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.

Jul 172014
 

2014-06-30 20.23.43No one can accuse John Geber of lacking imagination or lacking enthusiasm. He exudes enthusiasm from the moment you meet him and, as for his imagination, well, it runs rampant.

Most people riding their bicycles past an abandoned building would keep on riding, but not John. Instead, while cycling through the Barossa Valley one day, he chanced upon a chateau for sale and decided to buy it on the spot. After the deal had been made, John called his wife to share the news. The couple are clearly made for each other since she first asked him how many bedrooms the chateau contained rather than the more rational question: “Are you insane?”

John’s new purchase was originally built in 1890, and as the largest chateau in Australia it is the size of three football fields and three stories high. After the deal closed, the chateau was eventually fully renovated and its vineyards restored, giving birth to the Chateau Tanunda brand of wines.

Among Chateau Tanunda’s previous marketing efforts, John used to bring 20 people down to Australia each year to visit his property. But, he recognized that such an approach was inefficient and changed tactics. John decided to do what any reasonable person (oh right, we already decided he was insane), he bought a yacht; now, he brings Australia to the U.S.

The Grand Barossa Cru yacht has kept John “on the road” quite a bit in past several months. Setting sail from Boca Raton, FL on May 6th of this year, the yacht has traveled the eastern seaboard, during which time it visited 18 different ports of call and held 65 events over the course of 60 days. The boat and crew arrived in New York City in late June, entertaining wine and lifestyle writers with Australian cuisine, a brief jaunt in the harbor and, of course, the Grand Barossa wines.

Additionally, John shared his three key messages with us:

  • “Australia is not a brand called Yellow Tail
  • The Barossa Valley is one of the five most important valleys in the world of wine and the only one located in the Southern Hemisphere
  • The Barossa Valley is the “Napa Valley” of Australia, at a third of the price, and it has more varieties than just Shiraz.”

During the voyage, we had the pleasure of tasting several wines including Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Among my favorite was the Chardonnay, which despite having a small portion fermented in French oak, is surprisingly fresh and elegant. As John noted, “We are not carpenters.” All of wines had great, vibrant acidity and were well suited to enjoy with food, whether at home or on a sea cruise.

May 202014
 

Craft Beverage Expo

Last week, I attended the first Craft Beverage Expo (#CBE14) in San Jose, California. It was a conference devoted to the production and marketing of craft beverages, including beer, wine, cider, and spirits. I won’t go into the details about the conference, but I did want to address some of the thoughts that came to me during the event.

 

First, what are craft beverages? This question was raised several times during the conference. I think that most of the participants accepted that it meant a product made by smallish, independent brewers and distillers. I think the wine business looks at it a different way. They don’t really use the term ‘craft’ in their messaging. It’s usually boutique, small-lot, etc. to most winemakers. Regardless, wine definitely fits in with this group, facing many of the same challenges and benefiting from much the same market environment.

 

Second, I deeply believe that each of the separate beverage sectors can benefit from each other. While it’s becoming more common for wineries/breweries to blur the lines and produce both wine and beer, the sectors still remain fairly separate. Call it competition or regulation or focus, no matter what, breweries, wineries, and distilleries haven’t always played nice. I believe that is changing, however, as demonstrated by the sheer existence if this conference.

 

Third, the wine business has a head start on craft brewers and distillers. While it’s possible to ship or sell wine direct-to-consumer in many states now, or even to allow samples in tasting rooms, many brewers and distillers still lack that ability. That is slowly changing as legislatures have begun to open new avenues for them, but wineries have a clear lead. Craft brewers and distillers could benefit greatly from observing what has and hasn’t worked for wineries in their own struggles to compete.

 

Finally, wineries better watch out. As craft brewers and distillers gain experience and grow, they could eat away at wine’s market share. I think we are already seeing this, especially among millennials. Wineries will either have to adapt the way they market their products, or join the band wagon and start producing beer and spirits to offset their losses.

 

The good news is that the upsurge in craft beverage production offers consumers more choice and freedom to seek out new and interesting experiences. They are no longer confined to Dewers, Bacardi, Budweiser, and Coors. The future looks bright.

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.

Jan 032014
 
Wine and politics: how do we vote?

Graphic courtesy Jennifer Dube, National Media Research Planning and Placement LLC

According to a recent study reported on by the Washington Post, what you drink can be an indication of how you vote. The research comes from consumer data supplied by GfK MRI, and analyzed by Jennifer Dube of National Media Research Planning and Placement, an Alexandria-based Republican consulting firm. Wine and politics… now we know what’s really important.

It seems that wine drinkers turn out in greater numbers than spirits drinkers overall. “Analyzing voting habits of those who imbibe, Dube found that 14 of the top 15 brands that indicate someone is most likely to vote are wines,” states the article. In addition, the BRAND of wine you drink may indicate your political leanings. As you can see from the chart above, those that drink Kendall-Jackson and Robert Mondavi skew Republican and those that consumer Chateau Ste. Michelle and Smoking Loon.

In fact, Smoking Loon drinkers are off the chart in terms of voter turnout for DEMOCRATS. The ultimate irony is that this particular brand is made by Sonoma-based Don Sebastiani & Sons, and Don Sebastiani himself served three terms in the California Legislature as a conservative REPUBLICAN. Go figure.