Noted, passing

fruit at la boqueriaLook, I get it. The pressure to publish makes us all write dumb things. But still…oh, Jamie

[I] was jolted by the realization that tasting notes generally do a spectacularly bad job of communicating about the nature of wine

Really? That was your moment of spiritual revelation? Your trans-hypnotic insight? An understanding of the essence of wine is not to be found via one writer’s grocery list nor via another’s arcane analogies about bunnies and Dadaism?

Just…no.

Jamie Goode is a sensible – often overly-sensible – writer who’s one of the best at deconstructing the molecular guts of wine, though at his worst when slathering praise over liquid mediocrities, but is not the go-to authority on tasting note quality. That’s not his fault, nor a criticism. The fact is that no one is.

What, exactly, is a bad tasting note? Well, what’s a good tasting note? Take a look at the comments to Jamie’s post. You’ll see accord, widespread agreement, a set of key principles on which any good note must rest, a…

No. Wait a minute. You’ll see nothing of the sort. Some people want standards. Some prefer writing. The fruit-and-veg genre is fairly unpopular, but there’s no clear alternative. Expanding this survey to comments elsewhere, it’s pretty clear that there’s absolutely no concurrence regarding the best possible form of a tasting note.

Huh. Funny, that.

One of the more tiresome assertions about notes is that their primary role is to be correct. Well, what does that mean? The most correct note of all would be a chemical breakdown of the wine, and one would need to be a chemist to utilize such a note. Once one strays from chemistry, one enters the realm of the subjective, and the mere possibility of correctness erodes at a rapid pace.

So how about “useful?” Can’t a note be that? Well, sure. Any note, no matter how good or bad by any individual standard, can be useful to someone. But what defines utility? Wouldn’t the obvious answer be the note that catalyzes the greatest commercial effect vs. its absence? Thus, a Robert Parker note on a Bordeaux would be the most effective note, thus the most useful note, and thus the best note.

I’ll wait while you find someone who thinks that. Still waiting. Oh, you found someone? Their tastes and Robert Parker’s tastes in Bordeaux appear to be in full alignment? What a shock!

OK, so now we might have discovered that the test of a great tasting note is not actually utility, but the extent of its confirmation bias and its epistemological closure. I, person X, have tastes in wine expressed as close to 100% as possible by critic Y. Thus, his or her notes are the best, by definition. Right? But if that’s true, why involve third parties at all? (I understand that the reason is because the critic can taste wines that (and when) the consumer can’t, but we’re discussing tasting notes here.) Because it’s inherently obvious that while critic Y and person X might exist in somewhat rampant agreement with each other, there’s only one note-writer with whom person X will never disagree. That’s right: person X. The “best” notes are one’s own.

In other words, we’ve just discovered the only truism about the utility and correctness of tasting notes: that they’re inherently individual and personal. Once one starts to disseminate notes, one has reduced their utility. One has made them less correct. One has subjected them to criticism not just regarding conclusion, but of form. On and on, until someone will be found who finds a note utterly unredeemable. Perhaps many someones.

To this I say: so what? If you’re writing tasting notes for other people, you’re writing for one of two reasons or you’re wasting your time. The first, and most important, reason to write them is that you wish to write them in the form in which you’ve written them. The second is that you’re being paid to do so. Pretty much any other reason is demonstrable self-delusion.

So why is Jamie’s post so incredibly silly? Because he’s asking for something that doesn’t exist, and he already knows this. There is zero agreement on the form of a good, correct, or useful tasting note. And because he’s now joined the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of tiresome broadsides against the gibberish of jargon as viewed from outside that jargon, which has a long and anti-intellectual history with regard to wine commentary. Except that Jamie’s not outside that jargon, and so he lacks this excuse.

But that’s not the silliest aspect. What really grates is that Jamie knows very well that understanding wine does not come from discerning and then describing which type of fig most represents 12.3% of its aroma. Understanding wine comes from tasting the wine, tasting its context, visiting its birthplace, discussing its origin and purpose, reading about it, wandering amongst its parents (the vineyard), having it with this food or that, and so forth. Are any one, or all, of those things required to understand a wine? No. But they all help. Each one of them illuminates. And it is the job of the writer, rather than the critic, to translate those illuminations.

More relevantly, for any writer it’s important to understand the difference between writing about one liquid in one glass at one moment and writing about everything that has led to that moment. They’re both worthwhile. But one is the path to sensation and temporal pleasure. The other is the path to understanding.

Pasta the mission

golden gate sunsetCowgirl Creamery Sidekick – Grilled cheese is nice.

Perbacco – A restaurant that feels a lot more mass-market and corporate than the food it serves, Perbacco is located where few would think quality Italian food would be on offer. And to be fair, it’s no La Ciccia. But neither is it some North Beach tourist trap. A menu of Italian classics is actually a menu of Italian classics, not the more common Italian-American alternatives, differentiated from the old world mostly via portion size; this isn’t a restaurant at which to arrive in a state of presatiation. The cooking’s good, mostly, though it lacks refinement.

The wine list, too, is long on the classics (and perhaps as a result, a little short on the adventure), but other than a bit of din I can’t find much to complain about.

Domaine Dupasquier 2004 Roussette de Savoie Altesse “Marestel” (Savoie) – Like drinking a wrench. An adjustable wrench. Firm columns of minerals in motion, circling a melting core of ice. See? A wrench! (11/11)

Alessandria 2004 Barolo Monvigliero (Piedmont) – Let me preface this note by saying that at the time I drink this wine, I’m in the early stages of what will eventually be a three-week misery of sickness, the worst I’ve experience since I was swaddled. So there’s every reason to suspect that my palate is not 100%, or at least of which 100% it might be capable. I mention this because I struggle to find aromatic interest in this wine, which is never a welcome absence in a nebbiolo. The structure, while certainly dominant, isn’t as forbidding as it could be. And there’s a lot of density to the wine. But other qualities…I’m just not seeing them. (11/11)

Chave 1994 Hermitage (Rhône) – At one time I owned some of this, back in the days when it was (relatively) reasonably priced. I don’t know what happened to mine, and I certainly drank it too early, because this bottle is where you’d want it…perhaps even a touch past that point…with a grittier, tooth-baring edge to its columnar masculinity. (Sometimes, a masculine column is just a masculine column. Or Chave Hermitage. Same thing.) (11/11)

The Saison of the wretch

tattered paint & laundrySaison – Some relationships go wrong from the start. Others fall apart over time. In either case, the reasons are usually clear to all involved parties. But there’s a third sort of devolvement: a collapse that comes out of the clear blue, seemingly without reason or precursor.

If I’m moved to complain about a restaurant (rather than just report various types of mediocrity; it’s a big world out there, with no lack of alternatives) it’s usually due to a mix of good and bad that clearly doesn’t have to be, a frustration with a place that should be doing better. The truly inexcusable is a very rare event indeed. And whenever I’ve encountered in it the past, it has been a holistic experience: a restaurant failing on every conceivable level. But with all that as preface, I’ve never been as baffled by a dining experience as that at Saison, a restaurant that serves fine, occasionally brilliant food and pairs it with the worst wine experience I have ever encountered. Ever.

Let’s back up. Saison is a restaurant of massive, naked ambition. Tucked into the end of a faux-rustic alleyway in a gives-one-pause Mission-district nowhereness, it makes quite a few demands on the diner: come to this out of the way place, eat what we tell you to eat at the pace we prefer (and at an extravagant price), and then spring for the taxi home.

That’s coupled with the star-quality (critics would add star-fucking) pretensions of the restaurant, in which a lot of useful space is given over to design elements, and in which the chef spends the last hour or so of service posing for photos with adoring fans, almost all of them double-X-chromosomed and many of them more or less blonde-at-the-moment. Nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as the restaurant delivers.

Which it does, from the kitchen, and thus the chef can be excused his posing and preening. It’s not, looking at a sample menu, entirely clear what the restaurant intends: California/pan-Pacific cuisine relentlessly upscaled, modernist/molecular extrapolation, or something in-between? Well, at least on my night, it’s much more the former than the latter, arranged as multi-course explorations of an idea more than a progression from taste to taste. There is unquestioned technique on the plates, and some of it isn’t exactly detailed in Larousse, but at very few points is one trying to puzzle out a strange transformation of form or substance. Mostly, things are recognizable, even when combined in odd ways.

There are, as with any meal of this type and ambition, missteps and imperfect ideas. But the great majority of dishes are at worst very good, and at best surpassing. Pacing is mostly excellent, delivered by a waitstaff that can speak knowledgably and enticingly about the food, and which has no problem going to the kitchen for a point of clarification when asked.

So if I could rewind the clock and go to Saison to eat, eschewing alcoholic beverages, I would be a wholehearted, perhaps even enthusiastic, advocate for the place. Even though it’s expensive and (one hears) about to get rather dramatically more expensive. Even though it’s a tough reservation. Even though it’s the exact opposite of “have it your way” dining.

Alas, I make the mistake of ordering wine…

There are, on the night of my reservation, at least two dedicated wine waters. I don’t know if they’re sommeliers or not (I restrict my use of that term to those with certification; a quirk of mine), but there’s one that’s clearly in charge and another that’s clearly his support. We get the in-charge one. At least until…well, let’s not jump to the end of the story quite yet.

The wine list is a little odd. It’s quite long, conspicuously expensive (no real surprise given the environment), and it has a fair number of prestige names, but even in that realm there’s a bit of discomfiting wrong producer/wrong vintage oddity, like a musician who knows all the notes to a famous song but has no idea how it actually sounds. When it roams afield, it picks up a substantial number of names I’ve never heard of. Now, I’m sure that’s most non-oenogeeks’ experience of wine lists, but it’s pretty unusual for me to look at page after page of wines and wonder, “who is that?”

Nonetheless, there’s plenty that seems worth ordering and from that subdivision I select two bottles: a riesling with a little age and a Rippon Pinot Noir with more, from an intriguing two-vintage vertical of a Central Otago wine that one doesn’t often see on American wine lists. I ask for the older of the two.

Champagne is offered as an accompaniment to the first courses, which are a series of musings around the idea of eggs:

Feuillatte Champagne Brut “Réserve Particulière” (Champagne) – Broad and uninteresting, its cute little apple and ripe lemon decorations ultimately adorning nothing of actual substance. (11/11)

It’s a decidedly un-ambitious Champagne for such an ambitious restaurant, but indifference to by-the-glass sparkling wine is hardly specific to Saison (at least it’s not Veuve). But then, the problems begin.

Another egg dish. Another pour of Champagne. Yet another egg dish. More refilling. At this point, I’d prefer the riesling I ordered, as I begin to wonder if it will be consumable by the time the meal moves into its red wine phase. There’s a multi-course pause (as the by now incredibly tedious Champagne continues to be resupplied), then the head wine guy arrives to inform me that the riesling is no longer available.

Running out of a wine is no big deal, of course. It happens. It would, admittedly, have been nice to learn this earlier in the meal, so an alternative could have been selected. But he has instead arrived with his own replacement, and it’s a very odd one given that what I’d wanted was a riesling. While I also appreciate initiative on the part of wine directors, and am more than open to suggestions from the best of them, I prefer those suggestions have either a relation to what I’ve tried to order or a firmly-stated justification for their substitution (appropriateness with the food, personal enthusiasm, whatever). Neither seems to be the case here.

Brocard 2008 Chablis 1er Cru Vau de Vey (Chablis) – Chardonnay. By which I mean: yes, it’s ostensibly Chablis, but really it’s just French chardonnay with a restrained hand on the manipulative tiller, in the very tiny pond through which the captain of this wine is motivated to navigate. (11/11)

I push back a bit, but at the pace with which wine transactions are happening, I fear that a request for the wine list will result in a long stretch with no wine at all. Thus, I take the path of least resistance and (reluctantly) accept the alternative. I can already tell that I’m not being listened to, that my preferences are being pushed aside by the wine waiter, but as my dining companion and I are having a generally excellent time, and as I’m in the mood for neither stridency nor argumentation, I let it go.

Bad choice.

Despite not getting the wine I’d wanted, I am offered the opportunity to conduct 100% of my own wine service vis-à-vis the Chablis. This despite several pointed two-empty-glasses stretches in which the wine duo is standing motionless in front of a cabinet, doing nothing, and I’m doing my (fruitless) best to stare them down. In any case, eventually there’s no more of the mediocre Chablis, either, and I finally manage to flag the inattentive wine guy down and ask after my pinot noir.

Another long pause. A very, very long pause. Red meat has started to arrive, I know there’s not a whole lot of it before the sweet stuff takes over, and there’s still no wine on the table.

In the interim, I am offered yet another stopgap wine: a wretchedly oaky white Burgundy. Really? At this point I’ve had enough, and reject the choice, asking more insistently for the Rippon I’ve ordered.

More delays. I’m now eating game meats and really wishing I had some red wine. Finally – one sees it coming – I’m informed that the Rippon is also out of stock. The obvious thing to do would be to offer the other vintage as a substitute, but I strongly suspect it, too, would not be found. One begins to wonder, at this point, how much of the seemingly lengthy wine list is actually represented in the restaurant’s cellar. One wonders, more pointedly, why this information could not have been communicated much earlier in the meal.

But, as I now see, this has never been about my getting what I want. This has been, and is, about drinking the wines Mr. Wine Guy wants me to drink. A state of affairs to which I do not at all object, if 1) approached forthrightly, and 2) my preferences and reactions are actually considered.

Neither is the case here. The restaurant’s menu nudges one in the direction of a series of pre-selected pairings, but I’m only inclined to accept those if I trust the judgment of the selector. Which, at this point, I’m glad I didn’t.

The next make-up wine is announced as a Graillot Crozes-Hermitage. Well…hey! I like Graillot. Everything’s about to be forgiven, right?

But…but…wait. What is this over-concentrated, oaky mess in my glass? This can’t be Graillot, can it? It’s just impossible.

(maybe) Maxime Graillot “Domaine des Lises” 2009 Crozes-Hermitage (Rhône) – Heavy, woody, impenetrably dense, and dead-fruited; if certain financially semi-solvent Australian importers of past repute (and bacon-of-the-month clubs) had ever worked in the Rhône, this is the sort of wine they’d have sought. I’m given to understand that there’s a familial connection to the great Alain Graillot here; if true, this is an embarrassment to his name. (11/11)

Now, I offer the above note as half-speculation, half-sarcasm. It’s pure hypothesis, because I don’t see the label (assuming, as it’s poured, that what I’m getting must be the Graillot with which I’m familiar). But I simply cannot believe that the Graillot I know and love could produce this sort of monstrosity. Given a choice between concluding that the domaine has abruptly gone to hell or that Saison has offered me the relational alternative (or for all I know, something else entirely), I’m going to go with my palate. I cannot prove this, of course, which is why it’s a conditional note.

Additional glasses of Bizarro Graillot are not offered, either, so as the last few animal flesh courses come and go flanked by mostly-empty wine glasses (I admit to repeatedly going back to the wine, trying to figure out how it can possibly be Graillot), I’m torn between wishing someone would notice this and being glad they don’t. But when Wine Guy finally returns to the table and asks after the Graillot, I don’t hold back the full expression of my distaste. Nor does my dining companion.

Well – the proposal comes – how about a barbera, which will be (it is asserted) an excellent match for the interstitial salad? My exasperation is reaching critical levels, but at this point I’m a little desperate, and agree to give it a taste. Unfortunately, a “taste” isn’t offered. It’s just poured, in both glasses, and then walked quickly away. It’s an oaky, flabby monstrosity of a wine, and after a tentative sip the rest goes untouched.

Now, with two full glasses (as the last of the semi-savory courses disappears) providing the coda to what has been a series of increasingly disastrous interactions between customer and Wine Chief, one might think that some efforts towards recompense would be in order, and I start preparing the politest possible conversation I might have to accomplish that. I don’t mean monetary recompense, I mean: let’s have a conversation, Mr. Wine Guy, and figure out if there’s something on this list that I’d actually like to drink. Because at this point, I’m rather thirsty for something that tastes like wine rather than ego. But no. This is the point where things take a turn from the sub-competent to the unbelievably absurd.

There are about five courses left. About an hour’s worth of dining. There are two full glasses of opaque oak juice on the table, just sitting there begging for some sort of attention, removal, replacement, or at least comment. And I will not see either of the wine waiters at my table until every one of those courses has been consumed and the plates taken away. Dessert wine? Digestifs? Not, on this night, an option.

Well, no. The above is not precisely true, regarding the wine waiters. I see them – they’re standing about fifteen or twenty feet away, at their station. But they don’t approach the table. The head guy won’t even look in my direction, despite five-minute laser-like stares in his as he stands, motionless aside from pointless fiddling with some sort of wine-opening implement, looking anywhere and everywhere at nothing in particular. At one point I slide my seat back, looking as if I’m about to stand up, and as if electrocuted he immediately scurries into the kitchen and disappears. The kitchen. (He doesn’t exit said kitchen carrying anything.) He is overtly, pointedly, avoiding me. Or more precisely, hiding from me.

One waitress – I need to re-emphasize that food service here is of an exemplary standard – intuitively picks up on our dissatisfaction. She apologizes profusely, but what can she do? I ask to speak to Wine Guy. Or the manager.

I get neither (the manager is, apparently, not on site). Twenty-five minutes pass, the waitress with whom we’ve shared our unhappiness repeatedly returning to our table to apologize and, in a quieter voice, to commiserate. In the most cowardly act (or rather, failure to act ) yet, Wine Guy completely disappears and his assistant – who has had nothing to do with our table – is dispatched to offer the apologies that Wine Guy is obviously too chicken-shit to offer.

The fact is, I have no heart for the tongue-lashing I’m desperate to deliver. Because nothing is this guy’s fault, really. It requires mind-reading on my part to say so with confidence, but he clearly looks miserable about his assigned task. He apologizes scores of times, as the inevitable anger eventually does rise in my voice, but lacking time travel there’s nothing that can be fixed. The evening has been more or less ruined, he knows it, and he’s been sent to do the dirty work of the person who is actually at fault. Ultimately, I’m somewhat sympathetic to his plight (I’m at least gratified that someone has the cojones to apologize; in the absence of a manager maybe the chef might have, were he not otherwise engaged in modeling and flirting), but the one thing I cannot be is happy.

The offer is made to remove the wine – all the wine – from the bill. Since I haven’t actually ordered any of the wine that’s going to appear on said bill, I can’t say that I mind, and so I accept the offer. I once again consider escalating my complaint, but really, what’s the point? The only other thing I could extract is more money, and while the restaurant as a whole is responsible for my dissatisfaction, there’s nothing they could offer me at this point that would make up for their failures. And it’s not like I’m ever going to come back. Were this the very last dining option in San Francisco, I’d choose takeout from Safeway. So, deciding the evening has already been enough of a disaster, I accept the offer to not pay for wine I didn’t order and ask for a bill for the rest.

Our waitress gets a fine tip, along with a firm instruction that no matter the official or unofficial restaurant policy, not one penny is to be shared with the wine staff.

The glorious codas to the evening are twofold. Near the meal’s end, I head outside to seek the restrooms, having not seen Wine Guy in ages and hoping that he’s slunk home in shame. Of course, he hasn’t: he’s standing in the alley smoking what must be the world’s longest-lasting cigarette. He sees me and whips around to stare at something fascinating on the completely featureless wall. I slow to consider all the various cutting remarks that could vent my anger towards its true target, but again find no solace in the prospect. The evening’s already irretrievable, and I can’t imagine Wine Guy doesn’t know who ruined it, given his pathetic cowering and slinking. The most I can manage is a dismissive, French-style exhalation of disgust as I pass.

When it’s time to leave I ask for a taxi, as one must. Which doesn’t arrive. I walk back inside and ask again. Still no taxi. I walk back inside a third time – the restaurant is empty and breaking down their tables at this point – and ask yet again, beginning to wonder if the wine staff is in charge of transportation. At this point, a taxi passes on the otherwise mostly dark, entirely desolate street – not a taxi that’s been called, by the way, just one that happens to be driving by – and I’m delivered far away from this unbelievable evening.

Saison is a restaurant with Michelin-starred ambitions. Of this they make no secret. And it’s a very, very pricey meal, especially in the context of San Francisco dining. There’s no question that they can cook. But what they offer on my night isn’t amateur hour, isn’t even failure unworthy of critical recognition, it’s a debasement of the very concept of service itself. And did the restaurant not do so many things vastly better than well, I’d dismiss it as unworthy of this level of reportage. But it’s not. It can’t be. If it wishes to play amongst the adults, it must be judged as one of them.

So there it is: the worst wine service I have ever experienced. I pray there will be no future contender, but one thing I know for certain: Saison will never get another chance.

Disclaimer: if you’ve been reading this far you already know this, but 100% of the wine is comped by the restaurant.

Nopa, no gain

rodinnopa – Operating this evening (and, one suspects, most evenings) as a high-pitched zoo, which is a testament to its popularity. A popularity not in the least unwarranted, given the quality of what I eat. The wine list is good, though it could be a little more aggressive in its adventures, but the swagger of the cooking is beyond reproach.

I’m here with a pair of winemakers, and thus the conversation and attention are mostly focused on their works and words, so I’d like to come back and pay more attention to the dining experience. One of these days…

Cowan Cellars 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Silver Pines (Sonoma Mountain) – Thick, with light apricot sweetness and a sorbet texture (which is not to imply residual sugar or the simulacrum thereof beyond that previously indicated). Frankly, this reminds me rather powerfully of Radikon’s early efforts. That’s a compliment. But it’s not an entirely complete wine. (11/11)

Cowan Cellars 2010 “Isa” (Lake County) – Airy pomegranate with a silky texture. Dense, long, and sandy, like drinking a desert wind. This is very accomplished. (11/11)

Chermette “Domaine du Vissoux” 2008 Fleurie Poncié (Beaujolais) – Closed and weird. And I don’t discount the possibility that there’s something wrong with this bottle. (11/11)

Ridge 1995 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – 62% zinfandel. Oak perfume (I refuse to call Paul Draper a barrel, or even a tree), dust, and sweat. Silky blackberries on a bed of seeds and rocks. This is a wine at the perfect midpoint between post-primary fruit and maturity, with neither wresting the majority. (11/11)

Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino Macharnudo Alto “18” (Jerez) – Overwhelming almonds. Dry, dry, dry, and dry with a side of dry. Extremely long. Rather a slap upside the context; this is a wine that exceeds most of its potential frames. (11/11)

Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino Macharnudo Alto “15” (Jerez) – Like drinking upholstery. This is much more restrained and muddled than an 18 consumed on the same night, and suffers for it; were it allowed its own spotlight, matters might be different. But at this moment, it’s muffled and insufficient. (11/11)

Disclaimer: we negotiate a reduction in the usual corkage, given the presence of winemakers and their wares. The two Cowan Cellars wines are provided by their winemaker, and I believe this to be the case with the Ridge as well, though I may be misconstruing employment dates.

 

sunsetBurma Superstar – I hear there are better Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area. But this one has an advantage other than name and reputation, in that they’ve paid some attention to the rest of the story: smiling, beyond-helpful service, a tiny yet very decent micro-list of wine and beer (for those inclined to cavil: is there a better wine list at a Burmese restaurant? anywhere?), and…of course…delicious food. Could there be “more” on the plate? Perhaps – I don’t know Burmese cuisine – but what’s offered is eminently delicious.

Trumer Pils (Berkeley) – Clean, basic, internally-frothy and true to style, though it’s my ongoing impression that West Coast breweries do their representatives of each style in a lighter fashion than their East Coast counterparts; since I’ve “come up” drinking the latter, as it were, the former always seem a little wan. (11/11)

Camino royale

golden gate park botanical poolCamino – It did not used to be the case that one left San Francisco for Oakland to dine, except in search of non-Western European cuisines that had been priced out of SF. There were a few good options, nice for meeting folks who lived on the other side of the Bay and were tired of always having to make the westward journey, but SF remained the center of gravity. Now, however, the pace of change appears to be accelerating, which is fun for Bay Area diners but has to be really exciting – and perhaps somewhat of a relief – for Oakland residents. Camino is as talked-about as any of the city’s a-birthing establishments, and so it’s a pleasure to cross the water and give it a try.

Cocktails: excellent. Atmosphere: fun and warm, vibing not entirely unlike a Rockies ski lodge, a feel that suits the extensive use of fire in the kitchen. Wine list: I never see it, so I don’t know. Service: very friendly.

Food…well: much is good, some is tentative, some is just OK. The hype may slightly outpace the quality, or I’m here on an off night. On the other hand, there’s no obvious reason why the kitchen couldn’t turn out consistently excellent food…what flaws there are on my night (mostly of conception and balance rather than execution) don’t appear to be systemic. I’d come back, but I wouldn’t rush.

Belluard 2009 Vin de Savoie Terroir du Mont-Blanc “Grand Jousses” Cépage Altesse (Savoie) – Flat plains of minerality, broadened to the horizon. Yet despite the breadth there’s a nervousness to the wine, a tension. And on the gripping hand, shyly floral flashes. I’d say this needs time, even on the night, but it’s gone like summer lightning…which, by itself, says something. (11/11)

Saumon 2009 Montlouis-sur-Loire Le Clos de Chêne (Loire) – I struggle with this wine, which seems surly and imbalanced…not in conception, necessarily, but as if it’s throwing a kind of tantrum. Waxed minerals, pollen, white petals, tenderness, but not one of these elements is willing to play with, or even look at, the others. I’ll wait for a bottle that’s had its nap, or is at least free of colic, before saying more. (11/11)

Arnot-Roberts 2010 Trousseau Luchsinger (Clear Lake) – Zinging all over the place, with spike-driven fruit of surprising weight giving its piercing tartness, somewhat leaden structure, and a lot of confused thrashing for a finish. This tastes like an experiment. (11/11)

Edmunds St. John 2005 Syrah Bassetti (San Louis Obispo County) – Something I thought I might never taste: a mature Bassetti. Well, mature-ish. OK, not mature at all. There’s certainly no hurry. If there’s any benefit to Old World analogues, this is the Hermitage versus some of Steve’s less hyper-masculine syrahs, but it’s important to stress that it doesn’t actually taste anything like Hermitage; the only real commonality is the firmness of its structure, which is still quite evident. Otherwise, the dark fruit has roasted into soy-drizzled walnuts and dark herbs, porcini dust plays a role, and the lingering impression is one of persistent solidity. Very, very impressive. (11/11)

Disclaimer: the Belluard and Saumon are provided by a dining companion who imports the wines.

 

roast poultryHog Island Oyster Bar – The lavishness of my usual 4- or 5-dozen oyster orgy is mitigated by the presence of an unfamiliar face, and thus I’m forced to behave in matters bivalvual. But there’s just nothing to not love about this place. Terrific food, quite decent beer, wine, and sake, and the Ferry Building premium doesn’t seem all that punishing here.

Métaireau “Domaine du Grand Mouton” 2010 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine Sur Lie “Petit Mouton” (Loire) – Muscadet-by-the-numbers. Abraded shells and slightly saline acidity, light-bodied, clean and soon absent. Frankly, I expect more from this producer. (11/11)

Tartine wolf

juan marichalBar Tartine – When I lived in Boston, I often complained about the dining scene (or more precisely, the eating scene). “But…don’t,” confused interlocutors would object, “we have great ingredients and talented chefs?” Unquestionably yes to the first, especially piscatorial, and a more tentative “a few” to the second. But what Boston always lacked was a vibrant midrange. Fine dining was more or less as fine as anywhere not an American fine-dining mecca (thus excluding Chicago and New York, for example), but the possibilities for inexpensive yet adventurous and high-quality eating were few-to-nonexistent.

I think of Bar Tartine (San Francisco is a city rife with exactly the sort of establishment I mean) as an exemplar of the form. From what I can tell they go through chefs like other kitchens go through towels (that may be a mistaken impression), but as long as the food’s good, who really cares? There’s a non-Western European tinge to the current menu, which is a delicious diversion from the norm, and while the food retains its primary quality of “good stuff cooked well,” there’s just enough that’s unfamiliar and fun to make this a destination worth returning to again and again, just to see what’s up. The wine list is good, too.

Broc Cellars 2009 Roussanne (El Dorado) – Tastes natural, but not Natural…by which I mean it tastes like an authentic attempt to express roussanne (I’ve not had sufficient El Dorado County roussanne to speak to terroir-expression) without the trappings of biological spoilage or cultish ephemerae, but with one foot in the orange wine camp. But anyway: stone fruit, adhesive and dense, with a mysterious sense of space illuminated in ultraviolet. And then, tannic. Let’s not leave out the macerative component, perhaps not (strictly speaking) roussanne-as-roussanne, but which in this case provides more of a contrapuntal complexity than a true rethinking. (11/11)

La Crotta di Vegneron 2007 Vin d’Ardèche Gamay (Rhône) – Brittle gamay, not fully “ripe” in that the fruit lacks flesh, but with its own appeal as a result. Tinny, perhaps, or put more charitably: high-toned without being overly volatile, and crisp. Lengthily crisp. Crisply long. Whichever. (11/11)

The Cagliari of the wild

sf rainbowLa Ciccia – The relationship between hype and execution is frequently one marked indifference, seething resentment, and serial infidelity. And it’s thoroughly individualized; there exists no devotional object for which there is not proportional loathing.

Still, it is very, very difficult to find anyone of demonstrable reliability…that is, we may exclude Yelp…who has anything bad to say about La Ciccia, aside from carping about extreme popularity and its effect on reservations. That speaks of something. And yet, despite a near-relentless “go, go, just go” drumbeat from friends and trusted acquaintances, somehow I’d managed to avoid the place over multiple visits to the Bay Area.

Were I as flexible as my (imaginatively auto-fictionalized) boyhood self, I’d be kicking my posterior right now. Since I’m not, I’ll have to settle for doing it verbally. Every single thing I eat here – ranging from yanked-from-the-ground simple to a sophisticated balancing of aggressive flavors that would overwhelm a lesser kitchen – is cooked perfectly. Not well. Not pleasantly. Perfectly. Including easy-to-mangle organs, parts, and eccentricities, but also including the basics of noodle, muscle, and salt-water bather. The service is, delightfully, that of a bustling Italian kitchen above which live  and sleep three generations of family. And the wine list is…

…OK, here’s a minor complaint: I hate the way the wine list is organized. But the insanely expansive demonstration of vinous Sardiniana is impossible to criticize beyond issues taxonomic.

There are very few things I insist on doing each and every time I’m in a much-visited place. Lunch at Le Comptoir in Paris might be one. Perhaps a seat at the bar at Drink Boston. La Ciccia is now on that list.

Boxler 1996 Riesling Sommerberg “L31E” (Alsace) – Bracing. Gorgeously semi-mature, its metals golden and its acids rounder but still crystal-clear as they pierce the wine’s heart. What residual sugar there once might have been (I no longer recall the wine in its youth) is now no more than a slightly clouded polish on the shiny core, though it would be difficult to say that the wine presents as “dry”…its aspect is too lavish for that. (11/11)

Dettori “Badde Nigolosu” 2008 Romagnia Rosso “Ottomarzo” (Sardinia) – The walloping stank of immense volatile acidity…and not much else. VA is my “thing,” yes, but I can’t get past it here. This wine is grossly, impenetrably flawed. I appreciate the prose middle finger to convention and marketability on the back label, in which they insist on their right to produce wines like this, but while I like many Dettori wines a great deal and have absolutely adored some as works of near-genius, this is not one of them. This is horrible. (11/11)

Contini 1998 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – Like drinking preservation. Not any specific method of, but preservation itself. This sense of unsatisfied temporal tension awaiting content is almost specific to vernaccia di Oristano, for my palate, and sets it apart from so many other flor wines with much more self-generated qualities. Vernaccia di Oristano always seems like it’s expecting something that hasn’t yet happened. (11/11)

Commitment

santa barbara fogIn-n-Out Burger – I know, I know. It goes against everything I believe about ingredient sourcing. Sometimes, I’m weak. And sometimes, I’m driving from Ballard to San Francisco on a tight schedule and the need for faster food enables my weakness.

As always, avoid the horrible fries.

 

Terroir – They’ve moved a few seats around. A few folks behind the bar are new. The same old wines have a few new neighbors, no small number of them from a niche importer that just happens to be the former owner and an ex-employee. Other than that, not a single thing of import (sorry) has changed.

One of the unfortunate things about most American wine bars is that they’re not actually wine bars. They’re restaurants that have more than the usual number of wines by the glass. That’s not such a bad thing in theory – eating is a good, and frequently necessary, companion to drinking – but in practice it obliterates the concept, because it makes it impossible to “use” the establishment as a wine bar (except at eccentric hours) because the seats are occupied by long-term commitments rather than three-glass stands.

santa barbara post officeI mention this not because Terroir is, by contrast, so obviously a real wine bar, but because the very complaints that some have about it (in which I’d find both agreement and disagreement) – marginally-comfortable-at-best seats, a little bit of attitude – actually help preserve its function. People come in, they have some wine and a few snacks, and they leave, opening up room for someone else. And those who don’t are the deeply-committed.

Or the should-be-committed. One of the two.

Belluard 2009 Vin de Savoie Terroir du Mont Blanc “Les Alpes Cépage Gringet” (Savoie) – This unfolds very slowly, but by the second or third chapter you realize you’re rapt. At first, it’s just a nice little Alpine white with an edge of something vaguely nutty or floral. But then there’s plot development, a narrative, an ebb and flow and characters move in and out of the story in an orderly fashion. Complexities are those of soil and sky: liquid minerals, yes, but also hues and qualities of light. The end comes with a richer, rounder, and more satisfying story than was evident at the beginning (and being closer to room than cellar temperature doesn’t hurt in this regard, either). I kinda love this. (11/11)

P·U·R 2010 Morgon Cote du Py (Beaujuolais) – Hmmm. Like half a Morgon – the brawling (for Beaujolais), muscular part – without any of the rest that makes it a complete wine. It’s chalky, angular, and void. There’s hesitation from the staff as I’m served this, hesitation as we (“we” including folks who’ve had it elsewhere, with better results) drink it, and a post-consumption questioning by the server that indicates to me none of the involved parties were entirely happy with this bottle’s performance. So I’m going to guess this is unrepresentative until presented with evidence to the contrary…especially as I can’t believe that so many of my like-palated friends have simultaneously lost said palates. (11/11)

Cask & Tangent

yachtsWine Cask – Too much touristy wandering of Santa Barbara’s ultra-deluxe streets leads to missing most of the lunch hour, and thus it’s a sort of act of charity that they let me sit and eat anything at all…though I’m restricted to the cold-prepped portion of the menu. The wine list is said to be interesting, and a quick perusal seems to verify that, but I just don’t have much basis for an elaborate opinion of this place.

Tangent 2010 Albariño (Edna Valley) – Tired of my grumping and grumbling about New World wines, the brave few who are actually willing to hear more of the tiresome lecture are sometimes moved to ask what I’d change. One of the things I always mention is that there’s a really wide world of grapes out there, suitable for all different soils and climates, and that I think there’s a lot of (say) pinot noir planted where something like nero d’avola might be more at home. The luxury of saying this, of course, relies on not having to sell something like nero d’avola to a public that loves pinot noir. In any case, I’m pleased to report that even though such wines are little more than a rumor on the East Coast, there’s actually been a fair bit of progress towards this goal in some sub-regions. And I have to say that, on balance, I like what I’m tasting. There are plenty of missteps, and for the usual reasons (more ripeness is always better, everything tastes better with new oak, wine should taste like fruit, acid can always be added later), but there’s plenty to like, as well. Here, for example, is a pretty albariño. Note that I didn’t type “little” in between those two words. It ain’t little. Though I suppose in the context of the region’s whites, it might be thought of that way. It doesn’t yell and stomp and carry on, but presents itself with plain simplicity and leaves the interpretation to the taster. Swirly yellow fruit with both green and peachier notes, some nut oils, a decent bit of acidity. Nothing special, not bad, just…nice. (11/11)

Margerum 08 Pinot Gris “Klickitat” (American) – When I was a kid, there was liquid saccharine that came in a little tip-and-squirt bottle, in case you wanted add some to food or drink in lieu of sugar. I only remember the one bottle, because of course there was the whole (overblown) cancer scare, and who wants to be offering carcinogens as a condiment? (This in a part of the country where pretty much everyone would have been puffing on cigarettes throughout the meal.) Anyway, this wine tastes like that. (Liquid saccharine, I mean. Not a carcinogen. Lawyers, stand down.) (11/11)

Epiphany 2010 Grenache Blanc (Santa Barbara County) – Fat and happy nectarines wearing bronzer and some out-of-date Ray-Bans™. (11/11)

 

santa barbara sleeperDinner with friends – Despite all the eminently mockable distractions of the internet, one clear benefit is the ability to bring people together across geographies. I have “friends” – certainly predating Facebook, and in many cases even predating the web – all over the world, and when geography is removed as a barrier it’s always pleasant to make or renew acquaintances in a less digital way.

And drink their decidedly analog wine. Let’s not forget this crucial element.

Delamotte 1999 Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) – My long-standing preference for noir-based Champagne has taken a fairly major hit over the last few years from a passel of grower-producers doing unquestionably brilliant work, but this reminds me why I once held the preference in the first place. Grapey, lemony, gauze-wrapped apple, filtered and only lightly yeasty…I’m sure there’s more to come later in its life, but this is a sip-while-conversing Champagne that doesn’t hit any of my sweet spots. (11/11)

La Valentina 2010 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo (Abruzzi) – One can, on occasion, ask much of certain variants of trebbiano and receive much in return, but in general it’s best to ask not what your trebbiano can do for you. The result is that you won’t be disappointed in wines like this: good, clean, green fruit in a tart, linear, narrow-gauge cylinder. Perfectly decent and undemanding, yet the wine geek in me demands more. (11/11)

Lageder 2009 Vigneti delle Dolomiti Pinot Grigio (Trentino) – Pinot grigio for those who don’t like pinot grigio, and this is only the basic version: firm, rock-infused, with restrained, polished fruit and just enough grip. (11/11)

Oddero 1998 Barolo (Piedmont) – I admit to struggling with this wine, never quite sure if it’s corked (if so, it’s sub-my-threshold) or just being a typically antisocial mid-life Barolo. The only thing of sure of is that, based on numbers and history rather than organoleptics, this is probably a suboptimal age to be drinking a traditionally-styled Barolo. It is not, in any sense, giving of itself, except with clouds of obscurative tannin and an angry snarl. Structurally and temporally, all seems to be right with the wine, and my worries about taint are not shared by anyone else who tastes it. So if this bottle is representative, this is no time to be drinking it. If it’s not, then I just don’t know. And there’s always the possibility that the current problem is the taster and not the wine. (11/11)

Texier “Domaine de Pergaud” 2009 Côtes-du-Rhône St-Julien en St-Alban “Vieille Serine” (Rhône) – Absolutely singing. This isn’t like drinking a really good Rhône blend…which, by the way, it isn’t. It’s syrah. This is like drinking a fireworks extravaganza designed to celebrate the the fact that wines like this exist. It’s sizable without being big, it’s concentrated with plenty of light and space, it’s serious but breaks out in periodically goofy grins, and it’s rather spectacular from start to (a much-extended) finish. (11/11)

Longoria 2009 Syrah “Vino Dulce” (Santa Barbara County) – 375 ml. Corked. (11/11)

Hitch a ride

beckmen & treeTastes of the Valleys – Most of the wine bars along Solvang’s main drag are rollicking in what otherwise appears to be a slow time of year, spitting out wandering clots of weaving wine tourists to – one hopes – the safety of hotel rooms rather than automobiles. But this one, a cozy basement with a few tables and a short bar, is empty when I arrive. Just me and the proprietress.

I’m here because this particular bar is specifically noted as a place to taste Arcadian and Au Bon Climat wines, which aren’t the easiest to find opened elsewhere in the area. Only the latter is actually available amongst today’s selections, but after a long day of tasting and with plenty of pinot in my post-sunset future, it doesn’t really matter.

Au Bon Climat 2007 Pinot Noir Los Alamos (Santa Maria Valley) – There is a particular quality of pinot noir that, in New Zealand, I’ve used – with some success – to guess at Central Otago (specifically Bannockburn/Cromwell) sourcing: blood orange, plum, and beet. But it occasionally shows up elsewhere, there and abroad, and here’s an example. If I hadn’t seen the label, I’d probably once again guess Central Otago, except that there’s a little more sophistication and delineation to the fruit (a consequence, perhaps, of New Zealand’s generally young vines and still-limited clonal palette). It’s really quite a gorgeous wine, overall, and as it finishes a graphite-like minerality…very unusual in pinot noir…starts to rear its particulate head. This is still very young, and yet there are already mature-tasting elements within, so as to its actual future prospects I wouldn’t dare venture a guess. (11/11)

Babcock 2009 Pinot Noir “Rita’s Earth” (Santa Rita Hills) – 13.6%, but tastes much, much bigger…a good lesson in how fruit intensity and extractive winemaking can fool the palate into thinking that excess body is alcohol-derived (which, to be sure, it often is). Purple, black, swollen…this is like drinking a bruise. (11/11)

 

beckmen roadHitching Post II – I have no idea what things were like in the immediate post-Sideways era, and I’m sure the relentless waves of tourists have made it difficult to retain a true neighborhood feel here, but the reputation of this restaurant as a place where locals do indeed still go is merited. I recognize a few winemakers here and there, though I suppose the biggest celebrity is the one who enters just in front of me, patiently awaiting his usual table: David Crosby. Nice to see he’s putting his new liver through its paces.

The food? No misteak. (Sorry.) Really, though: it’s beef or bust for the most part, though on my night they do some nice things with chanterelles and artichokes (not together). Basically, if it can be done in a single pan or over a fire, it’s probably worth ordering; otherwise, exercise caution. As for the steak on which one facestuffs here, it’s cooked with confidence and skill exactly as I’d have wished it. I could, I suppose, quibble with prices that seem a bit lavish, but then again it is a steakhouse, and is also as much a site on the tourist map as an actual restaurant these days. Best, I think, to just assume that the premium is for the experience rather than just the food.

And as for the experience…my waitress is worth any premium they wish to charge. For every quip she has a comeback, for every challenge a hilarious, smart-assed reply that would split my sides had the giant piles of meat not already accomplished same. Stories of tossing drunks in the back of her pickup abound. I’d have been pleased with the meal in any case, but she’s responsible for its elevation to pure joy.

Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2008 Pinot Noir “Hometown” (Santa Barbara County) – Squared-off, blocky pinot noir in a varietal straightjacket. That’s neither criticism nor praise, exactly, but this wine tastes like someone averaged out all the pinot noir from “here,” left out most of the adjustments and/or trappings, and just presented the results as wine. (11/11)

Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2001 Pinot Noir Julia’s (Santa Maria Valley) – Dusty morels and more intense, freshly-plucked porcini bind with pie fruit (that is to say: there’s an oven-warmed quality to it). This is fully knit and, I’d say, fully mature, even though I don’t expect it to fall apart immediately. A lack of full expression is, I think, inherent to the wine rather than to any artifact of age or storage; while I welcome the fact that the wine wasn’t pushed towards the caricature that afflicts so many of its neighbors, it also tastes as if it wasn’t pushed to the fullest expression of its own inherency, which is something I’d identify as somewhat of a house style at Hartley Ostini. In a way it’s a good thing, considering the alternatives, but one could also wish for just a bit more. (11/11)

Hartley Ostini “Hitching Post” 2006 Pinot Noir Bien Nacido (Santa Maria Valley) – Bruising. Only a vague sense of restraint (or fear) separates this from the punishing perils of Pinot Port. The alcohol isn’t too unrestrained given the overall burl of the wine, but the fruit is dark and somewhat gelatinous, the structure an almost cartoonish 100-pound falling weight, and the body the kind one fears is only achievable via the sort of secretive modern science for which athletes must pee in cups. Not that I think that’s what they’ve done here. But I do think this is a wine for people who usually find Hartley Ostini pinots overly transparent, and I am not one of those people. (11/11)

Disclaimer: the last wine is an off-menu selection offered by the hostess and poured by the glass for the entire table, but for which we are not charged.