Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why Bay Area wine lists hate our freedoms

Many snobbish Bay Area wine lists have downplayed or excluded California wines for several years. This week we were treated to two stories on the issue, by the New York Times' Eric Asimov and the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Bonne.

Why two stories this week? My theory is that Asimov was out here working on a story for the Times' new Bay Area edition, and Bonne got wind of it and wanted to publish first. The funny thing is, do you ever read either of these guys praising California wines in their regular columns? But I digress.

An issue neither one addressed is the political aspect of wine drinking.

Unlike food, which may be stylish but is also sustenance, wine is often a personal statement. Some people express wealth through the wine they order; others (the middle-class "Two Buck Chuck" crowd) express pride in their down-to-earth refusal to put on airs.

Some wine geeks are truly interested in dry Hungarian furmint (guilty!). There are also many young drinkers who express counter-culturalism through ordering wine they've never heard of; it's not so different from looking for music from bands that aren't seeking a hit single.

I often talk to people who express a great interest in one country's wines: Italy, Spain, France, and yes, the US. For them, wine is inextricably tied with culture. Maybe they lived in Italy and loved the food culture. Maybe they love flamenco music. Maybe they're into NASCAR and they're patriotic.

As any honest person who lives here will tell you, the Bay Area is full of anti-Americans. They're not as loud now that George W. Bush is finally retired, but they're still here. I live near a park where they assemble frequently on weekends, bearing placards equating the Stars and Stripes with a swastika or calling our military racist. Sometimes it seems like San Francisco is in a perpetual state of protest, and Berkeley is even more so.

I'm an international guy; I lived 10 years abroad. But I'm a patriot, and a locavore. I have often asked sommeliers at the restaurants with few or no California wines why they don't carry more.

The first answer is usually, "They don't go with the food," to which I sometimes reply, "Are you sure you've looked hard enough?" Sometimes I recommend a food-friendly wine I've had recently.

The conversation then often turns social/political, with an underlying theme that California wines represent American culture in ways the wine buyer doesn't like (i.e., too loud, too extreme, no finesse, no terroir, no respect for tradition, etc.)

Of course this is crap. There are plenty of California wines that are balanced, food-friendly, and a product of their terroir. You just have to look for them. Those that refuse to do so are making a political statement, and it's a statement that finds many anti-American advocates here.

I'll say it again: I'm a patriot and a locavore. Restaurant wine buyers who refuse to carry American wines are stipulating that they are neither. The first won't upset them. But the second?

If you have an Italian restaurant and you want to offer only Italian wines, fine -- that's a theme. But if you have international cuisine and wines from various countries, then you need to have several good choices from your local area. I would believe this if I lived near the wine regions of New York, Virginia, Texas, Michigan or Missouri, and I believe it even more strongly since I live within two hours' drive of the best wine regions on the American continent.

So please, Bay Area sommeliers, don't kid yourself that there aren't any American wines that can match your precious cuisine. Have you never had Schramsberg or Iron Horse bubbly? Donkey and Goat Chardonnay? Siduri or Black Kite Pinot Noir? How about Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc -- that's under $10. None of these fits your rarified palate?

It's OK to hate this country we live in; freedom to protest is one of the things that makes us great.

But you don't hold our farmers' nationality against them, do you? Then why do so to our winemakers?

At least be more honest with us, and yourself, about it.

Maybe you can put on the wine list, "We don't carry California wines because we don't believe in the Guantanamo prison camp." It's the same message, just more overt, and in Berkeley it would probably help increase traffic. You might even make Glenn Beck cry.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments, well said. Dr. Vino started this and I followed your link from his blog, upon which I also commented. But, I take issue with two things:

I would say that the Bay area - especially San Francisco and Berkeley are not necessarily "anti-American," they just thrive on protest. I mean, they didn't like Bush and they don't seem to be happy with Obama. I think there may still be some of that "pioneer spirit" left in the area that is basically a California libertarian (hands off ourselves and our money) / socialist (let's pay for everything) mentality (which explains all the wacky voting and the budget mess)... So, let's not say "anti-American.' Most folks I know in SF, Berkeley, and the Bay area are very much pro-American - they just choose a different way to express it!

Last, I would speculate that most winemakers in California (of whom I am one) are very progressive in their thinking - many are likely middle of the road politically, didn't like George Bush and probably lukewarmly support Obama - so, if the restauranteers are choosing their wine lists based on our wines being American, we are in big trouble! This is not a way to protest!

Unknown said...

Great piece Blake, thanks for keeping the discussion brisk because platitudes just don't fly. I have to give some props to Chris Sawyer who does the Sonoma Valley Film Festival and has a 90% Sonoma chosen winelist at Carneros Bistro & Wine should see some of those matches, made in heaven!

Lisa said...

The prejudice against U.S. wines is still strong, even in CA, huh?

Well, I say -- anything to make Glenn beck cry real alligator tears.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Anon winemaker, you're right on several counts: most California winemakers are progressive politically, and plenty of Bay Area people are libertarians who just get off on being contrarian. That said, c'mon down here for one of the big anti-war, anti-bailout, anti-whatever rallies sometime. Go to a San Francisco Mime Troupe performance, if you can sit through the whole thing (they're mimes who talk). There are Americans here who really do hate our country -- but I will defend their right to do so, even though their sanctimony pisses me off just as much as the right wing's.

Kimberly: Russian River Pinot and Chard, bubblies from Iron Horse and J, Dry Creek Zin -- Sonoma County is one of the most diverse regions in the world. Any sommelier who can't find 5 wines from Sonoma County to fit their food isn't trying. Plus there's Mendocino County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and some county east of Sonoma, I read about it somewhere ...

Lisa: Maybe if he cries us a river he'll get dangerously dehydrated?

Jack Everitt said...

Don't you mean Beverage Director? (Which is sometimes the Sommelier, but often not, too.)

Anyway, hey, even I am biased against Cal wines - not really sure why - lots of minor reasons.

So, the top California wines are generally thought to be the super expensive Napa cabs. The top SF restaurants don't focus on food that pairs with such cabs. So, right there, bev. dir. and sommeliers are not keen on the top California wine variety. (The top Cal. chard and syrah's are a bit over the top for food, too, at these restaurants.)

California pinot noir tends to be at all of these restaurants, as they work much better with the foods they serve.

We forget, living in SF and Wine Country, that the rest of the country's (say, excluding the very major cities) wine lists are heavily(!) California (and the foreign wines are either crap, overpriced bad vintage Bordeaux or both). The Chains focus heavily on California too. I'm very happy we have such an incredibly selection of the world's wines here.

Finally, I think restaurants that serve the most interesting food should also serve the most interesting beverages. I agree with you that SF restaurants could do a better job finding/putting on their list more interesting wines - like, how often do you see a Renaissance wine (Sierre Foothills)?

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Jack, I have to agree with you about most (not all) California Cabs. I don't drink them with dinner very often; most don't go with anything but steak, and don't even always go well with that.

But there are so many more interesting California wines out there, as you point out.

I'd like to live long enough to see middle America learn to have something for dinner other than steak, potatoes and Cabernet (with a glass of buttery Chard at home beforehand as a cocktail). Such a development would bring down the price of Cab and spur many other interesting developments. But that's a post for another day.

Jon Bjork said...

I'd love to see the day when more restaurants create unique dishes, paired with local wines that reflect the bounty of the local products of agriculture.

This is definitely the case in many regions in Europe. I remember in Tuscany being hard pressed to find any U.S wines other than Antinori's Atlas Peak in wine shops. If you ate in Montalcino, you drank Brunello, because - surprise of surprises! - the wild boar and other local dishes paired best with the local wines.

I think we're still in a period of self-discovery in California, where we're only starting to find out what wine styles and foods will become our special signature pairings.

MY said...

Very interesting. Living in Sacramento for a year, I see the opposite. Just as Jack says, I see California wines all over the town. It is difficult to find interesting and good non-Californian wines albeit a few good exceptions. Grange, a fine dining restaurant with a french chef boast its exclusively Californian wine list. I like the idea of Locavore. Fresh ingredients make a huge difference in food and cooking. But I also embrace global trade that let us appreciate all kinds of interesting things. Wine is one of them. So when I go to SF, I get excited about finding good and interesting wine selections from all over the world. I never realized that they were against California wine because I never really looked for California wines in SF.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Jon, I actually think the nature of California cuisine and wine is to be fluid, changing, discovering and adding -- so it's more work to pair than in, say, Rias Baixas, but also pretty fun.

MY -- Personally, like you, I drink a lot of European wine in SF restaurants, and I'm glad it's there. But I taste California wine all the time, and besides I'm a wine geek, always looking for something different. My complaint is philosophical: if I want to eat AND drink locally, I don't want a sommelier or beverage director to tell me I cannot.

BTW, if you haven't yet discovered Corti Bros. in Sacramento, get over there right now! Tonight! Not just for the wine -- they have the most interesting selection of world food products that I know of.

Anonymous said...

I don't want a sommelier or beverage director to tell me I cannot.

I think it won't be in my life time that my follow blue collars will be doing as you suggested, but it would be nice if they did lower prices are good.

As for as Cabs go I love them but I don't like big/ugly they do burn the taste of food right out.

I eat out in the Monterey area when I have a chance to visit friends. I always BMOB with me. I make sure it's not on the list, it something interesting from a small maker in Calif. I'm almost never charged to open it. I eat at these places when in town and I'll share with the server so they get a chance to taste something other then the list. Oh and it helps to order a glass of house wine while your bottle is open.
The BA/Calif. reminds me of France, passionate about politics. It's not a bad thing in trouble times or goods time for that matter. Oh, I live near Tracy, Calif. and grew up in Niles, Calif. Native

Lisa said...

Re. Mr. Beck:

We can only hope he desiccates himself, but I fear as in a bad zombie movie, another will pop up behind him. . .

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Jo, where do you like in Monterey? I have some good friends there as well, but don't really know any restaurants.

Lisa: You're right. I actually don't find Beck anywhere near as annoying as Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. Sarah Palin's just waiting for her timeslot, and I'm sure I'm going to hate her even more when she gets it.

guren said...

I only went there once about five years ago, but I enjoyed PassionFish in Pacific Grove ( a bit. The fish was very fresh, expertly prepared, and they are committed to sustainable seafood. Large, interesting wine list, too. According to their website they are still around.

Anonymous said...

Monterey Fish House on Del Monte, have a reservation or I like to arrive when they open and seat on the left side of the bar. Great for watching people. My brother and I were just there and had nice 3 hour dinner. Ordered 1 course at a time. Wine list is better but still brought my own, they only charged for 1 bottle
Stokes always good, good wine list but still bring my own
Mantrios always good sometimes a little loud good wine list but yep.
Let me were you go and I'll check them out next time I'm in the area.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I've eaten at Passion Fish in PG it is good and good wine list but I didn't find it to be fun. Not sure why.

Tricerapops said...

for me, i think my bias against california offerings, is just based on inexperience with what the state has to offer. in my trials with california varieties across napa, sonoma, central coast - i have tried plenty of 'good' wines, but nothing that would blow my socks off for the price and i would specifically seek on a wine list. it's not to say that the wines are bad, but they all seem one note - and i cannot afford those cult wines that are astronomically priced. i'm left to my own devices most of the time, unless i'm dining with a wine geek and/or we're on an expense account dinner.

any reference books/sites you would recommend - in addition to drinking as much as i can to learn more about our state's bounty (which I am fine in doing, by the way).

W. Blake Gray said...

Tri: I'm lucky enough to have tried many of the cult wines, and they're not the ones I would seek out.

To me, the California flavor is bright fruit. That's our terroir, and I like wines that acknowledge it.

Just keep drinking, you'll find some favorites. No better way to do it. If you haven't visited Ridge yet, do that. Cheers.