Late Night Bling, or I *Heart* SF


(Above: I started my Friday with a michelada at Nopalito, which is Tecate mixed with tomato, chili de arbol, salt and lime. Yeah, it’s good.)

This post is going up late because I’ve been sick all week. For the record, summer colds suck. And no, I don’t use Zicam.

After gorging ourselves senseless with the Third Degree at Nopalito, we headed over to the Independent to catch Datarock, a fun, dancy band from Norway. The show was great and Datarock had the house dancing wildly for much of the set. The boys in the band got their groove on too, wearing their trademark red track suits (noticeably more blinged out than two years ago when the crew looked like they’d just come from Target).

Here’s a video for what’s probably Datarock’s most well-known song, “Fa Fa Fa”:

Still feeling jazzed after the show, we completed the circle by heading to Nopalito’s big sister, Nopa, where we thought we’d take advantage of the rockin’ cocktail program. Because a fancy rye drink is just what I need at 12.30 in the morning…

Scanning the wine list however led me to Gaston Chiquet’s 1998 Spécial Club Brut. Doing the math for two rounds of cocktails for three people suggested that the Chiquet was a splurge within reach. But really, I don’t care how good a cocktail is: When there’s good Champagne, there’s not much else. And this was pretty epic stuff, with vibrant fruit that felt savory and rich supported by profound mineral depth. Got better with air too. Drink this whenever you get the chance.


As Peter Liem notes on, the Chiquets have around 40 percent chardonnay, 40 percent meunier and 20 percent pinot noir planted in the Grande Vallée de la Marne, mostly in the villages of Aÿ, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Dizy and Hautvillers. Interestingly, the family uses no wood in their cellar, and a program using concrete and glass-lined tanks has been in place since the 1950s.

The Spécial Club (shown above) is bottled as part of the Club Trésors de Champagne, a group of independent grower-producers who have organized under a set of guidelines, including a distinctive bottle, to produce what is effectively a prestige cuvée for each member. At Gaston Chiquet, the Special Club bottling typically includes 70 percent chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir. To learn more about grower-producers like Gaston Chiquet, or most any producer of interest in Champagne, I highly recommend a subscription to

Another Datarock song, “Computer Camp Love”:


Holy Hummus, or, I *Heart* Jerusalem

A quick update and some pics.

Greetings from the Holy Land! Spent the last few days wandering all over the old city section of Jerusalem. Stunning place, really, although so very puzzling. The religious energy is intense, and culturally it’s at once open and guarded. But it’s a thrilling place. We’ve also managed to balance out the trip a little and head over into the occupied territories, specifically Ramallah and Bethlehem, where tourist dollars are much needed. Both fascinating places. Again, though, another layer to complicated land with its contradictions and challenges.

Some highlights:


Walking near the Western Wall, with the Dome of the Rock in the background.


Hummus and Ful (fava beans slow-cooked in a copper pot) at Lina’s in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. The hummus, easily some of the best I’ve eaten, had a silky texture texture and rich, deep flavors while the ful was invigorating and bright.


Required summer reading, if you like both Jane Austen *and* zombies…

Les Concerts à Emporter (or, I *Heart* Paris)

Make that j’M Paris.

Okay I’m not really in Paris, at least not physically. Sometimes when I get a little ancy or am feeling a desire to be easily distracted, I tune in to Les Concerts à Emporter, or the Take Away Shows, a series of intimate musical performances recorded and videoed in Paris by the team behind La Blogotheque. Often set in an apartment living room, kitchen, a bar or even out in the street, the shows have a transporting immediacy. They also — at least for me — inspire apartment envy. And of course, when Les Concerts does go out of doors, to the Parisian streets, the whole thing becomes something of a music video guide to what’s possibly the world’s greatest city.

Here are a couple of favorites from the last year (these might not be viewable in Google Reader, so you’ll need to click through to Spume to view them):

That’s was Grizzly Bear performing “The Knife”. And here’s the National’s “Start a War.”

There are many more; go here to have a look for yourself.

Up the Mendonoma Coast

We wound down 2008 with a mini-road trip up the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts. Below is Point Arena and its lighthouse, which was unfortunately being renovated when we stopped there. But the hiking along the rocks and cliffs is spectacular!


Right on the countyline between Sonoma and Mendocino is the townlet of Gualala (which some people pronounce “wah-lah-lah”). There’s a long beach with lots of driftwood at the mouth of the Gualala River, making for excellent beachcombing.


We stayed at St. Orres, a funky timecapsule from the mid-70s here on the far coast. Whimsically built to recall the 19th century Russian influence in the area, St. Orres consists of a lodge and a series of small cabins spread among several acres of oceanside forest. Cool stuff. Quiet, idyllic, with zero cell phone reception or internet (yay!). There’s also a hot tub overlooking the Pacific and an excellent sauna — also built to be sort of Russian, although really it’s 1970s Northern California in all its splendor, right down to the hot tub. There’s a restaurant in the main lodge which some people will say is good, but trust me: Don’t eat there. Instead, check out Pangaea in nearby Gualala (billed as “lusty, zaftig, soulful food”) — it rocks. Great food and a fine selection of regional wines from the Sonoma and Mendocino Coasts.

Below, some of our spoils: Anthill Farms 2006 Comptche Ridge Pinot Noir, from a vineyard planted a few miles inland from Albion on the Mendocino coast; and Renard’s 2003 Peay Vineyard Syrah, from the Peays’ vineyard a couple miles inland from Gualala and Sea Ranch.


*Note: The New York Times recently ran this article on the community of Sea Ranch, a few miles down the coast from Gualala.

East Bay Grease, or, I *Heart* Oakland

For a while there Oakland got a really bad rap: Crime, urban decay, you name the disease and this city suffered from it. Things began to noticeably change back during the first dot-com boom when rents and the cost of living in San Francisco became untenable for many of the working class and creative class (like that situation has changed any), a number of whom uprooted and settled across the bay. Maybe this mirrors the story of Brooklyn?

I first noticed that Oakland was serious about attracting City folk while visiting my sister once. At the time, she lived near Lake Merritt, just south of downtown Oakland, in a beautiful arts & crafts apartment building. She’d afixed to her a door an ad courtesy of mayor Jerry Brown asking San Franciscans where to move in their city to avoid the fog. Answer: Oakland. While I never took that bait, I have found some excellent destinations in Oakland. And, as a bonus for Bay Area foodies, parts of the city are becoming outright gourmet destinations, with former employees of Chez Panisse setting up shop south of their alma mater.

Today I found myself BARTing over after work to meet a winemaker from Napa to talk about an upcoming freelance project I’m working on. He’d suggested we meet at Café Van Kleef, a place I’d never heard of, but that didn’t matter: As a resident of San Francisco, many voyages across the bay become the stuff of adventure, and this place didn’t disappoint. A vast, creative space, shrouded in darkness and filled with 20th century bric-a-brac, it’s home to a variety of musical acts, many of whom will actively recruit bar patrons to sing back up. It also seems to exist in it’s own time warp, or rather its own universe. The best part? When I left, I felt a strong sense of déja-vu: I’ll be back.

*On my way home I stopped by my neighborhood wine shop, Arlequin, to pick up a few more bottles of Cascina Morassino‘s 1996 Barbaresco, available for the whopping price of $29 (they got it as a close out). It’s honest, unfussed nebbiolo, expressive and aromatic, with lasting flavors and great focus. And it’s drinking perfectly right now. We drank my last bottle over the weekend with pizza (and yes, Dr. J, I’d have to agree: Pizza and nebbiolo does rock!), so I needed some more. Wine deal of the year, dammit.

Greatest Food & Wine Pairing Ever (or I *Heart* Seattle)

(Above: Champagne grapes are indeed very cute)

I was in Seattle last week for the Wine & Spirits Hot Picks tasting event, which was held at the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown. Like I did for a similar W&S event held in LA, I participated in a radio show in the days before the tasting (although this time I called in for a live broadcast). Anyway, the host asked me a common question: What’s the greatest food and wine pairing that you’ve ever experienced?

You think I’d have an answer to this one, but no–I just don’t think that way. I mean, there are loads of epic wine and food pairings that come to mind but I don’t really dwell on them. Too many more to look forward to, I guess. Why live in the past?

That said, one pairing immediately came to mind… Two years ago, I was hanging out in Seattle with Peter Liem prior to another W&S event, and we went to Matt’s In The Market for lunch. At the time, Matt’s was a narrow space with a fish counter and a few tables (it has since expanded to double that size). Hot food was cooked on a propane burner in the back; I think there was also a toaster in use. Peter, of course, brought along a bottle from one of his remote North American stashes: Louis Roederer’s 1983 Cristal.

1983, as Peter told me at the time, is considered an off year for Cristal (and Champagne), yet this wine was gorgeous. Better still, we ordered up a couple of fried catfish sandwiches to pair with it. Damn! Absolutely perfect combination…the Champagne was still very fresh at 23 years old, with plenty of zip left in it–bubbles, acidity–to cut through the rich fish and crispy batter. I can still taste it today, two years later. Now that’s bling!

(Above: The catfish at Matt’s is perfectly fried–crispy outer crust, the meat is fluffy and moist–and then generously served as a sandwich with aioli and greens)

I went back to Matt’s on this last trip, but alas, I didn’t have a bottle of ’83 Cristal with me. Matt’s has always had a good wine program, however, and the selection, I’m pleased to report, grew along with the remodel. Catfish sandwich ordered, we asked for a bottle of the delicious ’05 Muscadet Clos des Allées Vieilles Vignes from Luneau-Papin, a Loire Valley producer with total geek cred. Yeah, it kicked ass.

(Above: The marquee at the Paramount Theatre… not only did Wine & Spirits share the upcoming billing with NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, but also Billy Idol!)

The Plant Kingdom Gets Down ‘n Dirty (or, I *Heart* San Francisco)

Simon and I were joined by the Third Degree last Saturday in Golden Park for some serious picnic action. Food spread: a garlicy saucisson, St. Marcellin, crusty bread. Washed it all down with a couple bottles of ’06 Willamette Valley pinot gris (which to me is looking like a lovely vintage for Oregon gris) while sprawled out on my favorite grassy knoll in the park.

Afterwards we headed over to the Conservatory of Flowers, surly one of the best kept secrets in San Francisco. This stunning Victorian greenhouse is located conveniently near the Stanyan/Fell Street entrance to Golden Gate Park, just off MLK Drive. The Third Degree and I remember a ramshackle building and broken panes of glass from about when we both moved here, but thankfully the Conservatory was restored to its 19th century splendor a few years ago.

Here are some pictures from our visit:


It’s hard to beat a sunny day in Golden Gate Park.


The entrance to the Conservatory of Flowers. The Conservatory opened in 1879 and it is the oldest public conservatory of its kind in North America.


Parts of the Conservatory are off limits, but not to worry: The USDA has got your back!


One current exhibition features Penjing, or Chinese miniature landscapes with exquisitely carved landscapes and tiny cultivated plants and mosses.


Lots of educational signage at the Conservatory. At its heart, the Conservatory is rather sexually explicit.


There was also a butterfly exhibit where we were able to see the pollinators hard at work.


I’m not so sure that this large cockroach was doing any pollinating…eeww!


Orchids: A study in temptation.

Once the sun set, we stumbled home to Hayes Valley for a bite to eat. Not feeling entirely ready for bed, Simon and I walked over to Jardinère where we sat at the bar for fried olives and some exceptional Sherry that sommelier Eugenio Jardim insisted we try. Now I love Sherry but for some reason it’s something I don’t drink very often–and I now plan to change that immediately. Both the Gutierrez Colosia “Elcano” Fino from Puerto de Santa Maria and the Dios Baco Imperial 20 Year Amontillado (V.O.S.) from Jerez de la Frontera were exceptional. Dry, salty and crisp, they matched the olives perfectly.

I’d never heard of these Sherries before, but they’re available at the Spanish Table in Berkeley (Spanish Table also has stores in Mill Valley and Seattle). Of course, you could also try them at Jardinère. Just don’t miss the olives.

Fuso Aereo + Vino = Equilibro (or I *Heart* Firenze)

I should’ve taken the blue pill…

After a long, long day traveling–delays, canceled flights, and being stuck next to a very stinky fellow passenger for 11 hours–I decided to hit the town.

Apart from a few streets around the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio, Florence is refreshingly free of tourists these days. There are some advantages to winter travel, if you don’t mind the cold of course. But back to Florence. Man, this place is filled with memories! I studied here in college (at least I got credit for being here) and so every alleyway and vista brings up a flood of emotion and reflective thought. So with that in mind, I opted for memory-overload and climbed the 414 steps to the top of the Duomo’s campanile, or bell tower.


The massive dome on Florence’s cathedral was completed in 1436; designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, it’s one of the marvels of Renaissance Italy. It’s also huge, easily dwarfing all buildings in the area. Note the shadow of the campanile falling across the dome.


Looking southish over Florence, with the Bargello on the left and Palazzo Vecchio to the right. High in the background to the left is the Piazza Michelangelo, where I saw an epic Radiohead concert in 2003, the first time I’d been back to Florence since studying there in the late 90s.


That’s the church of San Lorenzo in the foreground and the big domed building tacked onto the end is the Medici family tomb. The large building you can see with the metal roof is Florence’s outstanding Mercato Centrale. A must stop on any visit!


A view of Palazzo Vecchio from inside the campanile.


Looking down the inside of the campanile from about half way up.


I grew up near Oxnard, California. How funny to find the city’s name graffitied on the campanile (I believe I took this exact photo while I was studying in Florence oh so long ago).

After climbing down from the tower and indulging an awesome gelato at Perché Non, I headed over to the Zanobini wine shop near the Mercato Centrale. Starting in the afternoon, well, anytime they want to I guess, Mario and Simone Zanobini receive customers directly at their small bar and pour glasses of their own Chianti Classico, as well as other Tuscan wines. Mario suggested that I stay for a few glasses to trying to dodge the fuso aereo (Italian for jet lag).


The small wine bar at Zanobini is filled nightly with regulars rasping away in their fiorentino accents (bascially drop the “c” from any word and you’ve got it; ‘Coca-Cola’ becomes ‘Oha-Ola’, etc.). This evening there was a lot of talk about the upcoming Italian elections in the spring, as well as a controversial proposal for a new tram line in the center of Florence.


Besides a lovely selection of wine, Zanobini has a wall of amari from Italy and beyond. Damn, I wish I’d brought a stryofoam wine shipper on this trip!

I *Heart* Anderson Valley

Anderson Valley–a long, wide valley that runs in a northwesterly direction towards the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino County–is possibly my favorite wine region in California. The redwood-lined ridges and gently undulating hills along the valley floor (if you can call it that) are among the reasons I love this place; the creeping, cold ocean mists and the valley’s profoundly calm atmosphere are other personal highlights. The beauty of the place feels honest and direct, characteristics that are also easy to spot in the valley’s residents and winemakers.

So too in their wines. In fact, if I had to identify a connective thread among the wines of Anderson Valley it would be their refreshing honesty: at their best, Anderson Valley wines taste like they could only come from here. And in California–arguably the birthplace of the “international style”–I believe that to be something quite remarkable.

The best way to taste that expression of place of course, is to visit the valley. But at approximately 125 miles north of San Francisco, it’s not exactly a day trip. Plan for two days at least, three if you want to check out the Mendocino coast. Longer if you start to jive with the relaxed pace.

Two wineries here–Handley and Navarro–are perennial favorites of mine, and both make for fun, educational stops. Milla Handley and Kristen Barnhisel at Handley, and Jim Klein at Navarro, not only helped to define the Anderson Valley style, but they continue to craft wines made with this spectacular valley in mind. Along with the sparkling house Roederer Estate, Handley’s and Navarro’s efforts with cool-climate varieties like pinot noir, gewurztraminer, riesling and pinot gris have helped to put this region on the North American viticultural map.

We made it to Anderson Valley this past weekend for the International Alsace Varieties Festival, which, as the name suggests is a celebration of all things Riesling, Gewürz & Co. I can be rather cynical when it comes to California white wines (more often than not, they’re just simply too much for me), but the quality of the wines on show at the festival (including some from Michigan) was very high. Alder over at Vinography has a short blurb about the festival. Many of the participating wineries are worth seeking out.

I also snapped a few photos while tooling around Anderson Valley. So time for a gallery show (pardon my exposures: Gewürztraminer and photography make an interesting mix):


Most mornings find the Anderson Valley shrouded in the cool Pacific fog. As the fog burns off–starting at the southeast end of the valley working northwest towards what locals call the Deep End–it becomes a fine mist, a gateway between worldly climates.

You’ll need to keep sunglasses at hand even when driving with headlights on in the early morning. If you forget to turn off your lights once you’ve stopped, the people here are friendly enough to offer a jump.


It’s sometimes said that where there are apples there can be riesling. So it was appropriate that the fairgrounds hosted the International Alsace Varieties Festival. Sadly there was no rodeo.


Manageable crowds are always welcome at big wine tastings. Happily there was also a lack of Hawaiian shirts. Perhaps there’s something to winter time tastings after all?


By a lovely coincidence there was a taco truck parked across the street from the fairgrounds. While the food at the festival was delicious–and Alsace themed–the smell of sizzling meats at a roadside taco truck is irresistible.


Al pastor and carnitas: where it’s at, baby!


The Mendocino coast runs north from the deep end of Anderson Valley. Aside from striking cliffs and coastal Redwoods, there’s an oceanic fierceness to remind you that the Pacific is the viticultural air conditioner of California.


Simon is reading all of Proust this spring–and Navarro’s ’06 Gewürztraminer is quite helpful!


Navarro’s vineyards are perfect for a picnic…

I *Heart* New York


(Above: The bloody mary list is ten deep during brunch at Prune, and each bloody is served with a beer chaser. Mine was made with aquavit rather than vodka, and served with fennel and white anchovies.)

A short post to explain my absence of late. Tasting duties for Wine & Spirits took me to New York this past week where I waded my way through a sea of Tuscan wines for our upcoming April 2008 issue. I won’t talk about those wines here (and now for a shameless plug to subscribe to W&S), but there were some really excellent wines that are worth checking out.

Also, I’m now digging on massaretta, a red grape variety indigenous to the region around the Apuani Alps in northwestern Tuscany just inland from Liguria–in other words, vermentino country. Massaretta evidently takes its name from the local town Massa, although beyond that the grape is sort of a DOC orphan, and pretty much relegated to IGT status. I don’t really know much more about it (yet), so if you feel like weighing in, please do.

Besides tasting, a visit to New York is always an excuse to eat! Some notable stops this trip included:

:: dinner (killer sweetbreads) and brunch (coddled egg) at one of my favorite haunts, Prune (sorry, no sleep overs)

:: an insane bowl of noodles and fatty pork at Ramen Setagaya (good write up here at Chowhound)

:: saffron pappardelle with an earthy mushroom ragù at Falai

:: gelato at Il Laboratorio del Gelato

:: weisswurst and spätzle at the Austrian Cafe Katja (NY Times review here). I also had an unusual-and good-cocktail called the Wood Nymph which they make from pine cone schnapps and triple sec, and then dust the glass with sugar and dried pine needles harvested from Central Park

:: a tapas feast at Tia Pol

:: bagels at Zabar’s

:: and a really good, fat hero from some all night deli in Williamsburg at 4.30 in the morning (which amazingly nuked my hangover for the next day–hooray!)

    All in all, a great trip. Plenty of long walks and a visit to the new New Museum too, to round things out. By which I mean to burn off one meal in anticipation of another. Of course, an invitation to the Barolo porn fest Eric Asimov wrote about in the NY Times would have been great (list of wines and tasting notes here), but I can’t complain.

    Oh, my friend and colleague, Peter Liem and I both had our blogs mentioned on Tyler Coleman’s Dr. Vino the other day. Thanks, Tyler! For those of you with an interest in learning more about the world we call wine, I suggest spending some time at Dr. Vino. Here you can learn about everything from wine’s carbon footprint to the wine lover’s guide to the presidential primaries.