Home field disadvantaged – NYT on SF wine lists

In a piece entitled, “Eat Local; Drink European,” Eric Asimov of the NYT tackles the apparent paradox at the core of some San Francisco restaurants: while the menus extol fresh local produce, the wine lists are often dominated by wines from Europe.

Why? One wine director, Chris Deegan of the restaurant Nopa, says “I find myself drinking European wines most of the time and pairing European wines more successfully with the food.” Mark Ellenbogen, wine director of a top Vietnamese restaurant, says, ““At Slanted Door, you need low-alcohol, high acid wines with residual sugar, and they don’t come from the New World.”

Asimov continues the topic of the unwieldy pairings many American wines make with food over on The Pour. He writes, “the riper and riper styles of wine that have become popular in this country simply are not versatile with food, so restaurants look elsewhere.” He also notes some exceptions that he has found.

Wine style aside, I crunched some numbers for the piece based on my previous research on the carbon footprint of wine. Even though container shipping offers greater efficiency from a greenhouse gas perspective than trucking, a 9,500 mile sea journey still comes out higher than a 60 mile truck trip.

By way of an offset reminiscent of our bottle-for-bottle challenge, several restaurants in the Bay Area have discontinued serving water bottled in the Alps and now serve local, tap water, still or sparkling. And you can even try this at home.

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19 Responses to “Home field disadvantaged – NYT on SF wine lists”

  1. The whine is that there are no CA wines to fit the cuisine. The truth is that these guys either know better or should not be in the business of buying wine.

    Personally, I think they know better. When I have more time later today, I will be back with lists of wine that meet their every objection. It all rings a little to hollow and false to suggest that your list can have ten sparkling wines from France but not one single entrant from CA.

    More later.

  2. Charlie is spot on. Jon Bonne wrote a similar piece on sfgate.com.

    SF/Berkeley has been a “my palate is cooler than yours” region for a while and I wish it would change.

    Ego-centric palates serve no purpose and alienate everyone outside of your tasting group…stop tying to out-dork one another and get real.

  3. I certainly agree.Not only Calif. but also many new world wines especially those from Australia are way to high in alcohol to go well with food.

  4. JOE–

    Do you mean all CA wines categorically? If so, then I have to wonder when you got to taste all CA wines? In the case of Slanted Door, they have ten French bubblies on the list. Have you tasted any CA bubblies like DVX or Schrambsberg or Roederer Estate? Yes, the soils are different in CA, but the structures are virtually impossible to tell apart in the successful wines. There is no earthly reason why Slanted Door and its wine picker could have to keep CA wines off the list by the reasons he states or the reasons you state.

  5. Well, that’s a pretty solid case put forward by Charlie. I’d be interested to see a rep from Slanted Door respond to it.

  6. I don’t drink many CA wines. I often find that the issue is not that there aren’t good, balanced CA wines out there but that I must pay 2-3 times what a Chilean, Spanish or French wine of comparable qualities has (provided we’re steering clear of Bordeaux and Champagne). I’m sure there are some compelling, balanced, anti-fruit-bomb CA wines out there at reasonable prices. I’d like to see somebody post some good examples so I can get to tasting them.

  7. There is a lot to be said about the general state of winemaking in California, and much of it would agree that big, rich, full-bodied wines are very often the result.

    But, that would be an oversimplification. And, it is further oversimplification that equivalent Italian or French or Chilean wines exist at much lower prices when it comes to balanced, complete, restrained offerings.

    Now, to be sure, if you want Napa Valley Cab or Russian River Pinot, you aren’t going to find muchof great interest at $10. But I wonder if the wines of Castle Rock have come your way? Sure, the Syrah is pretty ripe and rich–but have you tasted equivalent Syrahs from France that are light, acid-driven food wines? And Castle Rock Pinot, of which there are four, all sell for about $12. So does their pretty good Cab.

    But, let’s get back to Slanted Door for a minute. I know this restaurant pretty well, and its food is very good even if the room looks a little like an upscale modern lavatory with a view. Not their fault, they did not build the room.

    And the list, as far as it goes is very good also. Great Germans to suit my taste, and lots of Gruners that do not suit my taste. No problem. I have never had a difficult finding wines to drink from the list. But where it all breaks down for me is in the almost insulting refusal of the wine picker to include anything from California–based on the most false of motives, which as I said in an earlier posting here, I do not believe he actually means since he is otherwise pretty well informed.

    Here are some suggestions for him of a type that have direct price and style equivalents on his list. Unfortunately, he acts like they do not exist.

    –Navarro and Fogarty Gewurztraminers
    –Poet’s Leap Riesling (yes, I know it is from WA, but there are none of those wines on the list either)
    –Blacksmith Chenin Blanc
    –Voss Viognier
    –Pey-Marin Riesling
    –DVX, Roederer and Schramsberg Sparkling wines

    All of the wines above fit the profiles of wines on the Slanted Door list. And there are a lot more. It is just absurd to suggest that such wines do not exist and that is why the wine picker refuses to carry such wines.

    Now, let’s be clear. San Francisco is a very cosmopolitan place, and it is our good fortune to have all kinds of interesting restaurants representing cuisines from around the world. And lots of those restaurants will have a decided tilt to their wine lists. But most of those who do have such a tilt do not lapse into the nonsense of “there is nothing out here for me to consider”. When the rhetoric reaches that kind of disinformation, it is no longer about truth but about bias and stubbornness. It is about the person doing the selecting, not about the wine.

  8. Girls and boys, and those not so categorically inclined-
    Chaque a son gout- each to his/her own taste. I happen to be in the French camp. Personally, as someone who drinks WAAAAY too much wine and would like to eat WAAAAY too much food, I yearn for satisfying wines with less alcohol and tasty food with less butter, sugar, lard, and salt. I do think diversity is the spice of life; the challenge is to know what you are buying, and in both food and wine you just can no longer tell what you’re buying. Generally, French wines are less overripe, lower in alcohol, and, I must admit, SUPERIOR. Chateauneuf is a probable exception. Certainly they are often more interesting, and come in a much wider array of STYLES than California, or any other wines of a particular provenance (OK, maybe Italian). I think the types of food suited to JAMMY ALCOHOLIC OVERRIPE wines is limited. I am the first one to reach for a high alcohol and high RS Zin, though, with BBQ or dark chocolate on the menu. By the same token, how much SWEET, FATTY, SALTY food is on the menus of chefs who supposedly care about balance and complexity, not to mention wine felicity? Yes, I’m madder than hell, but I have to take it. People who sell things, whether wine, food, or pornography, respond to the market. What you see is what “people” want, like it or not. Anal hijinks and jammy wines suit the zeitgeist. Parker would not be a messiah if no one was willing to follow. Nonetheless we in the “niche” market who appreciate a more restrained and dare I say sincere and profound understanding of pleasure have many avenues, still, to our satisfaction. If they are selling French wines in San Francisco, it’s because they believe that’s what their customers want to buy. Restaurants are just like wineries and pornographers- IT’S MONEY THAT MATTERS. Adam Smith, like Jesus, the founding fathers, Mao, and Lenin, and Einstein, had no idea what a monster they had created. My hat is off to San Franciscans, for, as always, doing what makes them FEEL GOOD. Yes, I’m from NORCAL. Drink what you want, be happy. Arguing over wine is the definition of pointlessness. The stuff is purely SUBJECTIVE by nature. Love to you all. Especially the MOST OPINIONATED. Your enemy is really your best friend, as Bhuddism would have it.

  9. Charlie,

    Thank you for pointing to a WA Riesling. They are plenty of other great producing states in the country that also make great wines. You cannot be promoting “local is better” and have only foreign wines on the list; does not make sense. Would you bring melons from the south of France because they taste better (they do by the way)?

    I hear the economic argument, very true, but there are also plenty of wine buyers out there that look at you from a pedestal if you are not from the old world. At the end the consumer will decide what they like best local or foreign.


  10. Nico, it is not a question of “they taste better”. Nor a question of economics. Clearly WA Rieslings like Pacific Rim and the several other top-notch bottlings from that area, plus several from Anderson Valley and Santa Barbara County, have plenty of character and are made in the moderately sweet, high acid style that Slanted Door’s wine picker professes to like.

    So, are the several other wines I mentioned–and those wines were examples, not an exhaustive list. Moreover,the prices for those domestic wines are less than their foreign counterparts.

    The Slanted Door food is great. The list, as it exists, is well-chosen. But, it is simply disingenuous to claim to want a certain type of wine and then claim that none exist in CA or anywhere else in the U. S. There are 3000 makers in CA spread from Temecula to Oregon, and another 1000 or so in Oregon and Washington. To dismiss all 4000+ with the back of the hand as if they belonged to one great monolithic whole is silly and wrong.

    But, I have the solution. The wine picker should wake up one morning. Claim to have had a dream in which Randall Grahm put visions in his head and go out and show that he has grown up.

  11. Mr. Bunter,

    Great, animated and fun response. But do I get a sense of superiority coming from you? You begin with to each his or her own taste and then define how much better San Franciscans are at judging a good wine versus most other Americans. Am I confused? You made some excellent points that as a small winery, it’s important to use these points as a reference. Maybe we just dump SF in favor of Dallas? Probably not!

    Real world example: our winemaker came to me and was concerned about the acidity in one of our whites as higher than that last few vintages. Should we adjust? Make the wine softer? Blend in another variety to ease off the edge of this wine? The answer was no, we picked it at that ripeness, we let it go and see how the complete wine tastes when it’s finished. It may be the vintage of this wine I send a bottle to Mr. Ellenbogen at the Slanted Door (a million bucks says he doesn’t buy it).

  12. There are many domestic, California & non-California wines I would contend meet these buyer profiles of higher acid, food friendly wines. Gruet from New Mexico or Horton form Virginia; One might also try interesting items from New York, Idaho and yes, let me say it, Texas. To omit a region; pigeon holing the offerings as out of balance fruit bombs is a narrow view of wine production world wide and I might suggest there is a hidden agenda some “gate-keepers” will not admit to keeping. In my opinion, if a Chef seeks quality ingredients the world over for perfection in the kitchen’s production of the dishes, it is also important that the resident Sommelier also seek perfection in selecting wines that 1)pair well with the food as well as selecting wines that will 2)SELL as the wine list is one of the major profit centers of any restaurant. Consumers in America seek out American wines when eating out, why would you not cater to your customer? The only thing you have to lose is your mark-up.

    Look, there is a time and a place for educating the customer and I am all for learning something new, wine dinners, the by-the-glass selection, and tasting menu’s are these venue’s. When I dine out, and I do dine out quite a bit, I am not always seeking to be educated as sometimes I want to go with my desires and throw the rules of what pairs best out for what I want to eat and drink in the moment.

  13. As a very small, so called “boutique” wine producer (I don’t like the label boutique, but I’m stuck with it – I’m not boutique – I’m not a rich yuppie who had extra cash, but someone who holds down another job to pay for my “wine habit”), I have to agree with Dr. Vino and Charlie Olken on the disingenuous nature of both Eric Asimov’s comments (yes, I read his entire article) and the comments of the people compiling the wine lists at the various SF restaurants.

    As others have already posted here, to say there are “no” California wines that fit the bill for the wine lists is not only ludicrous, but ignorant. To criticize the California wines as “high alcohol fruit bombs not suitable with food” is also ignorant. Don’t mean to be judgmental or harsh, but I am just so fed up with this silly argument – as Chris Riccobono says in his little rant (that Matt so kindly provided the link to above), it’s all a matter of taste and palate. There are many foods to pair with California wines.

    I think much of this is a “doth protest too much” type of mind set from people like Eric Asimov – Mr. Asimov is a huge critic of the high-alcohol wines. Perhaps a tinge of jealousy that California makes the best wines in the world? Of course, California makes some of the worst wines in the world too – but this is the variety (and marketing) of California. (Yes, I’m sure many will argue with my assertion that California makes the best wines in the world, but let’s not re-enact the Judgment of Paris again and again –

    Rather than argue these silly issues, I would like to see Americans get more educated on wine and simply like what wines they like w/out reference to high or low alcohol or California, Italy, France, Spain, etc. or the old outdated argument of white wine with fish and red wine with meat. There is such a variety of food and wine out there, that this should be a non-issue. And folks who constantly whine about high alcohol wines, perhaps simply have a different (more developed, less developed?) palate…

    PS: In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t make high alcohol fruit bombs – neither do I worry about the alcohol level – I let the wine do it’s thing and turn out the way it wants to – granted, I can incluence this with hang time, fermentation, etc., but try to let the wine be as natural as it can be. Every vintage I’ve made has come in between 14.2% alcohol and 15.3% alcohol – so, to some, these might be high alcohol. The point is, I’m not making the wine to be either high or low alcohol, I’m making the wine to suit my tastes – because if I don’t sell it, I have to like it!

  14. I must say, I am pleased to see this topic being discussed out in the open. As someone who spent the first ten years of his career selling (and drinking) French and Italian wine, I am struck by the irony of my current position. My partner, Kevin O’Connor (ex-somm at Spago Beverly Hills) and I started a wine project to answer the very questions being asked here. Mostly,”can California deliver a balanced wine with vineyard driven characteristics?” I’ll not put forward whether I think we’ve achieved this or not (that is alas for the “wine pickers” of the world to say). But what I will say is that my own journey into the soul of California wine has overturned some real suprises. Here’s my list of CA producers doing it right: Copain, Ceritas, Peay, Hirsch, Salinia, Anthill Farms, Mt. Eden, Parr, Wind Gap, Arnot-Roberts, Drew, Qupe, Natural Process Alliance.

  15. There’s a political aspect to this. The Bay Area is the most anti-American part of the US, and some sommeliers express their politics through their wine choices.

    I often get in discussions with sommeliers and wine buyers. Those who refuse to carry California wine, when asked why, usually go well beyond “overripeness” and into culture.

    Thanks for the post, Dr. Vino, it inspired me to think about this and write a screed of my own on the political aspect of wine buying.


  16. Hi Tyler,
    This isn’t just the case on SF wine lists — it’s the same at top restaurants across the U.S. I interviewed Somms in major markets about this for an article I wrote a few years back, and the ratio of European wines vs. California/Northwest wines on their lists was something like 90/10. Would you ever see that at a restaurant in Paris or Madrid? Not likely.

  17. I agree that there are CA wines that are food friendly and they should be featured on CA wine lists.
    But it is interesting to me that this whole discussion has centered around blaming SF somms for their eurocentric style. Perhaps that is a bias that needs to be re-evaluated.
    But I would think it would give some CA winemakers pause for reflection, have they gone too far over the top with over-ripe grapes and new oak?
    Its not a matter of CA wines trying to emulate Euro wines, its about pushing CA wines to be authentic and not overly manipulated.

  18. As posted in another blog’s comment section:

    The main issue here is not the pricing or wine styles. There are great wines made locally that would fit the preferred styles of either NOPA or Slanted Door. To use just one example that popped in my head rather easily, look at the great wines of Skylark, made by John Lancaster and Rob Perkins who are the wine buyers at Boulevard. You KNOW they make wines that work with food being on THAT end of the wine business. And the price point thing is bogus as well. Their wines are on the shelf for a touch over $20.

    Again, as usual, Charlie Olken has it right on the money in many of the issues he addresses. However, the real issue is the hypocrisy of it all. If we were to visit Italy and have Aussie wines rammed down our throat, we would scream in horror and decry the internationalization of wine. At the same time we want, sometimes require that, that we drink the wines of the regions where the food comes from. We romanticize how great it is drinking pichets of vin rouge in southern France and marvel at how the food of Bologna goes so well with the local wine. What arrogance allows us to be exempt from all of this?

    Not previously printed:

    Mr. Olken forgot about two great Napa rieslngs, Smith-Madrone and Trefethen on the drier end. And I’m sure he would remember the Hallcrest Vineyard rieslings from Felton Road in the early 1990s. Can’t believe I remember them.

  19. Interesting discussion on the carbon footprint. I wish more companies would take the approach that Cono Sur is with their carbon neutral delivery program.

    Do you know of others?


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