Monday, September 27, 2010

Three Videos

A few things that have been on my mind today:

Monday, September 20, 2010

Weighing in on Natty wine

Within a period of two years, no single wine term has been as galvanizing, polarizing and heavily debated as "natural wine." Communities of vignerons, starting in France and spreading to Italy, Spain and the United States, have been formed around the strong sense of purpose and aesthetic behind natural wine. Business plans have been formed around the idea of selling natural wine. Columnists have given plenty of consideration to the topic. Wine blogs have formed their raison d'etre around natural wines (here is one, and another, notable example).

Recently, it seems that many in the wine intelligentsia are concerned about natural wine as a category and as a means of defining one's wine. In his column today, SF Chronicle writer Jon Bonné spelled out his concerns that the term "natural" is only beginning to see the type of abuse which will pervade the marketplace by wineries looking to market a trend. During the second annual SF Natural Wine Week, there was a debate about the "naturalness" of certain participating California wineries. A clever video illustrating some of the frustrations inherent in the terminology went viral (well, viral by wine geek standards).

Those who work hard to make what they view as natural wine, more importantly those who do so and are vocal about their methods, would argue that farming organically, on a smaller scale, fermenting musts with native yeasts, minimizing or eliminating the use of sulphur dioxide, enzymes and other additives, yields a more transparent wine. A wine that is more reflective of terroir, vintage, grape variety and the true regional style. While this may be the case, some would counter that the personality of some natural wines trumps the character of the surrounding terroir. Carbonic maceration, for example, does impart a certain character anywhere it is applied. A wine with no sulphur is more inclined to have a higher count of yeast and bacterial populations. These cause flavors that some find appealing while others find unacceptable.

I choose to view natural wine not as a style in and of itself, not as a flawed term soon to be exploited by marketers, not as a radical outsider movement. Rather, I view it as just one school of thought, one means to achieve what a winery is looking to produce. I respect anyone who makes the effort to produce a natural wine; it is not easy. Particularly, I admire those who, through a combination of experience, diligence, lots of work and study, and yes, unique terroir, are able to consistently produce good wine.

Two Kinds of Wine

There are two kinds of wine: good wine and the other kind.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Path towards Enlightened Snobbery

Recently I was reminded of one of the great shortcomings of the wine industry and of wine appreciation in the United States. A few friends and I were discussing ways in which we were "geeky," i.e. our varying pursuits and interests in which we perhaps take a greater than usual level of interest, and zealously pursue an ever increasing cache of knowledge. I copped to being both a music geek and a wine geek. "No," my friend Benjamin corrected me, "you may be a music geek, but you are a wine snob. There are no wine geeks, only wine snobs."

True, perhaps. How many serious wine drinkers can patiently explain what it is we may not like about the cheap commodity wine at a friend's party that motivates us in the direction of a cold beer instead? Or do anything other than nod politely, perhaps offer some faint praise, when someone speaks about a winery that one views as producing inferior, mediocre, boring, or downright dreadful wines?

Prior to my involvement in the wine business, my image of a wine snob was a stereotypical American one: that of a middle aged white male, likely betraying a proper English accent, drinking a well aged claret. Later, it morphed into a slightly younger American dude, wearing khaki pants with a golf polo tucked in, purchasing a case of $100 a bottle Napa cab at the local wine shop. Later on, a thirty something sommelier at a high end restaurant, stashing away bottles of Sine Qua Non. Now, the wine snobs I most often see, occasionally hang with and observe in their natural habitat have done more research. At least they are drinking more interesting wines. They are more likely to open up aged bottles of important producers' 1er cru Burgundy, cult natural wine a la Frank Cornelissen, an aged Cotes du Bourg demi-sec from Huet. It is a franco-centric, critic's darling, tightly allocated, potentially high dollar oriented sport, these gatherings of wine geeks, nay, wine snobs.

The lavishness of it all is not the only thing I detest about such gatherings. Wine is the centerpiece, trumping anything and everything else. It dominates the conversation, an embarrassment of choice bottles polluting the table, people taking a small taste of one cherished, hauntingly beautiful Burgundy before moving to an aged, leathery Barolo. "That's really fucking good," someone may remark before abruptly moving on to what's next, if for no other reason than the fact that a few greedier snobs bogarted the wine.

Do I always dislike tasting great wines, expanding my experience with famous producers in the company of largely kind, generous folks? No, occasionally it's a blast, and a great education. However, and maybe it's because I live in San Francisco, there is a lack of diversity at these tastings; people and wines alike blend into one big abstraction of, well, snobbery.

In European wine producing countries, wine is traditionally seen as a beverage of the countryside, something to slake thirst and consume throughout the day. You need not be wealthy, bourgie, or pretentious to enjoy it. Sometimes I wish the same were more often true here. Most efforts to democratize wine consumption in the US have tended towards the dreadfully boring, consumer advocate model, the dumbed down, crass, social media driven platform, the affluent, luxe lifestyle promoting publications or a combination of all three. If there is currently an effective effort to democratize wine education and appreciation of wines in this country, I am not aware of it. Serious wine study through tasting is still primarily enjoyed by those in the upper levels of the trade, as well as those who are lucky enough to know people who can afford exemplary bottles of wines from important wine growing regions.

Some would argue that wine should not be democratized, that the amount of effort, study and expense to understand it effectively functions as a weed out tool for those who are less serious. I would counter that while this may be partially true, more options should exist for people who are eager to learn by tasting wines, talking to vignerons, and engaging with professionals who take great effort to understand the products which they sell.

Returning to the issue of snobbery, I think my friend was right. I am a wine snob. Just as I'm a food snob and a music snob. I know what I like, and am not afraid to extol virtues as well as cite flaws as I understand them. However, I would like to think that my brand of snobbery is inclusive. Any knowledge should be shared simply for the act of sharing knowledge, not to delight in holding some hidden knowledge over someone else. For me, this is the case because I love learning from other people. My most rewarding discoveries happen this way.

Being an enlightened wine snob is a tough act to pull off. To be honest, I'm still not sure I'm cut out for it. But that certainly would not make me unique; I'm not convinced that many people are. One thing is for certain, however. More serious wine drinkers should aspire towards making the effort.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Today, on this blog: tomatoes. Tomatoes are truly a blessing. I don't care how hot and sticky your east coast summer was, or how how cool and unsummer-like our California summer has been. On either coast, we still have had access to tomatoes, that most delicious of fruits, and though the harvest may not have been the easiest or most abundant, there has been plenty of deliciousness in your local markets. Somehow, life is always better with a regular supply of fresh, locally grown tomatoes around.

We grew our own this year, in a pretty big way. While our seven cherry tomato plants have been very slow growers in our cool Bernal Heights community garden plot (the plants are still flowering and only a few green tomatoes are on the vines), the leaves are still verdant and healthy, the vines only three or so feet high but still thick and sprawling. I know that these will likely be the tastiest of our tomatoes, despite the long wait to pick ripe ones.

In Sacramento, where my girlfriend's parents live a few blocks away from the American River, we have found that the tomatoes love the combination of fertile soil, warmth and sunshine, growing taller than six feet and spreading all over. On Friday we harvested at least 8 lb of cherry tomatoes, eight heirlooms, and about 3 lb of san marzano tomatoes. Prior to that, we have enjoyed a few smaller harvests. There likely will be one more big harvest ahead.

What do we do with this bounty? We have given a lot away. But we have also cooked a lot of simple dishes, or snacked on the tomatoes in some time tested ways. Here is a quick list of ways we have been enjoying:

Taking out the tomato, "apple style."

This one is pretty self explanatory. Add a bit of maldon sea salt, if desired.

Tomato on toast.

Good for breakfast or lunch. I like to rub a raw garlic clove on a toasted slice of levain, something with a good tang and nice, large crumb. Pineapple heirlooms have been a recent favorite. Add olive oil (Frantoia is my long-time brand of choice) and a sprinkle of sea salt.

Cherry tomato sauce.

In good olive oil, cook a bunch of cherry tomatoes until they soften and can be fairly easily squished with a wooden spoon. I have been doing this one somewhere between a fresh, uncooked tomato sauce and a fully cooked one. Add minced raw garlic at the end, stir while still over heat for a minute or so, then add to pasta with some additional olive oil. Great, fresh sauce. Try it over orecchietti with grated cheese.

Classic gazpacho

Here is your ratio: 2.5 lb fresh tomatoes, 1/2c olive oil, 2 slices bread, 1 clove garlic, 2 tbsp sherry vinegar, 1 tsp sugar, salt and pepper. It's very simple. Use a cuisinart or if you're lacking this gadget, you can use a hand-held immersion blender. That's how I do it. I prefer san marzanos since they are less sweet and more likely to be what is used in Spain. Be sure to refrigerate the gazpacho for several hours. This is one of Penelope Casas' recipes so you know that it will be tasty.

a la Chinese

Stir fry kale or mustard greens in olive oil. Season lightly with salt. Add slices of heirloom tomato, along with some soy sauce and a bit of balsamic vinegar. Pepper would be a good addition, as would ground sichuan pepper and possibly fermented black beans. Add a few cloves of minced garlic at the end and stir in well. A few tablespoons of chopped parsley is also tasty on this dish. Serve with scallion pancakes.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It's cold in here, my allergies are bothering me and I wish I could write more interesting tasting notes

In the interest of full disclouse, and in an effort to not loose the last 3 of you who are readers and not related to me, I suppose this is a cobbled together post, consisting of a short paragraph with impressions of wines drunk and tasted over the past week. Just so you know what you're in for. Arnot-Roberts Trousseau (08?) from Clear Lake (?!) looked, smelled and tasted pretty much like Trousseau. Not bad. Their Mt Veeder Ribolla was simple and fruity. Gravner grafted, great marketing...2004 and 2002 Montborgeau Savagnin L'Etoile both delicious over the course of the week, more flor qualities to 04, richer fruit in 02. 2009 Clos de Briords is supposed to be the best wine he made or some such but to me it's just another really tasty Briords, why hype this more than needed? 15ish bucks. Everyone knows it's good, buy it; we're not composing email pitches from a home office in Seattle or something here, people...07 Huet Le Haut Lieu Demi-Sec tasting simple, one-dimensional and not right on finish. Grey or RWC, is one worse than the other here? '02 Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Riesling Spatlese really hit the spot, great lithe structure and refreshing acidity, just enough tangy/sweet fruit. '88 Dauvissat Camus Le Clos sounds fancier than it tastes. '88 Preuses had more life in it, more verve. Still, merely a pretty good drink at this point. '95 Noël Verset Cornas smoky, peppery, and tannic. Somewhere there was fruit but smoke, meat, earth and tannin seemed to dominate. Though it was my first Verset and I do appreciate this read from someone who has more experience with these wines than I. '06 Cornelissen Contadino 4 was a pleasant surprise: ripe, expressive red fruits with skins, scruffy herbs, and a real fine grained, non-oak induced tannin structure for such a warm climate, 15% abv specimen. Intriguing.

Shana Tova to all!