wine is like art:   it demands that you form an opinion and take sides

wine is like art: it demands that you form an opinion and take sides

I finished Matt Kramer’s delightful On Wine a couple of weeks ago, but couldn’t quite figure out how to describe it to you, my dear readers, until just this moment. The dilemma, of course, is that I am completely on Team Matt, so I’m totally biased. I even met him over this newest publication. He came to K and L Wine Merchants in San Francisco for a book signing last fall. He inscribed my copy “To Steven—the best advice I know for wine is drink up! With regards, Matt.” Wow! I was in heaven.

But therein lays the problem: I wholeheartedly agree with his best advice. So what to say here?

I will say briefly that this wine book is different from many others; being a collection of various columns, many from Wine Spectator; some essays and chapter fragments from some of his other books and a fairly long never-before-published piece on the life and wines of Angelo Gaja. The topics, as you’d imagine, vary widely: everything from finding proper wineglasses, the challenges and pleasures of working with sommeliers, wine as big-business, hidden vinous gems, personal anecdotes and wine trivia, etc. I really like it. Kramer sort of whines a bit about his Gaja story. It does sound like The New Yorker editorial group was a political minefield, though I have to add after reading the thing myself, the piece needs some editing. And really Angelo Gaja, to all but wine cognoscenti, is a pretty obscure figure in the U.S. even today.

But what’s interesting about the book is that Matt Kramer has a voice. That’s right, a Voice. He cares about his subject, has opinions, biases and is not always a ‘nice guy.’ Just compare his writings on Bordeaux to those on Burgundy and American pinot noir for some prime examples. And that’s what I like: the subjectivity factor.

So much wine writing pretends that subjectivity doesn’t exist. Just look at any wine magazine that lists
numerical scores with their wine tasting notes; or rates vintages in various regions; or writes about all and sundry red, white, green, brown or pink wine as if they were interchangeable, implying that they might be equally appealing to everyone. Well, I don’t think that’s true for a second. Taste is subjective. And though it is a good idea, as Oldman writes, to push your wine boundaries and try new things, you are unlikely, in fact, to enjoy every kind of wine out there. I for one have become completely jaded with Australian shiraz, bored with Napa cabernet and have never warmed to Grüner Veltliner, for example. There it is, I’ve confessed. As my tastes continue to evolve, I suspect the wines that I truly appreciate will change, too.

But like fine art, automobiles and psychoanalytic models of the mind; wine demands that you notice it and take sides. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a wine is never only a wine. Matt Kramer takes sides, whether you agree or not. Cheers to you, Matt! And to you, too, weirdcombinations readers! What wine do you enjoy drinking right now, and, more importantly, why?


La Mission-Haut-Brion claims that it is responsible for getting St. Vincent into trouble. It seems that St. Vincent, the patron saint of vintners, had not been in heaven very long before he was attacked by a terrific thirst and had a yearning to taste again the great wines of France, the Burgundies, the wines from the Rhône Valley and the Loire, beady Champagne, and delightful Bordeaux. He applied to the powers that be for leave of absence, presenting such a pathetic mien that his request was granted provided that he come back on time. There is little doubt that he intended to, but when the time was up, St. Vincent was still down on earth, busily tasting wine. They found him in the cellars of La Mission-Haut-Brion, drinking lustily, not just drunk but hopelessly plastered and in no condition to make a journey anywhere, least of all where there might be danger of shocking cherubs and setting a bad example. St. Vincent was turned to stone on the spot, and you can see him there today, mitered cap awry, eyes bleary, and still clutching a rather dilapidated bunch of grapes.

Alexis Lichine

this picture of some public art at New York's Rockefeller Center has nothing to do with Alexis Lichine.  I just like it.

this picture of some public art at New York's Rockefeller Center has nothing to do with Alexis Lichine. I just like it.

I borrowed a copy of Alexis Lichine’s Wines of France from my dear friend Cesar on our recent trip to New York. It was sort of a random occurrence. We had just returned to his apartment from a restaurant and were chatting in the hall among his collections of ancient Portuguese and Spanish tiles and large collection of unusual walking sticks. The library is also housed in this same entryway (they maximize the use of space in New York). That’s where my eyes ran across this marvelous book.

This particular one is a hardback published in 1969, though it is the fourth printing. The original came out in 1951. To me it is remarkable, not for the wine information, which naturally has fallen somewhat out of date, but for the amusing and delightful writing style. Lichine is a subtle comic genius. Take this, for example, from the introduction, “A Frenchman drinks wine because he does not drink water.” There we go. Simple.

Nowadays, we’re all concerned about our health. This was no different in 1969 (or ’51). Here is Lichine on the French anxiety about foie, or liver trouble:

In France, foie trouble is the favorite disease, as popular a conversational topic as ulcers in the United States. One of the standard Franco-American conversations is that of a Frenchman explaining to an American what liver trouble is, and that all Frenchmen don’t have it, and the American explaining what ulcers are, and that all Americans don’t have them.

Foie trouble comes from eating or drinking too much, and every Frenchman can give you a long list of foods that are very bad for the foie: eggs, fats, butter, spinach, shellfish, sauces. This explains why the French never eat eggs for breakfast, although they are perfectly all right for lunch and dinner—perhaps the classic example of Gallic logic. But a Frenchman will add that one thing never bad for the foie—not in a million years—is wine. Sauces, yes, even though sauces are the basis of French cooking. But wine, never.

Isn’t that so like we humans?

Lichine’s not always kind though often gentle in his criticisms. Here he is describing a charming visit to the town of Chablis:

On the left side of the square is the Hôtel de l’Étoile, completely repaired now. The owner, M. Bergerand, a towel tied bandana-fashion around his neck, tall chef’s cap atilt on his big head, big white apron clinched around his bulk, urges you to try the specialties of the house: a terrine of rabbit to be eaten with a glass of Chablis, écrevisses, which are crayfish swimming in Chablis, Burgundy ham in a reddish sauce laced with Chablis, slices of veal cooked in Chablis, chicken poached in Chablis, or a soufflé served in scooped out oranges, to be followed by a coarse, leathery marc made from distilled Chablis. He’ll be only too glad to tell you that oysters and fish aren’t the only things that are good with Chablis, and to give you his recipes, printed on little slips of paper, to prove it.

I adored saying “Chablis” over and over so much that I read this quote aloud to Heguiberto in a kind of ecstasy.

Here, perhaps, a more pointed Lichine emerges. Speaking of the famous Bordeaux sub-region of Sauternes, where the legendary sweet wine is made, he says of one producer, “La Tour-Blanche has a tower all right, but it is brown, with a red tile roof, and has no present function, even as a symbol.” Ouch.

Or about Dijon, in Burgundy:

Dijon used to be famous for its food, but today it is known principally as the world’s mustard center, and mustard is a condiment that spoils the taste of great wine.

Or on Champagne:

Although some people feel that Champagne should be reserved for launching ships, most feel a pleasant surge of excitement as the wire muzzle is twisted off the cork and it is slowly pried loose, the expectant pause giving way to happy chatter as the cork pops, the wisp of smoke curls up, and the sparkling wine foams into tall glasses. Many frown on the practice of allowing the cork to pop, but others believe that the pop is half the fun, and that Champagne makers are more tolerant about this than the connoisseurs, merely suggesting that the cork should come out into your palm and not go flying across the room.

Even in praise, Lichine can crack me up. Here, writing on the über famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, he says, “The greatness of the wines would lead you to expect that the cellars of the Domaine would have marble columns and perhaps a choir chanting in one corner…”

I started my series of quotes with a saint’s tale, so shall finish with another. Writing again on Burgundy, a personal favorite it appears, he describes the stern St. Bernard, who “did not believe wine should be drunk for pleasure. Cluny, in the heart of Burgundy, and for some centuries the greatest church in France, came in for some harsh criticism from St. Bernard, largely because the monks drank so much and obviously enjoyed it.”

Well, obviously I enjoyed drinking up this incredible book. Wikipedia has a fascinating biography of the writer. Lichine sounds like he had a romantic and eventful life: fleeing Russia with his family during the Revolution when a mere child, working as a reporter in France, serving as an American Military Intelligence officer in WW2, marrying and divorcing a Countess, owning wineries and vineyards in Bordeaux and Burgundy, and so much more. Plus he was a marvelous writer. He died in 1989, age 76, from cancer.


Press Club, San Francisco

by Buffalo on November 2, 2010

welcome to Press Club

welcome to Press Club

Press Club is this amazingly stylish wine tasting bar in the heart of downtown San Francisco. We recently went on a Friday evening to celebrate the birthday of our long-time friend, Fernando. Happy B-day, man!

Actually, we’d gone to look at Press Club before, but only in the afternoon. Then it seemed completely dead. Friday after five was sure different. Not only is this place stylish, it is also trendy. Who knew?

The idea behind Press Club is to provide customers with a Northern California wine tasting experience right here in town. They have six wineries represented. We tried wines from the famous Château Montelena last time. Right now the other five are: Fritz, Hanna, Miner Family Vineyards, Mount Eden and Saintsbury. Each winery has its own tasting bar staffed by its own representative. In addition, there is another bar area with PC staff. There is a reasonably priced, though limited, menu for bar snacks available as well. Their location is excellent. Right across the way from Amber India, they’re near the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Market Street, the Metreon and only a block away from the new Westfield. You couldn’t dream of a better spot.

This is a super idea. Of course, the downside is that these wineries are all premium, with premium prices to match. Nevertheless, it is really cool to chat with someone very informed about the wines at hand. Plus, I do get it: seeing six wineries in one place (and if you happen to be lodging at the Four Seasons, right in your very own hotel building) is handy.

fun Press Club lighting

fun Press Club lighting

Press Club entrance is just south of Market Street in the Four Seasons building

Press Club entrance is just south of Market Street in the Four Seasons building

Press Club downstairs

Press Club downstairs

Press Club really is like a Napa wine tasting excursion

Press Club really is like a Napa wine tasting excursion

The night that we were there it was crowded with an exciting buzz going on. It looked like a lot of twenty- and thirty-somethings in chic work/evening clothes socializing and blowing off steam. I liked it.

Press Club itself has a great contemporary look. Our friend, John, complained about the fact that the wine bars are mostly underground in a windowless basement. That didn’t bother me so much as the space is very large and open with well thought out lighting and a pared-down design that did not say “warehouse” one bit. Rather it sexily purred, “See you back real soon.”

happy birthday, Fernando!!!

happy birthday, Fernando!!!


Wine is fantastic, though is it possible to ever get too much of a good thing? Well, not if you’re Neal Rosenthal.

His exciting book, Reflections of a Wine Merchant, describes his career as an independent wine merchant in New York with a penchant for Old World wines. In the mid-Seventies, Rosenthal was a disillusioned attorney looking for something new. Luckily for him, his parents were set to retire and wanted to turn over their small pharmacy in the Upper East Side to a successor. They’d always sold a bit of wine to their customers. So it was only natural that this budding vinophile took over the place and started his very own wine shop.

could these ships be filled with fine French wine? I sure hope so!

This book is more of a delightful wine travelogue than anything else. Somehow I’d never put two-and-two together before, but, duh, a big part of the business of being a wine merchant is having wine to stock your shelves. It hadn’t really donned on me just how challenging getting that fine wine into your store could be. I’d always just imagined that it simply materialized there, year after year, new vintages miraculously appearing in maritime shipments from across the globe, like clockwork. LOL 😉

It turns out that it’s all about who you know, and persistence helps, too.

Rosenthal didn’t really know much of anyone when he started out, though that wasn’t as huge of a deal as it sounds. As he says himself, American wine importing from Europe was sort of in its infancy then. California was just beginning to develop its now well respected reputation as a place for fine wine production and imports from other New World countries weren’t much.

Things certainly have changed but Rosenthal seems to have stayed ahead of the curve and managed to remain in the fine wine business for more than thirty years. That’s very impressive.

He’s obsessed with red Burgundy. I most enjoyed his descriptions of early wine visits to the Côte d’Or. Clearly fond of Burgundians, it’s also quite obvious from what’s written here that as a group they’re slow-to-warm-up bordering on xenophobic. Though from their point of view, I suppose that you’d be leery of a strange American attorney showing up at your doorstep out of the blue, asking in broken French to taste then sell your wine. You might want to test their mettle, too. Of course, Rosenthal passes the tasting and spitting tests with aplomb. But it’s a wild ride.

The book focuses on wine makers and wineries predominantly in Burgundy and the Rhône in France and Tuscany and Piedmont in Italy, though he does venture further afield. It’s thrilling “traveling” with him on his twice-yearly pilgrimages throughout these glamorous wine lands. He has an intriguing chapter on early contemporary wine production in California but doesn’t seem to be that much of a fan overall. Well, no one’s perfect.

As an importer/merchant, Rosenthal offers some insights into special issues related to the industry. For example, he suggests that an importer can be an “interventionist,” someone who “actively insists on imposing a style or methodology on a producer.” Apparently he’s tried not to be this way with his stable of producers. Another area of controversy surrounds the question of what to do with wine from poor vintages. The immediate thought of most importers is to refuse to buy the lower quality stuff. Rosenthal looks at it in another way. His goal is to build loyalty among his producers, so he sticks with them through good and bad times.

That’s a noble sentiment that seems both practical and old-fashioned. He lost me with his blanket dismissal of New World wines. There is a lot of good juice out there these days. Why be such a snob? Rosenthal Wine Merchant still seems to be active in New York. I was able to google their address and even find a blog sponsored by the company. There was no web site, though, and the wine blog appears to have had limited postings, only in 2008. That really is old school.

New or old, I adored this book. I highly recommend it.


mussels in Chablis sauce

mussels in Chablis sauce

I miss New York when it comes to sea food. I think that they have the best fish and shellfish! I’d like to visit Tokyo’s famed fish market, Tsujiki, sometime. They boast the freshest and finest fish from anywhere in the world. The Tsujiki fish market is on my list as one of the must-do places to visit. For now, I guess I’ll just have to make do with local markets, like Sun Fat.

Sun Fat is great though I do feel that their focus is more on fish and Dungeness crab compared with other kinds of shellfish. I’m not that thrilled by crab, especially Dungeness, but just adore clams, mussels and squid. These seem better to me on the East Coast. I don’t know why.

lots of tasty wine to enjoy with the mussels

lots of tasty wine to enjoy with the mussels

Last Saturday we were craving bivalves. Bivalves are tasty! Clams, mussels, scallops, oysters: which is your favorite? I love them all but have a slight preference for clams. Our linguine with clams tastes like heaven! I end up drinking all of the remaining broth every time.

When we go to the fish market we try to keep an open mind. It’s always key to look for the freshest seafood, hopefully at a reasonable price. Last Saturday we hit the mussels jackpot! They were on sale at $3.99 a pound and looked as fresh as they can be. Buried in shaved ice, the shells were tightly closed, shiny, and almost perfectly clean with a fresh ocean scent. I didn’t see so much as a single barnacle attached to any of them and no beards at all. So I bought about two pounds. Then a quick stop for some mangoes at a local Mexican market and with a short jaunt to Whole Foods for some rustic bread and cheese, we had the fixin’s for Shredded Cabbage and Mango Salad followed by New York style mussels with garlic and Chablis wine sauce.

By then it was already around 6PM. Since we’d skipped lunch, we were ravenous. I set to work while Steven walked Clarence. Here’s the recipe:

live mussels

live mussels

New York Style Mussels with Garlic and Chablis Sauce

2 lb mussels, cleaned
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 cup Chablis (or another dry white wine)
1/3 cup chopped parsley
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp parmesan cheese
3 tbsp olive oil
crushed red pepper to taste

How to:
Heat olive oil in a deep pan at high temperature. Add garlic and salt, sauté for a minute without burning. Add mussels and shake pan so they can spread out. Pour Chablis over mussels. Cover pan and let it cook/steam for about a minute or so. Shake the pan periodically so mussels cook evenly. Remove the lid when most of the shells have opened. Remove from heat. Toss parsley, black pepper and crushed red pepper into finished mussels. Sprinkle Parmesan on top. Serve with bread.

Dip bread into the yummy juices directly from the bottom of the pan. Also offer spoons for your guest(s) to sip the broth. To me this interactive dish makes for fun and is the best kind of party!

If you prefer a thicker broth, before adding parsley, remove some of the mussels from their shells. Put these mussels in a separate bowl along with the broth. Blend together with a stick blender. Pour back over mussels with shells. Add parsley, peppers and serve the same way.

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kabocha interior: remove seeds and stringy bits

kabocha interior: remove seeds and stringy bits

I absolutely love pumpkins, gourds and squashes of all types. In fact when we were thinking of a name for our site we thought about calling it cucurbita, which is the scientific name for this family of plants. Among all Winter squashes, kabocha pumpkin is my absolute favorite. It has a buttery and nutty flavor with a creamy texture and it’s naturally sweet. I ate a lot of these when I lived in Brazil but I didn’t see much of them in New York. In California they’re available all year round so you can enjoy them anytime. Not to be harsh, because they’re good too, but I like kabocha better than butternut squash. It just has more flavor. You should try it sometime.

Kabochas are round, perhaps shiny and dark green with whitish or yellowish streaks on the outer rind. They have a bumpy tough skin with bright orange-ish-yellowish flesh, like American pumpkins.

beautiful kabocha exterior

beautiful kabocha exterior

I prefer pumpkins and squash in savory dishes rather than in sweet, like’s popular here. In Brazil we never make pumpkin pies though we often cook them with salt and chile peppers. I should try making a pie out of kabocha next time I visit my relatives, just to see what they would think of it.

When I was a teen I briefly took Japanese classes. It was fun to hear the sound of western words adapted to the Japanese language. As I recall for instance, the English expression, “traveler’s check” becomes something like toraberazu checku in Japanese. The famous Japanese expression of thanks, arigato, derives from the Portuguese word with the same meaning, “obrigado.” There are others.

My sensei (teacher) would sometimes end the class by offering us some cold soba noodle soup along with wedges of steamed cooled kabocha rinds. The snack was served at room temperature which was very refreshing in the tropics. What he did not tell us was that “kabocha” itself is another word borrowed by the Japanese from the Portuguese! Perhaps he did not know? After all the Portuguese had visited them about 5 centuries ago, so much has passed since then, right?

Japanese kabocha pumpkin like all other squashes are from the new world; from Meso- America, actually, which is the chunk of land south of Mexico and north of South America. Presumably kabocha was taken to Asia by the Portuguese. Ah, those brave Portuguese! Just to imagine them on those fragile caravels crossing the oceans makes me sea-sick already!

cutting kabocha

cutting kabocha

First kabocha traveled to Cambodia and then from there to Japan. The word for pumpkin or squash in Portuguese is abóbora. By the time this gourd was introduced to Japan, the name had already changed a bit. In Cambodia, it was called Cambodia Abóbora.The Japanese simplified this long-ish name Kabocha. This was based upon the sound of the word for this exotically foreign vegetable. Eventually, it migrated back to the Americas but the Japanese name stuck: kabocha.

There tons of things you can make from kabocha. Today I made it in risotto. I hope that you like it.

Japanese Kabocha Pumpkin Risotto


1 & 1/3 cup arborio rice
1 & 2/3 cup kabocha, peeled with inner seeds and strings removed, cut into medium sized cubes
1/3 cup fresh onion, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated cheese
¾ cup dry white wine
5 to 6 cup vegetable broth or water
1/3 cup fresh flat leaf Italian parsley, chopped
2 tsp Spanish capers in brine
kosher salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper

How to:

Using a deep pan sauté onion for a few minutes till translucent. Add garlic and sauté for another minute or so. Add kabocha and sauté for few more minutes. Add white wine and cook pumpkin continuously stirring for 3-4 minutes. Add Arborio rice and half of the remaining water or vegetable broth. Reduce temperature to medium to have a brisk simmer. Keep stirring. Add more broth when necessary. Stir it up! The process will take about 20 minutes and the rice will be a little soupy. It is done when rice reaches the al dente consistency, so you’ve got to test it towards the end for doneness. Add salt to taste. Remove from heat then add cheese, parsley, capers, black pepper. Let it rest for about 5 minutes and voilá!

finished squash risotto

finished squash risotto

The finished risotto has a vibrant color and the flavors are divine! Serve with white wine. We had it with this cheap and delicious pinot grigio frizzante from Italia bought at our local TJ’s store! Cheers.

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