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The somm: now more than ever, or endangered species?

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Eric Asimov’s retelling of the sommelier-customer experience in a restaurant (the somm “stands between us and humiliation” and inspires “doubt and dread…to make cowards of us all”) was written with the tongue-in-cheek style he’s known for. In lesser hands this language would be hyperbolic bloviation, a bad writer’s attempt at columnistic color. In Eric’s keen control, it exists on some meta level of shared irony.

On to what I take to be his main points: “Sommeliers can be your best friends” and “No guests want to appear cheap…”. I think of a sommelier (or wine director, or whoever is the most knowledgeable wine person on the floor) as someone of potential use in an expensive restaurant. In the affordable ethnic restaurants I eat at a lot–Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, soul food–you don’t need anyone to help you, nor would you get much help if you asked, nor is the “wine list” (such as it is) worth considering. Beer, from the country whose cuisine the restaurant prepares, is the ticket.

But at what I call the white tablecloth dining experience (although white tablecloths seem to have gone out of style in all but the snootiest French places, replaced by zinc, steel, natural stone, wood or even marble) it’s a different story. You generally want a nice wine. But, as we all know, the wine list can be daunting. Eric is entirely correct when he tells people to be upfront with the somm and tell him what kind of wine you like and how much you’re prepared to pay. That leads to Eric’s second main point: No one wants to appear cheap.

Isn’t it a funny aspect of human personality that this is so? It has to do with our peculiar attitudes toward money. We like money, but we’re secretive about how much we actually have, even, sometimes, with our friends and relatives. Does anyone know how much you actually make a year? Maybe your accountant and your spouse. Part of human nature is to want to be seen as happy to spend money, even if we’re not. It’s not that people don’t want to appear to be cheap, it’s more that they want to appear to be nonchalant about spending. It somehow seems big-natured. It’s churlish to be seen as overly concerned about spending; it makes the person seem materialistic and shallow–or so the argument goes. So even someone who’s pressed for money may find himself shelling out more than he’s comfortable with on a bottle of wine, especially if he thinks he has to impress the people he’s with.

Should a good sommelier–which is to say, not just one in charge of her list, but one who’s also sensitive to human needs and emotions–be able to pick up on such psychological nuances? I’d argue yes, but I’ve never been a somm, and anyway, the pressure to upsell the customer has always to be there. My favorite type of upscale restaurant is one with a small wine list, not the gargantuan Manhattan telephone book doorstoppers that win wine list awards. I enjoy browsing through those monsters, because I like seeing the names and regions and prices. But, far from those lists being helpful to me, they’re actually a turnoff–and they make me feel that even the best sommelier can’t be aware of every bottle and how it goes with every item on the menu. I actually breathe a sigh of relief when I go to a restaurant that has 20 or 30 good wines on the list: a bubbly, a rosé or two, a few lighter-boded reds, full-bodied reds, crisp, dry whites, light, floral, off-dry whites, and something white and oaky. Makes me think more highly of the proprietor–that he gave careful thought to choosing a handful of perfect wines for his food, instead of throwing everything on there including the kitchen sink.

I’ve always thought that we make too much of the wine-and-food pairing thing anyway. Too fussy, precious and pretentious. I remember an event, years ago, at Fetzer, when the Fetzer family still owned it. They had (and maybe still have) a fabulous organic garden outside of Hopland, up in Mendocino County, and their farmer was growing a bunch of different basils. We had a tasting: the object was to determine which of a range of Zinfandels went best with each kind of basil. It was fun, but I thought that if a home cook had to go through this whole megillah every time she entertained, she’d go nuts.

If you want to make a tomato sauce with basil and drink Zinfandel with it, does it really matter if the basil is purple or green, licoricey or sweet, lemony or cinnamonny? I’m a pretty zealous home cook and, like most of you, I enjoy putting together fairly complex dishes and then pairing them with wines I think will go with them. But at some point, this whole thing hits the tipping point, because after the first sip, hopefully you and your guests will forget about the dilettante aspects of pairing and get down to the serious business of enjoying the food, wine and conversation.

Anyhow, how hard can it be to come up with a satisfying food and wine pairing? Marilyn came to dinner yesterday and for an appetizer had I planned a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, to take advantage of the last of the season’s Heirlooms. Then I realized I didn’t know what to drink with it, so I asked my Facebook friends. I got scores of suggestions: Champagne, Sardinian Vermentino, Chianti Classico, Barbera d’Asti, Gavi di Gavi, a Czech or German Pilsner, Chardonnay both oaked and unoaked, Bandol rosé, Gruner Veltliner, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, vodka. I bet any of those would be a pretty good pairing with that salad. After all, my Facebook friends, like my blog readers, are some of the most food savvy people in the world. They may not have “M.S.” after their names, but they know what tastes good with what.

So what did I have with the salad? Nothing! Before Marilyn came, I suddenly became ravenous for–you guessed it–mozzarella, raided the fridge and ate the entire container. So potstickers had to substitute for the salad, and with them we enjoyed Deschutes Inversion IPA which was really good.

The future of the sommelier, in my opinion, is to evolve into more of an all-service floor guide for the wine, beer, spirits and food, rather than a wine-oriented specialist. Sort of a maitre d’. Someone who can converse about everything concerning the dining experience: the restaurant’s architecture and interior design, history, philosophy, and the cultural matrix in which the Chef’s cuisine exists. It would be much more comfortable to interact with that person than with someone who made you uncomfortable.


Top value wines for today’s everyday fare

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Wine Enthusiast released our Top 100 Best Buys in wine of 2012 last week. They’re all below $20, and represent the best value for the money you can find in today’s market.

It’s particularly important in these tough economic times for a wine magazine to identify good values. When I’m in the position to designate a wine in this special way, it makes me happy. Unfortunately, California wine prices seem like they’re creeping up, so this year, only eleven wines I reviewed made the Top 100 cut:

90 Kendall-Jackson 2010 Avant Chardonnay
89 Pomolo 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
90 Annabella 2010 Chardonnay
88 Gnarly Head 2010 Pinot Grigio
88 Snap Dragon 2010 Riesling
89 Napa Family Vineyards 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
90 Firestone 2010 Riesling
90 Cameron Hughes 2009 Lot 271 Pinot Noir
90 Leese-Fitch 2010 Sauvignon Blanc
90 Black Box 2009 Merlot
90 Liberty School 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon

Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of additional California wines that represent an excellent quality-price ratio. Here are some others. All are wines I reviewed since last February and gave Best Buy status to:

89 Kendall-Jackson 2010 Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc; $13
88 Avalon 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon; $12
88 Chalone 2010 Chardonnay; $13
87 Mirassou 2011 Chardonnay; $12
87 J. Wilkes 2011 Pinot Blanc; $12
87 Oak Grove 2011 Reserve Pinot Grigio; $8
87 Double Decker  2010 Pinot Grigio; $10
87 Smoking Loon 2008 Pinot Grigio; $8
87 Clos La Chance 2011 Estate Sauvignon Blanc; $11
87 Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi 2011 Sauvignon Blanc; $8

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, please don’t dismiss a wine just because it scores below 90 points! Don’t forget, 87 points is a very good wine–not just good, but very good. These may not be wines to drink with your finest cuts of meat, expensive seafood entrées, pricy cheeses and elaborate sauces, but then again, who among us eats that kind of fare every day? I don’t. For instance, I love a simple dinner of pesto pasta with garlicky shrimp–give me one of those Pinot Grigios anytime! I’ll wok up a bunch of veggies and poultry or fish in garlic and ginger, dress it in sesame oil, tamari, fish sauce and rice vinegar with a sprinkle of brown sugar, toss it with toasted black sesame seeds and happily wash it down with that K-J Avant Chardonnay or the J. Wilkes Pinot Blanc. That Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon is rich enough to drink with a grilled flank steak and roasted potatoes. I love a buttery, creamy bowl of polenta with green peas and shredded chicken or chunks of crab, topped with razor-thin shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, then liberally sprinked with black pepper, with which almost any of the above white wines will be fine. Even a simple salad of bitter greens, ripe tomatoes, red onions and roasted red peppers, maybe with some ripe avocado, tossed in a little EVOO and red Balsamic, will be happy with the Leese-Fitch Sauvignon Blanc. Roasted chicken is versatile enough to drink with any and all of these wines.

“Simplify, simplify!” Thoreau said, for which our modern day equivalent is K.I.S.S. It’s a good lesson to apply to our cluttered, overwrought lives, which also tend to be overweight these days! The best everyday food, for me, is the simplest, made with fresh ingredients, low in fat, high in nutrition, prepared quickly but lovingly, and savored for sheer deliciousness. These are the kinds of meals to enjoy with inexpensive wine, which, fortunately, today’s marketplace abounds in.


Pork ribs, Napa’s eastern mountains and a top Syrah

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Dinner last Saturday with Maxine and Keith featured barbecued pork ribs for the main course. Spicy, sweet, fatty, smoky, meaty and succulent. What to drink them with?

Maxine thought a white, but I vetoed that. I’m sure there’s a white wine somewhere in the world to pair with pork ribs (maybe an oaky Grenache Blanc or even Sauternes?), but all we had at the time was Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine, and I didn’t think any of those would work. I had earlier tasted some miscellaneous reds, so we had a pretty good selection to try out: a delicious Merriam 2008 Windacre Merlot, a fine Courtney Benham 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap, Krutz 2009 Krupp Vineyard Malbec, a spicy Kenwood 2010 Jack London Zinfandel, Krutz 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah, and another Merriam Windacre, this time the 2008 Cabernet Franc.

Which wine do you think paired best?

First, I should explain that the side dishes were Israeli cous cous with black beans, grilled zucchini squash and Brentwood butter and sugar corn grilled in the husk, so sweet it needed neither seasoning nor butter. But grillmeister Keith’s ribs dominated the room like Bill Clinton working a crowd.

I thought, intellectually, that the contenders were the Merriam Cab Franc and the Krutz Syrah. The Cab Franc struck me for its spiciness, and the way the fusion of cherries and oak had a jammy, brown sugary sweetness that would echo the sweet flavors of the ribs. As for the Syrah, well, it was so outstanding on its own, full-bodied and layered, and so smoky-sweet that it seemed like a no-brainer. When the actual taste test went down, the Merriam Cab Franc was okay, but  the Krutz Syrah beat it by a mile. A brilliant pairing, really, in which the wine brought out the intensity of the ribs, and the ribs brought out the sweet depth of the wine, which had the volume to stand up to–but not be dominated by–the ribs’ fatty richness.

This Stagecoach Vineyard has entered my consciousness over the last several years as one of the most noteworthy in Napa Valley, which is to say in all of California. I’d long known the name from the many wineries that vineyard-designate it, but only visited the vineyard for the first time two years ago, when Dr. Jan Krupp, of the owning Krupp family, toured me for an article I was researching on the Atlas Peak appellation. I learned that the vineyard necessarily qualifies only for a Napa Valley AVA because just 30% of it is within the Atlas Peak boundary. The rest of it spills over a kind of canyon that leads to Pritchard Hill, on which another 30% lies. At that time, I had only an imprecise vision of Pritchard Hill (the October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast will have my big story on it) and the quality of its wines, but with my focus on it since last Spring, I’ve now realized what great real estate Pritchard Hill is, especially for Bordeaux varieties and Syrah.

There are differences between Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill and the land inbetween, but the fundamentals still apply: mountain intensity, purity of focus, intense minerality from the rocks. Here’s something I hadn’t known: Dr. Krupp told me it in 2010, so I don’t know if it’s still true today, but “Atlas Peak has more vineyard acreage than all other Napa Valley mountain AVAs combined.”

The fact that Stagecoach qualifies “only” for the basic Napa Valley AVA is another proof that what counts in California is not the legal appellation on the label, but the vineyard name and, behind that, the quality of the viticulture and enology practiced by the producer. Years ago, I wrote an article on California’s greatest vineyards. Stagecoach wasn’t in it. Were I to write that article today, it certainly would be (and some of the vineyards I included would come off!). Cabernet is Stagecoach’s forté, as evidenced by wineries inlcluding Paul Hobbs, Krutz, Conn Creek, Sequoia Grove, Charles Creek, Krupp, Palmeri and Miner, but as we have seen Syrah can be spectacular. If all Syrah were that good, Syrah would have an honored place in the pantheon of California varietal wines, a place it does not current enjoy.


Inside the somm’s mind: pairing 18 wines with 22 courses

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Mark Bright is co-owner and wine director of Saison, which he founded three years ago with his friend and business partner, chef Josh Skenes. The restaurant has lately become famous for being the most expensive in San Francisco, despite its location in one of the city’s edgiest neighborhoods, the Mission District. A 22 course tasting menu, featuring 18 wines, will set you back $498. I wondered how Bright, a Bellagio alum who came up through the Michel Mina empire, and who calls Rajat Parr his “mentor,” goes about pairing wines under such complicated and challenging conditions. Skenes may change a course recipe in the middle of an evening, adding an ingredient that completely changes the directional compass of a dish, thus forcing Bright to quickly come up with a new wine to pair it with. We had a nice little chat about all this yesterday. Here are excerpts from that conversation, in what you can think of as a tour of a sommelier’s conscious mind.

First, Bright on that $498 price tag. “You have to realize, the ingredients are so expensive. We have a fulltime forager on staff! It’s not a price we aimed for, it just fairly covers our costs. Take the caviar course. The caviar itself is $20-$25 per serving, and that’s just one ingredient for one dish, plus there’s 21 other courses. Some courses have 40 ingredients in them. So it’s about us giving the diners everything we’ve got.”

Which comes first, the wine or the food? “It always starts with the food. I’ve worked so closely with Josh for so long that, when he explains what direction he’s going, I get a preliminary style of wine I think will work. Josh will tell me the dish’s components, I’ll taste them, separated on their own, to see their acidity levels, flavors and textures, and I’ll have it down to 2 or 3 wines at that point. If he changes something suddenly–which happens all the time, many things can happen in a kitchen, maybe he just wants to try something new–I’ll taste just the component change, not the entirely prepared new dish. It’s not a given that the wine has to change, but if the dish changes dramatically, then you have to change the wine. The thing is, every wine brings out different things in a dish. One wine might bring out the food’s earthiness, while another brings out the high tones and a third brings out the acidity. There’s no right pairing; there are a lot of amazing pairings, but you can never say there’s one perfect pairing with a dish. As long as both the food and the wine are enhanced, you’re doing something right. Also, wine grows and matures in the bottle, so in any given dish, if the ingredients remain the same over time, at some point that wine will take itself out of the running.”

Do we collectively get too precious and stressed out over perfect pairings? “You know what? A lot of the time, that does happen, and you know why? I see people doing wine pairings just to be creative and outlandish, completely forgetting the one important fact: it has to be delicious! More than it has to be creative. When I see people do that, I’m like, Wow, what are you trying to prove? You can’t force a good pairing. It just has to be delicious.”

What does Bright eat and drink at home? “Ice cream sandwiches! But honestly, I eat a lot of fish, because my fiance’s Chinese. I love Indian food. An earthy, meaty Syrah works great with it. Cornas, amazing, mind blowing. But I also keep a lot of beer in the fridge. When you’ve been drinking wine all day, there’s nothing better than a cold beer.”


Summertime, rosé wine and what to drink on vacay

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Rosé is one of those wines that writers love to say is experiencing a comeback, or being discovered, or something equally hyperbolic. The truth is, it’s a tiny little category compared to the Big Guys of red and white table wine. According to the French trade and marketing group, Vins de Provence, citing the Wine Market Council, “In 2010, retail category sales in the U.S. broke down as follows: 47% red wines, 40% white wines, and 13% blush (pink) wines.” That seems high to me: thirteen percent of the wines I review are not rosé. It’s more like 3 percent. But I suppose if you rely on Nielsen data, which is mostly supermarkets, you’ll get a more representative sample of what Americans actually drink.

In Europe, apparently, rosé is enjoying newfound popularity. Yahoo News reports that “While the consumption of still red and white wines has declined in Western Europe, rosé wine has experienced a three percent spike, mostly driven by young, female drinkers…”. That’s to be expected, I guess. Rosé is for women; beer is for guys.

In France, I would think most rosés are made from Rhône-style varieties, like Grenache and Syrah. We have a lot of those too in California, but people also make rosés from Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and even Cabernet Sauvignon. I must admit to not being a fan of California rosé. Most of it is too sweet for my tastes. My favorites lately have been a Kokomo 2011 Pauline’s Vineyard Grenache, from Dry Creek Valley, a Sanglier 2011 Rosé du Tusque blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan with a Sonoma County appellation, and a Muscardini 2011 Alice’s Vineyard Rosato di Sangiovese, from Sonoma Valley. I would not use this brief list to conclude, however, that the best rosés come from Sonoma County. But  I do believe they have to come from cool coastal areas, because otherwise they’d be too soft and heavy. Most California rosé seems like an afterthought: made with press juice, or otherwise from grapes not good enough to go into a good red wine.

I looked up the rosés my colleague Roger Voss recently tasted in France. He obviously gets to taste more and better ones than I do. He’s given some pretty high scores to a pair from Provence, both from Chateau d’Esclans, with the proprietary name Garrus. But then, that wine costs $90. Ninety bucks for a rosé? I looked up d’Esclans on the Google, where somebody called it “the greatest Rose in the world.” I don’t know anything about it, but if you’re reading this, mes d’Esclans amis, feel free to send me a bottle.

A good rosé should be dry, with just a hint of rose petals or strawberries. Since it’s a light-bodied wine, any trace of residual sugar immediately becomes transparent. It’s hard to describe in words why a dessert wine with high sugar can be a delight while a table wine with residual sugar can so often be cloyingly awkward. Maybe I’m just sensitive to sugar that’s unbalanced with all the other parts. This problem is magnified when the wine itself is thin in flavor, as so many rosés tend to be. The lowest score I’ve given a rosé in the last year was an 81. I wrote: “Overtly sweet and simple, with sugary flavors of raspberries, oranges and vanilla.” I won’t identify the brand, but you can probably find it on Wine Enthusiast’s database. The word “sugary” is as awful an adjective as I use for California wine. “Sugary” is bad. A table wine shouldn’t be sugary (unless it’s supposed to be, like a nice Kabinett). If a winemaker releases a sugary table wine, he’s doing so for one of two reasons, or maybe both: (a) he’s a bad winemaker who got a stuck fermentation or didn’t even know or care that the wine was too sweet, or (b) he knew all that, but is just pandering to the current taste for sweet wines.

We’re going into the dog days of summer now. People say rosés are the ideal beach, pool or picnic wine. I disagree, at least here in Cali. I’d prefer a dry white, such as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc, with the kinds of foods you bring on summer excursions: sandwiches, fruit, fried chicken, cold cuts, salads, grain salads like cous cous or quinoa. Maybe I’d change my mind if I had a bottle of the d’Esclans.


Cellar conditions do matter with wine storage

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I think most of us have worried at one time or another whether our cellar conditions are ideal. I have. I store wines in several places, including a temperature-controlled unit in my house, and also in my cousin’s basement. She lives in San Mateo, near SFO, and her cellar, while it’s not temperature-controlled, rarely rises above the mid-60s, even during heat waves. So I thought it was a good place to store wine.

Apparently not. We opened a 2005 Rubicon last week, for the seder dinner, and my cousin immediately noticed that it was a little brown around the edges. I told her that wasn’t necessarily a bad sign in an older wine–but it did make me worry a bit, because the wine was only 6-1/12 years old. At the time I’d rated it, in January of 2009, I’d scored it at 96 points and given it a “Cellar Selection” designation, writing that it was “Nowhere near ready for at least four years, and that may be conservative.”

But last week, when I tasted the wine I was struck by the presence of dried fruit, a plumminess that emphasized a certain overripe character. That wine was very good, mind you; we all happily drank it with the leg of lamb. But I figured we’d better drink the remaining 11 bottles over the next 18 months.

It was a personal disappointment to discover that my prognostication from 2009 was so dissonant from the reality of 2012! So it was really fascinating when, during my visit to Francis Ford Coppola yesterday, for lunch they pulled out the 2005 Rubicon and served it with the cheese course. I had earlier told the winemaker, Phillippe Bascoules (whom Francis hired six months ago; his predecessor, Scott McLeod, actually made the’05), of my experience with the wine, which elicited a raised eyebrow from him. He’d had it recently and thought it fresh and clean.

As indeed it was. The bottle at lunch was the wine I’d tasted in 2009. It obviously was just at the beginning of a long journey through this world. The inevitable conclusion was that the bottle we’d had at the seder had been compromised.

Could it have been “an off bottle”? I suppose; I’ll know for sure as we open the other bottles. That catch-all phrase “off bottle” is often used to exonerate a wine that didn’t show well. I can understand certain obvious reasons for off bottles: maybe it got cooked in the back of a delivery truck during a heat wave. Maybe it’s corked. Then there are instances where a winemaker insists the bottle is off, but there’s no apparent reason, except for some random, Heisenbergian mutation. Dan Berger used to talk about “lightstruck” wines, that being a criticism. It was never clear to me what he meant, although common sense suggested that if a bottle of wine was in direct sunlight for a period of time, it would probably suffer. But my ‘05 Rubicon had never seen sunlight. I bought it directly from the distributor.

I remember way back when I was writing about collecting wines. I met one of America’s supreme collectors, a southern Californian with maybe 100,000 rare old bottles. He had a vacation condo in Hawaii. He told me he visited his island home and took out an old Bordeaux from his cellar there. There was something off; he could tell. Upon inquiry, he discovered that the condo’s electricity had been briefly interrupted, for just a couple of hours, but enough, he claimed, to derange his wines. At the time, I thought he must have a freakishly acute palate. But now, 20-plus years later, I can see that you can taste when a good wine is off, even if by just a tiny bit. Even the best bottle can’t withstand torture by uncontrolled temperature.

So I’m going to have to find an alternative to my cousin’s basement. I don’t know what it will be, but the process begins today.


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