Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Sideways" gets lost in translation

Rarely will you read a movie critique by somebody who was rooting for the film more than I was for the Japanese version of "Sideways."

I have a financial interest: my wife and I have a Japanese-language guide to California wine and wine country out right now. If the Japanese "Sideways," to be released at the end of October, is a hit, we'll probably sell a lot more books.

So I hope that Japanese movie fans don't see a translated version of this post (Don't look at me, I'm not gonna translate it).

The movie is not very good. The script has been dumbed down, one of the lead actors is awful, and the cinematographers somehow couldn't find beauty in Napa Valley (or, for that matter, in actress Rinko Kikuchi, who is far prettier in person.)

Moreover, wine has been de-emphasized and remystified. Almost anybody seeing the original "Sideways" would feel the urge to have a glass of wine. After seeing the Japanese version, one would be more likely to be too intimidated by wine to order it.

The focus of the film has changed, according to director Cellin Gluck, to a "fish out of water story." It's no longer about two very different but equally immature buddies who need a little of each other's qualities. Instead, it's about four Japanese people trying and mostly failing to fit into American culture. That's not a bad concept, but the producers would have been better off starting from scratch rather than adapting a movie which wasn't about that at all.

Acting quality is a big issue. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church were brilliant as Miles and Jack in the original. Church's charm was particularly important because we need to like Jack while he's behaving as badly as a man about to be married can.

The Jack role (now named Daisuke) is played by bug-eyed comedian Katsuhisa Namase, who has no charm at all, and no chemistry with either Fumiyo Kohinata as Michio (i.e. Miles) or Rinko Kikuchi as Mina Parker (i.e. Stephanie). The script beats us over the head repeatedly with the fact that Daisuke and Michio were friends during a one-year homestay many years before, and it has to, because unlike with Jack and Miles, they don't seem to have any real affection for each other.

This is not the only instance where screenwriter Takayuki Uesugi tells rather than shows, and thus fails to convince. The film opens with such a long voice-over by Michio, telling us who he is, how he feels, who his friend is, why he's here, how he feels about that, where they're going, how his career is going, etc., that I wished for a Star Wars-like opening crawl to save time: "Michio teaches screenwriting in Tokyo and is trying to sell a TV drama screenplay. He used to teach English but even though he once spent a year in the US on a homestay he's unable to speak it. His girlfriend left him. Now he's attending the wedding of his onetime friend in an LA suburb, and they're going to go to Napa Valley together under an excuse that makes no sense."

One of the strengths of the original "Sideways" is that director Alexander Payne doesn't judge either Miles or Jack; they're both flawed, but he sympathizes with both, and Jack often gives Miles better advice than vice versa. That's not the case here. Maybe it's Namase's lack of charm as Daisuke (Jack), but we're clearly meant to side with Michio.

But Michio is a cipher; he doesn't have the amusing quirks of Miles. He's not as tightly wound either, so when he eventually drinks from a spit bucket, it comes off as unbelievable, a holdover scene from a movie about wine.

It's obvious that the people making this film were not wine lovers. Wine names are relatively interchangeable. We don't get Miles' instructional course on how to taste wine -- which was actually accurate and useful. Instead, we get Michio telling Daisuke he's doing it the wrong way, though Michio doesn't seem to have any appreciation for wine either; he's all about the form.

Just exactly what fledgling wine fans don't need: all worries and rules, no joy. In the original, Miles rants about the production method of some wine, and self-confident Jack says, "Tastes pretty good to me." There's nothing like that here.

What is here? Here's a blow-by-blow. Warning: I'm going to give lots of spoilers, including the ending, because I assume most Americans will never see the film, but may be curious about it.

* Daisuke, who tells Americans "call me Danny," is set to marry Laura, a real-estate heiress whose father also owns the French-Japanese restaurant he manages. In fact he hates her and bitches about her as soon as he and Michio leave her home together.

* Like Jack, Daisuke was formerly a TV actor. Random people recognize him as "Captain Ninja."

* First things first, Daisuke and Michio drive to Grauman's Chinese Theater and park right in front, where of course Daisuke is recognized. You know, whenever I'm in LA, that's where I like to park.

* Daisuke wants to go to Las Vegas for his bachelor party -- which makes sense. Michio wants to go to Napa because he has a guidebook (and sadly, it's not mine).

* Daisuke tells Laura's family that Michio is a famous screenwriter and "his next movie will be directed by Kurosawa," because nobody in the LA area would possibly know that Kurosawa is dead; it's not like anybody there works in the movie industry. Unless he meant Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

* The boys visit Michio's former homestay, and kindly old Mrs. Russell gives them -- "just take it" -- a bright red vintage Mustang convertible, which was buried under boxes in the garage but is miraculously shiny and clean. Americans do this all the time; I have so many BMWs now because my neighbors are generous that I don't know where to park them all. Maybe I should just leave one outside Grauman's Chinese Theater.

* Mrs. Russell has an address for Mayuko, who Michio tutored in English 20 years ago. It's in Calistoga, so Michio wins the anti-Las Vegas argument.

* Mayuko now works at Frog's Leap, where owner/winemaker John Williams has inexplicably turned French. Director Cellin Gluck explained that the real Williams was out of town and Gluck had a French friend who would be good in the role. I guess it's fair play, as a Korean-American guy just played Sulu in Star Trek. I've drunk with John Williams, though, and he does speak pretty fluent English in real life until the last glass or two.

* The French John Williams wants Mayuko to move to Tokyo to open Frog's Leap's new branch office there. Go Frog's Leap! But she wants to make it here.

* Meanwhile, the boys go wine tasting, learn nothing and don't enjoy it. In fact, Daisuke's driving so Michio won't let him taste, only smell. How much fun Napa Valley is!

* Mayuko is dining with her good friend Mina (Kikuchi) at Bistro Don Giovanni when the boys discover them. Mina's supposed to be a half-Japanese American, and maybe her Japanese can maintain the illusion, but her English sure can't. Michio has a bottle of Beringer red (can't see which) after their visit to the Beringer tasting room. Product placement!

* Michio isn't initially attracted to Mayuko because she's not 18 anymore.

* Mina works at Cafe Sarafornia in Calistoga. Daisuke goes there for breakfast. She arranges tickets for the boys to a mud bath at Golden Haven Hot Springs. Mud baths are funny-looking, but that's the only joke the unimaginative screenwriter can get out of it.

* Mayuko gets a letter from her ex-husband Ichiro saying she can pick up their anniversary wine at Newton. She doesn't want to go alone, so she brings Michio. Meanwhile, Daisuke heads to Darioush to pick up a case of wine for his wedding.

* Mayuko and Michio talk about their relationships. Mayuko had a quickly failed marriage to a department store heir. Michio's girlfriend took all their cookware when she left, leaving him only a Le Creuset pot with curry in it. Michio and Mayuko begin to have a little chemistry. Michio says of the Newton wine -- an entire case, of what variety we don't know -- "The wine hasn't done anything wrong. Let's drink it." All of it. In one night. With other wine.

* The plot begins to turn around Michio trying to convince Mayuko to move back to Japan. Why? Because it's Japan. That probably will make sense to many Japanese viewers.

* Michio does a short, weak version of Miles' Pinot Noir soliloquy at a party, but doesn't bother telling us what Pinot Noir he's drinking, or what it tastes like. It's Pinot Noir. That's enough. (Central Valley Pinot Noir farmers rejoice.)

* Mayuko likes Cabernet. So she's in Napa Valley. Just as in the American version, she's the sensible one. And amazingly, on her tasting-room salary, she's able to buy or rent a huge house.

* Oops, forgot her part-time job; maybe that's how she bought the house. Mayuko also works at a wine shop and has a wine emergency -- she needs to get a truckload of specific older vintages of wine for a wedding that very night. Because, you know, Americans never plan ahead for weddings. Michio has that "Do-your-best" spirit and says, "We'll just go to the wineries themselves!" So they do. We never learn which specific wines they have to have, but we know nothing else will do. Talk about terrorizing novice wine drinkers -- you can't even get married unless you can find entire cases of wines that are no longer in stores!

* Michio steals Daisuke's wedding case of Darioush, which is on the list. Little by little they fill the truck with wine for this wedding we never see, driving all over the most nondescript parts of Napa Valley. "Bottle Shock" wasn't a great movie, but at least it had pretty vineyard scenes. This doesn't.

* Meanwhile, off camera, Daisuke has apparently made it with Mina, even though they showed no affection for each other (that's not a cultural difference -- if you want to see couples attempting to break the law of physics about two bodies not being able to occupy the same space, head to Yoyogi Park in Tokyo on a weekend).

In the original, Jack makes a great passionate speech about Stephanie. Forgive me if I make mistakes, this is from memory: "She smells different, she tastes different, hell, she even fucks different. She fucks like an animal!" Daisuke says about Mina, "We talk to each other in Japanese. You can't beat that." Wow, limited worldview.

* Mayuko and Michio cook dinner together and have a pathetic little peck of a kiss: barely any lip, much less tongue. Then Michio wonders why isn't she coming back to Japan, because if not, what did that kiss mean? Wow, limited worldview.

* Daisuke decides he's going to move to Japan with Mina and open a Japanese restaurant. We never hear him say anything nice about Laura, though she seemed nice enough, unlike Jack's lovey-dovey phone calls (cynical? or polyamorous?) in the original.

* The four of them have a picnic. Considering it's Napa Valley, it's surprisingly unbeautiful. This is where Miles inadvertently tells Maya about Jack's engagement in the original. No such realistic subtlety here.

* Mayuko finds out about Daisuke's engagement from a note in the purloined box of Darioush. She confronts Michio about it.

* Meanwhile, Daisuke's out of condoms, so he runs to a drugstore where everyone recognizes him as Captain Ninja. While he's gone, Michio calls Mina and tells her directly that Daisuke is engaged. What kind of friend does that? How can you have a buddy film without buddies?

* Daisuke and Mina argue about his engagement and he's yelling at her when she whacks him with a frying pan. Much, much weaker than the shockingly sudden attack by Stephanie in the original. I suspect the screenwriter thought that just knowing the guy who was fucking her was secretly engaged wasn't motivation enough for Mina to hit him. Cad. And I don't mean Daisuke.

* Driving back to the hotel, with his face bruised, Daisuke is pulled over by a motorcycle cop for an expired tag. Turns out she's a hot blonde who knows Captain Ninja, and happens to be a dominatrix. The next thing we see is Daisuke showing up at the hotel room in bondage gear. It's funny, and is what happens in almost 10% of all traffic stops in California, I believe.

* The boys go back to the CHP dominatrix's house to retrieve Daisuke's wallet and wedding rings, while she audibly (but not visibly) punishes her boyfriend or husband. It's not unfunny, but it's not as subtle as the humiliation fetishist from the original version.

* The boys are at a winery when Michio's ex-girlfriend calls and announces she's married and wants the Le Creuset back. Then a producer calls and says his drama screenplay has sold, has been rewritten by one of his students, and his credit has been downgraded to "story by," though his writing fee is unchanged. He screams and that leads to the spit bucket-drinking scene. Much, much weaker than the original, in which Miles' novel was rejected. And since the boys haven't been tasting and spitting, I'm not sure all audiences will even know what's in the bucket.

* The boys go to a fountain (at Darioush, I think) where the still overwrought Michio takes a swim in his clothes. Whiner. Michio throws away the screenplay he has been working on but Daisuke retrieves it.

* Daisuke decides that Laura is "the sum of my possibilities" and he's going to marry her after all. But he makes it sound and feel like the end of his life, not something to look forward to -- another big contrast to the first movie, where Jack strayed but ultimately decided he loved his fiancee.

* Daisuke runs the gift Mustang into a tree outside Oakville Grocery. Easy come, easy go.

* Daisuke leaves Michio's script for Mayuko. She reads it and likes it. Michio calls her from LA and leaves her a long love message, saying he'll drive back up to her house and, "If you feel the same way I do, leave the door unlocked."

* At last a subtle point: the door's locked, and Mayuko's gone.

* Cut to an airport (by the way, did you know LA is near enough to Calistoga to just pop on up?), where Mayuko is in ANA's business class lounge, waiting for a flight to Tokyo. We hear Mina's voice advising Michio, "Don't let her get away." We don't know if he does. The end.

That's it, that's the Japanese version of "Sideways." It's weaker than the original in almost every aspect of filmmaking: screenplay, acting, cinematography.

And yet, I'm in the position of rooting for it, of hoping that somehow this movie becomes a hit in Japan and gets thousands of Japanese interested in visiting Napa Valley so they'll buy this book.

Sigh. I need a drink. Maybe from a spit bucket.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Most Napa wineries say no to Japanese "Sideways"

Just got back from the world premiere of the Japanese remake of "Sideways." It's after midnight so I will write a long, drawn out, descriptive yet opinionated post -- tomorrow.

Director Cellin Gluck and actress Rinko Kikuchi (far right) took questions after the film, which was shown outdoors at the Napa Valley Expo. Though nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for "Babel," Kikuchi doesn't really speak English, so Gluck gave all the answers.

To me, the most interesting came when he was asked how they chose which wineries to shoot at. Frog's Leap, Darioush and Beringer are shown prominently in the film, but few other wineries are.

It turns out that most of Napa Valley still holds a grudge against the original "Sideways" for that one line of Miles', "I'm not drinking any fucking Merlot."

"We had many people hang up on us," Gluck said. "We tried to tell them that the script was different, but they weren't listening. We actually drove up to a vineyard where we had a shoot scheduled and we were at the gate and they said, 'Why are you here again?' We said, 'We're making the Japanese version of 'Sideways'.' We just stared at the gate and it didn't open."

In the Japanese version, while the Miles character (now "Michio") likes Pinot Noir and Maya (now "Mayuko") likes Cabernet, neither is as passionate about it as in the original, and nobody slams Merlot. At one point, we hear a Merlot described favorably in a tasting room. But this wasn't enough for most Napa vintners.

"The famous wineries didn't want anything to do with us," Gluck said. "Some wineries asked us to pay them $20,000 location fees to shoot for the day. We cost 1/5th as much to make as the original 'Sideways.' We don't have the money to pay location fees. So the people who welcomed us in, we went to."

Mayuko works at Frog's Leap, and we see more of Frog's Leap than any other winery. That's no coincidence: owner/winemaker John Williams was "the first winery owner to welcome us," Gluck said. "I can't give you the list of people who turned us away. But I hope they watch this film and say, 'Damn'."

Here's a brief note to the people on this unwritten list before I sleep: Are you out of your bloody minds? Don't you know how many bottles of wine were sold by the first "Sideways"? Don't you know that Calera can sell as many bottles of its Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir in Japan as it can export over there, for better prices than it fetches here, because of a single mention several years ago in a Japanese manga?

Don't you want Japanese tourists? They're polite, they spend money and they're brand loyal.

I guess with the booming economy, and Napa Valley wines flying off the shelves, getting a little free publicity in another country just isn't important. Isn't it great to be living in such times!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Kermit Lynch's album "Man's Temptation": a review

Kermit Lynch's first album seemed like a lark, a wine importer following a lifelong dream. Now he's done another, "Man's Temptation," so is it time to take him seriously as a musician?

Maybe. Lynch is smart enough, and has a good enough wine cellar, to have lined up a stellar list of mostly alt-country session musicians for this Nashville-recorded album. This makes his voice, by design, the weak link.

But in most cases, it's his only link. Unlike his first album "Quicksand Blues," on which he wrote all the songs, Lynch wrote just 3 of the 12 songs on this album and adapted two others. So he's coming at us not as a wine importer with a notebook full of thoughts, but as a singer.

Fortunately, even without the involvement of Boz Scaggs, his friend who put together the band on his first disc, "Man's Temptation" is a well-balanced, easy-to-drink-in alt-country album that's a little harsh on the intro but has a nice gentle finish.

In fact, I've been playing it in the background when friends are over drinking wine, and each time they've asked, "What is that album? I like it." Its judicious, intuitive instrumentals and absence of sharp edges make it an disc that's easy to keep going back to.

There are times when Lynch really comes through vocally. He sounds genuinely lonely on the hillbilly sway hymn "Rank Stranger," which might be the best song on the album.

He also has the courage to take on a song made famous by Patsy Cline, changing the gender to "Why Can't She Be You," and pulls it off because his voice is so plaintive. It's ironic that a guy who has dedicated his life to pleasure does his very best singing on songs of lamentation.

At the other end, the musicians here are so good that there are moments when if I could mix down Lynch's voice, I would. Specifically, the Carter Family song "Bear Creek" has such pretty guitar playing by George Marinelli, Michael Spriggs and album producer Ricky Fataar that Lynch is out of his league. That said, it is amusing to hear him nearly choke while trying to sing "It tastes like cherry wine," as if those last two words hurt.

You have to have patience with this disc because the first track, "Gare de Lyon," is the worst. I'm not sure what Lynch was shooting for with these lyrics, but he comes off like a guy with a hip-hop ego. He sings that he's in a Paris railway station, fine, but not for his day job: "I'm on my way to the next concert stage." Then a little later, "Well the whole town loves me/They come to my shows/They clap and they stomp and my audience grows."

What's next: I got a gat/in the back/of my ice-crusted Cadillac?

But you leave the train station and the album settles in for a smooth ride. There are points when Lynch is good enough to make you forget that this isn't his day job: the weary ending to the title track, the muscular bar-band sounding "Buckle-Up Boogie."

On the whole, I like "Man's Temptation" and think I'll be playing it at gatherings for a while. But please don't give up your day job, Kermit: we all like the wines too much for that.

Kermit Lynch is performing a one-time-only concert of this album on Oct. 7 in San Francisco, with a menu designed by Alice Waters and wine from his portfolio. I saw his one show for the last album and it was a blast; we danced and noshed and drank with the San Francisco fooderati. That said, it's $125, so use your own judgment. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Serve me your best wine, says Mayor Bloomberg

Do you ever wonder who drinks the $300 Cabernets that get 97 points?

In many cases the answer is "no one," because if it's a famous brand like Screaming Eagle the wine might enter the auction/investment market, where it will be tossed around every few years like a Gucci football, too valuable to drink.

But some of these wines make it to restaurants, where eventually they find a high roller. Who are these drinkers?

One is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who loves to eat, according to this fine New York Times article.

The end of the article describes Bloomberg's wine-buying process:

One dinner companion recalled that after Mr. Bloomberg asked for the best bottle of red wine in the house, the restaurant’s manager wanted to describe the wine to the mayor, have him taste it and smell the cork.

The mayor politely interrupted. “Is this your best bottle?” he asked. The manager said yes. “O.K., then pour it,” he said.
I hope something was lost in the translation about making the Mayor check for bacterial contaminants by breathing them in. "Smell the Cork" reminds me of the Spinal Tap album "Smell the Glove."

What this anecdote really tells me is how much attention the Mayor pays to wine. This is a New York restaurant; its "best" red wine could be anything at all, from a first-growth Bordeaux to one of Manfred Krankl's creations at Sine Qua Non.

And he drank it without even knowing what it was.

I don't mean to pick on Mayor Bloomberg, who seems from afar to be doing a reasonable job. He's not unusual in the ratio of spending to knowledge. It's like baseball-fan seating: People in the luxury suites usually don't know anything about the game.

I remember going to a Baltimore seafood house once that had seven wines: a half-dozen under $60, and one at $300, a Cab that wouldn't go with the food at all. The waitress told me they sold at least a couple bottles every week.

Wineries that have been successful in the very-high-end cult market know this, and market accordingly: their wine is a must-have lifestyle accessory. A lot of the schadenfreude we're hearing lately about the collapse of the expensive wine market comes from the fact that wine lovers don't buy or get to try these wines. As a critic, I've tasted Screaming Eagle, but I've never had a whole bottle, nor has anyone I know, and I know a lot of people who drink a lot of wine.

I may be alone in this, but I think the high-end wine market will recover with the rest of the economy, and drinkers like Mayor Bloomberg are the reason. The brand names may change, but there will always be people who simply ask for "the best wine," which the server is free to translate as "the most expensive."

Advice to Mayor Bloomberg: Stay away from Bern's Steak House.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

San Francisco's best wine tasting event

The last time I attended the Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries tasting, I thought it was the best wine-tasting event in San Francisco all year. I expect this year's event on Oct. 14 will be just as good.

The wine selection is fantastic. There are 100 wineries, not 100 wines, and most pour 2-3 of their best selections.

Hate domestic wines? There are plenty of imports. Love Cabernet or Chardonnay only? There's a roomful. If you can't find a dozen wines here you think are great, you don't love wine.

Then there's the food. Last year there were unlimited oysters along with superb little bites from some of our best local restaurants. Looking at the lineup of restaurants this year, there's no reason to expect that to be any different.

In fact, after telling you to buy tickets in advance so you don't miss out, I'm going to post an abbreviated version of what I wrote about it last year. Note the ending.

Ever wonder what these events are like? Here's what you got for $125 on Tuesday night in San Francisco:

You grab a Wine & Spirits logo glass and walk between various theme rooms. Each room has small tables holding two (or occasionally 3 or 4) wines from each winery listed in the top 100. Pours are more generous than in tasting rooms, and some people ask for seconds, although with all these wines to sample, it's easy to just keep moving.

Each room also had 2-4 items of food prepared by local restaurants. I wish I had taken better notes on these foods, because some were outstanding, like pancetta-wrapped chicken with sage skewers, tarako potato salad, and roast duck mini-sandwiches.

Bubbly and crisp whites are outside; that's where I started, sampling '03 Iron Horse and '97 Diebolt-Vallois just to warm up. The 1988 Veuve Clicquot Brut was one of the best things I had all night, rich and Sherry-like on the long finish.

Crisp wine highlight: 2007 Santorini Assyrtiko, an amazing Greek white with plenty of Meyer lemon and fresh herb character. One of the best Greek whites I've had.

In the "rich whites" room, I got into a depressing conversation with the importer of 2006 Tahblik Marsanne. Great wine, earthy and interesting, but he admitted that it keeps getting dropped by different distributors because few consumers risk $15 on Australian Marsanne.

The "floral whites" room allowed me to try the 2006 Fox Run Seneca Lake Reserve Riesling, which stands up to good German Rieslings in its price range. This is one grape New York does better than the West Coast.

I loved the 2005 Hartford Court Far Coast Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, a very pretty wine with nice cherry fruit. On the other end of the scale, the 2004 Lucien Le Moine Les Epenots Premier Cru Pommard was the most intensely aromatic wine I sniffed all night, with graphite and smoked pork jumping out of the glass along with black and red fruit.

In the Rhone Family room, the 2007 E. Guigal La Doriane Condrieu was a revelation: bright and beautiful, with plenty of apple and floral flavors and a rich, long finish.

I didn't spend much time in the Cabernet room, but who can pass up an opportunity to taste gems like the 2004 Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? Great wine, quite complex and elegant.

I tasted maybe 80 wines until I found myself explaining how to find a good eyeglass shop to somebody who clearly didn't care. You know you're absorbing a little too much alcohol when you sound loud, even to yourself. So I bailed, having one last sip of '88 Veuve Clicquot for the road.

If you get a chance to attend this event next year, do it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Michael Mondavi at DRC: a short anecdote

This is heresay, so I'll never be able to use it in a print story. Hence, a blog tidbit.

Michael Mondavi was visiting Domaine Romanee-Conti a few years ago during harvest season. He happened to be carrying a thermometer -- don't you always have one? -- and he stuck it into a vat of fermenting Pinot Noir grapes.

The temperature was high, and Michael immediately sought out the winemaker, because cold fermentation is what everybody was taught in enology school to do with Pinot Noir. You've got a problem with this vat, Michael said. These grapes are so valuable, I'd hate to see them screwed up.

The winemaker disappeared into the cellar and reappeared a few minutes later with a 20-year-old bottle. Tell me, he said, as they sampled it: Did I screw this one up too?

Friday, September 18, 2009

A kingdom of pink wines: Navarra rosados

The most famous event in the erstwhile kingdom of Navarra is the running of the bulls in Pamplona, which starts each year on July 7. For at least one day, every television station in the world shows the region. Who could ask for better publicity?

And yet, Navarra's wine industry has never capitalized on it.

It's not because Navarra has the wrong climate. Navarra is just east of Rioja, not far southwest of Bordeaux. It's attractive enough that links with French winemakers go back more than 800 years, when French monasteries planted cuttings from their home across the mountains.

The Pyrenees and their cooling influences are at Navarra's northern edge. And the southern part of the kingdom can't be so bad, because 8 villages in the governmental region are part of the Rioja wine region.

The grapes grown in Navarra represent its position between Bordeaux and Rioja: 37% Tempranillo and 24% Garnacha are classically Spanish, while 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 13% Merlot would seem to have Navarra prepped for the world wine market.

So why has Rioja prospered internationally while Navarra made cheap wines for the domestic market?

One answer is internal politics. For many years, Navarra's grape growers and wineries had separate associations, and they distrusted each other. This held back the wines, because grape growers following their own agenda of high yield and safe early harvest, without winemaker input, won't make it easy to achieve excellence.

It also held back the marketing. Navarra has little image of its own now. Does it make Tempranillo? Bordeaux blends?

One thing Navarra does as well as anyone is rosado (pink wine). This makes sense. More than 95% of the grapes grown there are red varieties, so they have the raw material. Look on the map: Navarra is not far from the south of France, which is probably the world's acknowledged pink-wine leader.

However, Navarra hasn't come to any kind of internal agreement to throw itself behind the banner of rose, and a glance at the prices explains why. Unless you're Domaine Ott, you can't sell pink wine for $20, whereas you can easily charge $50 or more for a Bordeaux blend in a heavy bottle (whether or not you can sell it is another story).

The Kingdom of Navarra held a tasting last week in San Francisco, and I concentrated on the rosados. As a group they were quite good: most were dry and refreshing, with good balance. Maybe it doesn't seem macho enough to celebrate pink wine, but these come from the same place as running with the bulls, and you just don't get mas macho than that.

Tasting notes

Bodegas Campos de Enanzo Navarra Garnacha Rosado 2008 ($10)
A burst of bright strawberry fruit with a longish finish, but a touch of sweetness makes me think this might be a better wine for tasting than drinking. Still, very good value at the price. 89

Bodegas Chivite Gran Feudo Rosado 2008 ($12)
Simple but likable dry rosado, made of 100% Garnacha, with flavors of wild strawberry and pink grapefruit. Readily available, won't disappoint. 88

Bodegas Chivite Gran Feudo Rosado sobre lias 2007 ($15)
Aged on its lees for 6 months, this is one of the most unusual wines I've ever had. If I had tasted it in a black glass, I'm not sure whether I would have guessed white, pink or red wine. It's made from Tempranillo, Garnacha and Merlot, but it smells more like Chardonnay than anything else, although that's mainly because I associate the strong smell of lees with Chard. The fruit is rosado-like, wild strawberry, but it also tastes more of lees (or brioche dough, if you prefer) than fruit. Good balance, and even enough tannins to give it a touch of firmness in the mouthfeel. Unique. 90

Bodegas Marco Real Rosado 2008 ($10)
Unbalanced, with cement-like aromas overpowering the raspberry fruit. 86

Bodegas del Romero Malon de Echaide Rosado 2008 ($9)
This is for people who like their wine a little wild. It has the expected elements -- pink grapefruit and wild strawberry notes -- along with strong pine needle character and a hint of animalistic muskiness. In a red wine that would be a plus; it's harder to say about a pink. It has excellent crispness, so it's refreshing as well as interesting. Not for everyone, but I like it. 89

Bodegas Ochoa Rosado ($9)
Fruity on the nose; a bit austere on the palate -- to me, that's a great rosado for a hot day. It's dry and refreshing, with the wild strawberry and raspberry character much more giving aromatically. I can see polishing off multiple bottles of this under a sun umbrella, with or without food, and that's a mouthwatering vision. 90

Bodegas Piedemonte Rosado 2008 ($9)
An initial wild strawberry flavor gradually segues into pink grapefruit with hints of gooseberry. Solid, good value pink. 88

Bodegas Principe de Viana Cabernet Sauvignon Rosado 2008 ($9)
This might be the best pink Cabernet Sauvignon I've ever had. Generally I'm not a fan; Cab doesn't usually have the acidity to make a good pink wine, and pink Cabs are often overextracted until they become baby reds. This, though, is all rosado -- pink grapefruit and raspberry flavors, a light-medium body, and a surprisingly long, raspberry finish. Excellent wine, especially at this price. 91

Bodegas San Martin Ilagares Rosado 2008 ($7)
Tightly wound wine with grapefruit and raspberry flavors and some mustiness. 87

Finca Lasierpe Vino Rosado Garnacha 2008 ($7)
Blood orange flavors with a savory, meaty note. Dry. Not bad at the price. 87

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Zintopia: Dry Creek does its own mini-ZAP

September abounds in wine events: here's a new one that might slide by unnoticed.

"Zintopia" is a one-day tasting event in Dry Creek Valley on Sept. 19. It's pricey at $75, but for that you will get to taste more than 50 Zinfandels (bring a designated driver), eat some catered food, meet some winemakers and vineyard owners and breathe in the harvest ambience.

For me, this is a reasonable alternative for Zinfandel fans to ZAP, the massive San Francisco event that has become so enormous that, as Yogi Berra would say, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." This event's timing is the best thing, as it's great to be in Sonoma County this time of year, when everything is abuzz with activity and you can literally smell wine being made while driving down the road.

Because it's a new event, it's hard to say how it's going to go. In terms of bang for your buck, the pressure's on the caterer, Park Avenue Catering, because ZAP tickets cost only $44 for more Zinfandels than Popeye, Tom Waits and Shane MacGowan could sample in a weekend.

Tickets will apparently not be available at the gate, but you can so you must click here to buy ahead of time. (Thanks for reading my blog and pointing this out, Meghann.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Winemaker coaches future Athletics

Winemaker Jeff Gaffner has more than the average fan's interest in the Sacramento River Cats' attempt at winning another AAA baseball championship this year. Half of the Cats' infield used to play for him in Little League.

First baseman Tommy "Time" Everidge and third baseman Brett "The Walrus" Wallace are both Sonoma natives who played under Gaffner when they were kids. Now, they're in the highest minor league level for the Oakland Athletics.

Wallace, a 1st round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals who was traded to Oakland this summer, is considered one of the top hitting prospects in the minor leagues. Everidge, picked by the A's in the 10th round, was considered an organizational player without much chance at the bigs until this year, when a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness of the guys ahead of him led to a July call-up.

Gaffner remembers Wallace as a tough kid even at age 8.

"He got hit by a pitch once, and usually when a kid gets hit, you can forget about him for at least that day," Gaffner says. "Brett got right back in there and crowded the plate."

As for Everidge, Gaffner isn't surprised that he overcame the odds -- the A's are loaded with first basemen in the minors -- to make The Show. And even though he didn't hit well enough in 97 plate appearances to stay in Oakland (.224/.302/.365 for you baseball fans; about 80% as good as a league average hitter), Gaffner believes he'll be back.

"Tommy will outwork everybody," Gaffner says. "He'll just work and work until he gets back up."

That's a rosy outlook, but Tommy Time's road is blocked by other players. Chris Carter, also now at AAA, is an even better hitting prospect than Wallace. And the large-bodied Walrus ("He was always big-boned," Gaffner says) might need to move to first as well, creating a logjam.

I was amazed to learn a winemaker who consults for a half-dozen wineries, not to mention owning his own label, Saxon Brown, finds the time to coach Little League. Fortunately, baseball season and harvest don't overlap. And Gaffner says his own sons play, so he would be at the games anyway.

Is there any parallel between coaching baseball players and coaxing Pinot? If so, it may be in avoiding traumatic mistakes while letting each develop its own style.

Or maybe it's just in choosing the right piece of wood.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It's good to be Lafite

I got a press release today from Hart Davis Hart, an auction company, bragging that its most recent wine auction sold all its lots and netted more money than expected.

In this economy, that's worth bragging about -- all we keep reading is that sales of expensive wines are down.

That said, the brands that really scored weren't the auctioneers. The top 10 lots of wine were limited to just three brands: Chateau Petrus, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Domaine Romanee-Conti. And because Petrus and DRC are so expensive to begin with, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild was the one that showed the greatest escalation in value.

Two cases of 1982 Lafite sold for $38,240 each: almost $3200 per bottle. Four other lots of Lafite wine also made the top 10 total sale prices, for clear domination of the big money.

Now, HDH can brag all it wants, but $3200/bottle is still a comedown from some crazy pre-recession bids. Yet it's still markedly better than big names like DRC, Chateau d'Yquem, Screaming Eagle and others.

The press release says the big money came from Asia. Chinese buyers in particular tend to be more brand-conscious than others. So it's happy days at Chateau Lafite, as that winery is suddenly regarded by rich collectors as the brand to have.

Don't underestimate the appeal of that status to winery owners. There are many Screaming Eagle wannabes in Napa Valley, and Screaming Eagle itself has lost some luster since being sold and having production increase. The title of "most desirable expensive wine" is out there for the taking. As good as Lafite is, it's still a large-production wine that could easily lose that status to a well-marketed micro winery based on exclusivity.

For people holding bottles in their cellars, while Lafite's reputation relative to other wineries can't get any higher, the overall downturn in prices makes selling it now a dicey move. What if the economy improves next year? The per-bottle price could double if more Chinese people have more money to spend.

One thing is for sure -- Lafite is now an investment, rather than a wine. It will only be drunk by people who want to drink the world's most desirable expensive wine purely for that reason.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Soul Food Farm eggs are overpriced

The subject line says it all.

This morning my wife and I did a taste-test comparison between Soul Food Farm eggs ($7.50 per dozen) and Rock Island brown eggs ($2.50 per dozen). She fried them identically so I could taste blind.

There was really no hesitation -- the Rock Island eggs were far more flavorful. It wasn't even close. I eat a lot of fried eggs lately, and I found the Soul Food Farm eggs to be run of the mill for organically-fed chicken eggs.

We repeated this test with consistent notes. The Soul Food Farm eggs vary as much in flavor as in shell color, but their peak isn't higher than Rock Island's.

I'm sorry that Soul Food Farm had a fire, and I know the fooderati from my neighborhood are all holding benefits for them. They must be good people.

But their eggs are simply not worth what they're charging.

To me, Soul Food Farm's prices are insulting. The 2nd most expensive dozen eggs I've seen in San Francisco were $5, at the Alemany farmer's market. Soul Food Farm charges 50 percent more than the next highest-priced product. And for what? There are other organically-fed, free-range chicken eggs available at less than $5 per dozen, so they can't claim it's not possible.

I don't mind paying a premium for a better product. And I don't mind paying a premium for charity, to help Soul Food's owners rebuild their farm. But let's not confuse the two.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Daiginjos from Yoshi's Sake Soiree

The sake media, both of us, were probably the only people who didn't love this year's downsized Joy of Sake in San Francisco, which even had a name befitting its smaller ambitions: Yoshi's Sake Soiree.

For the average person, who Jay McInerney calls "civilians," $60 for this event was a great deal: all the sake you could drink, and all award winners, as well as all the food from Yoshi's kitchen that you could stand waiting in line for. A live jazz quartet played near the Kobe beef line, and everybody I saw was having a blast.

If you went for a party, it was a good one. But for professional sake tasting, forget it. Pity, too, because the sake lineup was extraordinary: 140 sakes that won gold and silver medals from the U.S. National Sake Appraisal, held in Honolulu in August.

Official sake judges work differently from wine judges. With wine, you're generally looking for character as a plus. With sake, you're looking for flaws as a minus. The distinction is important, because medal-winning sakes might not be as flavorful as some runners-up. However, it's easier to get consistent judging results with sake, because while nobody agrees on what's good, most people agree on what's a flaw.

I tasted 65 sakes at the soiree before they ran out of supplies. For most of the sakes there was only one bottle. This would be annoying for trade or media tasters, but few people in this category showed up. Again, for civilians, while most of the exclusive sakes ran out, the event was nowhere near out of sake when it ended.

The conditions for professional tasting were less than ideal: crowds, poor lighting, no spit buckets (brought my own), and if you wanted water, you had to beg a bartender who would rather serve a paying customer.

The upshot is, I have less confidence in my judgment than I ordinarily would. I took tasting notes on 65 sakes, but I didn't linger with them, nor could I remember which I tasted while being jostled or otherwise distracted by the crowd. So, what to do with the notes?

Below are notes only for my favorite of the 41 medal-winning daiginjos from the event. Daiginjos are the most highly polished and expensive sakes, and I went to them first because I was sure they would run out first (they did). Of the 41 sakes, 23 are not available in the US -- one reason that the sake media (hi Alder) so badly wanted to taste as much as we could.

I don't think it's fair for me to list the ones I didn't like because I might have liked them under less challenging circumstances. But the ones I liked, I'm sure I would like again at a quiet sushi bar.

On the names: I had no time to check the names on the bottles, so I'm relying on the names from the program, which may not be entirely accurate. I've listed the region where each sake is from, and whether the sake got a gold or silver medal.

Most of the time I'm glad to be a professional drinker. Civilians rejoice -- this was one time the people not spitting and taking notes had the right idea.

Available in US

Born "Tokusen" Junmai Daiginjo
Fukui prefecture, gold
Green plum and fig flavors with some fresh cream. Great fruit, medium body, smooth mouthfeel. 93

Dewazakura "Ichiro" Daiginjo
Yamagata prefecture, gold
It's a hit -- and since it's Ichiro, of course it's a single. Fairly potent daiginjo with nice green apple fruit and some brown sugar. 90

Hakurosuishu Junmai Daiginjo
Yamagata prefecture, silver
Light and lovely, with jasmine flavors that segue into a sweet milk candy finish. 92

Masumi "Yumedono" Daiginjo
Nagano prefecture, gold
Clean green apple flavor with notes of graham cracker. Somewhat sweet on the long finish. 91

Murai Family Daiginjo
Aomori prefecture, gold
From Momokawa, parent company of the Oregon brewery. Jasmine tea flavors and a body that feels like it gets richer as it evolves. 91

Okunomatsu Daiginjo Shizukusake "Juhachidai Ihei"
Fukushima prefecture, silver
Creamy like slightly sweet milk, with just a little herbal prickle on the tongue. 90

Tamagawa "Gold Medal" Daiginjo
Kyoto prefecture, silver
Like a pine forest, but with a slight sweetness and a gentle mouthfeel. I like the foresty/herbal nature of it, which would pair well with certain foods. 91

Ugonotsuki Junmai Daiginjo
Hiroshima prefecture, silver
Starts rugged, with a meaty note, and ends floral, with a little green apple fruit along the way. Long finish. Very interesting sake. 92

Yuki no Bosha "Akita Sake Komachi" Daiginjo
Akita prefecture, silver
Strong rice flavor initially, and slightly hot, but a lovely long, floral finish. 91

Not available in US

Amabuki "Aiyama" Daiginjo
Saga prefecture, silver, not available in US
Green grape and melon flavors in a medium-bodied, slightly sweet sake that just keeps going on. Long finish makes it a winner. 91

Fukuchitose "Fuku" Daiginjo
Fukui prefecture, gold, not available in US
Strong green melon flavor, also some green papaya. Wine-like. Finish is a bit abrupt. 91

Hakugakusen "Sen Daiginjo"
Fukui prefecture, silver, not available in US
Very sweet, almost dessert like, but nice melon, peaches and cream flavor. Not my preferred style, but good for those with a sweet tooth. 90

Hanagaki "Premium Gentei Shichiemon" Daiginjo
Fukui prefecture, gold, not available in US
Vibrant peach and mango; extremely fruity, with a creamy mouthfeel. Delicious. 94

Kariho "Koun" Daiginjo
Akita prefecture, gold, not available in US
Complex and interesting, with notes of green melon, fresh flowers, mild citrus and vanilla cream. 94

Kizakura Daiginjo
Kyoto prefecture, gold, not available in US
Initial bitter orange flavor turns floral on midpalate, though the finish is a bit hot. 90

Koshi no Hana "Chotokusen" Daiginjo
Niigata prefecture, silver, not available in US
Initially seems one-dimensional, with a slightly sweet milkiness, but it leaves a lovely floral aftertaste that's more interesting than its primary flavors. 90

Mizubasho "Daiginjo Premiere"
Gunma prefecture, gold, not available in US
Floral, spicy and complex, with notes of cumin and cinnamon and a floral finish. 93

Okunomatsu Junmai Daiginjo
Fukushima prefecture, silver, not available in US
Lovely and delicate; light bodied, with rose petal notes. To me this is the essence of daiginjo -- delicacy and elegance -- yet in fairness it would be overpowered by most food. I'd sip it alone or with white-flesh fish sashimi. 93

Rihaku Junmai Daiginjo
Shimane prefecture, silver, not available in US
Tastes brewed, yeasty and almost beery at first, but it finishes clean with a floral snap. 90

Seishu Sanran Daiginjo
Tochigi prefecture, gold, not available in US
Intense and complex, with strong jasmine and pear flavors and a long finish. 93

Shirakabe Gura Daiginjo
Hyogo prefecture, gold, not available in US
A big daiginjo, medium-full bodied with potent green apple and fresh cream flavors. 90

Taikan "Hizoshu" Daiginjo
Ibaraki prefecture, gold, not available in US
Very fruity, with green apple and pear notes. Slightly hot. 90

Zaku "Daichi" Daiginjo
Mie prefecture, gold, not available in US
Sweet, milky and rich, with cream and coconut flavors. Good if you have a sweet tooth. 90

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Gary Vaynerchuk: World's greatest wine salesman

Eric Asimov is a great wine writer, but he missed the point with his interesting New York Times article about Gary Vaynerchuk.

And it's a point that the wine industry would do well to consider more deeply.

Asimov, and the headline writer, call Vaynerchuk a critic. It's not an unfair use of the word, as Vaynerchuk does criticize wine and does have a 10-book contract.

But that's like calling Carlos Zambrano a hitter, or Keanu Reeves a musician. It's not wrong, but it's not his main gig.

Vaynerchuk inherited a wine shop in New Jersey. He sells wine, both there and on the Internet. He's really good at it. But the sales story is more complex than that, and this is the part Asimov missed entirely.

The US wine sales industry has difficulty now moving wines over about $15 that aren't rated highly by Robert Parker or Wine Spectator. Having become dependent on the scores for point-of-sale (POS) signs, the industry has lost the ability to tell its own stories.

Vaynerchuk's shtick is brilliant because he can sell a wine that tastes weird, by turning its weirdness into a virtue. He might say a red wine tastes of pickle juice, but he likes it that way. And people will buy it.

In other words, anybody can sell a good wine. Vaynerchuk can sell a bad one; he can describe it accurately and people will buy it to see if they get that pickle juice note.

You can't classify him with Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker, as Asimov does, because those two aren't actually trying to sell wine. It's a huge difference.

A good salesman is always energetic and enthusiastic, and turns everything into a positive. Brett's a good thing, it adds complexity! I love that green bean note, it makes me feel like I'm drinking a balanced meal!

The wine industry is still so fragile that all of us even loosely connected to it should root for anybody who can sell wine in any way. And a fact everyone knows, but nobody wants to say, is that there's far more mediocre wine than good wine.

If all that mediocre wine goes unsold, people lose their jobs, vineyards get uprooted, wineries get foreclosed.

Wines sold by Vaynerchuk benefit grape growers, enologists, forklift drivers, you name it. That's the main reason you won't find wine writers ripping the man, even if we disagree with his taste. Keep on doing what you're doing, Gary.

It's up to the industry to find or create more Garys. This is what Murphy Goode was up to in hiring a blogger for 6 months. But they looked in the wrong places.

Great Internet sales people like Gary won't come from the world of bloggers and critics -- he didn't. They will already be sales people who just haven't had a big enough stage yet.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Duty free only: The Macallan 1824 Collection

Who hasn't bought a bottle of duty-free booze? Duty free wine selections usually suck, but major liquor brands are just as good in the tax-free litre size.

Some companies make special bottlings for duty free, but they rarely proclaim it. I've never seen a sign reading, "Duty free only" in an airport liquor shop. Maybe stores think that's a negative, and it would be, if companies were dumping their bad barrels on transient buyers. But I don't think they are; it would damage the brand's reputation, and who knows which countries the disappointment would spread to?

At the same time, there's no reason for a duty-free-only whisky to be great -- the premium you get for greatness is collected in specialty shops. Many duty free buyers are shopping purely for lower prices. For the others, airport employees or stewardi reap the premium you get for selling booze to people who should have bought it earlier. That requires competence, even goodness, but greatness -- complexity, length, finish -- might actually be a minus for these consumers.

In other words, if duty free booze buyers were seeking a superb spirit, they would have sought one before going to the airport.

Given the requirements, The Macallan's 1824 Collection does the job. It's different from the company's regular lineup in both label and taste profile, so it's exclusive. And it's good, and understandable, rather than great.

My favorite in the lineup, by a large margin, is the cheapest, The Macallan Select Oak. It's still not cheap at $53/litre, but the others are 2, 3 and 40 times as costly. But that said, I didn't get a sample of the $2000 one. Not that I blame them: a $2000 whisky is sold to people who want to own a $2000 whisky. Why risk reviews?

So if you found this review on your Blackberry at the airport, and you've read this far, go ahead and make the purchase. See if you can expense it.

Tasting notes:

The Macallan 1824 Collection Select Oak ($53/litre)
Aromas of golden raisins, currants, just a hint of caramel. Also notes of lime and fresh green grass. A very fruity aroma.
Straight up, it's also fruity on the palate. After an initial blast of oak, it melts into caramel- and chocolate-covered raisin. Gets more raisiny on finish. With a drop of water, the aroma gets more floral, though golden raisins still dominate. Smoother on palate with water added as expected, more of a toasted almond flavor than the raisiny notes. I like this one best straight. Best value in the lineup.

The Macallan 1824 Collection Whisky Maker's Edition
Aromas of toasted almonds, chocolate, cherries, roasted pear, toasted almonds. Much richer than the Select Oak. A hint of peat on this one. Notably alcoholic straight up; too hot to drink straight in fact (though it's just 40% alcohol, same as the Select Oak). Gives toasted almond flavor and some toasted wheat bread as well. But I want a wee drop of water. After adding it, the pear notes of the aroma intensify, along with some honeycomb and butterscotch. Definitely better drinking with a wee drop – I taste some peat, some butterscotch (though it's not sweet) and some roasted pear. I like this whiskey, but I like the Select Oak neat better.

The Macallan 1824 Collection Estate Reserve
($165/700 ml)
Aromas of wildflowers, honeycomb, bay leaf, a little bit of peat. It's hot on the palate, with bay leaf and some honeycomb. But too hot to drink straight; it's 45.7% alcohol, while the other two are 40%. Wee drop added, the aroma gets more white-wine like – floral – with a hint of peat. Nice on the palate; buttered popcorn, a floral note, bay leaf, a little peppery on finish. Rich and smooth. That said, it's a nice whisky, don't get me wrong, but it's not the best in this collection.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Japanese "Sideways" website launches

In case you hadn't heard, a Japanese-language remake of "Sideways" is coming out in October, made in Napa Valley with a mostly Japanese cast. This New York Times article describes it as well as anything written up to now in English.

Since I have a book out in Japanese about northern California wine country, I'm unabashedly rooting for the new "Sideways" to be a big hit.

You'd think wineries would be as well, because they could use a wave of tourism from people willing to spend money. I have to say, though, that I don't get the feeling from most wineries that the Japan market matters to them. The movie could change that, but we'll see.

Anyway, Fox Japan has launched a website with a trailer for the movie. If you're curious, check it out.

The cast is a good one, with actress Rinko Kikuchi mildly familiar to Western audiences from her appearances in "Babel" and "The Brothers Bloom."


I've talked to just three people who have seen the movie. One, who knew nothing about wine, loved it; she said the characters were amusing and she loved the changes to the script.

The other two were food writers, and they both complained that the movie has lost its reliance on wine as a metaphor for the main character. It's set in Napa, so it's not about Pinot Noir anymore, which means there's no finicky, difficult Miles personifying the grape.

The film starts in San Francisco, where one Japanese expatriate is stationed and is awaiting his impending marriage. They head up to Napa and apparently have very similar adventures as the original Jack and Miles, including the spit bucket incident and even the sexual adventures.

I'm told Kikuchi plays a Japanese-American who speaks comically bad Japanese in the movie; she will be the one swinging out with righteous wrath (but not a motorcycle helmet).

I've also been told that the ending differs from the American version. I'm going to see the movie in Napa on Sept. 27, and I don't want to spoil it for people who will see it there.

But I will write a full deconstruction, dripping with spoilers, after I see it, under the theory that very few English speakers are ever going to see this film. I'll put a big SPOILERS ALERT at the top.

In the meantime ... Gambatte "Sideways!" California wine can use the boost.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Darkness leads to overdrinking at Opaque

Last night I went to Opaque, the restaurant where you eat in complete darkness. We ended up taking our desserts to go, because I was sitting at the table, holding my head in my hands, while my wife was begging me to keep talking.

Sounds like a nightmare, huh? For her it was; she says she woke up in the middle of the night, convinced we were back in the restaurant, and was relieved when she saw the lights of the city in the window.

At Opaque, when they say "Dining in the Dark," it's absolutely dark. You can waggle your hand in front of your face and not notice any motion.

I don't think that's why I felt lousy, though. The air in the basement was stifling. I ate too much. And I drank too much, too fast.

This never happens to me. I'm a professional drinker. I drink about 360 days a year, and I'd say I feel physically bad from drinking maybe 3 days per year (often after karaoke excessiveness in Japan). When I get to the point of excess, I stop.

But not in the dark. I guess visual cues are important in judging how much you're drinking. But I also think I got more wasted than I usually would, because we only had one bottle of wine, albeit at 14.5% alcohol. Normally I can handle that; in the dark, I could not. As soon as we ascended to light and fresh air, I felt better.

That said, we were both glad we ordered wine, because my wife said she could not have handled sitting there without it; the alcohol calmed her. I didn't have that paranoia, but who knowingly pays $79 per person to expose one's spouse to paralyzing fear?

I'll get to the food in a moment, but really, it's secondary to the experience of being at a restaurant table in complete darkness. You can hear conversations around you, even seemingly far from you (they have 14 tables), and you're also aware that everyone can hear you. You want to keep talking to stay connected with your partner, yet I also found myself self-editing, not wanting to reveal myself to everyone in the room.

Our conversation all night was thus starts and stops, although the best strand of it was about darkness: Where was the most complete darkness you remember?

We both agreed on a couple instances in nighttime scuba dives where we turned off our lights. Once, in Chuuk, I lost track of the group and we were off by ourselves; we couldn't tell which way was up, and it took me a while to convince my wife to turn off her light in the middle of the ocean at night. But once we did, the surface of the ocean shone with moonlight, we could see other divers' lights, and it was nowhere near as dark as dining at Opaque.

You're completely at the mercy of your servers, who are all sight-impaired; it's an interesting role reversal. They lead you in, you holding onto their shoulder. They bring you the food and explain where it is. And if you panic, or need to use the restroom, they lead you out.

Our eyes never adjusted; everything was still completely black until the moment we reached the doorway. I'm glad they're not open for lunch, because leaving here in daylight would be too shocking.

Now, about the meal:

Opaque's wine list is an outrage, with McManis Family Vineyards wines and Pepi Pinot Grigio -- $10 wines retail -- selling for more than $50. Nothing against the McManises, they do as good a job with Central Valley fruit as anyone. But $50?

Fortunately, here's a tip: You can also order from the wine list of Indigo, next door, which has both a much greater selection and more reasonable markups.

Ironically, I ended up screwing up my wine order. From Indigo's list, I chose a 2006 Dehlinger "See's Selection" Estate Russian River Chardonnay ($52). I thought I was getting away with something; there was an '06 Dehlinger Chard on Opaque's list (which wasn't as detailed) at $49, so I thought naturally I was getting a more exclusive wine at essentially the same price. But I may have outsmarted myself; this morning I looked it up and discovered that Robert Parker called the regular Dehlinger estate bottling "the top cuvee" and liked it better than the See's Selection.

Only now do I get the irony of paying more for See's at Opaque. Ba-dum-dum.

Anyway, I could have had a Pinot Noir (Indigo has a few interesting ones), but I had my palate set for Dehlinger's Chard when I thought that was the best option from Opaque's limited list, particularly with the dishes we were ordering. Both of us ordered -- note the verb -- ahi tuna tartare with diced apples, wonton crisps, green onions and wasabi aioli as an app. For my main I had grilled sterling salmon over coconut risotto with green onions, sugar snap peas, sauteed wild mushrooms and curry mint sauce. My wife had grilled chicken breast over roasted red potatoes with brussels sprouts and basil cream sauce.

Trust is an issue with Dining in the Dark. Because Opaque's wine list was lacking in info, I insisted on seeing the bottle before we went inside. I also carried it outside with me later to convince myself they hadn't switched it out for something cheaper, because as it warmed up in the stifling basement, it lost its crispness and green-apple charm and openly smelled of its 14.5% alcohol. This was a wine that needed an ice bucket, but this was not the restaurant for that. So, word of advice on Dining in the Dark -- order red wine.

Initially, though, the Dehlinger was just fine: crisp enough, toasty enough, balanced, with some earthy notes against the apple and pear fruit.

The wine is served in Riedel's O glass, which is perfect; who wants a stem in the dark? You also get an overfilled glass of water. Both my wife and I spilled some of ours, and we heard others in the restaurant exclaim when they did so as well. It's a discomfiting start to the meal and something the restaurant should address, but at the same time, I really wanted a water refill and never got one. The only way to summon a server is to start speaking loudly for one, and the servers are busy. Plus, I'll say it -- who wants to order around a blind person, especially one in charge of your dinner?

We were served a one-bite amuse bouche of cucumber with tomato. For our apps, my wife did not get the tuna tartare; instead she was served the baby arugula salad. Even though we were discussing the dish, it took her a while to say that she did not have the same thing as me. At first, she just thought there wasn't much tuna. Then she didn't want to send it back, because she didn't want to cause trouble.

I liked the tuna tartare. Though you are given silverware, I ended up eating it mostly with my fingers. Who could see? I liked the texture, particularly the crispy wontons and apple cubes. Another tip: Do not wear white to Dining in the Dark.

Then you're served a platter of crudites with three dips, including a good curry mayonnaise and one dip that tasted spoiled to me; not sure which it was. The snap peas were particularly good and I ate a lot of them. But I also think this dish contributed to my later distress. I don't usually eat much mayo or aioli, and I have no idea how much curry mayo I loaded up on the carrot sticks.

My wife gave me some of her chicken breast, a dish I've seen many people on Yelp complain about, and I can see why: it had no flavor. But hey folks, that's what you get for ordering chicken breast. The salmon dish was pretty decent; the salmon had a crispy edge, but was not overdone. I didn't actually find the coconut risotto until I put down my fork and felt around with my hands. Once again I enjoyed eating this much more with my fingers.

I remember reading once about Indian food that you're supposed to enjoy its tactile sensations as much as flavors and aromas. Perhaps that's even more true for Western food: who doesn't like picking up corn on the cob? Perhaps the positive benefit of this dinner is that I'll go back to eating like I did when I was 2, at least when nobody's looking.

I have no idea about the portion sizes, but I started feeling bad while the entree plate was still in front of me. I stopped eating but it was too late. I ate the entire tuna tartare plate, which seemed substantial, a lot of crudites with aioli, two chunks of pretty-good bread (also comforting when they put it in a basket in the center of the table) and most of my entree. But I don't have any idea how much food that actually was. All I know is it was too much, hence my bad feelings.

Despite that, I did taste the two desserts when we got home, and think the bittersweet chocolate cake is slightly better than the espresso panna cotta. My wife finished the former; the latter is in the garbage.

Fortunately what fresh air didn't cure immediately, a good night's sleep did when I got home. Unlike my wife, I was not troubled by Dining in the Dark flashbacks. And in fact, if I ever get thrown into solitary confinement, instead of comparing the sensation to fearing being eaten by sharks, I will compare it to searching for coconut risotto. I'm sure that's just what the Unabomber's thinking every day in his Supermax Dining in the Dark experience.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Champagne harvest cut: sparkling schadenfreude

I love Champagne, but I hate the Champagne industry. So this Wall Street Journal story about a cut in production made me happy -- even though the move is a weird combination of top-down class structure and communism.

Here's the problem with Champagne's establishment -- it's basically run by LVMH, which owns Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Krug, Ruinart and Mercier.

In 2006 LVMH owned 62% (by volume) of the Champagne sold in the US. Globally, LVMH hasn't been as powerful, with just an 18.6% share. But in Champagne, decisions tend to be made based on what LVMH wants.

For years, what LVMH and its fellow big producers wanted was more, cheaper grapes. Champagne is a place, not just a wine, and the amount of Champagne wine that could be made was therefore limited by the agricultural output, even though yields there are enormous by the standards of luxury wines.

So if you have to use grapes from one area, and farmers are already growing as many as they can, what can you do? The answer: Grow the area. And that's just what Champagne did. Last year, Champagne's governing body added 40 new grapegrowing areas in outlying areas, with 2,500 acres of vineyards, to the existing 84,000 acres of vineyards.

Publicly, the idea was to satisfy increasing demand, particularly from China and Russia. But there's always a subtext, and that is that big brand owners can better control grape prices with more new farmers to deal with. They can put the same label on, and charge the same price for, a product that's cheaper to make.

Now, though, in the global downturn, people aren't drinking as much Champagne. That's a shame; as I said, I hate the industry, but love the wine (this is not the place for me to wax on about the soils and acidity, etc., but good Champagne really is special). It's a lot like baseball: I hate Bud Selig and disagree with almost every major MLB decision, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying watching Tim Lincecum pitch and The Panda hit.

So LVMH -- excuse me, the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), the governing body that does what the big brands want -- has announced that Champagne growers must cut harvest by 32%, leaving the rest on the ground.

Think about this for a second. Did the CIVC say, everyone can harvest and the best grapegrowers can get the best prices? No. That would be capitalism. Or more appropriately, that would be Liberty, and possibly Fraternity.

This is why I say it's a combination of top-down class structure (brand owners telling tenant farmers what to do) and communism (everybody is the same; viva la Revolucion!).

What I really hate about this is that the CIVC is not encouraging growers to take the grapes that the big brands refuse to buy, at prices the big brands set, and make their own grower Champagne. Apparently, they simply cannot harvest them at all.

All of which reinforces why I hate the Champagne industry. And yet, even though I know LVMH is a cold-blooded corporation, open a bottle of Krug or Ruinart for me and I'm all atwitter with delight. Schadenfreude tastes good, but dammit, Champagne, even corporate Champagne, tastes better. (Can't say that for Bud Selig.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Valrhona chocolate tasting

If you eat dessert in high-end restaurants, you've had Valrhona chocolate. The company, based in France's Rhone Valley (hence the name), is probably the world's best large professional producer of chocolate.

Most of Valrhona's chocolate goes to pastry chefs and confectioners. In fact, many "chocolatiers" use Valrhona, because actually making chocolate, as opposed to adding ingredients to it, requires some economy of scale. It's a bit like sugar in that way; everybody uses it, but who actually makes it?

For decades after its founding in 1924, Valrhona sold only to the pastry/confection trade. But two years after being purchased by the French agro-conglomerate Bongrain in 1984, the company began selling chocolate bars for consumers. In many cases these straightforward bars of chocolate, which are not cheap, sit on upscale grocery shelves besides more complex bars (ancho-lime, or whatever) from other companies that actually contain the same Valrhona chocolate.

The company is famous among chocolate aficionados for its standoffish approach to marketing. You never hear about pastry chefs who don't like Valrhona chocolate, but you do hear complaints from people who don't like its attitude that, you have to be worthy to buy our product.

Perhaps I am not worthy, but nonetheless I had the Valrhona chocolate bar lineup here recently and decided to take tasting notes on them.

One thing I learned is that for eating chocolate bars straight-up, there's a definite "sweet spot" (pun intended) for cocoa percentage, and that's about 64%. Chocolates below 60% cocoa aren't dark enough for me; chocolates above 70% cocoa are good for baking, but for eating they're too brittle, bitter and simple.

I must point out that the higher cocoa percentage chocolates are much better with wine, mostly because they're not as sweet. The Abinao (85% cocoa) works pretty well with a lot of red wines that taste sour with other chocolates -- but I don't like it by itself. I'd rather have the most delicious chocolate, and not worry about the wine pairing.

I tasted the lineup from least-sweet to sweetest, and have listed the notes in that order. Bon appetit.

Abinao 85%
Weakened chocolate flavor, more like unsweetened cocoa. Waxy texture. Doesn't melt easily on tongue. Not particularly intense, in fact the mildness is a disappointment. Proof that 85% is too much cocoa. Good in baking, but I don't find this particularly enjoyable by itself.

Guanaja 70%
Fruity, a stone-fruitiness (nectarine) that intensifies as it melts in the mouth. The actual chocolatiness of it seems secondary to the fruitiness until the finish. A good level of sweetness, with some notes of bitterness but those well in line. Not the most “chocolatey” of chocolates, but a sophisticated and tasty one.

Caraibe 66%
Chocolate flavor with notes of Concord grape and just a hint of strawberry initially that soon fades into a richer, more complete chocolatiness than the Guanaja. This feels rich and decadent, like the chocolate of a hot-fudge sundae, but in fact is not overly sweet. It's as if you took the hot-fudge quality and halved the sugar. Good stuff for people who like chocolate flavor. Leaves you with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Alpaco 66%

An initial cream cheese quality, then a milkiness on the midpalate. Smoother than the previous ones. I don't get the “floral” notes promised on the label. Seems sweeter than the Caraibe, which is not a bad thing, but also lighter in body. A lighter, slightly fruity finish.

Palmira Finca Criollo (64%) Plantation Palmira Venezuela
This is a single-plantation chocolate, which is interesting because it allows us to taste its terroir. It's complex: intense chocolatey notes along with toffee, coffee, floral notes, lime peel, hint of fresh herbs and lavender. Melts easily and consistently in mouth. Finish of chocolate mingled with herbes de Provence. Bitter notes that add interest early do not linger into aftertaste. This is the most interesting of the lineup, but not the richest or sweetest. This is the red wine lover's chocolate, and overall my favorite in the lineup.

Tainori 64%

Sweet, red apple notes with hints of cherry; segues into dark chocolatey cocoa. There's a clear note of cherry in the aftertaste. Seems simple after the Palmira, but that's like having a Napa cult cab and complaining of its one-dimensionality, as this is a likable chocolate with a nice finish. People who don't like acidity -- that may include most Americans -- will like it more than the Manjari.

Manjari 64%
Very tangy. Strong acidity in the flavor. The cocoa quality of it seems subdued until the finish. This is the one that would be easiest to eat a whole bar of, because the acidity leaves me wanting another bite right away. Initially there's a hint of curry leaves but I don't get the citrus fruit you expect with so much tanginess; it's more of a pineapple/tropical fruit acidity. Subsequent bites are better and better. A white wine lover's chocolate (though not if that means oaky Chardonnay.)

Jivara 40%
Milk chocolate with strong notes of caramel and toffee. Caramel note takes over on midpalate and the finish is not particularly chocolatey. This is not a bad chocolate confection, but it's not satisfyingly chocolatey enough for the dark chocolate fan.

Tanariva 33%
Milky, creamy, sugary, with notes of orange and coffee bean. After tasting the others, the low level of cocoa is really noticeable, but for what it is, I rather like it. That said, it's too sugary to be something I would eat. But if I had to eat milk chocolate, this would do. I like it better than the Jivara.