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A reader comment prompts me to again address the California bashers

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It is fairly common, in the anecdote-sphere (a universe parallel to the blogosphere), for knowledgeable people to say that superpremium California wine is nearly impossible to sell back East, or even east of the Rockies.

According to this take, nobody in America likes California wine anymore, except, possibly, Californians—and even they (or so it’s claimed) are having second thoughts. The culprit? According to the anecdote-spinners, it’s due to the “imbalance” of California wine, an accusation that usually includes alcohol levels, fruity extraction and oak.

The latest expression of this theory comes via a regular reader and valued commenter on my blog. I don’t know if he wants me to name him, so I won’t, but here’s part of what he wrote yesterday, on my “I weigh in on Jamie Goode” post. I will quote him in some detail, because his points are powerfully expressed, and, as I say, one often hears similar views expressed.

“Last Winter [he wrote], I counted the glass pours at three Michelin 1* restaurants while in Chicago, all of whom carry some California wines.  The breakdown for 54 total glass pours was 39 European, 9 Southern Hemisphere and 6 Domestic (of which some were Oregon, Washington and Midwestern).  That is marginalization [of California], and if the Lords and Ladies of Napashire dare not speak of it with wine writers or their neighbors and let the unsold cases quietly pile up in American Canyon awaiting the longed for Chinese buyer, you can damn well bet that it is coming up in conversations with their accountants.”

I’ll quote more of his comment in a minute. First, let me weigh in that my commenter is absolutely correct that Napa Valley winemakers and owners do not speak of their cases “piling up in American Canyon,” presumably at one of the wine storage warehouses along Highway 29. At least, they don’t speak of it to me. So my commenter is right about that. And although I have no certain knowledge that such is the case, the anecdote-sphere also contains numerous allegations that it is indeed the case: that is, cases and cases of unsold triple-digit Cabernet piling up someplace.

My commenter also wrote: there are a lot of good, well balanced and not excessive California wines that are probably being unfairly excluded from restaurants and wine bars.  Unfortunately, these exceptions that prove the rule are suffering for the sins of the last two decades of excesses in both winemaking style and hubris that came to define California and Napa Valley.”

The reason I’ve long been in such disagreement with the anti-California (and anti-Napa Valley) bashers is because, due to my recent job, I had the opportunity to taste so much great, interesting California wine. And while it’s true that there’s a lot of crapola out there, you can say the same thing about every wine country and wine region in the world. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater! I simply have tasted too many wonderful California wines to not realize that our state makes incredible wines; and I often pitied the bashers for not being able to taste all the good stuff I was privileged to try.

So my commenter also is correct when he states that the “good, well balanced” California wines are “unfairly excluded” from the conversation. But whose fault is that? And when did we arrive at this weird, bizarre situation where so many influential and apparently knowledgeable people—Americans all!—are so down on California wine?

It’s quite unprecedented for a large chunk of a wine-producing country’s cognoscenti to hate their own country’s wine. I can’t think of anything similar, in the long history of winemaking in Europe. If anything, the French (and, to a lesser extent, the Germans and Italians and Spanish) have been positively chauvinistic about their wines, as well they should have been; they were proud of what their nations contributed. I, too, am immensely proud of California’s contributions to the world wine scene. So, from an historical persepctive, does the situation here in the U.S.—with so much self-loathing–say something about California wine? Or does it say more about the people bashing it? “The question,” as Jesse Jackson, playing himself on Saturday Night Live, once said, “is moot.”


I weigh in on Jamie Goode’s post on “natural wine”

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As reluctant as I am to enter the minefield of any discussion about “natural wine,” I’m going to do so, because I have views on the topic, and because Jamie Goode just won a Wine Bloggers Award and if he can opine on the subject, so can I!

Jamie supported natural wine rather obliquely the other day on his blog. He didn’t quite come out and praise natural wine in multi-faceted specifics so much as give a face smack to another writer, Bruce Palling, who it seems had the temerity to criticize natural wine. Palling called the product of natural winemaking techniques “undrinkable rubbish,” a characterization Jamie took issue with, and he (Palling) also said wine writers have “a tendency…to try and keep their head down for a quiet life and never actually articulate how much of it [i.e., natural wine] they believe to be undrinkable…”.

Jamie shot that statement down, too, although it’s funny that in his article he manages to avoid any definition of “natural wine”; in fact at one point he writes, “Forget the discussions about the term ‘natural’ because that’s a sideshow.” I don’t see how defining the term to which we’re referring is “a sideshow” because, after all, if we don’t know what we’re talking about, then we shouldn’t be talking about it, should we? But for Jamie, the importance of defining the term “natural wine” is insignificant, compared to the “truly great” nature of “some natural wines”; people who don’t “get” these wines don’t have “the energy or inclination” to try them because they’re “slightly smug,” which is what he accuses Palling of being.

Well, talk about “slightly smug”! I do agree with Palling on the “head down for a quiet life” thing: there are certain topics most wine writers approach with trepidation, because these topics are complicated, controversial and ill-defined; they thus are the source of major risks (to one’s reputation; to one’s mental state; who wants to be attacked on the twittersphere over such perilous issues?). “Natural wines” is such a topic; there are others for which the philosophy “Life’s too short” apply. What is natural wine? What is sustainably-made wine? What is biodynamic wine, organic wine, green wine? I now have some knowledge of what “sustainable” means due to my job, because Jackson Family Wines is committed to sustainability and so I have caused myself to study it more closely.

But “natural wine”? I have no more idea what it really is than does Jamie. I do admit to having a sense that the whole concept is slightly muddled; there can be a cultish aspect to it, as there can about anything arcane, in which a few people believe passionately and the rest of us worry that we may be missing out on something vital. But in this case I’m not really worried. My attitude toward natural wine is the same as my attitude toward religion: You’re free to believe anything you want, as long as you don’t try to make me believe it.

Besides, I part ways with Jamie when he implies that the only “vital, dynamic stream of fine wine that is really exciting” these days is coming from the natural wine camp. That is just not true. It reminds me of the old saying “to go native,” which came from British colonial officials, living in conquered places like India, who under the influence of local conditions take on the sympathetic airs of natives, gradually losing their British ways. Or perhaps “Stockholm syndrome” is more apt: hang out long enough with radicals and you might eventually find yourself rather liking them, enough so that their beliefs start to make sense.

Anyhow, I don’t trust the claims of “minimal chemical and technological intervention” made on behalf of natural wine. No winemaker I’ve ever met claims to be in favor of “maximum” chemical and technological intervention. They all talk about hands-off approaches. It’s the first thing a winemaker says when you ask about their winemaking philosophy. But if natural wine consists of, in part, the following: no commercial yeast, no adjustment for acidity, no added sulfites, no fining or filtration (which can lead to instability), can it be any wonder that, every now and then, one runs across natural wines that taste (in Palling’s words) “like putrid apple cider, stale sherry or just as bad – characterless, bland and acidic.” We’ve all had “natural” wines out there that are that bad; one hesitates to mention names (another reason to keep one’s head down in such politically-charged waters is to avoid personal antagonisms), but I could name multiple critics and somms who agree with what I just wrote (and will name names off the record), even if they’re not ready to say so publicly.

So I’m not advocating making natural wines illegal or anything like that. I am saying that sometimes in this modern world, ideology can capture even the most well-meaning wine critic in its grip; and ideology is never a good thing, is it, because it insists that one way, and one way only, is the approved way, and everything else is false. As Palling writes, referring to the D-Day invasion of Europe that spelled the doom of Hitler’s Nazis in World War II, “it personally pains me when anyone tries to force their opinions or taste onto me or anyone else. That, after all, is what thousands of people laid down their lives to prevent, on those beaches in Normandy, precisely 70 years ago.”

 


A family winery bites the dust

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It’s always sad when an old, little family winery shuts its doors, as Milat Vineyards & Winery is set to do by the end of this month.

I never formally reviewed any of their wines, because they never sent me tasting samples. They didn’t have a high profile in Napa Valley, and perhaps didn’t want one; as the Napa Valley Register, which reported the story, observes, “Unlike wealthy people who start wineries to enjoy the lifestyle, the Milats started the winery to make a living.” Playing the publicity game, with all the related frou-frou and social obligations, doesn’t seem to have been the Milats’ style.

Should it have been? There can be little argument that being skilled at marketing and promotion can increase a winery’s prospects. I’ve long been fascinated at how and why some small wineries make it big, while others get lost in the shuffle of history. Sometimes, fate, or destiny, plays a role that can’t be foreseen or managed.

Take a winery like Failla or Saxum. Neither Ehren Jordan nor Justin Smith had much money, connections or P.R. savvy when he started out. What “made” their reputations was a combination of interesting wines made from interesting vineyards, and a personal style that knew how to connect with the wine press. (In both cases, I was “present at the creation,” so to speak, and reviewed them early, so I know what I’m talking about.) They had, to use the current parlance, “stories” to tell, and both told them well.

Writers like me visit hundreds of vineyards and meet thousands of winemakers over our lengthy careers, so it is indeed saying something when we can recall individual visits, that occurred years ago, with crystal clarity. That’s the case with my first visits to both Failla and Saxum. Well do I remember roaming Ehren Jordan’s vineyard in the remote hinterlands high above the Fort Ross beaches. Equally vivid are my memories of Justin Smith guiding me along the terraced tracks of his James Berry Vineyard, where on a blazing summer afternoon he picked out the bleached fossils of whale bones from the white earth. This is not to say that either Failla or Saxum made the greatest wines of their generation. Both make very good, very specific “wines of a place,” although I would fault Saxum to the degree that the alcohol levels were immodest (but, oh, the wines! Amazing. Some of these West Side Paso Robles red blends are stunning.). But what both Jordan and Smith managed to do was impress themselves upon the thoughts of a writer (me, as well as, obviously, others), who then was in a position to afford them some publicity. And they did it without a P.R. department.

One could mention others in California’s long winemaking history who similarly succeeded based on the power of their personalities and the quality of their wines: Agoston Harazsthy, Robert Mondavi, Gary Pisoni, Jim Clendenen. They realized that the renown of a winery is tied to the acclaim its proprietor arouses in the media. This is not to say that such acclaim is the only thing factoring into the renown of a winery: Caymus achieved theirs without any ornate personalities at the helm; so did Ridge; so has Foxen (with the notoriously un-spinny, un-quoteworthy Bill Wathan), and so have many others who went about their work unostentatiously.

So there are different paths to success, but I have to wonder if Milat would have “made it” in the long run had they played the game with a little more perspicacity. But then, that would not have been them; it would have been inauthentic. This question of “authenticity” is, of course, currently much in vogue in wine country. Every winery and every winemaker wants to be seen as staunchly independent and free of the hyperbolic control of spin doctors and P.R. agents. It’s reached the point where hired P.R. personnel advise their clients on how to present the appearance of authenticity! Can a winemaker or winery be “authentic” while paying for professional public relations advice on how to be authentic? It’s a good question and I don’t claim to have the answer.

“Authenticity” is hard to define anyway. A strong, colorful personality can seem authentic simply because it is irreverent and impinges itself strongly upon an audience; but until we master the science of mind-reading, we cannot know to what degree a strong personality is “natural” to its holder, or to what degree it is a conscious construct, if not a fabrication, designed to attract attention (or if it is in fact a combination of both). What we can know—“we” being writers, reporters and journalists—is that some winemakers are more interesting and fun to write about than others; they get the press while the quieter ones often don’t. You have to wonder how much this gets factored into a winery’s success.

Anyhow, I wish the Milat family well. As the Chinese increasingly buy ownership of Napa Valley, which years ago began losing its identity as a tight, indigenous culture, we must mourn the loss of each of these little family wineries, which are the bedrock foundation of any wine region. Any winery’s death diminishes me (to misquote John Donne) and the industry as well. And I always have a special place in my heart for winemaking families who just work hard, year after year, against the odds but armed with great integrity, and who do so without resorting to flashy pretention.


Friday Fishwrap: old wine writers never die, we just eat pizza!

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Hello. My name is Steve and I’m a “grand-fatherly white male traditional print writer.”

That’s what Amy Corron Power called me in her blog today. She was referring to my recent panel on wine writing at the Wine Bloggers Conference; my co-panelists were Mike Dunne and James Conaway, who are pictured, with me, in this little graphic Amy put up.

writers

She wrote, apparently facetiously, that we were “the only ‘true experts’ to whom we should aspire.”

I must admit that when I saw my panel I had the same thought. Three aging Boomers in a room full of bloggers mostly in their twenties and thirties: Yes, it did seem a little weird to me.

But let’s break it down. There’s lots of collective career success between Dunne, Conaway and me. And the Wine Bloggers Conference always has had a pedagogical or mentoring relationship with the bloggers who attend: I’ve gone there for long enough, and sat on enough panels, to know. If you’re a young and ambitious blogger, who better to get advice from than older guys (and gals) who have been around the block a few times and can tell you what’s up?

* * *

I’ve written a fair amount (here, on Twitter and on Facebook) about Oakland’s changing culinary scene. One classic example of it—and of what not to do—centers around Michelin-starred Daniel Patterson (Coi, in San Francisco) and his recently shuttered Oakland restaurant, Plum. Much was made of Plum when it opened in 2010 in the Franklin Square area off-Broadway. It was from Patterson, it was at Ground Zero of the restaurant scene in the newly-dubbed Uptown District, and it was high-concept and expensive. Those last two distinctions sealed Plum’s fate.

I ate there a few times in 2010-2011 and was always disappointed. I’m not big on high-concept food, where the abstract thinking and plate design seem to be more important than the flavors. And the prices were quite high. It was the experience of eating in places like Plum that always led me to tell people I’d rather have good, cheap Mexican or Thai than throw my money away for a “culinary experience.”

Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Patterson closed Plum and has reopened the spot as Ume, a Japanese-themed restaurant whose prices aren’t bad. I haven’t eaten there yet, but plan to; Michael Bauer gave it a pretty good review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Plum’s closure does say something about Oakland and what its citizens want in a dining establishment. We want nourishing, delicious food in a friendly environment that’s filled with people who look and sound like us. Oakland isn’t San Francisco or Manhattan; high concept doesn’t cut it. (I still don’t understand the success of Commis.)

The quintessential Oakland resto is Boot and Shoe Service. Loud, easy-going, happy, hip and boozy, this pizza-themed joint caters to a blue-jeaned, tattooed crowd that knows how to have a good time. I love bringing friends, sitting at the bar munching on a margherita pizza and gulping vodka gimlets while all the pretty people come and go. There’s money to be made in Oakland, only you have to know what people want. Whole Foods understood that when they built their big store around the corner from me. I credit Whole Foods with helping to turn my neighborhood around. I think Josiah Baldivino understands that, too, with his launching of Bay Grape. We Oaklanders are proud of our culture and traditions, and will support entrepreneurs who believe in us and respect our way of doing things.


Thursday throwaway: Rutherford dust, Bordeaux prices and Parker, Parker, Parker!

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Went up to Napa yesterday for the annual “Day in the Dust” tasting of the Rutherford Dust Society. I wanted to see if I could discern a “Rutherford dust” characteristic to the wines. If there was one, it was pretty well disguised. All the wines were very fine, as you’d expect, but they were different: Some more tannic, some less, some rustic, some refined. Some wines were oakier than others. The fruits tended toward reds: cherries, sometimes sour candy, sometimes freshly sweet, but there was plenty of blackberry and cassis and also, some pleasant herbaceousness. (The vintage was mostly the cool 2011.) Most of the wines were ageable. But Rutherford dust? I don’t think so. Andre Tchelistcheff’s phrase was pure marketing genius (or was made so after others latched onto it), but I defy anyone to consistently tell the difference between a Rutherford Cabernet and one from St. Helena, to use but one example.

* * *

The drinks business has a nice little article where they went back to something Parker said ten years ago, and it has proven to be right. “If my instincts are correct,” he predicted, “10 years from now a great vintage of these [Bordeaux] first growths will cost over US$10,000 a case…at the minimum.”

Well, that’s exactly what happened in some instances. Now I’m seeing certain recent Napa Valley Cabernets that cost close to $1,000 per bottle, which would put them well over $10,000 a case. I always have to rub my eyes at these nosebleed prices, but nothing seems to be slowing them down. Not the Great Recession, nor the incessant bashing Napa Cabernet has come under in recent years has changed wealthy people’s inclination to buy them at any price.

* * *

I’ve always held that wine tasting is both objective and subjective, even in the supposedly “greatest palates” in the world. How could it not be, when the proof lies in the prices I just referred to. Is any wine “worth” $1,000 a bottle? Not objectively. Instead, “emotional associations…affect what we taste,” says a scientist whose work was reported this month in The New Yorker.

By “emotional,” he means the “expectations” people have when they see a bottle of a wine they know to be rare, esteemed and expensive. “Every time we have a wine,” the article says, “we taste everything we know about it and other related wines.”

Fascinating statement. Think about it. I taste, let’s say, a Parker perfect 100-pointer and I know a lot about the history of the estate and the vineyard, the winemaker, the fact that the wine has been celebrated throughout the vintages as one of the world’s greatest. I know that it costs $1,000 a bottle or more on the wine lists of the world’s greatest restaurants. I know that it sells for multiples of that on eBay. I know that there are people who have been waiting for years to get on the waiting list for the mailing list. I know that the wine is so celebrated across the globe that counterfeiting it in China has become big business. I know that people buy it and put it in their cellars for their grandkids to drink (or sell). And that’s only the beginning: not only do I know stuff about that wine, I feel things about it that stir my emotions—that cannot be put into words, but are perhaps all the stronger for that very reason: they tap into my dreams, my fantasies, my hopes and aspirations. These are truths about wine as powerful as the objective truths of alcohol level, varietal composition or pH, and we should keep them in mind always when we ask the (now answered) question: Is the evaluation of wine objective or subjective?

* * *

Speaking of all the above, a bearded and hairy Robert Parker—looking more and more like Orson Welles in his Paul Masson days—has been on what looks like a P.R. fix-it campaign lately. First he gave a rare and unusual interview, published on the Hawk Wakawaka blog, that wasn’t so much about wine as RMP’s views on film, spirituality, raising kids, the 24-hour news cycle and lots more. It’s a compelling peek inside the head of the most famous wine critic in the world.

And now, today’s Wall Street Journal has yet another exclusive interview with Parker, not particularly interesting because it’s predictable and says the same-old, same-old things. So why is Parker on the mashed potato circuit?

My guess is that after all the bashing, he’s decided it’s time to rehabilitate himself in the public’s eye (and also to publicize his new magazine). And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with either of those motives.

That’s it for now! Have a nice day.


Spotlight: A conversation with Michael Mina’s (until yesterday) lead sommelier, Josiah Baldivino

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Josiah Baldivino is one of the more delightful somms out there. Even in the rarified atmosphere of Michael Mina, where he was—until yesterday—lead sommelier (more on that in a moment), he’s an unpretentious guy. Josiah, 32, and his wife, Stevie, live across the street from me. We had coffee yesterday morning in our Oakland neighborhood at Room 389.

SH: So what does the lead sommelier at Michael Mina do?

JB: The way the whole [Michael Mina] group is set up is, Rajat Parr is the wine director over all the restaurants, so he’s kind of like the big brother in a way. Each individual restaurant, though, has its own lead sommelier, who runs the wine program and does all the purchasing. So what I like about it is that each lead sommelier has the ability to do whatever they want, so it’s almost as though they’re the wine director.

So you chose the wines?

Oh, yeah.

You didn’t get a memo from HQ, “Here’s what we’re buying.”

No. I mean, we would definitely get allocations and stuff, which I would say works in our favor as a group, when we can commit to a lot more than just one restaurant could. So things I got sent were mostly allocations, and I’m totally fine with getting allocations of things like Coche-Dury and stuff like that.

Speaking of Raj, he’s known for, among other things, In Pursuit of Balance. Their thing seems to be low alcohol, however you define it. So at Michael Mina, do you have California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the wine list?

Yup.

And do you have wines that would not be balanced, from an In Pursuit of Balance perspective?

[laughs] I would say there’s definitely some wines on the list that do have a bit of higher alcohol, and maybe to some are not balanced. But in my mind, if somebody’s into something that isn’t considered balanced, then whatever, just go with it and order it. My main goal as the buyer is to make sure there’s something for everybody on the list. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re not normal, or they’re not in the know. If they want something that some people think isn’t correct, then I’m going to give it to them.

What is your background? How did you get to be a somm?

Started in college at Cal State Northridge. Had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I took business management. In order to get your degree, you had to do an internship. So I did my internship at Silverlake Wine, down in L.A., and just got hooked. Started buying books, signed up for the Court of Master Sommelier program, moved to New York to cut my gums and get some real floor time experience, and then starting working in the Oak Room and ended up at Bar Boulud.

Did you get your M.S.?

No. I passed everything, got all the way to Advanced, and now just putting the whole thing on hold so I can open my business.

Why did you want an M.S.?

I don’t know if I really wanted the actual M.S. I really got into the program just to get my foot in the door and get some experience. I mean, I had that goal in mind at one point in my life, to get an M.S., but right now I’m happy with the way things are going. It’s like the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Michael Mina is arguably one of the most glamorous names in restaurants. You ended up as Lead Somm at his namesake San Francisco restaurant. How did that happen?

[laughs] I don’t really know, to be honest! I came out here from New York, and had a lot of fire. So I ended up working [at Michael Mina] under someone else, and once they left, they basically needed a lead sommelier to run the ship. And I, being a young kid, told them, “Hey, I want to do this, let me try it.” And they were a little hesitant at first, but after I told them, “Look, give me a couple months, pay me the same amount, I don’t want any promotion, just let me do what I can do, and if you’re happy with the results, then you can give me the keys to the Ferrari, and if you’re not, then I’ll happily step back down.” So…

Were you on straight salary, or did you get a percentage of your sales?

It’s basically like a server-type thing, like all restaurants. You get paid the same amount. You get a certain amount of points on the floor, and blah blah blah.

Do you make more money if you sell more expensive wine?

No. Not necessarily.

But sometimes? Because people wonder if the somm is pushing that $100 bottle instead of the $75 bottle because they make a little more.

I’ve definitely heard of some restaurants that encourage that kind of behavior, but I would say, at Mina, they’re pretty cool. Sure, you want to hit your sales and make your costs, which is very important. At the end of the day, you just want to make sure that people are happy, so when they come in, you’ve done everything you can to get them what they want and make those numbers. Sure, it would be great just to sell $30 bottles all the time, and that’s what I would do when I go out. But at the end of the day, sometimes people want to go a little bigger, especially when they come to a prestigious place like Michael Mina; they’re ready to celebrate, and you’ve got to have wines for those types of people, as well as wines for people who are just going out to eat on a Tuesday.

We are now on the very block where your new shop, Bay Grape, is set to open in August! What is Bay Grape?

Bay Grape is a wine shop that my wife, Stevie, and I are opening; she currently works for the Guild of Sommeliers. It’s a shop we want everybody to come to and feel comfortable with. The whole idea started because, as wine professionals on our day off, we always wanted somewhere we could go, like a cool wine shop, and just find a cool bottle and talk to someone who works there. But for whatever reason, it’s kind of hard to find that these days. So we decided to open this, and just be basically a really cool place where people can come, whether you’re really into wine, or just getting into wine. They can come, they can learn, they can find hard-to-find bottles, everyday bottles, and they can taste everyday in the store. We just make sure that all the bottles we have have some kind of story, are of good value, and most of them are bottles that are often overlooked in restaurants and wine shops. So we’re doing the hard work for people by taking our years of experience and tasting and finding the best bottles for the buck. And we’ll also have classes two or three times a week, which also involve tastings. We’re so close to wine country, we want to have people come down and pour their wines. So we’re striving to be a neighborhood corner spot where people just come and hang out and learn about wine and share wine with their friends and neighbors.

Will there be food?

Yeah: cheese, charcuterie, bread, pickles, and we’re doing a C.S.A. (community-supported agriculture) pickup every Thursday.

This is downtown Oakland, although people are now calling it Uptown. This is my neighborhood; Old Crow Tattoo is on the same block. Explain the thinking behind opening this kind of establishment in downtown Oakland that really hasn’t seen anything like this, and has had a troubled past–although the buzz now is that it’s coming back with restaurants and so on.

For us, we’re basically neighbors too, so the thing I love about this area is that, although it is busy and, according to our neighborhood meeting group, it’s the most densely-populated neighborhood in Alameda County, it has that sense of neighborhood. People walk by and say “Good morning.” People are very cool; there’s a lot of young professionals, and old professionals,* all kinds of walks of life. But at the end of the day, there’s that sense of community, and that’s where we wanted to do this concept, because that’s what we’re all about.

And you quit your job to do this thing!

[laughs] Yeah! All in. After 3-1/2 years, today is my very last day at Michael Mina.

I mean, you had—I think it’s fair to say—one of the most desirable—

–Absolutely—

–jobs that a sommelier could have, and yet, you left it. So my last question is, Was it a tough decision?

Very tough. Very, very tough. The only way I would have left Michael Mina is if I were doing my own thing. And this opportunity came up, and my wife and I don’t have any kids yet, so we figured we might as well give it a shot. The last thing I would want to do is regret not doing this. So we’re going to do it and make it happen, and it’s going to be awesome!

[Bay Grape will open in August. The address is 376 Grand Avenue, in Oakland.]

Josiah

* I think Josiah added that for my benefit.


Terroir vs. personal preference: the critic’s dilemma?

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Should the critic base her score/review on personal preference, or on whether or not the winemaker has allowed “the terroir to speak”?

That question arose, yet again, at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. It’s an old debate, one that’s as hard to frame as it is to answer. What does it mean to allow “the terroir to speak”? Who decides, ultimately, what a wine “should” be, as opposed to what it is? And how do we, the drinking public, know whom to believe, when critics set themselves up as arbiters of such matters?

I got to thinking about all this stuff, so I turned to a favorite old book, “The Winemaker’s Dance,” the 2004 effort by Swinchatt and Howell that’s a must on every winemaker’s bookshelf. The authors make no attempt to hide their true feelings. They’re anti-Parker, to the extent that the Man from Monckton “has placed increasing emphasis on power and intensity, personified by big fruit, rich mouth feel, and opulent character,” as opposed to a “balanced” wine that “let[s] the terroir speak.” The former approach, they warn, has “limitations.” The precise nature of the limitation, implied if not overly spelled out, is that a Parkerized wine, made in a “New World or International style,” is one in which all too often “the wine bares all in the shockingly delicious first burst of flavor” but then almost immediately begins to pall; “the regional and local character that so often distinguishes wine [is] lost” under the assault of all that richness.

It’s a compelling argument, resurrected in its most recent incarnation by In Pursuit of Balance, whose website says the group was formed in 2011 “to celebrate wineries striving to produce balanced pinot noir and chardonnay in California.” IPOB among other leading and influential voices in the [American] wine community has already had a powerful influence, especially in California—if not in how wine is actually vinified, then at least in the conversation about it. While the general public, and even most wine lovers, have never heard of IPOB, they nonetheless are curious about things like alcohol level, which, when you strip away all the clutter and pretense, is fundamentally what IPOB and others of the “School of Balance” is all about.

I personally have never understood this extreme position. The implication, as “The Winemaker’s Dance” makes clear, is that there is a single, unalterable moment in the vineyard when the grapes must be picked—when the fruit is right on “the fine line between maturity and excessive ripeness,” so that picking a single day early or later will “overpower the voice of the earth.”

This is a very illogical position to take. It is not only functionally difficult if not impossible for the vintner to pick grapes at a precise moment in time, it is conceptually difficult if not impossible for anyone to know with precision when that moment occurs. Winemakers will tell you all the time that their picking decisions are based on hunches, not precise knowledge; and any two vintners, picking the same vineyard, will opt for different times.

Besides, condemning a wine for alcohol level is silly. At one of the Wine Bloggers Conference dinners, I sat with Michael Larner, and drank his 2009 Syrah. Although it has a Santa Ynez Valley appellation on the label, the grapes are from Ballard Canyon (Michael spoke at a panel on that fine little area). The official alcohol reading on the label is 15.2% by volume and for all I know it’s higher than that. I can assure you, it is a wonderful wine. I drank three glasses in a row, and it never palled, never tired my palate, but only offered layers of delight and expressiveness.

Was my enjoyment of that Syrah a mere “personal preference,” or was it because the wine really did showcase its terroir? You can see that the question itself is meaningless; just because we can ask a question doesn’t mean it corresponds to reality. (“How many unicorns are there in the state of California?” is a perfectly good question, but it has no answer.) Moreover, from what I know of Ballard Canyon, that’s what Syrah down there does: the variety dominates Ballard’s varietal plantings because it gets insanely rich and ripe, the kind of wine our DNA is primed to love. So is there a competition between that Syrah’s “terroir” and a winemaker style that kills terroir? Has the wine’s alcohol level “overpowered the voice of the earth”? I don’t think so.


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