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Talking to an audience with different levels of wine knowledge

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That was part of my challenge last week at a wine dinner I hosted, for Jackson Family Wines, at Ling & Louie’s, a fine Asian-fusion bistro in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Seasoned speakers know it’s helpful to have advance knowledge of who your audience is. (Actually, it’s “whom” your audience is, but that sounds so precious.) The more you know about them—their backgrounds, careers, level of wine knowledge—the better you can tailor your remarks to their interests and desires.

But this advance knowledge isn’t always possible, which is why some speakers will start things off by asking the audience questions. Where are you guys from? Do you work in the wine industry? Are you casual wine drinkers or collectors? Starting on this interrogatory note not only informs the speaker, it’s an ice-breaker that establishes an interactive back-and-forth, drawing the audience in and softening the initial atmosphere, which may be stiff, into one of cordiality and ease.

Sometimes, as I imply in the headline, your guests’ wine knowledge is all over the place. On Friday I had serious collectors as well as folks who couldn’t tell a Zinfandel from a xylophone. In this case, you have to tread a careful middle way. You don’t want to talk down to the true wine geeks, or to go over the heads of the novices. It’s a balancing act, but careful listening and sensitivity will help you hold everyone’s interest.

One thing that commonly happens is that a novice will ask a simple question whose answer the experts already know. You want to help the novice understand, but you don’t want to bore the experts. I’ve found that there are ways to answer the simple questions that will engage even the most knowledgeable people in the room.

For example, on Friday a woman asked me why Burgundy and California Pinot Noir taste so different (she preferred California), since they’re made from the same grape variety. You could see the Burgundy guys roll their eyes. I answered by asking the woman to imagine a globe of the planet. “See the lines of latitude in the northern hemisphere? Find Burgundy, then trace the latitude westward, across the Atlantic and the North American continent to the Pacific coast. Now, where are you?”

Before she could answer, someone (a guy) shouted out “Oregon. Washington.”

“Exactly,” I said. Then I went on, “Now, find Central California on our globe and follow the latitude line eastward, across North America and the Atlantic to Europe. Where are you?”

“Italy,” someone said.

“That’s right,” I said, “and not just Italy, but southern Italy, even Sicily. Now, imagine the difference in climate, and in summer daylight hours, between, say, Portland/Seattle and Sicily. Heat and sun ripen all fruit, including grapes. And that, my dear” (I told the woman, who was a sweet older lady) “is why Burgundy tastes different from California Pinot Noir. California is riper.”

The lady gave me a big smile. “That’s the first time I’ve ever gotten an answer to that question I could understand,” she said. She was happy, and I think I kept the interest of even the hard-core collectors.

Of course, the collectors would have been pleased to get into a detailed rap about Kimmeridgian soil, slopes, winemaking techniques and all that, but that would have been a MEGO moment for everybody else. So we had struck a balance. It’s also fair to point out that people in the audience at events like this have their own responsibility for its success. There’s always a “most knowledgeable guy in the room” who, devoid of manners, will want to drop his expertise just to show off, or perhaps to challenge the speaker. Fortunately, most experts have the awareness and self-control to behave themselves, in order to foster the greater good, which is the audience’s happiness. The experts at my event certainly behaved responsibly, and I made it a point, as best I could, to hang out with them afterward.

I never forget that my guests don’t have to be there. They choose to be there, thereby doing me an honor. The least a host can do is return the honor by respectfully listening and sensitively leading everyone in the same direction.

* * *

Tomorrow is my session at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, in the lovely capital of California, Sacramento. Our topic: Content is King: How to Craft and Feature Stories that Stand Out. I’m moderator; fortunately,I have some truly great panelists. It’s amazing how this meme of “the story” has grabbed hold of the wine industry’s marketing and communications people, isn’t it. Anyhow, if you’re there, come on up and say hi.


Einstein, wine quality and a great San Francisco day

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After 1918, when the General Theory of Relativity made headlines all over the world, and Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist in history, the theory became the basis, in the popular mind, for a singular misconception.

“The phrase ‘everything is relative’ became very popular. It was thought to mean that nothing is better than anything else,” writes Robert Cwiklik, in his little volume, Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity.

Under this misunderstanding of what the theory actually meant, people assumed that no opinion, idea, style or solution to any problem was better than any other. This certainly had nothing to do with Einstein’s own beliefs—he always stuck to his view of fixed, immutable truths in the Universe, and spent his life, futilely at the end, searching for them. But it did enable the masses to argue that, since everything is relative, one’s own views were as valid as those of any expert.

This strain of thinking has always been nascent in humans—it is the basis of the anti-intellectualism that runs through American history–but it has acquired particular force in the age of the Internet and social media. This is because anyone can, indeed, formulate an opinion and then promulgate it, instantaneously and universally, with the push of a keystroke. This had led to the notion that expertise is no longer valid—is, in fact, elitist—a notion that has particular traction in wine reviewing, which has always been viewed skeptically and even hostilely by certain segments of the public.

However, as Einstein would be the first to aver, this is simply not the case. As one who has repeatedly suggested that people drink what they want, with whatever they want, I defer to no one in my democratic [small “d”] beliefs. But the fact is, there is such a thing as quality in wine. Some wines simply are better than others, and this is always due to two factors: the excellence of the vineyard, and the diligence of the winemaking team.

Have I said anything earthshaking, or that you didn’t know? No. But I’m reading the Einstein book, and that quote led me to these thoughts, which you’re reading now. Of more pertinence, perhaps, to me anyhow, was my day in San Francisco. A picture-postcard day, Spring-like and sunny, with the beauty that S.F. is famous for. Maxine, Keith and I had planned to have oysters at Waterbar during Christmas week, but the flu hit all three of us, hard, and we had to postpone. Marilyn joined us at the last minute, largely because after Waterbar, we planned to walk over to Trou Normand, in the old Pacific Telephone Building,

PacTel

South of Market. Marilyn worked there, long ago, as a secretary, and wanted to reminisce. Besides, Trou Normand was just chosen as one of Michael Bauer’s top ten new restaurants of 2014, and one of the chefs, Seth, is married to my friend Danielle, who’s the receptionist at Old Crow Tattoo. Trou Normand specializes in charcuterie—who could say no to that, except a vegan?—and, rare for downtown, they’re open all afternoon. So we had our oysters (a dozen each) at beautiful Waterbar, with a bottle of Domaine Chandon L’Etoile (a great wine), then walked over to Trou Normand and gorged on charcuterie and salumi. Here’s a photo essay.

downtownSF

It was clear and blue-skied downtown

FerryBldg

The Ferry Building gleamed white

BayBridge

And the water was blue beneath the Bay Bridge

MrGull

Mr. Gull was relaxing on an old piling

 WaterBar

Waterbar looked warm and inviting

WaterBarPatio

with its outdoor area by the bridge

 Shellfish

The shellfish beckoned

Then it was off to Trou Normand

Normand

Located in a high-ceilinged former lobby of the telephone building

NormandInside

I wanted everything on the menu

 NormandMenu

Charcuterie

Our server was very helpful!


An upcoming retrospective, and an oldtime SF restaurant

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Mostly the advantages of having been around the wine industry for a long time outweigh the disadvantages. And this is almost always a reflection of the wonderful personal relationships I’ve formed with winemakers over the years.

Two cases in point. I’m putting together a little in-house tasting of Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs at Jackson Family Wines—nothing big, just eight wines for a few interested people. Now, there are many dozens of wineries in that appellation, so when it came time to decide whom to include, it was obvious: Old friends who make great wine. The first folks who came to mind were the inestimable Greg Brewer (Brewer-Clifton, Melville, others), who always was so kind to me whenever I visited the region. In fact, it was Greg, many years ago, who took me on my first tour. I also turned to the one and only Peter Cargasacchi, who I’m happy to say is a friend, both of the Facebook variety and in this, the real world we physically inhabit. I reached out, as well, to old friends like Adam Lee (Siduri) and Dick Doré (Foxen). Although neither lives nor works in Santa Rita Hills, they both make killer wines from there.

The second case is that of Richard Arrowood. For most of you, he needs no introduction. Richard is one of the most historic winemakers in California. From my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff: “[Richard] is the man who put Chateau St. Jean on the map in the 1970s with a series of brilliantly crafted single-vineyard Chardonnays…”. He’s also been mentor to a generation of California winemakers. Richard has decided to put together a retrospective of his fifty years making wine, at a small event to be held this March, and I am lucky enough to be invited. Richard will be pouring, among other things, the oldest St. Jean Cabs and Zins, plus some of his specialty late-harvest Rieslings and Gewurzes. Also his Arrowood wines from the 1980s on. What a treat, and I’ll get to see my friend, Virginie Boone, from Wine Enthusiast, whom I don’t see as often as I’d like.

These retrospectives are rare enough; you don’t come across them everyday. So when a great one beckons, you go! I still remember some of the best ones I’ve been to. Two stand out in my mind: Beaulieu’s vertical of every Georges de Latour Private Reserve ever, and a retrospective of Freemark Abbey Cabernets. I bet that this upcoming Arrowood will be equally memorable.

* * *

Had lunch yesterday, for the first time in many years, at venerable old Tadich Grill, on California Street in the FiDi. This place dates back to Gold Rush times, and is said to be the third-oldest restaurant in America. With its dark wood paneling and narrow aisles, you can practically breathe the ghosts of San Francisco’s past. (I swear I saw Sam Spade ducking around a corner.) Seafood is the specialty. We split the big seafood platter, and I had a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder. I don’t know that people go to Tadich for the food, which is good and comfy but, let’s face it, a little retro (shrimp Louie, oysters Rockefeller, cioppino). But they certainly go for the atmosphere. Tadich is your classic power lunch spot. The Stars and Trader Vic’s come and go in San Francisco, earthquakes occasionally rattle everyone’s nerves, but through it all, Tadich abides. May it be always so.


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To each restaurant there is a season. Alas, some of San Francisco’s old guard went the way of the dodo in 2014.

As Paolo Lucchesi reports in his article on the biggest closures of the year in the S.F. Chronicle, Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor shut their doors. They were perhaps the best-known names of now-shuttered restos. Another that’s gone is Daniel Patterson’s Plum, just down the street from me.

As archeologists can tell a lot from digging down into the ruins of an ancient settlement, so too can we glean some hints about the state of our food (and wine) culture by examining who went out of business. It’s not always possible to determine exactly why a restaurant closes, but we can assume that, in general, it’s because the times have passed them by. Whatever pulse they held on the weltanschauung has, for various reasons, gone away.

In the case of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor—both of which I was familiar with for many years—it was because our times no longer favor old-fashioned palaces of fine dining, with white tablecloths, snooty servors, and rather predictable food at stellar prices. In a sense, San Francisco simply outgrew that experience. People today want to eat out in relaxed comfort, in a place where the food is exciting and reassuring. True, in the place of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor we now have destinations like Saison and Benu, with their prix fixe multi-course extravaganzas. But there’s something different about the latter two that makes them a better fit for today’s ethos. There’s nothing stodgy whatsoever about them. Both places are culinary adventures with a sense of adventure that looks forward, not backwards, as Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor did. Where Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor were Paris vacations, Saison and Benu are more Iceland, Antarctica or Myanmar—exciting, off-the-beaten path destinations you’ll remember for a lifetime. Saison and Benu may not last for many years, as Fleur de Lys did (it gave up the ghost at the age of 28 years), but they fill an important niche now for a destination.

Plum, too, offered adventurous cooking from Patterson, a Michelin-starred (Coi) chef. But where Daniel miscalculated was to think that downtown Oakland would support a place of high concept. From the decorative, Warholesque paintings of plums on the walls to the rather austere menu it never caught on. Let’s face it, beet boudin noir with Thai black rice, a sort of faux blood sausage served with caramelized Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi sauerkraut, simply isn’t a combination most Oaklanders can wrap their heads around. It shows once more than a chef makes a fundamental mistake if he serves only food that intellectually stimulates himself. Winemakers, too, must accommodate themselves to the public’s tastes. It’s a balancing act.

Comfort isn’t necessarily the new black; we’ve been through countless comfort food phases over the years, from the taco era to today’s obsession with noodles. But people do want something that reminds them of simpler, happier times, even if the past never was as simple and happy as we like to remember it.


When is a review not a review?

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The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, really stirred up a dust storm with this post, “DNR: Three restaurants I’m not reviewing,” on his blog.

First, let me say that I’m a Bauer fan. If I’m checking out a restaurant in the Bay Area, I first want to know what Michael said about it. I might look at Yelp, but I don’t entirely trust Yelp. At least I know that Michael is independent and has no skin in the game.

I also trust the very concept of a trusted critic. Yes, I was one myself, so maybe that makes me more empathic about them and their jobs. A good critic actually works very hard; just as a wine critic doesn’t just sit around the house all day, sipping wine and snacking, a restaurant critic doesn’t just go out to eat. The research and writing are hard, and the critic has to know what he’s talking about, not only to land a prestigious job at a paper like the Chronicle, but to last as long as Michael has.

So what was so controversial about Michael’s post? Go ahead, read through the comments—they’re hilarious—and see. For the most part, people said that although Michael said he wasn’t reviewing the three restaurants he wrote about, he then went ahead and kinda-sorta did. As one commenter said, satirically rephrasing Michael’s post, I won’t write about these places. Let me write about them to tell you why.”

Well, let me come to Michael’s defense. First of all, he said upfront that he “decided not to move forward with a full-blown three-visit review.” (One of his rules is to eat at a place three times before he does the formal review, which makes a lot of sense to me.) But these are not full-blown reviews, they’re mini-takes. And keep in mind that they appear, not in the pages of the Chronicle itself, but in Michael’s blog. Michael’s blog is less formal, more easy-breezy than his full-blown reviews. So the readers who criticized Michael are a little off-base.

Plus, I think Michael is doing a great service to the three restaurants. It’s nice that he has some way of alerting them to his concerns, before he actually publishes the review. That way, the restaurateurs can fix the problems (which don’t seem to be major), so that when and if Michael does come in for a full review, it’s more likely to be a good one than a bad one.

Finally, the snarkiness of some of the commenters leaves something to be desired. It’s fine to say you don’t agree with his conclusions, but to resort to pique, like being mad at Michael because he doesn’t have to pay his own food bills (the Chronicle does), is just silly. Some others criticized Michael for not reviewing local places, but he does. He’s reviewed thousands of restaurants over the years, not just the famous, expensive ones but plenty of local joints. Just last week, he reviewed Hawker Fare, one of my faves, just a ten-minute walk from my house in downtown Oakland, where the most expensive item on the menu is about $13. So, yes, Michael does review local places.

 


On critics, criticism and bad reviews

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I think it’s perfectly fine for the restaurants and pubs in Dallas to band together and try to stop the Dallas Morning News’ restaurant critic from having access to them.

It’s a free country, right? Leslie Brenner, the DMN’s critic, has the right to publicly trash the restos in her column, and they have the right to collectively be pissed off and try to bring her column down.

This minor brouhaha would be of interest only to Dallas folks, if it didn’t touch upon some larger issues. Here’s the nugget of the case: The restaurants “are organizing to confront the major daily’s critic, whose position of influence has historically silenced, or at least intimidated, those who might question his or her authority.” Leslie is a “tough critic” whose negative reviews can be damaging to those she targets (as can bad reviews in any city, including in San Francisco, where Michael Bauer holds sway). The restaurateurs are calling for a “more nuanced system,” whatever that means. Until and if they get one, they can’t stop Leslie from visiting their venues—but they can refuse to accept her payment, and they can stop cooperating with the DMN’s photographers.

The practice is not unknown among wineries. Several of the country’s most famous critics are routinely not sent the wines from certain wineries who believe that they (the critics) are somehow prejudiced against those wines. I, myself, suffered this fate (not that it bothered me), and many winemakers have told me over the years they don’t bother sending their wines to the nation’s leading wine magazine because they don’t think they get fair treatment.

So this situation in Dallas is neither new nor particularly egregious. What I do find interesting is the particular gripe the restaurateurs have with respect to Leslie Brenner: “[T]hey’re confronting a self-described tough critic whose five-star system, they say, cannot differentiate between a self-service three-star barbecue joint with minimal decor and a full-service three-star restaurant with a hip, rustic interior. They’re lobbying for a more nuanced system that includes separate ratings for food, service and décor.”

“A more nuanced system.”. Hmm. That sounds an awful lot like what critics of the 100-point system say. They, too, argue that you can’t summarize wine by a numerical score. I don’t happen to agree, particularly because the point score is usually accompanied by a review in text (if anyone bothers to read it). But the truth is, there’s no system of critical reviewing that would ever make the critic and those she criticizes BFFs. Critiquing is inherently an act of defiance; nobody likes to see their product, whether it be food or wine, savaged in the pages of a metropolitan area’s leading daily newspaper (although they love it when the critic gives them a good review).

A good critic takes no satisfaction in a negative review. I certainly didn’t, and it was never fun when an angry winemaker called me up to complain, which happened on a fairly regular basis. But I do want to say this: A critic has to be fair and speak her mind, but there’s no reason for judgment to turn to acrimony. There’s a way to give a mediocre review that’s constructive, and doesn’t roil the waters with animosity and snark. There were many times when I loathed a wine so much, I want to write something like “The winemaker should be banished to a desert island and forced to drink this swill for the rest of his life.” But I always desisted from such colorful attacks, which may make for more interesting reading, but doesn’t advance the civility that should mark our relationships.


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