt it was terroir-ly (is that a word?) impossible for both varieties to thrive in close proximity. I suppose his thinking was that Riesling needs Alsatian or German weather and soils whereas Cabernet needs Bordeaux weather and soils, and since the weather and soils in Alsace/Germany are different from those of Bordeaux, it must ipso facto be impossible for both varietals to thrive in Oak Knoll!

That’s an example of what I call ideological thinking. It may seem logical, but you really have to taste the wine to see what’s real. In the case of Trefethen’s Rieslings, I’ve always liked them. They’re dry (as the label says), and most of the time make for excellent drinking, at a fair price. I gave 91 points to the 2009, 87 to the 2010 and 89 to the 2012 (I didn’t review the 2011—did they make one?). I’m also a huge fan of Trefethen’s Cabernets, so for me, the argument that you can’t grow Riesling and Cabernet in the same vineyard just doesn’t hold water.

In part what I’ve learned and tried to communicate during my entire career can be boiled down to this: Whatever you think is real may not be. The best way to find out is to have an open mind. If you can’t have an open mind, then taste blind. You discover the most surprising things that way.


Here’s to our American somms!

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If you have 10 minutes, read this story on “The Rise of the American ‘Somm,’” by the engaing London writer, Francis Percival. In it, he tracks the evolution of “sommeliers”– a “previous generation of quiet professionals” who wore tastevins and tuxedos, and confined themselves almost exclusively to the wines of France–to today’s “somms”–with “tattoos on display,” dressed in “barely more than a t-shirt and jeans,” and possessed of a “relentlessly informal, swaggering” presence.

Obviously, Francis has mixed feelings about our beloved American somms! On the one hand, he recognizes that “the wines embraced by this new somm are diverse,” which surely is a good thing. But he seems a little put off by their new somm culture: it’s “fratty,” its language is “equal parts grifter slang and wine-service Urban Dictionary,” it’s addicted to “lots of photos on Instagram.” American somms have an annoying habit of “touching guests,” which is “unknown in most of Europe,” and “the public face of the American somm has become one of intense, but friendly competition with their bros.”

Good writing, and Francis concedes that, as an Englishman, his viewpoint may be biased. “It’s been staggering to me,” he writes, how “professional wine service has been refashioned into something close to the apotheosis of modern America,” which sounds like something between crowd surfing at a rock concert and smoking a blunt. So allow me, as an American (and a Californian at that, the apotheosis of casual, engaging America) to defend our tattooed somms.

I think we can all agree that it’s better for a wine service professional on the floor of a restaurant to be less stuffy than more stuffy, no? And today’s American somms certainly are. I also like it when a somm is younger rather than older. This may be a personal preference having little to do with the somm’s experience or knowledge–but I have a feeling that a younger somm is probably more in tune with today’s vast array of wine choices. Younger somms also are probably more likely to be studying for one of the gazillion levels of somm certification, which would increase their knowledge base.

I can remember those “quiet professionals” who used to populate the sommelier world. They were snobs. If it wasn’t French it didn’t exist. Well, maybe they would allow a Mosel or Chianti onto the list, but reluctantly. As for California, mais non! Do I have any New York friends who can tell me when California wines began appearing on the lists of chic Manhattan restaurants? I don’t know, but I bet it wasn’t until comparatively recently. So those “quiet professionals” of yesteryear certainly didn’t do their customers any good by expanding their palates. And they certainly didn’t help to expand the range of foods available in this country beyond French.

What a better country America is for having the most diverse food choices in the world. Here in Oakland, I feel infinitely lucky to have the cuisines of 100 nations at my disposal. If I was just starting out, I might choose to be a somm. What an exciting job, centered on wine, food, socializing and night life. Yes, there’s something “fratty” about somm “bros” and their culture, but what’s wrong with that? In the old days, one had the feeling those “quiet professionals” went home to quiet lives in quiet little apartments and quietly read books. Today’s American somm reeks with excitement and buzz (although perhaps not as much as mixologists). And it’s wonderful that women are now as welcome to the somm’s ranks as men, which never could have been the case even 20 years ago.

Today’s somm is a democrat with a small “d”. They’re not going to look down their noses at anyone. I certainly wouldn’t want my somm (or my server) to be in a tuxedo: I like the street aspect of t-shirts and jeans, which doesn’t seem shabby to me at all, but comfortable, easy to relate to and, yes, sexy.

These modern somms are open to any wine in the world. If I have any objection (and it’s a minor one), it’s that they can be a little too addicted to the obscure. But after all, that’s their passion; it’s what turns them on, and part of the reason for going to a cool little restaurant, with great food and a great somm, is to discover new foods and drinks.

So here’s to our American somms! Rock on, bros (and sisters!).


Report from Seattle

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I’m up in chilly, drizzly Seattle with the northern branch of my family for the holidays. In this case, it’s two holidays: today is the first day of Hanukah, while tomorrow is Thanksgiving. So my niece has been preparing food for several days in a row, in order to host not one, but two large gatherings. Today is latkes day. If you don’t know latkes is, it’s traditional Jewish potato pancakes. They’re greasy and heavy and utterly delicious. You generally serve them with apple sauce, although some people prefer sour cream. I wouldn’t know what wine to recommend with latkes, to tell you the truth. Beer is probably better. Since brisket of beef is also on the table, that suggests some kind of hearty red.

But then, these full-throttle meals–the kind you serve for Hanukah and Thanksgiving, where there’s a bit of everything, from sweet and sour to salty and bitter and umami–do not require precision pairing. You put a bunch of stuff on the table and let people drink whatever they want. We will have some pretty good wine. I took care of that. But we’ll also have some Trader Joe’s backup, just in case.

Random Seattle notes: Rainier from 15,000 feet in my Alaska Airlines plane: all gold, pink and yellow above the tree line in the low winter sun. Puget Sound sparkling, flashing in the light. Big houses on the beaches. Conifers everywhere. My family lives in West Seattle, whose Alki Beach neighborhood reminds me of Oakland or Berkeley. Hip, young, cool, lots of cafés and great little restaurants. We ate at a Thai place last night, Buddha Ruska, that was absolutely delicious. (Yay, crispy chicken!) No wine with Thai: Singha beer. At my sister’s, for the 5 o’clock cocktail hour, we had an Artesa Reserve 2011 Reserve Chardonnay, very oaky–maybe a bit too much–but rich and satisfying.

Anyhow, I’m clearly writing this on the fly. Family vacations are hectic, you’re not really in charge of your schedule, but I wanted to get something up. I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving and to those of you of the Jewish persuasion, Happy Hanukah! Did you know that Hanukah can occur as early as late November and as late as January? I never knew why until I asked my 11-year old grand-nephew this morning. “Because it’s determined by the lunar calendar,” Joey explained, patiently. Smart kid.


This is not about The French Laundry

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I enjoyed Hosemaster’s spoof yesterday, so decided to re-run this little ditty I wrote a while back.

* * *

The day had finally arrived.

It had taken 6 months, but now it was here: My dinner at America’s top restaurant, La Lavanderie du Paris!

It all started with a phone call. Or, I should say, ten phone calls — for, no matter how often I dialed the reservation number, there was no answer.

And why should there be? Why should the clerk at La Lavanderie du Paris stoop to answer the telephone? Does the Pope personally answer calls to the Vatican?

That meant driving to Yondertown to make the reservation. It was 300 miles away; I set aside the weekend of the 6th. I told Linda, my wife, about it.

“You’re driving where?  For what?”

“Yondertown. To get reservations at La Lavanderie du Paris.”

She looked at the calendar. “That’s the weekend of Sally’s school play.” Sally was our 9-year old. I had to be there.

But there was no other choice. I wanted to bring Linda to La Lavanderie for our fifteenth anniversary, in December. All the other weekends were booked; the 6th, it would have to be.

“You can take pictures of the play,” I said. Linda pouted but yielded. I think she was not averse to dinner at America’s greatest restaurant.

I left at dawn, in a storm. It took 6 hours. I had no trouble finding La Lavanderie du Paris. There it was, the perfect Platonic bistro, in its block of white-bricked shops, each with shutters and winding ivy.

My heart pounded and my throat grew tight as I gripped the door knob. I turned; it resisted. I turned again, more forcefully. It was locked. I stepped back. There was a sign in the window:

Hours: 4 p.m. – midnight.

I looked at my wristwatch. Just past noon. The rain was pounding down. With nothing to do, I headed back to the car, and fell into a cold, cramped doze.

I awoke precisely at 4 with a sore neck. This time, the door was more forgiving. I entered the sanctuary. It was dim, all old wood, red leather and French countryside etchings. There were scents of grilling meat, broiling butter and Provencal herbs. A busboy crossed my path; he was carrying a bottle of ‘01 L’Attitude de Larchemont.

An electric thrill shot up my spine. I was truly here in the culinary holy of holies. I felt like a supplicant at Lourdes, on the receiving end of a divine cure.

On my right was a little podium with the “Reception” sign. Behind it was a man in a tuxedo, imperious, powerful. He saw me, and looked away.

“Uh-hem,” I politely coughed.

He didn’t exactly wrinkle his nose. He just seemed to. “May I help you?”

“Yes, thanks. I’d like a reservation. For two.”

He solemnly cast his gaze down, apparently at a book below eye level.

“We have something available in March.”

I did a quick calculation. Today was the 6th — of April. He meant March of next year: Our anniversary was in December. March was out of the question.

“I’m afraid that’s a little too far off. I’d prefer something before Christmas.”

He smiled. No, “smile” isn’t the right word. His lips twisted into a grimace that was equal parts mirth, irony and loathing. It was meant to reduce me to nothingness.

“Impossible.” His adamant tone brooked no appeal.

But he had raised my dander. “Look here, I’ve just driven 6 hours in a storm. Do you know who I am?” I fumbled for my card; that ought to impress him, I thought, before realizing that, in my haste, I’d forgotten to bring any cards.

There was a scene. The manager came out, the sommelier, even the sous-chef. I dropped one or two names. I knew how to play the game. I got my reservation: December 5th. The clerk glared at me as if to say: I will have my hour. I drove home with the sweet taste of victory in my mouth.

The big day came. I booked a room at a little inn in Yonderville. Linda and I drove up. Even she was excited, having long gotten over our non-attendance at Sally’s play.

We parked. La Lavanderie du Paris’s frosted windows glittered with candlelight in the dark Yonderville night. We crossed the magic portal. I helped Linda out of her stole. We approached the podium. The face was familiar. It was him, still imperious, still evil. He recognized me, knew I was coming.

“Table for ___,” I said, politely, giving my name.

He glanced down at the unseen reservation book.

“I’m sorry, I have nothing for that name.” He looked up and smiled blandly, as if explaining the obvious to a simpleton. But his eyes glowed with malice.

Another scene. The manager wrung his hands, explained there must have been some dreadful mistake, he was eternally sorry — but one had to face facts. There was simply not a table available all night.

Linda touched my elbow, our signal for “Don’t hit anyone.” My thoughts were racing out of control. I looked over at the clerk. He was back behind his podium, carefully avoiding my eye.

It ended on a compromise. We were permitted to order off the menu — for takeout. No charge; the manager insisted. There was a Piggly-Wiggly down the block where we could buy paper plates and plastic utensils. And I learned a valuable lesson. There are enemies worthy of one’s animosity, foes to engage in combat; but the reservation clerk at La Lavanderie du Paris is not one of them. In restaurants, as in life, one must choose one’s battles.


In the Internet era, what makes a wine review credible?

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There’s a brouhaha (or is it a kerfluffle?) going on in San Francisco concerning the relative merits and demerits of Yelp and Open Table.

Both online sites began in San Francisco, so the city’s netizens have a lot of interest in them. And, to the extent that both allow anyone to critique restaurants, that interest has expanded to an obsession in food-crazy Ess Eff, where people take their restaurants up close and personally.

Yelp is currently in a declining state of popularity here. Google “Yelp” and “credibility” and all of the top results are along the lines of “Yelp’s credibility problem” and “Phony five-star reviews threaten Yelp’s credibility.” The problem is that anyone can say anything they want to, anonymously, which doesn’t exactly inspire trust. You don’t even have to have eaten at the restaurant! I used to use Yelp to check out places I was unfamiliar with, but I wouldn’t anymore, except, possibly, for entertainment.

Open Table started as a reservation site, and I do use it for that purpose. But they allow diners to review restaurants, and claim to be more trustworthy than Yelp because “Only diners who booked and honored reservations through OpenTable can submit ratings and reviews,” which is certainly not the case with Yelp.

However, today, the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, whom I do trust a lot, and whose reviews I depend on,wrote on his blogabout the possibility that Open Table is censoring, or at least editing, certain reader reviews. In this particular case, an Open Table official did a reasonably good job defending her company. (The situation is a complex one.) But after reading through the 97 comments, it’s clear that San Franciscans are uneasy with any form of unprofessional, anonymous online reviewing, and with good reason. You don’t know who these “reviewers” are, or if they have ulterior motives, or if they have the slightest idea what they’re talking about. Even if someone went to the restaurant, that doesn’t mean their opinion is worth listening to.

Which is, of course, the precise situation we have with wine reviews on the Internet.

Now hold on a minute, Heimoff! Isn’t everybody’s opinion worth listening to? Last time I checked, America’s a democracy, where everyone’s entitled to speak their mind. Right?

Well, yes. But why wouldn’t I trust Michael Bauer, a seasoned pro who’s been at this forever, over a stranger on Open Table? Just because the person booked a reservation at the restaurant doesn’t mean he’s not the owner’s friend–or the owner’s ex-wife with an axe to grind.

Someone on Open Table called Plearn Thai “the best spot for pad ke[e] ma [drunken noodles].” How do I know that that person is an expert who’s actually has had pad kee ma from lots of different restaurants? I bet Michael Bauer has, and moreover has the chops to determine if any particular noodle dish is up to par or not.

And here’s someone on Sons & Daughters [a well-known downtown joint]: “High level, creative…will retrun [sic] on my next San Francisco trip.” Notwithstanding that misspelled word (for me, always an uh-oh moment), for all I know this person is from some Podunk where the best restaurant in town is the local donut shop, and he or she would consider Joe’s of Westlake a fine dining experience.

See what I mean? Credibility is based on experience. It’s not just somebody’s opinion, it’s somebody’s expertise, acquired over many years, and proven to be trustworthy. That’s why I trust Michael Bauer. I may not always agree with him, but I know that he has nothing to lose or gain in his opinion–he knows food inside and out–he’s a pro.

Or, to quote The Office’s Michael Scott: “Anyone in the world can write anything they want on Wikipedia, so you know you’re getting the best information.”


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