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A Zuni meditation

A short-form San Francisco travelogue; part 4

by Thor Iverson

12 April – San Francisco, California

Golden Flower – Wandering around Chinatown looking for something…I don’t know, something that “grabs” my palate…I spy this Vietnamese spot and think the contrast with the more elegant, fusiony cuisine at The Slanted Door would be instructive. It’s not so much a dive as a casual neighborhood restaurant wedged into one of the many crowded streets of Chinatown so that it has the exterior aspect of a dive, but it’s close enough to the North Beach/Financial District intersection that it gets a healthy mix of Vietnamese immigrants and European-descended interlopers in its quiet, somewhat dark interior. Whatever their origin, most are gathered together to enjoy steaming bowls of pho and its variants.

I’m not in the mood for soup, so I go for the Vietnamese spring rolls (much more conventional in comparison with the Slanted Door interpretation; tighter, more fried, and definitely more of a flavor mélange than the fresh and distinctly-flavored SD version, yet still quite tasty…followed by an intensely spicy lemongrass beef dish that sets me to glugging one of those gelatinous tea-like beverages from a can, just to kill the peppers. And yet, it’s a very well-executed dish. A good place, and for the laughably insignificant price a place worth a return visit.

Zuni Café – Steve Edmunds has been bugging me to go to this San Francisco institution for what seems like forever. I’ve finally succumbed, though I show up a good ten minutes late after a long, semi-desolate half-jog from an overlong stop at K&L Wine Merchants. Steve’s already here, but we wait another quarter-hour for Rob & Ilene Adler, who unfortunately draw their workdays to a close just in time for rush hour, and wait an infinite amount of time for the infinitely flaky Frank McCormick, who never actually shows.

Steve and I discuss matters viticultural over a plate of oysters, while we wait for the rest of our party. Upon arrival of the full slate (minus Frank, of course), we proceed to order our way though a really pure, vivid series of unquestionably Californian takes on market cuisine, served with confident simplicity by a somewhat wizened waitress. OK, now I feel silly for avoiding this location until now. Steve’s been chatting with the wine director before my arrival, and his adorably attractive daughter (genetic drift, no doubt) is in fact another of the waitstaff, yet in a first for us in SF we’re charged the maximum possible corkage; surprising, yet still a bargain over this level of consumption at normal restaurant markups.

Edmunds St. John 2004 Pinot Grigio Witters Vineyards (El Dorado County) – Thick pear syrup with good skin tannin and a decent acidic balance, with slate hovering in the background. Nice on the nose and the finish, but not as enjoyable on the somewhat sticky palate. Steve is quite enthusiastic about this, but it’s never really reached me; I’m not sure what I think it lacks, but maybe it just suffers for not being Alsatian enough. More spice, maybe? It’s a good wine, it just doesn’t move me.

Christophe Pichon 2002 Condrieu (Rhône) – A gift from a mutual friend to Steve, and as gorgeous and category-busting as usual. Crushed flowers, honeysuckle, and peach blossom drifting on a sea of silken peach juice. Texturally sensual in a way few wines are. Just stunning.

Edmunds St. John 2004 “Pinc Froid” (California) – Alas, the days of the rosé of nebbiolo are over; this is now a co-fermented saignée of counoise and grenache in stainless steel. Steve massively prefers it to the nebbiolo; I’m not so sure. Yet I can hardly condemn the wine on its merits; strawberry, dried plum, mango, and a touch of bubblegum on the finish (which is otherwise redolent of carnations). It is, not unexpectedly, the slightest touch hot (not, I think, an actual function of the alcohol…rather a normal behavior of pink grenache), but overall quite balanced, fresh, fun and light. A prettier rosé than its differently-cépaged predecessors, and it will certainly find its fans. Meanwhile, I continue to search for a regular local source of consistently great nebbiolo rosato.

Dr. Parcé “Domaine du Mas Blanc” 1995 Collioure Les Junquets (Roussillon) – Slightly funky raw leather, peanut butter, bubblegum syrup, chocolate, and juicy raspberry jam cut slightly short in this somewhat faded blast of rusticity, yet the whole package is quite nicely mature…OK, a bit past mature, but still drinking well. I may, however, be the most positive of anyone at the table; elsewhere, it draws only tepid praise.

Ferraton 1999 Crozes-Hermitage Le Grand Courtil (Rhône) – Slightly strident and tannic at this precise moment in time, showing dried blackberry jam, leather, red cherry, and spicy plum with a dense, vaguely impenetrable core. Heading for a long nap, and exceedingly cranky about it, this has merits that are getting more difficult to see through the drowsy haze; let it sleep, it’s only going to get better.

Domaine et Terroirs du Sud 1949 Banyuls “Grand Cru (Roussillon) – No one at the table can believe this isn’t a typo (it’s on Zuni’s by-the-glass list at a rather absurdly low price; did they find it in someone’s basement?), but the waitress produces the bottle and it is, in fact, a ’49. What I learn, after the fact, is that it’s a recent late release from the producer. A very late release. Well, if there’s any doubt that fortified grenache has a lifespan similar to that of Porto, let the debate end. Our first glass is slightly stale, but new glasses from a freshly-opened bottle are vivid and shockingly intact: raisins, coffee grounds, sweet strawberry, and zingy acidity leaning towards the volatile. It’s only slightly sweet, but wow is this a marvelous artifact of a bygone age.

A philosophical diversion – This isn’t a report, but rather a musing on a debate that Steve Edmunds and I have at the end of the evening. I think it’s an interesting topic, and so include it here for expanded examination.

The subject is Gravner and his eccentric ribolla gialla, especially its modern version from amphorae that’s both cloudy and exceedingly individualistic. In the past, I’ve commented on how utterly thrilling I find this wine. Steve and I disagree on the merits of the amphorae-fermented versions vs., say, the more traditionally-made 1990 (which he strongly prefers), but that’s a matter of taste and not the more interesting disagreement. Or so it seems at first glance.

Steve – and he should correct me if I’m mischaracterizing his position – claims that because the current version of the ribolla gialla is so different, so unlike its peers, that it can’t fairly be evaluated or qualified, quality-wise. With this, I vehemently disagree. So stridently, in fact, that at the end of the evening Steve gives my wife a hug and proclaims me “difficult.” Well, I can’t disagree with that…

Part of the issue, to be sure, cannot be separated from our relative assessments of the wine’s quality; I think the wine is breathtakingly compelling, and thus find it easier to evaluate than Steve, who is more dubious of the quality. But our debate goes well beyond that. Is it really true that a wine’s quality cannot be judged when the enveloping arms of context have been, at least partially, amputated? Let’s put aside, for now, the greater issue of whether or not quality is even objectively measurable and posit that it is; I think that both Steve and I agree on this. Let’s instead address the issue of context.

Is the Gravner alone in drifting identifiably away from norms both viticultural and acculturated? No, certainly not. A mild example might be that of Fromm in Marlborough; in a region where the vast bulk of reds – from merlot and pinot noir – are grossly vegetal, perpetually underripe, watery, and disgusting, Fromm is able to make powerful, muscular pinot and literally huge malbec (with crashing waves of thick, ripe tannin). Is the winemaker just a freak? Is there voodoo in the vineyards? Or is no one else trying hard enough? The answer is a little bit of all three, but goes beyond them as well. The viticulture is not only unusually sound for Marlborough (where yields are unfortunately rampant) but directed specifically at concentration, especially important in a region that is still mostly planted to very young vines. Viticulture is largely non-invasive, but again concentration is a goal. The wines are not universally-loved – for some, the pinots are the poster children for an overly large, overly-extracted California-style pinot that many producers feel devalues the grape, for others, they’re just big – but they are unquestionably without context in that specific region, and almost without context in New Zealand (a few producers in other regions, themselves iconoclastic, also reach similar levels of force with, at least, their pinots). But – and this is the key point – no one, pro- or anti-, thinks that the wines of Fromm are unmeasurable. They’re big, to be sure, and they’re without peer in Marlborough (I mean that contextually, not qualitatively), but they’re not without context if one’s lens is expanded outside the narrow confines of Marlborough, and especially not if one considers grapes other than pinot. Issues of balance, of structure, of ripeness, of winemaking, and of ageability apply no less to Fromm’s wines than they do to anyone else’s.

And hey, what about Steve’s own wines? Where does he fall in the world of California winemakers, especially those working primarily with the grapes and cépages of the Rhône? He’s an outlier, an iconoclast, a trailblazer of sorts (though his particular “trail” is one that heads the other direction from the prevailing superhighway of the big-ass gobmonsters), and while his wines don’t usually taste like Rhône wines, they’re even less akin to their California counterparts. Maybe we should declare the wines of Edmunds St. John contextually adrift and unclassifiable. Maybe we can’t say that they’re any good, because we just don’t have anything to compare them to.

Or, let’s look at more familiar examples. Where are the peers, the contexts, for the greater Thévenet family in the Mâcon? The Cotats in Sancerre? These wines are unlike almost anything else from their respective appellations. And yet, the only people who openly question their quality are those responsible for the seas of mediocre crap that devalue those same appellations; quality producers, even those working in somewhat different idioms within these appellations, acknowledge both their quality and their paradigm-shattering.

But here we come to one of the keys to the issue: critical mass. Gravner isn’t the only winemaker producing good ribolla, but he’s the only one (at least that I’m aware) making it “that way.” When the same applied to Thévenet in the Mâcon, was his wine unclassifiably unusual? Did no one recognize its quality, but just throw up their hands in confusion? What about when Guillemot-Michel joined the party? Henri Goyard? Now that Goyard is absent and a Thévenet is helming Roally, are we losing our context again, even though the wines at Thévenet haven’t changed? No, I think not. Maybe the issue is that some are uncomfortable with a single producer blazing a trail, but if another joins, suddenly there’s context and comfort. Thus: if Foreau throws in the towel, Huet becomes indefinably strange in Vouvray. Métaireau is a freak, but get Marc Ollivier into the mix and everything’s fine. Trimbach’s Clos Ste-Hune becomes contextually adrift and unquantifiable if a few more holdouts start leaving residual sugar in their rieslings. Etc. This is, of course, nonsense: the wines are the same, whether they have peers or not. If CSH or a Mâcon-Villages or a Muscadet Sèvre & Maine are the same in ’96 and in ’97, but in ’97 they’re alone in their own particular little world because – I dunno, someone died and their kids weren’t interested in winemaking – the quality of the ’97 isn’t suddenly and arbitrarily an impenetrable mystery. The wines are the same.

So what’s really the problem with Gravner? Is it the amphorae? Why? Outside the world of oak and steel, there are certainly other fermentation and aging containers that are, by modern systems of thought, “unusual.” Pine. Redwood. Acacia. Caves. Someone point to the spot at which the vessel is no longer “normal,” please. Yes, amphorae are no longer typical. But neither is acacia…or is it? Someone tell Texier, Jaden, Kracher…

Maybe the problem is the obvious visual one: the wine is cloudy, like Pine-Sol in water. Again, though, this isn’t without any context, just not a lot of local context. I’ve had more than a few wines from the Loire that weren’t exactly transparent (a Clos de Tue-Boeuf comes to mind), more than that from Alsace, and even some from the alleged technocrats of Australia and California, not even to mention a few hundred ales from Belgium. Show me a complete clear witbier or lambic, and I’ll show you a lousy one.

Or maybe it’s the organoleptics. Well, here’s my aforementioned note, on a ’97: “spicy blended grapefruit and lemon rinds, fleur de sel, and a truly incredible, vivid nervosity that carries it through a long, mineral-and-spice dominated finish.” That’s hardly an out-there note; it could describe whites from just about any cool-climate region, but I’ve had dozens of Alsatian rieslings that fit that description. (It’s not like the Gravner is marked by something truly bizarre, like mule feet.)

The Gravner ribolla has contexts, they’re just multiple and not necessarily limited to ribolla from the northeastern Italian border. But more than that, it looks beyond its own externally-preconceived limitations to find its place in the world of wine. And isn’t that what the world’s best wines do? Do great numbers of people adore La Tâche or Haut-Brion or Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke or Clos Ste-Hune because they’re good wines “for their regions” or “for their grapes,” or because they’re world-class wines by any measure? The latter, I think. They compete on a world stage, not just with other wines of their region, grape, or even type, but with all wines for the consumer dollar. But it’s not just pure global capitalism, either, because they also compete for the same consumers’ adulation. And get it. Yet how these wines achieve their status is, I think instructive and relevant: it’s not by laurel-sitting. “Well, the Rosacker riesling from the Hunawihr cooperative is good enough, so let’s make the Hune like that,” says a (thankfully) mythical Pierre Trimbach, pissing away his family’s reputation with a single bad decision. But no, the Hune isn’t really like most other wines, because it’s not made to be. It’s identifiably Rosacker, but as far above those peers as Lytton Springs is above jug zinfandel. It’s identifiably Alsatian, but it’s “more” (and “less”) of several things than almost any of its peers. It’s a genre-breaking wine that redefines its genre towards itself. And almost no one questions its quality. Why is that? Is it that the wine is just so obviously terrific?

Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not yet prepared to posit a subconscious genetic predisposition towards Clos Ste-Hune appreciation. I think it’s simpler than that. I think the wine does have context, it’s just not necessarily the most obvious one. Maybe the context is dry riesling, at which point we have to consider not only a diminishing part of Alsace, but also the German trockens, Austria, Australia, and New Zealand. Maybe the context is austere mineral-driven whites, which brings northeastern Italy, Switzerland, Chablis, and the western Loire into it. Maybe the context is just great white wine, in which case we can include any number of regions. Maybe it’s none of those contexts. But there’s something that makes an unignorably large number of people nod their heads in satisfaction when faced with a Clos Ste-Hune…or a Cotat Sancerre, or an Haut-Brion, or a La Tâche. Maybe we don’t have to know what it is, just accept that it’s there.

Ultimately, then, I think we come back around to the issue of perceived quality. I think the Gravner is qualifiable and contextualized, and that may not be consciously separatable from my belief that it’s a great wine. Steve doesn’t agree that it’s a great wine, thus he finds it placeless and impossible to contextualize. In this case, he doesn’t accept the potentially-hidden contexts that, I believe, are constantly at work. To which I’d repeat: I’ve heard him speak with great satisfaction about certain of his own wines, yet I find them to have little more context than the Gravner that gives him such fits. So what’s the difference? The difference is that, with his own wines, Steve feels the context. Even if he couldn’t explicate it. And that is, I think, at the root of the issue.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.