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Friday Fishwrap
Finding Great Wine In The Desert

By Charles Olken

Have been on holiday in Phoenix, Arizona this past week, and while Mrs. Olken and I did not come here for the wine, or even the water which is amazingly far more plentiful here than in California, it is the rare meal that does not pass without a glass of our tipple of choice.

The water situation here is particularly galling. The desert is green even while CA is turning increasingly brown. It all has to do with the fact that Arizona “milks” the Colorado River for vast quantities of water and uses it almost indiscriminately to create vast expanses of greenery in its parks and golf courses. To say that we are envious would be an understatement.

But enough of that. We came here not for the water or the greenery but for the history, the natural beauty, and the baseball. And, of course, for the food because a man and his family do need to eat. Now, to be sure, Arizona is not awash in world-class restaurants, but what it does have is millions of people, many of them from California and lots of them wealthy. If there is one thing you can count on with the moneyed class, it is that they eat well. Lots of it is casual, and a fair bit of that casual comes with wine of all stripes, including fancy.

Two examples. Yesterday afternoon, we stopped for lunch in Scottsdale at a restaurant named AZ88. Its menu is mostly burgers and salads and fancy sandwiches. It has a big bar, and it will not surprise you to learn that its beer list is substantial. And there, on the bar, was a large bucket filled with ice and a couple of dozen whites of various stripes, all ready for by the glass service. Very impressive and beyond almost anything one would find at a burger and salad place in the Bay Area. Still, let’s chalk this one off to up-scale tourism.

And perhaps our other and favorite wine experience can also be chalked up to tourism. But, because it is one of Arizona’s most widely hailed restaurants, one would expect a wine list of some consequence. The story might end there if the list were simply good, yet it is far more than that, and came one or two steps from being better than almost anything in California. Let’s skip over the Bonds and Harlans and Le Montrachets. Any place can have those “show wines” if it is willing to let itself accumulate an inventory that, judging by the vintages, sits there more than moves.

But, what “Kai” offers is a list that not only includes the eye-candy names, but also offers a broad selection of exceptional wines from known producers. Whereas the typical, new paradigm San Francisco restaurant would stick its nose in the air in its pursuit of the unknown, Kai offers lots of known and good wines. When one sees names like DuMOL, Ramey, Ridge, Shafer on the list, and cherry-picked selections from folks like Swanson, Schramsberg, Beaulieu and other familiar names that no longer grace San Francisco lists, it is a large reminder that people come first and the sommelier’s strutting of the abstruse should come second.

Incidentally, if you ever find yourself in the Phoenix area, a short trip out to the Gila River Indian Reservation to the restaurant, Kai, will see you and your palate rewarded handsomely. These days, when Native American Tribes are free to pursue their own directions without the kind of crushing oversight that had just decades earlier forced them into poverty, one sees these kinds of developments springing up across the west. Kai is part of a resort property that puts the “casino first” attitude of some native groups to shame, and while I won’t delve further into the politics of us vs. them that prevailed up until a couple of decades ago in this country, it is worth noting that Kai and the whole Wild Horse Pass Resort is an example of how things have begun to change.

Kai is a brilliant restaurant by any standard. That its cooking incorporates plants and flavors of the area, including natural seasonings that we would not see in California might be reason enough to give it a try, but it is the quality of the cooking, not just the ingredients that has us promising ourselves to return. And, with a wine list that could and should teach our San Francisco sommeliers a thing or two about serving the clientele rather than their own egos, Kai is exceptional on the wine front as well and makes a trip to the desert about more than just great vistas and Spring training.


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