Gotta say that I’m really digging San Antonio. After big Houston, San Antone has more of a small town, neighborhoody and, dare I say it, soulful thing going on. Great downtown, lots of old brick buildings (and The Alamo!),
and neighborhoods that are being rehabbed with cool new restaurants, clubs, bars. It reminded me of old-town Baltimore, Portland’s Pearl District, and my own, beloved Oakland, except a lot hotter: the temperature has been about 100 since I’ve been in Texas, but Houston was so humid, whereas San Antonio—inland—is more of a dry heat, which I can dig.
One of my hosts showed me the River Walk along the San Antonio River.
Wow. This photo hardly does it justice. My first impression was it’s like Costa Rica. Love it, love it, what a beautiful place to have in a big city.
We also went to a restaurant, Paesanos, and as soon as I walked in I “got it.” I told my friend, “I bet this place is a tremendous success.” It just had that formula: family friendly, but upscale. The ability to combine those two elements has got to be one of the hardest balancing acts in all of restaurantdom. The somm there, Roberto “Robbie” Pacheco, was so proud of this device he has that stores wine under argon gas.
I don’t know if you can read all the labels, but he has some very expensive bottles in there, including Latour 2000; a six-ounce pour will set you back $300, a bit beyond my budget! But I was glad to see Verité in there.
Had lunch with a cool guy, Fabien Jacob, the somm at a steakhouse, Bohanan’s, which I understand is very popular (we actually ate at a different restaurant). From Fabien I got a hint of the wine habits of folks down here. Turns out they love California Cabernet Sauvignon, which I did not know; even in this heat, they’ll drink it with everything. Mazel tov San Antonio! I also met a very young, cool dude, Scott Ota, who’s launching High Street Wine Co. in September. His ambitions are very high: to have an eclectic wine list, personally curated by him. He’s still putting together all the pieces, but his passion and understanding of wine blew me away, especially for someone of his tender years.
Finally, a place I hope to return to for a longer time. Smoke, the restaurant, occupies three floors of an old brick building, beside the railroad tracks, a retro sort of place that was actually a stop on the Underground Railroad! They have bars and big, happy, loud dining areas where I could see myself any night of the week. It’s a barbecue joint. As soon as you walk in, you get the smoky, charry scent that makes your tastebuds whistle.
San Antonio reminded me in so many ways of Oakland: a town that was, possibly, a little run-down at some point, but with tremendous potential, in terms of the charming old buildings, history, and the presence of a budding population of young people who are looking for authentic local places to eat and drink. I drank the local vodka and the local wine, and thoroughly enjoyed this, my first visit to San Antonio, which I hope will not be my last. I stayed at a Hyatt, which was entirely suitable, and ate at the bar: homemade spinach, artichoke and chicken flatbread, with a Central Texas Fall Creek 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, which had plenty of Sauvignon character. At the hotel bar, as the sun sets here in San Antonio, I am a happy camper.
You know what? I don’t need Michelin. Sometimes good, honest fare completes me. Tomorrow, it’s onto to my final stop, Austin, which my friends tell me is the San Francisco or Berkeley of Texas. We’ll see…
I’m told by my friends and hosts here in Houston, Texas’s biggest city and a financial and oil hub, that Michelin won’t come here to review restaurants. If that’s true, and they swear by it, it makes no sense. Houston is a great city, a port city that prides itself on its international culinary influences. I’ve now enjoyed the food in four places here, and I gotta say, Kudos! Good food. Interesting food, including a popup presided over by a James Beard award-winning chef. Why would Michelin ignore Houston? Don’t know. Just asking.
Anyhow – forgive me for short-shrifting my readers the last few days in terms of content and word length. Long days, and triple-digit temperatures with high humidity conspire against me being creative when I finally get back to my hotel room, usually after copious amounts of alcohol. (I will say they know how to make a proper vodka gimlet in this town!) On tomorrow (Wednesday) to San Antonio, then on Thursday, Austin. I like to remind people here that I consider myself half-Texan and Oklahoman. My mom’s parents moved to Oklahoma–which was then Indian territory–in 1907. The family quickly spread to Texas. All my cousins on that side of the family are from down here; I used to visit in the summers, and once, at the age of seven, I spent a good part of the summer digging a ten-foot-deep hole in my uncle’s Oklahoma City home looking for oil (which I never did find).
I’ve met some great people on this trip, including Sean Beck, the sommelier at a group of restaurants including Caracol, where we had some fantastic Gulf oysters, but more to the point, Sean is of like mind with me when it comes to today’s rather bizarre tastes in sommelier-driven wine. I won’t attempt to quote him, but it’s refreshing to know that not every young somm thinks that wine has to be low alcohol and have a lot of funky dirtiness in order to be interesting. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the point…and as I told Sean, I think this temporary insanity in favor of so-called “natural” wines (a meaningless term) is coming to a merciful end, as the demise of In Pursuit of Balance symbolizes (and Sean, like me, scratches his head when it comes to defining “natural”).
Well, that’s it for tonight. Have a great Wednesday!
On the road again, this time in Houston, a town I have family roots in but can’t claim to know at all. They have a beautiful skyline but apparently the collapse in oil prices has hit it hard. I’m staying at The Houstonian, which I’m told used to be George H.W. Bush’s estate, and I must say, the grounds are pretty fancy and my room is great. The temperature on arrival was 103 with 70% humidity; I’m glad I don’t have to do manual labor out there! I was tired after a long day; those seats on United seem to get more cramped with every flight. Fortunately I was sitting next to a cool dude, a young Louisianan who had flown to San Francisco for the Marathon, so we were able to chat about running, which I don’t really do much anymore but in my heyday, wow, I was pretty good, my best performance ever having been coming in fourth in Bridge to Bridge in my age group (40s), which if you know that race is nothing to sneeze at.
My host here is young Zach White, a regional sales manager for Jackson Family Wines. I love meeting these young road warriors. This life of selling wine isn’t for everyone, but the ones who have chosen it are really into it. I’m a big fan of Alexander the Great, the way he inspired his troops to march with him halfway around the world, through deserts and inhospitable mountains, always meeting hostile tribes whom they had to fight. Why did those men follow Alexander to the ends of the earth? Because he inspired them, gave them something to believe in—not just gold and treasure, but the spirit of achievement. It’s the same with these sales guys. The work is hard, brutal; endless driving, schmoozing. Zach was telling me some of the stories about how he won certain accounts through sheer persistence. He did things when many others would have given up. I can relate to that: I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, the same way. I refused to accept “no” for an answer. I banged at their door every day until, finally, they said yes. That’s why I’m a big believer in the American Dream. You can pretty much accomplish anything you want—but it won’t be handed to you on a silver platter. You have to work your guts out to get it.
Anyhow, from Houston it’s on to Fort Worth and Austin. Like I said, I have deep roots in Texas, on my mother’s side, so it’s a delight to be down here. I was telling Zach how, when my Texas and Oklahoma uncles used to visit us in New York, their drink of choice was “bourbon and branchwater.” Zach is big on bourbon but had never heard the term “branchwater.” I didn’t know what it meant either, so we Googled it. “Branchwater” is simply “still” water as opposed to seltzer. I don’t know why my uncles called it “branchwater” and not just “water,” but I love that, it’s so poetic. I’m sure there’s a story somewhere but I like to think it has to do with the South’s love of romance and evocative language. Doesn’t “branchwater” sound ever so much more romantic than “water”?
So it’s off to bed in my hotel room, with a half bottle of Veuve Cliquot and some charcuterie and crab cakes from the restaurant. All is good. I hope your night and day are pleasant.
JOURNAL OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Aug. 1, 2056
It may be hard for today’s younger generation to believe, but once upon a time, the evaluation of wine was determined by people, not smart machines.
Weird, no? But it’s true, and you don’t have to go very far back to arrive at such a strange era. Barely 50 years ago, there was a class of mavens, “wine critics,” who were held in high esteem, especially by the privileged classes. These people occupied a position in wine selection more or less an equivalent to that of priests and gurus in matters religious and spiritual. Their followers gave the highest credence to their pronouncements and proceeded to organize their lives worshipfully according to their edicts.
In retrospect, we can see that this curious phenomenon represented a last vestige of a dying epoch: the false belief in authority, which peaked during the Dark Ages, and began eroding with the advent of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, only to be completely undone by the Internet. Why it should have taken so long for the era of the wine critic to begin its slow demise, though, is problematic. For, even as the privileged classes became more highly educated and rational, their irrational dependency upon the edicts of “wine critics” became more strongly entrenched. I leave it to modern-day psychologists to explain this.
Whatever the reasons, we can be thankful that a bizarre period has come to a decisive end. That it took smart machines, powered by artificial intelligence, to administer the final coup de grace was inevitable. Look at all the wasteful human practices that have been eliminated by the widespread application of A.I. We no longer depend on fallible humans to raise or instruct our children, or even give birth to them. Smart cars, buses, trains and aircraft take us swiftly and safely to and fro on our rounds, without human interference. Our farms and factories are guided by robots; fires are put out by intelligent devices and criminals are apprehended by automated policemen; surgeries are performed, not by tired, irritable humans, but by the most exquisitely trained doc-bots. Bots walk our dogs and scoop up their waste; bots catch our seafood from the ocean and even lately have learned how to shuck oysters. And, of course, the President of the United States is a robot, non-partisan and completely objective. Humans no longer have to toil behind counters, on assembly lines, or imprisoned within cruel cubicles; artificial workers can perform those tasks far more efficiently, without fatigue, complaint or boredom. Artificial intelligence has liberated us from the drudgeries and indignities that plagued our ancestors; included among these is the task of adjudging the quality of the drinks we ingest, including wine.
J.A.I. caught up with one of most famous wine critics of the old time, although he is long since retired. Mr. Steve Heimoff is 147 years old, but his brain is still young and vibrant, kept alert and nourished by caretaker drones, in a sunny, plant-filled solarium along the California coast. Mr. Heimoff had a distinguished career in the late part of the 20th and early 21st centuries. One of the towering giants of wine criticism of that period, he has been referred to as the “Einstein of wine reviewing,” and compared to Alexander the Great, George Washington, Mother Teresa and The Beatles. A great Heimoff review, the Wall Street Journal once reported, could sell 500,000 cases overnight, while a bad one could, and all too often did, bankrupt a winery. Such was the power of Heimoff: autocratic, absolute, pitiless.
We asked Mr. Heimoff if he regretted the end of the human wine critic era, and he replied, through his intelligent translation device, that he welcomed it. Early in his career, he had believed passionately in the wine critic hierarchy; only it, he felt, could weed objectively through the forest of wines and brands to arm the consumer with knowledgeable, independent information.
But, Mr. Heimoff added, by the second decade of the current century, he began to have his doubts. The “clergy of wine theocracy,” as he called it, began to crumble; far from being an elite priesthood, it became “a sort of subway church of the masses,” wherein anybody and everybody could claim to be a wine critic, in much the same way as individuals can purchase online “certificates of divinity” and call themselves “Reverend. That’s when I knew,” Mr. Heimoff attests, “that the old ways were forever gone.”
Of course, not all human activities have been replaced by A.I. devices. We still have human restaurant critics; smart machines have so far simply proven unable to review the dining experience. And, of course, “the world’s oldest profession” continues to be practiced by real, flesh-and-blood people. But, with the recent death of the oldest surviving human wine critic,” 1 Wine Dude, who still was practicing as recently as last June’s Trump Day, the practice of wine criticism—not just in America, but from China to the Moon colonies—is now reserved to smart machines.
(and don’t ask me what those Scottish “rites” are, cuz I don’t know!) yesterday. As this is just a hop, skip and jump from where I live, I took a walk along the Lake to catch up on what’s been happening down in that beautiful part of the Central Coast, whose wines I was one of the earliest national wine critics to commend.
(Incidentally, thank you to the Alliance for choosing Oakland. This is a great city to have wine events in, and I’m grateful for you for selecting us!)
Since 2014, Paso Robles has had eleven sub-AVAs within its greater borders but, as the Alliance’s communications director, Chris Taranto, told us, it took seven years to make that happen! Which sort of made me shudder, because as you probably know I’m trying to get a new AVA up in Willamette Valley. But I don’t think it’s going to take seven years…
I’m not going to publish all my tasting notes from the event. But here’s one I really liked:
Jada Vineyards 2013 Strayts, $50. This is a blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol is a hefty 15.2%, but the wine isn’t at all hot…I’d call it mouth-warming. Black in color, with impressive aromas of dark chocolate, bacon, violets, blackberry jam and smoky oak. A big, thick, dramatic wine with a wonderful texture: caressing and lively. Rich in tannins, sweet in fruit, but fully dry. I thought the wine is best consumed early, to appreciate its fresh, vibrant fruit, and scored it 92 points.
Paso still seems to have that element of experimentalism that always made me admire it. When I was at Wine Enthusiast, I wrote (and blogged) about how some Napa Valley winemakers were migrating there because, they told me, they felt that in Napa their hands were tied, making expensive Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas in Paso, they felt they could be free. Since Paso had no overwhelming reputation for any particular variety or style, they could make anything they wanted, any blend, no matter how weird or unconventional. I think Paso Robles still has that admirable quality: a place that, like the Wild West, lets you be whatever your aspirations envision.
Before the big tasting, they had a seminar, and, having been on a zillion of those in my time, it brought back memories of sitting on panels and hoping to have an excited, happy audience. I must admit to thinking there’s got to be a better format for these things. As it is, everybody sticks the winemakers at a table on a dais in front of the audience. There’s a moderator, the audience tastes wines in turn, and the winemakers talk about their wines, usually in technical terms. You can see people zoning out, in some cases, as the winemakers go on and on about clay and fog and barrels. I wrote, “We need a new conversational model for these things. How can we make them more lively and interactive?” I admit I don’t have any good answers. I’m good at diagnosing the problem but the solution, if any, is eluding me. Maybe there is no solution; it comes down to personalities. Some speakers are more exciting than others. And some audiences are more participatory and more willing to get involved than others. Whenever I’ve been on a panel, I try to stir things up a little bit, and whenever I’m in the audience, I feel like I have a responsibility to make this thing a success, so I ask a few questions and make a few remarks. It takes a village to pull of a successful wine event.
Have a lovely weekend!
Spent a delightful and as always an educational day yesterday accompanying some of our Sales people to a couple San Francisco restaurants. I always look forward to these trips, because they are sheer adventure. You never know what you’re going to get.
We went first to a small eastern Mediterranean place in the Mission District, Tawla, which has been getting huge press lately. It’s on Valencia at Duboce, a neighborhood that’s been undergoing a lot of pressure lately due to gentrification. But you know what? I was hanging out there 35 years ago, and it hasn’t changed that much! Still gritty, with (let us say) an interesting local street population. The somm was a guy who’s worked at a lot of Michelin restaurants but, he explained, wanted something smaller, where he could have a more creative, curated wine list.
Now, if you don’t know Scoma’s, it’s one of the mainstays of Fisherman’s Wharf. As I told the wine guy, who’s been there for 20 years, he’s probably served several generations of my family over the decades.
Each of these places and people was totally different. But each is part of the mosaic that makes up San Francisco. Although I’ve lived in Oakland for close to 30 years, I lived in San Francisco for a decade prior to that, and I still love going there. It’s only 3 subway stops away from my place, so it’s easy; driving and parking in S.F. is a total nightmare. Everybody gripes about housing prices in the City, but when I moved there, in 1979, everybody was griping then about the same thing! As I suppose they were in the 1940s. So the more things change… I think San Francisco is fundamentally unalterable, and I mean that in a good way. You can bend it, stretch it, but you can’t break it. It’s the old Barbary Coast: a little bit nice, a little bit naughty, and heart-achingly beautiful.
You know, some people have asked me if it’s not odd for me to have gone from being a wine critic to working for a wine company. My answer is always the same: not at all. I’ve always been a bit of an iconoclast (if that’s not already obvious) and I still am. I didn’t fit into a neat, tidy little package as a wine critic, and I don’t fit into a neat, tidy package working for Jackson Family Wines. The most important thing to me, in the intellectual sense, is honesty. I don’t lie well, I don’t spin well, it’s hard for me to hide my feelings (as my Facebook friends and Twitter followers no doubt are aware). When I meet people at restaurants and wine stores on these sales trips, I act exactly the same as I would at a cocktail party: put on a smile, try to engage, find things in common to talk about. If the people want to talk about the wines, I’m down with that, and the Jackson sales people I’m with often know more about the technical details than I do; together, we can answer any question (almost).
But from these trips I’ve learned something I really didn’t understand when I was a wine critic, and that’s the value of relationships. Wine critics don’t need to establish relationships in the industry. They can, of course (and we all do), but the essence of being a wine critic is that you’re a loner. I was a bit of a loner as a critic. You have to be; you have to keep your emotional distance from people whose wines you might have to trash. In sales, it’s different, and I truly enjoy making these connections. People are fabulous treasure troves to dig through, to discover who they are, where they’re coming from, what makes them smile. Which makes me look forward to next week, when I’ll be in Texas, from which I hope to be able to blog every day.
What are California’s grand cru vineyards? Somebody at work asked me this question, for a project they’re working on, so it got me to thinking.
Some years ago, I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast (which I no longer have available, alas) on California’s five greatest vineyards. Before I could make that determination, I had to define what I meant by “greatest.” There’s no objective definition; it’s purely subjective. Besides, there are so many fantastic, famous vineyards, you really have to cull the field to make your article manageable. So I decided on the following parameters:
- The vineyard must have a long, consistent history of producing great wines. (“Long,” by California standards.)
- Following #1, the vineyard probably will be known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (on the one hand) and Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other. (Sorry, other varieties, you lost out on that one.)
- The vineyard must not be the exclusive monopole of a single winery. Although it may primarily be associated with a single winery, it must also sell some of its fruit to other wineries. In this way, the vineyard’s name and fame are spread, and a fairer assessment can be made.
This last rule was a little controversial, I must admit. It excluded vineyards including Harlan’s Estate, or Screaming Eagle. But it left enough room for Beckstoffer-Tokalon, Pisoni, Sanford & Benedict, Bien Nacido and Rochioli to make the list. They all sell fruit to other wineries, they’ve all been around long enough to have established track records, and surely nobody would quibble about any of them.
Today, ten years later, I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. The historian in me reveres the notion of great vineyards, Grands Crus, First Growths and the like. If you’re a wine geek with a penchant for reading about the history of wine, you know that certain vineyards always have been considered the greatest, from time immemorial.
On the other hand, part of me–the democratist–realizes that “grands crus” are not as rare as may once have been thought! In other words, they’re not exactly unicorns. With modern advances in viticulture and enology, vineyard managers are now able to deliver far more distinguished fruit, from far more sources, than ever before. Indeed, if we look to Mother France for a clue, we see a near-constant reshuffling of reputations in Bordeaux, for example: Second- and Third Growths now said to rival Firsts. In Burgundy, in Champagne, in many places, the traditional hierarchies are falling, as tastes change and opportunities arise for garagistes or for long-established wineries that are cleaning up their acts. I also know, as a media maven, that the reputation of the so-called top (or cult) vineyards often is based, not on objective quality, but on the decision of wine writers to include them on their “best” lists! With all due respect, Screaming Eagle is not the best Cabernet in Napa Valley. It’s one of dozens that are “the best.” There is no “best,” nor can there be, unless you are absolutely ideological about it and don’t care about fairness. So I’m somewhat loathe to say “These are California’s great vineyards,” because that implies that the rest of them—the 99 percent—are not great.
Still, I think there’s a useful purpose in trying to identify the top vineyards, although this has to be based on clearly spelling out your parameters, with all the caveats that this imprecise effort involves. It’s also fun: we all like reading about this stuff, don’t we? And so, dear readers, what are your nominations, and why?