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The perils of being a restaurant reviewer: Almost as bad as being a wine blogger

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Michael Bauer’s recent glowing review of Saison ignited a firestorm of reaction from people who felt that the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle was pandering to the one percent and blithely ignoring anyone who can’t afford $398 for a one-person “discovery menu” at the city’s most expensive eaterie.

Typical of those who wrote in to complain was saywha, who asked, “At what point does Michael Bauer spend time reviewing places that everyone can afford? I feel like his column has become just a review of the most expensive restaurants or the ones with the most famous chefs. Perhaps he can just start calling his column ‘The 1%. Sad.” Commented UltraGuy: “I wonder what Bauer would review if he had to pay?”

Even for politicized San Francisco, the debate turned pretty heated—and this is about restaurants, not Google buses or the high price of housing!

Michael was forced to reply to the critics. In a piece on the Chronicle’s online site, he dug himself in even deeper with his remark that “Maybe I’m a Republican when it comes to dining, because I believe in the Trickle Down theory.” His point was that top restaurants, like Saison, Meadowood and French Laundry, come up with “ideas” that “filter down to the mass market,” such as foraged foods, lettuce mixes, humanely raised animals and organic products.

It’s never a good idea in San Francisco to associate yourself with Republicans, even if it’s just a metaphor! Sflover2 wrote, “Stopped reading after this stupid sentence: ‘Maybe I’m a Republican’…”. FroggyBoyee commented, “As if a no-name place cannot innovate. However, as always, the high end places where 1%ers dine get more PR.” Meanwhile, Grenadine suggested “Bauer’s columns should be moved to the comics page.”

Here’s my take. First of all, anyone in public life in San Francisco—whether it’s a politico, a restaurant reviewer like Michael, a movie reviewer like Mick LaSalle, a wine critic like Jon Bonné or a rich entrepreneur—is going to be on the receiving end of a lot of carping from people who disagree with him or her. It goes with the territory. This isn’t the first time Michael’s stirred the pot, it won’t be the last time, and he handles it pretty well, with dignity and respectfulness for the bomb-throwers.

Michael ultimately justifies his praise of Saison by saying, “These high-end places may seem out of reach for most people, but they create ideas, techniques and combinations that seed other chefs’ imaginations and improve the dining scene.” It seems to me that we have to separate out our emotional reactions to the one percent enjoying “a barigoule of artichoke fortified with wild thistle milk [that] becomes a broth that surrounds a chunk of artichoke and scallop” from the reality that, just outside, homeless people huddle against the cold, and “ordinary” people struggle to find a way to pay the rent and feed the kids at the same time.

Those are social policy issues, and they can, and rightfully do, stir up passions on all sides of the political spectrum. We ought to be having discussions about these things, and we are. That’s good.

But politics aside, at some point you have to appreciate the contributions that haute cuisine, as practiced as Saison, makes to the general culture. While it may be true, as one angry person commented, that “I really don’t see too much of the flame-licked wood pigeon, sea urchin caviar, or any of the molecular gastronomy stuff trickling down to neighborhood restaurants,” it’s also true that the mere existence of a place like Saison raises the bar for other chefs, in terms of the adventurousness, creativity, philosophical approach and just plain deliciousness of their food. Nobody can deny that the Bay Area’s restaurant scene is more glorious than it has ever been—and while a lot of that is due to our wonderful mix of ethnicities, credit also has to be given to the high standards that the best restaurants lay down for everyone else.

I’ve eaten at Saison (courtesy of the restaurant) and came away suitably impressed—not dazzled, but it was a pretty cool experience. Would I pay to eat there again? No. I’ve said many times that I’m just as happy at Boot and Shoe Service or Hawker Fare or Tacolicious as I’ve been at Meadowood, French Laundry, Saison, the old Cyrus or any other grand palace of cuisine. So I’m not a snob, but neither am I a reverse snob—against someplace just because it’s expensive. So I say, give Bauer a break. He’s the senior restaurant reviewer in California, he frequently reviews restaurants for “the 99%”, he’s incorruptible, and if he can’t say something nice about Saison without getting kicked in the head, something’s wrong.


A wine lunch at Michael Mina

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We had a fantastic lunch at Michael Mina yesterday (don’t even get me started on the short ribs!). It was my first sales trip (for Jackson Family Wines), to which they had invited a small bunch of top sommeliers in the Bay Area. The wines were no slouches: Matanzas Creek 2012 Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc (awesome with the hamachi sushi), Stonestreet 2011 Broken Road Chardonnay (so crisp and lemony-minerally), 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 Cardinale and 2007 and 2009 Verite La Muse. Two of those wines (2006 Cardinale and 2007 Verite) were among the only five wines I ever gave perfect 100s to during all my years at Wine Enthusiast, so it was pretty special to taste them again. The ’06 Cardinale of course had more bottle age than it did when I reviewed it (in 2009, I think it was), and it was just about as beautiful as Napa-Bordeaux wine gets. OMG I wouldn’t mind having a few cases of that! The 2010 being younger was more tannic, and if it didn’t have the sheer dazzle of the ’06 it had plenty of elegance. As the late, great Harry Waugh would say, it will make a great bottle.

As for the Verities, what can I say. That Alexander Mountain Estate (where the grapes come from) is one of the world’s great vineyards and if you think I’m saying that just because I work for JFW you don’t know me or the estate. Somebody said that Verite wines have had ten 100s (one from me, nine from Parker), more than any other California wine. I don’t know that for an absolute fact, but there’s no question that Pierre Seillan is doing amazing things up there on that mountain. (By the way, this led to a little conversation about whether Bordeaux blends are better from a single vineyard or a blend. Unlike Verite, Cardinale is a blend: the 2006 was from Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, To Kalon, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain and St. Helena, but, as I said, it was absolutely a 100-point wine. So, no, a great Bordeaux blend can be a blend OR a single-vineyard wine. And there’s no reason in principle why a great Pinot Noir can’t be a blend, if you think about it.)

I so enjoyed being with those smart, young somms. They ask the best questions. One in particular, Ian Burrows, from Atelier Crenn, in the Marina, really hit me up with some great ones. Why do I give high scores to some varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir) and not to others? I explained that, since I reviewed only California wines, although I might like, say, a Pey-Marin Riesling, I’m not about to give it 100 points, or a Charbono from Summers or a Gruner from Von Strasser, much as I like those wines. He pressed me, which was delightful, because it makes me think more deeply about stuff than if I’m just thinking off the top of my head. To be interrogated like that—not in a mean, threatening, third-degree way, but in a journalistic, curious way—is very good. It makes you justify your thoughts and actions and think about things you might not have fully thought out before.

The somms asked lots of questions about being a wine critic and scoring and how do you taste and so forth, and at one point—we were talking about blind tasting—I found myself saying something I’d never said before, at least, with such conviction. “Wine critics really should be held to higher standards of accountability,” I said. There is so much we don’t know about how they taste and review wines. I added, “With all the immense power they have in the marketplace, they should be far more transparent.” I believe that. When I was a critic, I tried, through my blog, to offer more openness and transparency about the actual process than any other critic I knew of (and I think I did a good job). I also was open about my own internal doubts. “Do you ever doubt yourself when reviewing?” Ian asked. “Yes!” I told him. You can’t not doubt yourself. Pride goeth before a fall. Of course, you need to be confident in your abilities, but you also must never forget that you are human and thus fallible. (If you do, experience has away of humbling you, as for instance when you call a Petite Sirah “Merlot” in front of a crowd.) You also must not forget that, if you’re a critic, you’re playing with people’s lives–I mean, the people from the winery whose livelihood you may jeopardize with a poor score. Believe me, that is a very sobering thought.


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.


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