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To eat is (literally and figuratively) to live

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My seminar (with Pedro Rusk) at Saturday’s K-J Heirloom Tomato Festival reminded me once again of what a powerful interest people have in learning about wine-and-food pairing and how to make fabulous foods. It’s interesting when you consider that people in this country are absolutely inundated with information about food. It’s a never-ending avalanche: columns in the papers, POS materials in supermarkets, online sites, T.V. cooking shows and cookbooks, cookbooks, cookbooks up the yin yang. Most of us have access to more recipes and how-to’s than we’d be able to use in several lifetimes, and yet we still show up at seminars like Pedro’s and mine for more.

It’s an almost religious quest. People go to Mecca or Lourdes, or just to their favorite house of worship on Sunday, in order to connect with something bigger than themselves, and hopefully become more than they feel they are. They buy self-improvement books, they meditate and pray, they’re constantly on the alert for something that will make their lives more complete and happy. And they go to large public events, like the Tomato Festival.

Of course, there’s an element of just wanting to be in a large, happy crowd on a glorious September day, listen to live music, drink some good wine and eat fabulous food—and man oh man, was that food great! I still feel like I inhaled a bowling ball on this, the morning after. To think that chefs can do so many things with a single ingredient—the tomato—is mind-boggling.

I’m talking about the seminars, though. It’s odd that some of us are so driven to always “up” our food game. In order to investigate the phenomenon, I turn to myself, and my own head, which is at least as curious about new approaches to food as is yours, in all likelihood. My first impression, in examining myself, is puzzlement. Why do I still subscribe to Bon Appetit? Why am I drawn, like a moth to a flame, to the Food Section of the S.F. Chronicle? I don’t subscribe to the other local papers, but when I’m at the gym and someone has tossed aside the Contra Costa Times or Oakland Tribune, I’ll pick it up and see if there’s a recipe somewhere inside. I have at least 40 cookbooks, have given away at least that many to friends, and I go to online sites like The Food Network several times a month; and yet, with all that data at my fingertips, I’m still hungry (forgive the metaphor) for more. I sometimes wonder if this almost obsessive search for perfect recipes and wine pairings isn’t a form of psychological compensation for a spiritual emptiness I feel inside; but such self-introspection can be morbid, and leads nowhere, so I try to avoid it. Still, do I really expect to find another pasta pesto recipe that will bring me to glory? Is there a way to roast a chicken that’s more orgasmic than the ones I’ve practiced for decades? Can there be a risotto more perfect than the ones I’ve cooked most of my adult life?

I suppose, if I were really, really into it, I’d master some new form of cooking, like baking. But who’s got the time, and besides, within a half-mile of my home are stores where I can buy every kind of bread there is, almost fresh from the oven (the San Francisco Bay Area has got to be one of the world’s greatest sources of bread). If anything, I’m shortening the amount of time I spend in the kitchen. Twenty years ago, especially if someone special was coming for dinner, I’d start prepping the day before, and the afternoon before the meal would be consumed with chopping, dicing, slicing and reducing sauces. Nowadays I look for the most delicious food I can make in the least amount of time. That’s not likely to change, even when I retire and don’t feel the pressures and time constraints of work. So why this relentless drive for more recipes?

Maybe it’s as simple as this: To eat is to be alive, and moreover, to indulge in one of the most pleasant aspects of being alive. (I’m reminded of those old commercials for Carl’s Junior: “Don’t bother me, I’m eating.”) It is imaginatively possible that we could have a powerful drive to eat and not necessarily possess an accompanying capacity for the intense satisfaction of eating. Therefore, to be interested in food—to anticipate eating, to think of the next opportunity for great, delicious food—is to authenticate our lives, to celebrate the fact that we are still alive and not dead, to exult in our physical health. When my mother was dying, in the hospital, yet still conscious until nearly the very end, she did not relish the meager foods that were brought to her, and I doubt (although I don’t know for sure) that in her private thoughts she thought about food at all. But then, she already had one foot in another world, a world in which eating (so far as we know) is non-existent or at least non-essential. So she had let go of food-thinking, which was replaced by a form of thinking most of us have yet to experience.

But for those of us who remain alive and kicking, eating is (along with one or two or three other activities) the most glorious thing we can do. As full as my belly feels at this moment, I know that, in a few hours, I will once again have that craving that starts as a vague desire at the fringes of consciousness, then gradually invades the thinking process until, finally, I arise from my seat and head toward the shrine of the refrigerator. The religious symbolism is apt: my search for another great recipe is no less than a quest for purification and redemption. The Most Perfect thing in the world, which is the subject of every religious and moral philosophy, may not be obtainable in this life, and certainly isn’t through eating. But the Almost Most Perfect food is always out there, beckoning, promising, tantalizing with salient possibility. When we stop heeding its call we, too, will have one foot in the other world. Until then, we live, thrive, love, drink, and eat.


When wine writers host public events

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I’ll be co-conducting a wine-and-food pairing event at Saturday’s big Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival. It’s the eighteenth time the event, which is one of the biggest in Sonoma County, has been held—and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never gone. Everyone has told me how amazing it is, so I am totally looking forward to it.

My particular role, which I’ll share with Pedro Rusk, one of the winery’s educators, is to talk about some white wines that make good summer drinking. Of course, I’ll also point out that no wine needs to be limited to just one season, despite the media’s penchant for suggesting that Big Reds (Zins, Petite Sirahs, Cabs) are good for warming the blood in winter, while delicate light whites are “the perfect poolside sippers,” to use one of the many hackneyed clichés that wine writers so often trot out.

Wine writers and wine critics, such as I used to be, possess many skills, but presiding over public tastings and food-and-wine pairings isn’t necessarily one of them. On the other hand there is a population of people out there in the wine industry who are quite proficient at the entertainment aspects of public educational tasting events, but who would make lousy critics and writers. The two skills are separate, yet they also are related. Both call for a knowledge of wine. Both call also for some understanding of the food pairing properties of wine. My own approach to this latter has never been overly precious, as readers of this blog might know. There is the danger of pretentiousness in suggesting that such-and-such a wine must be paired with such-and-such a food; or that certain pairings are lethal to both the wine and the food. There are very few “perfect” pairings, just as there are very few “lethal” ones. I was trying to think of an awful pairing, and came up with oysters and Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, that would be over-the-top, nausea-inducing horror. But fortunately most wines will go with most foods, and you won’t have to worry about the Pairing Police knocking down your door and busting you. My attitude towards pairing is exactly the same as that expressed by the French sommelier, Gerard Basset, who was quoted in today’s South China Morning Post: “If there’s one area that can be over-thought… it’s pairing wine with food. [Basset’s] advice is to keep it simple.”

The other aspect of doing these educational tastings is, of course, to have the type of personality that is comfortable being in the spotlight, can yak it up with a smile and induce people to want to hear more, and one moreover that doesn’t have stage fright. I’m pretty good at being in the spotlight, so that doesn’t throw me. But I think even the best of public speakers has a little trepidation prior to going out there, live, before an audience. You just have to know your stuff, take a deep breath, pull out your natural charm and have confidence.

If you read this, either directly through my blog, or through Facebook or Twitter, and you’ll be at the Tomato Festival, please drop by Pedro’s and my seminar and say hi.


Review: Joyce Goldstein’s new book on California cuisine

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In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was a fairly frequent visitor to Square One, the restaurant Joyce Goldstein had opened, in 1984, in the Jackson Square neighborhood of downtown San Francisco.

There, I was treated like a regular, mainly through my acquaintance with the sommelier, Peter Granoff, whom I had met earlier when he’d served in the same capacity at the old Mark Hopkins Hotel. Well do I remember strolling into Square One on any given night, usually by myself after an evening of doing something else that had brought me to the area from my home in Noe Valley. I’d take a seat at the bar and order something off the chalkboard menu—a little pizza or focaccia, some fettucine, wood-fired grilled shrimp—while Peter surreptitiously brought me tasting sips of the most interesting wines of the evening. Peter also held regular wine tasting classes in a small room of the restaurant. It was there that I learned, more than anyplace else, about Condrieu, Cote Rotie, Spanish sherry and other wines to which I would otherwise have had little access.

These were not mere wine tastings. Peter’s boss, Chef Joyce, provided delicious little plates to wash down the wine. One night, a blind tasting of Monterey County Chardonnays (Estancia, Morgan, Pinnacles, Talbott, Chalone, Wente and so on) was paired with a signature crab cake with mango salsa, and ginger-marinated pork loin on a bed of corn pudding.

That food was, of course, California cuisine, or what came eventually to be called California cuisine, although Joyce herself, after extensive research for her new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, writes that exactly who coined that phrase remains a mystery. Not mysterious at all, though, is what California cuisine means. Joyce Goldstein: “…restaurants broadened from formal and ceremonial to more democratic and casual. Kitchens that had been hidden were opened up to become part of the dining room. Chefs who had toiled behind closed doors in anonymity became stars. Ingredients such as arugula, baby greens, and goat cheese, virtually unknown previously, became household items…”. California’s fabulously diverse ethnic constitution, including Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American cultures, also became part of the mix that contributed to the new, complex combinations that constituted California cuisine, whose “one common element,” Joyce writes, was “fresh, seasonal ingredients, preferably raised nearby.”

I hadn’t known Joyce had written this book until I ran into her son Evan, an old friend, at a wine tasting event. I’d told him how much I’d always longed for a formal history of California cuisine, which was restaurant-based long before it became a staple of home kitchens. Evan smiled and told me there was one: He arranged to have the publisher, University of California Press, send me Inside the California Food Revolution. If you’ve ever hankered for an insider’s account of everything and everyone from Alice Waters and Chez Panisse to Wolfgang Puck, Jeremiah Tower, the French Laundry, Laura Chenel, Zuni Café and, yes, Joyce Goldstein (as insider as they get), this is the book. It recounts, in loving terms, what Mark Miller (Fourth Street Grill and Santa Fe Bar and Grill, both in Berkeley) describes as “California cuisine[‘s] revolutionary [nature], in terms of not only its fashion, its style, but also its culinary ethos.”

The California food revolution cited in Joyce’s title spilled over, of course, to the California wine revolution—or perhaps it’s fairer to say that both were the result of the revolutionary attitude that always has characterized California. In the book, too, you will find references to Paul Draper and Ridge (whose wines Alice Waters celebrated early at Chez Panisse), Randall Grahm and Bonny Doon, Josh Jensen (Calera), Dick Graff (Chalone), Bob Long (Long Vineyards) and others. Interestingly, Joyce, in retrospective hindsight, goes back to this period to foreshadow wines “with overly hard tannins, too much oak, and in time, higher alcohol levels”—shades of today’s ongoing debate. But that is another story.

goldstein


Wine and food pairing: don’t overthink it

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I get crazy over the craziest things. Right now, I’m trying to figure out the perfect wine to drink with a frittata made with prosciutto, mozzarella, Parmesan cheese and boiled potatoes. White, probably, but rich and oaky, like Chardonnay, or light, like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio? On the other hand, I was tasting some Pinot Noir and had a leftover glass with the frittata and it was pretty good. Am I overthinking this?

Such are our worries, when there are so many important things going on in the world. Others might condemn us for dwelling on trivialities. I myself read Architectural Digest the other day and went away in wonderment that people can really direct their gardeners to trim their ornamental trees in such a manner that, from a mile away, they provide perfect symmetric beauty. (That was Bunny Mellon.). That is, or was, the one percent gone gaga. But perhaps that is simply their equivalent of stressing on the perfect pairing for frittata.

I never was big on the perfect wine and food pairing. It always seemed to me that we (“we” being the collective media) made too big a deal of it. Consumers were already freaked out by wine; now they have to worry that, whatever wine they choose, it will be wrong for the food. How horrible, to pile on peoples’ insecurity with additional insecurity about their hosting capability.

That’s why, whenever I reviewed a wine in my former career as a critic, I tried to include multiple dishes to pair it with—everything from simple, inexpensive stuff to more costly things, like lamb, lobster, steak. I’ve had super-expensive wines with super-expensive foods and it’s been, Big deal. I’ve also had fabulous Pinot Noirs with the most economical foods. Kathy Joseph, at Fiddlehead, once made a lunch for me of beef tacos with her best Pinot Noir, and the fact that I’m still writing about it should indicate how beautiful that pairing was. You don’t have to drop a fortune to pair a great wine.

There are certainly some wines and foods that don’t pair well. Sushi hates oak; it makes the fish taste, well, fishy. But an unoaked Chardonnay can be nice with sushi. But grilled meat? It wants oak. Char loves char. This is where we get into the tall grass. The classic steak pairing is a big, rich Cabernet Sauvignon, but Petite Sirah actually is better because it’s more tannic and better structured. Yet if you go to an expensive restaurant they’re not likely to recommend Petite Sirah with steak, because Petite Sirah is still considered (by some sommeliers) a little déclassé.

I celebrate the adventurous somm whose boss lets him or her venture into odd, offbeat and less known territory. But a little freedom can sometimes result in the bizarre. I’ve been in restaurants where I put myself into the hands of the somm and the results were disappointing, if not outright awful. These episodes make me tremendously sympathetic to the somm’s plight. They try their best, and while they might think they’ve succeeded, somebody like me comes along and hates it. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.

Still, I can’t go along with the “drink whatever you want with anything and don’t worry about it” school. I love that small-d democracy, but there do have to be rules. If you’re inviting me to dinner, I was raised to be polite, so if you give me something truly horrible, I’ll never say a word. But if the pairing works, I’ll congratulate you all through the evening. Such, too, is the behavioral code for our small and rather strange but wonderful world of geekdom.


They said it on Facebook: non-beef pairings for Cabernet Sauvignon

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“Food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost; united and well matched they are as body and soul, living partners.” So said André Simon, wine merchant, gourmet, and co-founder (in 1933) of the Wine & Food Society, the editorship of whose journal passed, in 1963, into the hands of a rising young British writer named Hugh Johnson.

Simon was part of a [mainly British] fraternity of gourmands in the first half of the twentieth century, men (including Professor George Saintsbury), whom today we’d call “foodies.” They enjoyed good food, good wine and good conversation, in an era when the Port was always passed to the left. They were not necessarily men of means; the Society’s other co-founder, A.J. Symons, wrote, for his own epitaph, “No one so poor has lived so well” (a sentiment with which some wine writers might agree!). In the 1920s and 1930s, when the movement was perhaps at its apogee, prices for claret–Bordeaux–came under pressure due to a variety of reasons: the lingering effects of the Great War, the worldwide Depression, the collapse of the French franc, bad vineyard practices, a mummified contract system. Edmund Penning-Rowsell, in The Wines of Bordeaux, has carefully analyzed the “poor succession of [Bordeaux] vintages after 1900” (certainly compared to the Golden age of 1858-1878), pointing out the “not…very satisfactory prices” the chateaux received. Prices even for the great 1929 vintage sank to historic lows, coming as they did mere months after the stock market crashed, in October of that year. “Within eighteen months [afterwards] the first-growth ‘29s could be re-bought for 10,000 frs., exactly half their opening prices.” Quel désaster for the chateaux; a stroke of luck for the gourmands.

The members of the Wine & Food Society would not have understood our modern practice of reviewing wine. They would have been puzzled by the 100-point system (although, one hopes, they might have been more receptive had it been thoroughly explained to them, for they were, above all, rational men). They might have reserved their puzzlement for our tendency today to critique wines with little or no reference to food. If “wine without food is a ghost,” then a wine review without food pairings would have been judged a sacrilege.

Be that as it may, that is our modern way. Yet even those of us who make our living doing wine reviews understand, in our private lives, the importance of the “body and soul” of proper wine and food pairing. So it was that, the other day, talking with cousin Maxine, she remarked on the collection of older California Cabernet Sauvignons that are piling up in our collective cellar. “We don’t have much opportunity to drink them,” she fretted, “because we’re eating less beef.”

Cabernet and steak: it’s the classic pairing. But, like Maxine, I too have been eating less steak for years. Health aspects aside, I don’t make it at home because good cuts are hard to get and even when I can buy it, the risk of overcooking is too high; and nothing is more frustrating than paying good money for a bad steak. In restaurants, I tend not to order steak. Unless the place is a beef specialist (like House of Prime Rib or Harris’, in San Francisco), the risk also is unacceptably high that steak is merely a token item on the menu and will not be satisfying–for the privilege of paying $30 or $40, or more: we ate last night at Bocanova, one of my favorite Oakland restaurants, but I would never order the $48 steak.

So I wondered, What non-beef dishes pair well with a high-end, aged California Cabernet? As usual in such situations, I asked the question on my Facebook page. I expected good answers from my friends; I was not disappointed by the results.

That pairings other than beef were well known to the gourmands is obvious from the menus many of them left behind in their written journals. Professor Saintsbury, in his famous Notes on a Cellar-book, devotes an entire chapter to “records of meals and wines discussed in my own houses, and mostly devised by ourselves.” Forty- and fifty-year old First Growths were commonly consumed at the Professor’s table; what is notable is the relative absence of beef, the result of bad economic times that resulted in an “absurd modicum of meat that was allotted…and when one had to be content with sprats and spaghetti.” With Margaux 1868 and again with ’78 Latour he ate “haunch of mutton,” with ’70 Margaux there were “cutlets a l’Americaine” [presumably veal?], with ’76 Mouton came “mutton cutlets” and “chicken salad,” with ’62 Lafite “Virginian Quails” and with ‘93 Latour and ’96 Leovillle Poyferre “beans and bacon” (!!!!). True, there was one dinner at which 1870 Latour was poured with “Braised Fillet of Beef” but that indulgence seems to have been the exception. At any rate, it’s evident that our modern preoccupation with steak as the perfect Cabernet partner is of fairly recent origin.

I wouldn’t have enough time to try all the pairings my Facebook friends suggested, but there are many tantalizing ones: braised pork loin with mushrooms, cheese sauce and a red wine-bouillion reduction; mushroom-stuffed raviolis and cheese; rack or leg of lamb (of course); grilled halibut with black olive butter; a “warm corn tortilla black bean taco with a subtle fire-roasted salsa and queso fresco” (from Amelia Ceja); applewood-smoked barbecued salmon; braised lamb shanks; lamb and goat cheese lasagna; porcini mushroom risotto; ham with black cherry reduction; coq au vin. For something culinarily different (and perhaps more interesting), Michael Turner suggests Cabernet with “foot rubs and hot tubs”; I might add the Cheez-its Shauna Rosenblum swears by.


Thoughts on Pinot Gris/Grigio

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Working on an article on Napa white wines for Wine Enthusiast, I realized I’d never blogged on Pinot Gris/Grigio. So I did a little crawling around my reviews over the years (helpfully stored in the magazine’s terrific database) and here’s what I came up with.

If you’d asked me ten years ago what I thought of PG, I’d have said the same thing I’d say today: workhorse white, much as it is in Italy, in places like the Alto Adige. A simple wine to wash food down. I’ve reviewed about 825 PGs since my very first, a Hogue 1998, from the Columbia Valley, which I gave 86 points. I liked its delicacy, fruitiness and acidity, all qualities I still admire in a PG.

My highest score ever was to Chamisal’s 2011, from the Edna Valley, which I awarded an Editor’s Choice even though it wasn’t exactly cheap, $24 to be exact. I thought it deserved the special designation, being the highest-scored of that variety ever for me. Chamisal called it Pinot Gris rather than Grigio. It’s not an ironclad rule, but in general wnemakers call the wine Gris if it had some oak and was stirred on the lees, while they reserve Grigio for steel-fermented ones (which also can be sur lie). But I’ve had oaky PGs that were called Grigio so you can’t really go by this rule.

Certainly the best PGs must come from cool areas. If the wine doesn’t have acidity, it’s flat, and there’s nothing worse than a flabby white wine, especially if it also has residual sugar. The best areas for PG in California are Edna Valley, Sta. Rita Hills (where Carr and Babcock excel), Carneros (Etude is always a standout), Anderson Valley (Navarro defines the crisp, elegant style), and the Santa Lucia Highlands, where Morgan specializes in it. Rick Longoria makes a consistently good PG which he labels with a Santa Barbara County appellation. I don’t know where in the county the grapes are from. Maybe the Los Alamos area? Anyway, Rick’s PG’s go beyond mere lemons and limes into exotic tropical fruits, apricots and honey.

The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever ordered a PG in a restaurant. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s because the variety doesn’t make a really compelling case for any particular type of food. I think a rich, barrel-fermented one would be great with something like the albacore tuna tostada, with crisped leeks, chipotle mayo and avocado, they serve at Tacolicious, in the Mission. But so would their La Sirena cocktail (Ketel One, lime, ginger, cassis), a Corona Familiar, or for that matter an Albariño from Rias Baixas.

That’s the problem with a wine with Pinot Gris/Grigio. They can be good, but they don’t demand to be paired with anything in particular. If you’re having boiled lobster and butter, or Dungeness crab with buttered sourdough bread, there’s really only one wine: Chardonnay, the richer the better. If you’re having a rack of lamb with roasted potatoes, you can’t go wrong with a great Pinot Noir. But what food screams out for PG?

On the other hand, good California PG isn’t very expensive, averaging $15-$24 for a 90-point bottle. I wonder if there are any sommeliers out there who will read this and make some suggestions for individual PGs and what foods to pair them with.


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