Bad Blogger!

But whatever. There are times where I think I’m losing my taste for this sort of thing, whether it’s because of the lowest common denominator tendency inspired by the internets, general flaming, or because I’ve just got too much else going on that staring at a computer screen for yet another hour is anything but appealing.

And then of course there’s the whole traffic thing, and traffic spikes in particular. A savvy social mediaite might have parlayed the huge bounce from a timely post like this one into double the usual traffic, but, well, that’s not me. I did the opposite and got caught up in other things. Like life. Wine. And disco. To whit:


Are Italian Wines More Likely to be Corked?

(Above: What I had hoped would be a delicious bottle of 2005 Castell’In Villa Chianti Classico was ruined by cork taint.)

Seriously. This question would often plague me during our marathon tastings at Wine & Spirits. Say what you will about tasting a lot of wines at once, but I can’t think of any better method for noticing how many wines come up as corked. And I don’t mean just flawed or otherwise muted — there are plenty of those — but straight up murdered by TCA.

And you know what? When I’d be tasting Italian wines the number of corked wines seemed outrageous. Like anywhere from three to five in a group of 35 wines, compared to say, one, maybe two corked bottles during a comparable tasting of North American wines. And I’m not talking about inexpensive values here (these actually fared better, at least during my tastings), but higher end wines often bearing a DOC or DOCG marque.

So what gives? Is the cork industry unloading crappy corks on the Italians? (I can’t verify this, but I’ve heard from several people that Austrian wineries used to complain about getting shafted by cork producers, and that’s one reason they’re so behind screw caps and the sexy Vino-Lok.)

Do Italian wineries skimp on their cork purchases? Interestingly, Italy seems to lag behind other wine producing countries when it comes to embracing alternative closures. In fact, the Italian wine industry insists on the use of cork. As one importer in the Bay Area put it to me the other day, his Sardinian producer had problems with cork taint and then started to experiment with screwcaps and other closures for his Vermentino di Gallura. Now that Gallura is DOCG, he’s been forced to switch back to cork under the new appellation regulations.

Or has the worldwide boom in wine led to too much pressure on the cork industry, and now invariably there are good corks and bad corks on the market? Or is some combination of all of the above?

These are just my observations, but in the course of many tastings over several years, it was impossible not to notice this many corked wines. And to see such a high number associated with the wines of a particular country is just annoying.

How Do Bustling Neighborhood Restaurants Affect the Rental Market?

(Above: A typical layout for a Victorian-era flat in SF, though perhaps originally this was the ground floor of a two level house. It’s similar to a place we recently checked out in the Mission.)

We’re looking for an apartment in San Francisco, which, as in other cities where lots of people want to live, is a challenge. Add to it the fact that we have certain constraints — proximity to BART, either garage or parking, or decent street parking — and our search is narrowed to the sections of town where it seems everybody wants to live. Sorry, Inner Richmond! Sorry, Inner Sunset!

During a recent viewing of a flat, it was pointed out that a number of restaurants were nearby, including currently hip places like Flour + Water. I hear this frequently on this search but it struck me that neighborhood restaurants have a significant impact on rents and the availability of rental units in San Francisco. You sort of take this stuff for granted, but it’s definitely true. Especially when, like us, you’re weighing your options in relation to your needs, and considering paying at the top of your rent budget for a flat that’s, well, on the small side. Oh for a time machine!

Sure enough, have a scan on Craig’s List of available one- and two-bedroom apartments in locations like Hayes Valley and the Mission, and you’ll find rents ranging in the $2,000’s on up. I wonder, to focus on the Mission for a moment, how much places like Flour + Water, Range, Dosa, Beretta, etc., affect rents? In the sense that property values themselves are affected, then it’s likely that they do. The question is how much? Does proximity to a bustling neighborhood restaurant that’s something of destination itself meant that, say, another $200+ is added to the asking rent amount? Ditto the economic and commercial vitality in the surrounding neighborhood. Hayes Valley, where we currently live, is a great example: Anchored by original restaurants like Hayes Street Grill, Absinthe and even the fratboy-infested Suppenküche, Hayes Street itself now features numerous boutiques and more bars, restaurants and even a ramen truck.

And it seems that new restaurants inspire a bit of neighborhood envy. From an article in yesterday’s Chronicle about removing the restriction on the number of restaurants along 24th Street in Noe Valley:

Yenne and others in Noe Valley began the push for new restaurants on 24th Street four years ago after seeing new, attractive restaurants open on nearby Valencia Street and other areas without the restaurant limits.

There were 29 restaurants along 24th Street in 1987, and today there are 22, according to city Planning Department documents.

In 2006, the city allowed three new restaurants to open in the 24th Street-Noe Valley Neighborhood Commercial District, which runs on 24th Street from Chattanooga to Diamond streets and parts of some adjoining blocks. Of the three that obtained permits, only Contigo, a Spanish and Catalan restaurant on Castro at 24th Street, has opened.

(via Curbed SF)

Meanwhile, all leads on a one- or two-bedroom apartment in SF are most appreciated!

Out of Balance

Is it me, or was that kind of a nasty summer? I’ve been trying to keep a positive mind but then circumstances seem to conspire and throw everything out of whack – either personal or some wider social context. Between notable deaths, ongoing wars, economic anxiety, that tea-bagging/town hall silliness and a host of other issues, it’s enough to make you want to cocoon up and not leave the house.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of shit throws me way off-balance. It’s even affected the way I taste wine, which feels weird to say, but why not? It is my livelihood after all, therefore important.

This latest round of frustration comes via Italy, where two letter bombs were thrown at a crowd of young people gathered outside a gay bar just up from the Coliseum. There’s a report in English here. As Towleroad observes, there’s been a string of anti-gay/homophobic attacks in Italy recently; beyond the letter bombs, there was an arson attack on Rome’s popular gay club Muccassassina (the club was closed at the time), a stabbing outside of Rome’s summertime gay festival and an assault in Naples. Not that the US is a shining example, but Italy has a nasty case of homophobia and this news doesn’t help. A bright spot: The attacks have been widely condemned, and there have been public protests.

Here’s a report (in Italian) following the bomb attacks in Rome (via Towleroad):

I’m reminded of the terrible incident earlier this summer in Israel when a gunman attacked a gay and lesbian youth center in Tel Aviv, not far from where some friends of mine live. I didn’t see much coverage of the attack in the American news (why doesn’t that surprise me?) but the BBC has good coverage, including reports of subsequent protests, here.

I know, nothing to do with wine. But then again, we’re talking about being out of balance, and that has everything to do with wine.

Of course, it’s tempting to just say to hell with it all, turn to the bottle and drink up.

Grumble, grumble.

Onward into the Fall, may better times lie ahead.

A Tale of Two Vineyards


(Above: Old-ass vines at Old Hill Ranch in Sonoma Valley)

Apologies for not posting regularly but these have been busy weeks. Thought I’d get a few posts up while in New York last week but all I could manage was the 140 characters on Twitter. So there’s that if you’re curious.

This post comes to mind after spending a weekend in Sonoma Valley in early April for the wedding of two dear friends. (If you’re looking for a wedding or conference retreat location in Sonoma Valley, with on-site accommodations, hot tub, pool and great food, definitely check out Westerbeke Ranch.)

Vitcultura Promiscua
The weekend started with a small reception at the historic Old Hill Ranch vineyard (Did I mention this was a wino wedding? It was). I say historic because sections of the vineyard — which is a field blend of over 15 different grape varieties — date from the 1880s. Will Bucklin, whose family has looked after the site since 1981, led a group of us around Old Hill, which he farms organically and claims that the site’s been farmed that way in practice, if not name, since it was first planted in the 19th century.  There he is below pointing out the healthy soils at the dry-farmed vineyard.


Vitcultura Sterilis

(Pardon the Latin, and my usuage is probably incorrect – a little help, Dr J? Tried to make a play off the ‘promiscua’ above.)

A ghastly vision from the next day stands in contrast to the living soils at Old Hill. Hiking with a friend in in the high foothills of Sonoma Mountain, we came across a massive vineyard. Not an unfamiliar sight in Sonoma Valley, and at first glance this made perfect sense: Good elevation, a gentle slope and southern exposure. Then we noticed the dirt.

The vines were naked still, not yet covered in the thick canopy that would render the open area lush with green vineyard romance in the coming months. Of course in April, the heart of spring, vineyards – if not vines – are green, filled with all manner of cover crops and life — at least those sites farmed with respect. Here, all looked dead, a desert, with dried dust ready to blow with the afternoon wind.

We considered that the rows had been recently tilled (which had happened at Old Hill, as shown in the photo above) but the ground looked too hard, and anyway we discovered a section later that had been tilled only there was hardly any green to speak of mixed in with the dirt. Also, it had been raining steadily at this point in the year, and vigorous cover crops marked the vine rows elsewhere in the valley. But not here. I’d be surprised if anything could grow here, but apparently it does — with plenty of chemical help.

Sorry there’s no photo; we were hiking at a fast clip, and I didn’t have my camera.

State of Thirst, Update

Jeremy wrote in with a childhood recollection of water rationing in California in response to yesterday’s post:

I remember water rationing when I was a kid in San Diego. We didn’t ration but in SF you did. Once I asked for a glass of water in a Chinese restaurant. I was like 7 or 8. The waiter brought it to me and she said: you better drink the whole glass because someone in SF didn’t take a shower so that you could have it!

Freaked me out!

Another drought cycle, perhaps less acute but more widespread, brought mandatory water rationing to Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties (and other parts of California) when I was in 6th and 7th grade. The water company jacked rates to encourage conservation, on-and-off showering was the norm and front lawns everywhere were left to go brown, with the threat of “water fines” for those caught with the sprinkler on. My mother became adept at reading our water meter, and I was obsessed with creating a garden filled with cactus and rocks. Around this time, too, I started frequenting Joshua Tree out in the Mojave Desert. Apart from the temperate areas along the coast, this is arguably the real California. Of course, most of the state’s population is concentrated in the desert areas. Although reclaimed desert is probably more accurate.

ballooning over tract homes in Coalinga

I’m still baffled by desert tract homes with their green lawns. Those seen above are in Coalinga, a town located in California’s heavily irrigated Central Valley. Swimming pools, lawns, all manner of trees. As if those fences and roads can deny the reality so plainly visible.

Don’t even get me started on golf courses.

Unfortunately, it looks like the recollections of Jeremy’s and my childhoods will again become reality in California. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle ran a front page article outlining the situation. The meat of it:

The rainfall expected in the region through Monday will be too little, too late to turn around a month that usually delivers about 20 percent of the rain and snow needed for the year, officials added.

With no blockbuster storms on the immediate horizon and forecasters predicting a longer-term dry spell, water managers around California are busy calculating just how far they can stretch supplies already drained by two previous dry winters.

So far, two dozen California water districts have extended rationing imposed last year – and more and steeper cuts likely are on the way.

“These are going to be hard times for everybody,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents 450 public water agencies around the state.

For the season so far, precipitation totals around the Bay Area are 40 to 60 percent of normal, according to experts. While that doesn’t sound catastrophic, it’s not enough water to top off critically low reservoirs or soak parched farmland.

Go here to read the entire thing.

View From America: Sarah Palin on Al Jazeera

Not at all wine related…

My friend Casey works for Al Jazeera, the Doha-based Arabic and English language cable news channel. It’s a job that takes him to all corners of the world, places far more exotic than this wine journalist ever gets to. My inner traveler is insanely jealous.

Casey’s currently covering the US presidential campaign, and he’s spent the last several weeks in the several swing states that will end up deciding the outcome of this election. Below is his (terrifying to me) account of a recent Sarah Palin rally in Ohio. Yikes!

Coffee Wars and Locavores

(Above: Lemon-pistachio donuts and coffee at Four Barrel)

Three’s a war, right?

It seems that the coffee wars have officially come to San Francisco. The last few years have seen the arrival of Blue Bottle, Ritual and now, Four Barrel (no website yet; tel: 415-252-0800). Blue Bottle began as a roaster based in the East Bay, with two kiosks here in the city, one at the Ferry Plaza farmers market theme-park, and the other tacked on to the front end of a wood shop in Hayes Valley. They’ve since opened their first café-laboratory off Mint Plaza downtown.

Ritual opened deep on Valencia Street in the Mission District in 2005; it’s both a roaster and a popular airy café filled with so many laptops that you could mistake it for someone’s idea of the perfect hi-tech start up (indeed, Flickr got started here).

And then there’s Four Barrel, which is sort of a midway stop between Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley kiosk and the Ritual HQ at the end of Valencia. Stylistically speaking too, it’s somewhere in between. A big space made warm by the hum of conversation, coffee and vinyl LPs affixed to the fall (check the Mad Max soundtrack, natch), there’s a roaster in the back and places to sit up front, as well as a retail counter to take a sack of beans home. There’s food too, and I’d be guilty of Wall Street level greed if I didn’t say it’s worth a trip to Four Barrel just for the lemon-pistachio donut from the new Dynamo Donut.

So San Francisco is developing a local coffee industry that may just rival Seattle’s someday. Or maybe not. In any case, all this talk of localism brings to mind a short article that my friend David Tamarkin wrote over at Time Out Chicago about the ultimate futility of the locavore/localvore movement. (Although I wish he’d taken that stupid name to task.) I get the impression that David wanted to write much more than what he had space for, but it’s a thought-provoking piece all the same.

(Above: Internationally sourced coffee beans for sale at local roaster Four Barrel. Maybe there’s a happy medium for locally and internationally sourced produce? Also, dig that Megadeth typeface!)

As a dedicated lover of things vinous and seeker of delicious things to eat, I’m not about to commit myself to eating and drinking only those items which are sourced in a 50- or 100-mile radius (and I live in a place where such a lifestyle is actually possible). Sorry, generally speaking I prefer cru Beaujolais to California Pinot Noir. And I couldn’t live without a little La Tur in my life. That said, I believe a consciousness of the local bounty and how that produce gets to market is important, to say nothing of what’s in and out of season in your particular region; indeed, eating seasonally might be even more important and effective than eating locally. But wouldn’t the energies and passions of people committed to maintaining a locally-based diet be better devoted elsewhere? Like developing school gardening programs, for instance, or guaranteeing the rights of immigrant farm workers at both artisan and industrial farms?

Remembering Genoa

(Above: The heavy boots of the Italian military police. Image courtesy of Indymedia)

Yesterday marked a grim anniversary of sorts. Seven years ago on July 21, during the tumultuous G8 conference hosted by Italy in the Ligurian city of Genoa, Italian riot police stormed the Diaz Petrini school which had been officially designated a housing center for visiting activists, independent journalists and various protesters. Somewhere between 150 and 200 carabinieri, clad in body armor and carrying night sticks and shields, thrashed the unarmed people inside the school, most of whom were either already in their sleeping bags or preparing for bed. Dozens and dozens of people were seriously injured and then hauled off to prison.

Those arrested were later released for lack of charges, and an inquiry into the raid was launched. On July 14 of this year, fifteen police officers, guards and medics were convicted for their roles in the violence. Although as this shocking article in the UK’s Guardian points out, none of them are likely to ever go to prison due to Italy’s complicated appeals system.

Also unresolved–and it will likely remain this way–is who directed the brutal police response (One of Silvio Berlusconi’s cronies and cabinet ministers, Gianfranco Fini, the leader of Italy’s right-wing National Alliance, was allegedly at police headquarters that night). Tellingly, evidence the police claimed justified the raid was later declared false; other evidence reported confiscated during the raid was found to have been planted at the scene; it has subsequently been ‘mislaid’.

(Go here for some of the Guardian’s coverage of the violent riots and damage to Genoa during the G8 summit)

(Click here to read Nick Davies’ article about the legacy of the Diaz Petrini raid)

This all comes to mind after reading Jeremy Parzen’s posts over at Do Bianchi and VinoWire about a recent political comic parodying remarks made by once-again prime minister Silvio Berlusconi at a recent farmers’ union conference:

“I am proud of having gathered together a splendid team of young ministers,” Berlusconi told the group of commercial farmers on Friday. “But an old man’s experience was also needed. I can be compared to Brunello di Montalcino, which, as you know, gets better with age.”

A lot of room for improvement, clearly (Fini is currently the president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies). Of course as we all know, nothing in Italy (nor elsewhere for that matter) is ever quite what it seems, even the Brunello.

You would think that state sanctioned brutality, whether explicit or implicit, is something we’d move beyond in the West in the 21st century. But as the events in Genoa in 2001 demonstrate–and, perhaps much more damning–the actions of the United States during this decade, from wiretapping and domestic spying to extraordinary rendition and sanctioned torture, we’re clearly still stuck hard to a violent and brutal past.

Side note:

Below, the list of world leaders in attendance at the 2001 G8 in Genoa. It’s quite the cast of characters…