Sep 162015
 
The Lake County Valley Fire has devastated homes and businesses.

(Photo by Stephen Lam/ Getty Images)

Tough news coming out of Lake County these days.  According to CalFire, the “Valley Fire” has consumed over 75,000 acres and 1,900 structures, many of those homes. Over the years, we’ve worked with a couple of different wineries up there, and the grape growers as well.  We have friends, clients, and neighbors all over the county. And for a few years, I lived in Middletown, right in town, near the High School. It’s hard to look at the photos to see what’s happened up there.  The house we used to own, a 100+ year old farmhouse that I remodeled extensively, is gone.  We’ve lost touch with who lived there now, but the house itself had character and charm—even if the kitchen floor had enough slope to it that you never had to look for an olive or a grape the fell on the floor.  They always rolled to the same corner.  It won’t be back.

We’ve agreed to do some pro-bono work for the Lake County Winegrape Commission to try to help out a bit.  We’re sending out press releases, directing media inquiries, and helping focus attention on the relief efforts.  It’s not enough.  It can’t be enough.  If you want to help, please join the Napa Valley Vintners, Andy Beckstoffer, and so many others who have stepped up to help.  You can donate by going to this link:  http://www.lakecountywinegrape.org/news-events/valley-fire-relief-fund/

May 162012
 

Not long ago I had a lengthy phone conversation with a writer who was putting together a piece for the NY Post.  During our chat he happened to bring up just how difficult it was for him to get a good bottle of wine in a restaurant.  My reaction was somewhere between “doooooo!” and “really?”  I was surprised given the guy lives in New York, dines out regularly and knows more than a bit about wine.  After a few further questions from my end it quickly became apparent that his comfort level with wine in restaurants simply wasn’t there; that dealing with a sommelier or huge wine list was a major challenge.

He’s not alone.  Dealing with what I call “wine ballet” or the whole “being handed the wine list in front of my friends/colleagues/future ex-spouse” is a source of major stress for practically anyone.  I wouldn’t quite put it up there with the fear of public speaking which according to some sources is even greater than the fear of death (must be a tough audience).  Being put on the spot with a wine list the size of the Gutenberg Bible can definitely cause personal anxiety.  Still the writer didn’t believe me when I told him it was no big deal.  So I gave him my own strategy on how to get the best value wine from any given list.  Then I promised him I’d share with all my closest friends.  Here it is:

Prelude

There are some things you definitely must know before you darken the restaurant’s door. These would include the following:

a. Know the style of wine you like to drink.  Go into a restaurant armed with the knowledge that “I like a red wine with soft tannins, not too much oak and that listens to NPR;” or “I really like big, oaky Chardonnays that remind me of a monster truck pull.”

b. It’s also important to know what you don’t like—arguably even more important than knowing what you do like.  Know that you absolutely loathe oaky wines or you break out in hives if the alcohol in a red wine gets to be over 16%, which is not all that uncommon these days.

c. Have a couple of examples of wines you’ve enjoyed in the past that can be used as points of reference.  Once you know exactly what you like and don’t like, it’s good to have some wines in mind that you’ve tasted in the past that can be used in discussions with a server or a sommelier.

d. Price: know how much you want to spend within $15-$20.  Wine prices on restaurant lists can vary dramatically but chances are you already have a good idea of how much you’re willing to spend in future dining excursions.
The Main Event

Now you’re ready to go.  You’ve just entered the restaurant with the man/woman of your dreams. When the hostess races you both across the dining room and seats you next to the kitchen while smiling that “adios amigo” smile before racing off leaving the glassware on the table spinning, don’t panic.  Keep breathing.  Feel good.  Feel confident.  It’s going to be alright.

1. The Wine List: as you pick up the wine list head to any section and check out the pricing.  Spot the highest price you can find and the lowest price as well.  Drag those to your mental trash bin and discard.

2. Find the average price: get a quick eyeball average of where most of the wines are priced.  That could be anywhere between $40 and $150 depending on your location and the style of the restaurant.  After all, there’s a huge difference between a corner bistro and Gary Danko in terms of the cost of operations, infrastructure and the rest.  You might also keep in mind the fact that most restaurants do NOT make money by selling food alone but only manage to survive and hopefully thrive by the selling alcoholic beverages.

3. Find the sweet spot: set your sights on the 50-60% price range of the restaurants’ pricing scheme.  That’s usually where the best values are and that, meine liebchen, is your sweet spot.

4. Your server: when your server arrives (hopefully within half hour of your being seated) and asks if you’d like wine with dinner (wrong question), smile and say something like the following:
“You know, this is a really interesting list.  I’d like to talk to the sommelier/wine buyer (or whoever gets stuck with doing the wine buying) if they’re available.” 

Just kidding on that last one point but you should also know that what you think of as the glorious task of creating a wine list is often relegated to whatever poor soul is the assistant manager, a position that in many instances can only be described as one of the s**t jobs of the universe.

5. The buyer: if the buyer is on the floor, that’s great.  Hopefully they will be over in short order.  Once said buyer makes a drive by of your table, be sure to relay the above pertinent information to them as in:
a. “This is the style of wine I really like.  It makes me think of unicorns.”


b. “I hate XX kind of wine.  I think it’s demon spawn.”


c. “Here are some wines I’ve enjoyed in the past.”

6. Pricing: give them a price range to work with as in, “I’d like to spend $40-$50,” or “please suggest something great under $75.”

Be specific about your price range but remember that part of their job is to SELL and that means they will probably start in your price range and then suggest something a bit more expensive.  Don’t be put off.  Listen politely and smile.  If their suggestion makes sense in terms of your personal favorite wine style and it’s within your budget, consider it.  However, if their suggestion is hideously expensive (meaning they either didn’t listen to you or they’re completely clueless), smile again and say:
 “You know, that’s really not what I had in mind and I’m sure you probably have something more in our price range.  Could you please make a recommendation in the xx price range?”

Likewise, if their suggestion is completely obscure don’t hesitate to ask about the wine. Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl, anyone?  Good questions to ask about any recommendation would include the sweetness/dryness level, the amount of oak or the amount of tannin if it’s a red wine recommendation.  Ultimately, ask yourself if the recommendation fits your favorite wine profile.  If not, don’t hesitate to ask for something closer in style as in with less tannin, oak or cosmetic flaws.

7. Discourse: a bit of back and forth, always mindful of and communicating that magic combination of your likes, dislikes and desired price range, should be more than enough for practically anyone help you get a delicious bottle.

Coda: Magic Questions!

If in doubt, ask the following questions or variations therein. You can always feel free to skip everything above and head straight to these:

“What are your favorite VALUES on the list?”

“Is there anything you’ve just gotten in that you really like and think is a must try?”

“Is there anything you’re pouring by the glass that you really like and think is a great value?”

If you’re speaking to the buyer/sommelier chances are they will get dangerously excited at this point or they should be checked for a pulse.  This is the moment every sommelier dreams about, the moment when someone is asking their opinion about the coolest wines on the list that they have toiled in relative no-so-obscurity to put together.  What more could they want?  Odds are they will blurt out the best/ coolest/ greatest/most amazing wine in nano-seconds of the question leaving your mouth.  They may even get all verklempt on you.  This is how it should be.  If the wine is being poured by the glass by all means ask to taste it.  Otherwise, if the price is right give it a spin.  And if you really like their recommendation, be sure to let him or her know it and even throw a bit of cash their way.  It’s always greatly appreciated.  Cheers!

Reprinted from TimGaiser.com.

May 112012
 

One of my core beliefs about wine is that it’s the great connector.  Wine connects us in ways that no other thing, substance, or small household appliance does.  That for thousands of years, since the time Cro-Magnon man first started decanting young Bordeaux blends for aeration purposes, we humans have shared meals with members of our clan.  Nothing could be truer in my life.

Dinner time when I grew up in a household of six kids in the ‘60’s can only be described as barely controlled chaos.  With four boys awash in more testosterone “than you could shake a stick at,” as my Mom used to say, it was not uncommon to have a dinner roll ka-tonked off the side of your head when you requested bread from the other end of the table.  Asking for butter (which was actually margarine, of course) was likewise completely risky business.  In short, dinner was a Darwinian affair requiring skills of sleuth, cunning and dexterity.  Any and everything was passed around the table but once and if you didn’t get enough on that first shot you weren’t getting more.  A gallon of milk barely made it around the table and the oldest three of us quickly figured out that the only way to get more was to pour your glass full, drink half of it, and then refill before passing it on down causing an inevitable and immediate firestorm of protest from my younger brothers and sister.  It was also imperative that you quickly identify and skewer the biggest-ass pork chop/ham slice/slice of meatloaf on the platter when it came your way because it was your one and only shot at sustenance for the evening.  My school mates, needless to say, were always a bit taken aback by the carnal frenzy that defined our family meals.  They soon learned to adapt or went home hungry.  It’s also worth noting that my then future brother-in-law did not return to our house for over six months after his first Easter dinner at the Gaiser table.  Enough said.

Eventually with the patience of a saint and the help of blunt instruments my Mom managed to instill some semblance of table manners in the six of us.  That in itself is a minor miracle.  Beyond that she also managed in a very sneaky way to instill the dining ritual in us as a family, and not because she and my Dad were raised in the European tradition of fine dining in terms of candle lit extravaganzas and lengthy erudite conversations.  That was as about as remote as the Dog Star.  Instead it was the mere act of gathering the entire herd once a day so we could sit down and share something they considered important; that even if all hell had broken loose during the previous 12 hours we had the certainty of knowing that we as a family would share a meal, for better or worse.

Years later when Carla and I first moved to the city and were both bartending the dining ritual continued.  On our rare nights off together we either went out or stayed in and cooked dinner for one another.  Explorations into the Byzantine menus of Gourmet magazine often ensued with the kitchen getting completely trashed and our finally limping to the dinner table like stunned livestock after vigorous and sometimes pyrotechnic experiments in the kitchen.  Such is the stuff of magic and memory.

The dining ritual continued unabated after our lives went from “man on man” to “zone” in terms of having kids.  Looking back on those years I’ve come to believe that one of the greatest things Carla and I have given our kids is our many years of the dining ritual.  Maria, literally graduating from UNC Chapel Hill this past week, and Patrick, soon to be 19, have grown up their entire lives with the dining ritual.  That means when it’s dinnertime life comes to a screeching halt; that once dinner is plated and hits the dinner table everyone gathers regardless of whatever else on the planet is going on.

Maria has told me many times that the thing she missed most about home after going back east to school was dinner time, literally the hours of hanging out at the table after dinner was over chatting about everything under the sun. Discussions at times included endless debates about the ultimate outcome of the Harry Potter books.  For a time we were convinced the end of book seven would be a redux of Starwars in which Voldemort would say to Harry, “I AM your father.”  Noooooooo).  Another dinner found us suddenly fixated on redoing the entire cast of the Lord of the Rings movies from a very odd but special group comprised of both the living and the dead.  I will definitely post that another time because it’s wickedly strange and funny.

Does the dining ritual guarantee a happy family or a long relationship or marriage?  No guarantees here as all the conversation in the world may not be able to address your shocking dysfunction.  But take heart because the dining ritual is a primo number one opportunity to learn how to communicate with your partner/significant other/spouse or whatever the term is at the moment.  And that’s not a bad thing.  It’s worked for me for 35 years.  It might work for you.

Reprinted from TimGaiser.com.

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.