25 Wines in 25 Years: The Dark Side

I’ve been wrestling with 1995 for a few weeks. This is why I haven’t been able to write about it. While there was a lot of drinking that went on, I can’t think of one specific bottle that stands out. Instead, what I remember best is realizing, starkly, that alcoholism was a bigger problem than I had been aware of in the wine industry.

I’m not saying that everyone who works with wine has a drinking problem, or even most, and there is a line between partying a lot and addiction. Yet, after running a wine bar six nights a week and spending a lot of time with people in the biz, I started to pick up on more signs – rapid personality changes, belligerent behavior, inability to control one’s drinking and continuous drunk driving – to name a few.

The restaurant business, in general, is notorious for substance abuse, especially cocaine. It requires physical labor and more people than you can imagine find that a line or two throughout the night helps them keep up. However, I really want to stick to wine here and how its potential for addiction is overlooked.

In 1995, I noticed that various people I knew believed that because they drank wine – often very good or expensive wine – they did not have a problem. One person went through a case of Coulée de Serrant in about a week. No doubt, it is special juice and if I had to choose something to guzzle, it might be at the top the list (though for practical purposes, I’d be more likely to select a bottle that had 11% alcohol). A few years later someone else basically drank through the profits of his venture and had to sell it.

Whether you work in a restaurant, bar or shop, make, sell wine or buy wine, the opportunities to taste are all around. This is why professionals learn the art of spitting. Even with this rather gross practice, you’ll get a buzz if you taste enough wine so you have to be careful. Besides tastings, there are wine dinners, lunches and informal gatherings where no one spits. I had a motorcycle during the 90’s and there were plenty of times when I left it on the sidewalk or street in front of restaurants because I didn’t think I should ride. I’m amazed it was never stolen, especially considering how many nights and early mornings it spent at Zuni.

Why do some people have a problem and others don’t? My guess is that some have a predisposition toward addiction but genuinely enjoy wine while others find that working with wine is a convenient way to enable their habit. 

Is drinking two bottles of wine every day as bad as downing a quart of vodka? Not being a doctor or an addiction specialist, I can’t weigh in on that. I don’t know if there is even an answer. There are plenty of functional alcoholics. Not everyone with a substance abuse problem gets behind the wheel inebriated. However, over the years, I’ve witnessed how people who work in the wine or restaurant industries have seriously abused wine. Granted, I don’t spend nearly as much time socializing with people in the industry as I did 21 years ago but I still see folks drink to the point of oblivion and hear stories. We all enjoy a good buzz but for most of us, that is not what wine is about, especially as we get older.

So, it seems that the recollection from 1995 that sticks out most is not one particular wine – well maybe Coulée de Serrant but not for the reason why it should – but the dark side. Then as now, alcoholism among wine professionals is rarely discussed. With all of the changes that have occurred over the last 21 years, it is a shame that this is not one.
PSB

The Wine List Disconnect

Let’s say you went to a friend’s house and were served homemade chocolate chip cookies made with organic ingredients. What are you going to drink with it? Milk, of course. So your host brings out a carton from an industrial dairy where the cows are fed a steady diet of anti-biotics, hormones and grass sprayed with Roundup. What would you think? There’s a bit of a disconnect, no?

That’s how I often feel when I go out to eat. Many restaurants make a point of writing on the menu that only local, organic and otherwise precious ingredients are used in their dishes. Great. That doesn’t mean the food is tasty, but still, “A” for making an effort. However, so many of these places get a big old “F” – as in, for fuck’s sake – when it comes to applying the same standards to their wine lists.

As you might expect, I heavily judge a restaurant by the wine it serves. It’s at least 50% of the equation. If the selection is, on the whole, composed of wines from environmentally conscious, non-interventionist and equally important, talented producers, I assume I can expect the same from the kitchen. I’ve only been to one place over the last year that had a terrific wine list but meh food so I’d say this is a pretty reliable litmus test.

As for the spots that have good food, but virtually nothing worth drinking, I’ve made peace with bringing my own wine. Perhaps if enough people do this it will send a message? You can also make your views known by contacting the owner or manager. Or, just not frequent these spots though being direct is a much more effective way to get your point across.

I’ve had this discussion with numerous people both in and out of the wine industry, so don’t think I’m the only one kvetching. And, since it is just as bad in New York as it is on the West Coast I’m going to guess that this is a national problem.

We all have different taste. Also, let’s not be under the illusion that mediocrity is limited to conventionally made wines. Yet is it not hypocritical to take great pains to serve food that is responsibly made but not apply the same standard to the wine list? 

Just a thought…

PSB

A Few Words with Alice Feiring

Somewhere along the way I met Alice Feiring, but she was as much of an admired stranger to me as she is to her thousands of readers until fairly recently. We have mutual friends and have been in some of the same places at the same time but I never really sat down and had a conversation with her outside of email until last month at Ten Bells.[i]

An American Mecca for natural wine drinkers, TB was a little overrun by the California contingent who were in New York for The Big Glou and Vivent les Vins Libres [ii], two natural wine tastings that weekend. In spite of Alice’s larger than life stature in the natural wine world, she actually gives off a rather shy air – not aloof or timid but shy – and the noise coming from my polluted left coast friends at the bar drowned out the possibility of meaningful conversation. So, having had a few minutes to chat, I asked her if I could interview her for The Vinguard. When she said “yes,” I felt like popping some petnat.

Alice Feiring

Alice Feiring

There is not a more prominent voice for natural wine in the United States than Alice Feiring. I almost want to say she is the Robert Parker of natural wine but 1) considering she wrote a book titled The Battle for Love and Wine: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, 2) thankfully, she doesn’t rate wine and, 3) the wines she champions could not be more different from “Parker wines,” I shall refrain from this comparison.

Her bio on the Feiring Line starts off, “Having survived a Long Island upbringing, I ended up a writer.” She grew up in Baldwin, I grew up in Roslyn, two towns in Long Island that have similar demographics and, as is true of most suburbs, many residents who lead insulated lives. Needless to say, I know exactly what Alice is talking about when she says, “survived.” Only the lucky escape and the refugees have a uniquely enlightened appreciation for the world that lies beyond shopping centers, $100,000 Bar Mitzvahs, and Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco.[iii]

Alice wrote her first novel at seven. She was raised in an orthodox Jewish household and attended yeshivas. As expected, she went to college, Stony Brook, one of the top SUNY schools but instead of getting married, the prescribed path for orthodox Jewish women in their early 20’s, moved to Cambridge to study dance therapy at Lesley University. It was during this time that she started going to wine tastings and thinking about writing as a profession.

We talked a couple of times before she left for Verona last week to lead “Free Grapes, Wine Without Walls,” a new natural wine event at Vin Italy.

PSB: How did you get into wine writing?

AF: I was going to dance therapy because I didn’t think I could be a writer. In the culture of my family, it seemed just too self-aggrandizing to believe I could ever make it as a writer. That was for other people. Me? I had to be a schlep.

There you have it, the title of Alice Feiring’s autobiography, How I Became a Natty Wine Schlep. Anyway, back to Cambridge.

AF: I wrote, I danced. I was not trained enough to be a professional. When I was working on my masters thesis (Therapeutic Aspects of Modern Dancing) I went back to writing. I started writing fiction and built clips. After tasting seriously in Boston for ten years I started writing about wine, food and design. Then in New York I started pitching stories. My first major feature was about Long Island wine in Connoisseur Magazine.

PSB: How did the transition to writing about natural wines come about?

AF: It was when I was tasting for the Food and Wine Magazine Wine Guide that I realized how fucked up the wine world had gotten. I had seen the new modern way of making wine had become a disease. Everything I blamed on new oak was a lot more complicated.FullSizeRender

PSB: How has natural wine changed since you started writing about it and where do you see it going?

AF: In some ways it hasn’t changed at all except that there is more. There’s good natural wine and bad natural wine. For people who’ve been making natural wine for a long time it’s getting better and better. When I started there was virtually nothing (outside of France) except a handful in Italy, less in Spain. Now, every place that’s making wine has natural wine. There’s more orange wine. Natural wine has shown that color is not important. It’s made people reconsider what is wine and that is probably its biggest contribution.

There are more radical factions now. There’s an over emphasis on sulfur and while low SO2 is important it is not always the devil. Some people are making natural wine and not thinking about the delicious component. More and more I think vin soif[iv] has taken over. That has become people’s idea of what natural is about. More often I’m looking for a wine with bones and a tremendous amount of complexity. That aspect has been lost on a new generation of natural wine drinkers. But there is also more phenomenal natural wine now than there was 16 years ago.

The idea of an industrial natural wine was ridiculous to think about 16 years ago. Now, it’s what’s going to be happening next.

PSB: How so?

AF: Because that’s where the market is going. The big guns are not going to want to lose any market share so they will produce their no additive line. I’m in Vin Italy next week and I’ll bet money I see this over there. On another note, with Vin Italy having me chair a natural wine award (Wine Without Walls) you can see that the establishment is taking note.

PSB: As someone who has written about wine for several decades, how has it changed for women over time?

AF: It’s not so much that I’m a woman but that I’m a short woman. Sometimes I think that you have to work harder to be taken seriously if you are short. It’s hard to get out of the cute phase.

I was surprised that her height was the first thing that came to mind when I asked Alice this question. With carrot red hair, spectacles that give her a professorial look and a dancer’s slight build she is noticeable, but that she is especially short did not register with me. At any rate, this is a form of discrimination that I never really thought about. She continued…

AF: The old boys club even in wine writing does exist. Back in the early days, Michael Pollan could easily talk about stuff when it came to food but I was pretty much a crackpot. I think if I was a guy I would have been taken a lot more seriously. Wine writing has always been about men. I don’t know if that is presently changing but I still don’t see a woman who has clout. Why is that? For a long time, people in power hired the people they knew.

PSB: It’s hard for me to imagine anyone not taking you seriously.

AF: I’m taken seriously, but I’m not exactly given good assignments. I’m taken seriously because of my books. If you’re a guy you don’t have to do that. Twice I’ve been passed over, once for a spirits writer who was a well-known guy and another was a food guy who was one of the biggest hacks in the business. Was it because I was a woman?

There are people who took shots at me. I had my share after the Battle for Love and Wine was published. One guy insinuated in a column that I didn’t get laid enough. People attack me without ever having read my work and knowing what I write. It’s not worthy of a response.

Alice in tasting. Photo by James Robinson

Alice in tasting. Photo by James Robinson

PSB: Your latest book, For the Love of Wine, is about your experiences in Georgia. What is it about Georgia you find so compelling?

AF: When I went to Georgia, I realized there were a whole lot of people with a philosophy of making wine but they were being preyed upon by international consultants. The government was putting pressure on them to take their wine internationally and I thought the wines were just fine the way they were. Their whole metaphor of living and life was about wine. Those two things made a profound combination and I wanted to give them what I could so they would see there was a market for their wines. They have a post Soviet story that is so much worth telling. It was a romantic story about the desire to be winemakers for so long.

Comparing their journey to her own, she said, “I just realized I had to pursue writing or a I couldn’t exist so their story resonated with my personal story.”

PSB: How conscious are the Georgian farmers of the environment and climate change?

AF: In the last couple of years it’s been extremely hot and they’re bemoaning the fact that they don’t have irrigation which I hope never gets in there. The old saying “you plant grapes where nothing else can grow.”

PSB: How prevalent is organic farming and natural winemaking in Georgia?

AF: The government organic leg is pretty strong. They’re realizing that since they have so much organic produce, Georgia is strong. That flavor hasn’t been bled out of the food yet. They’re getting popular about the right things quick enough so they don’t have to worry about yields.

It’s important to note that all Georgian wine is not natural or organic. But, most of the big companies are coming out with a quervi[v] line, most people have an organic line.

PSB: It sounds as if ritual is something that is important for you in your life, such as your observance during Yom Kippur. Is there something about Georgian winemaking that appeals to you in the same way?

AF: What I’m taken with is that their belief in god and religion is such that they take it to their making of wine. I don’t need a religious excuse. It seems to me that is a wonderful interpretation of religion.

PSB: How would you say that going to yeshiva influenced your intellectual development and has influenced the way your write about wine?

AF: I think going to yeshiva has informed the way I look at everything where the question is more important than the answer. You get rewarded for the question. When you just focus on the answer you open the door to radicalism. You’re missing the whole journey. In that way the training has informed the way I look at wine.

Obviously, we can apply this last statement towards so much of what is going on in the world today, from religious fundamentalism to extreme political positions to natural wine. With the radicalism people are focusing on the answer without asking the right question.

People always thought I’m more radical than I am. I have no tolerance for high sulfur but more and more I’m looking for a beautiful wine first.

PSB: You wrote a book subtitled How I Save the World from Parkerization yet you are probably the most influential wine writer since his star rose 25 years ago. Do you realize this?

AF: I don’t even know how to respond. It’s odd because I don’t have a platform. Someone said years ago that my footprint is very small but my influence is very large. I think it’s because I have the temerity to speak up. I’m happy I have an influence. It’s not like Robert Parker and his minions have been wiped out. It’s that there is more room for more opinions. I probably have earned an obit from the Times.”

PSB: Now you know you made it.

AF: I have my newsletter but I don’t have Parker’s numbers. Maybe it’s just the wrong time because of social media and people go to Instagram. Instagram is the new score. If you read my newsletter you’re going to have to read. It’s a quick read but you will have to read.

PSB: You mentioned that people who don’t want to spend more than $7 on a bottle of wine should be able to have wine made without chemicals. Are there any specific regions where you would suggest to look for inexpensive natural wines?

AF: At this point probably Spain or Italy, but they really aren’t natural, just focused on no sulfur. But from the south west of France there’s quite a bit of stuff in the under $12 category. The stuff that is coming from Faugères is stunning.

PSB: When I see what La Garagista is doing in Vermont I wonder if 50 years from now, there will be multiple states with thriving wine industries, thanks to the emergence of natural producers who are working in areas that are not known for viticulture. I know you’ve been more focused on Europe as that is where the bulk of natural winemaking has occurred but what are your thoughts on the progression of natural winemaking in the United States?

AF: Well there are multiple states (making natural wine). Evan Lewandowski is planting vines in Utah. But what Deidre (La Garagista) did was revolutionary and I’m not sure how many will follow her lead in supporting hybrids that make sense in Vermont. People are still hooked on vinifera.

Serious wine regions are making serious natural wine. Where it has always been more tourism based – like Long Island or the Finger Lakes, it’s been slower but there too it’s budding, and let’s not forget eastern Canada! Basically. We’re well on our way.

Alice Feiring is the author of Naked Wine: Letting Grapes do What Comes Naturally, The Battle for Love and Wine, or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, and For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture. You can read her blog posts and other articles on the Feiring Line, www.AliceFeiring.com.

 

[i] http://tenbellsnyc.com/

[ii] http://www.bigglounyc.com/, http://www.viventlesvinslibres.com/

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JW6NbI6dSx0

[iv] AKA “glou glou,” vin soif literally means “wine thirst” but refers to lighter, low alcohol and usually high acid, simple wines that are easy to chug, in quantity.

[v] Quervi are amphora vessels that have been used for fermenting and aging wines in Georgia for thousands of years.

25 Year in 25 Wines: 1994 – Finding the Unholy Grail

Nineteen ninety-four was exciting. The US hosted the World Cup, Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa and not least, both Four Weddings and Funeral and Muriel’s Wedding came out. On the darker side, there was the OJ drama, Kurt Cobain’s suicide and Tonya Harding.

It was also a pivotal year for my career as Hayes and Vines, my first wine bar, opened. We signed the lease at 377 Hayes Street in May and were hoping to be in business by September. As anyone who has ever opened a bricks and mortar business will tell you, it is going to take a lot longer than you think. We popped our first corks on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1994.

In the interim, I tried thousands of wines. We had 300 at first and it grew from there, reaching 600 at one point. These days, I’m all about smaller list. Beyond being easier for customers to navigate they are actually more challenging to assemble. But, the goal at H&V was to showcase the entire world of wine and choose the best we could find from a myriad of grapes and regions.

While I remember a lot of the wines that were initially chosen, the one that has stayed with me the longest from 1994 was a 1990 Jean-Noel Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru “Les Caillerets” that Deborah, my business partner, and I shared one night at The Flying Saucer. Let me back up here. This is the same Deborah who was part of the debauched evening when I killed the magnum of ’89 Beaucastel over the holidays in 1993. Long story short, she had been considering opening a wine bar in NY around the same time I was thinking to do it in San Francisco. We decided to put our resources and skill sets together and create Hayes and Vine in San Francisco.Gagnard Chassagne Montrachet

Anyway, the Flying Saucer, which had staked out ground on 22nd and Guerrero in 1990, was one of the most innovative restaurants in San Francisco during that era. The menu incorporated a slough of global influences and the dishes were often quite spicy. (Here’s a link to a 2013 article with one of the menus from 1994). The food was absolutely delicious and it was always a fun place to go, even just for a glass of wine and an appetizer. I’m sure some of you remember it and for those who never had a chance to go, I’m sorry to say but you missed out. I never saw Hendrix live…you can’t have everything.

At any rate, the food that night was as splendid as always and the wine was absolutely amazing. Even though it was still pretty young, I distinctly remember experiencing a lasting explosion of minerality, nuts and acidity in my mouth. It wasn’t over the top yet had immense depth. The problem though, which we discussed as we drank it, was that it was not the perfect match for the food, at least what we order that night. A Riesling Kabinett or Spätlese would have probably been best but sometimes you just have to say fuck it, this wine is so good nothing can bring it down. Or, vice versa.

When wine is extremely well balanced and the accompanying food is on point, you don’t need to have a Holy Grail pairing. It’s great when it happens but since those moments of gastronomical perfection are rare, there is a lot to be said for just enjoying the moment and finding the beauty in the less than holy things that are right in front of you. To this day, I would say that Gagnard Chassagne was one of best white Burgundies I’ve been lucky enough to drink.

Cheers,

PSB

A Few Words with Shelley Lindgren

Since March is Women’s History Month I was thinking I should interview and write about women in the wine industry who I especially revere. But then as I ruminated on it, decided that as women make up half the planet (a little less these days but who’s counting), why limit it to a designated 30 day period (and March is almost over anyway). As I made the list, I came down on the side of full equality and found myself adding several men, as is only fair. People are people and if they are worthy of mention, I really don’t care if they go to the restroom sitting down or standing up. However, it only seemed natural, as we are honoring women this month, to begin with one of the San Francisco’s finest, and someone who I think is as good a person as she is a sommelier, Shelley Lindgren, the Wine Director and owner of A16 and SPQR.

Shelley LindgrenI don’t remember the first time I met Shelley Lindgren but can recall the first time she caught my attention. I was having dinner at Bacar, which was near the ballpark with my friend Rich Schlackman (and in case you are wondering, I am referring to the only ball park west of Citi Field that counts, AT&T Park). We ordered a bottle of what I think was Chave Hermitage from Shelley, who was a sommelier/manager. Though I’m not 100% certain it was Chave, it was northern Rhône and I’d bet a year of my cat’s life it was Hermitage. Saying it was Chave makes the story better, even if it might be an embellishment.

This was some time in 2003. What struck me was her genuine warmth. Lots of front of the house people can be superficial but she had the sincerity of a good shrink. She knew what she was talking about but wasn’t trying to one up us, listened and made sure we got the wine we wanted. You will hear people who have worked for Shelley say this all the time and it’s true. She is all about hospitality and making sure her customers have a good experience.

It was when she opened A16 in 2004 that I realized this exquisite knockout, who could be the lovechild of Kate Hudson and Drew Barrymore, was not just kind, but also smart. We became buds and even though life has shortened the Fernet intervals from weeks to years, I still consider her a friend.

Deservedly, Shelley has become a very famous person in wine circles. She made her mark with the Southern Italian, Campania focused wine list at A16 and sealed her place in the Bay Area restaurant history with SPQR, which was originally focused on Roman cuisine. We spoke a couple of times recently about her thoughts on wine and the wine business. Here are a few excerpts:

 

PSB: How do you choose wines for the lists at your restaurants?

SL: We look at the way a wine is farmed. It doesn’t matter what the name of the grape is. We want to have a range of price, quality and weight. Primarily our wines are really small production.

Caveat here, since A16 and SPQR are A16 and SPQR, they get most of the wines they want, to which Shelley graciously admits, “I feel very spoiled and fortunate.”

PSB: What do you mean when you say you look for the way wine is farmed?

SL: We look for everything that is organic or biodynamic. I can’t think of a wine on our list that isn’t organic. I believe there is a strong connection between farming and health. If you’re using pesticides it’s poison.

Beyond viticulture practices, Shelley and her sommeliers feel pretty strongly that wines should be made with native yeast.

SL: I don’t understand why people don’t use native yeast. I asked Angelo Gaja and he sent me the coolest response. Especially in Europe, yeast is everywhere in the air. Maybe they do it (producers who inoculate) for flavor.

PSB: What’s been the reception to natural wines at A16?

SL: When I ask Italians about natural wine they’re like, “What’s natural wine.” They’re not doing it to be in fashion. They believe in the philosophy. We pair it with food and its magic.

Yet, she admits not everyone is an easy sell.

SL: We had a table last night that ordered a Fiano and they said, “Its too high acid.” We were like, “We love it, we’ll drink it.”

In case you’re wondering, the table ordered a Radio Coteau Pinot Noir and it was a win-win for all.

 

In an earlier conversation we talked a little about how men and women sommeliers are or are not treated differently and what really stayed with me was what she had to say about body image, “Women get more self conscious about their bodies or the way they appear.” So I brought it up again.

SL: The weight thing is a big deal.

A mother of two who worked on the floor late into pregnancy both times, she felt this most profoundly after childbirth.

SL: You want to look and feel great but all of the sudden when you’re a mom and it’s hard to juggle. The post pregnancy thing was emotional. It’s hard for people because you’re in the public. You do the best you can do and to feel good about yourself and have a good attitude. But it is hard to be scrutinized. I wish I had a few more hours in the day to work on myself. It’s something I think about every day.

As for the self consciousness, she says she “got over it really fast.”

SL: You can’t really worry about so many things. You have to be there for hospitality and service.

PSB: Do you think women are judged on the floor based on what they wear?

SL: I still wear a jacket every day. It’s a habit for me but I also feel more professional. Everybody has their own path in wine and mine came from a more formal background. I’m a modest person and I like to make it about the job.

Yet…

SL: There’s nothing wrong with a women wanting to feel sexy but you shouldn’t have to feel you have to dress a certain way to make a sale. There’s no dress code. A couple of times women have worn tube tops and we’ve asked them not to wear them for hygiene. We say everyone has their own expression. Today all dress codes are off the table.

And if anyone has a problem with this, let me quote Cubs Manager, Joe Maddon, the best in baseball not named Bochy, who said earlier this week about his team’s dress policy, “If you think you look hot, wear it.”

PSB: Do women have to dress a certain way to be taken more seriously?

SL: I think men are taken more seriously a lot of time but I try not to over generalize. I think it’s less and less. It has definitely changed in our generation.

This of course, drew a comparison to the current presidential election.

SL: Nobody really talks about the bad fashion of the male candidates.

PSB: Have you faced gender discrimination, personally?

SL: I remember not getting a job as a sommelier once because they didn’t think I could carry a case of wine.

I’m sure this fool has been kicking himself (or perhaps herself) over the last decade.

SL: I feel like women are having a good moment. I feel like there are more women who are interested in becoming sommeliers. Maybe because I’m a woman there are more women who want to come and work for me.

OK, she’s being modest. Aspiring sommeliers both male and female would off their own mothers to work for her.

 

Getting back to wine, while Shelley is known for her vast knowledge of Italian wines, she does not limit her drinking or exposure to the regions she carries in her restaurants.

SL: I feel like the quality is up everywhere. It’s more like an artisan product. I think that customers are more savvy and there are more options. I think the generation ahead of us is even more conscientious about the things that they eat. Being able to eat and drink is part of life.

 PSB: OK, dream region?

 A little hemming and hawing.

SL: Campania.

PSB: Of course. What advice would you give an aspiring sommelier or someone who wants to get into the industry?

SL:I think to follow your heart and palate, work hard and be open to learning always. There is no clear path on where your are going in the wine business as a sommelier.  

PSB: Thanks! 

 

 

25 Wines in 25 Years: 1993 – Infanticide

Nineteen ninety-three is one of these years I remember better in broad brush strokes than in detail. I left Amelio’s at the end of 1992, feeling burnt out on fine dining. No doubt I got a lot out of the experience – and I’m not just saying that to be gracious – but this was an area of the wine industry that just didn’t excite me all that much.

I was more into wines that pushed the envelope, were lesser known and weren’t surrounded by the fanfare of the 100-point scale. Turning people onto these wines is just as gratifying as discovering them for yourself for the first time. Yet other than a small handful of retail stores, such as Pacific Wine Company, which had a fantastic German selection that included more obscure grapes such as Huxelrebe, these wines were nearly impossible to find. By the glass lists were mostly boring. Under Sylvie Darr‘s direction Zuni usually had something of note but for the most part btg was largely determined by pricing first, quality third. In the back of my mind I thought about opening a wine bar modeled after those I saw when I lived in London and traveled around Europe during and after college.

Skipping to the end of the year, my grandmother passed away in December and I spent most of the month in New York. I picked up some shifts at Astor as they needed some help over the holidays and since I was primarily consulting didn’t have to be back in San Francisco right away. One night my old colleague Nick, his roommate Jake, and another Astor co-worker, Deborah, and I got together for a night of major imbibing. As some might recall, this winter had something like 17 snowstorms and the weather was pretty horrible. Unlike Californians, the only thing that stops NYers from going out is major illness, not a little precipitation so I slid over city blocks of ice from the West to the East Village with a magnum of ’89 Beaucastel.perrin_beaucastel_rouge_1989_macro_jpg_10098_640

Why did I choose this four year old 1500 ml of what was arguably one of the most age worthy wines made in the south of France at the time? Because I was a fuckin’ idiot. Seriously, I was in a phase where I thought that the wine establishment was too caught up in aging wines. 

Most of it was consumed that night along with at least three other bottles but I brought the dregs into Astor the next day for others to taste and realized, when I was completely sober though perhaps a little hung over, that I made a mistake. The moral of this story is quite obvious. When you have a magnum of a heralded wine from a spectacular vintage and people tell you it will age, listen to them. If for no other reason, that is why the ’89 Beaucastel was the most memorable wine of 1993.

This said, the wine itself was terrific. Beaucastel was then known for being pretty bret laden, which is not always a bad thing. This vintage had its signature funk but it didn’t define the taste, at all. There was one more magnum at Astor but another colleague knocked it over the following week, breaking the bottle into several cleanly broken pieces (the rat tried to slip away, hoping no one would notice). As I watched the tsunami of red liquid cover the wood floor in Rhône section I thought about going over with a straw. Instead I grabbed some paper towels and berated myself for the infanticide I committed a few days earlier.

What is also worth mentioning is that the wine (s) we drank that night opened up a conversation that led to the creation of the wine bar I had been dreaming about for several years so while I don’t believe in fate, or karma, there was perhaps something in motion that made killing the ’89 Beaucastel a fair trade. This said, I’d love to try the same wine now, out of magnum, to see what became of it. Ah…to be young and dumb.

PSB

 

25 Years in 25 Wines: 1992 – Jerry, Martha and a Ghost

For those reading this series for the first time, 1992 is the third installment of the 25 most memorable wines of my career, by year. Beyond jogging my aging memory, each one tells a story and reveals something about the wine industry at the time and often, how it has changed.

By the fall of 1991, I was pretty immersed in wine and shelved graduate school. For a few reasons, wine being one and living closer to Jerry being another, I moved to San Francisco in January 1992.

Jerry

It was not an easy adjustment at first. I was nomadic for a month and constantly felt cold. Seriously, New Yorkers believe in heat so it could be six degrees outside but walk into any building and the temperature automatically shifts to a balmy 75. Not so in California. Many places don’t even have heat. The coldest winter I ever spent was my first winter in San Francisco. 

Once I found somewhere to live everything else fell into place and I got a job as the sommelier at Amelio’s, a formal, fancy French restaurant located in a three floor, former speakeasy in North Beach with a ghost. Jackie Robert, the chef/owner, came over from Ernie’s a few years earlier. He was an old school chef and painstaking perfectionist who worked the line himself, cleaned the kitchen at the end of the night and was the first person at the restaurant every day. 

I inherited an incredibly deep wine cellar with multiple vintages of California Cabernets and 1st growth Bordeaux including the 1798 Lafite-Rothchild ($10,000 and no, I never tried it). Esoteric was the norm at Astor so Amelio’s list seemed pretty tame in spite of its size and over population of Wine Spectator points. Nonetheless, I made my mark by adding selections from the Rhone, which was a couple of years shy of becoming the “it” region, as well as a few others from the south of France.

We had a lot of events with the Marin Chapter of the International Food and Wine Society, a group made up of mostly pre-hippie Marin types, largely late middle aged and older folks who lived on the other side of the bridge since before Reagan was governor. Their leader was a noted psychoanalyst and bibliophile, Haskell Norman. Think Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Guess Whose Coming to Dinner meets just about anything by Hitchcock and that pretty much describes this bunch.

Hosting them at Amelio’s was always a big deal and they pulled out big deal wines, especially one Saturday evening when they took over the restaurant for a vintage California Cabernet dinner. It was here that I was introduced to Martha. Of all the wines opened, ’74 BV Georges de Latour, 74’ Mondavi Reserve, a Montelena here and a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars there, the ’68 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard was the ONE.

There has been an anti-Cabernet sentiment among a lot of people in the wine industry, at least among the video game generation, and I think it’s justified, as many are ridiculously expensive, over manipulated and homogenous. I’ve never been a huge fan but as is also true of Bordeaux, when you have an older California Cabernet from a good terroir that hasn’t been ungapatchkad to death, you realize why people make a fuss.

Martha’s Vineyard, which is encased by eucalyptus trees, is one of the most terroir true wines from California. Its minty, herbal overtones are signature but not overbearing. Farmed by the Mays family, Joe Heitz made his first vintage in 1966, a wonderful year for Napa as well children born in New York :). I don’t know what the growing practices were in the late 60’s but the vineyard is now certified organic. It’s possible that this Martha’s – made in the same year as the White Album, Beggar’s Banquet and Rosemary’s Baby – made such an ineradicable impression because I hadn’t tried too many older wines up until that point. Yet California wines were far less manipulated then than they are today and it shows. They were built to last.

Between my job and all of the tastings at long out of business shops such as Singer & Foy and Pacific Wine Company, I tried a massive amount of great wine during my first year in SF. There was nothing like Astor in the Bay Area but I was exposed to wines I could never afford on my own and working at Amelio’s was an invaluable experience.

As for the reputed ghost, I won’t say it didn’t exist. Weird stuff was happening all the time. I had a pair of sunglasses that went missing for months and then re-appeared one day in my bag. Lights flickered on and off, and I felt a breeze in the office at the end of the night even though all the windows were closed. Maybe it was a short term effect from all of the Dead shows.

At any rate, 1992 might have started out cold but it was transformational, not least because I began to get a better idea of what I was going to do with the next 23 years of my life. 

PSB