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The power of the (somm’s) suggestion

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Dinner last night at Ruth’s Chris, on Van Ness. It was a Treasury Wine Estates event. Treasury is a big company; here in California, they run Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Etude, Stags’ Leap Winery and others. In other words, a pretty impressive portfolio.

The centerpiece of the menu was, as you might expect at a steakhouse, filet mignon, which they served with two Stags’ Leap Cabernets, 2008 and 2009, both very delicious, although the 2009 was considerably more forward than the rather acidic 2008. One of my dining companions was Jerry Comfort, Beringer’s longtime chef, who now does the wine education for Treasury. We talked a lot about how somms pair food with wine. On my right was the young, delightful PR manager for Stag’s Leap, Michelle Flores. She told me how challenging it is for her to pick a wine from the massive wine lists so many restaurants have these days, and asked me how I go about it. I told her, “For the most part, I put myself in the sommelier’s hands.” Somms know their wine list and menu far better than I do. I told Michelle that I’ll give the somm some dollar parameters for my wine, and then leave the specifics to him or her.

Then Michelle asked me if this approach has worked for me in the past. I shuffled through memories of dining experiences over the years and had to answer, in all honesty, no.

I’ve just had too many somm-inspired pairings that were bizarre. The most recent was at a restaurant down in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a very expensive, high-profile place. I had a little appetizer dish of a beautifully-grilled sea scallop that was all buttery and creamy and nut-sweet. With it, the somm suggested a nine-year old white Rioja.  The server brought it and the scallops. I smelled the wine; very oxidized, unfresh. I tried it with the scallops. Pretty bad. Now, I think you should never criticize someone without trying to see where they’re coming from, so I analyzed this strange pairing to determine what the somm had in mind. No luck. I just couldn’t figure it out. Had I chosen my own wine for that scallop, it would have been Chardonnay. I would have tried a rich, oaky one, and an unoaked one, then gone with the winner.

Later, the server (not the somm) came back and asked what I’d thought of the pairing. I told her, “Since you asked, I didn’t think much of it at all.” She asked me what I would have recommended, and I said, “I respect the somm’s decision to pair an oxidized wine with this dish, although it’s not clear to me what his reasoning was. But, instead of a wine that’s oxidized because it’s too old, how about one that’s oxidized by design, so that it’s fresh. Sherry.” She just happened to have a manzanilla on the list, so out came a glass of that and a second plate of the scallop.

I won’t say that was a perfect pairing, but it was far better than the tired old Rioja. And it made me think: I bet the somm was one of these ABC guys: anything but Chardonnay. You do see a lot of this holier-than-thou attitude among somms. It was like he avoided an obvious pairing, a classic one that would have worked perfectly, in favor of the obscure, the “interesting,” the “surprising,” the off-beat, the eccentric.

What is this need to be different with some somms?

I also thought about the subtle psychology between a somm and his customers on the dining room floor. I imagined a couple coming in to dine at the restaurant. They order that scallop dish. The somm recommends the white Rioja. They order it. They’re a little puzzled by the taste, and by the way the wine made the succulent scallop taste metallic. But, unlike me, they’re unsure of their palates. So when the somm returns, they ask him to explain the pairing, which he gladly does, in poetic detail. They take another little bite of the scallop, another tiny sip of the wine. Suddenly, it makes sense: they can taste what the somm described, and the synergies between the food and wine. They go away satisfied, and with a tale they can tell their friends about the strange white wine that went so well with the scallop they had at this restaurant in Carmel.

The power of suggestion.


The somm’s evolving role in today’s modern restaurant

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I experienced an interesting approach to wine-and-food pairing the other day at Hakkasan San Francisco, which opened recently in the Financial District.

The somm staff invited me to participate in their weekly tasting. This is where they take 5 or 6 wines they’re considering for placement on the wine list. Then, the kitchen prepares a dozen small plates of menu items. The team tries each of the foods with each of the wines; everybody gets a chance to voice an opinion, and, eventually, a decision is made as to whether or not the wine in question is versatile enough to go with the food.

Indulging in this kind of exercise seems like a lot of fun, and it is: Hakkasan’s Asian-inspired food is fantastic. But it also underscored the complexities of coming up with perfect pairings. For one thing, not everyone agrees about everything. What works for me might not work for you. Also, the kind of food they serve at Hakkasan is very complex. Each diner doesn’t just have one plate of food, like a steak or broiled salmon. Instead, there’s lots of little things, and I assume parties share their plates with each other. So everybody’s eating and drinking all kinds of stuff, which kind of makes the concept of “the perfect pairing” obsolete.

We were asked to rate each wine and food pairing on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is “undrinkable” and 5 is “thrilling.” I had only one five: a sake made from red rice with braised pork belly. (The other somms seemed surprised I had only a single five.) I had no “undrinkables,” but  I did have a bunch of 2s (acceptable). These were mostly for a Kabinett Riesling from the Nahe. I found it too sweet for most of the plates, which again surprised the somms: they loved it. To me, sugar in a wine should never dominate the food, but with this Riesling, it did. For example, the jasmine tea chicken had an earthy, flowery bitterness that the wine’s sugar clashed with. In theory you might think that a slightly sweet Riesling, with its natural high acidity and low alcohol, would go well with Chinese food, but for me, it didn’t.

The most surprising wine was a Wynns 2011 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, from Coonawarra (13.5% alcohol). Cabernet with Chinese food? Absolutely! I wouldn’t have known that before the tasting. It went well with almost everything, from the har gau (shrimp dumplings) and puffed daikon to the vegetarian chicken, tofu aubergine clay pot and Champagne cod.

Another wine that was tremendously versatile was a Chardonnay-Roussanne, made privately for Hakkasan by Qupe from Bien Nacido fruit. It was so balanced that it seemed to find its sweet spot beside almost everything. Another red wine, a Chateau Unang Grenache-Carignane from the Côtes du Ventoux, was fine with some things (scallop shumai, crispy duck salad) but disturbing with others (the har gau brought out its tannins, while its fruit overwhelmed the daikon puff).

The more I hang out with sommeliers the more interesting I find their job. I asked them what their biggest problems or hassles were; I thought they’d say impolite, pushy customers but, no, it was merely the organizational and logistical difficulties of being on the floor during dinner and having so many things happening at the same time. Lots of juggling. You have to multi-task to be a somm (or server, for that matter).

Thinking about perfect pairings, there are really very few of them, especially with Asian fare, which can be mild, savory, sweet, spicy and fatty, all at the same time—plus packed with umami. It’s not like 100 years ago, when you drank Yquem with the foie gras or red Bordeaux with the beef—simple pairings that made sense because they didn’t have this fantastic array of international ingredients available. Nowadays, a wine has to do double- or triple-duty, pairing well with a myriad of things, and if there are 4 or 6 people in the party, it has to be as nimble on its feet as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. The somm’s job is to find those wines and then help the customers understand them. (Of course, they also have to work within a financial framework so that the wines they buy make business sense.) I find myself continuing to be fascinated by the evolving role of the sommelier in today’s modern American restaurant scene.


Cork: equal time in the closure wars

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A few weeks ago, I blogged on the closure wars, and specifically about Nomacorc, a plastic “cork.” While I was careful to write, in bold italics, “This is in no way a product endorsement of Nomacorc,” I was aware of the fact that my sources of information were representatives from Nomacorc. They did a good job pointing out the advantages and efficiencies of their product, and that’s what I reported on.

So it wasn’t completely surprising when a fellow named Dustin Mowe contacted me, asking if we could meet up so he could tell me the real,  natural cork side of the argument. Dustin’s president of Portocork America, whose website describes it as “the premier supplier of natural cork closures to the North American wine industry.”

Dustin drove down from Napa, where the company is headquartered, and we met at my office-away-from-home, also known as Whole Foods. (Full disclosure: I let Dustin buy me a medium soy latte.) I told him I was there to learn, not to take sides. This was an important ice-breaker, I think, because the cork people have felt a bit beleaguered in recent years, what with TCA being a problem and vastly increased competition from plastic “corks,” like Nomacorc and screwtops. Dustin was perhaps expecting to have to defend natural corks more than proved to be the case; I let him know right away that I have no great argument against natural cork, just as I have no great argument with screwtops or plastic closures in general (except the ones that swell up after you extract them, and then don’t fit back into the bottle).

It seems to me that every producer has to figure out what makes the most sense for his wines, economically, esthetically and technically. I’ve learned enough over the years to know there’s no perfect solution to the bottle closure issue. There always will be a certain failure rate for natural cork, in the sense of it being infected with TCA, just as there always will be a failure rate in automobiles and medical procedures. (Life itself, let’s remember, has a failure rate of 100%.) Hopefully, the failure rate in corks will be low. Dustin assured me the cork industry is hard at work on getting TCA down to as near zero as possible, and I have no reason not to believe him, since their livelihoods are bound up with finding a solution.

What is the failure rate of corks? Depends on whom you ask. My own experience is around 1.5%. It used to be much worse, maybe 10-15 years ago, so it seems like the cork industry is making progress. Dustin showed me a chart on TCA analysis in natural corks over the last ten years; the tests were conducted by a third party lab, ETS Laboratories, in St. Helena, so there’s no worry of bias. TCA, measured in parts per trillion, averaged just over 4.0 in 2002 and has steadily declined since, with 2012 averaging about 0.50. Dustin cited Christian Butzke, an enology professor at Purdue University: “TCA is no longer a major problem for the US Wine industry.”

So why do some people insist it is? Partly, I suspect, because minds are slower to change than facts. If a critic decided 10 years ago that cork taint was unacceptably high, he might not have changed his mind today. Dustin cited Jim Laube, from Wine Spectator, who’s been criticizing TCA in corks for years. For example, in 2007, Jim wrote, “Wine Spectator’s Napa office tracks the number of ‘corky’ bottles in tastings of California wines, and the percentage of defective corks routinely runs at 15 percent, which seems way too high to me.

Last January, Jim addressed the topic again, writing , “In 2011, out of roughly 3,100 bottles of California wine topped with cork (another 269 were topped with twist-offs), the percentage of ‘corked’ wines dropped to 3.8 from 4.8 in 2010—making it the best year since we started tracking this. In 2009, nearly 7 percent of the wines were corked, and in 2007, it was 9.5 percent.” Don’t ask me how the 2007 “routinely runs at 15 percent” squares with “9.5 percent in 2007” because I don’t know.

People do have differing threshholds for TCA perception, as for other compounds in wine, like brett. Jim’s schnozz may well be far more sensitive to TCA than most other people, including MWs, somms, collectors and winemakers. Besides, every form of closure has its issues. Screwtops can let too little air in, which can lead to reductive aromas. Plastic can give weird rubbery smells. Each closure also has its own environmental footprint issues, which I don’t intend to get into. There are economies that have to be considered by the producer, as well as image issues. Dustin told me that Bronco Wine Co. uses natural cork for most of their brands, even though cork on average is more expensive than plastic or screwtop, because the Franzias believe cork has a better image.

I emailed Joey Franzia about this, and he replied, “BWC [Bronco Wine Co.] % of sales is 2-4% of all case goods produced; consumers like the POP! And screw capped wines are received 50/50 by buyers as positive and negative, corks are natural, eco-friendly and biodegradable.  We do extensive cork testing minimizing TCA contamination with BWC wines.”

I do like the POP! with corks, and the pomp and ceremony of opening a bottle, particularly when I’m entertaining. My poor old fingers are getting a little rickety, after opening 100,000-plus bottles over the years, but that’s a small price to pay for all the pleasure wine’s given me. So you’d have to count me as a cork fan.


Wednesday Wraparound

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The 2012 Wine Star Award winners have been announced by Wine Enthusiast, and it’s a fine list indeed.

I wrote the citation articles on Joe Gallo and David Biggar that will appear in a upcoming issue of the magazine. What accomplished professionals they are, as are all of the winners. I didn’t get all of my nominations; I argued strongly for Napa Valley to be the Wine Region of the Year, because of all the fabulous wines coming from there and because the excitement factor of Napa–America’s premier wine region–is always so high. But I certainly have no problem with Ribera del Duero getting the nod, especially after the tasting I went to a few weeks ago, when I was blown away by the quality-price ratio. So congratulations to all the winners, and I’ll see you in New York in January!

* * *

Off to Fort Ross-Seaview this Friday for a comprehensive tasting of the new AVA’s wines. It’s been some time since I last visited these wild, remote coastal mountains. If you live in Annapolis or Cazadero or even Guerneville, I suppose the area isn’t that far away; but most of us don’t live in those little towns, and it is a schlep, although it’s certainly not as far as Anderson Valley. Distance from major metro areas is the limiting factor on how much a wine district can become a tourist mecca, but I suspect that for the folks in Anderson Valley and Fort Ross, that’s just fine. I do recall meeting a winemaker who worked way out in the middle of nowhere in Fort Ross, and he told me how, when he went shopping for supplies, he had to check his list three times to make sure he got everything. You don’t want to get home and discover you forgot the toilet paper–not with the nearest supermarket an hour away. Eventually that poor winemaker took a job with a winery in Forestville. He simply got tired of the loneliness and isolation, despite that fact that from his little cabin he could see down the coast all the way to the Golden Gate, on a clear day.

* * *

To lunch this afternoon at one of my (and everybody’s) favorite San Francisco restaurants, Boulevard. From the moment Nancy Oaks opened this icon in 1993, it was a star, and remains–nearly 20 years later–a destination eaterie. It’s really a default restaurant if you want total gratification and the certain knowledge that all will be well, not to mention the central location, so easy to get to for me via BART as it’s only steps from the Embarcadero station, three stops from my home in Oakland. The occasion today is a Chablis tasting. I have always loved Chablis, from my humble beginnings in the 1980s when you could get a Premier Cru for a couple bucks. While I love the rich, full-blown white Burgundy and California style of, say, Au Bon Climat, an authentic Chablis–so minerally, racy and dry–never fails to excite me. I’ll write more about Chablis tomorrow.

* * *

“Outstanding” and “ideal” are just a few of the superlatives vintners continue to use to describe the 2012 vintage. From Washington State down through the Central and South Coasts, it was as preternaturally perfect a year as I’ve ever experienced in 34 years of living in California. Read this account, from the Wine Institute, for a hint of its potential glory. Of course, every vintage has great wines and less successful wines, so the point of a fabulous vintage, as 2012 is shaping up to be, is that there are more great wines, at every price point, than usual. We’ll have to see if the hype outraces the reality; the proof is in the tasting. But I can’t think of a single reason why this shouldn’t be a memorable year. There were no problems at all, just steady as she goes. Even that rain the third week of October in retrospect did nothing except wash the dust off the Cabernet. Frosting on the cake is that yields were higher than anyone forecast. With all the doom and gloom global predictions of dire grape and wine shortages, this surely is good news for California.


The essence of wine snobbery

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Some people give the rest of us a bad name. I’m talking about the “young men” who acted like idiots in full public view and who insulted the waiter when they held a “blind tasting” at a Chicago restaurant, Mastro’s Steak House, where they did everything that diners can possibly do wrong.

You have to feel some sympathy for that waiter, Cory Warfield, who reported the anecdote yesterday on his The Wine Guy blog.

Cory seems like a decent, funny, friendly guy who’s come up through the ranks (doorman, barback, DJ, “unofficial sommelier” at Ruth’s Chris Chicago, website owner at The Swirler), but he does have a temper, and uses his blog to vent when the venting is justified. As it certainly seems to have been in this case. Briefly, eight guys in their 40s who referred to themselves as “young men” (lol) had a wine tasting at Mastro’s, with Cory as their waiter. With no prior warning to the restaurant, they arrived with their bottles, demanded 72 glasses, and proceeded to act “very rude to me, pretentious (they were all trying to ‘one-up’ each other with fabricated stories, many of which included strip-clubs or celebrities.. whatever), and [were] fairly clueless in general…[telling] stories…about drinking Romanee Conti out of styrofoam cups in exclusive cellars making celebrities wait outside in the cold, and bragging about how they have the ‘ultimate hook-up’ [at] Alinea [restaurant].”

To add insult to injury, they were lousy tippers.

We all know, or have seen or been suffered to experience, people like the “young men.” If Cory is to be believed–and his blog rings absolutely true–they are the quintessential examples of wine snobbery, people so concerned with one-upsmanship, with gratifying their own egos by puffing themselves up, that they make everyone else around them uncomfortable.

Poor Cory did his best. Despite their unconscionable and unreasonable behavior, “I made it happen,” he relates, setting up the 72 glasses at a moment’s notice and getting the wine “poured evenly in front of each setting within twenty minutes…”. The “young men” no doubt didn’t have the slightest idea that Cory was secretly fuming, because he had the professional decorum not to show his true feelings. But he was able to relieve himself in his blog, which eerily comes just days after I blogged my own post, “When the critic rants: a defense.” This was Cory’s turn to vent, and he did it with grace and good humor.

Wine lovers, please monitor your public behavior. A few rules of the road:

Rule No. 1: If you’re going to ask for an unusual glass set-up at a restaurant, have the courtesy to call them earlier and make sure it’s okay and that they’re prepared for it.

Rule No. 2: When you’re dining out, please don’t brag about your Romanée-Conti exploits, your run-ins with celebrities, your connections at the best restaurants, in voices loud enough for anyone to hear you except the person you’re trying to impress. It’s rude and nasty, almost as objectionable as talking on a cell phone, and takes away from your neighbors’ pleasure.

Rule No. 3: If you bring your own wine, as the “young men” did, don’t use this as an excuse to leave a cheap tip.

Rule No. 4: Don’t treat your waiter like a slave. Be polite to him or her–offer tastes of the special wines you’re drinking–be considerate of that person’s feelings. That’s a human being you’re ordering about, not a robot. Overcome your own ego to treat others the way you would have others treat you.


Let’s Play Somm!

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Back from Party in the Hangar, the big Monterey County Growers and Vintners Association’s annual event, where I moderated a couple of public tastings. On Saturday night, one of the best restaurants on the Peninsula, Aubergine,  invited me to dine there, an offer I couldn’t resist despite a very full belly, so I walked the few blocks from my hotel (in total darkness. Question to Carmel-by-the-Sea: Can you not afford streetlights?), where I was greeted by a staff impeccably groomed and friendly. I ordered the four-course menu, with matching wines, and of course the waitstaff brought over plenty of amuses-bouches.

We began with mousse of white corn, mixed with mussel frost, fried mussel and basil, paired with a 2010 Selbach Riesling Spatlese, from the Mosel. The mousse was delicious, sweet and creamy, with little kernals of corn providing a pleasant crunchiness. I’m not sure the occasional lumps of sherbert helped or hurt; at any rate, they seemed unnecessarily fussy, but the drizzle of Ossetra caviar certainly was richly welcoming. The slightly-sweet Riesling perfectly hedged the sweet, spicy and salty elements of the dish.

Next came Maine diver scallops, with umeboshi, sea lettuce and alba mushrooms, paired with a 2004 Vina Valoria Crianza, a white Rioja. Right off the bat I could smell that the wine was oxidized, almost fino-like. Too old. Yet that was precisely the choice of sommelier Marin Nadalin, as my server explained. All right, I thought: this wine, in and of itself, would not have gotten a good score from me, but it’s my philosophy in fine restaurants to place myself in the hands of the sommelier. So, even though I initially recoiled from the wine, I emptied my mind of all preconceptions and decided to allow this creative pairing to dazzle me. It was, I figured, a bold, controversial choice. The wine and scallops didn’t exactly clash–there was no overt incompatibility–but rather, I inferred, it was a sommelier statement that the traditional pairing of wine and food–like with like–need, in the most creative instances, be disregarded, in favor of higher values–values that, perhaps, require greater openness on the diner’s part. So I lingered long over that course, and thought hard about it.

The wine would not have been my first choice. Old, after all, is old, although when it comes to old white wines, there’s a fantastic range of preference on the part of wine lovers, and perhaps old white Rioja is an acquired taste. But surely, I thought, there have to be other wines that would pair better. When my server asked what I thought, I told her I could see what Marin was trying to do, but nonetheless…she asked if I could think of a better pairing. I said, “Since Marin has determined that an oxidized wine is best for this dish, maybe a Manzanilla or fino sherry might be better.” That is, oxidized and fresh, instead of oxidized an old. She smiled and returned with a Manzanilla (Aurora) and another serving of the same dish. The sherry was punchier and more alcoholic, of course, than the Rioja, and perhaps too strong for the dish’s subtleties; but there was a case to be made for it, and I could see a daring sommelier convincingly selling it. Yet neither the sherry nor the Rioja quite worked. I would have next wanted to try something else–a Sancerre, maybe, or an off-dry Riesling–but the next course was beckoning, and we couldn’t play that “Let’s try something else” game all night.

I would love to have the experience, though, of having my pick of dozens of wines to pair with that particular dish. The sommelier, in theory, does have that opportunity, but in practice he has to make a decision, and it is based on what he has available in his cellar. He may change his preferred pairing at any time, of course, if he comes across something more suitable.

On a larger spectrum, though, is what I wrote about earlier this month, on my piece about sommeliers, when I asked, “Anyhow, how hard can it be to come up with a satisfying food and wine pairing?” Not very, in my opinion. Yes, we have those classic pairings (foie gras with Sauternes, Bordeaux with roast beef, Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese, sherry with consommé) and they are do work; but with these new plates of extremely complicated foods, where sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami all find themselves working in perfectly tense tandem, the art of pairing becomes considerably less precise, and the somm has far greater latitude. I wonder how much the sommelier’s enthusiasm and belief in the pairing influences the diners’ experience of the pairing, along the lines of “If our sommelier says this is an excellent pairing, then it must be.” And then, maybe there are no more perfect pairings. Our foods are not as direct, linear, simple as they used to be, back in centuries past. We have access to the world’s pantry: anything can go with anything else, across transnational boundaries. Because of that, these foods are more accepting of the wines to drink with them: one wine may bond with this element, another that that element, a third provide contrast, a fourth similarity. The point, I guess, is to get the diner to think.


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