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Thursday throwaway: Restaurant tipping, and Alexander Valley Cab

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When the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle—arguably the most important reviewer in California, and one of the most important in the whole country—comes out and says it’s time to end the practice of tipping, people should listen.

That’s exactly what Michael Bauer did yesterday.

“Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit.” For the reasons why he’s taking this radical position, Michael cites the fact that it’s happening anyway—Bar Agricole, Trou Normand and Camino, among others, have already done away with tipping. He notes also that this “new tipping paradigm” is “civilized”–no more calculating percentages, no more discomfort or uncertainty—and is “the wave of the future.” Adding an overall service charge, instead of tipping, also ensures that back-of-the-house staff is paid more equitably (at least, one would hope so!).

I’m in favor. I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of tipping, so I won’t miss it. I have two huge problems with tipping: (1) it’s not fair to the kitchen staff, and (2) it implies that servers aren’t professional, which certainly isn’t the case, particularly in a good restaurant. I mean, you don’t tip your doctor or car mechanic; why do we have to tip our servers?

Nor have I ever particularly subscribed to the notion that tipping is good because you can tip higher for great service and lower (or not at all) for lousy service. The truth is, 99% of all restaurant service seems pretty good to me. Maybe it’s because I live in the very professional, restaurant-conscious Bay Area. Maybe it’s because I’m not a fussy, demanding diner; I don’t expect everything to be perfect. In fact, on occasion when I’ve dined at  restaurants like French Laundry or the old 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo, I’ve sometimes been uncomfortable with the service because it’s so self-consciously perfect that it makes me self-conscious! (Thanks, but I can put my own napkin in my lap!) So I rarely have cause to complain about restaurant service, except when I feel like I’ve been forgotten about, and that usually happens in an inexpensive restaurant where I’m there, not for cuisine, but for sustenance.

So let’s see how this “end-of-tipping” thing goes. California is where most trends happen: maybe this will sweep the country.

* * *

I’m interested in what my readers think of Alexander Valley. Here are a couple of my thoughts:

  1. Great Zinfandel, much of it from older vines.
  2. Surprisingly good Chardonnay given the valley’s warm climate. Those old Chateau St. Jean Chards, made by the great winemaker Richard Arrowood from vineyards like Belle Terre, rocked.
  3. Very fine Cabernet Sauvignon. Along these lines, I make a distinction (which may not be as important as it used to be, due to precision farming) between the higher, western slopes of the Mayacamas and the flatlands. Still, Alexander Valley is one mountain range closer to the Pacific than Napa Valley, which makes it cooler. The Cabs as a result are somewhat earthier or more herbaceous, with pleasing tobacco-green olive-sage notes: you can actually taste those things because the Cabs aren’t as fruit-driven as they are in Napa Valley. I think, also, that Alexander Valley Cabs aren’t as high in alcohol as Napa’s, and that they’re more capable of aging. I’m always surprised they’re not more popular with somms.

Care to offer your thoughts, esteemed readers?


Throwaway Thursday: Notes from the road

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Spent part of yesterday blending again with Marcia Monahan, the winemaker at Matanzas Creek. This time, it was putting together the winery’s flagship “Journey” Sauvignon Blanc. This would be a tedious exercise, if one didn’t enjoy it so much, which I certainly do. It makes it all the more pleasant in that Marcia and I agree more than often. It truly is amazing when one particular sample pops! after a string of several that don’t, due merely to the barrel. I can honestly say I never really understood the importance of barrel and toast levels until I began blending with Marcia.

* * *

My sympathies are with the good people of Boston, where I see by today’s forecast it will be bone chilling for at least a week. Meanwhile by contrast (and this isn’t to rub it in, honest), here in Northern California wine country it will be close to 80 this week. This is, as I understand it, because the West is under the influence of a huge high pressure system that’s sending the jet stream “up and over,” as our meterologists call it, into Canada, whence it dips back down into the American Midwest and east coast. I don’t think that’s particularly climate-changy in itself; it’s a question of how persistent the pattern gets. Our drought here in California is temporarily on reprieve, no thanks to record-dry January but to superwet December and a pair of back-to-back February storms. However, if you dig deeper, you find that those storms were warm ones—they call it the Pineapple Express because it comes from Hawaii, not the Gulf of Alaska. This means that, while the Coast got drenched, snow levels in the mountains were quite high—and the Sierra Nevada is where you want that nice, thick snow pack next Spring and Summer, when the runoff will fill the California aqueduct. So far, no luck on that front.

* * *

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is reporting that the 2014 “Grape Crop Sets Record,” based mainly on “strong demand for top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon.” The value of the North Coast grape crop hit $1.45 billion last year, a new record, and while the paper reminds us that was despite the 2014 crop begin lower than in 2012 and 2013, it still was the third-biggest crop ever.

Well, good for Cabernet Sauvignon! I still love a good one but have reached the point where, most of the time, I’d rather have a Pinot Noir. Meanwhile, the poor Central Valley continues to struggle with maintaining prices and production. Whenever someone says consumers are “drinking less but better,” the viticulturalists from Fresno and Madera must wince.

* * *

It was announced yesterday that Jackson Family Wines has purchased Captûre Wines, the project from Denis and May-Britt Malbec. I had followed their wines quite closely, giving a pair of 95s to two 2009s, the Harmonie Bordeaux blend and the Revelation Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which had mountain intensity and ageability. Following on our acquisition of Siduri, this further fuels the company’s practice of partnering with small, prestigious wineries. Welcome, May-Britt and Denis!

* * *

Glad to see California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom announce for Governor in 2016. No surprise there: Once Kamala threw her hat in the ring for Senator, The Gavinator was a cinch. He’s likely to win the election, too—I mean, who else is there? He’s young, personable, visionary and made his reputation on gay marriage, which his opponent, I have no doubt, will try to hurt him with, but it won’t work in California. Gavin will be a great friend of wine: his PlumpJack wine empire owns several wineries. Gav is an old—well, I don’t be so presumptuous as to call him a “friend,” but he is an old acquaintance; we go back to the early 1990s when he was this tall, skinny, good-looking kid who wanted to get into the wine biz. So congratulations, Governor-to-be Newsom!


Thursday throwaway: on “simple” wine appreciation, U.S. wine production and the status of reviewers

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Why is “simple” the new mantra for everything, including wine?

Did it start with the “For Dummies” books? Then there’s that drumbeat in the blogosphere that peddles “unserious” wine appreciation. What’s that all about? I Googled the term “wine made simple” and got 181,000,000 hits! I have no problem with clarity and preciseness in speaking and writing about wine, but I don’t see how this dumbing-down of it to some kind of level of purported simplicity adds to the conversation.

We want everything nowadays to be fast, easy, quick, simple, mindless, whether it’s selecting a travel destination from a Top Ten list, a recipe, a life mate (“speed dating” got 127,000,000 hits on Google) or an understanding of the wines of Bordeaux.

It used to be that people understood that acquiring true knowledge was hard. Skilled practitioners took on apprentices, who studied for years to master iron work, or shoemaking, or stucco painting, or, yes, wine. Even 20 years ago, no one would have dared to write a book about wine without having first probed the topic for many years. Today, you can publish a book knowing almost nothing. Just have the word Simple in the title.

When did wine get so complicated that it had to be simplified, anyway? This meme that things were too hifalutin for the ordinary person to grasp is comparatively recent. It began in fact in the period immediately following the Repeal of Prohibition. Mary Frost Mabon called her 1942 book “ABC of America’s Wines” because, she wrote, “It takes the hocus-pocus out of wine-drinking.” When Leon Adams, the founder of the Wine Institute and no intellectual slouch, wrote his 1958 tome, he called it “The Commonsense Book of Wine” to combat the “nonsense” and “confusion” that, he claimed, had plagued the “bewildered layman.” Justin Meyer, well-known to generations of Napans as the founder of Silver Oak Cellars, called his book (with a forward by Robert Mondavi) “Plain Talk about Fine Wine,” a title meant to teach readers about wine “in straightforward language” (even Mr. Mondavi called it a “fun” read).

Nobody has to apologize for writing a good wine book that challenges readers to make some effort to understand a complicated subject. But people should apologize for writing a bad wine book, on the pretext that it’s “simple.”

* * *

Great news from Wine Institute: On the heels of two gigantic harvests (2012 and 2013), U.S. wine sales are up in both volume and value, with the most popular varieties remaining Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot still sells more than twice as much as Pinot Noir, while Moscato has overtaken Sauvignon Blanc! (That’s pretty amazing.) Even sparkling wine is up, a stimulus to those wineries who produce it or are considering doing so. California accounts for 90% of all U.S. wine exports—no surprise there. The state of the California wine industry, in other words, is sound.

* * *

Interesting article in the U.C. Santa Barbara student newspapercon how “experts” will rank the exact same bottle of wine differently at different times, and sometimes significantly, provided they don’t know what it is. There now have been enough credible studies on this topic to cast a general pall over the wine reviewing industry, and this is something that industry is going to have to address. I don’t think it’s a fatal flaw, but it does undermine public confidence in the ratings game.

I disagree, however, with one characterization that reporter Jay Grafft made: that in a competition, “just about every bottle of wine has the same exact chance of receiving first place–that is, a completely random chance.” If this were true, then, as Grafft writes, “a team of coin-flipping monkeys [could] decide” which bottle came in first place.

I remain convinced that, for all its subjectivity, there’s enough objective reality in wine quality for professional judges to single out the better ones from the not-so-good. Notice I wrote “professional judges.” By that I mean people with considerable experience under their belt. So I wouldn’t want to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater. Yes, let’s recognize the fact that there is—as I’ve written for years—a bothersome randomness to wine judging. The reviewing system is not perfect. But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Reviewing remains necessary, if for no other reason than that consumers like it and depend on it to help them make buying decisions.


Thursday throwaway: Ballard Canyon, 2011 Pinots and Screwtops

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I’m not always thrilled when the TTB grants official appellation status to a new region in California. Most of them seem like vanity projects, or else they cover areas with very little in the way of wine-producing history, and in many cases they don’t even make sense from a terroir point of view.

(No, I won’t name names.)

But every once in a while a new American Viticultural Area is approved that entirely deserves it. Ballard Canyon is the latest.

I’ve been following wineries and vineyards (Rusack, Larner, Stolpman, etc.) in that central portion of Santa Barbara County for years, in addition to newer ones (Jonata) that have come to my attention. The quality is exceptionally high across the board (as it tends to be in the greater Santa Ynez Valley). Aspirations are high, too, and the terroir, as I understand it, seems perfectly suited for what folks are doing down there. So welcome to the AVA family, Ballard Canyon! And congratulations in particular to Michael Larner, who filed for the appellation back in 2011 and waited patiently for his application to wend its way through the government bureaucracy!

* * *

I’ve been tasting a great deal of Pinot Noir lately, mainly from the 2011 vintage, whose overall character is becoming clearer to me with each bottle I review. The year was not the miracle some had predicted it would be. The original spin on the chilliness was, “Isn’t this special! Now we’ll finally get some nice, elegant, low alcohol Pinots.” Good theory, but as usually happens with good theories, it kind of got its face smashed in by reality. The truth is that there were a lot of green Pinots produced in 2011–some moldy ones, too, and that has marred the vintage.

However, the best wineries did succeed in producing elegant, classy Pinots that are ageable. Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Failla, Merry Edwards, Dutton-Goldfield, Lynmar, W.H. Smith, Coup de Foudre and Flowers all made magnificent wines from the Russian River Valley/Sonoma Coast. Down in Santa Rita Hills, so did Foxen, Bonaccorsi, Tantara and Testarossa. In neighboring Santa Maria Valley, Bien Nacido Vineyard produced exceptional fruit for its clients. The new Caleras hit benchmark highs up on Mount Harlan. In the Santa Lucia Highlands, Roar, Tantara, Testarossa and Bernardus (from Pisoni) all had good bottlings. Even Carneros–never my favorite spot for Pinot Noir–over-performed, with some great wines from Mira, Donum and Stemmler.

Why did these wineries succeed in such a challenging year? I suspect it had a lot to to with viticulture, especially sorting. They simply had the commitment to get rid of bad bunches of grapes. No amount of new oak, by the way, can mask the green taste of unripe grapes and stems. Nothing can.

* * *

During my tasting session yesterday, I had a number of wines in screwtops. Good wines, too: high-scoring. And I realized it’s been years since I mentioned “screwtop” in a wine review. I used to do it, in the sense of saying something like, “Don’t worry about the screwtop. It doesn’t mean that the wine is cheap.” I felt I had to reassure readers that it’s legitimate to put a screwtop on an ultrapremium wine–more than legitimate, actually, since it assures that the wine will never be corked!

But I don’t mention screwtops anymore because, to me, it’s a non-issue. In fact, I wonder why more wineries haven’t turned to them, instead of corks and (worst of all), artificial corks. I suppose it’s because the public at large still considers screwtops the sign of a cheap wine. We educators will just have to work harder to let them know otherwise.


Thursday throwaway

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Vintage 2012

Vintage 2012 so far has been the most “normal” year I can remember.

No frost last Spring. No damp, rainy conditions into June. Here we are, just days away from Labor Day, and there hasn’t yet been one of those notorious heat events that lasts for days, wrecking havoc in the vineyards.

Of course, good could turn to bad before all the grapes are picked. (Harvest actually began a week or two ago for the sparkling varieties.) The last of the Cabernet probably won’t be crushed until sometime in October; rains could come as early as mid-September, compromising the fruit.

But let’s not worry about what hasn’t happened. So far, so good. Moderate to warm temperatures during the day, cool at night, just the right amount of fog and sun. It seems like a miracle after the weirdness of 2011, 2011, 2009, 2008, even 2007. I just hope I don’t have to eat my words by the time vintage 2012 is over.

* * *

Targeting women wine drinkers

I like Chateau Ste. Michelle’s new campaign targeting wine to women, as reported in yesterday’s New York Times.

In general, I’m not a fan of targeting specific demographic groups, as it seems like pandering. I was interviewed the other day for Wine Crush Radio, and this topic of marketing to women came up, and I told the host I didn’t much care for it, any more than I would care about targeting wine to Black Americans, gay Americans or any other group.

But the Ste. Michelle campaign is tasteful and creative. Quoting from the Times: Users customize an equation that begins “Me + A glass of wine” and ends “ = My Chateau.” Within, users string together words and symbols to complete the equation. So one might formulate: “Me + A glass of wine + Camping — (symbol for thunderstorm) + my kids — (symbol for computer monitor) = My Chateau.”

Here’s my equation: Me + a bottle of Champagne + the perfect companion + a private beach in Hawaii + smoked salmon and caviar – rain – clouds – wind + plenty of SPF 70 sunscreen = My Chateau.”

* * *

Downtown Napa is so cool

Nice to see that Napa County has installed educational signs along the banks of the Napa River in downtown Napa city, to inform passersby of the flood control project that tore the area up for years, but thankfully and hopefully will prevent downtown from experiencing the kind of flooding that occurred routinely for so long.

Downtown Napa has really become a go-to destination. I remember in the 1980s when nobody went there because there was no place to go and nothing to do. Napa was a joke, a seedy place of thrift shops and old-fashioned clothing and furniture stores. No more. Napa is now the hottest town in the county, a real destination for fine dining, entertainment and, if you’re inclined to spend the night, first-class hotels and resorts. I can’t think of any wine country destination within two hours of my home I’d rather hang out in for a couple of days, including Healdsburg.


Thursday throwaway

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I’ve said before that gigantic wine competitions are pretty worthless, and that’s my impression again after seeing the results of the latest West Coast Wine Competition, which have just been announced.

The first thing I’ve gotta get out of the way–full disclosure–is that I haven’t tasted each and every wine that won a medal. And so I’m not going to mention any particular wine. But looking at the California entries, I have a very strong hunch that these are not the best wines you can buy of their type and price.

There are problems aplenty in these competitions. For one, the entries tend to be supermarket brands, the kinds handled by large distributors and produced in sizable quantities. Most of the smaller boutique wineries would never consider entering, and so the list of possible winners is severely compromised. Another problem is that there are so many judges (23, some of whom are good friends of mine) that the final results are unlikely to represent the thoughtful conclusion of a seasoned taster, but an arbitrated consensus in which everybody gives a little to get a little. Believe me, I’ve participated in a few of these competitions, and I know. I have to believe also that, with so many wines tasted in so short a period, people’s capacity to handle alcohol was taxed.

It’s not that the results are completely useless. The recommended wines are fine, near as I can tell, particularly in the less expensive brackets. You probably won’t hate any of the winners. Most people in the industry understand the limits of a competition like this, but the average consumer would do well to take the results with a grain of salt.

* * *

I see my friend and colleague, Stacie Jacob, has stepped down from her job as executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, in order to start the next chapter in her life, as proprietor of a marketing company. I wish her well. She did a great job. Paso Robles, as we all know, has become an important wine region, something that wasn’t guaranteed ten years ago, and Stacie had a lot to do with that.

Running a regional winery association is a hard, thankless task. It’s like herding cats, and some of those cats can get real hissy. The big cats always want to dominate the smaller ones, which the smaller ones resent because they’re also paying dues. There are competing agendas. Different people have differing views on how to promote the region, there’s never quite enough money to get everything done, and over this quarrelsome republic the Executive Director must reign with dignity and quiet aplomb, her job always on the line if something misfires.

I’ve known quite a few winery association executives in my time and I’ve admired them all. Some have done a better job than others. I respect Rhonda Motil, at The Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. She seems to wring a lot out of a buck. With a small staff, she’s really worked hard to make the wines and wineries of Monterey shine. The Napa Valley Vintners also does a great job, with the inimitable Terry Hall defining the “never let ‘em see you sweat” approach. (He’s communications director, not executive director; that’s Linda Reiff; but Terry’s the prime contact for ink-stained wretches like me.) I always imagine that working at Napa Valley Vintners must be the ultimate in pressure, with all those egos up there, but NVV pulls everything off with style.

That there are underperforming regional winery associations is an understatement, and they know who they are! A good association will help boost a region immeasurably, but in the event of a poor one, nature won’t tolerate a vacuum: if the association can’t get the job done, niche-savvy P.R. pros and wineries will do it for them.


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