Tim Gaiser

Oct 012014
 

San FranciscoThe following is an article contributed by Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser. You can read more by Tim at TimGaiser.com.

October marks 30 years that Carla and I have lived in San Francisco.  We moved to California after I finished graduate school at the University of Michigan in January of 1984 initially setting in San Mateo because of the usual periodic housing shortage in the city.  Those first nine months in California can only be described as bleak with the stress of finding a job and living in an apartment with no light and the most alarming vomit-hued shag carpet. The only salvation was a shopping center across the street with a wine shop that we often visited–especially after experiencing the first several earthquakes.  Welcome to California!

We moved to San Francisco on October first of that year finding a one bedroom apartment on Russian Hill with spectacular views of the bay, Alcatraz, and all of Pacific Heights for a mere $650—and it had parking!  FYI the same apartment today rents for over $4K. It was never our intention to stay here for several decades but having two kids meant first finding day care, then pre-school, and on and on through high school in a blur commonly referred to as parenthood.  Contrary to a lot of negative press on the subject both our kids—especially Patrick about whom you’ll read more below—thrived in public schools their entire academic careers.  That being said the range of quality for public schools in San Francisco is just as extreme as in any other big city.  But just as knowing the producer in Burgundy is a no-brainer and mandatory for getting a good bottle, a parent in San Francisco simply has to be an advocate for their kid to get them into the right schools.  With special ed programs, and because our son Patrick is a special needs guy, it’s even more critical that a parent push to get their kid into the right class with the right teacher.  Carla was a champion for both Maria and Patrick and a huge part of their academic success. I will always be grateful to her for that.

When I’m on the road–which is all too often–I tell people I live in San Francisco and get the usual how lucky you are or what a beautiful city or what an amazing place. I invariably agree that yes, it’s all the above.  However, after living here for 30 years I have my own analogy for living in San Francisco that goes something like this; “it’s like dating a gorgeous expensive woman you can never really quite afford.” After thirty years, she—the city—is more expensive than ever thanks to Google and all my new high tech friends who have pushed rents and housing prices to beyond New York levels.  And she’s no fun anymore.  In fact, she’s a complete pain in the ass.  That’s my take on San Francisco.  Want proof? Enter exhibit “A,” a Friday night last summer.

Every second Friday night, the ARC center has a dance for its clients from 6:00 to 8:00.  If you are not familiar, the ARC is a national organization for people with disabilities.  Patrick is currently enrolled in a special program called ACCESS, offered through the unified school district in a space attached to ARC.  He will age out of ACCESS next May when he turns 22 and when he does, he will move right next door into ARC programs. But because he’s on site practically every day now, he knows almost everyone on the staff at ARC, as well as many of the clients.  Needless to say, the ARC dances are big fun for him as well as the rest of the clients and parents. But for Carla and me, the ARC dances also mean two hours to go on an actual “date.”

On that ill-fated Friday evening we parked across from the ARC center on the corner of Howard and 11th streets (a reference that will be important later) and walked Patrick over to the dance.  We then clambered back in the vehicle and headed south on Folsom St. for a wine bar on Mission and 22nd where we enjoyed a glass of wine just weeks before.  Mind you, I knew full well we were taking a major risk.  I’ve lived in the city more than long enough to know what traffic and parking can be like in the Mission on a Friday night. The phrases FUBAR, impossible, and completely screwed come to mind. But we were game, and in serious need of a quality time together, so we set off in what was really just a sub-ten minute jaunt of less than 25 blocks.

Once there, we began the cosmic undertaking of finding a parking place on Mission St. or thereabouts which is somewhere between passing an NFL team through the eye of a needle or a Sauvignon Blanc getting 100 points in the Wine Spectator.  Dear readers, I really don’t have to tell you what happened next–but I will.  We drove around—very strategically mind you—for the next hour trying in vain to find a parking place, any parking place, within five to six blocks of said wine bar.  You might hazard a guess, and you would be correct, that we never did find that illusive parking place.  It was like the city in the form of my uber expensive girlfriend simply didn’t show up for our date—and she wasn’t even returning my phone calls, texts or e-mails.

I have to say that I handled driving around pointlessly for an hour with great patience and aplomb.  After all, if your expectations for success are somewhere near non-existent, even the least shred of success can seem life changing.  But that never happened either.  By now you’re probably thinking that we should have driven somewhere else, parked the car, and taken a cab to the joint.  But really? Seriously?  After all, we now had about an hour to get something to eat before having to retrieve Patrick.

After making the decision to bail on the wine bar, which was really quite easy, we headed back up Folsom street with the intention of finding a place close to ARC, thus salvaging whatever time we had left.  I told Carla to look at “Near Me” on her phone to find restaurants on the way.  But nothing interesting came up and in minutes we found ourselves parking in EXACTLY THE SAME PARKING SPACE we had just used an hour before when we dropped Patrick off.  I am not making this up.  But stay with me because this is where it gets good.

At the confluence of Howard and 11th Streets and across from the ARC building were two restaurants; a Mexican place and a pizza place.  We opted for the latter.  Before going on any further, I have to confess that I am not the person to ask when inquiring about the latest, coolest restaurants in San Francisco.  I travel a lot and eat out a lot on the road, so when I’m home I like to stay home and cook and, as you can imagine, there are more than a few bottles of wine downstairs in my garage.  That said, I was really not in the least informed about the pizza place we stumbled into because, after all, it was on the corner literally crawling distance from the car–and we were hungry, thirsty, and had little time left for dinner.  But this was not just any pizza place; this pizza place which will not be named was one of those establishments certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana in Naples complete with a special wood burning pizza oven.

After the fact, Carla and I were to learn that there’s usually a line out the door at this place and the restaurant also doesn’t take reservations.  But on this Friday night the restaurant gods in San Francisco smiled on us, if only briefly, and we managed to grab the only open deuce.  Inside, the place was all austere concrete and cinder blocks with the enormous aforementioned certified pizza oven occupying front and center stage.   Quickly I noticed that we were the oldest people in the restaurant and so completely un-hip that we probably didn’t belong there. But screw it, I thought, we were hungry and now only had about 45 minutes before having to head across the street.

Eyeing the menu, I spotted five different choices for pizza offered that evening, all for the mere price of $25 a pie. Mind you, these were single size pizzas. Not a big deal. But then my eyes drifted over to the right side of the menu to the wines offered by the glass.  And here, meine freunden, is where it got interesting.  All the wines poured by the glass were from Campania, which wasn’t a surprise given the origin of the restaurant’s certification.  But more importantly, all the offerings were either orange wines or natural wines. I let out an audible groan. Carla, who has now has a zero tolerance policy for my reaction to poorly constructed wine lists and/or less-than-adequately trained servers, immediately responded with a terse, “Now what?” I told her about the wines by the glass.  She responded with something like, “Oh, it’s probably fine.” But I knew better.  I’ve tasted enough of both categories to be a fervent believer in modern winemaking technology and to be just as unappreciative of chemistry projects masquerading as commercially sold wine.  More on that later.

Soon the server took our order.  I can’t recall which of the five pizzas I chose, but I clearly remember ordering two glasses of an Aglianico from a producer I’d never heard of.  The wine arrived quickly in two of those thick, heavy, and dense tumblers normally used in chain restaurants or bar fights.  Dismissing the fact that I was paying $13 for a glass of wine served in a something resembling a weapon, I put my nose in the glass.  Immediately all my internal wine flaw alarms went off.  If seven alarms is max in the firefighting world, then I was at nine alarms, meaning the wine had more than one serious flaw. Said Aglianico not only displayed a monumental level of VA—somewhere between floor varnish and Sherry vinegar—it also had an extreme level of brettanomyces. The combination made my eyes water, and when I went to comment about the tragic condition of the wine to Carla she just gave me the eye.  So I sipped the wine in pained silence, trying to imagine the less than hygienic conditions under which the wine was made.  I’m reasonably sure that the winemaker and his/her tribe probably had the best of intentions, but this was beyond the term “cellar palate” where one loses olfactory sensitivity because of working in a single wine environment for too long; it was more like “stable palate.”

Fortunately, the pizzas showed up just as I drained the last wicked drop of Aglianico.  I wanted another glass of wine—any wine but the Aglianico.  I chose the other red offered by the glass, only to learn from the server that they were sold out of it.  However, the restaurant had just gotten a new vintage of Piedrosso from her favorite producer that day and would we like to try it.  Of course!  After all, it had to be better than the previous wine.  I was wrong.  The Piedrosso arrived in moments in the same big clunky glasses and when I put my nose in the glass I literally saw the color brown.  The Piedrosso for anyone keeping score was the single most flawed glass of wine I’ve ever been served.  It displayed staggering levels of Brett and was oxidized—and it was spritzy!   It was as if the wine was still trying to sort itself out in the bottle after many tortuous years, hence my previous comment about natural wines as chemistry projects.  For the record, the pizzas were delicious–absolutely top shelf–even if they were a bit pricey.  Total cost of dinner, including 20% tip and tax: $124.  Experience of tasting “natural” wines: priceless.

Allow me a moment on my soapbox.  Regardless of the kinds of wines you feel best suit your menu, you as a professional buyer have an obligation to have a clue about what clean, well-made wine is and to offer your guests sound, well-made wines that are good values.   That’s the deal, and absolutely no exceptions, including orange and natural wines.  Further, in keeping with my Mom’s sage advice that it takes all types to fill up the freeways, I would be the first to admit that there’s room for just about everything in the world of wine.  But let’s not confuse unusual with flawed.  There’s a big difference.  And while it’s been interesting to watch the orange/natural wine camps, I’m also beginning to think that maybe it’s about time they had some kind of certification so the rest of us in industry know what the hell they’re doing—even if what they’re doing results in completely flawed wine.  After all, there are certifications for organic and biodynamic wine.  Why not for natural wines? I rest my case.

So, on that Friday night my latest date with the uber expensive girlfriend, otherwise known as San Francisco was—what a surprise—expensive, rushed, and agita-inducing.  Oh yes, she was completely unkempt for the occasion.

Aug 282014
 

Homersapien: Evolution of the palate

“A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age …”

Shakespeare from Twelfth Night

Last year I sat down to interview Yosh Han, internationally known custom perfumer. Like previous interviews with wine industry colleagues I wanted to deconstruct Yosh’s internal strategies for olfactory memory especially given that the range of possible aromas for perfume is exponentially far greater than wine. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Yosh’s strategies for remembering aromas were entirely based on visual very similar to most of the wine professionals I’ve interviewed. In a second session I met with Yosh and Amanda Holt, her assistant, (website) to create my own personal scent. We started with more than 50 vials of different aromas. The process was simple: she passed me the vials of an aromas one by one without telling me of the contents and I said either “yes,” “no,” “love it” or “hate it.” I then handed vials to Amanda who grouped them in said categories keeping aside the ones from the liked and loved categories. We went through several rounds finally narrowing down my favorites to seven: peppermint, rosemary, violet, waves (marine note), aloe, night queen (jasmine), teak, and something called washed suede. Yosh then blended them and tweaked the percentages until we both liked the results. The final scent, at least according to my wife Carla who knows infinitely more about perfumes and essential oils than I ever will, is a unisex scent that could be worn by either men or women. For the record, she likes it—a lot.

Yosh frequently blends custom scents for clients, not an inexpensive endeavor. I asked her about it and she said her client sessions were often like scent therapy where a client would often overload on a certain category like sweet smells (chocolate) or musk smells or floral smells and leave everything else out completely resulting in a completely skewed blend. At that point she would gently suggest to the client that a balance of different scents was needed for the best result and slowly guide them to include other categories of aromas. In a way she was expanding their olfactory universe and their appreciation for completely different and for them probably previously unnoticed scents and sensory experiences. I then asked Yosh was she liked best; what were her favorite aromas. I really wasn’t surprised to hear her say that she liked practically everything as long as it was high quality and done well. She immediately asked me what kinds of wines I liked best and I had to give the same answer; I like practically any style of wine as long as it’s balanced and made well. But it hasn’t always been that way and that got me thinking to how my tastes in wine —my likes and dislikes—have changed over the last 30+ years. It also made me ponder how one’s palate undergoes an evolution of sorts over time. With that in mind here’s a completely un-researched, undocumented, and otherwise reckless account of the evolution of a palate.

Warning: the following may contain elements of sarcasm, droll humor, parody, and otherwise snarky commentary.

Phase I

Phase I: Katy Perry

Wine as liquid sweet confection. If Starbucks really gets into the wine game this will be style numero uno to map across from the shockingly schlocky and uber sweet concoctions they shamelessly market as “coffee.” I will say no more. The wines from Phase I are usually pink or white in color and slightly-to-moderately sweet in style. Today we not only have Muscat in all its various forms but a new category of sweet red wines both of which have once again has left the industry scratching its collective head while scrambling to get the tanks filled, the wines sweet enough, and the labels catchy enough to be commercially appealing. It seems as if every generation finds a way to give itself permission to drink fruity and slightly sweet wines and the Moscato/sweet red thing is no exception. That’s simply because most of us, self-included, started in the way back machine of our wine careers by initially drinking wines that were off-dry to quite sweet and hopefully balanced by enough acidity so as not to resemble, well … Katy Perry. For me that was ‘70’ incarnations in the form of Lancer’s and Mateus rosés, odd vinous creatures packaged in cans called “wine coolers,” and the likes of Blue Nun, Reunite Lambrusco, and White Zinfandel. Not surprisingly, most were mass market brands with the mega-funds to promote on TV and in print media. Don’t get me wrong, everyone has to start somewhere and remember that anyone drinking any kind of wine is good for the industry. At this juncture it’s only fitting that I quote my Mom who once said, “It takes all types to fill up the freeway.” And of course, she was right. Ultimately one hopes that the Katy Perry crowd moves on to at least Phase II. But if they don’t it’s all good; no harm no foul.

Phase II

Phase II: Rombauer

Editorial note: I am NOT bashing Rombauer Chardonnay or the good people at the Rombauer winery in any way, shape or form here. They make good wine and they do a good job. Everyone should be as successful. Everyone got it? Good. Moving on. What Rombauer Chardonnay has to do with Phase II of the evolution of a palate? Simple: it’s all about novice drinkers graduating from innocuous, sweet mono-chromatic wines to a full-bodied and lush single varietal wine with layers of intense fruit flavors and the first taste of new oak—the latter of which will likely become the crack of their wine drinking world. Inhabitants of Phase II also usually become very interested in what they’re eating in terms of quality; this despite the fact that they will consume mass quantities of Chardonnay with any and everything including red meat. Eventually many in the Phase II club will crave for even more intensity and discover red wines. And like every toddler boy who first learns to walk, they won’t walk but will instead race full-bore, pell-mell directly into …. Cabernet Sauvignon!

Phase III

Phase III: Monster Truck Pull

Having developed a serious oak habit wine now becomes a full contact sport for newly minted members of Phase III. More often than not it’s a guy thing–no make that a group of guys thing—as in a group of guys in the backyard having just consumed half a grilled steer and the better part of case of very expensive California Cabernet. Now they’re moving on to cigars, Port and the inevitable and awkwardly emotional “I love you, man” moment. For denizens of Phase III, if it doesn’t have 15+% alcohol it’s not wine. They tend to eat lots of red meat and also develop a serious fortified wine habit because after all, Port is really loud wine too! Acquiring a whiskey (y) habit also may also happen at this point in the evolutionary phase which can actually be a good thing in terms of quality, style and terroir of the best malt whiskies and Bourbons. Needless to say, the hangovers experienced by Phase III members can be legendary. The discovery of amaro is therefore common in this phase and a medical necessity. I discovered Fernet Branca while in Phase III and it saved my life on just such an occasion. Alas, parenthood and advancing age can take their toll on members of Phase III. But a certain percentage of them at some point experience a life-altering vinous moment and move quietly into Phase IV.

Phase IV

Phase IV: Oh Blinding Light …

In Phase IV the wine drinker moves from full contact to nuance the result of a beautiful sadness of life moment usually at the hands of a great bottle of Burgundy. Instantly wine goes from collision to filigree and along with this blinding light moment often comes the realization that the “where” of a wine can be more important than anything else. Such mystical moments sometimes occur while traveling to so-called sacred home turf environs such as Burgundy, Jerez and the like. Initiates of Phase IV also cross an invisible line from “eat to live” to “live to eat” and planning dinner while having lunch is a common affliction. Potential downsides to Phase IV often involve becoming a hopeless and equally insufferable Francophile snob with the victim never returning to a balanced vinous state. Extreme cases involve joining various wine societies or clubs that require secret handshakes, wearing pastel sashes with medals and ribbons, and even—god forbid—the donning of long Obi Wan-like robes. With their recent spiritual conversion Phase IV rangers are notorious for demeaning big-ass Cabernets—the same big-ass Cabernets they were only recently hoovering at an alarming rate. Further, they may take to slamming any wine for having too much alcohol or for not being authentic–whatever the hell that means. Ahem.

Phase V

Phase V: It’s a Small World …

Phase V is really an extension of Phase IV; here the individual has their first great Riesling experience and with it the blinding realization that wines with residual sugar can be cosmic—as great as any wines on the planet. Moreover, these same delicate, slightly sweet and acid-crazy wines are among the most versatile food wines that exist. Phase V regulars often drink more white wines than red and crave what is in reality insane levels of minerality and acidity regardless of what’s in their glass. But they also “get” simply made country wines with the right intensity of fruit and a good acid balance (that acid word again). And if they haven’t rediscovered Champagne and top quality sparkling wines (think Franciacorta) in Phase IV they do so with a vengeance in Phase V. Italy looms large for red wines in Phase V again for the acid/minerality thing and Phase V’ers will put up with various amounts of VA and brett to get their fix.

Phase VI

Phase VI: “Even the Irish …”

The above short quote from the brilliant Mel Brooks movie (soon to be a blog post unto itself) Blazing Saddles. Those who make it to Phase VI have traveled full circle in that they have no problem drinking slightly sweet wines. In fact, someone who gets to this point in palate evolution LOVES slightly sweet wine but with a huge caveat: it HAS to be good as in top Vouvray Demi-Sec or Spätlese/Auslese Riesling. But more importantly they like—no make that love—practically every kind of wine as long as it’s well made; from shockingly acidic Brut Zero Champagnes to bone dry and austere VORS Palo Cortado Sherries to top Cabernets from Coonawarra to VA-laced old school Piedmontese Barolo to decadently succulent TBA’s from Austria or Germany. As Mayor Olson Johnson of Rock Ridge said, “Aw, prairie sh*t… Everybody!”

Reprinted by permission from TimGaiser.com.

Feb 042014
 

Wine Reviews DroningRecently I was listening to Michael Krasny interview wine importer extraordinaire Kermit Lynch on the local Bay Area NPR radio affiliate. At the end of the interview Kermit took calls from listeners and one of the callers complained bitterly about wine reviews and how they describe wines in florid detail using terms that, according the caller, were complete nonsense. Kermit soft-pedaled his answer saying that yes, writers can sometimes go off the rails when describing wine and that yes, everyone’s palate is different so you can’t expect to agree on everything you read in wine reviews. But Lynch’s response made me pause because I’ve heard this complaint all too often; that wine descriptions are in some form or other nonsense and that wine writers frankly make things up. So I’d like to address this personally, even ecumenically, if you will.

Odds are wine writers as much as you may want to believe it are not making things up. Sure there may be the odd hallucination now and again but usually they’re simply trying to tell you what wine X, Y or Z smells and tastes like to them. Emphasis on THEM. Beyond that we often hear the phrase “everybody’s different” when it comes to wine and that is correct across the board. Here’s how we’re different. In short, here’s the deal:

We all have the same hardware in the form of our brain and neurology. But after that all bets are off. What’s different? Simple answer: everyone’s memories. So your take on Meyer Lemon is going to be different than my mine because my experience in the form of my internal pictures, movies, sounds and feelings associated with Meyer Lemon throughout my lifetime is unique and not yours. And while we may agree that there’s something sour and citrus-like in the wine we’re sharing we’re never going to share an identical experience collectively known as Meyer Lemon. You may think it smells more like pink grape fruit or a catcher’s mitt or a freshly painted garage door for that matter. Further, the wonderful bouquet of flowers I adore in a glass of glorious Grand Cru Alsace Gewurztraminer may utterly repel you because it’s entirely too close to that memory of your tragic drive-by at a Macy’s perfume counter at some point in the distant past. Personal likes and dislikes are important and those are based on memory too.

Context is also important. The how’s, who’s, why’s and when’s you taste/drink a wine collectively form the trump card in any wine experience. That magic bottle of whatever you enjoyed when your boyfriend proposed will forever be your favorite wine in the whole entire universe and just the mere thought of it will send you around the moon and back to that magic moment–until the divorce. Then it becomes the most cursed s#@*&% bottle of wine in the history of mankind. Yes, friends, context is important. Remember that.

Remember also that wine tasting is marginally about actually tasting. It’s primarily about SMELLING as smell accounts for over 85% of the sense of taste. So if you’re passing by the nose on your evening goblet of Cabernet going right in for the big slurp the proverbial cow is already out of the barn. In fact, the cow is so far out of the barn that it took your car to SFO and is now headed to Fiji. On your credit card. Moo.

That is to say olfactory memory is the most powerful form of memory we have because aromas from the glass or any other source go right up our nasal passages directly into the cerebral cortex. That means when such-and-such wine writer rambles on about how the pepper and herbal notes in a Chateauneuf-du-Pape remind him of the cassoulet his grandmother used to make when he was a kid during the holidays, guess what? It probably does and that means you shouldn’t wig out over said writer’s musings but should instead try to get to your own memories of pepper and savory herbs to better understand what the writer is trying to express about the wine. Hopefully the next time you taste the same wine or a similar wine you might experience them too unless, of course, you find something completely different. Because after all, it’s what the wines smells and tastes like to you that actually counts.

As for the sense of smell, we as a culture generally suck at olfactory memory. It’s not important to us so we don’t practice it and we’re not very good at it. Other than a smack-me-on-the-side-of-the-head tsunami of cow pasture, raw garlic or did somebody left the burner the gas stove on, we’re generally not tuned into the olfactory world. But there are definitely exceptions and those individuals usually tend to be in the perfume, wine and spirits worlds or other professions where one’s expertise is largely determined by smell memory. It’s not surprising then that when someone with a highly developed olfactory memory writes about their subject in depth it’s viewed with great suspicion.

It’s easily understandable then how the poetic meanderings/descriptions of wine writing can leave one puzzled, forlorn and even verklempt. This because wine has no inherent vocabulary leaving us wine professionals to borrow, often tragically, nomenclature from completely unrelated fields. Adjectives such as “murky,” “bold,” “dense,” and even something comical like “explosive” find their way into wine descriptions not to mention any number of fruits, herbs and spices (Road tar is among my favorites). But when you read that tasting a rare old vintage made some famous wine writer start weeping you should definitely have serious misgivings. I would.

Know that wine professionals taste a lot of wine as in potentially thousands of bottles a year. If someone is tasting that much, odds are they’re pretty good at it and they should also be proficient at communicating about it in a meaningful way even if they are limited to nomenclature that may seem like Martian to the novice. Keep in mind that this is tasting and not drinking. A professional tasting may sound like fun to you but it’s hard work requiring a hell of a lot of focus, concentration and inevitable palate fatigue. Still think it sounds fun? Imagine tasting 45 different coffees in 90 minutes, taking notes and then writing about the qualities of each one. I rest my case.

Finally, if the florid wine descriptions still give you agita consider giving wine writers a break. Even with the zillions of wine blogs and everyone pretending to be a wine expert these days there are more good writers than ever. Find one whose prose you can live with—even like—and follow them. Chances are their likes and dislikes are similar to yours. But above all remember that your palate—and what you like to drink—is the bottom line. Because after all, I made all this up.

Just kidding.

Nov 052013
 

durian pastriesAt some point near the end of a recent dinner in Singapore my friend and fellow Master Brian Julyan and I suddenly thought we smelled natural gas in the restaurant where we were dining–or mercaptan, to be precise, which is added to natural gas to make it detectable.  The odor was strong enough that we called a server over to let them know about it.  He answered quickly, “no gas, just durian.”  The phrase had barely left his mouth when another server put down a plate of white puffy pastries in front of us.  Brian looked at me and said tersely, “no way.”  After all, he’d been burned once before and had never really forgiven me for it.  “I’m going in,” I announced to the table.  I then took one of the spongy pastries off the plate and quickly popped it into my mouth without further thought.  What followed was an instant descent into a wormhole of culinary/sensory hell with the most bizarre combination of horrific aromas I’d ever experienced.

This wasn’t my first encounter with durian.  In 2006 I went to Singapore for the first time with Brian and Evan Goldstein to teach the first ever MS Introductory Course in Asia.  As we headed out to dinner one night we drove past a fruit stand on the side of the street that had an enormous stockpile of bizarre green fruit.  Someone in our party asked Tommy Lam, our local contact, about the fruit which resembled a cross between a green football and an armadillo.  “Durian,” Tommy said.  “Tastes good but smells really awful.”  Being the ever curious and compulsive Americans we had to know more.  After all how bad could something possibly smell? To satisfy our morbid curiosity Tommy drove around the block and then rolled down the windows on our second pass.  Instantly a stench assaulted the car—a combination of shit, road kill and the essence of the putrefaction decay cycle. It was overwhelming.  That people could even consider eating something that smelled so foul was beyond belief.  But I was to learn more.

durian fruitThe name durian comes from the Malay world “duri” which translates as thorn; in Asia it’s called the “king of fruits.”  It’s been consumed in southeastern Asia since prehistoric times but has only been known to the western world for about 600 years. The earliest known European written record of the fruit is by Niccolò Da Conti, who traveled to Asia in the 15th century.  Durian is known for its large size (up to 12 inches long) and can weigh up to seven pounds.  There are some 30 known species of which nine produce edible fruit.  But more than anything durian is legendary for its remarkably strong, repulsive odor—an odor so pungent that it’s banned on public transportation throughout Southeast Asia.

I remember asking students in that first Introductory class about durian and whether they liked it or not.  The group was split right down the middle with half crooning at the mere mention of the word and the other half utterly repulsed.  There was no middle ground.  Those that loved it professed to be addicted to it.  One young woman said she considered durian to be an aphrodisiac or at the very least a delicacy.  She went on to say that the combination of sweet melon-like fruit with jalapeno-peppery spiciness was to die for.  However, someone else in the class said it should be outlawed completely.  Several in the group also said that eating too much durian in a short duration of time could cause dangerously high blood pressure.  I’m thinking that the olfactory bulb in your brain would probably explode long before that.

After that initial drive by experience Brian, Evan and I taunted each other for days about actually trying it.  But it wasn’t until the very last day in the basement of one of the city’s well-known shopping mega-complexes that we actually had our opportunity.  Wandering through the glaring fluorescent aisles Brian and I came face to face with a kiosk called “Durian for All Seasons.”  We looked at each other knowing that if we were ever going to taste durian this would be it.  And as fate—either fortuitous or cruel—would have it, there next to the register was a plate filled with small wafer cookies with a thin green filling.  “Come on, Brian,” I said, “how bad can it be?” (Note to self, anytime someone asks that question the answer is probably going to be some variation of “as bad as possible”).

durian all seasons

I took two of the cookies and handed one to a very reluctant Brian.  As I popped the cookie into my mouth I experienced something that’s happened every time I’ve tried durian since—the slowing down or stoppage of time.  Let me explain: whenever I’ve tried durian I’m reminded of the times when I was a kid riding my bike on a hot summer day and I wiped out on a neighborhood street which had just been repaved.  Just as I’m about to hit the pavement time slows down and almost stops so I can smell the tar of the pavement, feel the heat coming off it and then feel myself hitting it and bouncing a few times all in Sam Peckinpah slow motion. Eating durian is similar probably because the olfactory experience is so overwhelming that it short circuits the part of the brain that tracks time.

After eating my cookie I looked at Brian.  His expression was somewhere between mortified, stunned and completely freaked out.  He looked at me and said with quiet desperation, “coffee!  Now!”  We raced up four endless escalators to a coffee shop and waited five very long minutes to be seated while the taste of green radioactivity bubbled away on our palates.  Finally we were seated and ordered black coffees.  Brian didn’t speak for a long time.  Finally, as he finished the second cup that was so strong it would revive a corpse he turned to me and said, “You, sir, have betrayed my trust.”  I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me for it.

Back to the most recent incident.  As I popped the durian pastry into my mouth I was assailed by that unique durian stench and experienced time stopping once again.  Tragically.  Gearoid Deverny, the third MS in our trio described my expression as “someone being electrocuted.”  I sat quietly managing the sensory overload as best as I could while the conversation at the table and the din of restaurant went on around me.  The experience was reminiscent of having a natural gas line installed in your mouth.  I reached for water several times and then downed the most tannic red on the table in front of me.  The stench and taste diminished after a few minutes but was still there in force.  It would remain for hours with the last remnant more willing to make its presence known the next morning after repeated brushing and flossing.  But I would survive to tell the tale.

What wine pairs well with durian? None is strong enough.  Only something in the spirits world could possibly match the intensity, and I’m not curious enough at this point to do any constructive research. As for your own durian adventures and experiences:

You have been warned.

Oct 232013
 

Death StarMy reward for passing the Master’s Exam in March of 1992 was to work Sunday brunch two days later.  It wasn’t punishment, it was just how the schedule worked out and I wasn’t about to pass the shift off on the other two sommeliers who were also good friends.  To be honest they would have refused to work it and rightly so.

But this is another story.  Several months later on a Friday night I had the first of many seminal sommelier moments or reality checks to be more accurate.  There I was on the floor wearing my shiny new gold and burgundy MS pin feeling somewhere between Austin Powers and James Bond with a little Mr. Bean thrown in for gravitas.  One of the first tables in the early seating was a four-top.  After they had some time to settle in the with the menu and wine list I approached the table and asked the host with the list if he had any questions or needed a suggestion.  He asked for a few minutes.

When I returned to the table he handed me the list and said with the utmost confidence, “we’ll have the such-and-such old vines Zinfandel.”  The wine in question was a seriously tannic red from a top Zinfandel producer from a vineyard that dated well back into the 19th century.  For the sake of convenience, we’ll call it “Death Star” because the tannins were so extreme they could easily take oil stains off a driveway.  “Just curious,” I cautiously asked, “what will you be enjoying for dinner?”  The host responded by saying they would start by sharing a dozen oysters on the half shell and then two of them were having the poached salmon special while the other two had settled on sautéed local Petrale Sole.   Immediately all the sommelier alarms in my head went off at over 100 decibels.  The combination of a ferociously tannic red with oysters and delicate fish was like a train looking for a wreck.  I quickly went into triage mode and tried to talk him out of the wine in every possible way by saying things like:

“Great choice. You know, I tasted that wine recently and it’s a bit tight and pretty tannic.  So we might look at a delicious aromatic white to go with the salmon and Petrale instead.”

Or

“Wow, that’s a great Zinfandel.  Someone last night enjoyed it with the chef’s braised short ribs.  You might consider that instead of the oysters and salmon.”

Or

“A single bottle of Death Star has been known to level an entire village. I’m not sure we’re licensed for it or have the proper safety equipment to administer it.”

But try as I might I could do nothing to dissuade him from ordering the newly released vintage of Death Star.  “You don’t understand,” he said, “this is our favorite wine and it’s impossible to find.  We rarely get to try it.”   I smiled and politely said, “of course.  I’ll bring it right away and decant it for you.”  Visions of ‘50’s sci-fi movies and electro beams melting human skulls danced in my head as I left the table.

Minutes later I returned with the bottle of Death Star and a decanter vainly wishing the prep kitchen had a paint shaker so I might “put a little air” into the wine before serving.  Alas, it was not to be.  I decanted the wine at the table and poured a taste for the host.  He smiled broadly and gestured for me to pour for the others at the table.  Just as I finished pouring his glass the oysters showed up and everyone tucked in ravenously.

A few minutes later I checked back in to see how everyone was doing more out of morbid curiosity than anything.  I fully expected someone at the table to voice a complaint about the tannin-bivalve insurgency in process but not a word.  Instead they ordered a second bottle of Death Star and another dozen oysters.  Then they ordered a third bottle just as the salmon and Petrale hit the table.

Conventional food and wine pairing wisdom said that they should have been suffering the cruel fate of horribly mismatched food and wine chemistry.  But there was nothing of the kind.  In fact the two couples were by all appearances having a grand time.  They polished off the third bottle with dessert and coffee.  Then the host palmed me $20 on the way out.  He thanked me profusely saying they hadn’t seen their friends in years and the fact that we had their favorite wine made the evening perfect.  I stood in the wake of the front door as it closed completely stunned.  Even with my newly acquired MS bling nothing had ever prepared me for what had just happened.  I clearly remember saying out loud, “so what the hell do I know?”

The lesson I took from the “Death Star incident” as it came to be known was simple: always give someone permission to drink whatever they like to drink regardless of how much you know or in this case think you know.  Otherwise in doing what you believe is the right thing everyone loses.  Oh yes, context as in “this is my favorite wine,” trumps all.

I’d like a Fernet, please.