Mar 132012
 

–Or—

“When the wagon of love breaks down under the baggage of life.”

Wine service is not rocket science.  It’s definitely not neuro-surgery.  In fact, the process of opening a bottle, be it still or sparkling, is really straightforward and there’s pretty much only one way to do it correctly with minor variations thrown in here and there depending on the style of restaurant.  But to be honest, most of the times it’s done wrong, as in slightly wrong in the form of minor details left out which don’t offend and usually go unnoticed.  These are the venial sins of the wine service confessional, if you will.  Then there are the tragic errors, the cardinal sins, where even the most unaware diner sits up and takes notice while the other more informed denizens of the dining room are alarmed, offended and possibly maimed.  These catastrophic errors are stuff of legend and this is the story of one dinner where not one, but three of them, were committed.  The names and the restaurant involved have been changed to protect the innocent.

Prelude

The year was 2007 and I was in the U.K. to work with flavor development team of Frito-Lay international, the Willy Wonka division of the world’s largest snack foods company.  I had worked with the UK team all afternoon on food and wine pairing combinations with an eye on creating a line of wine-friendly snacks.  It had been a really productive session so the six of us headed out dinner in the best of spirits.   My host had arranged for dinner at a small well-known restaurant on the Thames in the countryside near Reading.  He (host) assured me it was the best restaurant in the region and had a great wine list as well.

Part One: Champagne Service is Not Weapons Training

Pop goes the corkUpon being seated the host suggested that we order a bottle of Champagne to celebrate the occasion.  A young very tall red-haired chap appeared momentarily and handed me a leather-bound tome the size of a phone book.   The list was indeed very good with lots of depth from most of Europe’s major regions.   I scanned the Champagne section and chose a bottle of non-vintage rosé from a small grower producer house.  Order taken, the strapping young lad returned in mere moments with the bottle of pink bubbly in tow.  After presenting the bottle he started talking non-stop about the weather, the menu, that evening’s specials, all the while undoing the tab and taking off most of the capsule on the bottle in one brash tearing motion (dwarf bull fighting comes to mind).  Without missing a beat he undid the wire cage put it in his pocket and kept talking with the unprotected and very naked cork pointing at us then at other guests then at us again and so forth.  I considered ducking under the table more than once but thought better of it lest my colleagues think it overly dramatic.  Finally, after threatening the entire dining room with the primed bottle he reached for the cork in a grandiose gesture and promptly lost it with a spectacular and deafening BLAM!!!  The cork rocketed out of the bottle and bounced off the ceiling leaving a sizable dent before returning to the terra firma of our table and ricocheting on to the floor out of sight.  The explosion was accompanied by the inevitable gusher of pink fizzy wine that splooshed over the lad’s hands and on to the carpeting.  A few moments of stunned silence ensued.  Champagne guy then mumbled something like “uh, happy new year” before proceeding to pour the bottle around the table without further damage.

The sin: losing control of a Champagne cork

Safety first! A bottle of bubbly is under 120 pounds per square inch pressure as in more than in your car tires.  Opening a bottle is not to be taken lightly as people do actually die every year from worst case scenarios.  Safety is the bottom line.  Unless you’ve just won a formula one race or you’re  launching the Queen Mary, opening the bottle quietly and safely is the prime objective.   The overly zealous lad should have placed a folded serviette over the top of the bottle BEFORE removing the cage.  Then with a firm grip over napkin and top of the bottle, he would then loosen–but NOT take off–the cage and then remove the cage and cork at the same time as quietly as possible.  Spewing wine—wine that we were paying for by the way–is also not an option and yet another reason to open the bottle with a serviette draped over the top of the bottle.

Chapter II: Did You Want Some Too?

Too much wine?After Champagne guy left the table we quickly regained our composure and enjoyed the bubbly.  As everyone looked over the menu I ordered a bottle of Premier Cru Chablis for the starter course.  Champagne guy was not to be found so a charming young woman brought the bottle to the table.  She, too, was remarkably chatty but managed to get the cork out without further international incident.  After bringing the bottle and opening she asked if I would like to taste the wine and proceeded to cheerfully pour me over half a glass.  I grabbed my glass with the sturdy grip usually reserved by pirates for a daily ration of grog and rotated it slowly so as not to hose down my fellow diners.  I took a sip and it was delicious.  She smiled and then proceeded to over pour the other guests running out of wine before she got to the last person at the table who also happened to be the host, as in the same host who would be picking up the check.  To reiterate, she didn’t make it around a table of six with a full bottle of wine which is something not easy to do.  Much to her credit she smiled and asked if we would like a second bottle.  We politely refused and once she left several of us chipped in to make sure our host got a taste of Chablis to accompany his appetizer.

The sin: running out of wine before you make it around the table is inexcusable. 

Other than dropping the bottle on the floor or pouring wine on the guest at the table, nothing says “moron” quite like running out wine before you make it back to the host.  Period.  It doesn’t matter if the table is a 12-top and the host is so clueless or cheap to have only ordered a single 750 ml bottle for the table, the sommelier or server should easily be able to make it around the table and pour off the bottle when serving the host, who incidentally should always be served last regardless of gender.  If in doubt, massively under pour everyone’s glasses but never, EVER, run out of wine.

Chapter III: the Body Was on the Floor When I Got Here

Wine dropsAfter the appetizers were cleared I ordered an older vintage of Rioja Gran Reserva to be served with the entrees and then excused myself to go to the men’s room.   In my absence the host informed Champagne guy, who had suddenly reappeared, that I was a Master Sommelier.  Probably not a great idea.  After I returned to the table the lad showed up with the bottle of Rioja.  Gone now was the youthful bravado that accompanied the Champagne blasting incident and in its place was a pretty serious case of nerves.  The cork was removed without injury but the dripping began immediately with his pouring a taste for me.  After I approved the wine he then went around the table leaving an almost perfect uninterrupted ring of fire red between place settings.  By the time he had made it back to me with the bottle the table top looked like a crime scene.  Sam Peckinpah movies came to mind.  After a truly uncomfortable eternity he finished pouring, set the bottle down firmly and left the table visibly shaken.   Everyone looked at the table top for many long and silent moments and then at me.  I shrugged and said, “Well, I guess I’ll always have a job.”

The sin: not using a serviette when pouring wine.

The fix:  this one’s a no-brainer. A serviette must be used to prevent drips whenever pouring wine.  Always.  Otherwise, get out the yellow crime scene tape or a wet mop.

 

Mar 122012
 
Joe Pollack

Photo Credit: Kevin A. Roberts

The wine business is all about relationships. For that matter, wine is about relationships. Nothing brings people together better than sitting down with them for a great meal and nice bottle. Over the years, I’ve met many people over a bottle or two. Which is why, when you hear the news of someone special passing, you feel like you’ve lost a close friend. Last week, long time St. Louis food and wine writer, Joe Pollack, passed away. He was 81 years young.

If anything can be said of Joe, it’s that he enjoyed life to its fullest. A tireless champion for good food and wine, Joe knew how to bring out the best in his writing. Doing all of this in a market like St. Louis, where big beer rules and beef is what’s for dinner, must have been a challenge at times. But, Joe brought it off elegantly.

I first met Joe when I was new to the business of wine PR. A mere neophyte, I brought one of my client winemakers to meet with Joe at a local restaurant. He’d officially retired from the newspaper at that time, but true to form, Joe kept on, keeping on. Now, if you’ve ever met Joe, you’ll know that he didn’t exactly look like someone you’d expect to know so much about food and wine. Bald on top, with hair on the sides that, I swear to god, stuck straight out from his head defying gravity, reminiscent of a famous clown. But, appearances aside, it was immediately apparent to me that I was in the presence of a legend. I marveled at how he and the winemaker chatted like old pals, though they’d never met. I will never forget it.

A few years later, when the Drink Local Wine conference kicked off in Texas, Joe was right there with the rest of us. He was a champion of local wine and food, and his presence at the conferences was a given. When the conference gathered in St. Louis last year, Joe and his wife Ann acted as unofficial hosts of the conference and showed us all what Missouri wines had to offer. He was a great ambassador for the region and its winemakers.

I’ll miss you Joe. So, I raise a glass to you, wherever you may be. Cheers!

 

Mar 092012
 

Monterey Wine CompetitionThe Monterey Wine Competition began in 1994, and I have judged all but two years of that run, making me one of the real old timers in the crew. And it’s the one competition that I really try to make every year. Held not in Monterey or even Salinas, this one is in King City, which is miles from everything except some of the more memorable vineyards in the state. The whole town shows up to make the judges feel welcome, and it must be one of the high points of the social season there. In some ways, it is for us, too!

And the judges are wonderful–dear friends who share wine, food, jokes and stories from year to year. This year I was on a panel with Ron Rawlinson, who has been a retailer, winery sales manager, Cal Poly marketing instructor, and great friend for nearly 20 years; and Traci Dutton, the remarkable and wonderful wine buyer and sommelier for the Culinary Institute of America for years. She is the one who buys the wines for the classes I teach there—and makes that a pleasure every single time.

So what did we like? Well, like all judges, we disagreed on some wines. But there were at least ten wines in the sweepstakes round alone that really got my attention:

I loved the:

  • Best Blanc De Blanc – Baileyana Winery Cuvee 1909, Firepeak Vineyard Edna Valley

Made by Christian Roguenant—a dear friend who has judged this competition for years. He is often asked to judge the sparkling wines, and his wines often wine awards. So this year the sparkling panel did not include Christian. And his wines won again. But even more impressive were the Gloria Ferrer sparklers. I love these wines, and four of them were either platinum medals or Best of Show. Not bad, eh?

Navarro Winery continues to make consistently great Gewurztraminer, and so it was no surprise theirs won this category

But the best white wine award went to Zocker’s new Gruner Veltliner….made by that same Christian Roguenant

  • Zocker 2010 Gruner Veltliner, Paragon Vineyards Edna Valley

 

This was a lovely Bordeaux blend wine, and I voted for it as the best red wine of the competition. Yummy fruit, great balance, delightful wine.

And for pure Cabernet, the V Sattui was also nice. Dario and his crew consistently wine medals at major competitions…much to the surprise of many of his Napa Valley neighbors. They also got a platinum medal for their Petite Sirah.

In the dessert wine category, I loved two of the wines:

Delicious, with enough grip to be serious, although I do regret their decision to call it Port. It does not come from Portugal

And even better was this wine from New York State…how great is it that we are seeing such wonderful wines from other states?

And one that got a platinum medal but somehow didn’t make it into the sweepstakes round:

Year in and year out, one of the most consistently good bottles of wine you can buy

Mar 072012
 

True & Daring 2007 Riesling Bottle ShotThe oldest white wine I’ve ever tasted was a Reinhold Haart Spätlese Piesporter Goldtröpchen from the 1921 vintage.  In a half bottle.  Opened the day before.  The wine was originally in a full bottle, one of the last three the estate had in their cellar.  Owner Theo Haart opened the full bottle for his grandfather’s 80th birthday but knew we would visit the estate the following day so filled a half bottle and then gassed and re-corked it.  We tasted the wine over 24 hours later and it was still fresh, vibrant and very much alive at 80 years young.  It’s pretty amazing when you think about it considering a half bottle of newly released Fino Sherry at 15.5% ABV oxidizes within 24-36 hours of opening.  Yet another mystery of the wine world.  So why is that Riesling ages so much better than practically any other white wine, much less any wine?  I’m convinced it has something to do with the grape’s inherent high natural acidity combined with generally less alcohol found in the finished wines.  Add residual sugar to the mix in the case of the Mosel Spätlese and you have a magic recipe that will consistently result in years, even decades, in the cellar.

But the aging phenomenon is not just limited to the fruity styled wines.  I’ve enjoyed bottles from Australia and New Zealand that were several decades old and still possessed a great deal of freshness and youth.  These older dry Rieslings remind me of aged fine white Burgundies in terms of their aromatic complexity and layered palates.  And they are wonderfully versatile when it comes to pairing with food.  An old vintage of Riesling goes with practically everything except for red meat and some believe that even that gap can be bridged with enough age.  Hanno Zilliken, of Weingut Geltz- Zilliken in the Saar Valley, once told me that a good 25-30 year old Spätlese was a perfect match with venison, wild boar and other local game.  I tasted one of his older vintages soon after with wild boar carpaccio and was instantly converted.

But finding an older Riesling is not exactly an easy task.  In today’s wine world where instant gratification and quick inventory turnover are the rules of engagement, it’s challenging to find a bottle that’s had some decent cellar time.  Recently, I did come across an outstanding dry Riesling from New Zealand with five years of age.  The wine, the 2007 True & Daring, had literally just been released.  Owner Hennie Bosman was emphatic in expressing his belief that good Riesling can only show it’s best with some age.  To that end he will only release his wines after five years of age.  The 2007 did nothing to dispel that rumor.  The primary ferment was done in stainless steel and the wine shows a great deal of varietal intensity in the aromatics with the secondary vinous notes just starting to appear.  Flavors suggest white flowers, preserved citrus, white peach, kiwi, chamomile/herb and a touch of mineral.  The palate combines the rounded texture from five years of bottle time with the rapier, mouthwatering acidity.  In short, a delicious white ready to enjoy now and over the next 15 or so years if you have the patience.

Mar 052012
 
Charles Krug

Photo Credit: Charles Krug Winery

Traipse around St. Helena in the heart of Napa Valley today, and you will hardly feel sorry for anyone living there. The vineyard and mountain views are incredible, the streets are quaint, the restaurants are top notch, greenery is everywhere, and some of the world’s finest wines are made within stone-throwing distance.

But it wasn’t always praise and rainbows. The late 1800s were unkind to Napa Valley. The Mission grape being used in the wines was proving to be unpopular in the all-important East coast market, the country was going through a recession, French wines were popular and coming in via low tariffs, while the railroad fees for getting California wines back east were high. Add to that the phylloxera disaster, and things were looking very dark.

But our forebears were a tough lot. Gathering in December of 1875, Charles Krug, Henry Pellet and Seneca Ewer decided to pull up their bootstraps and do something about their impending fate.  With subsequent meetings, membership grew and the St. Helena Viticultural Club was established.  A Vintners Hall for offices and meetings, as well as a warehouse, were built between 1878 and 1880.

Important quality-changing pledges were made such as planting international varietals and stopping the practice of chaptalization (big move).

While the viticultural club has changed its name since, Appellation St. Helena continues to be a force in promoting the St. Helena appellation and its wines.  This truly is a reminder that, despite our industry’s youth, we have come a long way, baby.