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


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


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


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.

Wine is good for you. Don’t heed the naysayers


I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the never-ending debate about whether drinking a little wine is good or bad for you.

If the average American consumer is totally confused by now, I don’t blame her. Wine causes cancer. Wine prevents cancer. Wine lowers the risk of strokes. No, it doesn’t. Wine prevents heart attacks…or maybe it doesn’t.

My own opinion is that humankind has been drinking wine for thousands of years, and when a dietary and behavioral habit like that is so engrained, it must have positive value, from an evolutionary point of view. Species do not develop traits that tend to cause their demise. Quite the opposite. Evolution made food tasty to us so that we would eat and thrive. Evolution made sex delightful to us so that we would reproduce. (I’m not saying reproduction is the only reason to have sex, but you get the point.) And evolution made wine taste good because wine is good for us. End of story.

Yet there are always those neoprohibitionists who work overtime to get the rest of us to stop drinking wine. Case in point: a lady, Pat Ferguson. She wrote the other day “that the word is out (and I’ve been saying this for a long, long time) that wine ain’t so fine for your health after all…” and that “those who purported its benefits for so long were owners of vineyards.” !!!!

Easy target here. I’ve covered a lot of news over the years about scientific research on wine and health, and I can’t recall a single instance in which the studies were conducted by owners of vineyards. Or winemakers. Or cellar rats. So that’s a silly statement. More to the point is Ferguson’s citation of a study that (quoting Ferguson) points to moderate wine drinking “as causing an increase in breast cancer risk by as much as 15% in women.” The study was by a medical professor at Brigham Women’s Hospital, Wendy Chen.

You know that’s going to cause millions of women to worry about drinking. I did a little research into this study and found that it’s far less conclusive than Ferguson would have you believe. For one, even if it’s true, the study stressed that the slight risk of higher cancer “is more than offset” by the positive benefits to the heart, according to this article.

Furthermore, “the study authors said no evidence exists to show that giving up drinking will lower a woman’s risk of breast cancer.” Another article, in the Nov. 1 Washington Post, covered Chen’s study, but also reported a new study on resveratrol’s possible prevention of diabetes and obesity, which would “extend [people’s] lives” and explain the French paradox whereby some people eat vast quantities of fats and cholesterol (paté, cheese, butter, eggs) and have low rates of heart attacks and strokes.

We live in an information-saturated society. Every day, scientists around the world are conducting studies at universities and research institutes, and if you pay attention to the news, you’re going to hear totally contradictory information about everything, sometimes in the same news span. Instead of knee-jerk reactions to studies such as Ferguson’s, wise consumers ought to take the wide view, taking into account everything they know about wine drinking (including–and maybe especially–its soothing psychological effects) and then coming to their own conclusions. Anyhow, Ferguson’s reporting itself seems to have a personal agenda. “Having been a wine consumer at one time in my life,” she explains, she now abstains, implying that the alcoholism her father suffered from is the reason why. I, personally find the advice of recovering addicts to be notoriously unreliable.

Is wine really as complicated as some people say it is?


And if it is, whose fault is it–the critics?

I’ve heard it all my adult life: wine is too snooty, too complex for the average person to understand and feel comfortable with it, and the reason is because those of us who write about it prattle on and on, muddying the waters with ridiculous talk of swirling and sniffing, black currants and wet dogs, aftertastes and appellations–when all people really want is simply to drink and get a buzz.

I personally feel some sympathy with this argument, even though I’m a critic, because I’m a very uncritical critic, by which I mean I’m the least snobby wine person I know. Give me some plonk in a paper cup at your next party and I’ll be a happy camper, as long as there’s some decent food to be had. Still, I have to look in the mirror and wonder if I, in my own way, have contributed to the chaos. Some people have so accused me. Even so, I try to adhere to Thoreau’s advice continually in my wine writing: Simplify, simplify!

If wine is complicated, theories of wine and food pairing are even more so. My heart often goes out to the poor host or hostess who worries herself silly with fears of improper matching. How many have apologized to guests for not putting something better out, or more appropriate to the food? This is when the criticism of the critics grows fiercest. “Drink anything you want, with whatever you want!” they say, “and don’t let those damned critics tell you otherwise!” With this, too, I have some sympathy, and have said and written so.

There was a time, in my wine reviewing, when I might consider a certain wine and go to great lengths to dream up the perfect dish to go with it, the way a chef might. I would debate in my mind whether it be pork or lamb. Then, which spices? What sauce? And don’t forget the accompaniment. After all, I was being paid to give readers my expert advice, right?

But in recent years I’ve changed all that, according to the Simplify, simplify rule. Today I’ll go no further than to write of beef or chicken, burgers or salmon, and leave the fine tuning to the cooks. It’s the least I can do to demystify wine, and make amends for whatever role I’ve played in complicating it.

Now we have the folks at Wente, a fine winery in Livermore Valley whose Grey Riesling I used to practically live on, working with The Food Network “to take the pretense out of wines with food pairing suggestions that range from macaroni and cheese to potato chips and salami.”

I say, good for Wente! While I’m not big on mac and cheese (too filled with carbs and fat) or potato chips (junk food), I am a big salami fan (within reason), but, more to the point, I understand where Wente is coming from. “Let’s take real food that real people eat everyday,” they’re saying, in effect, “and give them real wines, at an affordable price ($13), to enjoy.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t make tuna ras el hanout, with Umbrian lentils, arthichokes and preserved lemons, at home. I might order it at Spruce, but on a typical night at home I’ll bake a piece of salmon, steam some zucchini and call it dinner. Maybe not even that fancy: I’ve been known to have whole wheat toast with peanut butter for a meal, sprinkled with black sesame seeds. What do I drink with that? Anything at all, and happily. Life’s too short to fuss over red or white, sweet or dry, sparkling of still, when all you’re hankering for is a simple joy.

My disappointing dinner at RN74


When RN74 opened last year, in San Francisco, it was to huge buzz — even in a town where restaurant buzz is as unavoidable as fog.

The magical names of Michael Mina, Rajat Parr and chef Jason Berthold drew in the Bay Area’s wealthiest, most discriminating foodies and winos. The San Francisco Chronicle’s powerhouse restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, called RN74 “All around great” and, this past April, put it on his coveted Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list.

So it was with great anticipation that I took BART three stops into the city, and then walked a block south to Mission Street, where RN74 is located in the fancy-schmancy new Millennium Tower, an ugly highrise that’s distortingly out of place in its SOMA neighborhood.

lurid and bloated

I arrived early, and beelined straight to the bar. Parr’s by-the-glass wine list is eclectic, offering a wide range of things from around the world. It had been ages since I’d enjoyed a nice Sherry, so I had the Palmina Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino #15 ($10), an excellent wine that made me wonder once again why Sherry doesn’t play a greater role in our national drinking life. After that, I had a second glass, a pretty Austrian Riesling, 2008 Hirtzberger Steinterrassen Federspirel, from the Wachtau ($21). Why two glasses bam bam in a row? Because the pours were so miserly. For $31, I had the equivalent of a decent glass of white wine. The two bottles together retail for about $90, which means RN74 probably paid half that at wholesale. If you figure at least six glasses per bottle, with those tiny pours, that’s a huge markup.

My dinner companions, the lovely Rebecca and her handsome husband, Jesse, arrived, jet-lagged after the long trip from Hong Kong, and starved. We ordered. I decided to start with the sauteed pork belly and stuffed squash blossom first course ($16), because I’d previously clipped out a recipe for pork belly (which I’ve never cooked before), and wanted to see how it performs on a Mina menu. But first, I asked our server what glass of wine he would pair it with. He thought for a while, then recommended the Chablis: 2005 Louis Michel Montmains ($16), a premier cru. I thought it was an odd choice. I knew the pork belly was an Asian sweet, spicy dish, and a tough, acidic young Chablis didn’t sound right. But my philosophy of ordering wines in restaurants, especially one so wine-friendly as a Michael Mina joint, is to happily put myself in the server’s or somm’s hands, since that person knows way more about the wine and food than I do.

Five minutes later, before anything had been brought to us, the server returned and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that Chablis I recommended. Maybe a Riesling would be better.” He now wanted me to try the Selbach-Oster Bernkasteler Badstube Kabinett, from the Mosel ($12). I was grateful he was trying to take care of me.

“It’s funny,” I told him. “I thought the Chablis was a bizarre choice, but I didn’t want to say anything.”

“Want to try both?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Bring a half glass of each, and I’ll let you know what I think.”

The pork belly came. It was truly a great dish, the thick slabs of smoky meat seared perfectly, with sautéed bits of heirloom tomatoes, bacon, basil and lemongrass. I took a sip of the Chablis. Horrible! After the spicy rich sweetness of the pork belly, the Chablis was a minerally acid freak that tasted even harder than it would have on its own. I could barely drink it.

The Riesling was much better, but I wouldn’t call it a match made in heaven. It was too sweet for the food. I know they say a wine should be sweeter than the food with which it’s served. But the residual sugar in the Riesling was very pronounced, and so was the acidity, and the combination muted the pork’s opulence, made a dish that’s supposed to be flamboyant taste merely good. The by-the-glass list contained several other white wines and sparkling wines, and even a Russian River rosé. Any one of them might have been a better match for the pork belly, but I’ll never know. I thought it was surprising that our server should be so uncertain about an elemental wine-and-food pairing, and, after all, RN74’s menu is not particularly extensive. There are only 8 appetizers and 7 entrées. You’d think the waitstaff would have their perfect pairings down.

For the main course I had the sauteed Alaskan halibut ($28), which was served with gnocchi, cherry tomatoes, celery and ginger. A pretty dish to look at, the fish all toasty golden, with a flaky crust. But it was dry, dry, dry. Jesse had the same thing and agreed. “It tastes like they let it sit for too long,” he observed. Maybe they did. I’ve worked in restaurants and know how a chef will put a dish up on the waiter’s shelf, under red heat lights. If it’s really busy, that dish can sit there for a while, continuing to cook. But RN74 wasn’t particularly busy. It was a Sunday night; it was maybe half full, and there certainly seemed to be plenty of staff. So no excuses for a dried out piece of fish that tasted like defrosted Mrs. Pauls.

The server and I went through the dance again when I asked him to recommend a wine for the halibut. I still had that glass of the Montmains, so I kept it, hoping it would be happier with the fish than it had been during its brief and miserable liaison with the pork belly. I asked if there were any Sancerre by the glass. Negative on that. Any Pouilly-Fume? Sorry. What about a Sauvignon Blanc? He suggested the Chateau Bonnet 2008, which he described as “white Bordeaux.”

Well, I remembered the 1980s when I used to buy that mass-produced Bonnet for something like $4 a bottle. Even today, it’s a $12 or $13 wine at retail. I don’t think it’s right to tell a customer a wine is white Bordeaux when it’s Entre Deux Mers. You can call Domaine de Chevalier Blanc “white Bordeaux” but Entre Deux Mers? The server seemed to be saying, “I don’t think you have a clue about wine, so instead of taking the time to explain what Entre Deux Mers means, I’ll just call it white Bordeaux, because even a moron like you has heard of Bordeaux and has positive associations with it.” The glass went for $11 at RN74; the wine was okay, but it was still the same, elemental EDM it’s always been.

Too tired to talk about wine anymore, wanting only to relax and eat with Becs and Jesse, I green-lighted the Bonnet. Whatever. After a while, the server came back with a “complimentary” half-glass of a 2009 Russian River rosé, Soliste’s Soleil ($12). He said the bartender, whom I’d friended over my earlier Sherry, thought it might go well with the halibut.

So I had 3 glasses in front of me: the leftover Chablis, the Chateau Bonnet, and a fruity, simple Sonoma rosé, made from Pinot Noir. By that time, I’d given up all semblance of caring what went with what. Ultimately, a meal with convivial friends isn’t the place to anguish over pairings. Jesse, Becs and I are all intensely political, and we filled the hours talking about, not bouquet or finish (although there was a little of that), but Tea Parties, deficits, what an investment bank actually does (it turns out it’s rather like a used car dealer), and China’s North Korea policy. (And, yes, I’m afraid I got a little animated when the subject turned to Sarah Palin!)

Becs, who’s a vegetarian, had the grilled cobia ($28), a plate of roasted butter beans, pole beans, tomato and artichoke barigoule (a sort of spicy stew) that was amazing. Even Becs, a seasoned restaurant adventurer who’s dined in three-star places around the world, praised its simple deliciousness. What did the server recommend she drink with it? 2005 Branaire Ducru ($16), a Fourth Growth Bordeaux so leanly tannic that it was utterly useless with the cobia. Becs grimaced, then asked me why they would even sell such an unattractive wine at RN74.

“It’s not a bad wine,” I explained, “it’s just too young. It needs 8, 10 years to come around. At least.”

“Then why don’t they age it?” That led to a discussion of why it’s so hard for restaurants to sell properly aged wines: cost-prohibitive. If they’d sold ‘95 Branaire instead of 2005, the glass would probably cost $45.

Then Becs asked one of those “out of the mouths of babes” questions. “Aren’t there inexpensive wines that would taste better with this food that don’t have to be aged?” She told me about some Spanish reds she buys in Hong Kong for $25 a bottle that are soft and fruity.

I replied, “I’m sure there are. But I don’t think Michael Mina and Rajat Parr could get away with selling an inexpensive Spanish wine at RN74. The snobs would crush them.” And it’s too bad, really, when you think about it.

The bill for the three of us, with tip, was $300, which actually isn’t too bad for a red-hot San Francisco restaurant. But I was majorly disappointed with my dinner at RN74, which I think is the latest poster child for so many things that can go wrong, and do, in our celebrity-chef, cult restaurant-obsessed culture.

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