Most of my friends in the San Francisco area are involved in food and wine in some way. Even those who aren't are passionate about it.
So it's an interesting wakeup call to leave this gourmet-obsessed bubble and visit other parts of America. In this case, I went to a heavy wine-consuming state, Florida. In 2007, Floridians drank 4.09 gallons per person, compared to 4.53 gallons in California. Florida is not Kansas (1.34 gallons per capita); wine is sold in grocery stores and available at most restaurants, even cheap ones.
It's fair to say that the average Floridian is more comfortable with wine, and more knowledgeable, than the average American. Which made my experiences there all the more illuminating.
Stone crab season had just started, so we went to Crabby Bill's, a chain restaurant, to enjoy some claws. Crabby Bill's has an extensive cocktail list and a fair amount of beer. I asked the waitress for a wine list, and she pointed to a two-sided cardboard advertisement on our table for a Merlot I've forgotten. I said I wanted a white wine, and she grabbed a similar advertisement from a nearby table. Apparently these were the only wines in the restaurant. The white was St. Francis Sonoma County Chardonnay; I ordered it for $26 (it's about $12 in stores) and was glad to have it. While it was probably chosen randomly by the restaurant's wine distributor, it was a good pairing with crab.
My friend told the waitress, "he works in wine." She asked, "Is Blackstone a good wine?" How do you answer that? I said, "It's OK, but I think Ravenswood is a better brand for the same price." She nodded and thanked me for the information. (And Joel Peterson, you can thank me later.)
Datz, a Tampa deli where my favorite dish was the chili-cheese dog. And I visited a few wine shops, both small and large.
There are good wines to be had in Florida, and people who know about them. But the culture of wine overall is much closer to the Crabby Bill's experience than the Bern's experience.
In fact, my best wine shop experience was not at Bern's neglected-looking wine shop, but at the massive Total Wine chain on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. Store employees were constantly at hand, constantly cheerful and helpful, and I didn't hear one wrong or misleading thing about wine, whether we asked about the 2005 Meursault or the strawberry-flavored White Zinfandel. I even got to sample some decent Champagne and Sauternes, which took the edge off of pre-Christmas traffic.
I can see why Total has been successful there; they weren't standoffish at all, and some smaller shops were intimidating; they reminded me of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. And I got that intimidated feel from a number of my Florida friends. The overall wine culture in Florida doesn't seem to be one of open invitation and experimentation, but rather of a cloistered club that requires study. Is that wine for most of America?
It's also not a culture of splurging. Most restaurant wines sell for under $30 a bottle, and retail for under $15. People I told that I spent $63 for a 1988 Burgundy at Bern's thought I was crazy to spend that much money on a bottle of wine. Some asked me what a $100 bottle of wine tastes like. How do you answer that?
Restaurant staffs also don't have the level of training you'd hope for. I was in a small seafood restaurant near the beach, which had a reasonable wine list (we got Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling for $26), when a new shipment came in. The bartenders trying to put away the wine were talking out loud about a kind of wine they'd never heard of before. I offered my assistance. Turns out it was a Lodi Viognier, de-alced down to 13.5%; a very nice pairing for grilled white-flesh fish, which was exactly what I was eating. I told them, "Viognier is a grape, like Chardonnay. It tends to taste like apples. You should tell people this wine tastes a little like apples, is maybe a little floral, and will be great with fish." They, and the servers, were grateful. Then I realized I hadn't been asking for wine advice when I ordered, and maybe I should try it.
You can probably guess what every server from then on said: "This wine is very popular." Nobody (Bern's excluded) told me what a wine might taste like, or whether it was good with the dish, or anything about the region. That was a huuuge difference from San Francisco, where the busboy will tell you about his favorite Muscadet to have with oysters.
Yet there were so many positives. Most mid-range places had several wines by the glass. Generally the whites were stronger than the reds, which makes sense considering Florida's climate.
That said, I don't know if the average person cares at all about even the basic whites-with-fish theory (yeah, I know, Pinot Noir with salmon, reds with a fish if the sauce is hearty enough, spare me).
One of my friends has given up meat, so she ordered seafood in parchment at Bern's, and we had a dozen oysters. I insisted that we not drink the Bordeaux they had just opened with the oysters, and she rebelled, pointing to other tables that were drinking red with fish. She said, "They're enjoying it." And I'm sure they were. I wasn't going to go over to their table and say "stop having that Joseph Phelps Insignia with oysters." I did order a glass of Kabinett Riesling and had her try them side by side with the seafood, and I made a convert to basic food-and-wine pairing right there.
But it did remind me of how most Americans relate to wine. Neighboring tables full of people were enjoying a special splurge at a temple to wine. So they ordered expensive, new vintage (nobody near us had anything older than 2006), highly rated red wines, regardless of the food they were having. It was James Suckling's dream: "I'm 93 points on that." Forget context, forget pairing.
And yet -- my friend was right, they WERE having a good time. Or at least they seemed to be. Although I noticed that the table right next to us only drank half of their Insignia.
When I was introduced to people as some sort of wine expert, inevitably I was asked, "What's your favorite wine?" How do you answer that? Eventually I figured I would give them some knowledge they could use soon -- Dec. 31 is right around the corner -- and started saying, "I really like American sparkling wines, like Gruet and Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer and Scharffenberger. I think they're much better value than Champagne, and taste better than Prosecco or Cava." Which I believe.
I hope they listened, because every grocery store has cases of the worst sparkling wines lined up at the entrance and by the cash registers: Asti Spumante, Andre, Cook's, all that crap. No wonder Americans don't like sparkling wine! They're told they must drink it once a year and when they do, it's lousy. I ordered a glass of bubbly several times (I do that everywhere anyway) and occasionally was asked what I was celebrating. Life! Tuesday!
Anyway, this isn't a serious survey, just a list of anecdotes, but I feel re-energized to re-enter some of the online arguments I get into about wine. The online wine community can get preachy about native yeast and unfiltered wines and alcohol content, etc. None of that stuff came up when I was in Florida. I cannot imagine asking the waitress at Crabby Bill's if she knew if the Chardonnay on the advertising flier was made using native yeast.
So it was great to visit, and drink and enjoy some of the mass-market wines we never see on wine lists here. But it's also great to be back in our little gourmet bubble, although I'm already missing black beans and yellow rice. If anybody knows a good source for that out here, please let me know.
Oh, and I would like to apologize to the farmers in Madeira 100 years ago who made the 1910 Barbeito Madeira Sercial that I ordered by the glass ($50) in Bern's dessert room. I knocked it over and spilled half of it onto the menu, and when I tried to lick it off, my wife took the menu away from me. The tragedy!
Fortunately, my glass was half full.