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You’re Basqueing in it

A 2004 Sonoma/San Francisco travelogue; part 10

by Thor Iverson

[colorful SF houses]

Dull and colorless San Francisco
16 August 2004 – San Francisco, California

Hotel Palomar – A stunning hotel just a block from the Moscone Center, full of slick, modern lines and colors, and quiet despite fronting two busy streets. It’s also home to the Fifth Floor restaurant, and while we don’t eat there, we do manage to have drinks in its ultra-swanky outer lounge area.

Cold Heaven 2002 Viognier Vogelzang (Santa Ynez Valley) – I see this wine on by-the-glass lists all over the Bay Area during our three-night stay, which must represent the end product of some sort of high-intensity promotion. The wine itself is pretty good, showing rich varietal honeysuckle not always well-expressed by California viognier, but the oak is too prominent, especially on the nose. Winemaker Morgan Clendenen admires, and even makes a wine with, Yves Cuilleron, the oak-meister of Condrieu, so this probably shouldn’t be a surprise. But with a bit less wood, this would be a superior effort. As it is, it’s fine.

Piperade – Some train wrecks, as loud as they are, sneak up on you. This is one.

I’ve been on the phone with Piperade for weeks, trying to organize a dinner with one winemaker who may or may not be getting grapes earlier than he’d ever expected (Steve Edmunds), possibly his wife Cornelia St. John, and maybe his harvest intern; another (Mike Dashe), mired in the insanity of finishing a new facility before his grapes start arriving, and maybe his wife Anne; and Stuart Yaniger. Add to that a series of failed attempts to get Piperade to offer a lower corkage fee than is their norm, and I’ve spent a lot more time talking to the owner than I’d like.

So, Stuart backs out at the last minute, as he usually does. Anne Dashe is still in France with the kids. Cornelia St. John has other plans. Steve Edmunds’ intern is on the road, while Steve himself has to be at the winery to receive grapes. And Theresa wants dinner to be earlier. Taking a deep breath, I call Piperade to change our reservation.

…only they don’t have it. Despite a dozen conversations about a table for eight I’ve allegedly had reserved for several weeks now, they’ve no record of it anywhere. Worse, they can’t even provide a table for three at the original time, and so we’re moved a half-hour later than we’d originally wanted to dine. And so, while the dinner we do have ends up being quite good, the situation leading up to it leaves an exceedingly bad taste in my mouth.

unnamed Basque white – I’m never able to get a good look at the label of this wine, thus the lack of a name. But Piperade pours it by the glass at the bar, and the label looks like a generic packing label for a cardboard box, if anyone’s interested in doing the research. Anyway, the wine itself is full of green flowers, clover, dandelion, and limestone with striking, lime juice acidity. Pretty stuff.

[North Beach buildings]

North Beach blues
Mike arrives a little bit late, looking a bit red-faced from the stress of dealing with recalcitrant contractors on deadline. He appears to need a drink, says so, and uncorks the highest-octane of the three bottles he’s generously brought to dinner.

Dashe 2001 Zinfandel Todd Brothers Ranch (Alexander Valley) – For the first hour, this shows almost nothing except coconut-scented wood, despite aggressive decanting and swirling. Despite this, Mike’s polished off half the bottle before it starts to turn the corner. The wine underneath shows black fruit and coffee encased in a firm tannic structure, tight and tightly-wound and in no way ready to drink except for purely analytical purposes. We each have a glass, and Mike proceeds to down most of the rest. Two hours into the meal, he’s finally starting to relax a bit.

The food at Piperade is really quite nice (much better than at another of SF’s Basque outposts, Fringale), showing a countrified intensity one doesn’t always get from U.S. interpretations of regional French dining. A ham and sheep cheese terrine lives up to its exalted billing, and a plate of braised veal sweetbreads is pure comfort food, though it lacks any identifiably signature Basque touches. The wine list appears to be quite interesting, but with Mike’s supply we don’t feel the need (or the capacity) to order anything else. Service is, aside from the problems with our reservation, friendly, and gets friendlier when our waitress realizes that Mike has made one of the wines on their list. At long last, we get the reduced corkage I’ve been after. Figures…

Ridge 1996 Mataro Pagani Vineyard “ATP” (Sonoma Valley) – Mike’s reaction to this wine is fascinating and revealing (and, tomorrow, Steve Edmunds’ reaction will be equally revealing), as he takes one whiff, scrunches up his nose, proclaims the overwhelming presence of an off-putting funk (from brett, mourvèdre, or both, he doesn’t specify), and goes back to his zin. Well, there’s about as much funk here as there is on a Whitney Houston album: very light brett with an earthy, smoked character underlying dark, dusty blackberry and French roast coffee beans. Balanced and rich, with firm tannin and a lovely graphite texture, this is a tremendous wine nowhere near even its first stirrings of maturity. Eventually, Mike goes back to the wine, finds it to be “actually, pretty good” (I smirk, but don’t comment), and stops avoiding it.

Ridge 1991 Monte Bello (Santa Cruz Mountains) – From 375 ml. This carries a special anniversary label…gold and green and, honestly, kinda ugly. But the wine sure isn’t any of those things, instead showing a graphite character to its fine-powdered tannin, mature cedar, leafy fruit, and a very slight herbal greenness. It’s still lovely, even from half-bottle, and holding nicely, but in this size it’s probably as mature and developed as one would wish it to be.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson

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