Back in the 1840s, sarsaparilla, a beverage made from the root of a plant (and the ancestor of the drink we call “root beer”), was enormously popular in America as a “patent medicine.” In an era before prescription drugs and oversight by the Food and Drug Administration, such “nostrums” were bought by millions of people to heal their physical problems: rashes, thin blood, impotence, venereal disease, epilepsy, and what-have-you. Some nostrums, such as Dr. Sibly’s Solar Tincture, were even said to “restore life in the event of sudden death.”
One of the most popular brands was Dr. S.P. Townsend’s Sarsaparilla.
By the time of the Civil War, such extravagant and unprovable claims were already the butt of jokes among educated people. In 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson had assumed the presidency, and was in the process of the epic power struggles with Congress that would result in his Impeachment. So-called Radicals, in the Republican Party and among the dying Abolitionists, were demanding immediate suffrage for Negroes freed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Others, including more moderate Republicans and Democrats, particularly from the South, urged a slower, more cautious approach.
One of those go-slowers was the Senator from Illinois, Lyman Trumbull (who had caucused with various political parties before settling down with the Democrats). In debate on the floor of the Senate on the suffrage question, Trumbull debunked the radical notion that giving former Slaves the right to vote “would feed the hungry or clothe the naked colored people of the South. Since the days of Townsend’s Sarsaparilla,” he added, he had “not heard of such an universal remedy for human woes as…proposed to make out of the right of suffrage.”
Today, in Donald Trump, we have the latest incarnation of the nostrum sales pitch, a reborn Dr. S.P. Townsend huckstering his patent medicine to gullible buyers. He promises things in the most grandiose terms: every problem, every issue, will be solved with his election in “amazing,” “fantastic,” unbelievable,” “huge” and “incredible” ways, including, of course, the money-back guarantee to “make American great again.” “The king of the superlative,” the conservative National Review calls him.
Among Trump’s grandiosities: “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” “I will build a great wall,” “I would use the greatest minds.” As for his enemies, Trump resorts to negative superlatives: Hillary Clinton was “the worst secretary of state in the history of the United States” while Barack Obama is “the worst president in history.”
The era of ridiculous claims for patent medicines ebbed at the end of the nineteenth century, and by the early 1900s, exposés by reform-minded, muckraking journalists led the Congress to pass, and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt to sign, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. For the first time in U.S. law, “misbranding” was defined: Section 8 of the law defined misbranding as claims “which shall be false or misleading in any particular…as to deceive or mislead the purchaser…”.
The good news is that it is now illegal in America to lie and make fake health claims about foods, drugs or beverages. This surely represents progress and it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to go back to the bad old days of “restoring life in the event of sudden death.” The bad news is that it’s still permissible for politicians such as Trump to lie. We can never make a law against political fraudsters, of course, but what is conceivable is that our nation could develop public morés—an old word referring to the moral sanction a majority of people place upon obvious grifters and swindlers. If America held to a notion of censuring hustlers, Trump would be roundly booed off every stage. He certainly would not be taken seriously by cowed television anchors like Wolf Blitzer and Chuck Todd.
Alas, America has no such standards of truth. A Donald Trump is permitted to get away with making blatantly false and misleading promises, with little if any challenge from the mainstream media; the days of crusading muckrakers, sad to say, are gone.
(This is a real-time stream of consciousness report on a tasting I did yesterday, Tuesday. In all probability it was the last professional event I will ever do now that I’m retired.)
10 a.m. Arrived early in downtown Napa for the tasting. Sitting here by the river, on the Napa River Trail,
sorting my thoughts out on this, the final day of my professional life.
I thought I’d feel more reflective, more definitive, more–what? At least, feel something. Instead, there’s—not exactly nothing, but a lacuna. So I just sit and watch the river roll.
The morning fog is lifting, south to north,
and it’s fast getting warm, as Napa Valley awakens to another harvest day. I push my nose into a big rose;
wine critics, or should I say ex-wine critics, like to smell things. A young guy paddleboards down the river.
I imagine the feel of the breeze and the sun on his face, his torso working calm and alert, the sound of the shiny water shushing. How apropos that this, the last day of my career, should be in Napa Valley, where it all began, nearly forty years ago, when I made my first trip to wine country. We went to Freemark Abbey and Robert Mondavi. Now it’s come full circle. In all these years I have come to the valley hundreds of times, but never really felt like I “got” it. How do you “get” a place like Napa? Like the Napa River itself, the valley just keeps rolling along, always changing. Downtown Napa is a totally different place. Up-valley is a welter of cults. Yet the Vaca Mountains, stolid, austere, and just across the river, remind me of permanence: the complementarity of things. They are the same Vacas of forty years ago…forty thousand years ago.
There, I am feeling something! What is it? A certain wistfulness. Calm. Reflective. Respectful of my history, Napa’s history, being itself. I wouldn’t call it nostalgia. It hasn’t defined itself yet, to me. Then I realize that I always go into a sort of energy dip before hosting an event. It’s as if I were conserving myself before going onstage. It’s just my way. So I decide to wait until later to see how I feel.
The Jackson Family Wines event is at Celadon,
on the riverfront, in the Napa River Inn. It was set up by my (now former) colleague and a wonderful woman, Ann Wallace. We’re tasting 12 wines: two whites, Stonestreet 2014 Estate Sauvignon Blanc and Carneros Hills 2012 Chardenet, as greeting wines. Then ten Pinot Noirs over the sit-down lunch, in three flights:
Penner-Ash 2013 Willamette Valley; Grand Moraine 2013, Yamhill-Carlton; and Zena Crown 2013 “The Sum,” Eola-Amity Hills.
Champ de Reves 2013, Anderson Valley; Copain 2013 Kiser en Haut, Anderson Valley; Wild Ridge 2013 Sonoma Coast (Annapolis); and Hartford Court 2012 “Sevens Bench” Carneros
Carmel Road 2013 Panorama Vineyard, Arroyo Seco; Siduri 2014 Santa Lucia Highlands; Byron 2013 Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley.
That is a high-class tasting! My guests are eight buyers from top restaurants, mainly Napa Valley. This is the kind of intimate, casual tasting I like. As soon as the event starts my feelings become buoyant. There it is, the old energy! It was just waiting for when I needed it. The small plates come, are passed around: good food. The conversation becomes animated as folks relax and get properly lubricated. This is a smart bunch of people; they know their wine. I do my thing. Some tastings are happy; not all. This is a happy tasting.
The hours pass pleasantly.
2 p.m. Before you know it, it’s over. Nothing left but the empty and half-empty bottles.
It’s a metaphor: the way things look when they’re over. And I’m thinking, “I have had such fun. This has been such a pleasant time. The wines were showing beautifully, the pacing was great, everybody was really happy. I quit this job??? I must be out of my mind!”
And yet, quit it I did: no looking back. I still don’t quite know how I feel about this. But why do I need to know how I feel? Why this obsession with labeling and categorizing and defining everything? Let it be. Float. You can’t control it anyway. I look back over my last 28 years in wine writing and, Wow, what a ride it’s been. My Facebook page, where I made the retirement announcement on Monday, has 212 comments and counting, all wishing me well and saying the nicest things about this career I’ve had. I take intense pleasure in that, in knowing (because all those people said so) that I gave something to people they liked, and will be remembered.
So goodbye Napa Valley! Goodbye Sonoma Mendocino Monterey Santa Cruz Mountains San Luis Obispo Santa Barbara Willamette Valley and all the other places. Goodbye to old friends, some dead, never to be forgotten, most thankfully still living. Goodbye to deadlines (won’t miss them). Goodbye past, hello future. Somebody at the tasting asked me what I’m going to do now and I said, “I don’t know.” That’s okay, too.
A personal value to me is to blog five days a week, a goal I’ve mostly achieved since 2008. However! Not every day is it possible, especially when I’m on the road, and my hosts keep me to a tight schedule that usually starts early in the morning and can last until nighttime. So that’s why I didn’t post yesterday. Mea culpa. But here I am, in my Manhattan Beach hotel on Wednesday by 6 p.m., which means I can get a good night’s sleep and have time for this post, which is an account of my current trip in Southern California.
On Tuesday night I went to a meeting of the Women’s Wine Alliance,
a wonderful group of gals who are professionals in the wine industry, but they also do very great charity work. We were scheduled to meet from 6:30 to 8 p.m., but at 9:30 at night we were still gleefully at it because the conversations were so wonderful. I don’t think anyone wanted to leave but eventually it was time, and besides, I was happy to collapse into bed at my hotel, to get ready for a very early morning appointment.
The next morning, my pal Cory Rowin
picked me up at my hotel in San Diego at 7 a.m. and drove me to the local Fox-TV affiliate for a live interview. If you’ve never been in a Green Room on a morning T.V. show, they were also having a fashion show, an animal show, and a segment about baby quadruplets—so you can imagine! This was the wonderful lizard, Daisy, I met,
who was really as sweet and affectionate as could be despite her Jurassic look; it took some doing to get me to hold her but I fell in love as soon as she crawled up my breast and was just a loving little baby. And this was yours truly being interviewed by the morning anchor, Raul.
I’ve been on T.V. a couple times in my career and it’s always fun. We talked about wine, which the whole staff seemed to be interested in. Of course! Wine is interesting stuff.
Then we drove up the coast to Searsucker Restaurant, where we were set up for a tasting. I loved their fish pond,
and we had interested, and interesting, guests who seemed to want to know all about being a wine critic and all that jazz. Don’t get me started!
a town I haven’t been to for years. These beach towns are very wealthy and beautiful and on this perfect summer day all of them—Laguna, Huntington and the others—were Paradise.
Then it was up through San Clemente, a beach town I’ve only known as Richard Nixon’s California home, where his idea of relaxation was to walk on the beach in his suit and formal shoes, but to take off his tie! We also went to a little restaurant, Red Table,
in Huntington Beach, where I thoroughly enjoyed the New Jersey GM, Donna, and her bar manager, Jeremiah.
A good time was had by all!
At some point we hit up Watermarc Restaurant, in Laguna Beach, which is maybe the quintessential surfer-millionaire SoCal beach town.
Our lunch, especially the lamb chops, which I seldom have because it’s really hard to get good chops, was spectacular.
I so enjoy these trips because they get me out of Oakland and my comfort zone into the real world of restaurants, bars, bartenders, floor staff and wine stores, where real people who love wine work to sell it and, hopefully, buy some Jackson Family Wines wines. Every stop is different: a different play, a new cast, a new plot, a new location. And there I am, thrown into the narrative. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
I’m glad they’ve finally figured out what to do with the old COPIA building, after all these years. And what is that, you ask? The facility will become “a satellite of the Greystone campus” of the Culinary Institute of America, which itself is in St. Helena, according to Eater.
I wonder if it will work, though. The description of its planned use—“demonstration kitchens, a new restaurant, and an outdoor amphitheater [and] food and wine events…a shop with cooking equipment, books, and specialty foods…and private events such as weddings, business events, and the like,” sounds awfully like what the old COPIA did, minus the museum, which, with all due respect, was never very interesting to begin with. COPIA was a hodgepodge whose total was less than the sum of its individual parts. It never did catch on with the public.
It was said that one of the reasons COPIA never made it was due to the location, on the “wrong” side of the Napa River from downtown Napa. Well, the facility is still in the same place. Granted, more people are lured across the river these days by such attractions as the Oxbow Market. But still, you have to ask yourself if you’d make a destination of seeing a “demonstration kitchen.” I’ve been in a zillion demonstration kitchens, and unless you’re an actual student, studying the technique of a chef, it’s pretty boring. As for a new restaurant, well, Napa Valley has a lot of restaurants. This one will have to be pretty special and different if it wants to survive.
The idea of a “shop” is interesting. What will it be, a sort of Williams Sonoma? (And by the way, there will be a “Chuck Williams tribute museum” on the premises; he was the founder of Williams Sonoma. What sorts of things will they display—his original whisk? An old omelet pan?) And what’s this “books” thing? Cook books? Wine books? John Grisham? I like the idea of shopping for “specialty foods,” but between Oxbow and various markets in St. Helena and Napa (which already has a Whole Foods), that market is going to have to be pretty fantastic to lure people to the location.
Of course, the new center will probably be a very nice place to have a wedding or corporate retreat, but again, it’s going to have to compete against all the country clubs, wineries and restaurants in Napa Valley that already cater to that crowd. So I’m kind of scratching my head. I wish the new CIA center good luck, but if it was an IPO, I wouldn’t buy in.
* * *
Just for the heck of it, I Googled “wine,” then clicked on “News,” and the number one hit was this Wall Street Journal article on New Jersey wines.
I have no opinion whatsoever on New Jersey wines, never having had any, unless you count the Manischewitz I occasionally tasted and hated when I was a little boy at my cousins’ house in Teaneck. But I do have questions about this result. Why is the WSJ article #1 on Google News/wine? How do you get to that coveted position? I feel like I should know; I’ve asked lots of people to explain it to me, and many have, in endless prose, until my eardrums revolted. But I still don’t get it: how do you end at the top of a pretty generalized Google search? Does it cost a lot of money? If so, the “hit” results should have asterisks, indicating they may have been purchased. This is called transparency, the value we all claim to worship.
There’s a less sinister explanation: The Wall Street Journal is one of the nation’s most important newspapers. Lettie Teague has earned her way into the top ranks of today’s thoughtful wine writers. These things in themselves may explain the Google rankings: sheer popularity. Still, I wish somebody could really explain it to me in a way that makes sense.
Hasn’t the day of the bloated wine list come, and gone?
How many wines do diners need to “peruse” on a list anyway? Obviously, there’s no correct answer, so I can only speak for myself. I, personally, like a list with perhaps 50 or 60 choices. It’s manageable; you actually have the time and mental energy to think about each wine, to talk about choices with your dining companions and have an intelligent conversation with your server or sommelier.
There’s another thing about a short wine list I like, and that’s that when you see a good one, you can tell it’s been curated intelligently. Somebody in the restaurant loved that wine list enough to really think carefully about what wines to include. That person truly considered chef’s food, diners’ habits and budgets, and the restaurant’s overall concept. That is so much different from a list whose creator simply threw everything on there he could, based on big names and in the hope of winning awards like the one The World of Fine Wine (WOFW) recently published.
Would you be more tempted to dine at, say, Robuchon du Dome, in Lisbon (one of WOFW’s winners) if you knew they have 12,700 wines on the list? I wouldn’t, nor would I be enamored of having to wade through all 24 pages of the list at Bobby Flay’s Atlantic City restaurant, Bobby Flay Steak—so extensive that, like an encyclopedia, it has a table of contents.
How many Bordeaux, Cabernets, Rhônes, Pinot Noirs, Barolos and Riojas do you need, just to have a decent wine to drink with steak?
Once upon a time, these massive wine lists had a purpose. They announced that the American restaurant had come of age, in terms of wine sophistication. Baby Boomers wanted more variation on lists than had been the case in the 1960s and even into the 1970s, and so restaurants gave them more variation…and more variation…and more and more and more. Then came the era of the wine list award. The result was that many wine lists became—not useful guides for diners—but trophies, in the literal sense: the restaurant could win a plaque, then hang it in their lobby.
But those days are waning. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer, the senior wine critic in California newspapers, recently wrote, “Wine lists have also become more compact,” an evolution paralleled by a similar shortening of menus themselves: “shorter, more focused menus.”
Coravin, the wine closure and accessories company, wrote about this recently on their blog, quoting a somm who praised “smaller, more focused wine programs that are structured and presented in an approachable fashion for the consumer to extract the most pertinent information necessary”.
These twin developments–shorter menus, shorter wine lists–aren’t merely about helping restaurants save money. They’re due also to a shift in the customers’ thinking, and it’s not just because of Twitter and the 140-character brain. We have only so much time and energy in our lives; we want to devote our consciousness to important things, not minutiae. We also recognize bloat when we see it. What is more sorry than sitting down in a nice restaurant, with nice companions, only to have to trudge through a phonebook-sized wine list? Half the people at the table don’t care all that much anyway; they just want something good. So you inevitably get the “expert” studying the list, alienated from his companions, while the others, in the back of their minds, are thinking, “OMG, just pick something and get it over with.”
Here in Oakland, which is such hotbed of restaurant activity, we’re definitely seeing a move away from bloated wine lists. Oakland is the land of the pop-up restaurant, food trucks, shared kitchens, virtual restaurants, and ethnic fare from all over the world. The hot Wood Tavern, in the Rockridge District, exemplifies this new thinking about wine lists. Theirs is a bit on the longish side (about 65 selections), but it reads short and snappy, shows bottles from all over the world, both well-known and obscure, and is priced affordably. Similar in size is Flora’s wine list, easy to take in at a glance, but so well-crafted and thoughtful. Shakewell’s list is even more curated, a mere 27 bottles (not including Sherry), but really, it is positively Mondrian-esque in its spare, one might almost say spartan elegance. This is the direction I believe restaurants are headed. It’s not only easier on the diner, it means the list is more creative, and the restaurant can save money on inventory, can order more nimbly in order to take advantage of deals, and can keep prices lower. Nothing wrong with that.