Restaurant Wine Lists

This week, I've had a number of discussions about restaurant wine lists: their pricing, their menu layout, and the expansiveness (or lack there of) of some.

Let me first get a little "pet peeve" out of the way...I am tired of theme restaurants (particularly Italian and Chinese) that have a full menu of regional items, but their wine list doesn't match the cuisine. Even further, their decor and music doesn't follow the theme. When I go to an Italian restaurant, I want the establishment to take me to another place. I want to feel like I am visiting Tuscany. The food, the decor and even the background music. Nothing like walking in, and hearing rap music blazing in the background to prep me for the Floretine Steak and a bottle of Chianti (sarcasm intended).

And, while I'm on Italian restaurants, why is it that a lot of them don't store their wine properly? I don't mean to pick on Italian restaurants, but in my experience they are the biggest culprits. Serving warm wine, that has been stored in the kitchen, is just wrong. More than a few times, I have had to ask for an ice bucket, to chill down my red wine to "room temperature". The cabinet next to the stove is not the proper place for a wine rack.

When it comes to restaurants, there are a number of things that the owner (or Sommelier) needs to pay attention to: 1) the wine list; 2) proper storage; 3) service; and 4) a trained staff.

Whether the wine list is large or small, the restaurant really needs to carry a variety of wines that pair well with the food on the menu. Now, I am one that likes to explore, so I look beyond a wine list that just carries Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. While I have no problems with these wines, I want an experience. I want to try something new. Some restaurants stock their cellars (if they have one) with wines that will wine them awards (check out the Wine Spectators Awards of Excellence List), some will only carry wines that get 90+ points on the latest wine review. Sometimes, these approaches lead to awkward wine lists, that are clumsily organized, with not much thought to the chefs' creations.

My favorite wine lists give me a range of options. I can flip through their wine list by country, or by grape variety. Their pricing is reasonable, and they have the wine in stock (read about some wine experiences - both good and bad, we recently had in Monterey). The wines are also served by a trained staff member, or the Sommelier, and arrive at the correct service temperature. Also, if your wine list is an encyclopedia, give me some time to look it over. It will take me more than a couple minutes to sift through the volumes of wine on the list. Yeah, you know I am a "wine geek" when I look for a wine first, then figure out what food item I am going to order to best pair with my wine choice.

More on pricing. When I mention "reasonable pricing", I don't mean that the restaurant has to give away the wine. I realize everyone is in the business to make a profit. But, with today's tech saavy world, it is very easy to whip out the smart phone, and check the latest retail price of that $42 bottle of Pinot Grigio on the menu, and find that it is selling on for $15. I think restaurants need to be conscience of their consumer's knowledge, and price accordingly. I also realize that if I bring my own bottle into a restaurant, I will be paying some sort of corkage fee (legal here in California, but no so in many other states). This corkage fee covers the cost of glassware and service, as well as compensates the establishment for the wine that was not ordered. Where I have a problem is if the lowest priced wine on the menu is $20, then the corkage fee should not be $35. Charge what your lowest priced wine on the menu is.

As a Sommelier, the wine list, the food, and ambiance should all lead to a pleasurable experience. I want the customer to walk away talking positively about the restaurant. I want them to come back, and bring their friends. As a customer, I want to be taken away to another place, and escape from everyday life for a couple hours. I want to eat tapas in Barcelona, and sip a nice glass of Rioja, all while sitting here in California. Is that too much to ask for? I don't think so!

Mouth Watering Wine

This week, I had two wine experiences that were related, but on opposite sides of the spectrum. Both experiences had to do with the acidity of the wine, and the affect on my palate.

 To set the stage, I think it is important to understand what acids are present in wine, and their role in the enjoyment of the wine in your glass. All wines contain acid. When we taste wine, we experience acid on the sides of our tongues, and the mouth watering affect it creates. Acid is one of the components that a wine taster will be evaluating while sampling wine. Acid refreshes and cleanses the palate.

While still on the vine, the grapes are high in malic acid (think green apples), until veraison takes affect. As the grapes develop into more palatable fruit, the malic acid declines, and is replaced by tartaric acid. At the time of harvest, the grapes contain mostly tartaric acid, malic acid, plus small amounts of citric acid and ascetic acid (too much is a problem and leads to vinegar). During fermentation other acids are formed: Lactic acid (see my blog on MLF), succinic acid and carbonic acid. Also, after fermentation, the winemaker may make adjustments to the wine, by adding asorbic acid, sorbic acid or even sulfur dioxide (known as sulfurous acid).

It is these final adjustments that lead me to this weeks' experience....About five years ago, I had visited a very popular winery in Paso Robles (name to remain anonymous - if you want to know, contact me directly). I began tasting their white wines (no problems), then progressed to their red wines. My mouth immediately began to burn. My tongue and the roof of my mouth reacted with the sensation of an acid burn. For the last five years, I have avoided their wines...until this week. I went to a tasting of their wines in a local wine shop. First, their sparkling wine. No issues (as I found out later, their sparkling is made for them by another winery). No problems with their Rousanne, and then came the red wines. Merlot was okay, but as I moved on in the tasting, that same sensation returned. No one else was experiencing the same issues I had with the wine, so I questioned the winery rep about their winemaking additives. He was going to talk with the winemaker to help me determine what they are doing different than anyone else. I am not expecting a call or e-mail back, but if I do, I will share the findings. My first thoughts is that the ph or acid levels are not balanced in their wines. Maybe I am overly sensitive to this imbalance.

My second experience of the week was during one of my wine classes for the International Sommelier Guild. During class, we sampled a bottle of Arneis from the Piedmont region of Italy. This white grape has traditionally been added to Nebbiolo to soften the acids and tannins. Arneis is a perfumed white wine, that is very low in acid. Because of this low acidity, the wine tastes somewhat flabby. That refreshing, palate cleansing acid is absent. It didn't spring out of the bottle, and left me disappointed with the wine in the glass.

Acid can make or break a good wine. In cooler regions, acid is not an issue (sugar is). It is in the warmer regions, where acids are diminished. The warmer weather means higher sugar levels (more alcohol) and less acid. A wine low in acid may be unbalanced, so acidification might be done. The challenge is that by adding acid, the ph is lowered, and it is difficult to calculate how much acid to add to retain the desired final ph level. As mentioned above, it is perfectly legal (at least in the United States) to add acid to wine.  There are three types of acid in powder form. Tartaric acid is the primary acid in grapes. Citric acid is the main acid that comes from oranges and lemons, and Malic acid is the leading acid in apples and pears. Winemakers use an acid blend that’s a combination of these three acids, normally blended in equal portions. But if everyone (or some) are using it, then this one particular winery is doing something different, or it's not the acid at could be one of the many additives that are allowed to be used in California. The puzzle of the burning palate continues....

Pinot Noir - The "heartbreak grape"

Over the years, I written about a number of different grape varieties, but it just occurred to me, that I have only discussed one of the most complex and mysterious wines in passing. Sure, I've mentioned some that I have tasted. I've made some recommendations, and I briefly described it in my article about "noble grapes". So, let's take a look at Pinot Noir.

I don't think there is any other grape that has reached the level of mystery, awe, or mythology than the Pinot Noir grape. The grape can make red wine that is silky, sexy, fruity, bold and complex. Or, it can be a main component of sparkling wine. And don't forget rose. Volumes of books have been written about Pinot Noir. I'll keep this to the basics, to hopefully give you a better understanding of the grape.

Clos Vougeot
The undisputed "home" of Pinot Noir is France, in particular, the regions of Burgundy and Champagne. Of those two, the grandest expression of the grape comes from some of the small villages in the Cote d'Or. So why is the Cote d'Or such a great place for Pinot Noir? Pinot Noir is a grape that produces poor wines in warm regions, but thrives on the edge. For those that believe in terrior, Pinot Noir is the perfect grape, that reflects the climate, soil, topography, and cultural nuances. Pinot Noir has a tendency to mutate easily, and is considered a difficult  ("heartbreak") grape to grow (probably a semi-myth perpetrated by the local growers in Burgundy). Realistically, it took hundreds of years for the Catholic Monks to determine the best growing areas (mid-slope and limestone soil), and cultivate the best clones. Pinot Noir is an old variety, and it mutates easily. If it doesn't get enough sun to ripen, the grape may produce white grapes (think Pinot Blanc, or the gray version: Pinot Gris).

Pinot Noir is grown throughout the world. Some of the more notable regions are California (Santa Rita Hills, Santa Lucia Highlands, Sonoma, Russian River). Oregon (Williamette Valley), Chile, New Zealand (Central Otago), Australia (Tasmania), France (Alsace, Loire), Germany (where it is known as Spatburgunder). Experimentation is going on in South Africa, Canada and southern regions of South America.

For me, Pinot Noir has a certain "funkiness", or earthiness to it. Aromas can be described as cherry, strawberry, plum, raspberry, violets, gameiness, leather, mushrooms. On the palate there is usually high acid (typical of cooler region grapes), moderate tannins, bright red fruit character, and a silky texture. However, I have had some unfiltered, un-fined Pinot Noirs that surprised me with their weight (check out Whitcraft). The best Pinot Noirs can age for years, and develop wonderful and complex bouquet.

There are so many styles of Pinot Noir. I am partial to Burgundy, but I just can't handle the prices they demand. There are certain California Pinot Noirs that I enjoy, but I find the majority too fruity. For something in between, Oregon is the place to look for Pinot Noir.

My recommendation is to experiment. Do a Pinot Party. Taste some California (mine are: Dragonette Cellars, Ampelos, Windward, Calera - I'm obviously partial to Central Coast), Oregon (mine are: Drouhin, Erath, Lange), and Burgundy (Louis Jadot, and Drouhin have good examples in all price ranges).

Since Pinot Noir is a lighter red, it pairs with many types of food. It is one of the few reds that works with fish (Salmon and Pinot Noir work really well together). A classic pairing would be with mushroom or truffle dishes (that earthiness just works!), or boeuf bourguignonne, coq au vin and duck. For cheese, stick with Brie or Camembert.

Wine Tasting in Monterey - Part 2

Pietra Santa Winery
Last week, I shared our group wine tasting adventure in the Salinas Valley, and the Santa Lucia Highlands, with Wine Tasting in Monterey Part 1. Our large group of 23, whittled down to ten, that decided to make it a 4-day weekend. I had one winery that I really wanted to visit while we were in the area, and that was Calera. I had read the book, The Heartbreak Grape, as well as tried numerous Calera Pinot Noirs, so I had to finally visit the winery. I called to inform them that a small group of us would be there when they opened, and since the winery was about one hour away, I researched other wineries in the area, and planned our day.

We headed out of the fog in Monterey, and drove up Hwy 101 past the Salinas Valley, and into the Gabilan Mountains in San Benito County. When we reached Cienega Road, we wound our way back in on the narrow roads, lined with oak trees, and rolling hills of brown grass. Just a couple miles short of Mt Harlan (the location of the limestone soil and vineyards for Calera), we came upon the winery and tasting room for Calera. I held out hope that Josh Jensen would be there to greet us, but no luck.

Start of the wine cave at Calera
We tasted our way through each of the 2009 Pinot Noir vineyards, and noted the differences between each. I had settled in on the Ryans Vineyard, as my favorite one to hold on to, and store for a few years (a double magnum is now sitting in my cellar). Then, who should walk in the door, but Jim Ryan, the longtime vineyard manager for Calera. For me, this was a highlight of the trip. I should note that Calera is in the process of digging a cave for storage of their wine inventory. The work has just begun at the end of the parking lot. I'm not sure if this will be open to the public once completed.

Next, we drove back down the road, and turned at a group of large warehouse (which I'll talk about soon), and headed up the road. The road was lined by vineyards, and olive trees, and we ended at what can best be described as a Mission Style building. The temperature was already getting up into the 80's, and there was little shade, so after adjusting our previous wine purchases, to protect them from the heat, we headed into Pietra Santa (Italian for "Sacred Stone").

Olive Press at Pietra Santa
The tasting at Pietra Santa included a large mix of varieties. We tasted whites, rosato and red. From single variety, to blends. The tasting room also had a variety of gifts, as well as olive oil and basalmic tastings. I found their old vine Zinfandel (planted in 1905) to have a lot of depth in flavor, but my favorite was their "super Tuscan" blend, known as Sassolino. The rose of Dolcetto (called Rosato) was also very refreshing, and a nice change of pace from the Grenache based you find all over the central coast. While the rest of the group was tasting, I headed down to the winery, and stumbled upon the large stone olive oil press, imported from Italy. Pietra Santa produces olive oil exclusively from five different olive varieties, grown on the estate.

Tasting at DeRose Wineyards
Our next stop was the surprise of the day, DeRose Vineyards. This winery was on my list to visit, just because of it's historic significance. This is the oldest continually operating winery in California (producing wine since 1851). Eventually the winery was purchased by Almaden, and now owned by the DeRose family. When we pulled up to the large dilapidated looking warehouses, the people in my group were questioning my decision to stop. We walked into the warehouse, and were greeted by Al DeRose, who was ready to pour whatever we wanted to taste. The tastings included wine from Chile (where Al has some vineyards), old vine Zinfandel, and the buy of the weekend....a Claret, made of 75% Cabernet Franc, and the remainder of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Price? $9 per bottle!

By now we were getting hungry, and we had planned ahead with coolers full of cheese, meats and chocolate (we knew this area was a bit remote, and finding food might be a challenge). Al DeRose offered us two bottles of wine for lunch, and in return, we gave him most of our leftover food.

Lunch outside DeRose
Next stop was back in the town of Hollister. We drove to Leal Vineyards. The grounds were beautifully maintained, and I can see where they probably get a lot of wedding events. The tasting room was a shock to the system, versus the friendly one-on-one we had at the previous three tasting rooms. The women behind the counter looked like they had just come from a Robert Palmer video shoot ("Addicted to Love" came to mind). All the tastings came from a wine dispensing machine built into the wall behind the tasting counter. This felt very commercial and impersonal. None of us connected with the winery or the wines.

As we drove back to Monterey, I diverted into the town of Salinas, to seek out Star Market. I was looking for a specific wine, and was told that this grocery store not only had the best selection of wines in the region, but also the best prices. Both were correct. Unfortunately, the Lucia Pinot Noir (from the Pisoni Family) was sold out. I'll have to keep searching.

Casanova Wine Cellar
To end the weekend, I had made a group reservation at Casanova in Carmel. This was by far the best dining experience of the weekend. The staff served our large group of 14 people with a great attendance to detail. The wine list was huge, and every bottle was in stock. The spinach gnocchi appetizer was great, and just melted in your mouth. This is a "can't miss" appetizer.  The main course and desserts were excellent, and I must say, the pricing was very reasonable for the quality and quantity.

After dinner, the Maitre d' invited us to visit the 30,000 bottle wine cellar. The collection of wines is extensive, and covers all wine regions and all price points. A real treat for a group of wine enthusiasts.

As it always seems to happen, we had to head back home. We drove back the "long way" by driving up Carmel Valley, We had hoped to stop at a few wineries on the way back, but as we found out, most are not open on Monday, and don't open until 11:00. So, no stops, but we did find that most are located closer to the ocean, and once you get back in the valley, not a whole lot else is there.

Lastly, we made two quick stops in Paso Robles. The first was at Castoro Cellars to meet up with some friends who were staying in Cambria, and then a quick stop at Tobin James. I must add an observation that most in Paso Robles are tired of hearing...but its' true. The alcohol levels in the hotter Paso Robles region were a shock to the taste buds, after coming from the cooler Monterey region, where alcohol stays around 13 to 15% (versus the 16 to 17% we had with most of the Tobin James Zinfandels).

While the wineries are a bit harder to find,  and more spread out, I encourage you to visit the Monterey wine region. Within a one hour drive of Cannery Row, or Fisherman's Wharf, you can find a lot of tastings rooms at both the winery and in-town tasting rooms. The variety of restaurants, plus the scenic beauty of Monterey and Carmel will keep you coming back. Next time up, we'll have to check out the wineries of Santa Cruz!