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To Santa Maria Valley, and my dinner at RN74

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Off to Santa Barbara today, for a quick trip to the Santa Maria Valley and Cambria and Byron. I always like traveling through coastal wine country, especially at this time of the year; as you pass by the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the vast stretches of southern Monterey and the San Bernabe Vineyard – as you zip through the Central Coast, with Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley just to the east, marked by the Seven Sisters – as you come into Los Alamos and the vineyards pick up again, sprawling on both sides of the road – you get a real sense of the terroir of the coast. Always just to the west is the mighty Pacific. Sometimes you can see it, sometimes the road curls too far inland, cutting the ocean off from sight; but always you can feel it in the cool winds, and I swear I can smell it, a sort of ionized, salt-laden scent that reminds me of Manzanilla sherry.

This sense of terroir is very different from the more technical analyses that we writers love to engage in, but to get a more generalized sense of the lay of the land – one which you feel subtly in your fingertips but can’t precisely define – is perhaps the more important way to understand terroir. The emotive and intuitive sense always has been important in a thorough understanding of wine. I had dinner last night with the Master Sommelier, Sur Lucero, who spoke of perceiving wine in terms of colors and shapes. I, myself, do not. When it came my turn to describe what we were drinking, I turned to human characteristics, for different wines always remind me of different sorts of people. There are shy, reticent wines, boastful wines, wines of elegance and charm. There are common wines, rude and ill-raised; then there are what I can wines of breed. We drank, courtesy of the sommelier at RN74, an older Burgundy, a Latricieres-Chambertin, whose vintage was unknown; the label bearing the year had fallen off. Sur guessed it to be 1985. It was a magnificent specimen that changed constantly in the glass, never drying out even after several hours but always gaining in force. With beef tartare it was excellent; ditto with gnocchi, and at the end of the meal, when the server brought a little plate of chocolates and other sweet dainties, that Burgundy was a fine partner. As I ate my first little chocolate and sipped the wine, and before I could say anything, Sur observed – correctly – “Stripped away the fruit, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but still a good pairing.” With the fruit, which was massive, now having receded, one could appreciate the wine’s structure even more. Sur seemed to like that, so I continued. There is a concept, I told him, of being raised properly by one’s parents, to be kind and respectful to everyone, King and servant alike. I always had been struck by interviews with people who met Queen Elizabeth. “Such a nice lady” is the usual take. “Puts you at your ease. So easy to talk with.” This is the sign of good breeding. In the same way, that red Burgundy got along with every food I had it with. I’m sure someone could have come up with something it clashed with, but it was a wine whose very universality was perhaps its greatest recommendation. A wine like that possesses, not so much a distinct personality, as the absence of a personality: it is the Platonic ideal of wine, and as such embraces, with love, any food with which wine, even theoretically, can be enjoyed. For that reason it was what some people call a conceptual wine.

At any rate, it was a lovely evening, and even though Sur and I didn’t agree 100% of the time on things like In Pursuit of Balance, I was very grateful to benefit from his take on wine. He also has a great (if frightening and sobering) personal story of the Napa earthquake.

Have a great weekend!


When sommeliers go wild

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“There is a group of wine directors out there that feel that their mission is to educate the consumer. I think this is a dangerous philosophy. If people want to ask questions, fine; but if you’re going to stand there and proselytize, well, check please.”

I didn’t say it: The immortal Fred Dame, M.S. did, in the August issue of The Tasting Panel magazine. (Sorry, I could not find a link.) So if you’re a somm with hurt feelings, don’t blame me, play the Dame game! But seriously, this is an important topic Fred alludes to, because it addresses some of the most controversial questions in today’s restaurants: How to best serve the customer who, after all, is the basis of the entire industry? And what exactly is the proper role of the sommelier?

The somm arguably is the most informed person about wine in the restaurant on any given night, especially when it comes to her own wine list. She knows more than 99.9% of the customers do. The risk is that there can be a tendency on the part of very knowledgeable people to showcase their knowledge to others, especially when they’re getting paid to do it. This can be tendentious, even tiresome, if done with a heavy hand. Or it can be interesting and educational. The somm has to walk a delicate line, trying to find that balance. I take Fred Dame at his word when he talks about “a group of wine directors out there” who cross over the line. He knows a lot more about the world of the sommelier than I ever will, so when Fred says something is happening—and that it’s “dangerous”—we should heed his words.

This relates directly to the area of the overly-precious wine list. I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the phenomenon, which seems to be on the rise, of the wine director whose wine list is so arcane, so dominated by obscure countries and varieties, that average customers, frustrated at not being able to find things they understand and like, ask if they can just have a nice Chardonnay! It’s perfectly understandable for a somm, who’s worked long and hard to get where she is, to have developed a personal preference for obscure wines. It’s also understandable that the somm would then want—passionately—to share those wines with her clients, the diners. There’s joy in pedagogy—but not in pedantry.

I “get it” when somms get bored and tired of the same old popular wines and varieties. I used to get tired of having to write the same “what wine to drink at Thanksgiving” article every year! It’s a form of burnout common among sommeliers, wine writers and many other people who perform repetitive functions.

But it seems to me the sommelier has to put her own feelings aside, in favor of those of the customers. I myself have generally good experiences with sommeliers, but etched into my memory are some awful ones. The bad ones all have this in common: The somm pushed his or her own agenda onto me, with disastrous results (from my point of view). Being a rather gentle and non-confrontational soul, I almost always refrain from negative feedback to a somm or a server, even when I’m unhappy with the way things turned out. This may avoid an unpleasant scene, but it doesn’t do a thing toward making my restaurant experience more pleasant.

I’m willing to let a somm advise me about certain wines with which I may be unfamiliar. This is especially true if (a) the somm can bring me a little tasting sample of the wine he wants me to try, and (b) I have a guarantee that, if the suggested wine fails to meet my expectations, I can substitute something else for it, and not get charged for the first glass. (I would never gamble on a full bottle of a wine I knew nothing about, based merely on the somm’s advice. Way too risky.)

But I don’t want a somm, or anyone else in the restaurant, second guessing my preference, or making me feel like an idiot, just because I want a rich, barrel-fermented Chardonnay with my scallops. I don’t know if that is specifically what Fred Dame had in mind by his “dangerous” remark, but since we’re all in the business of trying to get people to like wine, it’s not a good idea to alienate them with pontification, pandering or pretension.


Spotlight: A conversation with Michael Mina’s (until yesterday) lead sommelier, Josiah Baldivino

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Josiah Baldivino is one of the more delightful somms out there. Even in the rarified atmosphere of Michael Mina, where he was—until yesterday—lead sommelier (more on that in a moment), he’s an unpretentious guy. Josiah, 32, and his wife, Stevie, live across the street from me. We had coffee yesterday morning in our Oakland neighborhood at Room 389.

SH: So what does the lead sommelier at Michael Mina do?

JB: The way the whole [Michael Mina] group is set up is, Rajat Parr is the wine director over all the restaurants, so he’s kind of like the big brother in a way. Each individual restaurant, though, has its own lead sommelier, who runs the wine program and does all the purchasing. So what I like about it is that each lead sommelier has the ability to do whatever they want, so it’s almost as though they’re the wine director.

So you chose the wines?

Oh, yeah.

You didn’t get a memo from HQ, “Here’s what we’re buying.”

No. I mean, we would definitely get allocations and stuff, which I would say works in our favor as a group, when we can commit to a lot more than just one restaurant could. So things I got sent were mostly allocations, and I’m totally fine with getting allocations of things like Coche-Dury and stuff like that.

Speaking of Raj, he’s known for, among other things, In Pursuit of Balance. Their thing seems to be low alcohol, however you define it. So at Michael Mina, do you have California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the wine list?

Yup.

And do you have wines that would not be balanced, from an In Pursuit of Balance perspective?

[laughs] I would say there’s definitely some wines on the list that do have a bit of higher alcohol, and maybe to some are not balanced. But in my mind, if somebody’s into something that isn’t considered balanced, then whatever, just go with it and order it. My main goal as the buyer is to make sure there’s something for everybody on the list. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re not normal, or they’re not in the know. If they want something that some people think isn’t correct, then I’m going to give it to them.

What is your background? How did you get to be a somm?

Started in college at Cal State Northridge. Had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I took business management. In order to get your degree, you had to do an internship. So I did my internship at Silverlake Wine, down in L.A., and just got hooked. Started buying books, signed up for the Court of Master Sommelier program, moved to New York to cut my gums and get some real floor time experience, and then starting working in the Oak Room and ended up at Bar Boulud.

Did you get your M.S.?

No. I passed everything, got all the way to Advanced, and now just putting the whole thing on hold so I can open my business.

Why did you want an M.S.?

I don’t know if I really wanted the actual M.S. I really got into the program just to get my foot in the door and get some experience. I mean, I had that goal in mind at one point in my life, to get an M.S., but right now I’m happy with the way things are going. It’s like the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Michael Mina is arguably one of the most glamorous names in restaurants. You ended up as Lead Somm at his namesake San Francisco restaurant. How did that happen?

[laughs] I don’t really know, to be honest! I came out here from New York, and had a lot of fire. So I ended up working [at Michael Mina] under someone else, and once they left, they basically needed a lead sommelier to run the ship. And I, being a young kid, told them, “Hey, I want to do this, let me try it.” And they were a little hesitant at first, but after I told them, “Look, give me a couple months, pay me the same amount, I don’t want any promotion, just let me do what I can do, and if you’re happy with the results, then you can give me the keys to the Ferrari, and if you’re not, then I’ll happily step back down.” So…

Were you on straight salary, or did you get a percentage of your sales?

It’s basically like a server-type thing, like all restaurants. You get paid the same amount. You get a certain amount of points on the floor, and blah blah blah.

Do you make more money if you sell more expensive wine?

No. Not necessarily.

But sometimes? Because people wonder if the somm is pushing that $100 bottle instead of the $75 bottle because they make a little more.

I’ve definitely heard of some restaurants that encourage that kind of behavior, but I would say, at Mina, they’re pretty cool. Sure, you want to hit your sales and make your costs, which is very important. At the end of the day, you just want to make sure that people are happy, so when they come in, you’ve done everything you can to get them what they want and make those numbers. Sure, it would be great just to sell $30 bottles all the time, and that’s what I would do when I go out. But at the end of the day, sometimes people want to go a little bigger, especially when they come to a prestigious place like Michael Mina; they’re ready to celebrate, and you’ve got to have wines for those types of people, as well as wines for people who are just going out to eat on a Tuesday.

We are now on the very block where your new shop, Bay Grape, is set to open in August! What is Bay Grape?

Bay Grape is a wine shop that my wife, Stevie, and I are opening; she currently works for the Guild of Sommeliers. It’s a shop we want everybody to come to and feel comfortable with. The whole idea started because, as wine professionals on our day off, we always wanted somewhere we could go, like a cool wine shop, and just find a cool bottle and talk to someone who works there. But for whatever reason, it’s kind of hard to find that these days. So we decided to open this, and just be basically a really cool place where people can come, whether you’re really into wine, or just getting into wine. They can come, they can learn, they can find hard-to-find bottles, everyday bottles, and they can taste everyday in the store. We just make sure that all the bottles we have have some kind of story, are of good value, and most of them are bottles that are often overlooked in restaurants and wine shops. So we’re doing the hard work for people by taking our years of experience and tasting and finding the best bottles for the buck. And we’ll also have classes two or three times a week, which also involve tastings. We’re so close to wine country, we want to have people come down and pour their wines. So we’re striving to be a neighborhood corner spot where people just come and hang out and learn about wine and share wine with their friends and neighbors.

Will there be food?

Yeah: cheese, charcuterie, bread, pickles, and we’re doing a C.S.A. (community-supported agriculture) pickup every Thursday.

This is downtown Oakland, although people are now calling it Uptown. This is my neighborhood; Old Crow Tattoo is on the same block. Explain the thinking behind opening this kind of establishment in downtown Oakland that really hasn’t seen anything like this, and has had a troubled past–although the buzz now is that it’s coming back with restaurants and so on.

For us, we’re basically neighbors too, so the thing I love about this area is that, although it is busy and, according to our neighborhood meeting group, it’s the most densely-populated neighborhood in Alameda County, it has that sense of neighborhood. People walk by and say “Good morning.” People are very cool; there’s a lot of young professionals, and old professionals,* all kinds of walks of life. But at the end of the day, there’s that sense of community, and that’s where we wanted to do this concept, because that’s what we’re all about.

And you quit your job to do this thing!

[laughs] Yeah! All in. After 3-1/2 years, today is my very last day at Michael Mina.

I mean, you had—I think it’s fair to say—one of the most desirable—

–Absolutely—

–jobs that a sommelier could have, and yet, you left it. So my last question is, Was it a tough decision?

Very tough. Very, very tough. The only way I would have left Michael Mina is if I were doing my own thing. And this opportunity came up, and my wife and I don’t have any kids yet, so we figured we might as well give it a shot. The last thing I would want to do is regret not doing this. So we’re going to do it and make it happen, and it’s going to be awesome!

[Bay Grape will open in August. The address is 376 Grand Avenue, in Oakland.]

Josiah

* I think Josiah added that for my benefit.


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