A wine from my cellar, plus Bordeaux at a Basque restaurant

 

A few nights ago I pulled the Charles Krug 2008 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), which cost $75 on release. The color was still as inky dark as a young Cabernet, but after almost precisely ten years, the aromatics and flavors had turned the corner, picking up secondary (although far from tertiary) notes. The fresh blackberries and black currants I found when I initially reviewed the wine, in the Autumn of 2011 when it was three years old, were still there, but “growing grey hairs,” as they say, becoming more fragile, and showing leathery notes and, perhaps, a little porty, due to high alcohol, namely 15.7%.

In my early review, I wrote that the wine was “certainly higher in alcohol than in the old days, but still maintains balance.” In those olden days (never to come again, alas), Krug’s Vintage Selection, always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, hovered in the 12-1/2% range. Gerald Asher, writing in the early 1980s, credited Krug’s “influential legacy” (along with Beaulieu, Martini and Inglenook) as having contributed to “the seeds of all [stylistic Cabernet] options available to winemakers today,” a statement that remains true. His fellow Englishman, the enormously influential Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, went him one better. He gave the 1959 Krug Cabernet his highest rating, five stars, calling it “most perfect” and “a lovely rich wine,” and added, amazingly, that his friend, Edward Penning-Rowsell, who wrote the best book on Bordeaux ever (The Wines of Bordeaux), “could not fault it,” rare praise indeed from an oenophile who opined about his specialty, Bordeaux, for decades in the Financial Times. James Laube, the most important American wine critic after Robert Parker, was of more ambivalent opinion. While he called Krug’s Cabernets (first produced in 1944) “grand, distinctive [and] long-lived,” his scores on the 100-point scale were less impressive. In his 1989 California’s Great Cabernets he managed only two 90-plus scores over more than four decades of vintages of the Vintage Select (as it was then called).

I scored the 2008 Vintage Selection 93 points in 2011, and would do the same now. Admittedly, that wine took an enormous departure from the Krug Cabernets Asher and Broadbent loved. The high alcohol is a conceptual problem, and perhaps makes pairing it with food more challenging, but these are matters for our imaginations, not our palates. Organoleptically, the wine still provides good drinking. Even on release the $75 price was a bargain, when, for example, Grgich Hills already was $150, and Jarvis was a sky-high $315. Charles Krug had by then long lost its luster among the label chasers, a fickle bunch, and it must have been hard for Krug, used to being at the top, to be so overlooked, or maybe disrespected is the better word.

It’s always risky to predict the future of such wines, but I would not be surprised if the ’08 Vintage Selection is still purring away contentedly in 2028.

Tasting Légende Bordeaux at Piperade

In France “piperade” (pronounced something like “pip-rod”) is a Basque stew of onions, green peppers and tomatoes, spicy and garlicky. In San Francisco, it’s the name of Gerald Hirigoyen’s restaurant, which opened in 2002 and has long been a fixture on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list. It’s situated on Battery Street, an old-timely San Francisco neighborhood at the junction of North Beach, Chinatown and the Financial District, just below the cliff of Telegraph Hill: old brick buildings, lovingly restored, that now house tech hubs and architectural firms.

A wine from my cellar, plus Bordeaux at a Basque restaurant

Piperade was where an interesting tasting of Bordeaux took place on Monday. I was invited despite my status as a retiree and had the privilege of being seated to the right of Diane Flamand, the winemaker for Légende, the Bordeaux brand that sponsored the luncheon. (I think this honor was because I was the eldest person in the room!)

Légende is owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR), which also owns Lafite-Rothschild. It produces five what might be called “entry-level” Bordeaux: a basic red and white Bordeaux, a Médoc, a Pauillac, and a Saint-Emilion. (This latter is, of course, not within DBR’s traditional wheelhouse, but was developed in response to the market.)

I have to say how impressed I was by all five wines. The white, which was served as a conversation starter before we sat down for the meal, was fine, clean and savory, a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon. The red Bordeaux was equally satisfactory, being dry and somewhat austere, although elegant. The official retail price of both–$17.99, although I’ve seen them for less—made me inquire where in the Bay Area I could find them.

As we progressed through the lineup, the red wines all showed true to form: the Médoc more full-bodied than the Bordeaux, the St. Emilion wonderfully delicate and silky, and the Pauillac the darkest and sturdiest of all, as you might expect. The flight was capped off with 2010 Carruades de Lafite, the “second wine” of Lafite-Rothschild, just for the sake of comparison. As good as it was–and it was!–the other wines had nothing to be ashamed of.

During the meal, where most of the other guests (about 15 in all) seemed to be bloggers, the topic arose concerning Bordeaux’s status and popularity in the California market. I weighed in, as is my wont : ) I mentioned that younger people are looking for unusual, often eccentric wines—the kind their parents never drank—which means they’re not drinking Bordeaux. But, I added, there’s a reason why Bordeaux has been the classic red wine in the world for centuries; and that, as they get on with life, I was sure these drinkers would eventually discover Bordeaux—especially reasonably-priced Bordeaux that shows the classic hallmarks of the genre.

At any rate, if you can find these Légende wines, they’re worth checking out!

San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?

 

Spent the day yesterday with my family in San Francisco (only three BART stops from my house). We started with something that’s now become a bit of a tradition: dollar oysters with drinks at Waterbar at noon. I had mine with a glass of “J” brut, such a good drink with oysters.

Waterbar is an absolute joy to go to, with its expansive views of the Bay, the Bridge and the East Bay, which the Spanish Californios called “Contra Costa”: the opposite coast.

Normally, on a day as cloudless and sunny as yesterday, you’d be able to see Mount Diablo, the second-tallest peak in the Bay Area (3,849 feet). But the mountain was totally obscured by smoke hazing up the sky, drifted down from the wildfires up north that continue to ravage the state. My heart goes out to the people around Redding, who have suffered relentlessly from this scourge.

As a kid I wouldn’t have eaten an oyster if you’d paid me, but now, you can’t hold me back. They whet rather than satiate the appetite, even with bread and butter. Hemingway praised oysters “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away.” Afterwards, we sought lunch. Maxine wanted to check out the rooftop garden in the just-opened Salesforce Transit Center. I hadn’t been there yet, so we walked the few blocks and took the longest escalator I’ve ever seen up to the gardens. (They’re also going to open an aerial tram.) All I can say is, visit this place if you haven’t already. It’s an instant classic. The terminal itself is an architectural marvel (it’s probably the most earthquake-proofed structure in the world), but most marvelous is the rooftop garden. It must be a quarter-mile long, with twisting trails and little nooks where you can rest and eat. The entire site is surrounded by a wall of skyscrapers, including Salesforce Tower, the tallest building west of Chicago.

San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?

This is really a spectacular achievement for San Francisco, a futuristic marvel; I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the center of a big city. It’s part of a chain of stunning development that stretches from the Embarcadero, on the Bay, west to Moscone Center. Absolutely stunning.

This elicited lots of political talk between us about gentrification and people losing their places to live. It’s stunning to see the brilliance of imperial San Francisco at this, its greatest, richest moment. But it’s sobering to think of all the people forced out of their apartments, many of whom, presumably, are now living on the streets, in BART corridors and God knows where else. I actually wondered how long it would be before there are tent encampments in the Transit Center garden, which is free to access. I doubt that the authorities would permit that, but still…things are tough in the Bay Area if you don’t have money.

The same thing is happening in Oakland albeit at a lesser pace. In my neighborhood alone an entire city-within-a-city is going up, all in the space of the last year or so. I’m glad I got rid of my car (I’m now carless) because traffic here is going to be horrible once all the new residents move in. Being carless (it’s been a month now) has been hassle-free. In fact, I’m enjoying it. I gather that carlessness is more or less a trend among Millennials, what with all the options (Uber, Lyft and so on), which makes me think that all of my life I’ve done things I thought were the products of my rational choices but which, as it turned out, tens of millions of others were simultaneously doing, which made them trends. What does this say about free will?

Anyhow, I personally welcome this new development but I know lots of people adamantly oppose it, for all the reasons I cited above. I think you can’t stop progress. You can manage it intelligently, but you can’t build a wall around a city like San Francisco or Oakland and say, “No more people allowed” when so many people want to live here. And yet the homelessness is extremely troubling. With it comes an increase in filth, litter, crime, human excrement in the streets, and vandalism, and at night, when I’m out and about downtown, the streets are scary, something out of Night of the Living Dead: zombies roaming around, muttering to themselves, gesticulating crazily. I’m an old man now: it’s discomfiting.

And yet I have no more answers than anyone else. The extreme liberals in Oakland insist that the city pay for housing, food and healthcare for the estimated 4,000 homeless people who live here. They even go so far as to say that the Police Department should be defunded, with the money going to homeless services. That’s insane, and is not going to happen. But it is, I fear, the sort of talk that Trump and his followers use as wedge issues to appeal to their white followers, who want simplistic solutions to enormously complicated problems.

 

 

My road trip: Day Six. A little ranting…

 

Drove from Portland to Olympia, Washington (where I write this), about midway on my road trip, and I have a few observations to make about some things I encountered.

Not to complain or anything, but the road people really have I-5 torn up, resulting in pretty massive backups. On the plus side, there are no fires this far north, a relief after Northern California and Southern Oregon, where the skies were leaden with smoke and the air thick with the stench of ashes for hundreds of miles. The temperature is a lot lower here than it was in Medford and Salem by a good 30-40 degrees or more. As I write, it’s about 63 degrees and overcast, with drizzle. But this is the Pacific Northwest! You want heat, go inland.

Now a word about Google maps. Two words, actually: YOU SUCK. Google maps is okay in wide, open spaces and on freeways, but it suffered a complete nervous breakdown in Olympia, which is not a particularly big city (only 51,000), but it is the capital of Washington State, and is wedged in between two gigantic freeways (I-5 and 101). Man, oh man, did Google maps get lost! It had me driving round and around the State Capital Building, a lovely, Beaux Arts structure, but all I wanted was to get to my hotel. And it babbled like, well, a Trump tweet. “Turn left. Turn right. Turn left. Turn right,” all in the space of one block. What’s a lost driver to do? I actually stopped by a gas station, told the clerk my plight, and before I knew it, a cadre of local men, bless their souls, was debating over the best way to get me to my destination. Between the collapse of Google maps and the rather turbulent conversation, I was ready to find the nearest bridge and jump off. But somehow, we managed to find my hotel. And with all that twisting and turning and braking, Gus lost it, and vomited in my rental car. Fortunately, I’m always prepared for such incidents. Gus rides in the passenger seat, which I always line with a clean, white towel. I now have four vomit-dirty towels; tomorrow morning, I shall do laundry.

Anyhow, that’s more than you need to know about my road trip! I’ve been out of touch with the news all day, but a quick check gave me fodder for a little Trump bashing—in this case, the son, Donald, Jr.

Now I have to confess to a visceral dislike of him. Partly it’s his Gordon Gekko appearance, with the slicked back hair and the designer suits. But Gordon Gekko, as played by Michael Douglas, at least was good-looking. Junior thinks he’s a hottie, but he’s ugly as a horse’s rear end, with his lips permanently twisted into smug contempt, and jowls already testifying to a life of gluttony. He’s in the news a fair amount, unlike his younger brother, Eric, so we’ve been treated to many quotes from him, and they’re usually nasty insults—like his father’s. He’s the typical mean, rich lucky sperm kid.

He made waves yesterday with his comment that Democrats are like Nazis. Really, Junior? You’re comparing Democrats to Nazis? Your father is the one American Nazis worship. Your father is the one white supremacists love. Your father—well, what’s the point in going on. Donald Trump, Jr. is a POS. Don’t you long for the day when we’re rid of that entire Trump kleptocracy?

Well, it’s been a long day on the road, so I’m ready, on this Thursday evening, for some booze and food. And so, for that matter, is Gus (not the booze; just the food). Have a wonderful weekend, and remember to VOTE, and tell everyone you know to VOTE.

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

 

I left Oakland for my drive north at noon on Saturday. The morning fog had burned off, and the sky was sunny and blue. I first smelled the fire 125 miles south of Redding, in Yolo County, north of Vacaville, even with all the car windows shut and the AC on. By the Colusa County line, the sky had turned a milky, opaque silver. It looked like fog, but wasn’t. It was smoke from the Carr Fire, drifting south. I parked the car to walk Gus. The smell! Dirty dog, like when Gus needs a bath. But it wasn’t Gus. It was ash, burnt wood, and lots of other incinerated stuff.

The farther north we got up the I-5, the darker and hazier the air became. Visibility was sharply reduced, and it was fiercely hot. At 3 in the afternoon on a late July day in the Sacramento Valley, that sky should have been blindingly blue, not mother-of-pearl.

In Red Bluff, 27 miles south of Redding, things were really bad. The haze was super-thick—this picture hardly does it justice.

And the sun was a weird, reddish-orange smudge in the haze,

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

the way it must look from Neptune. The smell was very strong, very bad: a burnt-out fireplace. People were wearing face masks.

We stayed that night in Red Bluff. A few days earlier, I’d had an email from a guy who reads my blog, name of Alain Teutschmann, who owns Mount Tehama Winery, in Manton, a tiny town (population 347) southeast of Redding, in the Sierra Foothills. He’d read on my blog last week that I’d be in Red Bluff and wondered if we could meet. Sure. He took me to a dive bar—my favorite kind—out in the boonies, E’s Locker Room. They don’t have a website but they are on Facebook.

Alain–a lovely, interesting man, with a great back story–had read my comments about “Red Trump Land” and wanted me to experience “Jefferson State.” Here’s a picture of Alain in front of E’s:

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

Here’s a poster on a tree that tells visitors they are now in the State, not of California, but Jefferson.

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

We met the owner and the bartender, two very nice, young (to me) guys. Hard not to like them: salt of the earth types. Alain’s girlfriend, Betty, had joined us. We talked pretty passionately—I did, anyway—about politics, and the owner and bartender listened, but didn’t add much. I mentioned the Jefferson demand for “Smaller Government.” Then Betty—who by the way had evacuated her home–asked an interesting question. “I wonder, if we were an independent state, who would pay for putting out the fire?”

“Good question,” said the bartender, without offering an answer.

I wish he had. This is what these anti-government, anti-tax types never consider. There are thousands and thousands of firefighters (some of them dying), rescue personnel, private contractors driving heavy equipment (also dying), doctors and nurses, cops and law enforcement—you name it, fighting the Carr Fire and helping the people. Someone has to pay them. Someone has to pay for the gasoline for the water-dropping planes and vehicles. For that matter, someone has to pay for the paved roads the firetrucks and ambulances drive on. Someone has to pay for all of the infrastructure. And yet these tea party types demand “no government, no taxes.” With all due respect, I think they sit around at night drinking and getting stoned and complaining about “Big Gummint” taking all their money and giving it to the Blacks and Mexicans. Yet when their community is on fire they expect the Feds and the State to come in and rescue them.

What can you say to such unreasonable people?

I awoke on Sunday morning to nonstop local T.V. coverage: evacuation centers, reports by officials on the fire’s progress, weather forecasts, road closures.

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

The weather was not favorable to the firefighters. The smell of ashes was stronger than ever. I departed Red Bluff northward with great trepidation, not knowing what I would find in Redding. Someone had said on Saturday night the I-5 was reduced to six miles an hour due to the gridlock of mass evacuations and ambulances and firetrucks. Getting through Redding, though, was easy. The freeway was mercifully free of vehicles. The good news, I suppose, was that the high temperature would be “only” 100 degrees, as against Friday’s 113. Humidity ten percent, winds gusting and erratic, exactly what the firefighters don’t need.

For the folks who live in these parts, the Carr Fire is a catastrophe. Redding has about 90,000 people. Add in a few thousand more for the little mountain towns to the west—the fire’s epicenter—and it’s still a small community. Thirty-eight thousand had already been evacuated—nearly half the entire regional population. Many roads were closed. And the death toll was rising: six by Sunday evening, with many areas still on fire, and thus unsearchable by rescue squads. As I drove on from Redding up towards my next stop, Medford, Oregon, I kept the radio on the local stations, and it seemed like everybody in the entire vicinity was volunteering to help: people offered their barns and pastures for displaced livestock, their homes for the evacuated, food, clothing, rides, cell phone chargers, prayers. That’s the best part of Jefferson State. But I like to think that would happen in Oakland, too, or anywhere in the U.S.

On the way to Medford, you pass Mount Shasta. Anyone who’s driven the I-5 knows how suddenly and awesomely it appears, this majestic, perfectly-shaped sleeping volcano, clad year-round in snow. There’s a Vista Point turnoff on the I-5. Here’s a rendition of what the mountain should look like from there:

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

Here’s what I saw:

Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

Nothing. A nearly 10,000-foot tall mountain, totally obscured by smoke.

Even in Medford—200 miles north of Redding—the sky was filled with smoke, and the air quality was horrible. But there are fires here, too. There are fires up and down the entire West Coast. “Oregon is on fire,” the local T.V. news anchor in Medford said on Sunday evening. It’s terrible, horrible, heartbreaking. But Donald J. Trump and his allies tell us that climate change is a myth, that the weather isn’t getting hotter, that elite scientists and Democrats are lying. Please, Jefferson people, if you read this, think! Rise above your anger and use your God-given brain. You good people have backed the wrong side, and they’re screwing you blind.

Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant: an East Bay treasure

 

When I moved to the East Bay, in 1987, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant was the first wine shop I wanted to check out.

Kermit—the man—had started the shop back in 1972. My trip there brought me driving down crowded, trafficky San Pablo Avenue, to an industrial part of Berkeley filled with auto body shops and Chinese restaurants. There, tucked along the side of a parking lot, with the Acme Bread Company kitty-corner next door, was a non-descript storefront leading to a not very sizable shop, where stacks of the most interesting wines I’d ever seen were piled up everywhere. And the floor staff did not make me feel like I didn’t belong, despite my jeans and T-shirt, the way they did at Draper & Esquin, the notoriously snooty wine store in San Francisco’s Financial District.

I shopped a lot at KLWM in the late 1980s and 1990s, buying the wines Kermit imported from Europe, especially those from France: Minervois, Fitou, Alsace, Chablis, Bandol, Chateauneauf and the occasional inexpensive red Burgundy. I went, also, to Kermit’s annual Beaujolais Nouveau party, which took place in the parking lot (rain or shine), with tons of aromatic purple wine, grilled sausages and delicious bread from Acme. And, of course, I eagerly read Kermit’s monthly newsletter, among the liveliest in California. But by the mid-1990s my career as a wine writer with a specialty in California took off, with the predictable result that I lost touch with the wines from anywhere except the Golden State. (When you’re reviewing 5,000 wines a year, it’s hard to drink much else!) It was a sad tradeoff. So I found myself shopping at Kermit Lynch less and less. I’d tell myself every month, “I really must go back to Kermit,” because their mixed-case sampler deals were so great. But it just never seemed to happen.

Then, a few weeks ago, I got an evite from Kermit Lynch’s marketing director, Clark Terry, inviting me to a Champagne tasting. It was at Jardiniere, the great restaurant over in Hayes Valley, in the shadow of City Hall. I asked Maxine to accompany me, and we went last Monday. What a treat. Not too crowded (as many of these walkaround tastings tend to be), with the wines properly organized, and piles of charcuterie and paté—the perfect pairings for bubbly.

I didn’t take official notes, but I will say that, in every flight, it turned out that my favorite wine was always the most expensive! That’s always been my problem: Champagne taste, Prosecco budget. For example, in the J. Lassalle Champagnes, the 2006 Blanc de Blancs blew me away. It was picking up bottle bouquet, toasty and clean; at $656 the case wholesale, a single bottle at retail, by my calculations, would run you a cool $110—not bad, actually, for what you get.

They had some still wines too, and in the white Burgundies, as I made my way from Kermit’s entry-level Dom. Costal Chablis ($240) through the seven wines, the final one—Bruno Colin 2015 Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Vergers”—was thrilling beyond my words to describe it, so rich and massive it awed me, although it needed some time. But once again, it was a very pricy wine: $1,008 the case wholesale. And exactly the same thing happened with the red Burgundies: they were all fine, from a rather ascetic Marsannay to a plumper Aloxe-Corton, but the star was a 2014 Nuits-Saint-Georges “Les Cailles,” from Robert Chevillon, that was so wonderful, I brought Maxine a glass, and we sipped together over fatty little chunks of paté with pistachios.

I was grateful to Clark for the invitation, all the more so because he’s well aware that I’m retired and really have no platform to write about those wines, except for this blog. The tasting brought back many happy memories of more youthful days, when I was a budding wine writer and getting a dozen or more tasting invitations a week. The new German Rieslings at Fort Mason – old Bordeaux at the London Wine Bar – Napa Cabernets at some now defunct downtown restaurant – Peter Granoff’s historic tastings at Square One – the Union des Grands Crus at the Palace Hotel – the fabulous tastings of Les Amis du Vin — or just the tasting bar at the old Liquor Barn, down on Bayshore, where I befriended the bar manager, who would open bottles at my request: Yquem, Lafite, Petrus. (I don’t think that would happen these days!) But somehow, at the back of my mind, always lurked Kermit Lynch. Just knowing it was there made me happy.

So, armed with these memories, I make a vow: One of these days, soon, I’ll make my way back to Kermit Lynch, to resume a practice I loved, but abandoned, twenty-five years ago: buying well-priced, carefully-curated French wine.

A conversation with Gavin Newsom, part 1

 

Gavin Newsom is Lieutenant-Governor of California. Prior to that, he was Mayor of San Francisco. He co-owns wineries, and his PlumpJack Hospitality Group operates night clubs, wine stores, resorts and restaurants throughout California. As Mayor, Newsom shot to fame—some would say notoriety—by backing the issue of gay marriage; that will probably be the most salient part of his political legacy, which seems likely to include being elected Governor of California next year. He leads all his rivals, both Republican and Democratic, at this time in fund-raising and in the polls. Which leads to the inevitable question: Does he have his eye on the White House? When and if he is elected Governor, he will immediately become “Presidential timber,” as they say—a young, handsome, articulate visionary from the nation’s biggest state. We spoke yesterday (Jan. 5) in his office in San Francisco.

Full disclosure: I met Governor Newsom (the correct salutation for a Lieutenant-Governor) 26 years ago, when he was becoming involved in the wine industry and starting his first PlumpJack wine store. I liked him then; I like him now. Although I had a list of political questions, I began our conversation by asking him about the news, breaking that morning, of John McCain’s extraordinary hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the Russian hacking situation.

SH: Let’s start with the McCain hearing today. We have this seeming split in the Republican Party between the establishment and the intelligence community, on the one hand, and Trump. What’s going on?

GN: It’s par for the course, exactly what one would expect; if the President-elect doesn’t like the conclusion, he tries to change, not only the conclusion, but the process that actually determined the facts. And he clearly is not interested in the evidence; he hasn’t even had the comprehensive briefing yet, because it’s not convenient for him, and undermines his, quote-unquote, “success and credibility” as President-elect.

SH: Did you see the Wall Street Journal this morning?

GN: No.

SH: Banner headline: Trump Plans Spy Agency Overhaul—he intends to “pare back the nation’s top spy agency” [Office of Director of National Intelligence]. This is full-scale war.

GN: It is extraordinary. There are a couple thoughts. Don’t forget, it was not that many years ago when the Democratic Party was almost unanimous in their condemnation of and contempt for the intelligence community, so we have to be cautious not to over-indulge in a critique of the President-elect because now he might now share a similar point of view. That said, when you have seventeen intelligence agencies all on the same page, that is quite unique, and that is—

SH: –and today, McCain specifically asked [the intelligence chiefs] “Are you more confident today than you were five, ten, fifteen days ago [that Russia was responsible for the hacks],” and every one said yes.

GN: Now, don’t get me wrong, on the history of intelligence in this country, we have been wrong on many, many occasions—

SH: –WMD—

GN: –even with that degree of confidence. But, look, it seems compelling. I haven’t been privy to the intelligence briefings—none of us have—nor has Obama today and the President-elect as of tomorrow, so we’re taking the word of folks that are right more often, it seems, than are wrong. But that said, it’s interesting to watch this and try to be objective. But it is rather remarkable, in such a public way, the President-elect is critiquing the intelligence community, and that is demoralizing to any organization.

SH: [James] Clapper (DNI chief] said this morning at the hearing, “It’s one thing to be skeptical about the intelligence community. It’s another thing to disparage it.”

GN: Disparage, overtly undermine, and reduce public trust in intelligence gathering. And by the way, it creates vulnerability for American intelligence, because those are things that are easily exploited by foreign governments. These are things we would exploit if intelligence was being questioned in other countries.

SH: I’m sure we have.

GN: And we are experts in all of these things, including undermining foreign elections.

SH: One of the Republican Senators on the committee who was trying to defend Trump said he’d read that the U.S. has interfered in something like 89 foreign elections.

GN: Eighty-nine, yeah. We all read that same article or analysis.

SH: But that doesn’t excuse Russia—

GN: No, just because we did it doesn’t make it right. Of course, we’re sovereign, we have the right to protect ourselves and criticize others who would undermine this republic.

SH: Okay, well, let’s get into politics!

TOMORROW: Part 2: The election, Trump, the Democratic Party’s future, how to win back disaffected voters, and California’s resistance to Trumpism.

Benziger Family Winery: five new reviews

 

I’ve followed Benziger’s fortunes for decades, and one thing I can say, they’re always striving to boost quality. The Benziger family began with the hugely successful Glen Ellen Winery, which pioneered “fighting varietals,” before launching their boutique Benziger brand, which they sold to The Wine Group in 2015. These five wines are the first I’ve tasted since the sale—although all five of them were made prior to it. We’ll have to see if the winery continues on a quality trajectory under the new ownership. The Cabernets are from the estate vineyard, in Glen Ellen, the heart of Sonoma Valley, on slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The Pinot Noirs hail from the estate de Coelo Vineyard, way out on the coast between Freestone and Bodega Bay. I first visited it years ago when it was being developed. My sneakers sank inches into the deep, seabed-derived Goldridge soil, as fine as moon dust. One of the best soils for Pinot Noir in the world, Goldridge drains readily, and lends the wine an expressive elegance.

Here are the wines, in the order I tasted them.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Terra Neuma” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 14.0%, 230 cases produced. This is from a higher-elevation block of de Coelo. The color is pale and translucent, hinting at delicacy. As in previous vintages, the alcohol is lowish, giving the wine a light, silky mouthfeel. Dusty tannins give it plenty of grip. The fruit suggests persimmons, with tarter cranberries, highlighted by mouthwatering acidity. There are more exotic notes of green tea, white pepper, Chinese 5 spice, and wild mushroom. The finish is severely dry, which is a compliment. Yet, toasted oak barrel aging lends it a vanilla sweetness. Complex and elegant, and so easy to love, this beauty will age for at least eight years. Score: 94 points.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Quintus” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 625 cases produced. The family resemblance with the other wines from de Coelo is marked in this block-derived wine, which is lower in alcohol than Terra Neuma. It’s slightly tarter and more delicate, but the same persimmon, raspberry, cranberry, tea, orange peel, mushroom and white pepper notes carry through, as do the silky tannins and magnificent acidity. This is exactly what we look for in Goldridge-derived Pinots: enormous complexity, delicacy undergirded with power, extreme drinkability. If there is ever going to be a Freestone appellation—and there ought to be—this wine could stand as its exemplar. I cannot imagine a better companion for lamb or steak. Score: 94 points.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Arbore Sacra” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 641 cases produced. Another block bottling from the estate vineyard. Aromatically it’s a little shier than the other two, showing more mineral and earth notes, like tree bark, brittle, dried leaves, cloves and dust. But the fruit is there: raspberry tea, pomegranate, orange peel, tart cranberry. There’s also a crispness that lends vitality to the mouthfeel, but the tannins are as light as air: they give a hint of astringency. The mouthfeel is as silky and delicate as an old tapestry, yet the depth is very great, with complex impressions extending out through a long, spicy finish. Of the three wines, I’d have to say this is my favorite. It is ultra-refined and elegant, a wine that would have been unthinkable in California not that long ago. Score: 95 points.

Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Obsidian Point Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $65. Alc. 14.4%, 486 cases produced. This is a very proper Cabernet, by which I mean it is classic, balanced and delicious. It’s one of those wines that you take a sip of and think, Wow, is this going to be easy to like. Bone dry, with thick but fragile tannins and just-in-time acidity, it’s rich in black currants, anise, unsweetened cocoa powder, sweet toasted oak and just a hint of herbaceousness: sweet green olive especially. The grapes are from Benziger’s estate vineyard, in the heart of Sonoma Valley on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and were biodynamically-grown. I have not been an ardent supporter of biodynamique, but there is a purity to this wine that is notable. Interestingly, the wine is already throwing some tannins. Drink now-2020. Score: 93 points.

Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $59. Alc. 14.5%, 562 cases produced. The wine is just a little bit less concentrated than Obsidian Point, but it’s also six bucks less. It’s quite lovely, with classic black currant, cassis, cocoa and green olive flavors, enriched by 20 months of aging in French oak. It has an inherent elegance due mainly to the splendid acid-tannin structure. It’s not clear to me that it would be worth aging this wine for any length of time, but it is an enjoyable, complex sipper. Score: 90 points.

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OAKLAND FIRE VICTIMS

“WE REMEMBER”

Thanksgiving’s over. Trump isn’t…yet

 

Happy Nov. 28! What’s your favorite part of the Thanksgiving holiday, Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday, or Black Friday? They’re all such fun days to spend money. I’d be hard-pressed to pick just one, but I’d have to say that, for me, personally, it’s Black Friday! The crowds, the traffic, the lines–it’s all so cheery, and gets me right in the mood for Christmas. We went down to the mall, spent 45 minutes circling the parking lot to find a parking space, and then my cousin Orwell got into a big fight with some schmuck who beat him to the one spot  left, and who, as it turned out, was a Trump supporter! We knew that because the guy was wearing a “Make America Great Again” T-shirt. Things got ugly, what with the name-calling, but what do you expect from a Trump supporter? Bad manners, is what.

And by the way, how come there’s not a special shopping day for Sunday? It could be Yard Sale Sunday. A lot of people have yard sales on that day, especially here in California, where the weather’s usually nice, and everybody has some old treadmill or pepper grinder they’d like to make a few bucks on.

Anyhow, when we finally got to our family’s big Thanksgiving dinner, needless to say the conversation turned to the recent election. My family, kina hora, are all liberal humanists, so there wasn’t much argumentation. Everybody was and remains appalled and disgusted. We here on the far left coast of the bluest state in the union wonder what could those red state voters have been thinking? We expect they’ll have buyer’s remorse sooner or later; the question is when, and what will the new President do to cause his supporters to realize what a catastrophic mistake they made. Of course, his choices are manifold: his campaign was based on so many lies that almost anything could cause him to slip up, but in my family’s opinion, the number one thing that’s likely to bring him down is his business practices, which always have been shady and unscrupulous and seem even more so now that he refuses to place them into a blind trust. Over the weekend it turned out that Trump owns a chunk of the Dakota Access pipeline, up there in North Dakota. No wonder he’s so in favor of fracking and drilling: he stands to make money! Can you imagine if Obama had such a big conflict of interest? McConnell and Ryan would be introducing motions of impeachment. They’re curiously silent in Trump’s case, though. Well, my take is that a lot of Republicans would like to see Trump fail, but right now they have to button up their lips because they don’t want to piss him off, lest he prove to be an authoritarian, vengeful autocrat. Some of my family hope Trump will be impeached, but then someone reminded us to be careful of what we wish for, because if Trump goes down (which would be great fun to watch), we’ll have—ta da!—President Pence, who is a creationist homophobe and possibly worse even than Trump.

(I just want to add that never in my lifetime did I expect to see creationists running the government. That’s how far America has fallen. Thomas Jefferson is rolling in his grave.)

Anyhow, at some point we all got tired of this constant yammering about politics and got into the real heart of the issue: Food and drink! But my family agreed on one thing, and bless them for that: Remain involved! Don’t be discouraged! Fight this hideous new administration and all it stands for! Even the most conservative of my cousins vowed to take it to the streets if need be. We also spoke, as befits Thanksgiving, of our family members who are no longer with us, and I remembered my mother, who died eleven years ago, at the age of ninety. She was a huge Democrat—volunteered for her local Democratic county headquarters almost to the end. She would have been so thrilled that Hillary Clinton was running and would have been so proud to vote for her. Hillary’s loss would have devastated her, but my mother would have redoubled her efforts to get a Democrat elected next time. Here’s one of the last photos I ever took of her—she’s wearing her little Kerry-Edwards button.

Gertrude Heimoff, 1915-2005

(1) New Pinot Noirs, old friends in San Francisco (2) On Fighting Drumpf

Part 1

A Pinot Noir tasting in San Francisco

You can take the boy out of the wine business but you can’t take the love of the business out of the boy.

Or something like that. Anyway, although I formally retired from my career on Sept. 2, I still have “wine in my blood,” so when the invitation came to go to PinotFest, the big annual Pinot Noir tasting held at Farallon, near San Francisco’s Union Square, I doffed my cap and BARTed in on an absolutely splendid Autumn day, and had some excellent Pinots. But I wasn’t there to review, only to sip, see what’s up, and connect with old friends.

Honestly, when you’ve been in the biz as long as I have, you somehow manage to accumulate a lot of friends. Here are a few. John Winthrop Haeger is of course the famous author of North American Pinot Noir, published by my publisher, University of California Press.

John Haeger

It’s always a pleasure to run into John, whose opening lecture at the World of Pinot Noir I always used to look eagerly forward to.

The first thing Diana Novy said to me when I saw her was, “I bet you’re surprised to see me here,” by which she meant that her husband, Adam Lee, who usually does the Siduri pouring at events, had been delayed, so Diana was substituting.

(1) New Pinot Noirs, old friends in San Francisco (2) On Fighting DrumpfDiana Novy

I missed seeing Adam, but Diana more than made up for him not being there. I profiled them in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, and Siduri is owned by my former employer, Jackson Family Wines, so I got to work closely with Adam.

(1) New Pinot Noirs, old friends in San Francisco (2) On Fighting DrumpfJenne Bonaccorsi

Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi took over Bonaccorsi winery after the unexpected, tragic death of her husband, Michael, in 2007. Jenne makes ardent wines of great delicacy and inner power, just like her. She is one of the gentlewomen of California winemaking.

Jon Priest is at the helm of Etude, the great Pinot Noir house in the Carneros.

 

(1) New Pinot Noirs, old friends in San Francisco (2) On Fighting DrumpfJon Priest

I can’t even remember how long ago I met him—I think Tony Soter was still running the winery. I told Jon I’d recently opened his 2005 and 2006 “Heirloom” Pinot Noirs, and both were showing well.

Then there’s Josh Jensen.

(1) New Pinot Noirs, old friends in San Francisco (2) On Fighting DrumpfJosh Jensen

My profile of him and his winery, Calera, was among the first I ever wrote as a professional. I well remember when Wine Spectator sent me down to Mount Harlan, around 1993; what a thrill that was for an up-and-coming wine writer! Josh remains a gentleman and a scholar, and can always be counted on to be wearing something colorful. He’s very tall and, as you know, I’m not, so I asked him to crouch down a little bit, so the picture wouldn’t look like an avocado next to a broom.

Jonathan Nagy was another colleague of mine at Jackson Family Wines.

(1) New Pinot Noirs, old friends in San Francisco (2) On Fighting DrumpfJonathan Nagy

He presides over Byron Winery, down in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. When I left J.F.W. I knew Jonathan had embarked on an exciting new project: making single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from purchased grapes grown at some of Santa Barbara’s top vineyards. The wines are now in bottle. We tasted through some of them, and man, Jonathan is at the top of his game. But you know what my favorite was? None other than the Julia’s Vineyard, whose grapes Jonathan shares with sister winery Cambria.

It’s still fun for me to go to these events and taste the wines–if, that is, I’m lucky enough to be invited. If you see me at one, come on up, and say Howdy!

Part 2

Why I Fight Drumpf

Do not hesitate. Fight in this battle and you will conquer your enemies. Fight you will, your nature will make you fight. Your karma will make you fight. You will fight in spite of yourself.”

— Krishna to Arjuna, The Mahabharata

Maybe it was because I was brought up on the mean, hardscrabble streets of the South Bronx, where a skinny little kid had to learn how to fight to survive.

Maybe it was because of my many years of karatedo training, in which we were taught never to initiate a fight, but to resist violently if someone else started.

Maybe it’s the latent Jew in me. We weren’t raised with “Turn the other cheek.” For us, it was “an eye for an eye.”

Whatever the reasons, my inclination is to fight, fight, fight against this monster, this dybbuk, this aberration of a normal man, this drumpf.

In my twenties came a period during which I was a hippie, steeped in that Sixties thing of “love and peace.” I believed it. I studied it and tried to practice it. Loving your enemy seemed the right thing to do. Hadn’t Jesus? Hadn’t Buddha? Isn’t that what the Beatles preached?

But the Sixties was fifty years ago. A lot of water under the bridge.

Among people I know—good liberal-humanists—there is currently a debate going on, in the aftermath of the Nov. 8 results. Option #1: accept this unacceptable President, accept his hateful minions and the awful legislation they will craft, and give him a chance. Option #2: oppose him and his dreadful movement every step of the way. This debate is tearing people apart. They really are not sure which way to go. After all, we criticized Mitch McConnell’s statement of utter opposition to Obama—before the latter was even sworn in—as deplorable. It angered us. “How could you be so against him when you don’t even know what he’s going to propose?” And we were right to take that attitude.

Now, the republicans are turning that argument around and asking us, “How can you oppose trump before he’s even taken the oath of office?”

Well, let me explain the difference. The promises Obama made—to unite the country bipartisanly, to end wars, to get along with foreign countries, to rescue the financial system which was dying due to the Bush Great Recession, to respect the environment and be kinder to gay people, to understand the needs of the poor and of immigrants, to respect science, to be a gentleman, to have a clean administration based on high principles—these spoke to the heart and soul of liberal-humanists. When McConnell issued his belligerent threat, we thought, “How could he be against all that?”

Drumpf on the other hand made other promises. Every one of them was based on hatred of “the other,” except for his promise to “Make America Great,” as banal a platitude as ever issued in any soap commercial. Now that we’ve had a sniff of his appointments, there’s every reason to assume the worst: this awful person will divide the country and is a threat to the things we hold dear. He is a last gasp of male, heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon, lower-middle-class, under-educated, bigoted, resentful white supremacy, the latest incarnation of the Know-Nothings, the McCarthyites, the America Firsters and Father Coughlins and Dixiecrats, all of whose sociopathic unreason did such harm to America (and all of whom have been roundly condemned by History). Therefore, to oppose this drumpf is to stand for the best American values of inclusion, fairness, equality, progress and love.

Yes, love. Not some kind of hippie love. This is not the time to move to the woods and meditate and pray to the Spirit Guide, or Mother Earth, or whatever you wish to call it. Sure, if you want to sit zazen and go Ommm, feel free. It can’t hurt.

But the spirits will not protect you when the shit hits the fan and the government comes under the control of the radical theocrats and paranoid militias that form drumpf’s shock troops. When he reverses Obama’s great work, it will take more than a groovy feeling to keep this nation from sliding into darkness. It will take active resistance.

I was never a protester in the Sixties. I went to one anti-Vietnam march, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in New York, but it wasn’t so much because I was anti-war (although I was, in an inarticulate kind of way), but because my friends wanted to go, and I thought it would be fun. So I’m not really a born street demonstrator.

But the times have changed. This catastrophe, drumpf, is looming over America like a toxic cloud. I’m afraid of him, and I’m more afraid of the evil forces he has unleashed: the anti-semites, the KKK, the Muslim haters, the Mexican haters, the anti-government open-carry crazies, the homophobes, the anti-science types like Pence and Huckabee and Franklin Graham, the crypto-nazis like Steve Bannon, the bullies like Giuliani and Christie. These are the termites that have been allowed to burrow into America’s foundation, and, left unchecked, they will cause dry rot leading to collapse.

So when I suggest that this old guy—me—is a fighter, it’s because that’s what I believe in: fighting for what is good, and against what is bad. I always looked forward to a peaceful retirement, but this is no time for complacency. The future of our country, and the world, is at stake. Look, drumpf ran the dirtiest, sleaziest, most mendacious and vulgar campaign in modern American history; it was an insult to my parents and grandparents, who believed that voting was a sacred duty…an insult to all people of intelligence, to our nation, its history and political legacy. This creature of television and greed does not deserve the title deeds to our proud, progressive country. I urge you not to accept a drumpf presidency. They—the tea party, the white nationalists, the right wing theocrats—do not want to get along with us; they have repeatedly proved that with their deeds. They want their own exclusionary society. If you think you can go along to get along, you are in the same boat as the “good Germans” who allowed Hitler to triumph. And look what happened.

 

 

 

Sacto, Are you ready? It’s The Sur Vs. Steve Show!

 

Off to Sacramento early this morning for a trade tasting the organizers are billing as “The Critic Vs. the Somm.” It’s kind of a M.M.A. smackdown beween Master Sommelier Sur Lucero and myself—or, at least, that’s what it’s purported to be.

They expect a big turnout, I’m told. We’ll taste through a half-dozen or so wines. Sur, like myself an employee of Jackson Family Wines, will do his M.S. thing and explain his analytical process. I’ll do mine.

The M.S. grid (I think this is it – I got it off the Web)

certainly looks helpful; it encapsulates just about every quality you could find in a wine, and thus helps you identify what the wine is in a blind tasting in which you’re using deductive logic to identify what’s in the glass. Deductive logic, you’ll remember from philosophy class, is where you take a top-down approach to reasoning: starting with the premises, you reach a conclusion that must be true, provided that the premises are true. Thus, if the wine satisfies all the parameters of a fresh young German Riesling, then it must be German Riesling—or so the Master Sommelier grid would have it.

That’s all well and good, if your objective is to pass the M.S. examination. But it’s not the way I taste wine. I always say that the way you taste depends on your job. Master Somms learn to taste the way they do because they want to be Master Somms; their job, as it were, during the period they’re studying, is to taste like an M.S., hence the grid. They learn to taste in order to deduce what’s in the glass and pass the test.

That seems to me a kind of closed-circle way to taste wine. I have no gripe against it, and I can appreciate the amount of hard work that goes into tasting a wine double-blind and being able to say it’s Bordeaux or whatever. That’s pretty good. It’s the Cirque du Soleil of winetasting: flashy, entertaining, a crowd pleaser.

I might have gone that route, except that the way I learned to taste wine was entirely different. It was basically the old British way, transferred to our shores via the media I read when I was coming up (the San Francisco newspapers, wine books) and, most importantly, Wine Spectator magazine. The latter was my Bible in those early years. I thought it was the greatest magazine that ever existed: I couldn’t wait to get my copy in the mail (this was when it was a tabloid, not a big glossy ‘zine the way it is now). And from Wine Spectator, I learned to taste wine using the 100-point system, in a way that—let’s admit it—is not nearly as rigorous as the M.S. grid.

So exactly how does the amorphous 100-point system work? Well, to begin with, it’s a subjective impression, but it’s not subjective to the point of random incoherence. The proper use of the 100-point system depends on extensive experience, the kind needed to draw upon a sense-memory of what “perfection” is and then comparing all subsequent wines with that rarely-encountered Unicorn. The way I taste is like a shortcut around the M.S. grid. It’s a lot easier: you don’t have to go through all those complicated line items, but then again, the sommelier doesn’t taste for quality; she tastes to be able to deductively identify a wine. I taste for quality. Those are two different things.

When I taste a wine single-blind, it’s not important for me to figure out what it is. That concept never even occurred to me when I was coming up. It would have seemed senseless. I tasted then, and now, with respect to the overall impression the wine made in my mouth and brain. Was it a Wow! or a Dud, and where on that continuum does it fall? After all, that’s the way actual human beings taste: do they like the wine, and if so, how much do they like it, or do they loathe it? It never seemed important to me to taste deductively; I wanted to learn to taste hedonistically (as Mr. Parker might put it). I wanted to get a job as a wine critic, and when I was coming up, wine critics got successful jobs based on criteria such as writing ability, knowledge of wine, and team skills, and not on deductive tasting. In fact, such deductive tasting is, to the best of my knowledge, a comparatively recent practice. Wine professionals never tasted the way sommeliers taste. Throughout history they have tasted the way I taste.

Is one method better? Well, like I said, the way you taste depends on your job. Wine writers of my generation never troubled themselves to think deductively (although there’s a certain amount of deduction involved in my kind of tasting). We either tasted openly, in which case deduction was completely pointless, or we tasted in single-blind flights, in which we knew many things about the wines (region, vintage, variety, etc.) and were simply comparing them qualitatively. That’s still the way I taste, but there’s something else: since I came up as a magazine writer, the object of my thoughts whenever I tasted wine was the consumer. I always thought of those anonymous people out there who might buy a wine based on my recommendation. They don’t care about the M.S. grid. They don’t get into that level of analysis. They just want to experience pleasure, and perhaps some good wine-and-food pairing too. And so that’s how I taste: Does the wine give me pleasure? Because if it gives me pleasure it should give most consumers pleasure. And if it gives me pleasure, how much pleasure does it give me? That’s where the points come in. Ninety points is a lot of pleasure. One hundred points is pleasure unbounded—a wine that’s right up there in my sense-memory with the greatest I’ve ever had. I might be less able than a somm to say “This is a Cabernet Sauvignon and this is a Merlot” but that sort of thing doesn’t matter to me, nor do I think the readers of wine magazines (or diners in a restaurant) care about that in a writer or server. They want someone who cares about them, who is able to predict for them what they’ll like, who can tell them stories about the wines. You don’t have to taste deductively in order to be that person. I think, ultimately, the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier are exactly that: the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier. One develops expertise at that sort of thing in order to climb the sommelier ladder and append those magic letters, M.S., after one’s name. That helps to get a job nowadays, in this intensely competitive environment, but how it helps consumers isn’t clear to me.