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.
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!
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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.
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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.
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“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.
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.
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.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, got some heat from his readers in the “comments” section of his blog yesterday after he [Michael] trash-talked a restaurant for selling him a bad bottle of wine at an inflated price.
The wine was a Portuguese rosé that Michael paid $30 for. “I suspect[ed] the bottle was corked,” Michael wrote, explaining that he didn’t return it because, as the most famous restaurant critic in Northern California, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
It wasn’t just the bad wine that irked him, it was the service. Waitstaff didn’t even put wine glasses on the table, only “small drinking glasses.” Moreover, “The staff didn’t seem to know anything about wine.” (It should be noted that the restaurant, Mau, is a Vietnamese restaurant, in the red-hot Valencia Corridor of the city’s Mission District, so maybe you have to cut them some slack.) As for the $30 tab, Michael had a friend do some calculating and determined that the restaurant paid about $6.90 a bottle, meaning they marked it up more than four times, which he called “gouging.”
Michael was clearly irked and in ranting mode, and some readers called him out on it. One wrote, “Here is a simple solution Bauer, if you don’t like the pricing at a restuarant DON”T eat there.” Another: “There’s a simple solution to this. Stop wining.” And: “There are people homeless in New Jersey and Staten Island and this guy is fuming over a bottle of Rose instead?” and: “This just goes to show that Bauer either has never worked the books at a restaurant or is bad at writing.” And: “O cry me a river. As a poster mentioned earlier, we don’t see anybody publishing articles about the mark up of popcorn in a movie theater.” And: “You suspected the wine was corked but didn’t send it back? I don’t see how being a reviewer affects the correct behavior in this case.” And: “If you are worried about saving money get a case of cheap Zin at Trader Joes and order a pizza to eat at home.”
Okay, so maybe Michael brought some of this snarkiness on himself. He was in a bad mood, he was venting, and this wasn’t his printed column in the newspaper, it was his blog, where immediacy and emotional transparency come easier and are more appropriate to the medium than in a print publication. But let me tell you, as a critic myself, sometimes you need to rant, and I’ll explain why.
It wasn’t just Michael’s experience at Mau that so distressed him. He’s had that same experience scores, if not hundreds of times, over many years, at many restaurants. Mau just tipped him over the edge. It happens. You see a dereliction of duty and, recalling too many such, you lose your temper and let ‘er rip. Now, you can argue that a critic should always be evenly-tempered and sweet in disposition, and you might be theoretically correct, but that’s not reality. Critics have very high standards of ethical behavior–Michael for restaurants, me for wineries. We bring that high moral code to the industries we report on, and even though we know we’re supposed to remain balanced, sometimes the violations just get to you. You think, These people are idiots. They don’t deserve to be in business! You want and need to get it out of your system–to cleanse yourself–to rant.
As for the snarky comments, I get a lot of those myself, as some of my readers know. They don’t bother me, as I’m sure Michael isn’t bothered, either. Both of us know, before we hit that “publish” button, that we’re going to get snark, and the stronger we feel about something, the more snark we get. It goes with the territory. But intensity, two-way communication, passion, opinionating, strong expression of feeling, even snark–they’re all part of the blogging experience. I’m glad. Readers have been used to being on the receiving end of a one-way communication for a long time, and now that they have the ability to respond, they take full advantage of it.
Eric Asimov’s retelling of the sommelier-customer experience in a restaurant (the somm “stands between us and humiliation” and inspires “doubt and dread…to make cowards of us all”) was written with the tongue-in-cheek style he’s known for. In lesser hands this language would be hyperbolic bloviation, a bad writer’s attempt at columnistic color. In Eric’s keen control, it exists on some meta level of shared irony.
On to what I take to be his main points: “Sommeliers can be your best friends” and “No guests want to appear cheap…”. I think of a sommelier (or wine director, or whoever is the most knowledgeable wine person on the floor) as someone of potential use in an expensive restaurant. In the affordable ethnic restaurants I eat at a lot–Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, soul food–you don’t need anyone to help you, nor would you get much help if you asked, nor is the “wine list” (such as it is) worth considering. Beer, from the country whose cuisine the restaurant prepares, is the ticket.
But at what I call the white tablecloth dining experience (although white tablecloths seem to have gone out of style in all but the snootiest French places, replaced by zinc, steel, natural stone, wood or even marble) it’s a different story. You generally want a nice wine. But, as we all know, the wine list can be daunting. Eric is entirely correct when he tells people to be upfront with the somm and tell him what kind of wine you like and how much you’re prepared to pay. That leads to Eric’s second main point: No one wants to appear cheap.
Isn’t it a funny aspect of human personality that this is so? It has to do with our peculiar attitudes toward money. We like money, but we’re secretive about how much we actually have, even, sometimes, with our friends and relatives. Does anyone know how much you actually make a year? Maybe your accountant and your spouse. Part of human nature is to want to be seen as happy to spend money, even if we’re not. It’s not that people don’t want to appear to be cheap, it’s more that they want to appear to be nonchalant about spending. It somehow seems big-natured. It’s churlish to be seen as overly concerned about spending; it makes the person seem materialistic and shallow–or so the argument goes. So even someone who’s pressed for money may find himself shelling out more than he’s comfortable with on a bottle of wine, especially if he thinks he has to impress the people he’s with.
Should a good sommelier–which is to say, not just one in charge of her list, but one who’s also sensitive to human needs and emotions–be able to pick up on such psychological nuances? I’d argue yes, but I’ve never been a somm, and anyway, the pressure to upsell the customer has always to be there. My favorite type of upscale restaurant is one with a small wine list, not the gargantuan Manhattan telephone book doorstoppers that win wine list awards. I enjoy browsing through those monsters, because I like seeing the names and regions and prices. But, far from those lists being helpful to me, they’re actually a turnoff–and they make me feel that even the best sommelier can’t be aware of every bottle and how it goes with every item on the menu. I actually breathe a sigh of relief when I go to a restaurant that has 20 or 30 good wines on the list: a bubbly, a rosé or two, a few lighter-boded reds, full-bodied reds, crisp, dry whites, light, floral, off-dry whites, and something white and oaky. Makes me think more highly of the proprietor–that he gave careful thought to choosing a handful of perfect wines for his food, instead of throwing everything on there including the kitchen sink.
I’ve always thought that we make too much of the wine-and-food pairing thing anyway. Too fussy, precious and pretentious. I remember an event, years ago, at Fetzer, when the Fetzer family still owned it. They had (and maybe still have) a fabulous organic garden outside of Hopland, up in Mendocino County, and their farmer was growing a bunch of different basils. We had a tasting: the object was to determine which of a range of Zinfandels went best with each kind of basil. It was fun, but I thought that if a home cook had to go through this whole megillah every time she entertained, she’d go nuts.
If you want to make a tomato sauce with basil and drink Zinfandel with it, does it really matter if the basil is purple or green, licoricey or sweet, lemony or cinnamonny? I’m a pretty zealous home cook and, like most of you, I enjoy putting together fairly complex dishes and then pairing them with wines I think will go with them. But at some point, this whole thing hits the tipping point, because after the first sip, hopefully you and your guests will forget about the dilettante aspects of pairing and get down to the serious business of enjoying the food, wine and conversation.
Anyhow, how hard can it be to come up with a satisfying food and wine pairing? Marilyn came to dinner yesterday and for an appetizer had I planned a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, to take advantage of the last of the season’s Heirlooms. Then I realized I didn’t know what to drink with it, so I asked my Facebook friends. I got scores of suggestions: Champagne, Sardinian Vermentino, Chianti Classico, Barbera d’Asti, Gavi di Gavi, a Czech or German Pilsner, Chardonnay both oaked and unoaked, Bandol rosé, Gruner Veltliner, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, vodka. I bet any of those would be a pretty good pairing with that salad. After all, my Facebook friends, like my blog readers, are some of the most food savvy people in the world. They may not have “M.S.” after their names, but they know what tastes good with what.
So what did I have with the salad? Nothing! Before Marilyn came, I suddenly became ravenous for–you guessed it–mozzarella, raided the fridge and ate the entire container. So potstickers had to substitute for the salad, and with them we enjoyed Deschutes Inversion IPA which was really good.
The future of the sommelier, in my opinion, is to evolve into more of an all-service floor guide for the wine, beer, spirits and food, rather than a wine-oriented specialist. Sort of a maitre d’. Someone who can converse about everything concerning the dining experience: the restaurant’s architecture and interior design, history, philosophy, and the cultural matrix in which the Chef’s cuisine exists. It would be much more comfortable to interact with that person than with someone who made you uncomfortable.