23 April 2006 –Berkeley, California
Vintage Berkeley – A highly “designed” store that could easily fail from an excess of form over function. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. I’ve been sent here by Steve Edmunds for a bottle of Tayerle Vermentino that he finds particularly tasty (Steve has just started growing vermentino himself, and is in a full fit of enthusiasm), but spend some enjoyable browsing time scanning what seems to be a fairly unusual selection of wines…definitely out of the ordinary. One visit won’t reveal whether or not “unusual” equals “good” in this particular case, but if I lived in the area I’d certain take the time to find out.
Peaberry’s Coffee & Tea – I’ve asked a friend to bring me to some coffee “not from a chain,” and he beelines (as much as one can on these hilly streets) here. It seems more Berkeley than Oakland, at least to me, but the coffee’s very good and precisely made…plus it’s nice to not be supporting the merchants of charred beans and sticky, dessert-like “coffee” beverages. More seats would be nice, but this is merely wishful thinking as there’s no room for them. A good locale for those in search of caffeination.
Paul Marcus Wines – Located in the same streetside “mall” as Peaberry’s, and pretty much the opposite of Vintage Berkeley in its crowded clutter of wines. But the selection is excellent, the prices are reasonable, and the staff seems to know their stuff. His eponymousness is in the house, but we don’t speak.
Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant – A good selection somewhat mitigated by about a 50% focus on “name” wines and slightly high prices…which is not at all unexpected given the location. I’m here for the wine bar, which usually has a nice selection of different styles (plus, as I find out on this visit, the ability to open and pour any wine in the store for $6 additional corkage). However, today the selection of by-the-glass wines is heavily tilted towards overfruited, overoaked, and goopy styles in which I’m profoundly uninterested…leaving me with just one semi-palatable choice.
Texier 2003 Côtes-du-Rhône Brézème (Rhône) – Texier’s unusually ageable Brézème often has controversial levels of acidity, so I wonder if the otherwise highly-avoidable 2003 vintage might actually bring this particular element into a less controversial balance. In reality, ’03 does what it does to almost everything else from this region and this vintage: render the wine sludgy and ponderous. It’s big alright, with slightly syrupy blackberries, black truffle oil and a massive palate presence. There’s a bit of earth underneath, but mostly this is heavy, extremely ripe, a bit hot, and low in acidity. In other worlds, it could easily pass for New World syrah…the kind that I don’t much care for. I commend Texier for trying, but…
The Slanted Door – It’s possible that this restaurant has become too successful for its own good. Or maybe that’s just a selfish response, since it takes far too much lead time to get a table these days. One nice alternative is the bar, with a short menu and the full (and always excellent) wine list available via a very accommodating staff.
Of course, the wine lists brings its own problems. Or, more specifically, one overarching one: too many interesting options, such that it can be hard to narrow things down.
Coudert “Clos de la Roilette” 2004 Fleurie (Beaujolais) – Rough, earthy and aromatically difficult, with improved red cherry-based complexities on the palate. It would appear to have a future, but this notion is largely based on the wine’s track record, because it’s exceedingly cranky now.
Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2004 “Pif” (Loire) – Raw tannin and chunky red fruit gathered in festive little knots…a wine not yet coalescing into a full-blown party. Acidic in its rustic fashion, but pure and utterly delicious. I wish more people made wine like this.
While we’re drinking, we enter into some casual banter with the restaurant’s long-time star wine dude Mark Ellenbogen, who regales us with pre-dinner rush stories of the sublime and the outrageous. My favorite example, from critic Steve Tanzer and directed at winemaker Steve Edmunds: “Don’t you think these syrahs would be better with new wood?” Uh, no.
Zuni rather than later
Zuni Café – The intention is to inhale a few dozen oysters at the Ferry Plaza’s Hog Island Oyster Co., but it’s closed. A brief consultation on where we might find an alternative source for excellent oysters (and a bonus wine list of some repute) leads to an obvious conclusion: Zuni, with its no-reservations bar area. We’re prepared to stand at the bar, but there are open seats in the corner, and so we watch the often bizarre pedestrian activity on its slightly dodgy stretch of Market Street while inhaling a rather shocking number of bivalves and a large dogpile of salty goodness in the form of fried shoestring potatoes with aïoli. Somehow, this coupled with the location and the fine, friendly but casual service feels so classically Californian.
Huet 2004 Vouvray Clos du Bourg Sec (Loire) – It’s still so young, yet it’s strong from first opening and grows throughout the evening as it warms and slowly oxidizes. The wine is a chalky river breeze stirring up already-turbulent soil, revealing mushrooms and dried wax residue in its wake. There’s amazing complexity and stunning length on the finish. An incredible wine barely out of the cradle, but already promising much.
My friend provides a bit of amusement as we’re deciding whether or not to order a digestif. “Is it still light out,” he asks.
I gesture. “Well, we’re surrounded on three sides by floor to ceiling windows, so…”
It appears someone should abstain. Unfortunately, I should join him; my California-produced pear brandy (I don’t get the name, but it’s an eau de vie-style clear beverage) can provide no better than watery, thin, overly sweet insinuations of stale pear.
Disclosure: the glass of Texier at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant was provided free of charge.