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Reviews: Two Pinot Noirs from Perfusion


I first came across Perfusion’s wines a couple years ago through a friend, and was fascinated by where the grapes were grown. The official appellation is San Francisco Bay, a huge appellation (1.5 million acres), about seven times bigger than Napa Valley. So big is this growing region, which extends from Santa Cruz County in the south to Contra Costa County in the north (and includes Silicon Valley and San Francisco) that it is effectively meaningless.

But Perfusion’s owner, vascular surgeon John Bry, had little choice but to use this fatuous appellation on the label since he had few other options. The grapes actually hail from 200-250 feet in the hills above the city of Richmond, a Bayside working-class community north of Berkeley, not known for vineyards. Bry sources his grapes from the area known as Wildcat Canyon. The climate is cool-coastal, similar, I think, to the Carneros, which makes it ideal for Pinot Noir.

Perfusion 2017 Pinot Noir (San Francisco Bay). The vintage was not great, by California standards; the long drought finally broke, but there were early heat waves, and, of course, lots of smoke from the horrible fires. But I detect no smoke taint in this wine. On the contrary, clean, ripe aromas and flavors, of the kind you’d expect from cool-climate Northern California Pinot Noir: raspberries and cherries, exotic baking spices, a hint of bacon, and smoky-rich vanilla from oak barrels; and a silky texture.

The wine is modest in alcohol (14.2%), and thoroughly dry. There are no obvious defects. The acidity is pronounced; it reminds me of certain Volnays, which gives the fruit a tartness that begs for rich food: steak especially, of if you’re not into meat, a rich, buttery wild mushroom risotto. I don’t think there’s ageability here, so I would pop the cork and drink up over the next three years. Score: 91.

Perfusion 2018 Pinot Noir (San Francisco Bay). The word “tight” is sometimes used to describe a very young wine, recently bottled. It means that everything about the wine—its aroma and flavor, the way it feels in the mouth—is occluded: shut tight, wrapped up, like a painting concealed in bubble wrap. The critic’s job is to discern past, or through, that concealment and see what’s really going on. The wine’s flavors are what I’ve come to expect from Perfusion: concentrated and intense in raspberries and cherries, with a touch of bacon, cola and smoky complexity from oak barrels. The wine seems balanced, with brisk, almost tingly acidity and fine, lacy tannins. The alcohol, at 14.3%, is modest: there’s no heat, just a gentle warmth. A very nice wine, super-drinkable with lots of charm, on a par with the 2017. I’d give it until early 2020 to begin to open up, and it should then drink well through 2024. Score: 91.

New Reviews: Quady

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Back in the day I used to taste a lot of Quady. It’s been a few years now, and it’s good to see they’re right on course. Quady got their start in the late 1970s when they began specializing in the fairly arcane area of sweet dessert wines. They’re still at it. I’ve always had a soft spot for underdog wineries, of which Quady is certainly one: Americans aren’t drinking many dessert wines these days, for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, Quady persists, and more power to them. These are wonderful wines; the whites in particular are very low in alcohol and delicious.

NOTE ON THE 3 ELECTRA MOSCATOS: I enjoyed these on their own, but I also tried adding some sliced ripe strawberries, and some good sparkling water, along with a couple ice cubes. Very refreshing!

Quady 2018 Red Electra Moscato (California); $15. This is the red version of Quady’s Electra Moscato, which includes the white and rosé bottlings. It’s just as sweet as the others, with residual sugar of 17.6%. The color is ruby-garnet, and translucent. Like its siblings, it’s utterly delicious, with cherry, raspberry, fig, vanilla cream and white pepper, accompanied by a bit of fizziness. Very high acidity provides a cleansing finish. A great success at this price. I have to say how much I enjoy all three of these Moscatos; they’re super-drinkable, at low alcohol (5.5%). Score: 92 points.

Quady 2018 Electra Moscato (California); $15. This white wine pours clear and straw yellow. It looks dry—but it isn’t! One sniff tells you it’s a sweetie. Honey, orange blossom, apricot preserve and a subtle clover-leaf aroma make you want to taste it immediately. It is sweet enough to drink as a dessert wine with, say, vanilla butter cookies, or even on its own. The sweetness is balanced with refreshing acidity (the total acidity is a high 9.2). All in all, a bright, clean, satisfying wine whose low alcohol—a mere 4.5%–may inspire you to drink a lot of it. It’s also just a little fizzy. Food-wise, I like the winery’s recommendations, which range from fruit salad to Indian food to spicy Asian. I’ll give this wine 91 points for its sheer likeability.

Quady 2018 Electra Moscato Rose (California); $15. Same  price as the white Electra Moscato, a percent higher in alcohol, but still, at a mere 5.5%, pretty low. The blush color is a pretty salmon-pink. It’s a bit sweeter, but the main difference is the range of flavors: deeper, fruitier, more flowery, more honeyed. With lower acidity than its white sister, it’s also more mellow. Both wines are just fine. Tremendously versatile at the table, and a perfect warm-weather sipper. Tasting this rosé on a warm summer day, I think of beaches, pools, gardens. I think of watermelon, ham, fried chicken, pot stickers, Chinese roast pork, sushi, prosciutto-wrapped melon, cheesecake, vanilla ice cream, butter cookies. Score: 91.

Quady 2017 Essentia Orange Muscat (California): $23. In this sweet wine, you’ll find delicate flavors of Mandarin orange, apricot and honey. The residual sugar, for you factoid freaks, is 17.4%, which is high, but the acidity (8.6%) also is very high, which balances the wine, so it’s not insipid. There’s a wonderful creaminess, which I suppose comes from brief oak barrel aging, and also from the nature of the Orange Muscat grapes from which the wine was made. Alcohol is high—15%, due to some fortification with a brandy-like spirit, which stops the fermentation so that some residual sugar remains. I would certainly enjoy this wine with cheesecake. Score: 90 points.

Quady NV Palomino Fino (California); $32.  Most Americans are unfamiliar with sherry-style wines, which of course originate from Spain but have been reproduced successfully here in California. This bottling was made from the Palomino grape variety—the real sherry grape in Spain–grown in the Central Valley city of Fresno, a hot area where Palomino thrives. It’s made in the authentic sherry style, using flor yeast and a solera system. The alcohol is fairly high, 17.5%, but it has to be with sherry, which is fortified with a little brandy. The wine, darker than a regular fino, is absolutely dry, with a yeasty, nutty flavor and elusive notes of macaroons, orange marmalade and spices. The oxidative taste is delicate; the freshness won’t last long after the bottle is opened. This is an acquired taste, but once you understand it, it’s addictive. I would drink this with classic Spanish aperitifs, such as garlickly potato salad, roasted almonds, grilled shrimp and sausage, olives, scrambled eggs, croquettes, calamari. Score: 90.

Quady NV Starboard Batch 88 (California); $25.  Proprietor Andrew Quady turns to sweet red wine for inspiration. This is made from traditional Port varieties. It’s deeply colored, but an orange rim at the edge is a good sign, suggesting immediate gratification. Your first impression of the taste is intense sweetness, the result not only of the residual sugar (13.6%) but of soft acids and mellow tannins. There’s a lot of deliciousness here: blackberry jam, sugared espresso, plum sauce and chocolate-raspberry truffle. There’s also a pleasing heat from high alcohol (20%). It’s basically a California tawny port: no need to age, just drink up now. I could see sipping this on a cold winter evening with chocolate brownies. Score: 91.

Two new wine reviews


Here are two new reviews. Both wines are from the Marlborough, New Zealand winery, Duck Hunter, that’s been getting good reviews in the American wine press. The prices listed are the official ones from the importer, but I’ve seen both wines online for sale at considerably lower cost. Both the Sauvignon Blanc and the Pinot Noir are what you could call “food wines.” They’re super-easy to drink, with good varietal flavor, and versatile at the table.

Duck Hunter 2018 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough): $20. What a lovely wine: crisp and low in alcohol (12.7%), with plenty of flavors: passionfruit, papaya, gooseberry and citrusy limes, although the spectrum is so broad, different tasters will find all kinds of different things to rave about. However you describe it, the wine is elegant, refined and simply delicious. There’s a little residual sugar in the finish, not enough to make it overtly sweet, but rich and mellow. With no oak, what you get are ripely succulent grapes. The wine has none of those infamous “cat pee” aromas sometimes associated with Marlborough Sauv Blanc. I’d happily drink this as a house white wine. Score: 88 points.

Duck Hunter 2018 Pinot Noir (Marlborough); $30. The word I immediately came up with, tasting this Pinot, is “pleasant.” It’s on the light side, color-wise, with a pretty garnet-golden color that’s clear enough to see through. The texture is silky, and the tannins are fine and gentle; with alcohol of only 13.3%, it has something of the crystalline purity of mountain water. There’s nothing light about the flavor, though. The raspberry newton, cola, cranberry, orange zest and baking spices are tangy and delicious. The tech notes say only “limited oak” has been applied. I can barely perceive any wood—maybe that slight smokiness is the only clue. There’s a nice bite of acidity to balance the fruit, and the finish is totally dry, if a bit short. On the whole, a very nice wine, drinkable immediately and for the next few years. Try with roast duck, mushroom risotto, pork, chicken or beef tacos. Score: 89 points.

New Wine Reviews: Pinotage


As a California wine critic I came across very little Pinotage wine. Over the decades I drank maybe a few dozen, always from South Africa. I formed a generic impression of it, through both my own tastings and from reading other writers, as a dark red wine, dry and high in alcohol, that could be a little rustic—sort of the Zinfandel of South Africa.

But I didn’t really know. Wine critics can’t be expected to be experts on every one of the thousands of vitis vinifera varieties grown around the world! So it was nice when a P.R. rep from Vineyard Brands asked if I wanted to taste four South African Pinotages. Of course, I said yes.

Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, created in South Africa in 1925. The name apparently was coined to suggest a red wine similar to Hermitage, which of course is made from Syrah. In theory, the developers of Pinotage wanted create a wine as delicious as Pinot Noir (thought at the time to be difficult to grow in South Africa), but as easy to farm as Cinsault.

I looked up the Pinotage ratings and reviews from my old magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and was surprised at the consistency of the scores: mainly between 85 points and 92 points, the former range dominated by less-expensive bottlings. Prices are nowhere near those of, say, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or the better California Pinot Noirs.

Ashbourne 2016 Pinotage (Hemel-En-Aared); $58. “Hemel-En-Aared” means “heaven and earth” in Afrikaans. Close to the coast, it has a cool maritime climate. In red wines, the region is famous for Pinot Noir, and this Pinotage has a Burgundian delicacy, while keeping the proper varietal size and weight. It’s easily the best of the four Pinotages I was asked to review. The acidity, which is so fierce in the other wines, has been tamed by letting the wine go through complete malolactic fermentation. Meanwhile, the tannins seem softer, allowing the full range of flavors to reveal themselves: succulent ripe blackberries, with suggestions of spicy cloves, oak-inspired vanilla, and a meaty-beefy teriyaki sweetness. The wine shows the classic proportions of finesse: balance, integrity, cleanliness, power, and complexity. The alcohol is a modest 14.1%. It’s a joy to drink now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it aged well over the next six years. Score: 93 points.

Southern Right Pinotage (Walker Bay); $33. Walker Bay, being on the South Africa’s southeast Atlantic coast, is a cool-climate region, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive. Although Pinotage also does well in warmer locales, it shows a liveliness in Walker Bay that makes this wine especially attractive. (The name is an homage to the right whales which swim along the coast.) It shows bright, almost searing acidity and thick, furry tannins, with a dense, hugely-concentrated core of black cherry and black raspberry fruit, super-rich due to long hangtime. The oak notes of vanilla are subtle, while an intense spiciness thrives throughout. The finish is totally dry. An alcohol level of only 13.5% lends delicacy despite the hugeness of the fruit. This Pinotage really made me sit up and think. The fruit is sensational, but it’s the structure that strikes me—so much more complicated and architectural than anything in California. The wine defines itself in the mouth: you can feel its edges and corners. I suppose it will age, but there’s no reason not to drink it now with, say, beef, game or even Indian food. Score: 92 points.

Lievland 2017 Bushvine” Pinotage (Paarl). $19. The Paarl, in the Western Cape, is a warm region, little benefitting from the Atlantic, more than 100 miles away. The term “bush vine” is commonly used in South Africa to denote grapevines grown in the “goblet” or untrellised style, like they used to be. The wine is quite dry and austere, with lots of acidity. There are blackberry and coffee flavors, with plenty of black spices, especially pepper; the oak influence is subtle. Tannins are thick to the point of astringent. If you’re used to, say, Napa Cabernet, this is the complete opposite: not opulent, but rather bitter, more intellectual. For that reason I find it attractive. The winemaker blended in a little Cinsault and Shiraz, which adds to the complexity. All in all, a sophisticated wine which will nicely accompany—and needs–beef. Score: 89 points.

MAN Family Wines 2017 “Bosstok” Pinotage (Coastal Region); $12. “Bosstok” is a word referring to what South Africans call “bush vines”—“goblet,” or untrellised vines, generally used in warmer climates; the leafy canopy shelters the grape bunches from the sun. The “Coastal Region” appellation is a large one, accounting for nearly 50% of all the vines in South Africa. Bottled in a screwtop, with alcohol of 14.0%, it’s a pleasant wine, the kind I’d call an everyday sipper, especially given the price. It’s very dark in color; the flavors are somewhat bitter, with cherry skin, espresso and dark spice notes; there’s some unripeness that gives a green streak. The oak influence is low, lending a touch of vanilla bean. Acidity is pronounced, while the finish is thoroughly dry. The winery suggests slightly cooling it before drinking; this is a good idea, to tame the acids and tannins. Score: 86 points.

Restaurant review: Zuni Café, San Francisco


I like to think that if I’d had lunch last Tuesday at “Yuni” Café, I would have marveled at the food anyway.

But this wasn’t Yuni Café, it was Zuni Cafe.  Now in its fortieth year in the mid-Market section of San Francisco, Zuni is internationally famous; somehow Chez Panisse overcame it in renown, but Zuni remains vital enough that the San Francisco Chronicle included them—again—in their Top 100 Restaurants this year.

I’ve lived here for 41 years (!!!) and due to my career had access to the greatest restaurants, but for some reason I never actually made it to Zuni. I always was aware of it; it was on my bucket list. So when my cousin Keith had his birthday, and it fell to me in our Northern California family to find a restaurant for lunch, there was no question in my mind.


The neighborhood is sketchy, even by San Francisco standards. The mid-Market area has been marginal for a half-century; even when I lived in the City in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was a scary, dirty district of drug dealers, prostitutes and derelicts. San Francisco passed a law known as the Twitter Tax years ago to reduce taxes on big companies that relocated to mid-Market, in the hope they’d revitalize the neighborhood; Twitter was among them and is still there. Other corporations followed, but mid-Market can still seem like a visit to the Star Wars bar.

Zuni itself is in an old building, a warren of formerly interconnected office spaces, each a mini-dining room. Our table looked out over the copper-plated bar, with street views; the nearest other diner was a good 12 feet away; don’t you hate those restaurants where you’re elbow-to-elbow with other tables?

We just had to order Zuni’s most famous dish: the broiled chicken. It’s supposedly the best broiled chicken in California, maybe America. It cost $63; we decided the four of us would share it, and each could order further appetizers or entrées. We eventually decided on another Zuni speciality: two Caesar Salads for the table. To this we added a prosciutto pizza. My family had various wines and cocktails; I had an IPA.

So what does a $63 chicken taste like? Very, very good—and very salty. Was it the greatest chicken I ever had? Pretty much—and I’ve had a lot of chicken! I’m a dark-meat guy, so I had the drumstick and thigh. Amazingly delicious, sweet, moist, tender and deeply, royally, sinfully flavorful. But salty. I guess the salt is needed to make it so delicious.

When I was in my twenties I was a sous-chef at an upscale restaurant and I used to prepare Caesar salad tableside, so I know something about it. It’s a very simple salad: not a whole lot going on ingredient-wise, easily replicable elsewhere. This Caesar was a marvel. I guess the romaine was first-class, and the croutons were a marvel, but it was the dressing that clinched it. So light and delicate, so subtle with that anchovy sea tang. I absolutely loved it.

And don’t even ask me about the pizza! Look, I love pizza in any form. Zuni’s is extremely thin-crust. This one, with the prosciutto, was so good, we couldn’t believe it. My family are all foodies; Keith and I just looked at each other in wonder. How can a pizza appetizer be this good?

So it was a simple meal: pizza, salad and broiled chicken. But somehow it will remain in my memory forever as one of the great meals of my life. I have dined in restaurants that people would die to eat in. Why was Zuni so memorable? For the same reason it’s remained at the top for forty years: excellence in all its parts, resulting that mysterious je ne sais qua that makes you adore it.

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