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To each restaurant there is a season. Alas, some of San Francisco’s old guard went the way of the dodo in 2014.

As Paolo Lucchesi reports in his article on the biggest closures of the year in the S.F. Chronicle, Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor shut their doors. They were perhaps the best-known names of now-shuttered restos. Another that’s gone is Daniel Patterson’s Plum, just down the street from me.

As archeologists can tell a lot from digging down into the ruins of an ancient settlement, so too can we glean some hints about the state of our food (and wine) culture by examining who went out of business. It’s not always possible to determine exactly why a restaurant closes, but we can assume that, in general, it’s because the times have passed them by. Whatever pulse they held on the weltanschauung has, for various reasons, gone away.

In the case of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor—both of which I was familiar with for many years—it was because our times no longer favor old-fashioned palaces of fine dining, with white tablecloths, snooty servors, and rather predictable food at stellar prices. In a sense, San Francisco simply outgrew that experience. People today want to eat out in relaxed comfort, in a place where the food is exciting and reassuring. True, in the place of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor we now have destinations like Saison and Benu, with their prix fixe multi-course extravaganzas. But there’s something different about the latter two that makes them a better fit for today’s ethos. There’s nothing stodgy whatsoever about them. Both places are culinary adventures with a sense of adventure that looks forward, not backwards, as Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor did. Where Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor were Paris vacations, Saison and Benu are more Iceland, Antarctica or Myanmar—exciting, off-the-beaten path destinations you’ll remember for a lifetime. Saison and Benu may not last for many years, as Fleur de Lys did (it gave up the ghost at the age of 28 years), but they fill an important niche now for a destination.

Plum, too, offered adventurous cooking from Patterson, a Michelin-starred (Coi) chef. But where Daniel miscalculated was to think that downtown Oakland would support a place of high concept. From the decorative, Warholesque paintings of plums on the walls to the rather austere menu it never caught on. Let’s face it, beet boudin noir with Thai black rice, a sort of faux blood sausage served with caramelized Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi sauerkraut, simply isn’t a combination most Oaklanders can wrap their heads around. It shows once more than a chef makes a fundamental mistake if he serves only food that intellectually stimulates himself. Winemakers, too, must accommodate themselves to the public’s tastes. It’s a balancing act.

Comfort isn’t necessarily the new black; we’ve been through countless comfort food phases over the years, from the taco era to today’s obsession with noodles. But people do want something that reminds them of simpler, happier times, even if the past never was as simple and happy as we like to remember it.


A Special Holiday Post

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYBODY FROM ME AND GUS!

GusXmas


Drunk driving, Sonoma vineyards and rain, rain, rain!

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The holiday season is an apt time to remember, and remind people, that drinking and driving is a really bad mix.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that one-third of the 32,719 people who died in traffic accidents in the U.S. in 2013 were involved in drunk driving crashes, although the number has gone down by 36% over the last 23 years. Still, 10,076 deaths due to drunk driving is unacceptable. This is why I highly recommend that people formulate a plan for a designated driver, not just on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but every time you drink. And I commend Total Wine & More for supporting such programs.

I have not drunk and driven for fourteen years. It began on a dark and stormy night in the year 2000. Beaulieu was celebrating their 100th birthday with a massive nighttime tasting at the winery, in Rutherford. We went through every vintage ever made of André Tchelistcheff’s masterpiece, the Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon—some 62 wines in all, plus a bunch of older Pinot Noirs and other wines. I’d booked a room at the Embassy Suites, in Napa, for the night, but that’s about an 18-mile drive on Highway 29, which had no street lights for most of the distance. Our tasting let out shortly after midnight. I remember walking out to the parking lot when, all of a sudden, the sky rumbled in a crash of thunder, and rain began falling. Within moments it had turned into a torrent, a full-blown gale out of the Gulf of Alaska. It was raining so hard that I couldn’t see a thing, even with the windshield wipers turned on high.

Scary stuff. I couldn’t see where the median strip was, couldn’t see the road shoulders, couldn’t see anything. And I was technically well over the limit, I’m sure. I made a deal with myself: If I can just make it back to Embassy Suites safe, sound and unarrested, I will never drink and drive again.

Well, I did make it back to the hotel, and have stayed true to my vow ever since. It’s made my professional life a little more complicated, but what is that compared to the nightmare of being involved in a drunk driving incident?

So please, my friends, watch yourselves this holiday season.

* * *

Great opinion piece in this weekend’s Press-Democrat by the executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Tim Tesconi, who argues that Sonoma’s vineyards—far from being the plague that some anti-vineyard types claim they are—actually “saved Sonoma County agriculture.” And in the process, prevented Sonoma County from being “the next San Jose.”

He meant no disrespect to our friends in San Jose, of course, only to imply that the wine industry has kept Sonoma County from being developed into housing tracts, shopping malls and industrial parks.

A grand toast to the vineyards preserving Sonoma County’s farming heritage,” Tesconi writes. I will happily lift my glass to that!

* * *

If you live in Northern California, you know that this December has been wet. Very wet. Santa Rosa, in the Russian River Valley, has seen nearly 13 inches this month alone. Compare that to 0.48 inches in December last year. Angwin, up above Napa Valley in the Vaca Mountains, has had almost 20 inches this month, about equal to San Francisco’s total annual rainfall. These are astonishing numbers. But “California still needs 11 trillion gallons of water to end its drought. Even with two weeks that saw inches of rain break local and daily records,” reports the website thinkprogress.com, “more than 77 percent of the state is in ‘extreme drought.’”

Back tomorrow…


Renewed U.S.-Cuba ties good news for CA wine

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The first thing I thought, when I heard that the U.S. is about to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, was, “Oh, man, that’s really good news for California wine.”

Before the brouhahas of the early 1960s, Cuba was a favorite tropical destination for American vacationers, especially those along the East Coast. Today, people go to Costa Rica, Belize, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; back then, it was Havana, just 90 miles across open water from Florida. Fashionable resorts, like the Hotel Nacional, lined the Malecón, attracting tourists with cash to spend. And spend it they did, in restaurants and bars, until the break with the U.S. and subsequent embargo sent the Cuban economy into a tailspin.

But with this resumption in relations, there’s every reason to believe that U.S. tourism will once again explode; certainly, expectations are high. Forbes last week, in an article called “Five Industries Set to Benefit from the U.S.-Cuba Thaw,” listed “Tourism” in the top slot, writing that Cuba will be an attractive stop for architecture buffs, food lovers, music lovers, and those interested in literature and the arts.” And where food lovers go, there is wine.

And what wine is more natural to pour in Cuba than California wine? Yes, there’ll be plenty of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and probably lots of German Riesling in that warm climate, but really, California wine is likely to dominate restaurant wine lists, as it dominates wine lists here in the States. At least, that’s what Napans believe. An article last week in the Napa Valley Register described how Napa Valley winemakers are weighing the Caribbean nation’s potential to become its newest market,” although the article also warned that direct sales to Cubans themselves, rather than to wealthy tourists, are likely to be minimal for quite some time, because Cuba remains a poor country. Last summer, of course, a group of Cuban sommeliers famously visited Napa and Sonoma. At that time, they said they “aren’t sure how long it will be before California wines will be in their Cuban restaurants.” So the timing is iffy, but not the interest: the somms want our wine, and they’re going to get it. Pacific Northwest vintners, too, are eying the possibilities.

Because news of the improved U.S.-Cuba ties came so unexpectedly and rapidly, it’s not likely that very many California wineries were prepared for it. I would imagine that late last week, and continuing on into this Christmas week and the New Year, winery sales and marketing teams will be meeting on a contingency basis to figure out how to take advantage of the new developments. They should. Every market counts—and the Cuban tourist market (which will be international in scope, not just comprised of Americans) is likely to eventually be very profitable.

U.S. tourism in Cuba isn’t a done deal—it will take some action by Congress to fully open it up. But, as Bloomberg Business Week reports, even the prospect of travel has provided an exciting jolt of new possibilities. Namely, hordes of U.S. tourists shelling out to visit the formerly forbidden country.” When it happens, those tourists are going to be shelling out a lot of money for California wine.


Zinfandel poised for growth

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Some wine varieties in California are permanently popular with the population. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, for example. In now, in last year, and they’ll be in next year.

Then there are varieties that seem to come and go in cycles, and of them none more so than Zinfandel. It’s had more ins and outs than—well, I won’t go there. But Zin does go through cycles. It was hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when consumers (mainly Baby Boomers) who were seeking “authenticity” in California wine found it in the Zins of producers such as Lytton Springs, Ravenswood, Nalle, Ridge and Rabbit Ridge. Then in the 1990s, Zin trailed off a little; why, I’m not sure (who can ever account for shifting fashion?), except that the 1990s were when we saw the rapid, dramatic rise in importance of “cult” Cabernets. Perhaps they captured the public’s fancy so much that people didn’t have room in their heads (or cellars) for Zin. The 1990s also saw the rise of Pinot Noir, which further crowded the field. Red Rhône-style varieties were also quite popular at that time, with the emergence of the Rhône Rangers. So the Nineties was (were?) not a good decade for Zinfandel.

In this new Millennium, Zin has had a couple periods of popularity, usually when one of the important wine magazines declares that “Zin is back.” But here’s my point: I think that Zinfandel is poised for its biggest, most popular time ever, and here’s why.

  1. A younger generation is curious about red wines other than Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Of course, they’re looking all over the world, but Zinfandel is right in their back yard, an American classic.
  2. Sommeliers always have a soft spot for varieties that make good wine, but aren’t necessarily appreciated by people. Zinfandel is such a wine. It has just the right balance of geeky and accessible.
  3. Zin is a marvelous matchup for grilled meats, but also for the wide range of spicy ethnic fare that’s so popular today. Mexican, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indian, Ethiopian, Cuban—if it’s beef or chicken, grilled and spicy, Zin will love it.
  4. Zinfandel prices have remained fair. The variety hasn’t exploded in cost, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet.
  5. Zinfandel is deliciously fruity, which people like, and it’s full-bodied. But the tannins are smooth and supple, not hard, like Cabernet’s.
  6. There’s a Zin for every palate. There are high-alcohol Zins that are blood-warming and heady, if that’s what you want. There are Zins below 14% for the lower-alcohol crowd. And everything inbetween.
  7. Winemakers have gotten very good at making more balanced Zins than in the past. A big part of that is more sophisticated sorting of berries. Zinfandel is cleaner than ever.
  8. Zin just sort of has something special going for it. Everybody’s heard about it and knows the name; it’s got good vibes. People don’t have negative associations with it; they’re willing to try it, especially on a personal recommendation.

A couple weeks ago I was invited to moderate a Zinfandel tasting at wine.com’s San Francisco headquarters, together with their Chief Storyteller, Wilfred Wong. I remember thinking that if wine.com, the country’s biggest online wine retailer, believes in Zinfandel, it must have a good future. Growers, who always have a finger to the wind, apparently think so too: Zinfandel acreage rose 4.3% between 2012 and 2013, the biggest increase of any major variety, red or white, in California.

Have a great weekend!


Wine as “the good life”? The Wall Street Journal says so!

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I’ve been watching the case of the New York Times for many years, to see what would be the fate of the Gray Lady. At the height of the Great Recession, the paper was said to be perilously close to going under, the result of (a) declining readership because younger people were not reading newspapers, and (b) the dramatic falloff in advertising that crippled nearly all print publications.

The Times tried to stave off its financial problems: they went to an online subscription model that didn’t work, and they laid off or bought out employees. A year or two ago, the paper seemed to enjoy a modest turnaround, but apparently it wasn’t enough: A new round of layoffs has occurred because the paper had not received enough voluntary buyouts to cover newsroom budget cuts.” Despite executive editor Dean Baquet saying “We are coming to the end of a painful period for the newsroom,” those of us who grew up with the Times and love it can only hope that, this time, the paper will survive, and I expect it will. I point this out only because the Times is the example par excellence of the difficult journey print pubs have had over the last decade or so. It’s not just that I prefer reading print over digital, although I do, it’s that the Times represents the culmination of an epoch that was centuries in the making in which the idea of independent journalism, free from the grasp of lucre, or the ignorance of ideology, was ascendant in America. When our Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution, with its First Amendment guarantee of Freedom of the Press, they did so with the understanding and assumption that the Press really was fearlessly free. I wonder if they would do the same thing now that personal opinion and for-profit hidden agenda has largely taken precedence over independent reporting.

Speaking of newspapers, many of my readers will know I’m no fan of the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. But the newspaper itself, when freed from the op-ed ideology of Mr. Murdoch, is top-rate, and I love, love, love this graphic they created for WSJ+,

 

WSJwine

 

which they tout as “a complimentary addition to your Wall Street Journal experience” for subscribers. How about that glass of wine? Don’t you just love it? The Journal is implying to readers—no, telling them, in compelling visual form and with all its magisterial New York City authority, that a glass of wine is as important to the complete, good life as anything else they could indulge in, from sports to fine art to “much more of the finer things of life.”

We can differ over our politics. But it’s wonderful that all of us, left, right, center, whatever, can agree that wine is central to the good life—the life that is examined, and self-examined, and enjoyed, with harm to no one–life that adds joy and laughter to the world. So bravo to the Wall Street Journal for putting wine right up there.


When is a review not a review?

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The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, really stirred up a dust storm with this post, “DNR: Three restaurants I’m not reviewing,” on his blog.

First, let me say that I’m a Bauer fan. If I’m checking out a restaurant in the Bay Area, I first want to know what Michael said about it. I might look at Yelp, but I don’t entirely trust Yelp. At least I know that Michael is independent and has no skin in the game.

I also trust the very concept of a trusted critic. Yes, I was one myself, so maybe that makes me more empathic about them and their jobs. A good critic actually works very hard; just as a wine critic doesn’t just sit around the house all day, sipping wine and snacking, a restaurant critic doesn’t just go out to eat. The research and writing are hard, and the critic has to know what he’s talking about, not only to land a prestigious job at a paper like the Chronicle, but to last as long as Michael has.

So what was so controversial about Michael’s post? Go ahead, read through the comments—they’re hilarious—and see. For the most part, people said that although Michael said he wasn’t reviewing the three restaurants he wrote about, he then went ahead and kinda-sorta did. As one commenter said, satirically rephrasing Michael’s post, I won’t write about these places. Let me write about them to tell you why.”

Well, let me come to Michael’s defense. First of all, he said upfront that he “decided not to move forward with a full-blown three-visit review.” (One of his rules is to eat at a place three times before he does the formal review, which makes a lot of sense to me.) But these are not full-blown reviews, they’re mini-takes. And keep in mind that they appear, not in the pages of the Chronicle itself, but in Michael’s blog. Michael’s blog is less formal, more easy-breezy than his full-blown reviews. So the readers who criticized Michael are a little off-base.

Plus, I think Michael is doing a great service to the three restaurants. It’s nice that he has some way of alerting them to his concerns, before he actually publishes the review. That way, the restaurateurs can fix the problems (which don’t seem to be major), so that when and if Michael does come in for a full review, it’s more likely to be a good one than a bad one.

Finally, the snarkiness of some of the commenters leaves something to be desired. It’s fine to say you don’t agree with his conclusions, but to resort to pique, like being mad at Michael because he doesn’t have to pay his own food bills (the Chronicle does), is just silly. Some others criticized Michael for not reviewing local places, but he does. He’s reviewed thousands of restaurants over the years, not just the famous, expensive ones but plenty of local joints. Just last week, he reviewed Hawker Fare, one of my faves, just a ten-minute walk from my house in downtown Oakland, where the most expensive item on the menu is about $13. So, yes, Michael does review local places.

 


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