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Southern California beach towns love their wine

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A personal value to me is to blog five days a week, a goal I’ve mostly achieved since 2008. However! Not every day is it possible, especially when I’m on the road, and my hosts keep me to a tight schedule that usually starts early in the morning and can last until nighttime. So that’s why I didn’t post yesterday. Mea culpa. But here I am, in my Manhattan Beach hotel on Wednesday by 6 p.m., which means I can get a good night’s sleep and have time for this post, which is an account of my current trip in Southern California.

On Tuesday night I went to a meeting of the Women’s Wine Alliance,

Women's

a wonderful group of gals who are professionals in the wine industry, but they also do very great charity work. We were scheduled to meet from 6:30 to 8 p.m., but at 9:30 at night we were still gleefully at it because the conversations were so wonderful. I don’t think anyone wanted to leave but eventually it was time, and besides, I was happy to collapse into bed at my hotel, to get ready for a very early morning appointment.

The next morning, my pal Cory Rowin

CoryRowin

picked me up at my hotel in San Diego at 7 a.m. and drove me to the local Fox-TV affiliate for a live interview. If you’ve never been in a Green Room on a morning T.V. show, they were also having a fashion show, an animal show, and a segment about baby quadruplets—so you can imagine! This was the wonderful lizard, Daisy, I met,

LizardBoy

who was really as sweet and affectionate as could be despite her Jurassic look; it took some doing to get me to hold her but I fell in love as soon as she crawled up my breast and was just a loving little baby. And this was yours truly being interviewed by the morning anchor, Raul.

FoxInterview

I’ve been on T.V. a couple times in my career and it’s always fun. We talked about wine, which the whole staff seemed to be interested in. Of course! Wine is interesting stuff.

Then we drove up the coast to Searsucker Restaurant, where we were set up for a tasting. I loved their fish pond,

SearsuckerFish

and we had interested, and interesting, guests who seemed to want to know all about being a wine critic and all that jazz. Don’t get me started!

SearsuckerPeopleThen it was up to La Jolla,

LaJollaBeach

a town I haven’t been to for years. These beach towns are very wealthy and beautiful and on this perfect summer day all of them—Laguna, Huntington and the others—were Paradise.

Then it was up through San Clemente, a beach town I’ve only known as Richard Nixon’s California home, where his idea of relaxation was to walk on the beach in his suit and formal shoes, but to take off his tie! We also went to a little restaurant, Red Table,

RED TABLE

in Huntington Beach, where I thoroughly enjoyed the New Jersey GM, Donna, and her bar manager, Jeremiah.

RedTablePeople

A good time was had by all!

At some point we hit up Watermarc Restaurant, in Laguna Beach, which is maybe the quintessential surfer-millionaire SoCal beach town.

WatermarcLaguna

Our lunch, especially the lamb chops, which I seldom have because it’s really hard to get good chops, was spectacular.

I so enjoy these trips because they get me out of Oakland and my comfort zone into the real world of restaurants, bars, bartenders, floor staff and wine stores, where real people who love wine work to sell it and, hopefully, buy some Jackson Family Wines wines. Every stop is different: a different play, a new cast, a new plot, a new location. And there I am, thrown into the narrative. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.


Live blogging from the Bloggers Conference

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From the Wine Bloggers Conference agenda:

Live Wine Blogging (White & Rose): This is the pre-eminent event at the Wine Bloggers Conference. Winemakers will each have five minutes to pour their wine, present their story, and answer questions from a table of bloggers. At the end of five minutes, winemakers will rotate to a new table. Bloggers will analyze and describe their impressions live via social media or their blogs.

Dramatis personae:

Winemaker Steve Heimoff, of Chateau Heimoff, poured his Chateauneuf-du-Pup “Cuvée Gus” for six bloggers. This is a transcript of the session.

Bloggers:

Elsie Tutwell, “Wine for Walloons”

Davison D. Dudwinkle, “Dudes Definitely Drink”

Nathan L. “Putzy” Poodleheimer, “This Putz Drinks Pink!”

P. Chumitz, “Waiter, there’s a fly in my wine!”

Desirée D’Anglebert, “The Sexy Grrlzz Guide to Wine”

Rainbow Roy, “How Gay Is That? Hot Wines for Hot Men”

*******

Steve: Hi everyone, how are—

Elsie: We only have 5 minutes.

Rainbow: I love your tattoos!

Putzy: Is this a rosé? Cuz that’s all I drink.

Steve: Actually, it’s—

Davison: Oh, darn, my screen froze!

Desirée: Really? Let me see. Sometimes if I hold it here—

Chumitz: Where did you say you’re from?

Steve: Actually, I didn’t say, but I’m from—

Desirée: There! It just needed a little love. Try it now.

Davison: Why is it damp?

Rainbow: Is that an orchid?

Steve: Yes, and that’s a poppy next to it. Now, about the wine—

Elsie: Oh, I like it. I’m going to tweet about it. How do you spell your name?

Steve: S – T – E – V –

Putzy: Funny, it doesn’t look pink….

Chumitz: Poodleheimer, you’re a moron. It’s Petite Sirah.

Steve: Actually, no, it’s—

Putzy: You don’t have to be so rude, Chumitz.

Rainbow: I have a tattoo, but I’d have to go au naturel to show it to you, and I’m not sure that the Wine Bloggers Conference is the appropriate place…

Davison: What forest is the oak from? What’s the char level? How old were the trees? Was the toastiére’s name Maurice?

Elsie: What’s a toasty air?

Desirée: I think it was fermented in concrete eggs. Am I right? Because I can always tell from that wet concrete smell.

Davison: That’s brett. Or is it TCA? I get them mixed up.

Chumitz: You’re nuts, Desirée. It was obviously aged in new Tronçais.

Desirée: I have an idea. Let’s ask the winemaker!

Steve: Well, I—

Davison: Because when I was in France the guy’s name was Maurice, only he was Swiss.

Rainbow: I knew a Maurice. But he was from Brooklyn.

Putzy: I really liked that last wine. You remember? You liked it too, Desirée.

Desirée: No I didn’t. Elsie did.

Elsie: I didn’t either. You mean the sparkling wine?

Putzy: I hated it. I liked the dessert wine.

Steve: Well, this is a—

Davison: You did like it, Desirée. Remember? You asked him what the pH was.

Desirée: Oh, right. I’m getting a little tipsy! Ooopsy poopsy!

Rainbow: It’s a portrait of my mom. The only reason I put it on my buttocks was because—

Chumitz: Rainbow Roy, we really don’t need to hear about your buttocks.

Rainbow: Well, I’m just saying.

Davison: What U.C. Davis climate region is it? Are the soils volcanic? How do you define “mineral”? How old are the vines? Is it a Geneva Double Curtain? Did you pick before the rains came?

Steve: Umm–

Elsie: I’m terribly sorry, Mr.—what did you say your name is? Smellneff? Anyhow, your time is up. Next winemaker!

Tomorrow: Heimoff does Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Reddit, Periscope and Grindr.

TwitterGus


Au revoir, awesome Austin!

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I’ve always wanted to come to Austin. I’d heard so much about how it’s the “San Francisco of Texas.” My friend Terry, from the tattoo shop, spent a year there, and loved it. My local drive-around buddies were from Republic distributors, Scott

Scott

and Chris (whose picture I forgot to take). Scott actually drove me all the way from San Antonio, and between him and Chris, I feel I got to know this city of nearly 900,000—Texas’s capital—pretty well. I took this picture of the downtown skyline from his car.

Austin

Despite its size, Austin has a small-town feeling, especially the downtown area and Sixth Street,

SixthSt

which was so like Oakland, and also reminded me of the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon: young, energetic, lots of hip clubs, bars, wine stores and tattoo shops, and cool, creative little restaurants. The temperature was very hot, above 100 degrees, but, being inland, it didn’t have the humidity of Houston, so I found it very comfortable. (Of course, we were going from one air-conditioned place to another.)

We had lunch at Mongers,

Mongers

which may not look like much from the outside, but is one of the better seafood restaurants; their ahi tuna poke was fantastic.

My friends brought me to some wine shops: Beverage World, a fine little venue with a really friendly, loyal clientele, where I hosted a tasting with the chef and buyer, Eric Pelegrin,

EricBevWorld

a Frenchman who is a man after my own heart. Wow, did we have fun with the customers, nearly all of whom brought their dogs (and made me really miss Gus!). We also tasted with John Roenigk, owner of the Austin Wine Merchant,

AustinWineMerch

the kind of wine store I just love to poke around, row after crowded row of interesting bottles (and I joked that I wouldn’t mind getting locked in there some night!). We also visited The Grove Wine Bar & Kitchen, where I met the proprietor, Reed Clemons,

ReedClemonsGrove

and what a success story that is: Reed now has four branches of this fun, lively restaurant, with its modern decor and highly curated wine list.

I stayed at the Omni. This was my last dinner before heading home:

LastTXDinner

crab cakes and mussels, washed down with a vodka gimlet. Fairly standard hotel fare, but I’m not complaining. The vodka was local, from Tito’s, which I’d earlier had in San Antonio, and it was quite good. I always try to drink local on these trips.

At the Austin Airport, on my way back to San Francisco, I saw this poster in one of the shops. “Keep Austin Weird” is, I guess, sort of the town’s motto.

AustinWeird

I felt like I’d done my part, however briefly, to do exactly that!

And now, it’s on the road again this week, to Southern California. I’ll do my best to report. Take care and be well.


Live! From the road–San Antonio

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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!),

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.

RiverWalk

 

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.

Resto

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.

SauvBlanc

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…


From Houston: Michelin won’t come here? Really?

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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!


Live! From Houston! It’s a road warrior

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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.


The future of wine criticism: through my magic crystal

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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.


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