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Thursday Tributes
Boston Wine Lists Teach San Francisco A Lesson

By Charles Olken

I grew up in Boston. Left town for grad school out here and never looked back. But, I did go back last week, and to my surprise, I found California wine everywhere and at good prices. Boston, good on ya.

Now, I am not saying that other places back east are less hospitable. I know of one or two restaurants in New York that do have a California wine on their lists. Sure, the prices are inflated, but at least they are there. But not like Boston.

In Boston, for example, I found a La Follette Pinot Noir on a wine list for $39, just a little over retail. And I asked the proprietor how it was that he priced his wines that way, and then expressed my surprise that he had a pretty good selection of California wines. His response was wonderfully revealing. “I have a lot of customers who are not students of wine but who like a good bottle with dinner. They find California wine much more approachable than wines from Europe with names they don’t understand and cannot pronounce.”

Wow. I thought that was an argument from thirty years ago, but there it was again. Like my neighbors here in California, the broad, educated middle class in Boston has become wine drinkers. And like my neighbors, they like wine but they have not made a fetish out of their interest in it. They like seeing names they recognize instead of needing a wine encyclopedia and three years worth of wine publications to be able to make a choice from the list.

Even in San Francisco, it is the rare list in a good restaurant that contains names like Franciscan and Beaulieu and, heaven forbid, Castle Rock. I looked around this fellow’s establishment, as instructed, and he was right, there was a bottle on almost every table. And while this was a very good restaurant, it was no “nose in the air”, wait staff in formal attire place. It’s a good thing that I did not ask for the sommelier. There wasn’t one.

I found this phenomenon repeated a couple of times over in other places I visited, and while we never set foot in the absolutely top-rated places whose lists I am sure are snootier and whose staff does, of course, include a sommelier, it was certainly a treat to see wine lists that did not pat themselves on the back for their “brilliance”.

I came home thinking that there are times when I look at lists here in San Francisco and wonder if the makers of those lists even know we are in California. I get it that my local Italian restaurant, run by a genuine native from Tuscany, has only Italian wines on the list. But, I am less than happy when I see lists that have few local wines despite the claim made by virtually every decent restaurant in this town that it relies on fresh, local ingredients.

San Francisco, you could take a page out of Boston’s book. Keep your wine prices reasonable and make your lists friendlier.


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Come On Down!
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:8/11/2011 7:41:46 AM

Charlie, you should come down to Long Beach love, we are awash in wine lists with names like Castle Rock, Blackstone, Hanna and BV. Of course most of the servers here still ask if you would like to start your meal with an iced tea or Pepsi....and when looking at a list like that, I almost always would rather an iced tea or better yet, a cocktail.


For me those lists are anything but friendly and I would simply rather skip wine with my meal than drink something like Castle Rock. I'm not in it for the buzz, I want wine to hopefully enhance my meal and at the very least, please me and for my palate...well, BV aint gonna do it. I don't think those wines should not be offered but just like with all things wine, I want balance. Would it kill anyone to offer a Sancerre, Quincy, Chinon or Pinot Blanc from Alsace? Damn, seeing a decent Vouvray might just bring a tear to my eye. Love my city but loathe the wine lists....

Long Beach or Boston ??
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:8/11/2011 8:15:44 AM

Good morning, Samantha--

You are, of course, right on at least a couple of counts. Good wine lists are not limited to everyday brands, and neither were the lists that impressed me. But good wine lists are also not limited to names that the clientel do not know.

Another example of a wine list that surprised me occurred at the yacht club of my Aunt Irma. Irma lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts and a yecht club there is like a tennis club here. There really are not a lot of yachts. More like sail boats for kids with a club house and a swimming pool.

During the summer, on sunny days, the place is loaded with families on vacation or just hanging out, and it makes a mean burger for lunch and have a chef who can actually cook who comes in to prepare simple but quality food on the weekend.

The list is only twenty-four wines long, but at least half consists of the better bottlings of names people have heard of. You may not like Castle Rock, but some of its inexpensive Pinot Noirs are great bargains. And, Sam, they are dry and they are balanced. They may not be complex or great choices for the cellar but when names like that show up as part of a balanced list, I applaud because those lists are for real people like my Aunt Irma who thinks Quincy is suburb south of Boston and thinks Pinot Blanc is the white wine version of Pinot Gris.

No Subject
Posted on:8/12/2011 7:25:41 AM

BRAVO! Samantha!!!!! I am with you, why do restaurants have sommeliers when they offer the same wines as safeway does?

Are you serious?
by Blake Gray
Posted on:8/12/2011 8:47:54 AM

Charlie, let me see if I understand what you're saying: San Francisco restaurants should carry more big-name corporate wines? Because San Francisco diners don't drink enough wine and/or don't know much about wine? Is that really your point?

If you think SF restaurants should carry a selection of California wines because they're local produce, I agree with you. But that doesn't apply in Boston, which is just as close to France as it is to here.

Corporate Wine
by Richard Alfaro
Posted on:8/12/2011 10:54:55 AM

Thank goddnes that you do not see these corporate wines (Beaulieu, Castle Rock, & Franciscan) on many wine lists in San Francisco (or the greater Bay area). We are very lucky here in Northern California to have a vibrant restaurant community that supports small production, locally produced wines. We also have a knowlegable workforce that knows wine and is able to help people like your Aunt Erma. Let the behemoths have Boston, I'll take San Francisco.

San Francisco Wine
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/12/2011 3:33:59 PM

The problem we have with people like my Aunt irma or my neighbors, all of whom are wine drinkers but not students, is that they cannot go into some restaurants and find wines on the list that they recognize. And asking them to deal with the sommelier is not realistic for a couple of reasons.

First of all, these folks would rather not ask the sommelier. It is not an action that is familiar to them. I am much more likely to ask than they are. Secondly, when they look at lists that have no options they recognize, they are as likely not to drink wine as to ask for help.

Third, and i don't mean this in an unkind way, but somms are far more interested in serving patrons who want to discuss the list, want to pick out special wines and like working with patrons who bring in older bottles that they can't decant and sample.

I don't blame the sommeliers for any of this. But that does not change the facts that folks like you and me have much higher comfort levels with lists of little know wines than the average wine drinker.

No Subject
by Jason
Posted on:8/12/2011 3:48:17 PM

There's a reason we don't have Franciscan, Beaulieu, Castle Rock, Kendall-Jackson, Three Blind Moose or other corporate plonk on our wine lists out here.....big-production wines suck!

Blake's Questions
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/12/2011 4:07:27 PM

As to your question about corporate wines, the answer is yes. There are plenty of quality and good value wines from bigger wineries. My definition of a good list is one that the patrons are comfortable using and that has wines that are well chosen for the quality they offer for the money. I personally prefer lists that have choices and that also have hidden gems that I can either find on my own or have the somm find.

But, I have no problem with seeing names like Beaulieu, St. Supery, Rod Strong, Dry Creek Vineyard on wine lists when the wines under those names are chosen because they are good wines.

I taste wines from all comers, and it is not just the small, new wineries that offer enjoyable, well-priced wines. Wineries like Castle Rock and McManis, to name just two, have wines that offer great value for money. Would a Dry Creek Fume be a mistake? Not for me. What about Sebastiani whose $15 to 25 reds are often quite good.

Those are names that my neighbors would recognize. I see no reason why they cannot appear on wine lists--not exclusively but as part of a wide range of offerings.

Big Production Wines Suck?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/12/2011 4:17:04 PM

Wines from big wineries suck? All of them? Only wines that my solidly middle-class neighbors have never heard of offer quality?

Let's not put that to a vote of sommeliers. Let's put it to blind tasting.

No Subject
by sdok
Posted on:12/25/2018 7:55:26 AM

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