Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Zen Repose

What a gratifying change of pace last night at Millbrae's Zen Bistro! The past three weeks have been the most tense and hectic of my life, so I really needed to immerse myself in a bacchanalian meal once again while we're still in the midst of the holiday season.

Fortunately, two of my best buddies came to the rescue. I suggested we just grab some handy white wines from the stash and head to the neighborhood seafood bistro, where a fish tank filled with live shellfish awaits us. No one argued.

Not even Chablis can match the genius pairing of Bordeaux Blanc and fresh oysters--these pair were simply a match made in Bacchus heaven. Zen Bistro's chilled half-dozen oysters are miyagis dressed in a light yuzu vinaigrette, topped with tobiko and a dab of chili sauce. It is the best plate of fresh oysters in town. The 1962 Château Faubernet Bordeaux Blanc, soft but still alive after all these years, with some residual sugar, was elevated by the sweet and piquant flavors of the oysters.

Mirugai, or geoduck clam, is a humongous bivalve with an overgrown appendage. Ordered whole and fresh from the tank at Zen Bistro, the chef prepared it two ways.

Of course, the purest and most mouthwatering way to enjoy mirugai is to sashimi the long siphon or "neck" of the clam. The chef served the paper-thin sashimi slices in a bowl of ice. Sweet!

Given that we were in a Japanese restaurant with a Chinese crew, we were roused to be served the clam's body en papillote, with butter, garlic, and wine. The chef must be French-trained. Needless to say, this second mirugai dish was spectacular, and perhaps even topped the sashimi preparation. A seamless match with a 1981 Alsace Gewurztraminer whose producer escapes me.

And now for the pièce de résistance, the 4 to 5 pounder Alaskan King Crab. The animal was still swimming in the tank when we ordered it.

Everyone knows this crab for its long, meaty legs. The chef prepared the legs for us sashimi style--its flavor was sweet with a briny contrast, slippery in the mouth with a lobster-like density and chewiness. Dipped in soy and wrapped in minty, fresh green shiso leaf, these crab legs were decadent.

We opted for a ramen noodle soup as the second dish for the remaining portion of the crab. Though most of the flesh of this crustacean is in the legs, the soup draws out the rich flavors of the shell and innards, infusing the noodles with a lot of goodness. You can't have a more opulent ramen noodle than this. It's a long way from Nissin!

My last bottle of 1999 Didier Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly “Pur Sang” turned out to be an unmistakable choice for the crab medley. I've had this wine many times before, but at ten years, this magnificent pure Sauvignon Blanc was at the peak of its powers. Bright, mineral, more restrained, yet filled with fresh-cut herbs and ripe, crunchy green pears. A great finish to this awesome meal!

Zen Bistro
420 Broadway
Millbrae, CA 94030
(650) 697-9988

Monday, November 30, 2009

Brunello Tribute

If the measure of a man is how he is remembered, then John Demergasso was a man of impeccable good taste and refinement, exactly like the Brunello wines we drank in his honor and memory last month.

True to his Italian genes, John was a Renaissance man. An athlete, a lawyer, and a businessman. An adventurer in the Hemingway tradition: he climbed Kilimanjaro, Whitney, Aconcagua, and Matterhorn, and enjoyed corridas in the bullrings of Spain. I came to know him late in his life. A serene man who enjoyed his drink quietly. The most I saw him excited was over a bottle of 1986 Maison Leroy Meursault two years ago. I thought, being an Italian boy, he was, perhaps, amused that a French white could be that good.

Kevin and Marguerite, longtime friends of John and Bonnie Demergasso, hosted the get-together at their pad in Hillsborough, giving us all the pleasure of their expansive, newly remodeled kitchen, with ample space for the eleven Brunello, a magnum of Champagne, and a bottle of Vin Santo (which I sadly missed as I left early) that we all kicked in for the tribute, including extras from Kevin's cellar. To toast John, we started with the magnum of Franck Bonville Brut Grand Cru "Selection" Blanc de Blancs NV. A rich, penetrating Champagne, with juicy apple and pear skin flavors and crisp minerality. Definitely a bracing start.

I proceeded with the vertical of Brunello from young to old. I've never had Brunello older than fifteen years. The common wisdom is they won't go much beyond twenty years. I mean, Sangiovese, right? That's why modernists (or tainters?) are bent on adding Cabernet and Merlot. Well, this tasting proved that I was dead wrong.

The 1999 Tenuta San Filippo Fanti felt warm, rich, ripe, and forward. Its tannins are velvety and the acidity is soft. I like the charm of this modern-style Brunello.

In contrast, the 1997 Canalicchio di Sopra Le Code di Montosoli showed more precision and focus. Its tannins are firm and well-knitted to the cool, elegant fruit. A wonderful step up, it's clearly headed to an even better future.

The 1997 Conti Constanti was the first dip into classical Brunello territory. Light-ruby color. Sandal and cedar-infused tart cherry flavors with undertones of chestnut. I expected more concentration given the vintage, still it wins by virtue of its purity and substance.

Just when I was warming up to the classical elegance of the Conti Constanti, the 1997 Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo Riserva "Ripe al Convento" pulled me back in to the power world of modern Brunello. An explosion of ripe, luscious fruit. Its nose was perfumed with black cherry and barrique. The fruit was dense, velvety, ripe, and milk-chocolatey. Clearly, this has all the extract of the vintage.

The next two Brunello were the 1995 Gaja twins. Steve decided to bring the Sugarille when he found out that I'll show up with the Rennina. A brilliant counter! I've never had the two side-by-side, and what more from the same vintage.

Convinced that Case Basse possessed the best terroir in Montalcino, Angelo Gaja tried to acquire it but his offer was spurned. So he settled for the next best thing by moving next door at the historic estate Pieve Santa Restituta. 1995 was the vintage when Gaja took complete control of the winemaking and operation of the estate. And the year also marked the first solid vintage since Gaja's involvement in the estate. The 1995 Pieve Santa Restituta "Renina" is the feminine of the two. Dark, structured, with a rich, sinewy fruit hinting of roast and game. Not a forceful Brunello, but ample and shapely.

In contrast the 1995 Pieve Santa Restituta "Sugarille" was muscular and fleshy with superb depth of fruit and firmer tannins. Its menthol and resin aromas were uniquely intense. While the Rennina appears to be hitting its best, this has more to offer in years to come.

More resin, mixed with saddle and fresh cranberries surfaced in the 1982 Pertimali of Livio Sassetti. Gorgeous round, velvety fruit punctuated by rich tannins. Nearing thirty years, it seems like this is just hitting its stride. Every time I open a bottle of Livio Sassetti's Brunello I'm blown away by its depth and seamless, spherical beauty.

I was fortunate to taste two vintages of Brunello's founding producer, Biondi-Santi, this night. The 1978 Biondi-Santi "Il Greppo" offered classic Brunello understatement. Lean, delicate, and graceful. It has subdued aromas of dried red fruits and tea leaf. Not much flesh clung to the wine so it danced freely on my palate with nice gusto.

Sandwiched between the two Il Greppos, the 1975 Col d'Orcia was most beautiful. A revelation in aged Brunello, as anyone who drinks this wine would fall in love with it. Rose petals, tea leaf, and sweet red fruits in the nose. Really focused sumptuous ripe fruit, fresh and accompanied by enough good tannins to make one yearn for a bite of something rich and savory, like a Florentine steak.

Finally, the 1968 Biondi-Santi "Il Greppo". Were it not for Ben's Glamis Castle-like cellar I don't think this annata would be so alive. This was as ethereal as an old DRC RSV Delicate, elegant bright red fruits hinting of mushrooms and black tea. Fresh-tasting and with a mouthwatering spiciness. I was already late, but It was hard to let go as it kept evolving in the glass.

Kevin, John's close friend and our generous host, offers his notes on the wines and some parting words:

Magnum—Franck Bonnville Gran Cru Blanc de Blanc (Avize).

Rich, frothy, nice magnum cream (1 year since purchase), excellent balance, some call it baby Krug, lemon curd, citrus, brioche, aged in old oak, champ vines are an astonishing 80 years old. Nice way to get started. With the Great Ben pouring, how could we go wrong.

1999 Fanti San Fillipo—Very dark saturated, rich, coffee expresso flavours, more of an international style, but also loads of cassis and glycerin,spice and oak, not traditional, but didn’t genuflect to Rolland either. Despite the rich style, not overripe, well balanced. One of the biggest mouthfuls of the evening. Want this with a steak.

1997 Conti Constanti—cherry and leather notes, seemed more about potential, despite an hour of decant, on repour, classic old school, dry tannins, ends nice, seemed more mature than the other 97’s, which was ok. Classic sangiovese—it was better but could have been a chianti high end riserva if tasted blind, for me. Which is not bad!

1997 Canalicchio di Sopra---traditonal style, well done, menthol and licorice, tight, good acidity, not much texture and depth at this point, falls short of wowing, but plenty of upside. The most traditional, correct Brunello so far for me. (18.0).

1997 Castelgiocondo Riserva—oh my, oh my oh my, lock the doors and keep the young ens and women folk in the house where it is safe, this was spectacular, not necessarily traditional, but traditional producer to be sure, powerfully extracted, dark violet, damp earth, deep rich like no Brunello I have had, stunning in that sense, the monster has been tamed so to speak someone said, delicious, not traditional, would like to see if this will improve or if it is all about the power game. (17.5—19.0?)

1995 Gaja Sugarille—beautiful nose, aromatic, spice and more spice, well integrated, pine resin also on the nose, full bodied, elegant, lovely wine, maybe the prettiest wine so far. (18.0).

1995 Gaja Rennina—juniper, aromatic underbrush exotic leathery notes, cool, menthol, silky tannins, another wonderful drink. Kind of reminds me of his barbaresco, that silky wonderful seemless style. (18.0).

1982 Livio Sassetti Pertimali—very small producer, hard to get in this country, very rich, high octane, but alchohol present but in check, deep leather,
Parker said if he had one Brunello to drink on a desert island, it would be this one, tons of fruit, soft tannins, but strong tannins, this will age and improve forever. One of Wassermans favorites also. Super concentration of fruit on retaste next morning. My favorite of the evening.

1978 Biondi-Santi—tobacco, leather against a good background of fruit, this was and today, still showing very nicely, solid but maybe on the beginning of its slow apogee downward. Has the classic roasted chestnuts, dried flowers, that the aged brunello beauties get at about 30 years.

1975 Col d Orcia—Great producer from a great vintage—most developed wine so far, has all the old world traditional school notes, I remember giving this very high marks, but now can’t quite remember why. It was the one bottle that had the least left at the end of the evening if that says something. I remember saying it was 18.5 but again, lost track on this one. Alex, help. Tell me what I thought…

1968 Biondi—Santi---thought it was tired, lost its fruit, gave it a 15.0. Last night, this morning, on retaste, jumped to 17.5, amazing. What is more amazing is that Ben gave it the 7 decant workout last night. It improved the most overnight, which given its age and how it showed, I would have thought it the last of the wines to benefit from more time. Lots of leather, tar, resin, lovely finish. The fruit of course not the strength of the wine at this point.


1975 “ Annata” Avignonesi Vin Santo---The Saint wine—this had special connotations for John. John researched every wine we drank, as Bonnie knows, and John told me Vin Santo was so named, because in the 15th century, during the council of Florence, the Armenian or Greek Patriarch of the Eastern edge of the empire used the word xantos which means yellow in both Greek and Armenian, The Florentines mistakenly thought he had said santo or saint. Ha! Before that, it was known as vin pretto or “pure wine”. The Florentines liked vin santo better. The grape variety that goes into Vin Santo are Malvasia, Trebbiano and something else. It is of course dried like raisin on mats and then when almost raisin, pressed, resulting in very concentrated juice.
Avignonesi is the Y Quem of Vin Santo.

Dark amber, rich, viscous, very dense, mouth filling, dried flowers, nuts, raisiny, completely dry, this was perfect Vin Santo. Alex, saving a taste for you in a split. (19.0).


I want to thank all for contributions of wine and spirit and remembrance of a super person, great father, husband, and best friend.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Kermit's Temptations

I listened to Kermit Lynch's debut CD, Man's Temptation, while blasting to Sacramento on I-80 in my wife's WRX last weekend. The wind whistled in the background joining Kermit in a chorus. This surprising album is delicious road music, indeed!

Yes, Kermit Lynch--the Berkeley wine merchant known for introducing Vieux Télégraphe, Robert Chevillon, François Raveneau, Marcel Lapierre, Charles Joguet, Domaine Tempier, and other great wine producers to the US--is also an accomplished musician. He sang all thirteen songs and composed five of them--country essentially, with folk, blues, and boogie-woogie inflections. He raspily croons the uptempo numbers in a lively, swinging beat and delivers the heartbreak ballads with a pained, lazy voice.

Listening to the CD I get the feeling that Kermit has long dreamed of recording his music. He described himself as a "starving musician" in the streets of Berkeley during the 70s long before a wine shop was even a thought. Rock-and-roll was his ambition. "Still I think to myself, if I'd had musicians like Keith Richards and Charlie Watts backing me up, I mighta been a contender."

Well, after a long detour on the wine route, Kermit boldly changed course and headed to Nashville to cut a CD on an indie label. With a Nashville back-up band worthy of the Stones--equipped with folk instruments like upright bass, mandolin, accordion, pedal steel guitar, fiddle, bouzouki (?), and slide guitar--Kermit produced a rich texture of sound and a flawless beat; his vocals sailed through effortlessly.

And of course, what's Kermit Lynch without his notes? The CD's liner notes are vintage Kermit. He writes the propaganda piece for each song the same way he persuades you to drink Tempier's La Migoua, gets you excited on Bernard Maume's Mazis, or makes you try a half-case of the Gramenon.

The songs in this new CD, like the wines, are stories of Kermit's temptations. Who doesn't like to be tempted?

Kermit Lynch
"Man's Temptation"
(Dualtone Music Group)
CD $14.00 at Vineyard Gate

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Suppers at Il Cane Rosso

I'm confused. Il Cane Rosso is a tasty new eatery in the foodie chic Ferry Building, fronting the wharf with an unobstructed view of the Bay and Treasure Island. It started just four months ago, a brainchild of Daniel Patterson of Coi and on-site chef, Lauren Kiino, formerly of East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass.

A highly praised chef and literate commentator on food trends, Daniel Patterson has decried the lack of creativity among trendy Bay Area restaurants, describing the sameness of Bay Area cuisine as nothing more than glorifying purveyor-driven dishes. Ouch!

Patterson is not alone with this complaint. A few weeks ago, Momofuku chef David Chang's dismissive "figs on a plate" comment with Anthony Bourdain was an instant cause célèbre among San Francisco foodies.

Yet, this kind of fare is exactly what Patterson dishes out at Cane Rosso. Not that I'm complaining, far from it, as I've enjoyed a number of meals there already. I guess if you can't beat them, then join them. But to Patterson's credit, he's made this kind of Bay Area cooking, first championed by Chez Panisse, accessible to the masses and definitely more affordable.

The restaurant's patio is the wharf deck where one can enjoy alfresco dining (where's Amy?)...

...basking in the magnificent view of San Francisco Bay.

A Fentiman's Orange Jigger soda ($4.50) is pricey but a refreshing way to start

Long and Bailey Farms Porchetta Sandwich with Bell Pepperonata, Mustard Greens and Aioli ($9)

Dirty Girl Beet and Farro Salad with Kale and Ricotta salada ($7.50). Farro appears to be the current grain du jour. No?

The 3-course menu is just $25 and started off with this heartwarming Butternut and Cannellini Bean Minestrone with Garlic Crostino. It paired well with the 2007 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare. Rosés are great with soup!

Braised Marin Sun Farms Lamb Shoulder with Umbrian Lentils and Mirepoix. 19-year-old Châteauneuf du Pape was the perfect match for this fall dish.

Chocolate Crumb "Tiramisu". Tiramisu is so '90s but, hey, this is imaginative!

And to end the meal, a Gibraltar from Blue Bottle Coffee next door.

Small carafe of 2007 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare. A Provençal-like rosé blend of mainly Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah with a dollop of white wines--Grenache Blanc and Roussanne--mixed in. The red blends are bled from Bonny Doon's Le Cigare Volant. Brilliant!

1990 Domaine Charvin Châteauneuf du Pape Rouge, perfect with the braised lamb shoulder

I cellared this at 54-55 degrees F since release. At 19 years it's drinking very well, though there's noticeable baby fat. A few months ago, a friend opened a 1957 Domaine de Mont-Redon Châteaueuf du Pape Rouge, now that's mature Châteauneuf!

Late in 2000, Vineyard Gate hosted a 1998 Châteauneuf du Pape wine dinner. 1998 is a great, classic vintage in Châteauneuf and my admiration grows each time I get a chance to taste one. I remembered someone asking me at the dinner, "how would these wines age?" He couldn't believe that a wine that's so fruity and lush could go beyond a few years. But I've always said, Châteauneuf has the widest window of drinkability of any wine that I know of.

Last weekend, Vineyard Gate featured a small tasting of 2007 Châteauneufs, another highly acclaimed and classic year. I love many of the wines in this vintage. But I do find it amusing to read comments saying the top wines of the vintage could go up to twenty years. As if that's news!

Il Cane Rosso
One Ferry Building, # 41
San Francisco, CA 94111
Open daily for lunch, starting this week supper served nightly

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Galician Treats

This morning I went to my EarthBox and picked a bunch of Pimientos de Padron. I should've harvested a week ago, now they're a bit overripe and overgrown. But they'll still be tasty roasted in a skillet, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.

Pimientos de Padron is classic Galician tapas treat. Ten years ago it was a rarity in the Bay Area, a small bag would set you back fifteen to twenty bucks. Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto was the first source I found locally. Soon, seeds and seedlings were being sold and given out (my friend Dan--aka Mr. Heirloom Tomatoes--gave me a couple) so I just started to grow my own. Hey, it's legal!

As the name indicates, pimientos de Padron originated in the historic town of Padron in the province of Galicia located in northwestern Spain above Portugal and off the Atlantic coast. It has been a great delicacy there for centuries, and it made the town famous throughout Spain for such an invaluable contribution to tapas. The folks in Padron celebrate their great capsicum with an annual gastronomic fiesta every first Saturday of August. 3,000 kilos of the celebrated peppers are cooked by the townspeople and served with corn bread and chorizos, washed down with copas of Rioja.

But what's the big deal about these chili peppers? Well, aside from tasting great, there's a burning surprise that awaits you when you munch on these. Most taste mild, but one in a few will set fire to your mouth. So the pleasure in eating these peppers is a kind of devious or kinky gastronomy. Of course, terroir is everything. The peppers that come from Padron is really intense in flavor, but the ones we grow here locally is milder but still delicious. My EarthBox sitting on the porch, with a southwest exposure, filled with organic soil from Sloat provides good terroir.

Aside from pimiento, Galicia produces marvelous wines from local grape varietals. This being a cool-climate area, Galicia produces Spain's greatest white wine in Albariño. An Albariño that knocked my socks off is the Leirana from Forja del Salnes. It is made from vines 40-years-old planted on a ridge of sand and granite soils. The vines yield an extremely small crop, just 2 kilos per vine for a total of 500 cases of wine! We are fortunate to sell a few bottles of it at Vineyard Gate.

Mencia is the great red wine of Galicia. In Bierzo, Alvaro Palacios has made this wine world famous, and almost as expensive as his legendary Priorat wines. However, it is in Ribeira Sacra, specifically in the subzone of Amandi, where Mencia verges on the sublime. Pedro M. Rodriguez Perez of Guimaro crafts elegant Mencia wines from steep terraced vineyards that he restored from antiquity. His flagship Mencia from old vines (viñas viejas) is another rarity that we sell at Vineyard Gate. This exalted wine offers fabulous concentration and graceful, layered flavors that cascade endlessly like the breathtaking terraces of the mountain vineyards.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Swiss Movement

Fall days are perfect to enjoy a late lunch at a new restaurant in San Francisco's Castro/Mission neighborhood. Below the perimeter of Market and 16th Streets--in the neighborhoods of Castro, Noe, and Mission--are some of the trendsetting, tastiest restaurants, bars, and cafés in the city, sandwiched between abandoned storefronts, taquerias, sleazy hotels, and cheap apartments. These are places like Bar Bambino, Contigo, Flour + Water, Beretta, and Starbelly.

Starbelly opened just a few months ago. I would describe the food as "contemporary Americana as imagined by a San Franciscan"--downscaled Lark Creek mixed with Bay Area Cal-Euro, whatever the heck this means. To illustrate, on the menu you'll find corn dogs next to salumi, pizza Marherita side-by-side with BLT, tapenade and pimientos de padron together with Prather Ranch burger. What is going on?! Is this how many of us eat in the Bay Area these days?

To further complicate matters, my friends and I brought a bunch of Swiss wines to Starbelly--yes, Swiss, as in watches and banks--to have with this new take on American comfort food.

Switzerland's Valais region is where the Rhône River originates. In its hills and valleys below the Alps lies one of the most fascinating wine regions. The warm and sunny microclimate combined with the mountain terrain produce fabulous wines with complex, mouthwatering flavors and minerality.

The 2007 Caloz Heida-Paien (pictured above) easily seduces with a scent of wildflowers and flavors of ripe pear, sweet spice, and fresh herbs, all held together by a crisp acidity and crunchy minerality. Heida-Paien is the Swiss name for the Savagnin grape grown in the Jura region of France. Anyway, this wine was absolutely tasty and refreshing with Starbelly's Caesar Salad. Eric, Raj Parr's assistant at RN74, tells me that they go through a bunch of this at the wine bar. I wasn't surprised.

From the restaurant's wine list we ordered a 2007 Simcic Sauvignonasse from Brda in Slovenia bordering Italy (same region as Movia), it was rich and interesting but no match with the gorgeous 2007 Cave du Vieux-Moulin Petite Arvine de Vetroz. Petite Arvine is a white grape that's also grown widely in Italy's Valle d'Aosta. Romain Papilloud of Cave du Vieux-Moulin crafts this suave Petite Arvine, dry and vibrant, redolent with citrus, green apples, and sweet herbs. A great match with the Fried Clam Poorboy sandwich with a side of fries that I had.

The last wine we opened was the 2007 Cave des Tilleuls Pinot Noir de Vetroz. Pinot Noir, of course, is a cool-climate grape varietal and well at home at the Valais region's mountain terroir. Bright, juicy cherry flavors with hints of spices like pepper and cinnamon stick. Prorpietor/winemaker Fabienne Cottagnoud make this mountain Pinot Noir with beautiful purity, exactly what it deserves.

A small plate of caesar salad with avocado and croutons. A refreshing meal by itself with the 2007 Caloz Heida-Paien

Having lived in New England for years I can't resist ordering this fried clam poorboy sandwich. I washed it down with the 2007 Cave du Vieux-Moulin Petite Arvine de Vetroz. Heavenly!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dinners at the Fifth Floor

Last Tuesday, I found myself happily back at the Fifth Floor Restaurant (my fourth visit in the last six weeks) with friends who've been eager to check it out after I told them something good and exciting is going on there.

By coincidence, the Michelin's 2010 San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country Guide was released earlier that day. I bantered with Jennie Lorenzo, the Fifth Floor's executive chef, who smiled giddily and seemed relieved that her restaurant retained its Michelin Star. She took over the kitchen early this year. Last year, when she was assisting then head chef, Laurent Manrique, Michael Bauer torched the Fifth Floor, rating the food a measly 2 Stars for the San Francisco Chronicle, a plunge from the 4 Stars it previously held. Meanwhile, Aqua, where Manrique went and recently left, lost its two Michelin Stars and is rumored to be closing. So as in fashion, in the restaurant business, one day you're in and the next day you're out.

I find Jennie down-to-earth and maybe quite humbled by finally being in charge of a high-profile restaurant. Jennie was born and raised in the Philippines and never went to cooking school. Yet, she's certainly no stranger to Michelin Stars. She has cooked for chefs with a total of 9 Michelin Stars: Marco Pierre White in London (3 Stars), Gordon Ramsay in London (3 Stars), Seiji Yamamoto at Ryugin in Tokyo (2 Stars, and expecting another Star), and Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone at Ame in San Francisco (1 Star). An impressive achievement for someone self-taught and still youthful.

The Fifth Floor has been a bastion of contemporary French cuisine since it opened. A parade of some of the best chefs the city has known cooked there: George Morrone, Laurent Gras, and Manrique. And it was also where Rajat Parr, the well-known sommelier, first presided, when Morrone opened it back in 1999.

I haven't been to the Fifth Floor in years, but I bolted for a reservation last month when I received word they were blowing out the wine list. The Fifth Floor wine list has always been one of the best in the city if you love classic French wines. I knew the restaurant has been in decline in recent years, so I never checked the menu or who was manning the stoves, I was there to attack the Burgundy list. Food was going to be background.

I picked out the five-course tasting menu, which at $65 has got to be the city's best priced among restaurants of the Fifth Floor's order. Sign of the times, I'm sure, but to bargain-hunters like me, a find.

Jennie's cuisine is contemporary European cooking with a mixture of Japanese, no doubt picked up during her stages at Mirabelle in London, Ryugin, and Ame. But like I said, I never even inquired about the food initially. My two requests were that the Stuffed Quail and Roast Duck Breast be substituted for items in the standard fare. I needed some dishes for the red Burgundy. They obliged without resistance. Again, sign of the times.

When the first course was brought, the Smoked River Trout--a kind of deconstructed version of New York lox-bagel-cream cheese, presented in a colorful palette of orange, yellow, white, and green (the smoked trout, mango chutney and corn-chip twirl, dabs of cream on the plate, and slices of cucumber as garnish)--I got a bit distracted from my 1993 Domaine Jean Grivot Vosne-Romanee Les Beaux Monts (more on this later).

Next up was the hedonistic Crab Cappuccino. Its aroma of vanilla, truffle, crab, and ginger was intoxicating. The foam was sweet, delicate, and fragrant; and when I dug deeper into the cup to scoop up the crab broth, the flavors exploded. What a surprise, it was like tasting pure essence of crab. The complexity of this simple course blew my mind!

At this point, the food was taking over. I couldn't wait for the next dish to arrive. The quail, stuffed with sausage and drizzled with a light, creamy madeira sauce, was so good I had the urge to lick my plate. And the roast duck breast was perfectly medium-rare, tender and juicy. The dinner was dazzling, and it was the wine that provided adequate background for the food.

The meal starts with an innocuous amuse on a spoon

A Fifth Floor classic, goat's milk butter

The popular Crab Cappuccino...

...the flavors explode with pure crab essence

Big Eye Tuna, a tuna sashimi garnished with cha soba in a yuzu vinaigrette. Absolutely perfect with the toasty, citrusy 1999 Corton-Charlemagne, Domaine Tollot-Beaut

Seared Scallops, with crispy tater tots, crunchy, juicy, perfect with the vibrant 1983 Meursault-Poruzots, Domaine François Jobard

Huckleberry soda shot, surprisingly good palate freshner

Slow Roasted Pork Belly, fatty pork like pork belly and porchetta is ubiquitous in Bay Area restos these days

1999 Domaine Tollot-Beaut Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru. Toasty, bright, sharp, and laser-focused.

1986 Domaine François Jobard Meursault-Poruzots. Superb freshness. Deep gold color. Honeycomb, toasted nuts, honeyed pear, nectarine, apple, and grapefruit, laced with spice and minerals. It gained more energy after two-and-a-half hours!

1993 Domaine Jean Grivot Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux Monts. Fascinating as this was made during the Accad years of the domaine. Fragrant cherries. Deep, dark ruby color. Still backward, but not too hard, the tannins are velvety but the fruit is sharp, high-toned, mineral, and infused with tart cherries, red licorice, and black pepper. Showing a lot of Vosne character.

Back label of 1998 Domaine François Lamarche La Grand Rue Grand Cru (monopole). From a little-known grand cru vineyard wedged between Romanée-Conti and La Tache. A terrific vintage. Seductive as a Romanée-Saint-Vivant but more powerful and masculine. Crushed berries, game, meat, and fur scents. Pure. Wonderful tannins that accentuate the bright black cherries, cherry liqueur, aromatic herbs, and pepper. A great match with the quail and duck.

1969 Domaine de la Pousse d'Or Volnay Clos de la Bousse d'Or (monopole). I brought this to toast a friend born on this vintage. Impeccable provenance as it was from a batch that came directly out of Nicolas Potel's cellar, son of Gérard Potel who was gérant and winemaker at Pousse d'Or. Amazingly pristine. '69s have unbelievable power. Darkly colored and fragrant. Structured, concentrated, firm, elegant, and sturdy fruit. Volnay with muscle. Bags of life.

I'd be amiss if I don't mention this playful and delicious dessert. Fifth Floor Sundae. Warm Valrhona dark chocolate pudding topped with popcorn-flavored ice cream and coconut foam. The popcorn aroma was decadent. A fabulous finish.

Fifth Floor
Hotel Palomar
12 Fourth Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Who's Buying California Wines?

It was bound to happen. Since the 1990s, California wine producers have been without any great inspirational winemaker or visionary as it did in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, with pioneers and leaders like Andre Tchelitscheff, John Daniel, Fred McCrea, Joe Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Burt Williams, Paul Draper, and Randall Grahm.

Instead, since the 1990s, California wine producers take their cues from wine critic scores, eager to pander to unsophisticated palates who are easily swayed by such scores.

Today, with a more experienced and independent-minded wine drinking public, empowered by the Internet ("We're All Wine Critics Now"), California wines are losing favor in the market. High alcohol, overripeness, and lack of interesting flavors make many California wines hard to enjoy with food, especially with the pure, ingredient-driven dishes we love to eat these days. And frankly, during these belt-tightening times, the high prices of California wines have turned many drinkers off.

A pair of news articles published today on the state of Bay Area restaurant wine lists are getting much attention because they bring such trends to light. Jon Bonné, wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was brave enough to write this enlightening piece titled "Do our wine lists ignore California?". I say "brave" because writing for a paper in close proximity to the very wineries whose toes he steps on can elicit a palpable wrath to him and his employer.

The other news article, or series of reports more accurately, was penned by Eric Asimov, the wine columnist of the New York Times, whom I regard as the most enlightened American wine writer today. (Okay, I'm biased; like Asimov, I love orange wines and Jura wines and wines made by Lopez de Heredia and Movia, as I do any great Burgundy). His column today "Eat Local; Drink European", and twin blogs posted this week, "Ripeness Isn't All" and "Favorite Wine Lists in the San Francisco Bay Area" talk about the hottest Bay Area restaurants and wine bars that are packed with customers every night, despite the economic slowdown, and with every table graced by a bottle or a glass or two of every sort of wine, but seldom California.

Despite such dismal trends there are many California wine producers whose souls are intact and have never sold them to the highest scorers. Foremost is Edmunds St. John. By dint of recklessness, relentless experimentations, and not bowing to wine critics, Edmunds St. John has achieved what has escaped most California wineries: consistently producing wines with soul, balance, and expression of the California terroirs.

Steve Edmunds, owner and winemaker of Edmunds St. John, makes the most pleasurable California wines to drink. His 2007 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir, for example, doesn't take a backseat to the outstanding Morgons of Marcel Lapierre and Jean-Paul Thevenet, both imported by his close friend and fellow Berkeley native, Kermit Lynch.

If more California wine producers would take their cue from producers like Edmunds St. John, then I would easily expect Bay Area wine lists to be filled with their graceful wines.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What's All the Talk of Orange Wines?

To wine bloggers and to many of their ardent fans the hippest, coolest, and most desirable wines seem to be those that live under the big rock of wine critics. Inasmuch as it helps liberate our palates from the hegemonic lock of wine critics, I'd say more power to the wine web.

Lately, the most titillating talk in the wine blogosphere has been on orange wines. Eric Asimov, wine columnist of the New York Times and one of my favorite wine writers, appears to be the instigator in his posts here and here. Other popular wine bloggers have chimed in here, here, and also here. And most recently my favorite local wine blogger, Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, could no longer resist, hence posted his thoughts on the subject here.

I don't like the term "orange wine". Amber I prefer. Orange is misleading and just plain wrong, but everyone seems to struggle to come up with a catchier alternative; hence, this name sticks maybe not just for the time being. A word of caution for those who are hearing about orange wine for the first time: I'm compelled to point out that it is certainly not this nor this.

I do love orange wines. The best ones I seek out for sure as they offer incomparable flavor surprise, combined with amazing texture, freshness, and complexity. Yet for wines that have spent an extended time immersed in their fruit, it's incongruous that orange wines aren't overtly fruity, most only have a hint of fruit. You really have to love minerality to enjoy these wines. And I do!

I can say without hesitation that Paolo Bea's 2007 Santa Chiara ($49 at Vineyard Gate) is most amazing. And both the Coenobium and Rusticum wines ($23 and $30, respectively, at Vineyard Gate) that Giampiero Bea crafts for the Trappiste nuns of the Monastero Suore Cistercensi are also incredible. All these wines are made with extended skin contact for a number of weeks, then are aged on the lees without temperature control for about a year--significantly more for the Santa Chiara.

Domestically, there are just a handful of winemakers dabbling in orange wine. However, with all the recent hype about it, I wouldn't be surprise if we see a growing trend, much like we did on rosé when the buzz spread.

Yet one orange wine from Oregon achieves almost cult status among the natural wine cognoscenti: Francis Tannahill's "Jack".

Sam Tannahill takes his time to make it and he doesn't release right away. Two years ago I received just a case of its 2004 debut release of which only 37 cases were produced. The winery sold out right away, much of it was hoarded by their distributors and merchants. It's a good sign that a wine is good when its distributors and merchants are keeping it for themselves, instead of selling to their customers.

After a two-year wait, the 2005 "Jack" finally got released earlier this year ($21 at Vineyard Gate). It's a blend of one-third each Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. Skin contact was done for about six months at low temperature, then it was aged for sixteen months in neutral barrel before being bottled unfiltered. Almost two years passed before Sam decided to released the 2005.

Why it took so long to release, I never really got a clear explanation. Either Sam was preoccupied about more pressing matters or he deemed it wasn't ready yet. Not that it really matters. This 2005 "Jack" is not only again terrific, but being an orange wine there is no rush to drink it--it can age for decades.