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The closure wars: a report from the front lines

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I don’t often wander into the area of bottle closures, which aside from one’s personal preferences involves vastly complex issues of wine chemistry, engineering, physics and so forth. I’m on record as having said only a few things about closures: I hate those plastic, injection-molded “corks” that are difficult to pull out and then swell up so that you can’t reinsert them. I extra hate that hard plastic capsule that’s supposed to be “wax” but requires a chisel to remove (and at some risk to the health of one’s hand). I have nothing for or against natural corks, except when they’re tainted. And screwtops don’t bother me in the least.

Beyond that, the whole closure thing has been MEGO for me. Obviously, though, for the wine industry, it’s a major preoccupation.

I was invited to lunch (at Pican, Oakland’s prime source of cholesterol) by two folks from Nomacorc, a North Carolina-based company that makes a polyethylene “cork.” The only reason I accepted was because I realized I needed to know more about this world of closures. So here’s what I learned. This is in no way a product endorsement of Nomacorc.

The firm began in 1999. Nomacorc currently stoppers 45% of all U.S. bottled wines, selling 700 million stoppers annually in this country. This is mainly due to their success with brands like Gnarly Head, Kendall-Jackson, Ravenswood, Robert Mondavi Private Selection and Woodbridge, Clos du Bois and other widely distributed brands. These brands at first was hesitant to embrace a non-cork stopper, but once a “critical mass” was reached, it made it easier for others to buy Nomacorc. (“If K-J is using it, I guess we can, too.”)

My hosts were Katie Myers, a P.R. manager from New York, and Mark Coleman, a sales manager from Sonoma. Their job, of course, was to persuade me of Nomacorc’s superior qualities. We all know that natural cork has its problems. The taint rate, while lower than it used to be, still occurs with regularity, sometimes in expensive bottles. Screwtops have their own challenges: namely, oxidative and reductive wines. Katie told me (I can’t vouch for it) that even in screwtop-crazy Australia, producers are having second thoughts, and are looking to alternatives like Nomacorc, which claims to have made huge advances in “oxygen management.”

Both Katie and Mark explained that Nomacorc now produces stoppers with four different OTRs (oxygen transfer rates), meaning that each type allows a different amount of oxygen to get into the bottle over time–a constant rate that can be measured, as opposed to the inconstant transfer rate of corks, no two of which are alike since it’s a natural product. Since whites are less tolerant of oxygen, a producer might prefer a Nomacorc with a lower OTR, whereas reds, which can benefit from a little oxygen, might do better with a higher OTR. (Screwtops, of course, allow no oxygen in or out.)

But it’s not that simple, as a tasting showed. We had two Hungarian Sauvignon Blancs. Both were identical, made the same way, and bottled at the same time. The only difference was the OTR of their Nomacorks. My hosts asked me to try them both and say what I thought. Wine #1 was fresh, clean and fruity; I liked it. Wine #2 was darker, heavier, softer, more honeyed. It did not strike me as quite fresh. When I told them my results, they smiled. Wine #1 used a Nomacorc with a lower OTR.

I personally didn’t care for wine #2, but I could see how somebody else might prefer it. Mark explained that a producer might bottle a single wine with two different Nomacorcs, for shipment to different markets. The Chinese palate, for example, might prefer the softer, heavier wine #2, whereas an American palate might prefer #1.

I asked Katie and Mark the biggest problems they run into in persuading producers to use Nomacork, and they replied “legacy problems” and “the perception issue.” The latter is that so many people perceive anything but a natural cork as cheap and inferior. The former refers to the fact that plastic closures have had a dreadful time in the States, and despite quality improvements (in things like ease of extraction and reinsertion), people still remember the problems of old. In our conversation there inevitably arose the topic of marketing. Marketing and sales managers are notorious for being frightened of change and innovation. Even if a winemaker, fed up with natural cork, wants to shift to, say, Nomacorc, a marketing or sales person might forbid it, on the grounds the wine would no longer be sellable because of “the perception problem.” Katie in particular smiled as she explained that a large part of her job is persuading such managers to overcome their doubts; as Mark put it, “Marketing is scared of their own shadow.”

I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t care how a winery closes its wines, as long as my peeves outlined in the first paragraph are satisfied. But I came away from my lunch at Pican more aware of how complicated the world of closures is, and how irrational consumer attitudes can be. I also came away stuffed. Pulled pork sandwich on a Kaiser role, hush puppies, homemade potato chips, deviled eggs. Highly recommended.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Based on reader comments, I understand that some screwtops do allow for OTR. I was going by my understanding of what the Nomacorc people told me.


Why Taylor Swift likes Moscato

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One of the most fascinating cultural aspects of wine in America is the attitude people have that it’s something elite, difficult to understand and not for the common person.

I have a lot of younger friends who share these attitudes. It’s not that they don’t like to drink; they do. They like beer and cocktails and will get rip roaring drunk on a Saturday night. But wine? Something about it just doesn’t interest them. I will, on occasion, treat them to a wine I think is very good: a rich Napa Cabernet, a sweet dessert wine, sparkling wine. They’ll happily drink it, and concede it’s pretty good–but they’ll never buy a bottle of wine for themselves or order a glass of wine in a restaurant or night club.

Call it the Elite Paradox: wine’s upscale image keeps “ordinary” people from liking it.

How we arrived at this situation is complex. I’ve written about it before–the elitest image predates modern American society, having been imported from Old Europe, and then was boosted by inept advertising following the Repeal of Prohibition that sought to tell war- and Depression-weary Americans they could better their lives with a glass of vino. The epitome of this was a T.V. commercial, back when I was young, showing a wedding couple on a little boat in on a pond, he in tuxedo, she in bridal white. They were toasting with a domestic champagne. The message was that you can drink on your wedding day, but no other time. Wine, in other words, was an aspirational product.

For a more modern peek at how this attitude survives, look no further than Taylor Swift. The Grammy award-winning country music star recently told Esquire magazine that “she drinks wine on occasion because, ‘It makes me feel classy.’”

Analyze that. Here’s a young woman with, let us presume, more money than you or I will make in our lifetime. She has the ability to go anywhere at anytime, in high style, stay at fabulous resorts, eat at the best restaurants, party at the most “in” clubs and buy anything she wants. Sounds pretty classy to me. And yet, give her a glass of wine, and she feels “classy”–exalted, stylish, more fashionable.

And not just any wine. “If it doesn’t taste like candy or sparkles, I usually don’t drink it,” she adds. Taylor Swift, in other words, is The Sparkling Moscato Girl, the poster child for why Moscato is the hottest wine in the country.

I’m not criticizing her or anyone else, I’m just observing. Now, on a related note, I read that “By the middle of the coming decade, there will be more jobs in New York City in hotels and restaurants than on Wall Street and in banks…”.

The Financial Center of the World now has decided to be the Lifestyle Capital of the World, as jobs in the financial sector fall and profits at Wall Street banks topple. (Let’s pass the hat…) Somehow Taylor Swift’s “classy” feeling about wine and the proliferation of restaurants in New York seem connected. I feel it viscerally but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Here in the Bay Area we have a restaurant boom too. It’s amazing. San Francisco’s food gossip columnists can barely keep up. In my home town of Oakland there’s been such an explosion of restaurants and bars in my neighborhood, they’ve had to give it its own name: Uptown. San Francisco also is enjoying a brand new tech bubble, mostly built on apps, and centered South of Market (SOMA), near AT&T Park, surely the hottest neighborhood in town. (Well, maybe the Mission is. But SOMA and The Mission are really one big connected neighborhood.) I think in the future historians will look back at this era–roughly defined as starting with the Great Recession and ending when?–as a Golden Age of eating and drinking, with young people (like Taylor Swift) spending whatever money they make enjoying themselves at night. Why not? They have no idea if they’ll be alive in 5 years. They’re young and good-looking now, so they might as well get their kicks while they can. From the clubs in my hood, across the Bay Bridge to the joints around North Beach and the Financial District, through SOMA and over to the Mission and on up into the Castro, they’re partying like it’s 2099. I like to think our young people like wine more than Taylor Swift does, but I could be wrong. One thing’s for sure: they like their Moscato and their sweet infused cocktails. And so, for that matter, do I.


Online peer reviews do sell things…up to a point

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Here’s an interesting report, from our very own University of California at Berkeley, as reported in the San Francisco Business Times: “[G]ood online reviews on Yelp do indeed bring in more customers.” Specifically, “a half star rating increase (1 to 5 scale) meant a 19 percent greater likelihood that a restaurant’s seats would fill up during peak hours.”

The researchers did not have an explanation for this phenomenon (which actually has some important limits, which I’ll get to in a minute), but I do. Now, I’m one of those people who likes and depends on restaurant reviews. We have a ton of restaurants here in the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley area, of all types, at all price levels, from just about every ethnicity in the world. So it can be confusing and intimidating to decide on a new place to eat. Under the circumstances, I’ll often turn to two sources for recommendations: Yelp, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s great restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer. A bunch of great Yelp reviews is enough to persuade me to try someplace out, while a single Bauer “must eat there” does the same thing.

I think that’s the reason why Yelp reviews work: people, like me, believe in peer recommendations (such as Yelp’s) and also in expert reccos (such as Michael Bauer’s). Of course, just 1 or 2 glowing peer reccos for a particular place won’t work for me (or anyone else, I should think), because they could always be from the owner’s cousin and mother. And 1 or 2 glowing reviews won’t do it at all, if they’re negated by 6 or 7 “worst experience of my life,” “would never go back there,” “AVOID AT ALL COSTS!”

But one great Michael Bauer review will send me to the joint. I guess, to my way of thinking, there is an emerging parity between expert reviews, on the one hand, and peer reviews, on the other, but that parity only works if the peer reviews (such as Yelp’s) are overwhelmingly positive. So Michael Bauer isn’t going to have to look for a new job anytime soon. When it comes to food, people still depend on restaurant critics. (At least, in a foodie town like Ess Eff.)

I mentioned above that the U.C. Berkeley study had important limits:

(1) “For restaurants with Michelin stars, for example, the Yelp reviews were irrelevant.”

(2) “Restaurants that were rated in popular guidebooks or newspaper rankings got less of a Yelp bump. They ‘did not see a statistically significant effect from the Yelp rankings,’ the economists said.”

Let’s take (2) first. This just confirms my own reasoning: I’ll take Michael Bauer over Yelp 95% of the time. Even if there were positive Yelp reviews, one critical Bauer review canceled them out. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe experience counts over simple enthusiasm (such as the type you see on Yelp and, for that matter, on “Check, Please!).

As for (1), my hunch is that the kind of people who review restaurants on Yelp probably don’t frequent Michelin restaurants. Why not? They’re too expensive; the people who eat at French Laundry, Coi and Benu are not likely to post their experiences on Yelp, and the people who are considering eating at French Laundry, Coi and Benu are not turning to Yelp for advice.

You just knew I was going to make a connection to wine reviewing, didn’t you? Well, I am, and here it is: Inexpensive wines are more likely to see spikes in sales from online social media sources, such as blogs and Twitter. Expensive wines are not, because the kind of people who can afford them don’t blog or tweet, and if someone has enough money to buy, say, Shafer Hillside Select ($230 for the just released 2008), they couldn’t care less what some blogger has to say.

However, that well-heeled person considering buying the Shafer does care what  the Michael Bauer-equivalent of the wine critic has to say about it. I’m not saying who that equivalent is (wouldn’t be prudent, not opening that can of worms), but I’m reviewing the ‘08 Hillside Select tomorrow, and if I give it a good score, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has an impact on demand.


Inside the somm’s mind: pairing 18 wines with 22 courses

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Mark Bright is co-owner and wine director of Saison, which he founded three years ago with his friend and business partner, chef Josh Skenes. The restaurant has lately become famous for being the most expensive in San Francisco, despite its location in one of the city’s edgiest neighborhoods, the Mission District. A 22 course tasting menu, featuring 18 wines, will set you back $498. I wondered how Bright, a Bellagio alum who came up through the Michel Mina empire, and who calls Rajat Parr his “mentor,” goes about pairing wines under such complicated and challenging conditions. Skenes may change a course recipe in the middle of an evening, adding an ingredient that completely changes the directional compass of a dish, thus forcing Bright to quickly come up with a new wine to pair it with. We had a nice little chat about all this yesterday. Here are excerpts from that conversation, in what you can think of as a tour of a sommelier’s conscious mind.

First, Bright on that $498 price tag. “You have to realize, the ingredients are so expensive. We have a fulltime forager on staff! It’s not a price we aimed for, it just fairly covers our costs. Take the caviar course. The caviar itself is $20-$25 per serving, and that’s just one ingredient for one dish, plus there’s 21 other courses. Some courses have 40 ingredients in them. So it’s about us giving the diners everything we’ve got.”

Which comes first, the wine or the food? “It always starts with the food. I’ve worked so closely with Josh for so long that, when he explains what direction he’s going, I get a preliminary style of wine I think will work. Josh will tell me the dish’s components, I’ll taste them, separated on their own, to see their acidity levels, flavors and textures, and I’ll have it down to 2 or 3 wines at that point. If he changes something suddenly–which happens all the time, many things can happen in a kitchen, maybe he just wants to try something new–I’ll taste just the component change, not the entirely prepared new dish. It’s not a given that the wine has to change, but if the dish changes dramatically, then you have to change the wine. The thing is, every wine brings out different things in a dish. One wine might bring out the food’s earthiness, while another brings out the high tones and a third brings out the acidity. There’s no right pairing; there are a lot of amazing pairings, but you can never say there’s one perfect pairing with a dish. As long as both the food and the wine are enhanced, you’re doing something right. Also, wine grows and matures in the bottle, so in any given dish, if the ingredients remain the same over time, at some point that wine will take itself out of the running.”

Do we collectively get too precious and stressed out over perfect pairings? “You know what? A lot of the time, that does happen, and you know why? I see people doing wine pairings just to be creative and outlandish, completely forgetting the one important fact: it has to be delicious! More than it has to be creative. When I see people do that, I’m like, Wow, what are you trying to prove? You can’t force a good pairing. It just has to be delicious.”

What does Bright eat and drink at home? “Ice cream sandwiches! But honestly, I eat a lot of fish, because my fiance’s Chinese. I love Indian food. An earthy, meaty Syrah works great with it. Cornas, amazing, mind blowing. But I also keep a lot of beer in the fridge. When you’ve been drinking wine all day, there’s nothing better than a cold beer.”


Getting squirmy with the somm

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Besha Rodell is a restaurant critic and blogger for LA Weekly. She blogged yesterday about an incident that occurred when she dined, along with some friends, at what she called “one of L.A.’s most highly regarded restaurants.”

From the sound of it, she and her companions had a very uncomfortable experience, and it had to do with the sommelier.

Go ahead, read her post and then come back here. Briefly, Besha and her friends can be faulted with not having asked the sommelier for the exact prices of the bottle and glasses of wine. So, in that respect, Besha doesn’t have any basis to complain about paying nearly $200 in wine costs. And since she knew in advance how “highly regarded” the restaurant was, she should have anticipated that she was going to end up spending a lot of money on vino.

On the other hand, the somm can be faulted for not telling Besha exactly how much the wines would cost. After all, “not too expensive” is in the eye of the beholder. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who was responsible for the bad experience. There’s probably enough blame to go around for everyone to share.

When I read the article, I remembered how uncomfortable I sometimes am at restaurants with sommeliers. You’d think a wine writer like me would be able to negotiate the restaurant-somm waters with ease, but that’s not the case. There’s something that almost always makes me queasy, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I can relate to Besha’s not asking the somm for the specific price. She was embarrassed. Now, you can argue that she shouldn’t have been, but the fact is, lots of us are embarrassed to ask about bottle prices, unless we’re made out of money, and who is? If I were a sommelier, I like to think I’d be on the customer’s side in terms of helping him find the precise wine that suits his meal, in the most comfortable price zone. But I don’t know how somms are paid. Do they get a percentage of the bottle price? Are they under pressure to push more expensive bottles? And the tip, which is a percentage of the total bill, also goes up with more expensive wine, doesn’t it? Not knowing exactly what the somm’s motives are can make the somm-customer interaction murky and stressful. It’s almost like there’s a subtext to the conversation, with the somm prodding the customer upward in price and the customer resisting, politely and tactfully. That is not the stuff of which good restaurant experiences are built.

I don’t think the situation is the same with beer or cocktails. I mean, the customer’s relationship with a bartender is much easier than with a somm. It’s the fact that wine is so much more expensive that really distorts the dining experience. If you eat at a top restaurant, you almost feel like the servers and sommeliers and even the customers are looking at you and expecting you to spend a bundle on a bottle (or 2 or 3) of wine. (Don’t you look to see what other people are drinking? I do.) It’s like, if you don’t splurge, you risk looking like a cheapskate. I don’t know about you, but paying $120 for a bottle of wine, when the meal itself costs maybe $50, isn’t something I’m prepared to do very often. (And, as Besha knows, a bottle simply isn’t enough for a meal. You’re going to want a couple of glasses, too.)

How do you feel about the customer-sommelier experience? Does it ever make you feel weird? How do you handle it?


Random notes on a dinner at Saison

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Last night’s dinner at Saison really was a tremendous experience. I lost track of how many courses were served. The official menu lists twelve, but there were more than that, especially with the desserts, which just keep arriving, one after another.

This seems like a lot of food, but in reality, it’s not: most of the courses could literally fit into a teaspoon. In fact, I was still hungry at the end, so much so that I made myself a bacon sandwich when I got home.

The point of an experience like dining at Saison, then, is not to fill your belly but to appreciate, on an intellectual and esthetic basis, what the kitchen is capable of doing. While I took notes on each course, they were of necessity incomplete: when I asked our server to tell us about a course listed simply as “caviar,” he got as far as saying it was from American white sturgeon, on a grilled bread gelée, and there was something about chicken, but then he stopped himself short and said that, if he were to explain every single ingredient, and how it had been cooked, he would be there forever. I wrote, concerning that caviar course, “It tastes like one thing,” while in reality it was many different things, all put together so seamlessly that it had the purity and simple beauty of, say, a bite of lobster or of a ripe, plump pear.

And so it was with every course: the pea and parmesan broth, which was actually a custard, the tiny, succulent scallop plate, the vegetables–harvested or foraged in San Francisco, although no one in the restaurant would tell me exactly where (from some hill someplace, I would think: Bernal Heights?), the brassicas, mustard-style bitter greens, also foraged, a rich morsel of rabbit, lamb, a farm egg. The word that kept occurring to me was umami, which to my way of thinking means so much more than merely savory. These are bites of food that stun: your first reaction is OMG, and then you experience the brief ecstasy of such pleasure, and finally your last reaction is a repeat of OMG, and then the server shows up with yet another course.

I liked Saison’s ritual of having a different chef present each course, although I wish the restaurant would hand out little prepared pages of information on each food, instead of the chef stating rapid fire what it was. So much information, so little time to absorb it, or to even hear each word distinctly, with the noise of human conversation and rock music all around.

The service was impeccable, the staff charming and well-informed, the dining room smallish and warm. Saison’s location is a little edgy: at Folsom Street and 17th Street, a few blocks south of the blossoming Valencia Corridor, in a neighborhood that’s as gritty as when I lived there, 25 years ago. Just in front of Saison, I met, by sheer happenstance, an old friend, Amy Cleary, who used to work at the University of California Press when they published my two books. She lives in the neighborhood and told me that that stretch of Folsom Street is rapidly gentrifying. (I kind of figured that out when I saw the new Mission Bowling Club, an authentic bowling alley with restaurant and bar, a block from Saison.) I wonder what the denizens of the Mission District will do, where they will go, as their rents soar and they’re squeezed out. Still, walk along Mission Street, between, say, 16th and 18th, and it remains a riot of bodegas, thrift shops and dive bars, the sidewalks choking with individuals of colorful, if questionable, appearance, the scent of pot everywhere, beggars sitting on the curbs, staggering drunks, young kids on stoops listening to Mexican music on the radio, the Spanish language as common as English, shopkeepers pulling down burglar-proof metal doors on their furniture stores as the business day comes to an end, young mamas pushing baby carriages, old people pacing their way carefully along the crowded sidewalks, carrying bags of bananas and mangoes and bread, police cars routinely patrolling this high-crime area, and all the hipsters, pouring into the clubs and bars as soon as their workday is over, starting their drinking early. Speaking of which, try the Venetian Coast cocktail at Bar Locanda. Tequila, luxardo bitters, lemon, cucumber and salt. A magnificent achievement, and the bartender is pure Nureyev, without the tights. I had one right before the Saison dinner commenced, at 6:30, the perfect way to begin an evening of pleasure (as was the bacon sandwich the perfect way to end it).

 


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