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Tuesday Tributes
The Great New York Food (and Wine) Fight

By Charles Olken

The answer to the following question will tell us which side of the fight you are on. Do you want your fish tacos accompanied by a big-distributor Sauvignon Blanc or by an oxidized, orange-colored white wine from someone in a remote corner of Italy?

Okay, I exaggerate—but only a little. Obviously, there is a lot of territory in the middle, but sometimes in this food and wine fight, being fought today in New York, but also being brought to you by the San Francisco Chronicle, you would not think that there was any middle ground.

Aside from inane comments about “big distributor crap”, as if that were the only alternative to Ribolla Gialla and Assyrtiko, a topic previous addressed in this space, here is how the “discussion” was, in significant part, characterized in the New York Times. It came in the form of a multiple choice question so pay attention.

“You look at the wine list, dozens of choices all consistent with the restaurant’s ethnicity. Not one bottle seems familiar. What do you do?

A) Close your eyes, point randomly to a bottle and order it.

B) Throw up your hands and order a beer (assuming you recognize any of those choices).

C) Ask for advice from the sommelier or a server familiar with the list.

D) Rant about pretentious sommeliers who create lists of esoteric wines under the deluded notion that their mission is to educate customers. Dummies!

To be fair, the NYT writer did qualify the question with his reference to the restaurant’s ethnicity, but the other side of the argument is that a French restaurant with unrecognizable choices had also offended the writer for the NY Post, who initiated the discussion with his editorial about wine lists in which the customers are left guessing in the dark.

The problem that I have with both sides in this discussion comes down to two basic facts. Restaurants, no matter what their menus offer, are free to have wine lists of any shape and form of their choosing. They are businesses, after all, and will rise or fall based on how the customers react. And conversely, there are too many restaurants that make a penchant out of ignoring their customers just for the sake of being different.

There is another alternative to the potential answers above, and full props to the NYT writer for pointing it out, “If a restaurant (wine list) is so unorthodox that you feel discomfited, plenty of more conventional choices beckon”.

Good advice, perhaps, but ask yourself this. Does the choice have to be between wines you have never heard of and that are essentially the province of the wine geeks among us or “big distributor crap”. I personally do not like those choices, especially in restaurants in which the food is not nearly so narrowly or esoterically focused as the wine list.

A couple of brief examples will suffice. Last week, Steve Eliot and I visited with a number of winemakers down in Santa Barbara County. Among the wines we liked was a limited edition Sauvignon Blanc under the winemaker name, Storm. It is one of those “geeks know it” wines, but its appearance on a wine list with other choices would not ever be out of order. Yet, why not also offer a Merry Edwards or Spottswoode or Quivira Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc. None of that trio is “crap”, and, in fact, each is pretty good, yet they would never appear on wine lists if some of the advice-givers had their ways.

A second thought. Here in the sleepy S. F. suburb of Alameda (home to many very good “urban” wineries by the way), there is an Italian restaurant that the Olkens like a lot named C’era Una Volta. It is a perfectly fine neighborhood restaurant run by Rudy, who is from Tuscany, cooks what he learned there and has a wine list that is all Italian. I get why there are no California wines on his list just as I get why there are no wines except Greek on the lists of some Greek restaurants. But restaurants that have wide-ranging menus and proudly proclaim the locavore nature of their food are sticking their fingers in our eyes when they try to tell us, as some have done, that there are no California wines that go with their cuisine.

The bottom line for me then is this. Restaurants should do whatever it is they want. Diversity is wonderful in food and in wine. But, when a restaurant sticks its figurative finger in the customer’s eye with comments like “we don’t let the customer dictate the wine list” as an excuse for a pages of unrecognizable wines and “we offer only the freshest locally grown products, but we do not have California wine on the list” and there is no apparent reason why not, then I think I will take the NYT advice and not go there.

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No Subject
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:8/13/2012 10:47:06 AM

From the blog:

"...Restaurants that have wide-ranging menus and proudly proclaim the locavore nature of their food are sticking their fingers in our eyes when they try to tell us, as some have done, that there are no California wines that go with their cuisine."

I totally agree. But more to the point is the failure of writers to call out, let alone recognize, this hypocrisy. Instead, winelists of locavore-centric restos with Eurocentric winelists are applauded for "breaking boundaries" and making "individual statements." In the reality of the Bay Area, a list that only carried wines from a 50 mile radius would be breaking boundaries, something that is essential and celebrated when you are in some trattoria in Italy. Imagine if a bistro in Provence carried mourvedre from Australia--Quelle horror!!

But what is worse is the attitude of both somms and writers towards consumers. To wit, the quotes from a recent article in the SF Chronicle about the director of the wine program at Commonwealth, an excellent restaraunt in the Mission.

"She stopped worrying about timid diners--and even more wisely, sidestepped the hipsterdom (Canary Islands! Andrea Calek!) that hobbles many small lists in favor of unexpected discoveries, little-known Austrian reds like the 2004 Brundlmayer St. Laurent or the 2006 Ultraviolet red from Violet-Green, a tiny label in Humboldt County. I thought, 'Well, I should have something to make these people happy,'" she says, "and then I realized, 'No, I don't have to do that at all.'"

In my world, Anima Negra and St. Laurent are about as hipster and little-known as they come. But more importantly, to revel in the notion that wine service is not about making people happy is an elitist attitude that stereotypes the wine industry. It also provides justification to those who make fun of the wine industry as snobs out of touch with people. We need to recognize and celebrate the wide range of tastes among the wine drinking public, from esoteric to more mainstream. In reality, it is much more difficult to meet the needs of a broad audience than a narrower subset of consumers and it is sad that those stores and lists who choose a broader, diverse world view are relegated to second-class citizenship in the world of wine.

Give Me My Tastevin
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/13/2012 11:11:41 AM

No, on seciond thought. Don't.

We used to laugh at tuxedo-dressed snobs with silver (probably coated tin) tastevins around their necks pracning around fancy restaurants and looking down their noses at those who did not understand wine the way they did.

Now we have folks with the same "nose in the air" attitude. Only, they are young and wear their baseball caps backwards.

I simply refuse to eat at Commonwealth and will only go near the Slanted Door when out-of-towners insist. No matter how good the food is at those places, their attitudes towards their customers is abyssmal.

A wine list does not need to be a minefield understood only by a few of the annointed. Nor does it have to contain only the biggest names. But when the likes of Merry Edwards, Trefethen, Rod Strong have each and every one of their wines dismissed as big distributor crap, then something is wrong in the world of wine.

just don't go there
by John
Posted on:8/14/2012 9:38:42 AM

I saw a comment this morning referring to one restaurant critic's "World War II-era point of view on wine lists" and thought that the discussion is missing the real point. The archaic viewpoint being expressed across the wine media has to do with customer service, not the composition of wine lists.

Too many people still believe that, as a merchant, I have to actually care how every potential customer who comes through my door FEELS about what I have to offer. We have Selfridge to blame for the pathetically misguided aphorism that has dictated how merchants are supposed to serve: "the customer is always right." Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is a lot to be said for creating and maintaining a vision that has limited appeal. The goal is to find the customer base that "gets" what one is doing, not to constantly change focus to satisfy the expectations of every yahoo who comes in.

If you go to a restaurant and find yourself discomfited by the wine list, or the food for that matter, or the service, take the hint: you are being told you are not wanted as a customer. Stop whinging and move on. Then you can get all smug if you drive by later and find the restaurant has closed.

To Go or Not To Go
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/14/2012 11:14:01 AM


I do choose not to go to most places that insult the intelligence of the average wine drinker by telling them what they should like. But, there is another side to this, and that is that some of these places, like Slanted Door, have very good food and very progressive locavore purchasing policies for that food.

And while I would hate for all wine lists to look alike, and am always happy to try new things, I do wish that places like Slanted Door, Commonwealth and others did not try to tell me that there are zero local wines worth a damn except those that no one has ever heard of.

update needed
by Derek
Posted on:8/31/2012 2:09:46 AM

It's worth noting that Commonwealth changed Sommeliers a few months ago.  I wonder how it's changed, if at all

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