Thursday, June 30, 2005


An Obsession with Food has freed me to write on any number of food-related topics and experiment with different writing styles. But the title constrains me as well: It permits little in the way of non-food thoughts.

So, I've started a new blog. An Obsession with Everything Else will be more eclectic, with shorter posts in general. OWEE exists for the same reason OWF does: to give me a place to write on a regular basis. It just lets me talk about, well, everything else. As I told my friend Phil, every other blogger gets to share every iota of the dreary trivia in their lives, why shouldn't I?

OWF fans needn't worry. Most of my energy will still go into this blog. But for those who want to see another side of me, check out OWEE (pronounced "Ow-ee"). The site still needs work, and it will probably be my playground for fiddling with style sheets, logos, and other things that will migrate over to this site. I also need to figure out a better solution for my domain. Right now, I've told directNIC to redirect that domain to the OWEE site, but it does so by enclosing everything in a frame. This may not make sense to everyone, but the upshot is that once you're on OWEE, every link you click will not change the URL in your title bar. It will appear that the entire Internet is contained by This is lame, but I suspect the fix involves a long phone call with EarthLink.

So stop by, look around, revisit from time to time, or ignore it. I won't expect you to keep up, I promise. For those who use RSS readers, you can currently find the feed at, a byproduct of my domain-name issues.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Zucchini on SFist

Roasted figs
Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.

Why is there a picture of speck-wrapped figs in my latest, zucchini-focused SFist post? Blame summer's bounty, I suppose, but click the link to see for yourself. Click it! Click it now!

If you want to watch as I struggle to write about something other than food and wine, read my review of Edward Albee's "The Goat."

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Guide to Choosing Fruit

Melissa noticed this guide to choosing fruit at David Lebovitz's site. Lots of good info from a talented chef.

How I Score Wine

Most of you know my opinions about wine scores. I don't believe you can rank a subjective experience in a way that's useful for someone else. I'd rather just write a tasting note that describes the wine and lets you judge for yourself. I've posted some here to try and evolve that style.

However, I don't have much pull when I freelance, so when a client wants scores, well, I have to deliver. Fortunately, The Wine News lets me use categories that map to 5-point ranges of their numerical scores. How do I come up with these ranks?

I should note that I favor blind tasting, but I don't often taste blind for my features. I'm interested in the story and the people; the tasting notes are an adjunct. Besides, I'm usually tasting at the winery, so a blind tasting would be impractical. When I taste a bottle in isolation at home, I spit the way I would at the winery. If I'm tasting a wine that we'll drink with dinner, I try to taste before the food gets to the table.

I consider myself harsh in the upper categories and forgiving in the lowest ranks. Most wine just isn't that bad, so I've never given below a "Good" (80-85). But no wine I've tasted on assignment for The Wine News has ever moved me enough to get a "Superb" (95-100).

Of course, the bulk of my internal equation is how much I like the wine. But in addition to that, I try to explicitly evaluate other factors.

  • Complexity - Are there lots of interesting aromas? Do they evolve in interesting ways? Or is the wine one-dimensional, easy to pin down before moving on? How intense are the flavors?
  • Balance - Do the flavors and sensations fit together well, or does one bludgeon you? If it's the tannins that stand out, is there enough flavor to suggest that the wine might just need some age? Balance isn't something you can describe; when you find it, you know it. I moved a Lodi wine from "Outstanding" (90-94) to "Very Good" (85-89) because I thought its alcohol was out of whack. Balance and complexity are probably my two biggest criteria after my gut "like factor."
  • Typicity - This is a tough one. What is a typical Chardonnay? One that's laden with butter and oak? Or one that's crisp and minerally? They're both legitimate styles. How well does the wine reflect the vineyards the grapes came from? Was it over-manipulated in the cellar? For the Lodi piece, I tried to fit the wines into the California profile that Lodi producers aim for: fruit forward, friendly, and fresh. If a wine isn't typical, is that good or bad? The wines from St. Amant Winery differ from the Lodi norm, but I liked them a lot.
  • What kind of finish does the wine have? I think better of a wine with a longer finish, though this isn't an absolute.

After I make my notes I try to consider my own biases. Am I marking a wine down because of its overwhelming oak? Am I giving it a better score because I liked the wine maker? I try to check myself and adjust appropriately: I'm not likely to overlook too much oak, but I've given low scores to producers I like and high scores to some I don't.

You'll notice I don't mention specific smells and tastes in this evaluation. Smell and taste are so subjective that it doesn't make sense to me to use them for the ranking, assuming the wine is more or less typical. I put the aromas and flavors into the tasting note itself.

Probably everyone has a different way of judging one wine as "better" than another. My own thoughts on this evolve over time, so I'm eager to hear yours. How do you rank a wine, if you do?

Friday, June 24, 2005

WTN: 2001 Domaine de Terrebrune, Bandol, France

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.

Aside from "monopole" appellations like Coulée de Serrant, few wine regions evoke specific wine makers the way Provence's Bandol evokes Domaine Tempier, the winery and restaurant that inspired Richard Olney, Alice Waters, and Kermit Lynch. But of course other producers create wine in the hot, scrubby landscape, harvesting grapes from the few limestone-rich patches not scoured by the ravaging Mistral.

Kermit Lynch added Domaine de Terrebrune to their portfolio last year, and it's already flying out the store. Mourvedre dominates the wine, as it does throughout the region, but wine maker Reynald Delille blended it with small amounts of grenache and cinsault in 2001. Most of the wine aged in neutral-oak foudres for eighteen months, though Delille added some oak with the close confines of a barrique. The vineyards are organic now, but Delille and his brother Georges plan to go biodynamic in 2008.

This ruby-colored wine smells of stinky cheese, with red cherries (and a bit of alcohol) appearing on the medium long finish. I enjoyed this funky wine, but it toes the line of my threshold for Brettanomyces, the yeast that imparts "sweaty" aromas. Everyone's taste for this differs: Judge for yourself. The high acidity and modest, fine-grained tannins will pair well with a wide range of food, as befits a wine from a region known for its great cuisine, but the wine's weight wants a dish with a bit of heft. We envisioned it with lavender-flecked roast chicken, but instead drank it with chicken breasts rubbed in lavender butter. Lavender is a key component of the garrigue, the stark terrain of the region, as well as herbes de Provence. The $22 price tag probably comes from the weak dollar, but it still seems like a good value to me.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Chez Spencer

Chez Spencer
Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.

Melissa and I eagerly arrived at Chez Spencer for a "date" a couple of weeks ago. The unabashedly French restaurant gets the nod from Patricia Unterman and the Chronicle, and the enclosed front patio suggested a more cozy evening than the high ceilings and open floor plan of the boisterous interior.

After we settled under the gas heater, Melissa looked over the tasting menu while I mentally evaluated the wine list, a compulsive habit ever since I started researching the subject for an upcoming article. Chez Spencer's list, dense type covering a single side of a tall piece of paper, is not particularly novel or compelling, though someone has taken the time to organize the wines by style rather than region ("Aromatic Whites" instead of "Germany," for example). Rather than pick a bottle, we chose to order the five-course tasting menu ($75) with optional wine pairing ($35). The restaurant lets you choose between two options for every course, but Melissa chose the plates I wanted, and we sheepishly ordered the same meal.

The first course featured three raw Kumamoto oysters, paired with an unfiltered 2003 Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc) from Hubert Brochard. It's unfortunate that the restaurant decided to dress our oysters with a strong mignonette sauce. I prefer my dressings on the side, so that I may decorate my oysters as I wish, typically with a quick squeeze of lemon. Their approach prevented me from tasting the oysters, and the pungent vinegar in the mignonette overwhelmed the tart Sancerre. On the plus side, I couldn't often tell if the crunchy bits were whole peppercorns or chunks of shell.

The next course offered a better balance: a torchon of foie gras with a Pink Lady apple tart, accompanied by a glass of 2000 Sauternes from Chateau Simon. The dish was good enough, though the wine set a theme for the rest of the meal. Chez Spencer plays it safe with their pairings. This isn't bad, per se, but it suggests the same ennui you sense in the wine list itself, a feeling that no one here has become passionate about creating an interesting wine experience.

There's no doubt the roasted rack of lamb with braised artichokes, fromage blanc, and a lamb jus was the best dish of the evening. Melissa calls it "plate-lickingly good"; I say it was quite good. Either way, you get the point. The wine, a 2001 Chateau de la Gardine Côtes du Rhône Villages, continued the theme of safe, uninspired matches.

And then the cheese course. Sigh. We knew which cheeses were coming because Melissa asked at the beginning. Saint André, Morbier, Saint Agur,a Camembert, a crottin of chevre, and a Petit Basque [edited to get the cheeses right]. It's possible, even probable, that Melissa and I are cheese snobs, but do they really think these are interesting cheeses? They're fine, of course, but I imagine you can get them at any Whole Foods in the country. San Francisco residents have some of the best cheese stores in the U.S.; we should expect to find compelling cheeses at a restaurant charging us $75 to eat there. When the server brought out the cheese plate, he was perplexed when we asked if he had a recommended order. "Well, I've never thought of that," he said. Hopefully now he will, but Melissa and I figured out an order based on our knowledge of the cheeses. The wine was an Alsatian Gewurztraminer.

Dinner closed with a warm apple crèpe with apple cider caramel and Calvados ice cream. Enjoyable, if not entirely seasonal, even in the oddly rainy summer we're having here. A non-vintage Graham Six Grapes Port complemented the dish reasonably well.

I expect a $75 tasting menu to feature pretty good food, and Chez Spencer didn't deliver. Gary Danko offers a five-course tasting menu for $79. The wine pairing costs you an extra $45. That's $14 more than the Chez Spencer meal. For that, you get really good food, the "normal" extras like amuse-bouches, a pretty decent cheese cart, and some interesting wines. The restaurant doesn't seat as many people, and it's very expensive real estate. If you go to Oakland's Citron, a very good five-course tasting menu with interesting cheeses and compelling and thoughtful wine pairings will cost you, total, $66. That's $44 less than Chez Spencer's equivalent. You can guess which we'd go to again, given the choice.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

NY Metro on Foie Gras

Alaina mentions a New York Metro article about foie gras, and of course I have to comment. Melissa hopes that one day I'll just let these things go, but it hasn't happened yet.

The author has a decent command of the facts: He knows there are three producers in the U.S., which so few journalists figure out. But he demonstrates a clear bias with "Two or three times a day, the birds have a tube jammed straight into their esophagi, at which point a few pounds of cornmeal are injected." The ducks get at most 500g (1.1 lb.) in any single feeding, and one would be hard-pressed to say the tube was "jammed" down the throat. The feeder inserts it quickly and efficiently, of course, but he has to be careful not to puncture the esophagus, so it involves a delicate touch that "jamming" doesn't convey.

People have their biases, but the author (or his editor) does his readers a disservice with them. He gives the animal rights activists the last word on studies that argue against their case, but he doesn't reveal that the decidedly anti-foie-gras EU exploratory committee accepted those studies and only suggested further research that might expand the knowledge. He also points out that Hudson Valley Foie Gras has a 3.5% "unintentional" mortality rate, but never mentions that 10% is an accepted level at normal poultry operations.

I find it interesting that Ginor's helping draft the anti-foie-gras bill facing the New York legislature. He's clearly learned from Guillermo's example. At the end of the California debate, Guilermo actually backed the bill banning the sale and production of foie gras because it gave him seven and a half years of freedom from lawsuits. Backing a law whose terms you control is a good fallback tactic, and you can always hope the political climate changes in time to revoke it. I believe that will be a hard bill to dislodge, however. I always maintain that foie gras is in its sunset years, but we'll see how this plays out.

Peachy Keen on SFist

Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.
My latest piece for SFist puts a temporary halt to the "Stone Fruit Saga" with an entry on peaches. Melissa took lots of great shots (including the one you see here), and we made a few things with this fruit. Mmmm. Peaches.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Heritage Foods at Chez Panisse

our dinner
Originally uploaded by melissa nicole.

Food items from Heritage Foods always sound interesting, but they require a significant investment. The meat from imperiled livestock breeds costs more than organic "mainstream" equivalents, even before you add in shipping and, at times, a chest freezer. Still, I'm often tempted, if only to support their endeavors.

So when I saw that Chez Panisse would feature their products at a special dinner, I decided to make reservations for us. Melissa and I have eaten downstairs at Chez Panisse in the past and I wonder why we don't eat there more often for special occasions. If you go on a weeknight, the prix fixe is only $65, though of course that's before tax, tip, and, you know, something to drink. I won't pretend that's cheap, but I feel like it's usually a good value.

After our little aperitif of clear and vibrant Prosecco, the staff brought out the first dishes, wild smoked salmon toasts and a Katahdin lamb tartare. The salmon toast was what you'd expect, but the tartare captivated me immediately. They had seasoned it perfectly, and the texture and flavor were wonderful.

Next up was another set of appetizers, a plate of raw Tomahawk Oysters and another one of Red Wattle pork sausages. The sausages were fine, but the oysters? The oysters may be the best I've ever tasted. Buttery and briny and so exquisitely shucked that not even a grain of shell came along as the meat slid into my mouth.

The main course was a spit-roasted Barred Plymouth Rock chicken. There was succotash as well, but who cares? The chicken was divine. It wasn't moist, I eagerly told my co-workers the next day, it was liquid. Flavorful juice flowed from each bite, and the herbed skin added a darker savoriness that worked as a nice counterpoint.

The meal closed with a tart made from Lagier Ranches cherries and a scoop of noyau ice cream followed by a little mignardise plate of candied orange peel and fudgy truffles. It was a nice come-down after the heartbreakingly good main course.

Chez Panisse has a nice selection of half-bottles, so Melissa and I started with a Premier Cru Chablis whose snickerdoodle finish suggested some time on the lees and perhaps some in oak. We finished with a half-bottle of Tablas Creek's Mourvedre-heavy Esprit de Beaucastel.

In retrospect, it might have been a bad idea to go to the dinner; I'm eyeing their website with my wallet nearby. But temptation can only go so far. We don't have a spit-roaster sitting in front of a wood-burning oven, a crucial ingredient in that fantastic chicken. But the lamb. Well, now, that's a possibility. Maybe I should try and get a list of the seasonings they used.

Another Heritage Foods dinner will come around in September. Patrick and Todd, the founders, will be there to talk about the company. We were hoping they'd be here this time, so we could catch up with Patrick, but their plans changed at the last minute.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Christy Campbell at Cody's

Christy Campbell, the author of The Botanist and the Vintner, will be speaking at the Telegraph Cody's on Monday night at 7:30. Read the full details here. Melissa's working the event and I'll be there, too. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Lodi - insert CCR reference here

Lodi Article - The Wine NewsIt's been a year since I wrote a feature for The Wine News, though some of you may have noticed that they've assigned me smaller news pieces here and there.

But I've had some other features in the wings as well, and the first of those is in the June/July 2005 issue. It's all about Lodi, a wine region in California's Central Valley. It was an interesting assignment. Normally I'm already into a topic when I try to sell a story—that's why I pitch it—but the Lodi piece grew from a very casual observation about the larger Lodi presence at this year's Zinfandel Festival. My editors suggested a piece heavy on Zinfandel with some travel elements, so I got to visit inns and restaurants as well as wineries. I'm intrigued by the region's transition from an anonymous source for bulk wine grapes to a New Thing on the national wine stage, and I love all the fiddly bits of history that every area offers.

Melissa found the issue at Cody's, so it's around. And yes, I know: One of these days I'll put some effort into making my clips available from this site.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Me on SFist

Apricots and MascarponeIn addition to my normal SFist column, this one on apricots, they've decided to introduce all their new contributors. So they've posted an interview with me. Tomorrow, I suspect, you'll find Sam, with Ced on Thursday. That's my guess, since they seem to be running the interviews on the same day as our columns.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Vintage Berkeley

I was crabby last Saturday, so when Melissa decided to get some pizza at The Cheese Board, I stood away from the long line and fumed at the delay. Melissa pointedly suggested I check out the new wine store on Vine Street, just around the corner from the fabulous Black Oak Books and notably far from the pizza line.

Vintage Berkeley ExteriorGroovy. Hipster. Vibe. These words popped into my head as I stepped into Vintage Berkeley ("A Wine Store for the People", says their website). The still-new store occupies a remodeled EBMUD pump station. Ryan Kerrigan's artwork adorns the walls as the current exhibit. The staff is young and hip; soul patches and cool glasses abound, though there's little pretension about the wine. The displays are simple—wooden racks and boxes—and a small card next to each wine reveals the store's thoughts on the bottle. These are refreshingly personal reflections, uncluttered by the annoying "92 points from Wine Spectator!!" one often sees. I chatted with the staff and eavesdropped on their other conversations: They know their stuff.

Vintage Berkeley InteriorThe theme here is simple: "Wines from small producers under $20." I only saw one or two bottles above that price in the main area, though they do have a cabinet of special bottles that go well above that range. I also didn't see many bottles under $10, by the way. There's no particular regional focus; the store carries bottles from around the globe. But the price point they're looking for naturally tilts their inventory towards lesser-known regions and less-famous producers. I spotted a Cahors, a Lirac, and a Txacoli, to name a few. Wine buyers with a modest budget and a yen for an interesting wine will find lots of treats here.

Vintage Berkeley PurchasesThe prices aren't necessarily bargains. We spotted some of the same bottles for a couple dollars less at Paul Marcus Wines, which isn't a place to find steals. Still, if you're in the neighborhood, the store's worth checking out. I bought two bottles of the Txacoli they carry, which comes from a different producer than I'm used to, and one bottle of a Saumur-Champigny, a wine that always brings a smile to our faces because we honeymooned in that region. I also picked up a note about their wine club. Six interesting wines a quarter for $75? It's tempting. They have daily tastings as well, though I'd only be able to make it there on a Saturday. The store fills a gap in the neighborhood that's been empty since the North Berkeley Wine Company moved closer to Kermit Lynch, and I'll probably be back.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Pluots and Plumcots and Apriums, Oh My!

Apriums and PluotsYou can't miss the seemingly endless array of plum-apricot hybrids on display at farmer's markets. What are they? How did they get there? Find out by reading my latest post for SFist.

Monday, June 06, 2005

VinTrust SOMMspeak

My editors at The Wine News forwarded me a press release about a wine blog run by the sommeliers at VinTrust. Curiously, they didn't do this because I know a lot about the wine blogging world: They thought it would be relevant to an article I just finished for them (I don't think it is).

VinTrust offers various services for collectors, and they've retained twelve world-class sommeliers as advisors. I've only been reading the annoyingly named SOMMspeak for a few days, but I'm enjoying it. There doesn't seem to be any real pattern to who posts when, and some contributors haven't posted at all, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

WTN: 2002 Puligny-Montrachet, Chateau de Puligny-Montrachet

2002 Puligny-Montrachet, Chateau de Puligny-MontrachetI have avoided learning much about Burgundy so far. I love the wines from this region, but I worry that its convoluted swirl of soil types and tiny producers will trigger my obsessive personality, to the detriment of my pocketbook. So I skirt the edges of knowledge, wary of my own psyche as it hungrily eyes the intricate skein of Burgundy lore. But I can feel the beast rattling the cage, and I know that it's only a matter of time before I get sucked in. Until then, I can only offer a little information on the region.

Puligny-Montrachet, on the southern Côte de Beaune portion of the Côte d'Or, is one of the many villages allowed to use its name as a mini-appellation within Burgundy. If a wine says Puligny-Montrachet, any nearby vineyard might have contributed grapes. The fault lines that lay about like pick-up sticks create a mix of soils throughout the area, but the Côte de Beaune tends to have more chalk than its sister slopes to the north, a soil that favors the chardonnay grape, one of two grapes allowed in a Burgundy white (the aligoté produces very light, simple wines). I consider these wines to be among the very best expressions of this grape (the others come from nearby Chablis and Champagne).

Chateau de Puligny-Montrachet has enjoyed an upswing in reviews, and many credit this to Etienne de Montille, who the domaine hired in time to oversee the 2001 vintage. According to one reviewer, M. de Montille has a gentler hand with the grapes than his predecessor. I've not had previous bottles from this producer, so I can not comment. All I know is that when one of our regular wine stores invited Melissa back to the staff room to try some of this wine, she called me and had me meet her there so that I could try some as well. We bought two bottles.

2002 Puligny-Montrachet, Chateau de Puligny-Montrachet, somewhere around $45
This pale-yellow wine has the clean mineral aromas you'd expect from a good white Burgundy, along with pretty but subtle floral notes topped with a layer of crisp apple. The apple and mineral reappear as flavors when you take a sip, joined by a refreshing acidity. The long, floral finish allows you to appreciate the balance of this elegant and crisp wine. Chalk-grown Chardonnay is often paired with oysters and shellfish, but we drank this wine with a wheel of Époisses. These two products from the same region worked nicely together, the crisp acidity of the wine slicing through the silky cheese.