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High wine prices? Pogo figured it out long ago

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Kudos to Jancis Robinson for decrying the hubris-inspired prices on so many of the world’s wines these days.

I don’t know if this is a new position for her to take, or one she’s held for years, as I have; but either way, it’s refreshing to see the most famous female wine writer in the world join the anti-high price crowd.

Jancis points out, in particular, three red wines, one from the Languedoc, one from Australia and one from our friend Raj Parr, a $90 Central Coast bottling I have not yet had the pleasure of reviewing. But since I know Raj, and I know California wine, let me share with you some thoughts.

First of all, it is simply fantastic that a new wine brand can charge $90 a bottle and expect to get away with it. I mean “fantastic” as in unbelievable, mind-blowing, and wrong. But what is even more unbelievable is that people are actually going to be lining up to buy that wine. Why?

For the answer, you have to look no further than the great People’s Republic of China. We Americans love to giggle at the Chinese, so pretentiously buying Lafite and putting it on the edge of the table in the restaurant so everybody can see just what they’re drinking. For we are defined by what we possess and consume, aren’t we? And if we lack the self-esteem to value ourselves intrinsically for who and what we are, then we turn to possessions, to fill that gap. I may be a worthless nothing, but if I can afford Lafite, that makes me better than you.

Well, I exaggerate, of course, but that is the view many Americans have of the Chinese. But let’s look at ourselves. Americans, too, line up to buy the most expensive, talked-about wines (if they can afford them). Why doesn’t everyone laugh Ray Parr right out of his shoes for attempting to foist an unknown, unproved wine on us at such a ridiculously high price?

Because he’s Raj Parr. He’s associated with Michael Mina. And that, my friends, is your window into the world of celebrity and wealth, a world closed to most of us. Yet the more closed it is, the more we want in, to make ourselves feel better than we are, to reassure us that we really are as good as the handsome, well-dressed and tasteful people whom we see laughing in the windows of Michael Mina as they dine on herb-roasted lamb ($47) washed down with Raj Parr’s new wine.

So you see the phenomenon is fundamentally psychological. Yes, it can be dressed up in Armani and Gucci and made to appear natural and tasteful, but this aspirational behavior, I would argue, is fundamentally neurotic. These vintners can get away with charging an arm and a leg for wines that–let’s face it–no matter how good they are, are not worth the price, because they take advantage of the human tendency to associate high price for quality, even when reason and common sense tell us this is a false association. In this sense, the enemy is not Raj Parr, or the Australian or Languedocian vintner charging those prices. No, as Pogo pointed out a long time ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


All States have wineries, and the best States have the most

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Kudos to the New York Times (and to Eric Asimov, if he had anything to do with it), for this superb interactive map showing how the number of wineries has spread across America from 1937 to the present. If you hover the cursor over any one state, it tells you the number of wineries in it.

(I hope the Times link works without you having to buy an account and sign in. If it doesn’t, try this link.)

It was eleven years ago, in 2002, that North Dakota became the fiftieth, and final, U.S. state to have a winery. Today there are more than eight thousand in all fifty states, scattered from northern Maine to south Florida, eastern North Carolina to Texas, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Arizona, and, of course, from southern California on up to the Washington-Canadian border.

On the map, wineries are depicted by blemish-like rose-colored circles, with the biggest circles signifying 500 wineries; and the most, and biggest, circles are right here in the Bay Area and Northern California. The Central Coast of California also has some big circles, as do Washington State and Oregon, the Finger Lakes and Long Island regions of New York State, and the Alleghenies, mainly Virginia. Texas, too, is getting blotchy, as is Colorado, especially along the Front Range. If there’s a viticultural desert in this country, it’s the Great Plains, where Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas (but, surprisingly, not Oklahoma) are remarkably blemish free, as are Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Montana. Whether this is due to issues of terroir or culture (either or both of which may be unsuitable to the development of an indigenous wine industry), I couldn’t tell you.

I like to think that a wine-drinking America is a better America. Our Founding Fathers drank wine, including fortified wines like Madeira. Jefferson famously cultivated grapes (or tried to) at Monticello, and to Jefferson is attributed one of the most accurate quotes about wine in history: “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” Teetotalers, at least those that make it into the media (usually as politicians or religious leaders), seem like mean, intolerant people, with a rigidity that demands everyone else hew to their ideology, or else. Such an attitude is antithetical to the real spirit of wine, which is best suggested by the Prophet Isaiah’s hope for “a feast of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.”

I’ll drink to that!


Aging your wine? Don’t expect a Magic Moment

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People are always asking me when they should drink this or that wine.

I wish I had an easy answer for them, like, “Oct. 29, 2024, at 7:18 p.m.” They want specificity and certitude, not a lecture. But the question of when to drink a wine is very complicated.

First, it depends on how mature the person likes his wines. It’s not as if a wine is terrible now and will remain terrible until it hits a Magic Moment of transcendent loveliness, after which it once again descends back into terribleness. Wine doesn’t behave like that.

Most wine is fine to drink as soon as it’s released, even if it’s ageable. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to open a young Latour or Barolo. It’s really not a good idea at all. But you can, and the Aging Police won’t come after you. Certainly, the majority of top California Cabernets, Syrahs and Pinots are ready to drink soon after release.

But if a wine is balanced, and you cellar it properly, it will “age.” What does “aging” mean? The wine changes, gradually over time. The tannins may drop out as sediment, leaving the wine softer and clearer and letting the sweetness of the fruit emerge. The fruit itself changes, evolving from “primary” characteristics of fresh fruits to “secondary” ones of dried fruits, herbs, earth, nuts and flowers. This process can go on for a very long time before the wine is “too old.”

But what does “too old” mean? Reasonable people will disagree. I once read (in Michael Broadbent? Could have been Hugh Johnson) that the French used to think the British liked their wines “with the first blush of death.” This was an implied criticism. The French supposedly liked their Bordeaux younger and fresher than the Brits, who kept theirs cellared for decades. Neither the French nor the British was right or wrong on this; it’s a matter of preference.

Another thing is that we usually talk about wines in the abstract, when in reality, we drink them with food. And, if you’re into the pairing thing (which is often over-preciousized, but that’s another conversation), it’s important to understand that the age of a wine conditions the best foods to eat with it. For example, a young, robust Napa Valley Cabernet can be great with a complex dish–say, char-broiled steak, with a wine-reduction sauce and sautéed Portobello mushrooms and sweet potato crisps, or the same steak in a Gorgonzola cheese sauce. But if you have, say, a 20-year old Cab that’s clear and mellow, I’d drop the sauce and stick with a plain steak, maybe with a brown butter sauce. An old wine is a delicate wine that can get crowded out by overly elaborate food.

You’d think these would be easy points to convey yet most consumers–especially those with a little knowledge of wine–still believe in the Magic Moment. Maybe it’s the romanticist in us, or the mystic: we believe in fairy tale endings, when the Prince kisses the sleeping Princess who, after long years of slumber, opens her eyes. They embrace, and live happily ever after.

But life isn’t a fairy tale, and wine seldom has such perfect endings. And think of this: How many times have you enjoyed an older wine, only to have someone you’re with say they don’t like it? (Or vice versa.) So this is eye of the beholder stuff. We haven’t even talked about bottle variation and storage conditions, which obviously are critical. Finally: the expectation of a “Magic Moment” has probably led to more sadness and disappointment among wine drinkers than anything else. They cellar something for 10 or 15 years, anticipate popping the cork and soaring into wine ecstasy. Then the moment comes, and the wine is dull. We writers and critics have got to do a better job disabusing consumers of their belief in the Magic Moment. It does no one any good.


Aromatic whites, including Albariño, come of age

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Albarino is one of those grape varieties nobody in California thought too much of, like Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, until comparatively recently.

Why should they have? California vintners fell into two categories in the modern era: those who wanted to sell commodity wines to lots of average consumers, and those who wanted to create prestige brands along the lines of Bordeaux chateaux or Burgundy domains. Either way, that meant producing those old familiar varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If variety for variety’s sake was desired, the vintner could always throw in a little Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or something Rhônish.

But something in the California psyche started shifting around the year 2000. I haven’t read much about what instigated this shift, which saw the beginnings of the emergence of what are usually called aromatic whites. There had long been plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in California, but suddenly, one started hearing about Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier, Albarino, Gruner, Torrontes and others. Whaf the wines had in common were low to moderate alcohol, keen acidity, bright floral, citrus or green notes and, perhaps most importantly, little or no oak influence to mask the fruit.

What instigated this shift is hard to tell. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Grape growers are very conservative when it comes to planting; they’re not going to stick anything in the ground they don’t think they can sell. So it didn’t come from the growers. But growers are sensitive to signs around them, and the more acute of them, who have their fingers in the wind all the time to detect changing consumer preferences, know what’s happening before most of the rest of us. Maybe they have a good network of restaurateurs and distributors to keep them abreast of what’s happening out there. Maybe they watch the critics, to see what new variety is being touted. Maybe the appeal for fresh, vibrant white wines really did start among consumers, and then traveled from the ground up. Who knows?

At any rate, it wasn’t until 2003 that I reviewed my first Albarino for Wine Enthusiast, a late date. It was a 2002 from the Lodi winery, Bokisch. It was pretty good; I scored it 88 points and, at $16 in price, it was worthy of an Editor’s Choice special designation. But I can’t say it knocked my sox off.

The first 90 point Albarino I reviewed was the 2004 Havens. It represented a big step above the Bokisch, in terms of utter dryness, light alcohol and a flintiness that was like a lick of cold stone. It put the idea in my mind that Carneros, and cool climates in general, were what Albarino likes.

Since then, the 90 point or higher Albarinos haven’t exactly flooded my doorstep, but they are coming in with greater frequency. Three producers now stand out as the most dependable: Marimar Torres, Longoria and Tangent. Each takes a different approach, but what all have in common is a cool growing region: respectively, the Green Valley of the Russian River, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Edna Valley. I’ve also been impressed lately by Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Albarino from the Santa Maria Valley, a little more-full-bodied than the others, but still Albarino-ey.

This new penchant among consumers for light, aromatic white wines is a very good thing, and I suspect it’s being driven by younger wine drinkers. It takes a certain amount of courage for a diner to request a wine type he’s unfamiliar with and may not even be able to pronounce, even if the sommelier recommends it. My friends who are floor staff confirm that it is indeed younger people who are drinking these aromatic whites, including Albarino, which pairs so well with today’s fresh, ethnic, pan-Asian fare and tapas-style small plates.

Acreage of Albarino is up sharply, although it’s still miniscule compared to other white varieties: a total of 176 acres in 2011. But 72 acres of that were non-bearing, meaning they’d been planted in 2009 or 2010; and I suspect that when the 2012 Grape Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see even higher numbers. Critics have long lamented that Americans are not drinking adventurously, creatively and experimentally. But I think that trope can now be laid to rest.


The somm’s evolving role in today’s modern restaurant

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I experienced an interesting approach to wine-and-food pairing the other day at Hakkasan San Francisco, which opened recently in the Financial District.

The somm staff invited me to participate in their weekly tasting. This is where they take 5 or 6 wines they’re considering for placement on the wine list. Then, the kitchen prepares a dozen small plates of menu items. The team tries each of the foods with each of the wines; everybody gets a chance to voice an opinion, and, eventually, a decision is made as to whether or not the wine in question is versatile enough to go with the food.

Indulging in this kind of exercise seems like a lot of fun, and it is: Hakkasan’s Asian-inspired food is fantastic. But it also underscored the complexities of coming up with perfect pairings. For one thing, not everyone agrees about everything. What works for me might not work for you. Also, the kind of food they serve at Hakkasan is very complex. Each diner doesn’t just have one plate of food, like a steak or broiled salmon. Instead, there’s lots of little things, and I assume parties share their plates with each other. So everybody’s eating and drinking all kinds of stuff, which kind of makes the concept of “the perfect pairing” obsolete.

We were asked to rate each wine and food pairing on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is “undrinkable” and 5 is “thrilling.” I had only one five: a sake made from red rice with braised pork belly. (The other somms seemed surprised I had only a single five.) I had no “undrinkables,” but  I did have a bunch of 2s (acceptable). These were mostly for a Kabinett Riesling from the Nahe. I found it too sweet for most of the plates, which again surprised the somms: they loved it. To me, sugar in a wine should never dominate the food, but with this Riesling, it did. For example, the jasmine tea chicken had an earthy, flowery bitterness that the wine’s sugar clashed with. In theory you might think that a slightly sweet Riesling, with its natural high acidity and low alcohol, would go well with Chinese food, but for me, it didn’t.

The most surprising wine was a Wynns 2011 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, from Coonawarra (13.5% alcohol). Cabernet with Chinese food? Absolutely! I wouldn’t have known that before the tasting. It went well with almost everything, from the har gau (shrimp dumplings) and puffed daikon to the vegetarian chicken, tofu aubergine clay pot and Champagne cod.

Another wine that was tremendously versatile was a Chardonnay-Roussanne, made privately for Hakkasan by Qupe from Bien Nacido fruit. It was so balanced that it seemed to find its sweet spot beside almost everything. Another red wine, a Chateau Unang Grenache-Carignane from the Côtes du Ventoux, was fine with some things (scallop shumai, crispy duck salad) but disturbing with others (the har gau brought out its tannins, while its fruit overwhelmed the daikon puff).

The more I hang out with sommeliers the more interesting I find their job. I asked them what their biggest problems or hassles were; I thought they’d say impolite, pushy customers but, no, it was merely the organizational and logistical difficulties of being on the floor during dinner and having so many things happening at the same time. Lots of juggling. You have to multi-task to be a somm (or server, for that matter).

Thinking about perfect pairings, there are really very few of them, especially with Asian fare, which can be mild, savory, sweet, spicy and fatty, all at the same time—plus packed with umami. It’s not like 100 years ago, when you drank Yquem with the foie gras or red Bordeaux with the beef—simple pairings that made sense because they didn’t have this fantastic array of international ingredients available. Nowadays, a wine has to do double- or triple-duty, pairing well with a myriad of things, and if there are 4 or 6 people in the party, it has to be as nimble on its feet as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. The somm’s job is to find those wines and then help the customers understand them. (Of course, they also have to work within a financial framework so that the wines they buy make business sense.) I find myself continuing to be fascinated by the evolving role of the sommelier in today’s modern American restaurant scene.


Let’s Play Somm!

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Back from Party in the Hangar, the big Monterey County Growers and Vintners Association’s annual event, where I moderated a couple of public tastings. On Saturday night, one of the best restaurants on the Peninsula, Aubergine,  invited me to dine there, an offer I couldn’t resist despite a very full belly, so I walked the few blocks from my hotel (in total darkness. Question to Carmel-by-the-Sea: Can you not afford streetlights?), where I was greeted by a staff impeccably groomed and friendly. I ordered the four-course menu, with matching wines, and of course the waitstaff brought over plenty of amuses-bouches.

We began with mousse of white corn, mixed with mussel frost, fried mussel and basil, paired with a 2010 Selbach Riesling Spatlese, from the Mosel. The mousse was delicious, sweet and creamy, with little kernals of corn providing a pleasant crunchiness. I’m not sure the occasional lumps of sherbert helped or hurt; at any rate, they seemed unnecessarily fussy, but the drizzle of Ossetra caviar certainly was richly welcoming. The slightly-sweet Riesling perfectly hedged the sweet, spicy and salty elements of the dish.

Next came Maine diver scallops, with umeboshi, sea lettuce and alba mushrooms, paired with a 2004 Vina Valoria Crianza, a white Rioja. Right off the bat I could smell that the wine was oxidized, almost fino-like. Too old. Yet that was precisely the choice of sommelier Marin Nadalin, as my server explained. All right, I thought: this wine, in and of itself, would not have gotten a good score from me, but it’s my philosophy in fine restaurants to place myself in the hands of the sommelier. So, even though I initially recoiled from the wine, I emptied my mind of all preconceptions and decided to allow this creative pairing to dazzle me. It was, I figured, a bold, controversial choice. The wine and scallops didn’t exactly clash–there was no overt incompatibility–but rather, I inferred, it was a sommelier statement that the traditional pairing of wine and food–like with like–need, in the most creative instances, be disregarded, in favor of higher values–values that, perhaps, require greater openness on the diner’s part. So I lingered long over that course, and thought hard about it.

The wine would not have been my first choice. Old, after all, is old, although when it comes to old white wines, there’s a fantastic range of preference on the part of wine lovers, and perhaps old white Rioja is an acquired taste. But surely, I thought, there have to be other wines that would pair better. When my server asked what I thought, I told her I could see what Marin was trying to do, but nonetheless…she asked if I could think of a better pairing. I said, “Since Marin has determined that an oxidized wine is best for this dish, maybe a Manzanilla or fino sherry might be better.” That is, oxidized and fresh, instead of oxidized an old. She smiled and returned with a Manzanilla (Aurora) and another serving of the same dish. The sherry was punchier and more alcoholic, of course, than the Rioja, and perhaps too strong for the dish’s subtleties; but there was a case to be made for it, and I could see a daring sommelier convincingly selling it. Yet neither the sherry nor the Rioja quite worked. I would have next wanted to try something else–a Sancerre, maybe, or an off-dry Riesling–but the next course was beckoning, and we couldn’t play that “Let’s try something else” game all night.

I would love to have the experience, though, of having my pick of dozens of wines to pair with that particular dish. The sommelier, in theory, does have that opportunity, but in practice he has to make a decision, and it is based on what he has available in his cellar. He may change his preferred pairing at any time, of course, if he comes across something more suitable.

On a larger spectrum, though, is what I wrote about earlier this month, on my piece about sommeliers, when I asked, “Anyhow, how hard can it be to come up with a satisfying food and wine pairing?” Not very, in my opinion. Yes, we have those classic pairings (foie gras with Sauternes, Bordeaux with roast beef, Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese, sherry with consommé) and they are do work; but with these new plates of extremely complicated foods, where sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami all find themselves working in perfectly tense tandem, the art of pairing becomes considerably less precise, and the somm has far greater latitude. I wonder how much the sommelier’s enthusiasm and belief in the pairing influences the diners’ experience of the pairing, along the lines of “If our sommelier says this is an excellent pairing, then it must be.” And then, maybe there are no more perfect pairings. Our foods are not as direct, linear, simple as they used to be, back in centuries past. We have access to the world’s pantry: anything can go with anything else, across transnational boundaries. Because of that, these foods are more accepting of the wines to drink with them: one wine may bond with this element, another that that element, a third provide contrast, a fourth similarity. The point, I guess, is to get the diner to think.


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