Remembering Bob Sessions

Bob Sessions, who was the winemaker at Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma for thirty years, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 82. A vineyard photo of Hanzell has hung at the head of the Heirloom dining room for four years since the restaurant opened, but probably only a handful of our guests know how important he and the winery are to me and to the restaurant. I’m grateful to have a chance here to say a few things about one of the greatest men I have ever known.

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Sometime in 2003, around the time that wine began to shape many of the ways in which I think about food and life, I visited Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma for the first time. I had known about Hanzell wines for a three or four years, having been introduced to what was probably a 1996 Chardonnay by a young sommelier in Boston who handed me a glass I’ll never forget. Sometimes—often maybe, words don’t offer a lot by way of accompanying the experience of tasting something, and I can clearly remember Christian, his thumb and index finger holding the base of the glass and his arm outstretched, looking at me as though he was waiting to watch something momentous happen to me. When I left Boston and landed in Los Angeles at a restaurant called Campanile, where the wine list was focused mostly on Italian and French wines but where Hanzell bottles were regarded like family heirlooms, I learned that that first delicious sip in Boston had come from a winery with a bit of standing in California’s wine history.

On my first trip to Napa and Sonoma, at the end of a long and winding mountain road that led to the top of the most beautiful vineyard-planted mountain I still have ever seen, I was greeted by Bob and Jean Arnold Sessions, who received me with a warmth—how do I say this? They received me with a warmth that doesn’t seem very common in this world. They had recently found each other after long careers in the wine industry—Jean spent years working at Chalk Hill and for Jess Jackson and Bob had been the winemaker at Hanzell for three decades. It was easy to see that their love had been worth the wait. Jean had become the president of the winery around the time they were married; the man she married was as much a part of the magnificent property as the giant oak tree outside their offices that still stands like a guardian over the rows of mid-century chardonnay and pinot noir vines. I remember an early impression of these two people and their enchanted home that made me think of a sort of bucolic Camelot.

In the years and visits and tastings and meals and walks through the vineyards with Jean and Bob, I came to have a very particular idea about what it means to preside over something with grace and beneficence and excellence for more than thirty years. What was most immediately striking about Bob, besides his length—he was probably 6’3″ (though I always had the sense that he curled his shoulders just a little so I wouldn’t feel short next to him)—and besides his huge hands (me: winemaker, you: restaurateur), was the way he immediately made you feel as though he was as happy to be around you as you were to be with him. I think he was the kindest and most modest person I have ever known. That he was a major figure in the history of California winemaking was a notion that seemed, truly, never to have crossed his mind. People who make wine are sometimes (though less and less often) described as stewards of the land on which they work, like selfless vessels through which the rains pour and the grapes grow and the juice ferments. Ten minutes with Bob was enough time to grasp such a characterization in its entirety.

And in spite of how sweetly self-effacing he was, or more likely because of it, the wines were, and remain, unspeakably transcendent. When I arrived on their doorstep eleven years ago it was because I had located a stash of Hanzell Pinot Noirs from the mid-1970’s, and I had been awestruck by the depth and complexity and youthfulness of each of the bottles I too quickly opened. I thought in those days that I had happened upon the tip of a vinous iceberg—that old Hanzell wines were just my first discovery in what would probably be a line of glorious old wines from California and around the world. I was wrong. The pace of my cork-pulling slowed precipitously as it dawned on me that no more than dozens of most of these wines remain, but bottle after bottle affirmed what had been initially only a vague suspicion: these were among the greatest wines in the world. Having now spent years working in fancy dining rooms, and having been offered my share of sips of old and rare (and priced accordingly) bottlings from Romanee Conti and Roumier and Leroy, I can say with at least some authority that it’s a very rare thing indeed to taste a great Burgundy of comparable age which is fit to warm up the stemware for an old bottle of Hanzell.

Why exactly this is so I can’t say, and not because I’m keeping a secret. It was impossible to get Bob to talk about the singularity of the wines he made, I think because he was convinced to his core that there was nothing to it. Yes, some whole clusters, yes some judicious use of oak, yes, harvesting at the right time. It was all the rhythm of Hanzell, it had been laid out by Brad Webb (the winery’s first winemaker) in the 1960’s, Bob might have told me that all he did was come to work everyday. What the wines almost certainly were—and what I would give to know exactly what a young 1974 Hanzell Pinot Noir tasted like, was very tannic. Bottle after bottle from that era unleashes a preternatural freshness and a structure that simply doesn’t make any sense in forty year-old pinot noir. While I can’t say for sure, I have always been inclined to the supposition that these wines were deeply idiosyncratic in their youth. Legend has it that the entire first vintage of Hanzell Cabernet Sauvignon, which arrived in 1979 for what turned out to be a twelve year trial, was shelved—never released for sale—because Bob thought the wine was too tannic.

What is for certain about Bob, and what for me had come to seem the most salient single aspect of his work and career, was that he hardly seemed to know or care that someone might have been sitting at a desk in New York and assigning a score to one of his wines. It was a different age certainly—when Bob started at Hanzell Marvin Shanken was several years away from launching Wine Spectator, Robert Parker was still in law school. And as the modern age of glossy magazines and flaccid criticism and 90 point scores began to reshape global winemaking in the late 20th century, suggesting to winemakers everywhere that the public prefers this style or that, I believe quite firmly that Bob Sessions was not listening. I believe that he listened for hours instead to Jose Ramos, who arrived at Hanzell shortly after he did and became the property’s vineyard manager, because the love and camaraderie between the two of them, who managed decades of harvests together, was clear as a Sonoma sunrise. I think he listened intently to the vines and the dirt and the fermentation tanks.

It should be said that the economics of the wine world forty years ago, like the economics of every other industry, also hardly resembled the patterns of behavior in our own contemporary age of chasing profit. With not more than a hunch I’ll suggest that Hanzell was never in those days a place where oceans of money were made, and the quietly brilliant work Bob conducted in the vineyard and the cellar was buttressed by a string of owners of the winery who were probably not finally obsessed with triumphant profit and loss statements. Still, one can’t help but wonder about the diversity and relative integrity of wines which are produced in the context of different economic circumstances, and this one can’t help but think that we passed for a minute through a golden age when work for its own sake and modest craftsmanship were ever more prevalent than wine scores and shiny full-page magazine advertisements. Bob marched at the front of that parade, and he did it, as the saying goes, like nobody was watching.

In the midst of the grief and the sympathy I feel for his wonderful Jean, the greatness and sterling character of Bob Sessions and of the wines he made will gently remind me of these and other things for years to come.

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On Being a Sommelier

I did not enjoy watching the film ‘Somm,’ which was released last year and is about four young men and their breathless pursuit of something called a ‘master sommelier’ accreditation. The film follows them through months of preparations, of studying flashcards about some of the more arcane corners of wine production and geography, of a countless number of late nights spent tasting unknown wines in order to refine their practice of identifying what was made when or where or by whom, without having anything to go on but the smell and the taste. The film seems to invite some quick and ready objections with a shrug, as if to say, for instance, who cares that the story is so unrelentingly male? We should perhaps suspend our disbelief as the quaintly peripheral girlfriends and wives watch the guys cultivate their alpha-dog competitiveness and swing their dicks around; true passion for wine is not something for women. It was hard for me not to squirm through all of the “we can do this!” and the goal-orientation, as though wine is something that with a good push can be summited like a Himalayan peak.

But there are two rough spots in the film which seem more deeply problematic, and which finally are even more central to widely-held, ever-creeping misconceptions about wine. The first was broached by a savvy young New York sommelier named Carson Demmond, who cautioned in an article she wrote for the online journal called Punch that we should hope to remember that to be a sommelier of any level or accreditation is first and foremost to have a particular job. The word sommelier itself actually has quite a lot less to do with expertise than it does with service and stewardship. Nobody with a wine list in her hands at a restaurant or a wine bar wants to be approached by someone who doesn’t know whites from reds, of course. And of course no meal was ever made worse by someone who simply had good information about one Burgundy vintage or another. But good earnest service and simple good taste are foolproof. If you’re nothing but the smartest guy in the room I think I’ll probably come up with a choice on my own thanks.

The restaurant work and guest service which are given little more than the pass of a toreador’s flag in the film are not exactly the same as a summer walk in a vineyard. The hours are long and frequently last late into the night, and serving the public and trying to make everyone in a dining room happy is a kind of grueling challenge that any seasoned professional will describe colorfully without too much of a prod. And while it should be said that some of the 135 earnest souls who have won their master’s lapel pin in North America continue to arrive four or five nights a week for pre-service meetings and be on hand for late-night conversations about whether to drink Vouvray or St. Aubin, a vast number of freshly-minted masters seem to view passing the exam exactly as a quick ticket OUT of the restaurant business. Wineries and sales companies that rely heavily on branding and status, eager to have their luxury brand associated with an aura of expertise so rare, are more than happy to expedite their move to the private sector.

Then there is the question which seems to me to dwarf all the others, which regards the amount of time that it takes to reach this vinous summit, to become the wine expert who finally remains to set our olfactory pathways aglow and flutter our taste buds. One need not have an abundance of experience with wine to surmise that there are a few things to know about it, or that many of the impressions worth having are incremental sorts of thoughts and capacities, the subtle kinds of things that someone who is interested in craft understands tend to arrive on their own schedule. Mastery of this sort is a matter of years and years, and comes not by way of a six or twelve or even twenty-four month course of study. Not since the Karate Kid waxed on and off for two hours to find his Zen has anyone entertained the possibility of a connection between youth and so much wisdom.

A young sommelier who is paying attention will commit herself to learning the basics, about regions and appellations and winemakers and varietals and vintages. And one lucky day she will for the first time hold a short glass of Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, and she will know from smelling it that she’s holding something with explosive flavor. She may have some sense that there is something singular about it. The first taste feels like a tidal wave of ripe complexity—she can hardly catch her breath as she wonders whether those were fine tannins she just swallowed. What she cannot know, through no fault of her own, is how the 2009 Chave she just tasted compares with the 2008 wine from the same address. Neither can she know how the 2009 compares with the 2012, which is still in barrel in France. Neither does she know anything about how a Chave Hermitage from a comparable vintage made ten years ago seems today, but wow she would love to taste the 1999. Neither does she know very much about how Jean-Louis’ wines are stylistically different from the wines his father made for thirty years before Jean-Louis assumed the family mantle, or what broader implications for the wine world could be discerned in a generational handover of the winemaking reins.

And here is the rub, the great and most wonderfully-singular thing about wine: there will be no rushing any of it. Mother Nature allows no shortcuts here, no new technology to help in the quest to ascend faster than everyone else. If you know someone very generous and with a deep cellar of course you could sit and consider five vintages of Chave at once, but it won’t mean much without more context. It’s terrific that you’re fixated by 2010 white wines from the Jura; save your money and go to France and talk with winemakers in Arbois about sous voile winemaking and vintage variation in the foothills of the Alps. Eat Raclette until your skin smells like it. You’ll still have to wait five years to taste the next five vintages of the wines. There’s just no getting around it. The dial comes around every twelve months, my friend, not too much faster or slower. This is something about which to feel inspired and humbled.

Tasting wine and talking with people who have been tasting and talking about wine for ten or twenty or forty more years than I have, whether they have ever heard of carbonic maceration or not, reminds me of everything about wine and tastes and culture that I don’t know. And that is very likely exactly what it is that puts a kick in my step when I’m really enjoying dinner service. You never know what’s under the cork of that old bottle you just pulled from the cellar, or how it’s going to taste with the pizza. I’ve only tasted nebbiolo from the 1970’s twice before. Let’s open it.

So I think I won’t ever be interested in the master’s lapel pin, because I’d rather act the part of the guy who doesn’t know everything, because the old adage about realizing that you know less about wine as you start to know more is true. Because when it comes to wine, it pleases me to say, I have so much to learn.

And it’s not because I haven’t studied my flashcards.

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First Heirloom Wines Newsletter

December 3rd, 2013

It is with a good deal of excitement that I write to tell you about the six extraordinary wines which comprise the first-ever delivery of the Heirloom Wine Club. The first installment features four different countries, four different vintages, and, possibly, wines from two of the best American winemakers of whom you’ve never heard.

Graham Tatomer apprenticed himself to the great Austrian winemaker Emmerich Knoll on the hunch that he might like to make wines from gruner veltliner and riesling grapes in California, and it’s lucky for us that he did. His Gruner Veltliner ‘Meeresboden,’ ($24) which means ‘ocean soil’ and is from cool vineyard sites in Santa Barbara county, is the best domestic gruner I’ve ever had. Flinty, supple, dry and taut, it has the balance and nuance we’re used to seeing from famous Austrian bottlings, at a fraction of the price. From dry and Germanic we go to Harald Hexamer’s 2001 Riesling Hochgewachs ‘Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg,’ ($30) which has more syllables than sweetness but a mind-bendingly copious supply of complexity. How rare it is to find great aged wine at reasonable prices; we’re hard-pressed to remember any wine even half this good for money like this. Take this mildly-sweet beauty with you on a walk through a field of winter vegetables, cheeses, fat sausages, whatever. The modest roster of whites concludes with Philippe Foreau’s 2010 Vouvray Sec ($30), which is one of the world’s greatest dry white wines year in and year out, but which in this vintage is a true vin de garde, or ‘wine for keeping.’ Astoundingly complex and age-worthy though they may be, even the greatest expressions of the Loire grape chenin blanc still don’t command anything like the prices fetched by wines made from the more famous chardonnay grape to the east in Burgundy. Simply put, Foreau Vouvrays—dry and sweet—are my favorite white wines for the money in the world. My cellar is full of them, and if you ever have a chance to taste one which has rested in a bottle for several years, I wouldn’t be surprised if you stash a few away also. I’m very glad to offer this 2010 Sec—a wine I can’t wait to revisit in twenty years—as part of our first box.

Gideon Beinstock’s 2012 Cinsault ‘Out of the Blue,’ was made from grapevines which were planted in 1885 in the Sierra Foothills, twenty years after Mark Twain wrote about a famous jumping frog from those parts. I often tell people: surprises don’t come along very often for me anymore in the wine world. I’ve been buying professionally for ten years, and after a certain point one tends to sort of know what’s out there. Beinstock’s Clos Saron winery has been the very major and very happy exception for me since Heirloom opened. Tiny production, extremely minimalist winemaking, low alcohol levels and extraordinary complexity are the hallmarks of Beinstock’s excellent work. From vines averaging merely 60 years of age comes Gerard Prudhon’s 2008 St. Aubin 1er Cru ‘Sur le Sentier du Clou,’ ($31) a red Burgundy with the depth and pedigree of a wine three times as expensive. St. Aubin is an appellation in the southern part of Burgundy where white wines are king, which accounts for the delivery of a wine this good for a price this reasonable. A 2010 Nebbiolo d’Alba ‘Valmaggione’ from the great Piedmontese producer Brovia ($30) is left to close out the selection of reds, which means that the roster could stay open for business for a decade or more. From a vineyard in Alba about twenty minutes north of Barolo, here is a nebbiolo-based wine with an abundance of the traits we love about great Baroli and Barbaresci—tannic structure, deep red fruit qualities, and the herbaceous and savory aromatics of the best northern Italian reds.

Please enjoy now, or for even more pleasure, further on up the road…best, Matt
(Refer a friend to Heirloom Wines, receive a magnum of wine as thanks!)

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The Best Restaurant in the Country

Once not very long ago, after I finished a bowl of morning oatmeal, I finally decided that I was serious about wanting to write my first restaurant review.

For months or years I have had the idea that San Francisco’s Nopa is the best restaurant in the United States.  I have also, each time that notion has occurred to me, considered how loaded a thing that is to say.  Is there anyone who doesn’t work for the James Beard Foundation who ever makes such a suggestion?  Moreover, I run a restaurant myself.  Aren’t restaurateurs supposed to keep to themselves and only murmur faint praise occasionally for other establishments?

Still, I feel as though I have a right to my opinion.  I’ve been working in restaurants for 25 years, and I’ve seen a few things, and I’ve now done the ordering and the managing and everything else for several years now, and it shouldn’t seem so  surprising that I might be inclined to write a restaurant review.  I’ve heard it said that good restaurant critics see and feel everything from the minute they walk through the door.  I haven’t ever written restaurant criticism until now, but I certainly feel sensitive to the way restaurants run.  I know whether it’s twenty-five seconds or eight minutes before someone asks me if I want something to drink.  I often have a feeling quickly about whether employees seem to like their jobs.  Food prepared with focus and vision and touch stands out to me.  I know what a wine list built for quick profit looks like.

Whether it’s a good idea for me to write restaurant reviews is another question.  A negative review, you might be thinking if you have a mind for marketing, might not be a good idea.  Have you heard of the successful restaurateur who went around saying how lousy everyone else’s restaurants were?  Neither have I.  And then there’s the consideration of whether it’s advisable, either, to go out and declare some other restaurant the best.  Don’t I think my own place is the best?  Well yes, of course, I think we do very good work at Heirloom.  But I also feel an obvious interest in the support and celebration of restaurants that do great things, and frequently feel a compulsion to point out these great things if I have even a glimpse of an opportunity to do so.

One of the great things about writing—perhaps the very greatest thing—is that you can make a case on paper and the worst thing that can happen is that nobody will want to read it.  So the reason I’d like to make this suggestion about Nopa in the first place is that I’d like to make the case.  I’d like to explain why I think this place, exactly, is so great and so important.

So there it is.  I think Nopa is the best restaurant in the country, and here’s why.

***

The origin of the word restaurant, which dates to the 18th century in France, is the French word restaurer, which as you might guess means to restore.  When they were originally conceived, the idea of the restaurant was a place where someone went to feel better.  The restaurant could have been attached to an inn, in the early days it very likely served a hearty broth of the sort suggested in legend to be a curative.  Whatever the case, whatever manner of sustenance you were seeking, these restaurants were designed to try and deliver that experience.  They actually had it in mind that they were charged with the responsibility of restoring their guests.

Whether or not the idea of being restored is on very many peoples’ minds today when they make reservations at a local restaurant is anyone’s guess.  I certainly can think of a number of other reasons people go to restaurants.  I suspect many people go out to eat because they love the flavors of the foods they eat at the restaurants they frequent.  But also of course people sometimes go to restaurants because there’s a particular ambience into which they’d like to blend, even because they think they might meet interesting people there.  I met a wealthy lady years ago when I was in art school in Boston who told me that she went out to eat in order to see something fresh, to be presented with foods she would never have thought to prepare herself.  She thought of restaurant experiences as though they were something like walking through a museum.  She didn’t seem very interested in the restoration part.

When I go out to eat, the first thing on my mind most always is what I’m going to eat and how it’s going to make me feel, while sitting at the table and afterward.  I live in a wealthy country at a time when lots of talented people, especially in the city in which I live, devote their time and abilities to the production of excellent food.  And so it has been quite a long time since I sat down to a meal that was poorly prepared.

On the other hand, there have been many meals in recent memory which in spite of the care and precision with which they were prepared have left me feeling not even as well as I felt before they began.  One in particular a few nights ago, at a vastly heralded and popular city restaurant, served plenty of tasty bites but was generally so rich and so various that after thirty minutes of popping morsels into my mouth I was reminded of what it felt like, at age twelve, to binge on sweets and fried foods at the town carnival.  Never, during that meal last week, did I feel relaxed, or contemplative, or blissful, and certainly, upon its hasty completion, provocative as it had been, neither did I feel refreshed in any way.

***

“If I lived in this city and I didn’t work here I would frequent this restaurant—just simply because when I go out there I have a hard time finding clean food.  I don’t want to eat bizarre chicken and weird bacon and eggs that I don’t know where they’re from.  I’ve eaten lots of meals in lots of places that don’t leave me feeling great the next day.”

–Laurence Jossel

There may not be a chef in the country who not only emphasizes but prioritizes the importance of the way guests feel the next day to the degree that Laurence Jossel does.  He will be the first to acknowledge that his work is driven to a vast degree by the fact that he lives and works in the Bay Area.  His five or six or eight trips to farmers markets every week are undertaken because, as Jossel puts it, he is busy sourcing some of the best produce in the world.  And the fervor and seriousness with which he arrives at markets all over town—with enthusiasm something like the feeling a fifteen year-old has for baseball—even though he is one of the city’s most accomplished chefs and could certainly delegate the work, differentiates him even in a city full of great markets and great cooks.

It’s something that I have come to take for granted now, after innumerable visits to Nopa, but even on a night when the restaurant serves 500 dinners, there is hardly a bite of food that comes out of the kitchen that doesn’t seem like the best nature has to offer.  Not only are the avocados and the tangerines in the little gem lettuce salad from the fields of the very best growers—the ones that find their way into the dinner bowls are the best of the best.  It’s hard to believe, with such a massive volume of plates served every night of the week, that the avocados are so regularly so perfectly ripe, so creamy, so very much the only thing any avocado ever hoped to be, but that has been my experience.  Nopa’s ingredients simply never miss.

Moreover, because that avocado and tangerine salad is completed by fresh toasted walnuts and shards of excellent Pecorino cheese, the best tender lettuce leaves and a delicate application of fine but understated vinaigrette, the ingredients are allowed to shine on their own.  Many San Francisco chefs are happy to purchase the best ingredients, but few are so content to cut them and leave them be.  Laurence Jossel seems very much to believe in the whole food.  It’s hard to imagine the juicy sweet tangerine at Nopa without some pith.  If the skin on the cucumbers is tender, then the cucumbers are served with their skin.  In one dish after another, salads and flatbreads and rotisserie chicken plates, there are these ingredients—avocado and tangerines and baby cucumbers and juicy bacon lardons and nuggets of salty blue cheese, exhibited naked for your hungry consideration.

***

When I returned to the kitchen to wash the pot in which I had made more oatmeal than I needed, and I considered the dense, dehydrated sweetened cereal that remained.  I wondered if it could be formed into little patties and fried in butter to produce delicious little oatmeal cakes, rendered the way other creamy starchy foods like risotto or hummus sometimes are.  I used to be a painter, and I don’t know whether creative impulses like this one preceded my painting or if working in the creative process encouraged them in me, or both.  In any case, as the inimitable Heirloom pastry chef Majkin Klare suggested to me recently, people who work with food all the time are likely to consider certain untraditional preparations and combinations of ingredients.

I have mixed feelings about these impulses.  On one hand, of course the production of food carries with it, in addition to the peeling of potatoes and the routine fabrication of chicken stock, an infinite number of opportunities to permute.  Make the vinaigrette with lemon juice or red wine vinegar or juice from sauerkraut.  Shuck the fava beans and toss them with fried pork skin or purslane or candied grapefruit rind or all of the above.  These possibilities for many cooks and chefs are what make the potato peeling seem worth the drudgery.

But I remember well the number of ideas I tried on canvasses that seemed deliciously intriguing until they appeared in color, and how many of those ideas turned out not to have staying power and were painted over with gallons of jesso and more paint.  Anyone who has ever held a brush, or typed a sentence or performed a dance or a soliloquy or anything else knows that a vast number of our creative ideas enjoy short lives before ending up in the dustbin.  That’s exactly what makes the process so electric and so much fun, and it’s exactly what makes the occasional resilience and triumph of a great idea such a joyous occasion.

For me, there is an intrinsic difference between creative liberty in writing or painting or graffiti tagging and creative liberty in food production.  I’m thinking of the artist in process—the novelist or composer or playwright, who while trying to break the paralysis of his or her process fills the trash basket under the desk with draft after unworthy draft.  And if food production is an art like every other art form, and if cooking has as much claim to creative indulgence as do those other disciplines, then it seems to me that my mouth and digestive system might well be asked to play the role of the trash basket.  But while I’m free to turn off the music if it isn’t pleasant, to walk out of a Baz Luhrmann film if it makes me feel sick, I have a rather more intractable relationship with that which I swallow.

***

When David Chang made his comments about cuisine on the west coast being no more inventive than sliced figs on a plate, he was wildly wrongheaded.  The production of great food is dependent on precision and inspiration and creativity, yes, he was right about that.  But on a scale that has peak-of-the-season figs on one side and molecular gastronomy on the other—the gastronomic gifts of the natural world and the gastronomic gifts of human ingenuity, there can hardly be a debate where our bread is more lavishly buttered.  If New Yorkers and Bostonians could serve perfect fresh figs and strawberries they most certainly would, and most of them would do so without being foolish enough to drown, transmogrify, or otherwise diminish their god-given luster.  Momofuku is what people might love to eat when the nearest fig trees are thousands of miles away.

That said, the service of figs, and lettuces and walnuts and herbs and fruits and cheeses and meats and fish, can achieve an even more sublime state when they are cut properly, combined in the right proportion with other brilliant, wonderfully complementary ingredients.  When this happens, as it does with stunning regularity at Nopa, the spectacular cuisine of Mediterranean climates reaches its apex.  Last night I enjoyed a salad that has become a menu fixture this season: house-smoked trout, with quinoa and toasted almonds and purslane and oyster mushrooms and pickled cherries.  Even as I write those ingredients and build the look of that dish in my mind, I’m amazed at how unlikely its beauty seems.  The fish is orange, the nuts and grain and mushrooms are browns and greys, the purslane a muted dark green and the cherries maroon.  If traditional combinations—like Caprese or frisee aux lardons or prosciutto with arugula and parmesan have pure, Mozart-like tonality, this salad is more like the guy banging on cans on the street corner.

And yet it transcends so many of the compositions found at more expensive restaurants in major cities around the world.  For one thing, it is astonishingly healthy.  It’s low in sodium, the fats in it are derived from beautiful mountain fish and almonds and olive oil, the bursts of sugar and acid come straight from a half-dozen luscious cherries, purslane is absolutely loaded with vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.  The ingredients themselves are the best available.  The trout is from a top fishery on Mount Lassen in northern California, the cherries were certainly chosen by hand at a local market while others were passed over.  Most importantly, the touch involved here in composing this mélange of ingredients is an artistry that comes only from profound respect for the ingredients themselves and from years of practice preparing them.

Every plate served at Nopa has a similar blueprint.  Chicken with watermelon and hazelnuts and feta cheese is served just as advertised—a perfectly roasted half-bird with succulent melon and toasted nuts and saline cheese.  Tonight’s flatbread might have fennel sausage, squash, mint and pecorino, or it might have bacon, caramelized onions, kale and crème fraiche.  What is certain is that the jewels of the area farmers markets will be included in the nightly menu, and that each of them will attend the gala exactly as they are, which is to say radiant, unmasked, perfectly conditioned.

***

“I’m here to serve people—I’m in hospitality.  So when people come in, no matter whether they’re happy or sad I have to try and create a great experience for them.  Every time I go home I know that what we’ve put in front of the guest is the best thing that we could do.  On Monday or Tuesday night, when we’re doing 450 covers, people are coming back, maybe it’s because people feel comfortable, because they know what they’re getting.”

–Jeff Hanak

To walk into the towering former bank at the corner of Divisadero and Hayes is to feel a particular surge in circulation.  The pulse quickens, the mouth waters, the mind might as well be on a street corner in Manhattan at mid-day or a bustling outdoor market.  There is a more or less immediate sense that something is common here.  People seem to be dressed in whatever manner they please.  The staff, which at first is trying to figure out how to get you seated, communicates with each other with respect and sympathy and patient efficiency, as though they’ve enjoyed working together for ten years.  And there is the feeling, I think for a vast number of people who live in this city and the surrounding area, that what is laid out before you is there for you.  If at some restaurants there is an immediate impression of opulence, or the ingenuity of the people who built it, here there is an intrinsic feeling that the place was designed to serve people.

With the full resources of the Nopa kitchen and immensely discreet and conscientious cocktail and wine programs, one can ably pretend that she is the queen of the castle, and at nearly any hour of the day.  Whether she desires French toast with fruit and excellent coffee on Saturday morning, or a beer and a Gruyere and bacon burger early on a Sunday evening, or a four course dinner served gracefully with wine at midnight—any night of the week—Nopa will be ready to receive her.  She shouldn’t expect a red carpet; she won’t find it here.

What she will find is a server who arrives at the table and is kind and warm and accommodating.  The service will not necessarily be precise or hugely refined, in the way for instance that some service which depends on a scripted process sometimes is.  The script which is often handed to servers in fine restaurants, who are told that they should feel free to paraphrase its gist as they approach each table, is of no interest here.  I would guess that Jeff Hanak would view that as a shortcut to good service—an attempt to subjugate the real matters of service: sympathy, listening, interpretation, behind a stiff and glossy corporate mantra.

This isn’t to say that good dinner service can’t be achieved by making stipulations about what servers should say when they approach tables, but it won’t approach the level of service attained by hiring and supporting great people and encouraging them to be themselves in their work.  The latter comes only from the installation of a broad ethic at the top of a restaurant culture, in which the owners work hard themselves, and speak to everyone with respect, and smile and laugh and struggle and be human.  In hospitality, as much as any other workplace, humanity or a lack thereof permeates every aspect of the environment.  Goodwill and generosity are contagious, and there will be nowhere to hide, behind titles or authority or online interfaces, if those are absent.

***

“Our mission statement has to do with maintaining sustainable communities.  And that philosophy first goes to the staff, in how we treat each other with respect and support and education, and then it goes to our guests, and then it goes to our purveyors.  Whenever we make a decision, as a bartender or a host, or a cook a chef or an owner, it’s not based on an individual—does it benefit you, does it benefit the restaurant, does it benefit the guest, does it benefit the purveyor, and if it benefits all of those than we can be sustainable financially, because we are a business, but also from the standpoint of giving back.  I read that mission statement every couple of weeks.”

–Jeff Hanak

We live in an age of superlatives, in which information about the world’s number one golfer, or the best family sedan, or wines rated 100 points, is not just everywhere, not only ubiquitous like trash cans and fire hydrants, but in some way regarded as vital.  We have a seemingly insatiable appetite to know who won the award for being the very best of the competition and which company makes the best television set for the money.  There’s always a best way to get from one place to another, and who cares anyway what some poet might have recommended in some distant epoch about paths less traveled.  Google Maps will not prescribe wandering or meandering, under any circumstances.

Nothing suffers more inside our fantastic A Number 1 snow globe of a world than our discretion when it comes to the mundane parts of our lives.  Taking a walk every morning might be a very good idea for almost everyone, but it’s not an idea likely to be profiled on a morning news show or in a magazine.  The dried organic beans you discovered last year at a farmers market that are so healthy and delicious that you could include them in three meals a day are probably never going to win an award.

This I think is how it has come to pass that a restaurant like Nopa could seem to be regarded more as a neighborhood institution than as one of the greatest restaurants in this or any other city.  Accolades for people who work in food and hospitality are mostly reserved for overt inventiveness, for owners or chefs who build mousetraps more or less intentionally designed to be this week’s hot find on this website or another, to land them on the cover of a glossy magazine.  The place that sets out to feed very good food to hundreds of people every night, until the wee hours of the morning—while certainly not taken for granted by the many people who adore it, is not usually involved in the conversation about who is doing the very best work.

I sometimes imagine what the Divisadero corridor was like before Nopa opened, or what life would be like now without it.  Having a place like this in my neighborhood may be more important to me than to most—I really enjoy public eating places, but I tend to think that thousands of people would feel quite a loss, as though their power went out, or the busses stopped running.  We would be left to source peak-of-the-season ingredients on our own.  Joining a couple of friends for brunch would mean settling in with a cup of coffee and a croissant baked at some remote location; trout salad as a midnight option would give way to sushi, pizza and the homemade turkey dinner at Mel’s Diner.

None of those sad choices, perhaps you would agree, promise very much restoration.

 

 

 

 

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Considering Campanile

In the summer of 2000, I was twenty-seven years old, had said some goodbyes to friends and family in the Northeast, and contemplated, while standing on the overpass at Fourth Street and Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica, a near-term future at least on the west coast.  I possessed in my professional quiver not more than a few years of restaurant work, but there had been a strategy from the beginning, and that was that a little bit of good restaurant experience could be pretty helpful in the pursuit of employment in strange new cities.  Los Angeles could hardly have been stranger to me.  I had one friend who lived there and a couple of  cousins.  I made a list of the eight or ten best restaurants in the city, and submitted applications at all of them.

Within a few days I received a call from a woman named Jessica at a restaurant called Campanile on La Brea Avenue.  She invited me to come to the restaurant for an interview, and I set about figuring a way to make myself look presentable and began to consider the prospect of landing at this place.  I remember that it seemed in some way alternative to me.  Before I had walked through the front door, whatever I gleaned from the restaurant website or online reviews in the days when those were written mostly by professional critics, gave me the feeling that I was in for something different.

I was at that moment fresh from a job in Boston at a restaurant called the Federalist, where, I was surely proud to say, I had demonstrated my abilities at the highest level of restaurant service.  I had been fitted for a fine waiter’s uniform by one of Boston’s top fashion designers, I had opened and served expensive bottles of wine and set them gently on sterling coasters on beautiful clothed tables.  I had worked to understand and to become comfortable in the ceremonies of dinner service to wealthy people.

About this Campanile place, words were used like rustic, and country, and I remember one expression in particular, “temple of food,” which was used to describe it more than once.  People seemed to talk about it as though it was some kind of fraternity, maybe like an outing club or a bird watching club.  It seemed to me like it might not exactly be up my alley.  I was looking for the place where diplomats dined on caviar and abalone and drank great Meursault, and found gleaming silver cloches protecting their plates when they returned from drying their hands on fine linens in the bathrooms.  But maybe this little hippie spot could help me get a foot in the door in the city.  I could pay my bills while looking for a job at a really great place.

So on a warm and sunny Los Angeles summer afternoon, I walked into a space which indeed felt and looked nothing like any restaurant I had ever seen.  There were skylights and natural light everywhere, old stones and bricks and tiles, a little fountain with a pool and and a few fat red goldfish just inside the front door.  It seemed something like a Mediterranean or North African bazaar, though not because I had ever seen one of those.  It was lunchtime and the space was buzzing with food service.  The colors were softly muted greens and bricks and perfectly juxtaposed, primary, blues and yellows.  The place was a bit of a feast for the eyes.

In an office upstairs, Jessica asked me if I knew about grape varietals.  I had followed her up a staircase next to the bar that was just wide enough for a person, and sat down with her in a little non-descript office.  “Jacques will be up to talk with you in a minute, and he’s going to ask you some tough questions about wine,” she said.  Jacques arrived a minute or two later, looking like a fit, flush-faced adolescent boy in a nice pressed suit.  Smiling, with a Cheshire grin he wore more or less permanently, Jacques wanted to know if I knew the difference between cabernet sauvignon and nebbiolo.

It turned out that I did know the difference, and it was a good thing for me, because a couple of days later I worked my first shift at Campanile.  What was immediately striking, I remember, was that everyone in the restaurant seemed to care about the difference between cabernet sauvignon and nebbiolo.  I had to familiarize myself with just six wines which were being offered by the glass—three white and three red, but the three red wines were wines that might or might not have been remotely recognizable to anyone.

At first I could hardly believe that it worked, that there really were enough guests to fill such a massive space who were happy to choose between a nerello mascalase from Sicily, a cabernet franc from the Loire valley and a zweigelt from Austria.  If I had walked up to the people I had waited on in Boston and offered them a glass of zweigelt at least half of them would have looked at me as though I had just jammed a pencil in my ear.  It didn’t take long for me to learn: in this place, merlot enjoyed no advantage from some arbitrary pole position in the American culinary vernacular.  Here, merlot wasn’t disqualified, but neither was it offered because it had to be.

The approach to wine, as explained by resident scholar and wine director George Cossette, was that the wines we poured needed to be not only delicious, and to represent value, but also to be authentic in some kind of regionally traditional way.  I learned that on the one hand, there was an endless supply of subjectivity in the wine world, and on the other hand that there were real discriminations to be made.  One should certainly discern the delicious and the not-so-delicious, and note the traditional bottle of Tuscan sangiovese as something different than the wine produced by a fledgling Tuscan vanity project winery which had been recently erected by three investment bankers hoping to make world-class cabernet sauvignon and merlot in Tuscany.  George used to say that if there was a certain wine that all the fishermen drank when they came in from their boats to their coastal village in Italy, we wanted that wine.

If it took some time for me to cobble away at the mountain of information and nuance that was the Campanile wine list, the activity and production of the kitchen produced a farily immediate astonishment.  In terms of the pricing of the menu and the sheer volume of dishes prepared I had never seen anything like it.  I had served my share of $35 entrees before, but those were the delicately-constructed, museum-style plates in Boston which were turned out a couple at a time, often by two or three cooks working together on individual components.  On Friday and Saturday nights at Campanile there were sometimes 350 people having dinner and paying those prices, and these plates weren’t half as precise as the ones I had served at places like the Federalist and the Harvest.  I remember, in the early going, feeling as though the whole thing was some kind of Hollywood ruse.

Then I began to taste the food, and to put it plainly, my life changed.  The flageolet beans and bitter greens and olives with the ribeye steak, the Brussels sprouts caramelized in Balsamic vinegar and covered with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese, the Copper River salmon with perfect sweet English peas and feather-like cauliflower puree—they all changed my life.  I grew up eating not just junk but certainly my share of fast food and Drake’s cellophane-wrapped coffee cakes.  I hadn’t ever tasted anything like any of these things.  It was like learning a new language, with a vocabulary of things that came from the natural world.  There were flavors and textures more complex than any of the fine and expensive foods I had known on the east coast.  This was the California cuisine that had been made famous by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and Judy Rodgers at Zuni Café and Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Campanile, about which, I soon realized, I had known only very superficially.

The particular word and idea that came to occupy such a big part of my thinking about food, and also about wine, was rustic.  It was a word that I heard tossed around at the restaurant for a few months, and one day I asked Mark what he meant by it.  “A rustic plate,” he said, “is a plate that looks as though it just fell out of the sky and landed on the table and had everything on it jostled around a little.”  There were two implications in this idea that were perhaps the most formative elements in my developing gastronomical sensibility.  The first was that there was no substitute for the finest quality ingredients of every kind.  Whether sourcing English peas or salmon or olive oil, when the intricacy of the plating takes a back seat to the flavors, the quality of the ingredients has to be first-rate.

The second idea was the paramount importance of diversity in cuisine.  What was possibly the most singularly amazing thing about Mark and Nancy’s plates was how uneven they were and how spectacular they were in their unevenness.  In Mark’s sautéed trenne pasta, in which triangular bits of pasta were sautéed crispy and served over beef and kale Bolognese and covered with shaved parmesan, lucky diners found no two forkfuls alike.  Some pieces of trenne had been sautéed hard on one side, and had two remaining sides that were still supple.  Nancy’s rustic apple tart—built like a medieval throwing star, was intentionally constructed to be just a shade fatter in one or two corners of the gloriously browned crust than others.

There is a premise behind this sort of approach to cooking which has it that an avoidance of uniformity, when executed at a high level, is likely to provide an eating experience which is less predictable, and as a consequence, brimming with vitality and sensory stimulation.  But it bears no resemblance to the kind of provocation one sees frequently at fine restaurants that has to do with the unlikely combination of esoteric ingredients.  It is one thing to be confronted by a plate with monkfish liver and persimmon and cocoa nibs, and to consider such an intersection never before imagined.  It is quite another thing to settle in comfortably to a steaming bowl of pasta Bolognese and to savor each bite for its distinction and particular deliciousness.

To say that this way of thinking has ramifications in the world of wine is something like saying that the farming of grapes has something to do with the world of wine.  How obvious the magnificence of, say, Jacques Puffeney’s weirdly oxidative white wines from the Jura seemed when one approached the tasting of wine looking not just for deliciousness but also for distinction.  How very defensive I felt, after watching Jonathan Nossiter’s groundbreaking film Mondovino after it was released in 2004, on behalf of the regional winemaking in obscure parts of Europe that looked vulnerable to consensus and corporate avarice and globalization.  And how much I appreciated it when Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia from Rioja, conducting a tasting 2006, proudly confirmed the variation found from one bottle to the next in her estate’s wines.  “In my family making wine is like making tomato sauce,” she said.  “They can taste a little different, depending on who is standing at the stove.”

As I write this, in the aftermath of Campanile’s closure late last year, it occurs to me that there has never been any variability in the effect that my two years of work at the restaurant had on my career, or even on the person I am today.  For one thing, I opened a restaurant about three years ago—after working in restaurants for more than twenty years—that has Campanile written all over it.  From the colors to the wine glasses to the wine lists to the cuisine, none of the restaurants on my resume influenced the development of Heirloom even half as much as Campanile did.

But there is also, there has always been, the mindset that was created in me from the time I spent waiting tables at 624 South La Brea Avenue.  Nothing could ever be so important to me now, or to the food we serve at Heirloom, as my recollection of the time Nancy Silverton told me that in the early days of Campanile she would walk up and down the cooking line every night tasting every piece of mise en place in every station.  Where would my wine cellar have gone if George Cossette hadn’t explained the primary importance of a dedicated space for wine storage to me?  I remember, like it was yesterday, the tireless food runner Tomas Martinez poking his head around the corner as I was ordering something at a computer terminal at the back of the restaurant, and saying “Man, you better go talk to Nancy.  She’s pissed off.”

Tomas, if you can hear me now, forgive me, but it never, ever turned out to be the case that Nancy actually was pissed off.  She never wasted any time or energy on being pissed off.  It was always the case that she considered feeding her guests the way a general considers a battle plan—with clarity and purpose, and a focus in her steely brown eyes that conveyed some unmistakable truths: that this was serious business, that nobody should be fooled by the slight asymmetry of an apple tart, and that even though it was just dinner, there was quite a lot at stake.

 

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UFO’s in Portland

I have loved Portland Oregon since the first time I was there, in the fall of 2004, pit stopping at a Travelodge on East Burnside on my way to culinary school in Vancouver.  That motel, chosen somewhat randomly but almost certainly because of its very competitive rates, is still there and is one block from the little restaurant space where Gabriel Rucker would create Le Pigeon eighteen months after I passed through town.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the Travelodge is a little pricier now than it was then, because I can’t believe that I’m the only person who now thinks of East Burnside, in general terms, as the location of one of the west coast’s best and most iconic restaurants.

I have eaten at Le Pigeon five or six times, and have had the sense each time that it was one of those places that seem to have just sprouted up out of the ground—no construction, no human design, no permit hassles—just something as pre-ordained as a giant oak tree.  There tended not to be, in my experiences there, a single moment from the time a guest walked in the front door to the time he or she paid the bill, when one raised an eyebrow because something seemed out of place. When I picture Le Pigeon in my mind’s eye, I see cast iron pots, mason jars on shelves on the walls, smiling staff—none of it the least bit contrived.

To look at the current menu, as I did online after I arrived in Portland last week, is to see a selection of dishes only something like the roster of five years ago.  Shortly after Le Pigeon opened, everything coming out of Rucker’s kitchen had in abundance the three traits I consider to be most important in the production of superior cuisine: a sharpened focus on good ingredients, a hall pass for one’s creativity as it conjures and pursues artful and delicious combinations and permutations, and a wholesale freedom in the creative process from considering the inspiration and depth of one’s own profound wit.

The last characteristic is the only one beyond the grasp of any serious young chef these days, but we’ve all been suffering the unfortunate effects of its absence for years. Since the 1980’s, when America began to celebrify food, talented chefs around the country have been practiced at getting in their own way while designing and executing menus.  It occurs to them that their new lamb dish would be great with the addition of some tarragon, and then they have a feverish early-morning dream about infusing some tarragon into—oatmeal!  Or a tarragon beignet!!  Their dutiful staffs then set about indulging the chef’s genius, whipping up tarragon beignets which turn out to be very nicely constructed.

Even when the instinct and the execution work, the plate shows up at the table slightly out of balance, because the chef’s ingenuity is the most prominent ingredient.  And while we sometimes seem convinced that a dinner table full of ingenuity is inspiring, nourishing, restorative, it’s actually something a lot more like a charade, an affirmation session rife with congratulations of different sorts.  First diners demonstrate their own and each others’ good taste by pointing out this or that slightly-out-of-place texture or odd flavor, and then, praised be, if everyone is lucky enough to be regaled by the chef himself at the table.  Then the adulation reaches a fever pitch, for the man who dreamt this up—this tarragon ice cream, is standing so close we could touch him.

But while tarragon oatmeal fritters have descended like UFO’s in the dreams of legions of young American chefs in the last twenty years, west coast metropolises have been the most reliable places to find chefs who have politely excused themselves from the world of things unidentified or flying.  Owed to the regularity of superior local ingredients, many west coast chefs have been finding fulfillment for years from a creative process much less dependent on innovation, much more devoted to nourishment.

Portland especially, less encumbered by the appetite for glossy content that pervades Los Angeles and San Francisco, has for a decade or more been a city with very good restaurants that make you feel as though nothing is quite so direly important when you sit down to dinner.  There isn’t anything missing from the seriousness of the approach to food or service, but neither does one find very much stiffness or creative over-reaching.  Portland restaurants, while busy serving fresh and delicious food, have long been places where diners can actually relax.

What I found after I settled in to the city and began to look at some menus online was the impression that fritter UFO’s were indeed hovering overhead about five blocks east of the Burnside bridge.  During my visit to Portland last week, Chef Rucker and his cooks at Le Pigeon were serving, among other things, rabbit and eel terrine with a foie gras and miso vinaigrette, and pigeon crudo with smoked bourbon ice cream.  Both of these dishes were on the menu as appetizers.  What I remembered as Rucker’s flirtation with avant garde cuisine seemed to have blossomed into a full-throttle indulgence of his inner tarragon fritter.

A possible explanation presented itself when I decided instead to go to Rucker’s second restaurant—Little Bird, which opened about two years ago, closer to Portland’s city center.  My first night in the city, as I sat alone at the bar there with a negroni at about 8:30, and was served with promptness and grace by a bright and kind guy who was bartending, I settled in first for a salad of frisee, Dijon vinaigrette, a perfectly fat and juicy little boudin blanc and a perfectly-cooked crispy poached egg.  Following the salad there was a grilled half-chicken, crisp-skinned and bursting with juice, which was served astride a brothy succotash of tiny white beans and corn, cherry tomatoes and chili oil.

The exquisiteness of the food at Little Bird would be hard for me to overstate.—the two meals I ate there were indicative of a chef at the very top of his craft.  That first dinner was followed by a lunch a couple of days later that consisted of a half-bottle of Champagne and a butter lettuce salad with yogurt-feta dressing, watermelon and cucumbers, a ‘Le Pigeon’ burger which was one of those burgers that leave you absolutely convinced in the moment that your mouth will never enjoy a more delicious bite of food, and a side of brandied crimini mushrooms that served to remind me of the glory of simply-prepared vegetables.

Whether or not it’s the case, and without being privy to the inner workings of his mind, I am going to believe going forward that Gabe Rucker is allowing himself the license to serve lightly-cooked squab with ice cream at Le Pigeon because he opened another restaurant where we can all just have dinner.  Maybe the very high quality of the quotidian fare at Little Bird eases any qualms he would or would not feel about featuring pigeon crudo on his one and only dinner menu.  It certainly eases my concerns to know that a great boudin blanc with frisee and a poached egg and an exquisite Dijon vinaigrette is still there waiting for me.

I had ample time to consider this question and others as I headed back down the 5 freeway for the ten-hour trip to San Francisco, which would be punctuated by a date with Vernon and Charlene Rollins at New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro outside of Ashland.  That is a story for, and from, another time.

 

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Innocence and Experience

I just had an opportunity to buy a case of 2004 Riesling Auslese half bottles made by Helmut Donnhoff, who is considered by a great many people who know a lot to be the greatest maker of riesling in the world.  That these wines, one vintage after another, are available for the price they are is a story unto itself, having something to do with how German rieslings were once among the most expensive wines in the world and no longer are, in spite of their obvious greatness.  I am an avid buyer of these wines when I can find them, when it seems like a particular bottling represents and extraordinary value.

Very often, before I make purchases of the blind sort, which is to say when I buy wine that I’m not lucky enough to taste beforehand, I try and get a good deal of research done before I decide to buy.  Thankfully, in this day and age, the enterprise of gathering information about particular wines made by prominent producers isn’t very difficult.  There are websites which profile producers, websites which review wines, websites that provide listings of pricing across the country.  One can very often glean a lot of information in five or ten minutes.

Of course, as it’s the case with all things internet, some bits of information should be accorded more value than others—there are certain sources which I regard as especially helpful and elucidating.  One such source is the wine writer David Schildknecht, who has a long history in the wine business and who has been writing reports on German wines (among others) for Robert Parker’s website for years.  Schildknecht is certainly astute, seems to have as much integrity as anyone else currently writing wine reviews, and generally delivers me a pretty good sense of what’s happening inside bottles I haven’t ever encountered.

By now, railing against the wine journalistic practice of scoring wines is a race which has been run.  The case has been thoroughly made, especially in a wave of backlash against wine criticism in the last decade, that awarding 90 or 93 points to a wine can seem arbitrary, beside the point, somewhat grotesque to people who associate wine with romance.  Those people aren’t interested to know the score of a wine any more than they would be to know the score of a theater performance or an art exhibition.  What they would prefer, if they preferred to know anything at all, is a bit of hard information about content.

But as I read Schildknecht’s impressions of the 2004 Donnhoff Riesling Auslese from the Oberhauser Brucke vineyard, it occurs to me that the tasting note itself is something from which I would prefer to stay away.  His vocabulary is abundant, his palate keen, and his imagination fertile and far-reaching, and his tasting notes read like detailed descriptions of what it’s like to pass through the pearly gates.  None of them are markedly different from the others, so to consider as an example the note for this presently-considered 2004 Donnhoff Auslese:

“The 2004 Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Auslese A.P. #16 exudes aromas of pink grapefruit, blueberry preserves, golden delicious apple and exhibits a liqueur-like concentration and creamy texture allied to almost weightless buoyancy on the palate. Hints of white raisin and honey suggest the tiny-berried and dry-botrytis concentration of fruit achieved by means of ultra-selective picking. Subtle mineral and musky-meaty notes add to the sense of mysterious depth displayed in the long, rich, yet firm finish.”

What first comes to my mind is the debt of gratitude I owe to Schildknecht and writers like him for having convinced me, during a time in my late 20’s and early 30’s, of wine’s magnificence and its place as a treasure of the natural world.  I remember what it was like to begin reading notes like those regularly, when I was starting in the wine business, and I’m certain that collectively, they played a big part in the fascination and burgeoning love I started to feel for wine.

The more powerful reaction I have now is something more like revulsion.  Even as I copy and paste the note and re-read it as I put quotes around it, I find myself trying to avoid considering it too deeply, because of a very great aversion I feel to thinking anything about the way the wine tastes before I taste it.  What am I in it for, after all?  I don’t think of tasting and drinking wine as though it’s a kind of treasure hunt, with a roadmap and sign posts.  The only manner in which I’m interested to do it is without presumptions and expectations.

Think for a moment, because there’s some chance that this particular wine is now already diminished for you too, about what it means for a wine to have a “liqueur-like concentration.”  It’s an extraordinary notion, even if it does come from a word bin of recycled descriptors which has been visited regularly by wine reviewers for the past thirty years.  A liqueur-like concentration suggests something in the tightly-bound, alcoholic flavor of Cognac maybe?  But in this case not exactly, because the wine doesn’t have all of the alcohol of Cognac or a liqueur, so perhaps there is merely something similar about its viscosity or depth of flavor?

Now imagine that this wine is the wine being poured at the most special occasion of your life.  Your closest friends are with you, they all love to drink wine, and there’s a spread on the table of anything and everything you might like to eat with a magnificent, somewhat sweet Riesling—fresh goat’s milk cheeses, apricot cream tarts, foie gras, whatever.

Would you hope, at such an occasion, to consider the degree to which you find yourself in agreement about the liqueur-like concentration?  Would you want to know from your friends whether they too found that the wine was exuding aromas of grapefruit and blueberry preserves?  The resounding answer for me, having sat around tables at which these very sorts of conversations occurred, is no, thanks, and please point me in the direction of the nearest exit.

When I’m lucky enough to open great bottles of wine that I expect to help consume, my greatest desire is to be surprised.  My heretofore unarticulated hope, each and every time, is that I’ll look up from my glass after smelling and and tasting for thirty minutes with the dumbstruck impression that the wine is singularly spectacular.  Imagine, by contrast, looking up from the glass and saying “The wine is very good, and I’m amazed at how accurate Schildknecht’s note is—it’s all grapefruit and blueberries with a touch of golden delicious apple.”

And isn’t it true that we might not invite this sort of contemplation into any of our favorite sensory activities?  When your new sports car hits 50 mph, you’ll feel beads of sweat on the small of your back and a tingling in your thighs—be sure and stay on the lookout for them as you’re shifting into third gear.  The next time you have sex, about halfway through, you’ll have the unmistakable sense that you’re on a beach, being fanned by angels, a soft rain falling.  Just giving you a head’s up.  Keep an eye out.

It’s an observation that I offer with qualification, because I do believe that the writing has a real capacity to thrill and excite, to pique curiosity, to plant a seed for someone like me when I was on the brink of discovering the beauty of wine.  I (still) read those notes by the dozen in an attempt to gather information in order to learn about different vintages and wineries, in order to make decisions about what to buy.  I don’t know what I would do without this sort of criticism.

And yet if I could go back to the times when I felt nothing but ignorance and innocence, and awe, about wine, I would.  I often feel a twinge of envy when I’m tasting something extraordinary with someone who doesn’t have very much experience tasting, and I watch their face light up with joy and astonishment.  It’s a simple pleasure that often fades—innocence and experience can’t often co-exist—in all kinds of different realms.

I take it for granted that I don’t have the same dumbstruck feeling about love, or professional sports, that I had when I had my first crush or walked through a tunnel at Fenway Park for the first time.  For some reason, I’m less ready to relinquish the thoughtless exuberance of eating and drinking without a care in the world.

 

 

 

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Taste for Change

A lot of people ask me about my favorite restaurants in San Francisco. It’s par for the course of working in the restaurant business, I think. It used to happen a lot when I was living in Los Angeles, friends would ask me where I liked to go all the time, and one of the effects of being asked to answer a question like that repeatedly is that it sets you to thinking about your favorite restaurants.

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Alice Waters and Her Detractors

Sometimes you hear it said that it’s hard to be on top. You’re really good at what you do, maybe you’re a trailblazer, and you find yourself feeling like someone’s target practice. Some people can’t understand why you deserve the praise you’re accorded, they think anyone could have done what you did, they don’t like your style.

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About Matt Straus

Matt Straus has been working in food service for the past twenty-three years, beginning with a stint at the neighborhood McDonald’s when he was fourteen. He worked primarily in kitchens until he graduated from college, at which point he began an extended involvement with service and wine. Prior to moving to Los Angeles in 2000, he worked in renowned Boston restaurants such as The Tuscan Grill, The Harvest and The Federalist, as well as with the acclaimed late French chef Sophie Parker, in Saratoga Springs, New York.

In his first five years in L.A., Matt held service positions at Campanile, L’Orangerie, Sona and Grace, where he performed the duties of wine director, managing a service staff of twenty and a wine list of almost 400 labels. In March 2005, Matt returned to the kitchen after studying European cuisine at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver, B.C.

Following his culinary education, a return to Southern California and kitchen stints at two Los Angeles restaurants, Matt became wine director of the brand new Wilshire restaurant in Santa Monica–a post he would hold for three years, and one which provided him with the opportunity to apply his skills and experience and build a wine culture from the ground up.

During his time at Wilshire, Anthony Dias Blue honored Matt as the Best Wine Buyer/Sommelier in Los Angeles in Patterson’s Beverage Journal, StarChefs.com named him a Rising Star Sommelier, and Food and Wine Magazine called his wine list at Wilshire one of the Ten Best New Wine Lists in the country.

Matt presently lives in San Francisco, where he owns Heirloom Cafe, a restaurant dedicated to high-quality, simple food and great wine.  He was named one of the top sommeliers of 2011 by Food and Wine Magazine.

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