30 November 2011

30Nov- nytimes article i enjoyed

Among Great Wines, Plenty of Choice

Matias Costa for The New York Times

With top Burgundies and Bordeaux too costly for most people, wines like those from Rioja in Spain, pictured, and from the Santa Cruz Mountains of California are getting more attention and commanding more respect.

I HAVE never been one of those people who feel they live in the wrong era. I am eternally grateful, for example, to draw breath in the age of anesthesia. But I have occasionally lamented that I was born just a few years too late.

Noah Berger for The New York Times

Sampling a California syrah.

If I’d learned about wine in the 1960s rather than the ’80s, perhaps I, too, could regale you with annoying stories of buying cases of ’59 Lafite and ’61 Latour for $8 a bottle. Maybe my cellar, such as it is, would be bulging with grand cru Burgundy that I got for a song because, after all, who back then cared about Burgundy?

By the time I had some money and the inclination to splurge on wine, these historic benchmark wines had become absurdly, ridiculously overpriced.

Consider that back in 1975, Kermit Lynch, the importer and shop owner in Berkeley, Calif., was retailing a case of Domaine Leflaive Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet 1972 for $125, not cheap then by any means, but doable for the determined. Adjusted for inflation, this excellent white Burgundy from a decent vintage would be the equivalent of $500 today. How quaint. Now, at Sherry-Lehmann in New York, a case from the 2008 vintage runs about $4,800.

Generations of wine lovers learned firsthand of the gorgeous polychromatic potential of wine by drinking those bottles that are almost universally believed to represent the heights of achievement: the first-growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundies. Yet an entire younger generation of wine lovers, say those 40-ish and younger, may grow old never having savored a great Musigny or a classic Château Latour, unless they are extremely wealthy or very lucky.

Sad, yes. Yet just as certain, we live in the greatest time ever to be wine lovers, with access to more high-quality wine in more different styles from a greater diversity of places than ever before. Just possibly, this wealth of wonderful choices is due partly to the soaring cost of those reference points for greatness.

Years ago, a great wine list was essentially a great Bordeaux list, or a great Burgundy list. Sometimes it was both, with a few more selections, of course. In the early 20th century, you would find Champagne, sherry and, if the obstacle of world wars could be skirted, some German riesling and possibly something from Alsace. Later on you’d also find some wines from Napa Valley and Tuscany, depending on the restaurant’s cuisine.

Nowadays, the possibilities seem endless. One reason, I submit, is that with little access to the classically great wines, yet with a public thirst for greatness that far exceeds that of 30 years ago, importers, distributors, sommeliers and consumers themselves have been compelled to seek out wines that nobody paid attention to 25 years ago, if they even existed.

Mr. Lynch, in a telephone conversation, argued against including Burgundy in this equation, saying that barely a thimbleful of grand cru is made each year compared with the rivers of top-flight Bordeaux. But he agreed that the attention diverted from Bordeaux had moved to many formerly esoteric regions, and that this new attention was critical to maintaining diversity in the future.

“In the old days, nobody wanted to hear a word about cabernet francs from the Loire,” he said. “Today, it’s a big market for me.”

Who, back in 1991, was buying 20-year-old Rioja gran reservas? Not a lot of Americans. Nowadays, we prize a ’91 gran reserva from a producer like R. López de Heredia for its aromatic nuances, grace and gentle power.

Sure, back then, the Mosel had its secret admiration society, in which a select few indulged its fascination with the incremental variations in slate-based terroir, as revealed in profound detail by these German rieslings. Nowadays, rieslings have gotten a lot more popular, partly because of the proselytizing of importers and sommeliers. Would they all have been so enthusiastic if these wines had not been so relatively reasonably priced?

What about the Jura? Nobody in this country drank wines from this oddball backwater 25 years ago, beyond the occasional novelty of a vin jaune. But the wonderful savagnins, trousseaus and poulsards now lend vinous street cred to the hippest sommeliers.

The story repeats itself all over the Old World. Priorat, Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra in Spain. The Valle d’Aoste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Valtellina in northern Italy. Campania, Basilicata and Sicily in the south. If we could buy the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux, would we still be fascinated by the potential of Mount Etna, where vineyards of nerello mascalese, in the hands of risk takers like Salvo Foti and Ciro Biondi, give expression to the terroir of a living volcano?

Would we also care about the assyrtikos of Santorini, and the dry furmints of Hungary, and rejoice when we find them on a wine list? Would we be as curious about the tannats of Uruguay? The malbecs of the Loire — I mean the côts, as they are called there?

In the New World, the transition hasn’t been as smooth. Driven by the extravagant pricing of cult cabernets and a desire to keep up with Bordeaux, even mediocre Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons can cost more than $100. Many consumers take refuge in Argentina or Chile, not indefensible choices, or cheap imitation Napa cabs, no excuses for that. But there are some genuinely distinctive alternatives.

Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains is better known for chardonnays, but it makes superb cabernets that are relative steals for under $50, especially if you value grace and restraint as well as intensity. Arnot-Roberts is known for syrahs, but I love its fresh, tobacco-scented Santa Cruz cabernet from Fellom Ranch. Napa may be the benchmark, but I’ll settle for the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I’ve got plenty of wonderful wines to drink. So you old-timers can keep your memories of great cheap Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa Valley. I don’t need them. Well, not really, but you know what I mean.

23 November 2011

23Nov-holiday hours
so you know, we'll be closed this thursday, friday, and saturday and then back to biz as usual on tuesday.

so you'll have to go elsewhere for your beaujolais gamay, dry french roses, red blends from lirac, oregon sauvignon blancs, and so on and so forth...

18 November 2011

18nov- new stuff for the weekend

there's a lot going on here and i'm starting to push some non-alcoholic stuff because of how much i enjoy them. i like seeking out complexity of flavor and balance and to find them in something that i can drink a lot of without feeling woozy and overly-witty is great.
i'm particularly excited about the dublin dr pepper and the traquair scottish ale. two great products that i suspect i'll be sitting on for a while because they're a little 'spensive. but, since i know the product, i'm still pricing them below industry standard mark-up and at a price that i would feel comfortable paying if i were to encounter them out there in the world which, in columbia, i can't.
speaking of which, yes, i know that the soter sparkling rose from oregon is pricey but damn it's delicious. it's the kind of sparkling wine that makes you want to find a reason to celebrate and then suddenly realize that opening the bottle is reason to celebrate in and of itself.

15 November 2011

15nov - a quick comment on by-the-glass pricing
this began as a response to a local writer asking my opinion on it for an article but it never got used.


Mark-ups are always going to be a touchy subject with consumers, certainly, but here’s how I see it. The consumer isn’t simply paying for the wine but they’re also paying for an aura of work that surrounds it.
Most tangibly, the glassware involved is crucial. I understand that people are paying for wine and I want that wine to perform as well as it can for the customer’s sake (read: enjoyment), the vineyard’s sake (read: credibility) and for my sake (read: trust). Improper glassware runs the risk of muting aromas, flavors, and potential evolution in the glass so I want customers to have as ideal a glass as I can afford to offer while breaking as many as possible. Which is another point. While, certainly, one could easily -and cheaply- pick up cases of nearly indestructible Libby goblets that would give a chatan a tough time under the chuppah I think these glasses are disrespectful to the customer and the wine. So I spend a little more on more fragile glasses so the wine has a chance to shine and the customer’s pleasure is heightened. And during service, washing, or hand-polishing the glasses tend to break from time to time (not to mention the occasional destructive customer involvement) so glasses are a frequent purchase. And, as a tumbling aside, the purchase of racks to wash glasses, the water and gas to heat the water to wash the glasses, and the time involved in hand-polishing are all components. Most customers have thrown a party at some point and know the work involved in getting ready for it as well as cleaning up from it.
We also have to contend with waste. Rarely does every bottle get exhausted and it’s just part of the game when I’m faced with finding the goldfish in the bowl. So I’ve got to throw away unpalatable wine. If it’s just a day off, that is to say, if it’s still palatable but not the same wine as the day before (and therefore not what a returning customer would expect upon ordering it) then the wine either goes to cooking or to my drinking it. Either way, no money is coming in for that wine.
But the work, the real work comes from building the wine list. The way I do it, at least, I feel helps to justify my mark-ups. Building a wine list shouldn’t be easy. The list is my baby and it requires the work of raising something potentially destructive like a baby. I meet with wine reps almost daily (which takes up time and glassware, too) and analytically taste with them. Each wine on my by-the-glass must do a lot but in particular, they have to help communicate our philosophy of balance and enjoyment. They mustn’t allow the customer to choose unwisely where food pairing is concerned. So everything on the list shouldn’t pair poorly with anything else. Also, I’ve taken a break from many traditional wine list decisions but I do still try to offer wines that satisfy a desire for light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied or dry or off-dry. And in this decision-making process I consider our food and, though some customers may, for instance, come in wanting a big, tannic cabernet I know that the food will not play well with a wine-bully like that. So in that case I need to find full-bodied reds that balance fruit, acid, alcohol, and tannin well while not only offering lasting power once opened (to offset the waste issue earlier stated) but also doesn’t change too much once opened. I love that wines evolve once Lady Oxygen gets involved but if it tastes completely different the next day (even if its flavors and aromas have blossomed beautifully) it’s not the same wine as when it was opened. If a customer enjoys a glass of wine that’s been opened for two days and is drinking great then decides to buy a bottle of the same wine to go with dinner then I want that bottle to taste as close to that glass as possible. This is not an easy task to find these wines.
And can I mention how tasting wines all day may sound like fun but falls solidly in the realm of work? It would be fun if every distributor carried nothing but wines I like but such is not the case. When it’s a rep I know well showing wine then they’ll usually arrive with product I’m likely to enjoy but many times somebody representing a winery will have a long line up to try and, sometimes, by the end of it I feel like wringing the residual wine out of my tongue. Add to that the stress I put on myself for trying to be diplomatic and polite so as not to challenge any relationships involved.
My list is also what I would like to think of as educational. I want to offer interesting wines that most customers don’t have the opportunity to try. So I ignore the big names and dig deep into distributor’s portfolios to find the neglected gems. Many times these aren’t available for reps to sample out so I must purchase them just to try them with many of them not having been worth the effort. This expense gets rolled into mark-ups in general. And, because of the uniqueness of my list the staff training requires that they try the wines to make them more informed for the customer; another expense. Fortunately, given how many of the items on my list aren’t available locally then we don’t have as much of a problem of customers complaining about being able to buy it for less elsewhere.
Customers at Baan Sawan also have the option of trying a by-the-glass list item before they commit to a glass. So at a given table one might see three tasting glasses, often two they’re curious about and one we’ve thrown in that we think they’d enjoy. This expense gets rolled into mark-ups in general. But the service is designed to maximize customer enjoyment. If somebody says they like pinot noir and sees that we don’t have one on the menu I want them to be able to try the gamay instead. And if they don’t like the gamay since they’re used to big California pinots then we take their notes on what they didn’t like about the gamay and apply it towards another taste of something that might be more appealing to them. We want the customer experience to be as enjoyable as we can make it and we don’t want them forcing down a glass of wine that they don’t like.
And then there are things like the time and energy writing and formatting the list, the paper expense, the ink expense, the printer purchasing since we print a new menu at least once a week blah blah blah.

And I’m sure I’m forgetting some things.
But here’s the point. For Baan Sawan, at least, each glass of wine that a customer drinks represents a good deal of time and effort to get it there in the first place. But we take our wine list seriously. We take wine seriously and food and how they interact. (These are all also reasons why we’re so cautious about people bringing in their own wine. We lose the control over the experience and we’ve seen people ruin our food with something like a grocery store bottle of big ol’ honkin’ Dynamite cab. They’re only hurting themselves.)
So for us we wouldn’t have the wine list that we do without there being a mark-up. And, frankly, I’m yelled at in almost every board meeting for not charging more than I do considering what I spend. So… I’m going to treat myself to a glass of four day old wine that’s still good but not what it tasted like out of the bottle.

11 November 2011

11nov- so excited!!

11nov- et comme ca

je suis amoureux

07 November 2011

07nov- anxious
i just got my results from my certified specialist of wine test and, having passed, now it occurs to me to wonder how else i could use this.
and, yes, i know how many in the industry scoff at certifications but i don't care; i got a good deal on the program. and, yes, perhaps the csw exam is only a 100 question fill-in-the-blank test of your memory with very little wine comprehension but i prefer to see it as an exam to test your willingness to memorize minutia in order to apply it to wine comprehension.
regardless, i've got this fun post-nominal (which i could use in conjunction with my 'pastor' with the universal life minister but i don't think there'll be room on my card) and i started thinking about how useful it could be if i wanted to explore employment with a winery or other wine-related venture.
my dream, of course, would be to settle down in verdant oregon. perhaps cleaning crush equipment at the eyrie vineyards i love so much and be a part of the magic that constantly blows my mind. or cleaning that awesome, weird little kitchen at brick house's "tasting room", which was really more of a living room sort of area that was all warm colors and sleepy irish setter.

more reasonably, i suppose, i should look into something local that i can do on weekends here and there. the winery in newberry, sc, for instance. i'm sure i could learn a great deal there. maybe graduate to a winery in dahlonega, ga or something in the yadkin.

or i could stay here and continue trying to improve the wine offerings in columbia's restaurants.

04 November 2011

04nov- just some new stuff

i'm really curious about the white santenay. never tried one before; didn't know santenay produced white wine, much less latour putting one out. so...we'll see.
and i'm particularly jazzed about the drier, classically styled riesling by brandborg from out in umpqua, oregon. i keep forgetting about drier style rieslings, quite likely because every time i put one on the menu i almost always end up drinking it myself.
still. we've got it.