Monday, February 28, 2011

Should restaurants charge for tap water?

Today I walked away from buying a $8.75 sandwich. I was stunned because when I asked for a cup of water, I was told I'd have to buy a "compostable cup" for $1.

Granted, I was at the most pretentious food hall in northern California, the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco. Boccalone's $8.75 Muffuletta sandwich, even with a $1 water charge, is one of the cheaper meals available there.* I probably would have paid $9.75 for it without complaining.

* (In the only time I'll ever eat at Boulette's Larder, I ordered scrambled egg(s) with squash blossoms for $16. When it arrived and was small enough that I'm not sure whether or not "egg" was plural, I asked about toast and was told it would cost an additional $6.)

But still, $1 for tap water? Or, to use Boccalone's vocabulary, $1 for a paper cup? (There's also an option -- I'm not kidding -- to pay $20 for a Boccalone metal water bottle, with which you get unlimited free refills. Of tap water. Which means you probably don't get refills if you only buy the cup, but there's always the restroom sink.)

Is this a profit center that restaurants need to survive?

It seems to me that any restaurant that provides seating for immediate consumption (not to mention meals based around salty preserved meats) should provide water as a service to its clients.

As I walked away to dine more happily at King of Thai Noodle, where a bottomless glass of water is free -- but where I had to pay a "San Francisco health care charge" of 3% -- I couldn't stop thinking about the $1 cup of water.

Will this become something we can expect to see more from cash-strapped restaurateurs? Has Boccalone crossed a line that food stands in less smarmy environments would be economically punished for? (I walked away, but nobody behind me in line blinked.)

Is it a greedy greenwash grab, based on the idea that $1 for a "compostable cup" is better for the environment than $3 for a plastic bottle of Dasani?

I grant you that I'd rather drink San Francisco's high-quality tap water than pay for Dasani, which is also essentially tap water. And who knows, maybe Boccalone is filtering its water or adding vitamins or getting a priest to bless it.

But if somebody can forward this post to Boccalone's proprietors, including local star chef Chris Cosentino, I'd love for them to explain themselves. Are you guys on the forefront of a new way of thinking about beverages? Do you recommend that every restaurant charge $1 for each cup of water? Or have you confused San Francisco with "Dune"?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Visit "Farm City" in Oakland this weekend

One of my favorite books of the last couple years is "Farm City" by Novella Carpenter, about her daily efforts to raise her own vegetables and meat in one of the worst areas of Oakland.

If you have read the book, there's a happy ending you might not know about. Carpenter simply began raising vegetables, pigs and goats on an empty lot without the owner's permission (he eventually gave it), but she worried constantly that he would build on it, sell it, or simply lock her out.

Late last year, the owner sold her the lot; that's not in the book. I cheered aloud when I found out.

On Sunday, Feb. 27, Carpenter is holding a farm pop-up stand at her home to sell produce raised in one of the toughest spots in the Bay Area. The details, also on Novella Carpenter's blog, are these:

Feb. 27, 11 a.m. -- 2 p.m.
665 28th St., Oakland (actually in the adjacent lot, which is her Farm)
For sale at her farm: Chard, kale, rabbit pot pies, braising mix (whatever that is), nettle tea, chai made with Carpenter's honey
For sale several blocks away: Crack, heroin, short-term sexual encounters

A little more about the book: Carpenter, who studied journalism under Michael Pollan at UC Berkeley, writes in a frank style about her failures and mishaps and joys.

She had already been foraging in Chinatown dumpsters for expired produce to feed her pigs when she learned they needed protein, so she began bringing them bags of fish guts (ewww.) She used both her car and those of her friends to transport buckets of horse manure as fertilizer (ewww.)

She decided to try to survive for an entire month on only the products raised on her farm. An unexpected consequence of her unbalanced diet was that her partner complained about her bad breath, and she had to cook him a special meal hoping that he would, in her words, give her some meat.

She picks up a box full of honeybees from a nervous post office and rides home with them on her bicycle. She is accosted on the street by a teenager with a gun, and she shames him into backing down by asking what his mother would think.

That's why it's a great book: It's not like a Pollan book, and I like those, but it's not about theories of nutrition or man's relationship to nature or anything like that. It's about what it's like to try to recapture your chickens when they're running around your very urban street. I can't recommend it highly enough. And mmm, rabbit pot pie.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is pairing wine with each course necessary?

Yesterday one of America's leading chef/sommelier combos made a shocking admission.

With 3 Michelin stars, The Restaurant at Meadowood is one of the most acclaimed dining spots in America. A major reason is its creative food-and-wine pairings.

Chef Christopher Kostow and sommelier Rom Toulon are great together. Kostow creates wild dishes like "Veal Breast and Hamachi with Caviar, Puntarella and Tendon Suc." Toulon sorts through small-production wines of Napa Valley and the rest of the world to try to match each course. A tasting menu costs $195; the wine pairing -- a different wine with each course -- costs $145.

Yet when Kostow and Toulon eat out at restaurants, they never order the wine pairing. Both of them said that: Not occasionally, but never -- not even when they go out for a long multi-course meal like the kind their own restaurant serves.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

US sake vs. Japanese: the update

Praising a producer is easy. You write a glowing description, throw in some quotes and a photo. Done.

I have a trickier task today, and it involves sake.

It's fair to say I'm one of the few people who writes knowledgeably about sake in English. I'm not John Gauntner, dean of the topic, but I lived in Japan for 8 years, have done multiple sake tours/events/etc., taste and sample regularly.

Every now and then I write the "Sake 101" piece for some publication. Coming up soon, Wine & Spirits magazine. I always try to help people who don't know anything about sake.

One of my rules is, "Domestic sake is not as good as Japanese sake." Readers often ask, "Why don't you try American sake?" I assure them that I have, but I've never published anything about a domestic sake producer.

The nice folks from SakeOne in Oregon wanted me to taste their portfolio. I warned them of my frequently stated stance on American-made sakes.

They came to San Francisco, but I had a head cold and couldn't taste and wanted to give their portfolio a fair shot. So I met and interviewed them, and they shipped me the portfolio later.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Congratulations to today's Vintners Hall of Fame inductees

This afternoon I will have the honor of taking part in the 5th annual Vintners Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and just in case I stumble or blurt out something stupid, I want to take this opportunity to express my congratulations and admiration for the 5 great new members.

Joel Peterson
More than one writer has noted that Zinfandel, California's quasi-native grape, is the defining wine for this great induction class.

Two of the inductees made their reputations on Zin starting in the 1970s: Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson and Bob Trinchero, who invented White Zinfandel at Sutter Home.

The two men came at it from different ends of the market: Peterson wanted to prove that single-vineyard Zin is a great wine, and Trinchero was interested in giving the masses something tasty to drink on the porch.

Bob Trinchero
But I expect both will acknowledge the other's importance to their work. By buying grapes from old Zinfandel vineyards, Trinchero saved them from being replanted to Chardonnay, so that winemakers like Peterson could later make serious wines from them.

And if it wasn't for people like Peterson, Trinchero's work of explaining what that funny Z-wine is to the masses would have been more difficult.

Peterson I know reasonably well, having done a couple of feature stories on him. I haven't met Trinchero so I'm looking forward to asking him what he drinks at home.

Vernon Singleton
I'm also very much looking forward to meeting the third living inductee, UC Davis professor emeritus Vernon Singleton. He's an expert on phenolics and oxidation in wine, and perhaps if I can get him aside for a few minutes, I'll become one of the thousands of people to learn something from him.

As you may know, I'm the Chairman of the VHF Electoral College, but I don't have anything to do with planning the event, which means it ends up being almost as much of a surprise to me as to everyone else (I do get there early enough to peek at the program.)

Last year the induction ceremony had a nice balance of humor, nostalgia and wistful reminiscence.

Richard Graff
This year we'll be inducting two men who aren't with us anymore, Richard Graff and August Sebastiani.

Graff would be 74 if he hadn't died in a plane crash, and I wonder what he would think of the way the market for Pinot Noir has changed. Graff purchased Chalone Vineyard in 1965 and worked to convince people that California Pinot Noir could be both great and approachable. I hope they show "Sideways" in heaven, though I suspect Mr. Graff would frown on Miles stealing money from his mother (maybe they censor that part Up There).

August Sebastiani
August Sebastiani set a standard for overdelivering on quality on affordable wines; he was an everyday hero to many Americans who enjoyed his wine on their dinner table from the 1940s through the 1970s. His legacy lives on in his son's company, as Don Sebastiani and Sons continue to make quality wines without pretension and with a dry sense of humor (check out the "cork" on your Smoking Loon wine sometime.) I regret never meeting August, but I do look forward to toasting his memory with Don and his grandson August (good name!)

As always, there should be some great food served by the Culinary Institute of America, this year with a White House theme. And the wines seem to get better every year -- no wonder, as they have more inductees' wineries to draw from.
But the inductees are the reason we're all going to be there. 
Thanks to each of you for your great contributions to California wine. Speaking as a consumer, a drinker, a journalist, and for today, a fan, I'll just say it again: Thank you.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Attention wineries: show your wares at virtual Wine Fair

A booth at the virtual Wine Fair
"I floated past an exhibition of fine Burgundies, but I didn't have the organs to sample them. I was interested in a new video sorting table and spent a moment watching it work. But I had an appointment to show off my wines to a Czech grocery store chain, so I instantaneously returned to my booth.

We talked about my wines, in English: I told them about our vineyard, and our commitment to biodynamic farming. We talked about shipping needs and labeling requirements. We haggled over prices. And then we sealed our deal with a glass of … air."

This is how the second virtual Wine Fair works. Last year 47 exhibitors showed their wares to more than 4,300 visitors. This year it should be even bigger -- well, virtually, because it all happens in cyberspace.

This post is an advertorial.
On the surface, a booth at the fair isn't cheap, starting at $1,100. But compare that to actually attending a wine fair in London, for example: there's no airfare, no hotel room, no time away from the winery for key staff and no questionable expense reports for "adult entertainment."

In fact, there are few quicker, cheaper, easier ways for wineries to explore a larger international market for their products. Plus, it's ecologically pristine -- no carbon offsets needed because there's no travel, no shipping, no waste.

The virtual Wine Fair is a private venture launched last year by a sommelier, Jean-Michel Kuzaj, and a wine store owner, Denis Lengagigne. It uses multiple communication tools in its virtual environment, including webcams, audio conferences and live chat. Visitors can browse brochures and business contact information and make appointments for live teleconferencing.

The one thing you can't do virtually is taste. But Gary Vaynerchuk, not to mention flash sites like Wine Woot, have shown us that that's no impediment to wine sales. Tell your story well enough and you might find yourself with new customers in Hong Kong or Denmark or Lithuania.

Speaking of telling your story: The Palate Press Ad Network has an opportunity for US wineries to get a free booth at the fair by submitting a short essay (200-300 words) on the topic "(My Winery): Telling Our Story in the 21st Century."* For information, click here.

* Since what you're reading is an advertorial, I'd be missing a business opportunity if I didn't offer to write this essay for you for a fee. Bwahahaha, my advertorial empire expands.

The details: second annual virtual Wine Fair
March 14-18, 2011
Sales Manager: Charlotte Fort,, +33-3-21-80-96-30
For more info, visit

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Steakhouses, the Republican Congress, and retirement

I ran into a sommelier friend recently who is now working at an upscale steakhouse; I won't say where, or he'd lose his job. He told me how the wine scene is different there.

"People don't want a good wine that's good value," he said. "They always want more. They want wines to show off. It has to be a trophy wine: big name, big score or both. They want to feel like they're getting away with something."

I thought he might mean a bargain; a $100 wine for $50. But no, he said people come to steakhouses expecting to spend money. Often, they're on business, which means they're passing the cost on to you and me eventually. That explains why they're willing to spend $10 for a baked potato or $50 for dessert. So what's another $500 or so for wine, especially if you get three whole bottles?

He painted a picture of upscale steakhouses as kind of a mini-Vegas of profligacy.

"People order 6 bottles for four people all the time," he said. "They don't want to finish the bottle. That would mean they didn't get enough. It's the same thing with steak: they don't order a sensible piece of meat they could finish. They order an enormous steak and eat less than half of it. Excess is all part of the party."

So what is it they want to get away with?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What is a 90-point wine?

As much as people write about the 100-point scale, we usually ignore its current defining characteristic: the 90-point wine.

The idea of a 90-point wine is far more popular with big wine retailers than critics. If you ask Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews (I have), he'll tell you that 89-point wines are great values that he's happy to drink with dinner.

But try getting Costco to sell them. You just don't see "88 points Wine Enthusiast" on shelf talkers, even though I'm sure Steve Heimoff would drink those wines.

I've been thinking about this more lately, as James Suckling tries to make a career out of his ability to discern 90-point wines from everything else. Think about it: He's not looking for perfect 100-point wines, or great 95-point wines. And I don't think Suckling is doing anything intellectually ground-breaking; he's trying to reflect the zeitgeist and speak to an existing market.

In much of American wine retail culture -- particularly big-box stores and flash sites -- wines are either 90-point wines, or they're not. It's almost a binary scale.

But if so, it's a unique binary scale, because it's not the same as "pass/fail." Most retailers would acknowledge that an 89-point wine is not a failure. But what is it, then?

More importantly, what does "90-point wine" mean to the general public?

The term may have been invented by critics, but we have lost control of it. "90-point wine" has taken on meaning of its own.

American English is like that. I lived overseas for 10 years and whenever I visited the US, I heard terms I didn't understand. It once took a dinner party about 20 minutes to define "You go girl" for me, and explain how to use it.

Looking at an ad advertising 90-point wines at great prices, I had a deja vu moment for my expat days.

What are people looking for when they look for 90-point wines?

Put another way, if consumers were going to use words instead of numbers to define "90-point wine," what would they be?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In defense of "stemmy" flavors

Buy wine and get 1/2 off shipping when you order 6 or more bottles with checkout code "blake65"
Chad Melville really likes stems.

Chad Melville is always smiling
This is a strange position to hold in the California wine industry. Professional tasters sometimes use "stemmy" as a negative. And with reason, because stems contain their own flavors and tannins that can be a wakeup call to somebody expecting pure fruit.

But that's why Melville likes them. He can't put as many as he'd like in the wines for his family's Lompoc winery, Melville Vineyards, because he's not the winemaker.* But for his own small label, Samsara, he tries to ensure that at least 50% of the clusters he ferments have stems on them.

* (Corrected information after the jump.)

"I love the aromatics that stems give, if they're farmed well," Melville says. "They add an interesting salinity to the wine. It borders on oceanic. Along with the native chaparral -- these oils in the plants, they're airborne and they land on the grapes and on the stems. You can really pick up on these things in the wine. If you destem, you're missing out on some of it."

Melville's friends laugh at his stem fixation.

"Did he talk your ear off about stems?" says Sashi Moorman, who like Melville works for a number of different wineries in Santa Barbara County; the two even collaborate on one wine, Holus Bolus. "We don't agree with him, you know."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Enologix's Leo McCloskey on fixing U.S. wine

You want to fix everything that ails the American wine scene?

Forget about dumping the 100-point scale and replacing it with nothing. Instead, consider what a European would do.

Enologix president Leo McCloskey, one of Napa Valley's leading consultants, suggested in a comment on my blog last week that what America really needs is a classification of vineyards, the way it's done in Burgundy, with some vineyards ruled Grand Cru, some Premier Cru and others Lodi (sorry).

I don't expect that this will happen, ever, because too many people would oppose it, and here when we don't like something, we sue.

But I wanted to hear more, so I called McCloskey. As always, he had some interesting points.

"The AVA system is dead," McCloskey said. "The AVA system was started with a mission to bring information about quality to the consumer. But the AVA system was immediately politicized. The politics of consensus; every opinion has to count. So the AVA system did nothing."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Video answers to your wine questions

Got a question about wine, sake or baseball? Ask me on, and I'll answer -- like your own personal Vaynerchuk, without the Jets helmet. (Or the wine retail business.)

The link is on the next page (click on "Read More" below) because the vyou software runs continuously, which means once I start talking I never stop. Admittedly this is the way I am in reality, but I don't usually say the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over like this unless I've had wayyyyy too much Champagne.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In love with SoCal wines

You don't have to be a Dodgers fan to love the wines from southern California. This state may be divided by sports loyalties, but we all love a great wine.

I have a couple of SoCal stories in other places today that I want to highlight.

I think Mourvedre is the best grape in Paso Robles, and I'm not alone: local luminaries like Justin Smith and Tablas Creek winemaker Neil Collins agree. Here's a story in today's Los Angeles Times on that topic. Don't miss my 5 recommended Paso Robles Mourvedres, all of which can be ordered online.

A little further south, in the Santa Rita Hills, Greg Brewer is pushing the edge artistically and in alcohol level with his Diatom Chardonnays. I admire the first push, but had a hard time getting my mind around the second. Read my interview with him in Wine Review Online (sorry, wine reviews are behind their pay wall).

My intense and revealing interview with "Sideways" author Rex Pickett is still up on Palate Press. Many folks in Oregon hope/believe Pickett's book "Vertical" will do for their region what "Sideways" did for Santa Barbara County. My opinion? Only if it's made into a movie, and I'll believe that when I see it. Read it and decide for yourself. (Note: Pickett gets a lot more money per copy from this book than from "Sideways," as you'll see in the interview, and if you buy it from the link at right, in the words of Tony Soprano, I get a taste. Not a big taste. More like a sniff. For details, see the photo above.)

Pickett wrote almost exclusively about Pinot Noir, but I'm a huge fan of other wines  from Santa Barbara County, especially Rhone wines like Syrah, which I think are better there than in Giants fan territory. But that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Sideways" chat with Hitching Post owner Frank Ostini

Today on Palate Press I have an intense interview with Rex Pickett, author of "Sideways." Rex talks about his drinking problem, his years of poverty and why he made Sandra Oh's character a lap dancer in the sequel. You should go here and read it.

Frank Ostini
This is the flip side of that interview: a short visit with Frank Ostini, proprietor of The Hitching Post II, the restaurant made famous in the movie.

Ostini first noticed Pickett sitting at the bar in his restaurant. "The staff described him as needy. He said he was writing a book but we didn't believe him," Ostini said. "I asked him later if he ever wrote any of the book here and he told me, 'I never write after 3 o'clock.' "

Ostini made lots of money from the film. People drove from all over and waited outside for hours for a table. He's grateful enough to Pickett that he gave the author a lifetime pass to eat free at the restaurant.

But when he first saw the screenplay, he tried to convince other members of the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association to deny permission to film.

"The director, he makes fun of everything. I was really afraid we were going to get trashed," said Ostini, who also worried that Jack and Miles were alcoholics. He demanded a meeting with director Alexander Payne, who only slightly put his mind at ease.

Of course Ostini now has no regrets; the Hitching Post Highliner Pinot Noir featured in the film quickly went from 200 case production to 2000. Even now, Hitching Post wines are found in other restaurants in Southern California. "They're advertising my restaurant in their restaurants," Ostini said.

The impact was slow. It took eight months to get the restaurant completely packed. But the movie did fill the restaurant beyond capacity -- and this is a dinner-only restaurant that's not small in a very rural area.

"Tables were being reserved a week ahead," Ostini said. "Thousands of people were walking around the building, taking pictures of the sign. I never liked our sign. But when I went out to see the movie, I put the sign on the front of our website."

Ostini said he was pressured by many to open for lunch, but he said "keeping the doors closed until 4 o'clock was the only way we kept our sanity."

Through it all, he insisted on keeping up the restaurant's quality, lest it become an indifferent tourist trap like Pea Soup Andersen's just down the road.

That may sound like hyperbole, but it's not. I dined with Ostini at the restaurant during this interview, one month after visiting one of America's best-regarded steak houses, Bern's in Tampa, Florida. In both places I had a ribeye. Bern's wine list is incomparable -- but The Hitching Post II's steak (a Harris Ranch "natural") was better.

I told Ostini that and he beamed. He grew up in the restaurant industry. His parents bought the original Hitching Post in even-more-rural Casmalia in 1952 -- it's still run by his siblings -- and he strongly believes in hospitality. While we ate, quite a few diners, including a Hollywood director and a retired local farmer, came by to say hi to him.

He told me some great old restaurateur stories, but this is my favorite. His winemaking partner is Gray Hartley, a commercial fisherman by trade. I asked how they met when Hartley spent most of his time on boats in Alaska and elsewhere.

Turns out Hartley had bought a fixer-upper house near the original Hitching Post, where Ostini was working after failing to convert his UC Davis degree in environmental planning to a government job.

"(Hartley) saw a couple getting ready to do a dine-and-dash (without paying)," Ostini said. "He told the hostess. That was my girlfriend. They got up and left. He got the license plate of their car. This was in the '70s; the police just gave me their address, which was in Santa Maria.

"I knocked on their door and said, 'You were in my family's restaurant and you walked away from this bill for $42.' They said, 'So?' I had no response. There wasn't anything I could do. I couldn't throw a brick through their TV. I just left. But at least I got a friend."

I like this story too: "The restaurant was a steak-and-potatoes place. In the old days you didn't get to order the kind of steak you wanted: ribeye, porterhouse, nothing like that. You ordered 'steak' and you got what the restaurant wanted to give you. My dad would learn the customers' preferences and write it on a big list in the kitchen."

While The Hitching Post II is very much a meat-and-potatoes restaurant, modern farm-to-table cuisine has found it. Ostini himself milks his two goats every morning to provide surprisingly mild cheese for a salad. He says the key to getting mild goat cheese is to keep the male goats away from the females.

Ostini, who started making home wine from Pinot Noir grapes that farmers gave him for free because the variety was so unloved, now makes 10 different wines -- 8 Pinots, a nice dry rose and a Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend that, understandably, is a hard sell in a "Sideways" mecca. But he has finally cut back on production, and tries to keep his prices down.

"The economy finally trumped 'Sideways'," he said. "$40 to $50 retail wines are just not what people want. I never understood it myself."

And he's happier to be back running a restaurant that locals can and do get into.

"In 100 years, people will watch that movie," Ostini said. "What we did will live forever in that movie. That was a gift to us. They captured something. It's pretty special."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Thoughts on Robert Parker's semi-retirement

My first thought on learning that Robert Parker will no longer review California wines was, what's Enologix going to do?

Leo McCloskey has made his wine consultancy  successful by reverse-engineering Parker's palate; telling wineries how to take the technical steps that will get them a higher Parker score. Maybe Enologix's methods will also work on Parker's replacement, Antonio Galloni. But this has to be a busy week at the company, as they're scouring Galloni's reviews of Italian wines for tips on how to get his 98s.

Here are a few other random thoughts about Parker's move last week:

* Parker's not stepping down, yet, and that's good for Bordeaux, which hasn't figured out how to price wine without him. I heard that a knee injury will keep Parker from going to this year's En Primeur tasting, and that will have the whole Bordeaux industry scrambling. But that's a good thing: while Parker will probably hold onto the most influential part of his portfolio as long as he can, depending on his physical condition that might only be another decade or so.

* Jay Miller might be a nice guy, but as a wine lover I'm really glad that he didn't get the California portfolio for the Wine Advocate.

* Parker's continuing disdain for Burgundy couldn't be more clear. It's the only region in the world that he separates, giving the best parts to his successor Galloni and leaving the Macon for David Schildknecht, whose portfolio has a clear "and the rest" feeling.

* Meanwhile, Galloni also gets Champagne and keeps Italy, along with all of California, Chablis and the Cote d'Or. It's crazy. If he's able to keep up with the workload, he will become more powerful than even Parker was. It's hard for me to imagine that one man can be an expert at the Advocate level -- knowing all the new wineries, even the tiny ones -- on all these diverse and distant regions.

* But if one man does have to have all that power, aren't you glad he was weaned on Italian wines? It's a good day for acidity.

* Does this make Wine Spectator temporarily more powerful? Possibly. It also gives a window of opportunity to the three less-influential raters -- Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, International Wine Cellar -- to push for new readers. That said, the nakedly competitive way to do it for one of those three might be to try to replicate Parker's scores, as those standards (power most important; acidity a negative) have an established audience.

* The main blogger reaction is probably going to be "scores don't matter, Parker was a dinosaur." We'll see. I heard recently that one of the largest retailers of wine on the West Coast refuses to taste any wine that didn't get a 90-point score from one of the five main publications (above).

* Moreover, wholesalers love point scores because it simplifies their job. If a new Parker doesn't emerge naturally, wholesalers will take steps to create one.

* Good timing for James Suckling, although California has never been his thing. But if you were a certain Hollywood producer with money invested in the longhaired one, wouldn't you be helicoptering your frontman around Napa this week so he could get 96 here, 97 there?

* Since this brings Parker's career in California to a close, is it time for him to finally get into the Vintners Hall of Fame? As Chairman of the VHF Electoral College, I'll refrain from too much opinion here. But Parker has twice missed out by a single vote; keep an eye on next year's ballot.

* Parker's plan is to review older vintages of "perfectly stored" California, Bordeaux and Rhone wines. That's self-indulgent. The wines aren't available for purchase, and storage and bottle variation means that his experience with them can't be replicated. He might as well tell us about his lunch every day (actually, I'd like to know that. Is Parker a burger fan? Does he ever eat hummus wraps?)

* The question everybody wants answered is: Will Galloni make California winemakers pull back from some of the excess they have been rewarded for? There's nobody in wine with more weight on his shoulders today. Welcome to California, Antonio Galloni!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Valentine's Day sucks

Like most American men, I hate Valentine's Day. And not just because I'm sick of being told people should drink wine with chocolate, which is usually a waste of  good wine.

Some young, completely single men like V-Day because it's an excuse to give flowers or chocolates to a woman they've been eyeing without coming off like a stalker.

But if you're already sleeping with a woman, even on an irregular basis, V-Day sucks, mostly because of the American media.

Here's a link to a fairly typical V-Day article, courtesy of Cosmopolitan.

In it, we learn that nothing a man can do is right. Flowers, for example. Gave her flowers? You suck, because you bought them from the supermarket. Sent her flowers? You suck, because the arrangement wasn't beautiful. Gave her a gold-plated flower? You suck, because it's cheezy.

The reason for all this misandry in February has to do with the gender makeup of staffs at magazines. More journalists overall are women than men, and the numbers are even more skewed in feature and lifestyle sections.

And food sections? They've always been dominated by female staffers, which is a big reason newspapers foolishly treated them as unimportant for years. I could argue that our poor food culture of the past had roots in newspaper pro-male bias, and our national food awakening followed some reduction of that bias. But that's another essay.
Brought the wrong wine!

My point here is, the reason American women get outsized expectations for V-Day is that the media tells them they should. He should make a romantic dinner! With the perfect bottle of wine! And flowers, and a hot tub, and a weekend getaway! And if he screws up any of it -- there's baby's breath in the floral arrangement? How dare he! -- he's just another Mystery Date dud.

Meanwhile, we American men just want V-Day to be over so we can get back to our lives. Relationships aren't made or unmade on one holiday. Couples that are happy together don't need heart-shaped pasta, and it won't save failing marriages. But the media persists, partly because of gender bias and partly because February's a slow month.

Which brings me to the wine-related point of this rant: Why bother seeking the perfect wine for Valentine's Day?

If you are having a romantic dinner, enjoy a bottle of good sparkling wine together. (By those standards, it's V-Day about five times a month in my house.) If you both like Pinot Noir, or margaritas, or whatever, by all means drink some.

But don't buy crap you wouldn't buy any other day of the year: chocolate-flavored wine, dessert wine that's supposed to go with chocolate, wine with hearts on the label.

And women, tell us what you want -- dinner? flowers? -- and we'll provide it, if we're worth dating (or being married to). Forgive us our imperfections, because those are what make us unique, which is why you love us. Right? If not, then give us our chocolates back. And turn the game back on while you're at it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Drink like a US President at this year's VHF bash

On Monday, I learned tickets for this year's Vintners Hall of Fame induction ceremony are selling at about 4 times the pace of last year's shindig.

Joel Peterson
It could be because this year's induction class includes three popular living legends -- Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson, UC Davis professor Vernon Singleton and Bob Trinchero, who invented White Zinfandel at Sutter Home.

Vernon Singleton
But it's just possible that people are licking their lips at the menu plans -- because you can drink and nosh like a US President, on President's Day no less.

The CIA -- the cooking school, not the guys who put microphones in lint -- has gone through more than 25 years of White House menus to find wines produced by members of the Vintners Hall of Fame. At the reception, you can sample those wines, or the current vintages if necessary, with the same dishes they were paired with at the White House.

And that's not even the main event!

August Sebastiani

Richard Graff
At 5:30, we* will induct this year's class of new Hall of Famers: the three stars above, along with Chalone founder Richard Graff and populist patriarch August Sebastiani.
* (I have the honor of being Chairman of the Vintners Hall of Fame Electoral College.)

Then it's time for a walk-around dinner in the CIA kitchens, staffed by some of the many celebrity chefs in northern California who have graduated from the institute. The White House theme continues here, as former White House chef Walter Scheib will be manning some pots and pans, along with current Congressman Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena). And there's no shortage of wines, from both the current induction class and previously honored Hall of Fame members.

I saw Thompson on Monday and told him he had chutzpah last year for making and serving risotto in front of a great lineup of professional chefs, but he might have to step up his game this year for the bigger crowd. He was unfazed, stating, "I think I'll make my second risotto recipe. I'm going to show off my range." I think that's a pun.

Bob Trinchero
If you haven't been to a VHF induction ceremony, you're missing a great chance to drink and chat with some of the legends of the California wine industry. Many of the living Hall of Famers show up to celebrate with the new induction class. Winemakers tell war stories; their friends share anecdotes. And everybody is right there in one room; it's not like the Baseball Hall of Fame, where the players are on stage and the fans are on the lawn. If you want to ask Trinchero how he decided to call a pink wine "white," now's your chance.

I also saw Andy Beckstoffer on Monday -- he was inducted last year -- and he told me that he was more moved by being chosen for the Vintners Hall of Fame than by any other honor he has received. This from a guy who has been a leader of grapegrowers and a pretty successful businessman. Beckstoffer said the VHF mattered to him because the award was presented by wine writers, who could not as a group be affected by business concerns, and that he believed he was honored for some of the stances he took that were not popular at the time, like fighting to change the way wineries pay farmers, or preventing development in Napa Valley.

I can't say why voters choose or don't choose one great candidate over another; every voter has his or her own motivation. But I do love the idea that the VHF Electoral College honors greatness and vision. That's appropriate for President's Day.

Tickets are still available; I don't know how close they are to a sellout. Tickets are $175, of which $100 is tax deductible.

Details: Vintners Hall of Fame 5th Annual Induction Ceremony
Monday, Feb. 21, 2011
Culinary Institute of America, Greystone, St. Helena
4 p.m. reception with Presidential pairings
5:30 p.m. induction ceremony (The only time all year I wear a necktie)
6:30 p.m. walk-around celebrity chef dinner

Tickets and more information are available here.