Had a call from a friend, Larry Schaffer, proprietor of Tercero Wines, in Santa Barbara. He wanted to know if I could come to an event next month in San Francisco, a promotional thing between the Rhone Rangers (on whose board Larry sits) and The GAVI Alliance, an international nonprofit that combats pneumonia in children. GAVI’s supporters include U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Larry explained that each Rhone Ranger member winery had decided to donate $10 for each case of Syrah sold during November to GAVI. He was looking for help promoting the event.
As it turned out, I couldn’t go. But I was curious as to how and why the partnership between the Rhone Rangers and GAVI had come about. Larry explained that, last June, Eric Asimov had written a piece on his New York Times blog, at The Pour, that was super critical of California Syrah. Eric had repeated the tired old joke (which I’ve now heard about 25 times), “What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.” He said some rather harsh things about California Syrah (“dreadfully generic”) that I don’t agree with–that’s not the point–but it was a kick in the groin for California Syrah producers, who are struggling.
Shortly after Eric’s piece, a doctor named Orin Levine wrote a piece on the Huffington Post in which he said that, after reading The Pour, he’d had an idea: In recognition of World Pneumonia Day 2010, “I am asking all winemakers and wine retailers to contribute $10 from every case of Syrah they sell in November to the GAVI Alliance, and asking American wine drinkers to make Syrah their wine of choice in November.” Levine seems to have clout. The Rhone Rangers heard about his challenge, one thing led to another, and ergo, the event in San Francisco next month. Even Stephen Tanzer jumped in, following a Rhone Rangers-GAVI tasting in New York, and urged consumers to support the effort, under his cleverly named blog posting, “Pneumonia’s Last Syrah.”
Larry Schaffer was frank in his talk with me in conceding that the Rhone Rangers’ reason for working with GAVI is as much to gain publicity for California Syrah as it is to help kids with pneumonia. Last week, I went to the big Mondavi family dinner, held in conjunction with Morton’s The Steakhouse, to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It was clear to me then that the various Mondavi brands involved were happy to be helping kids out, but were also happy to see their names connected, in a positive way, with concepts of helpfulness, compassion, love and sharing.
My cynical gene kicks in here. How much of a winery’s motivation is due to the desire for publicity, and how much is true concern for the charity? Is there in fact a difference? It’s impossible to know for sure, since I’m not a mind reader; but in the case of wineries and charities, the question actually is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the winery’s real motive is. What matters is how much money the winery is able to help these charities deliver. In the end, these are win-win situations, good for everybody involved. In the case of California Syrah and the Rhone Rangers, I’m happy to pass the message along: during the month of November, if you find yourself needing a red wine, consider buying a California Syrah, and especially one by a Rhone Rangers member. There are dozens of great ones, from up and down and across the state. And memo to Eric Asimov: you were being a little harsh on California Syrah. Lighten up. Don’t shop for the quote that trashes. Give equal treatment for defenders, of whom I am one.
When RN74 opened last year, in San Francisco, it was to huge buzz — even in a town where restaurant buzz is as unavoidable as fog.
The magical names of Michael Mina, Rajat Parr and chef Jason Berthold drew in the Bay Area’s wealthiest, most discriminating foodies and winos. The San Francisco Chronicle’s powerhouse restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, called RN74 “All around great” and, this past April, put it on his coveted Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list.
So it was with great anticipation that I took BART three stops into the city, and then walked a block south to Mission Street, where RN74 is located in the fancy-schmancy new Millennium Tower, an ugly highrise that’s distortingly out of place in its SOMA neighborhood.
lurid and bloated
I arrived early, and beelined straight to the bar. Parr’s by-the-glass wine list is eclectic, offering a wide range of things from around the world. It had been ages since I’d enjoyed a nice Sherry, so I had the Palmina Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino #15 ($10), an excellent wine that made me wonder once again why Sherry doesn’t play a greater role in our national drinking life. After that, I had a second glass, a pretty Austrian Riesling, 2008 Hirtzberger Steinterrassen Federspirel, from the Wachtau ($21). Why two glasses bam bam in a row? Because the pours were so miserly. For $31, I had the equivalent of a decent glass of white wine. The two bottles together retail for about $90, which means RN74 probably paid half that at wholesale. If you figure at least six glasses per bottle, with those tiny pours, that’s a huge markup.
My dinner companions, the lovely Rebecca and her handsome husband, Jesse, arrived, jet-lagged after the long trip from Hong Kong, and starved. We ordered. I decided to start with the sauteed pork belly and stuffed squash blossom first course ($16), because I’d previously clipped out a recipe for pork belly (which I’ve never cooked before), and wanted to see how it performs on a Mina menu. But first, I asked our server what glass of wine he would pair it with. He thought for a while, then recommended the Chablis: 2005 Louis Michel Montmains ($16), a premier cru. I thought it was an odd choice. I knew the pork belly was an Asian sweet, spicy dish, and a tough, acidic young Chablis didn’t sound right. But my philosophy of ordering wines in restaurants, especially one so wine-friendly as a Michael Mina joint, is to happily put myself in the server’s or somm’s hands, since that person knows way more about the wine and food than I do.
Five minutes later, before anything had been brought to us, the server returned and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that Chablis I recommended. Maybe a Riesling would be better.” He now wanted me to try the Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Kabinett, from the Mosel ($12). I was grateful he was trying to take care of me.
“It’s funny,” I told him. “I thought the Chablis was a bizarre choice, but I didn’t want to say anything.”
“Want to try both?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Bring a half glass of each, and I’ll let you know what I think.”
The pork belly came. It was truly a great dish, the thick slabs of smoky meat seared perfectly, with sautéed bits of heirloom tomatoes, bacon, basil and lemongrass. I took a sip of the Chablis. Horrible! After the spicy rich sweetness of the pork belly, the Chablis was a minerally acid freak that tasted even harder than it would have on its own. I could barely drink it.
The Riesling was much better, but I wouldn’t call it a match made in heaven. It was too sweet for the food. I know they say a wine should be sweeter than the food with which it’s served. But the residual sugar in the Riesling was very pronounced, and so was the acidity, and the combination muted the pork’s opulence, made a dish that’s supposed to be flamboyant taste merely good. The by-the-glass list contained several other white wines and sparkling wines, and even a Russian River rosé. Any one of them might have been a better match for the pork belly, but I’ll never know. I thought it was surprising that our server should be so uncertain about an elemental wine-and-food pairing, and, after all, RN74′s menu is not particularly extensive. There are only 8 appetizers and 7 entrées. You’d think the waitstaff would have their perfect pairings down.
For the main course I had the sauteed Alaskan halibut ($28), which was served with gnocchi, cherry tomatoes, celery and ginger. A pretty dish to look at, the fish all toasty golden, with a flaky crust. But it was dry, dry, dry. Jesse had the same thing and agreed. “It tastes like they let it sit for too long,” he observed. Maybe they did. I’ve worked in restaurants and know how a chef will put a dish up on the waiter’s shelf, under red heat lights. If it’s really busy, that dish can sit there for a while, continuing to cook. But RN74 wasn’t particularly busy. It was a Sunday night; it was maybe half full, and there certainly seemed to be plenty of staff. So no excuses for a dried out piece of fish that tasted like defrosted Mrs. Pauls.
The server and I went through the dance again when I asked him to recommend a wine for the halibut. I still had that glass of the Montmains, so I kept it, hoping it would be happier with the fish than it had been during its brief and miserable liaison with the pork belly. I asked if there were any Sancerre by the glass. Negative on that. Any Pouilly-Fume? Sorry. What about a Sauvignon Blanc? He suggested the Chateau Bonnet 2008, which he described as “white Bordeaux.”
Well, I remembered the 1980s when I used to buy that mass-produced Bonnet for something like $4 a bottle. Even today, it’s a $12 or $13 wine at retail. I don’t think it’s right to tell a customer a wine is white Bordeaux when it’s Entre Deux Mers. You can call Domaine de Chevalier Blanc “white Bordeaux” but Entre Deux Mers? The server seemed to be saying, “I don’t think you have a clue about wine, so instead of taking the time to explain what Entre Deux Mers means, I’ll just call it white Bordeaux, because even a moron like you has heard of Bordeaux and has positive associations with it.” The glass went for $11 at RN74; the wine was okay, but it was still the same, elemental EDM it’s always been.
Too tired to talk about wine anymore, wanting only to relax and eat with Becs and Jesse, I green-lighted the Bonnet. Whatever. After a while, the server came back with a “complimentary” half-glass of a 2009 Russian River rosé, Soliste’s Soleil ($12). He said the bartender, whom I’d friended over my earlier Sherry, thought it might go well with the halibut.
So I had 3 glasses in front of me: the leftover Chablis, the Chateau Bonnet, and a fruity, simple Sonoma rosé, made from Pinot Noir. By that time, I’d given up all semblance of caring what went with what. Ultimately, a meal with convivial friends isn’t the place to anguish over pairings. Jesse, Becs and I are all intensely political, and we filled the hours talking about, not bouquet or finish (although there was a little of that), but Tea Parties, deficits, what an investment bank actually does (it turns out it’s rather like a used car dealer), and China’s North Korea policy. (And, yes, I’m afraid I got a little animated when the subject turned to Sarah Palin!)
Becs, who’s a vegetarian, had the grilled cobia ($28), a plate of roasted butter beans, pole beans, tomato and artichoke barigoule (a sort of spicy stew) that was amazing. Even Becs, a seasoned restaurant adventurer who’s dined in three-star places around the world, praised its simple deliciousness. What did the server recommend she drink with it? 2005 Branaire Ducru ($16), a Fourth Growth Bordeaux so leanly tannic that it was utterly useless with the cobia. Becs grimaced, then asked me why they would even sell such an unattractive wine at RN74.
“It’s not a bad wine,” I explained, “it’s just too young. It needs 8, 10 years to come around. At least.”
“Then why don’t they age it?” That led to a discussion of why it’s so hard for restaurants to sell properly aged wines: cost-prohibitive. If they’d sold ‘95 Branaire instead of 2005, the glass would probably cost $45.
Then Becs asked one of those “out of the mouths of babes” questions. “Aren’t there inexpensive wines that would taste better with this food that don’t have to be aged?” She told me about some Spanish reds she buys in Hong Kong for $25 a bottle that are soft and fruity.
I replied, “I’m sure there are. But I don’t think Michael Mina and Rajat Parr could get away with selling an inexpensive Spanish wine at RN74. The snobs would crush them.” And it’s too bad, really, when you think about it.
The bill for the three of us, with tip, was $300, which actually isn’t too bad for a red-hot San Francisco restaurant. But I was majorly disappointed with my dinner at RN74, which I think is the latest poster child for so many things that can go wrong, and do, in our celebrity-chef, cult restaurant-obsessed culture.
I’m in Napa for a few days. Had dinner last night at that hot new restaurant everybody’s talking about, Ubuntu, which is vegetarian. I told my server, “I don’t know anything about your menu, so why don’t you just surprise me?” It’s basically a small-plate place, and she paired the wines as well. (Almost everything comes from Ubuntu’s garden, in south Napa.)
Here’s what I had:
1. marinated “forono” beets and “merlin” beet tostones with wheatgrass, goat’s milk labneh and local wheatberries. Wine: 2008 Domaine de Fonstainte (an old fave) Gris de Gris rose, from Corbieres.
2. salad of assorted brassicas and flowering rabes, with miso “bagna cauda,” meyer lemon “sylvetta,” arugula and parmesan cheese. Wine: 2008 Chenin Blanc, Janvier Cuvee Sainte Narcisse, Jasnieres (off-dry).
3. purple rain carrots al rescoldo, cooked in vegetable embers, with carrot crudo, wild celery, kumquat salsa verde. Wine: Gridley Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley.
The wine pairings were seamless and inspired, and I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. On my way out, I spotted, of all people, Charlie Olken (!!!) and his lovely wife, with a few others. Stopped by their table and, although I’d promised myself “no dessert!”, they twisted my arm. The vanilla bean “cheesecake” in a jar, with sour cherries, and crumbled nuts (which my cousin had told me not to miss) sent me into orbit.
Anyway, we talked mostly about (what else?) social media, but there did arise one question: Is vegetarian food harder to pair with wine than meats, poultry and fish? I think it is. If you have a great roast, it’s rugged and potent enough to pair with almost any full-bodied red. But Ubuntu’s veggie fare was so subtle, so transparent, so intricate, I had the feeling that the wine pairings had been carefully and meticulously thought-out.
What do you think?
I got a private email yesterday from a reader of this blog. She introduced herself as a servor at “a very well regarded fine dining restaurant in the Bay area” which she did not identify. She had a problem. The wine list contains “1800+” wines and “I get a little nervous because I feel like I am not prepared to answer a lot of the questions people throw at me.” She asked my advice: “how would you suggest going about learning the wines, I obviously can’t taste them all.”
It’s a good, honest question that raises a lot of issues that aren’t often talked about concerning restaurant wine service. The fact is, many servors are ignorant about the wine list or large portions of it, even at some top restaurants, where you’d expect the person waiting on you to be an authority. The reason why is obvious: as the young (23-year old) lady pointed out, it’s completely unreasonable to expect her to taste through all 1,800 wines on the list, and even if she could, she’d be unable to remember details about them, much less offer factual background information on them to curious diners.
That’s the problem with these massive wine lists. They seem more like fashion statements than something that’s supposed to be helpful to normal people. How many wine selections do you need when you eat out? I personally am happy with a small (under 30 wines) list that’s been thoughtfully chosen to pair with the chef’s creations. In fact, when I see a small, apparently well-chosen wine list, it gives me confidence that the owners care about me and the experience I have. If the list is manageable, the waitstaff can deal with it professionally and competently. They have the opportunity to taste each wine, remember what it tastes like so they can speak intelligently about it, and also memorize a few tidbits of information to offer to their customers. And don’t forget, a servor who knows her stuff and performs well is apt to get a bigger tip. On the other hand, a massive wine list seems snobby, stuffy and officious. It certainly doesn’t give me any confidence about the food. And if you think about it, a restaurateur who has a wine list so gigantic that his staff (like the woman who wrote me) gets nervous just thinking about it is neither a good restaurateur, a good employer or a good host to his customers.
Here’s what I advised the woman:
I guess you just have to learn 1 or 2 things about each of the wines that you can remember. Other than that you can generalize. For example if the list has a “Heather Vineyard 2007 Pinot Noir” from the Russian River Valley you can talk about the vintage (a great one for Pinot Noir in California) and the region (one of the best places for Pinot Noir). And I don’t think you have to apologize if you haven’t had the actual wine. Tell the customer you haven’t had a chance to try it, and if they order it, you’d appreciate hearing their impressions. They might even offer you a sip. (I would.)
This approach will rescue a harried waitperson, and a pro can easily fake it, in a kind of improvised, thinking-on-your-feet performance. But it’s no substitute for the real thing, which is to be able to describe the wine in some detail, and also to make an informed food recommendation.
I asked my Facebook friends what they considered the ideal wine list size to be and almost everybody suggested keeping it small. Nobody wants to feel like they’re studying for a test just to order a bottle to drink with dinner. The exception was a few people who said they liked thumbing through gigantic wine lists. I do, too, but I’m in the industry. As a diner I much prefer something smaller.
I think the era of massive, telephone book-sized wine lists is coming to an end. It’s so twentieth century, an anachronistic indulgence ill-suited to these times and to people’s temperament.
I’ve never been big on super-duper-expensive restaurants. When I first started this gig of wine writing, I got lots of invitations to San Francisco’s top eateries, and I confess that I was thrilled each time one came in. There were dinners at Fleur de Lys, Masas, Aqua and Square One, intimate private meals at Boulevard and One Market, wine country feasts at Tra Vigne. It felt privileged and exclusive. All that filet mignon, salmon, lobster and caviare, those old vintages, the fabulous desserts. And I didn’t have to pay!
That was then, this is now. My “era of fancy feasting” didn’t last very long. I gave it a self-imposed burial. My reasons: (a) I was putting on weight and as most people know I’m a health nut and gym bunny. (b) I got tired of going out at night and stumbling home towards midnight, wobbly. And I no longer cared to drive home from Napa half-drunk. (c) I took up the serious practice of classic Japanese karate during the 90s and our dojo classes were at night. I decided I’d much rather be sweating in a clean, healthy martial arts environment than stuffing my face. (d) Truth be told, many of the dinners were boring. They weren’t fun affairs with family and friends. For the most part, everybody’s working.
People often expect that I know all the latest restaurant openings on both sides of the Bay (San Francisco and Oakland/Berkeley), and I think they’re surprised when they find out I don’t. I don’t actually eat out all that much. If I do, I’d just as soon go to some Vietnamese place than an expensive “white tablecloth” restaurant. Partly it’s because that level of dining is really expensive, but partly it’s because I’m usually disppointed at high-end places, and almost never at my little, local ethnic restaurants. For example, last night I went, with a friend, to the celebrated San Francisco restaurant, Ame. Michael Bauer had it in his Top 100 list in the Chronicle last year, and I’d never been there. Have to say how disappointing it was. My friend had the duck, which was O.K. but nothing special, and the chunk of foie gras that accompanied it looked like something the cat upchucked — not neat slices but a gray, ill-shaped lump. My bruschetta with mozzarella appetizer was fine, but the entree fell apart. I had the chef’s signature black cod with shrimp dumplings — fantastically rich and delicious — but why dump it into a weak, flavorless shiso broth? I’ve had better pho. It would have been better on something solid, like puréed vegetables or millet or even mashed potatoes; pasta would have worked, too. When I asked our waiter to recommend a glass of wine to have with my cod, he brought a tasting sample of a Marsannay (2006 Joseph Roty) that was totally inappropriate. It was dry, tannic and acidic, quite good by itself, but hopelessly mismatched with the cod, whose sweetness made the wine rasping. I suggested this to the waiter; he returned with a 2006 California Pinot Noir. It was fruitier, of course, but the tannins were still way too fierce. Maybe an older Pinot would have worked, or even something Alsatian. When I suggested all this to the waiter, he explained that, with so many wines on the list, and so many foods on the menu, it was impossible for him to accurately pair things well all the time. Well, when the bill comes to $160 for two, I expect accurate wine-and-food help.
black cod with shrimp dumplings
It’s all a matter of expectations. I once went out to eat Chinese food. We were running late for the ballet, so jumped into a cheap little joint on Mission Street for some quick potstickers and an entree. Our waiter didn’t speak English. I ordered a $5 glass of Chardonnay. It was slightly corked. My cousin said I should return it. I told her that our waiter wouldn’t understand what the heck I was talking about, and neither, probably, would anyone else in the restaurant. So why make a scene?
Lots of themes wound together here, but one of them certainly is that, as wine lovers, our obsession with high-end Michelin restaurants might be askew. As we democratize to newer varieties from smaller appellations and more obscure countries and regions — as we come to view Classified Growth Bordeaux as so yesterday — as we retool in this post-recessionary environment — so too might we see the traditional luxe restaurant as an anachronism. Does that mean a three-star restaurant doesn’t have its place? No. But I’d love it if someone who knows I’m a wine critic said to me, not “Have you eaten at the new Pat Kuleto restaurant?”, but “What are your favorite Asian restaurants in downtown Oakland?” That makes more sense, from the point of view of just loving wine and drinking it everyday.
I’m suggesting that in this new era of post-conspicuous consumption, we Americans might just return to the good, simple fare of our local restaurants, and if we’re lucky enough to live in a cultural smorgasbord, as I do in the Bay Area, we have the cuisines of scores of countries, from every continent, to explore — at a fraction of the price of the high-end joints that, after all, can be let-downs. I’ve almost never been disappointed with Korean, Afghan, Burmese, Chinese, Thai, Ethiopian fare, the way I was at Ame. I might return the next $5 corked Chardonnay I get at one of these places, but only if the waiter speaks English.
I woke up this morning thinking about wine lists. Not that I spend a great deal of time thinking about wine lists, but we have a new restaurant that just opened in my Oakland neighborhood. It’s called Lake Chalet, and the restaurant critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Bauer, recently reviewed it and complained that the wine list wasn’t exciting. That made me wonder: What does it mean for a wine list to be “exciting”? And does this say more about us as people than it does about the actual wine list or wine?
Michael wrote that the wine list contained “boring” brands, such as Silver Oak, Pine Ridge and Sterling. “It’s not that these wines are inferior,” he explained, “but there’s nothing to add excitement.”
It’s strange, isn’t it? A restaurant sells good wine, but because it comes from 25- or 30-year old brands instead of new ones, it’s “boring.” Do we say that Lafite is boring? It’s, like, what? Five hundred years old.
Still, I know exactly what Michael (an acquaintance of many years) means. I have the same reaction when I see a wine list with Pine Ridge, etc. And, just as Michael did, whenever I have that reaction, I frame it into a sort of courtroom trial where I’m plaintiff, defendant, judge and both attorneys. “It’s not as if I don’t like Pine Ridge’s wines,” I testify. “It’s just that, couldn’t the beverage director have found something a little newer?”
Prosecuting attorney: So “newer” is better than “older”?
Witness: Well, no, but…
Prosecutor: But what?
Judge: Witness will answer the question!
And here my testimony falls completely apart. What is my excuse for being bored by Pine Ridge? (I don’t mean to pick on Pine Ridge, but I’ll use it because Michael did.)
Then I think of my reaction, sometimes, when I note which wines I’m going to taste through on any particular day. I have to admit, there are certain brands (and regions) that don’t excite me (which makes it all the more important that I not know which ones they are at the actual time of tasting). And then there are brands that excite me the way a meaty bone excites a dog. (A low-production Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast usually has that effect; see my above parenthetical remark about not knowing what I’m tasting.)
Can I justify these emotional reactions? No. Can I explain them? I can try to, but as the imaginary courtroom dialogue points out, my explanations fall apart on rigorous cross-examination. And yet, there’s no doubt at all about the “wow” factor in wine. Here’s an example of a wine that excited the heck out of me. It was a brand I was unfamiliar with: Evening Land. It was a 2007 Pinot Noir, with an Occidental Vineyard designation and a Sonoma Coast appellation. I knew absolutely nothing about it, except that I know where the town of Occidental is (southwest of Sebastopol).
How dazzling that wine was! It thrilled me to the bone. So, when I investigated it and discovered the vineyard had been planted by the Duttons for Steve Kistler, who hadn’t renewed his lease on it, which caused the Duttons to sell it to the group that invested in Evening Land; and that the wine was made by the talented Sashi Moorman (Ojai, Stolpman), who had been recommended to Evening Land by Larry Stone, the GM of Rubicon, I wasn’t surprised. There’s usually a reason why a wine is exciting.
Still, that explains why the Evening Land Pinot was so good. It doesn’t explain the ennui that can result from a boring wine list. Ultimately, there’s something irrationally unexplainable concerning our reactions to wines and wine lists. Maybe we Americans just don’t like being bored. We crave constant newness, amusement and distraction. I also suspect that people heavily involved in the wine business, such as Michael Bauer and me, might react differently to a wine list than the average diner, who’s just looking for a good wine at a fair price.