DIG's Early Days

DIG's very funky space as I first saw it, south wall

DIG's very funky space as I first saw it, south wall

funky part 2, west wall, now the entry door

funky part 2, west wall, now the entry door

Construction in progress, DIG's space at right

Construction in progress, DIG's space at right

Digging out the cellar. 

Digging out the cellar. 

Framing the north-facing windows

Framing the north-facing windows

Earl installing DIG's wine racks

Earl installing DIG's wine racks

A big pile of wine

A big pile of wine

Much of what follows originally appeared on the occasion of DIG’s 1st anniversary in May 2012. But because our customer base has grown quite a lot over that time I thought it would be fun to post it again here, with a few minor changes. 

Time, as we know, is a frighteningly swift companion. And so it is with equal parts pleasure and disbelief that we announce the occasion of our first-year anniversary on May 13. Of course, there was a period — a very lengthy period — when it seemed as if we'd never open our doors for business.

I like to joke that I'm not much of a believer in heaven and hell, but purgatory, baby, now that's a concept I can fully appreciate!

Construction on our home at the Yellow Building began in the winter of 2009. At first we imagined a seismic retrofit and general spiffing up were all the building's old bones required. Ha! Was that ever naive. 

Given that the building dates to roughly 1860, one can imagine the amount of actual work needed. At the end of the day — more like 18 months — the structure was essentially rebuilt from the foundation to the roof. Throw in our city's notoriously labyrinthine — or is that byzantine? — permits and licensing systems, and in retrospect it's amazing that our year-and-half stint in purgatory wasn't longer still.

And of course it wasn't just DIG experiencing these frustrations but our family and neighbors at Piccino and MAC, too.

Looking back through a thick file of photos documenting the building's evolution is a sobering reminder of just how insane the whole process was. But time, as the old saying goes, does heal.

From those first unpromising visits to the space as it was, to what seemed like months looking at what appeared to be nothing more than a literal hole-in-the-ground, to the days when the walls went up and the floors went down, to the day my friend, the amazing craftsman Earl Gonzalez, installed the wine racks we designed with the talented architect David Battenfield, the excitement felt creating something from nothing was nothing short of thrilling.

On April 30, 2011 DIG finally received its ABC license. Ah, just in time as at this point a mid-May opening actually seemed possible. But as luck — or the lack thereof — would have it, though Piccino and MAC opened on May 11 one final permit for DIG remained unsettled.

In the meantime the inventory I spent 18 months conceiving, re-conceiving, and re-conceiving again began to arrive. The store was a massive island of wine boxes in need of pricing and placement. So maybe the delay wasn't so terrible after all. 

Then, surprise! On Friday the 13th at 2pm the permit was signed off. But because it was entirely unexpected I was entirely unprepared. The store was a shambles, I had no shopping bags or totes to put wine purchases in, and, not only was the store essentially a floor to ceiling pile of boxes, most of my precious inventory remained inside those boxes.

Moreover, because of a glitch/delay with Piccino's wine & beer license, I had a ready-made clientele clamoring to buy wine to bring to dinner next door. So open I did, after running around town for bags and temporary invoices, and getting a few more wines on my shelves. It was complete chaos, and a hell of a lot of fun. 

You see, the thing I love about wine, besides the obvious pleasure it brings to our senses and shared good times, is that, just when you think you've got it figured out, nope, one's preconceptions must be discarded, one's ego must step aside, one's mind must remain open, and one never ceases to learn.

The journey never stops. 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking Perfection

Sophie Loren at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival

Sophie Loren at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival

Our friend Hugo recently gifted us with a gorgeous Aritsuga chef's knife — with our initials engraved in the base of the blade, no less! It's a damn sweet knife, pretty much perfect, from a Japanese manufacturer that's been forging blades since 1560. 

Coincidentally, on June 10 of this year The Wall Street Journal published an article titled "The Unimprovable Awards: Celebrating 6 Perfect Things." Sure enough, the Aritsuga knives were included, as, ahem, was Zalto stemware. 

Now, "perfect" is a pretty daring handle. A descriptor we should probably reserve for the rarest of of the rare, even if, like the knife and stemware mentioned above, or the Leica pictured below, they are relatively mass produced items.

 

photo credit: One Street Photo

photo credit: One Street Photo

While they arguably exist, there are few "perfect" wines (unless you're a fan of the hundred-point scale). But that rare moment of vinous nirvana is one not only triggered by the wine itself, but to the place it was imbibed and, in my opinion, most importantly, the company the wine was shared with.

I mean, few things are more pathetic than Paul Giamatti's character Miles in the movie Sideways, sad and alone with his cherished bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc, slurped from a Styrofoam cup.

So I say, while questing for that rare and elusive "perfect" bottle, be sure to enjoy the perfection of imperfection, with the right people, of course.  

 

Gigot à la Ficelle

It's springtime. The days are growing warmer and longer; the abundance of vegetables and fruits available at farmers' markets makes it essentially impossible not to buy more than we can actually eat, and, oh, yeah — there's also spring lamb.

Although Sher and I have been cooking (and learning how to cook) over wood fire for nearly a decade now — and have even attempted the far more challenging Patagonian specialty, lamb al asador — for some inexplicable reason it was only a few weeks ago that we decided to try our hand at gigot à la ficelle

We first read about this Provençal classic in Richard Olney's superb, and still in print, Lulu's Provençal Table: The Exuberant Food & Wine from Domaine Tempier.

Long before the world's obsession with celebrity chefs and their sexily photographed, and largely never cooked from cookbooks, the American ex-pat Olney (along with the British writer Elizabeth David) was one of the great food writers — and this is one of his best efforts. (His Simple French Food is another.) 

For wine lovers, Olney's book is also something of a history — but really a kind of love letter — to the Peyraud family of Bandol's iconic Domaine Tempier (they were good friends and neighbors). The marvelous Lulu of the book's title, by the way, recently celebrated her 98th birthday. Her longevity, no doubt, tied to a life filled with loving family and friends, excellent food and wine. Though interestingly, Lulu, it is said, never drinks water: "I don't want to rust," I've been told, is her thinking on the matter of hydration.

The catalyst that finally got us serious about making this simple and tasty dish finally arrived in a recent cookbook from our friends Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain in their terrific and inspired, This is Camino.  

Dangling a leg of lamb from a string inches just from a vertical fire resulted in not only one of the most satisfying dishes we've made, but, damn, also made us realize that this is what cave people did for entertainment — sit around with friends while staring at a large hunk of meat as it hypnotically turns this way then that, mostly by itself, with the assistance of a few spins, gaining a shimmering patina with each rotation. 

If you have an indoor fireplace or can improvise a backyard or other outdoor situation, we urge you try it.

For the wine, although a special dish demands a special wine you needn't go too crazy — unless, of course, you choose to.

To accompany lamb, I'm partial to medium bodied reds with lively fruit and maybe a dash of peppery spice and earthy crunch. The above-mentioned Bandol reds from Domaine Tempier are an obvious and excellent way to go, but there are lots of other choices that will make you plenty happy. 

ClimaVinea, A Groovy New Burgundy App

A few weeks ago, Pierre de Benoist, vigneron of Domaine A. & P. de Villaine, was visiting DIG. He noticed the book I sell here, the invaluable Climats and Lieux-Dits of the Great Vineyards of Burgundy. Well, invaluable to those, like me, who are not simply smitten by these wines but who, um, er, also love to geek-out — there's really no other way to say it — learning about the history, geography, place names, and producers whose wines we drink and collect.

"Have you seen this new app?" Pierre asked, whipping out his iPhone. And there, in miniature (no iPad version as of yet), was the app version of the book. The book is pricey ($125), and it remains invaluable to me. But then, I love books. 

But for $25 this interactive app is just slightly more portable — I imagine using it on my next trip to the region. While walking the vineyards it will locate your position, and, like the book, gives histories and explanations of the communes as well as individual vineyard names, surface areas in hectares, a list of some of the best producers, and other very cool information. Like the book, invaluable. Check it out here

 

Personality Disorder

I've written before about what must be the eternal question for wine lovers: Why is that a wine can sing like Pavarotti one day, and like Bob Dylan on another? (Mind you, the current, croaky-voiced incarnation; I love early Bob.) Or, sometimes morph in the opposite direction? 

The question, of course, is rhetorical. Wine isn't a static but living — and hence, changeable — thing. As, naturally, are we. For example, it's been shown that when presented with the identical wine in two glasses, we humans pretty much always pick a favorite.

Or, as happened recently with a customer who happened to taste two different vintages of Benjamin Leroux's Chassagne-Montrachet Abbaye de Morgeot a week apart, on the first go 'round she preferred the crisper, brighter 2013, but on the second the rounder, richer, but still taut 2012. So which was different, the wine, the drinker, or both?

This also helps explain why the suggested drinking windows critics like to write about, or any one of us might consider when laying down wines, are at best educated guesses. Unlike us, wine doesn't age in a track-able, linear way. Wines can be open when young and then shut down for months or years at a time. Or, as is often the case with classic youthful Barolo, so tight and tannic that tasting them is practically an exercise in self-torture.

Then there's the question of how you like your wines? 

I know many collectors who prize very old vintages. They'll generously uncork 25-, 30-, 40-years and older bottles; sometimes they are as vibrant and velvet-voiced as Pavarotti in his prime; sometimes they're as dried out and leathery as latter-day Dylan. Once a wine hits that stage, regional and varietal character can be difficult to distinguish. (Of course the life those bottles led, where they came from and how they were stored, is of critical importance. But that's a whole other subject.)

Today, it's more likely to be true that we drink wines too young. Given proper storage, a five to seven year window after the vintage date is probably a nice middle-ground for any wine that will benefit from bottle age (though the most serious, such as grand cru Burgundy, usually benefit from more time than that). Some wines are ready to go when young and should be drunk that way, but even lighter wines can often benefit from an additional one to three years in the bottle.

But then again, there are no rules. It's all about pleasure. As with life itself, practicing patience while accepting that there are going to be some bumps along the road is a smart way to approach wine. The journey, as they say, is just as important as the destination. 

photo credits: Pavarotti, New York Times; Dylan, San Jose Mercury News

Wine, The Fickle Seductress

Charlotte Rampling (of course), attribution unknown

Charlotte Rampling (of course), attribution unknown

A few days ago a regular stopped by in search of a special bottle; a gift for his father-in-law. "I really love Burgundy," he said, "but I've also been disappointed by a few bottles."

I smiled and nodded, "Yes, I understand." 

This is the world we live in: Wine, The Fickle Seductress.  

Burgundy is an obvious example yet the truth is that all wines — at least all honest wines, those handcrafted objects so beholden to that other fickle seductress, Mother Nature — are changeable things. Granted, some more than others. But all wines go through awkward phases where they may or may not fully express themselves once we've pulled the cork.

Wines, especially younger wines, that were open and expressive a month back can suddenly shut down, entering a "dumb" phase where they just aren't talking, or prefer to reveal but a hint of their charms. Wines can be touchy after transport, funky from reduction (the lack of oxygen), tight as a drum head, or otherwise affected by the weather, the biodynamic calendar — which some think is BS but I'm not so sure — or, who knows, cranky for reasons unknown. 

But the fact is that (factory-churned plonk aside) good wine is anything but predictable. That is part of its mystery and beauty, its ability to surprise and enthrall, leave us grasping for words, or spouting the unprintable.  

Older wines, even properly cellared, present their own challenges. But the reality is that even with the best advice and research on where, say, that 2005 Mascarello Barolo might be at this stage of its life, we never really know until we've pulled the cork. Even then a closed wine can blossom in the glass, or a glorious older vintage might fade.

That's the way it is. My advice is to enjoy the ride and never stop learning.  

 

Desert Island Wine

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Although I'm asked it quite frequently I still find this to be a curious question: 

What's your favorite wine? 

Yeah, I know, I've pondered this one before. And there is, of course, no one answer. Nor, to my mind, should there be when it comes to something that brings such a wide array of aromas, flavors, and pleasures, intellectual and sensual, into our lives.

It's like asking someone to name his or her favorite LP, book, or movie. Uh, you mean I can choose only one?

Perhaps a better way to phrase it might be...what are you really excited about right now? 

Ah, now that's something I can get into.

Book: Patti Smith's M Train.

LP: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli playing Chopin.

Movie: Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, as recently released on disc by the Criterion Collection (see the still at top).

Perhaps somewhat perversely, I have thought about what wine I would want on hand should Sher and I find ourselves stranded on the proverbial desert island.

That one's easy: Chablis.

I say this because not only does Burgundy's most northern appellation make some of my favorite expressions of the chardonnay grape — from high toned salt- and rock-driven examples to the richer, creamier variety — but also because I'm assuming that our island will have abundant fishy things and crustaceans to keep me and Sher happily nourished for the duration of our stay.

But you needn't wait to find yourself in such a predicament to try this simple and satisfying way of cooking lobster that we improvised one recent day at Stinson Beach.

 

 

Desert Island Lobsters

Get yourself some fine feisty lobsters, on the smaller side, one per person, and fire up the grill.

To kill the lobsters, first perform a brief blessing of thanks before plunging a chef's knife into the joint where the head meets the body. Rock the knife forward through the lobster's head. Separate the claws and tail from the body, which you can save for a delicious stock or bisque.  

Using the heel of the chef's knife, crack the underside (more bulbous part) of the lobster claws, which creates an open pocket for steam to escape from while cooking. Place the claws on the red-hot grill and cook them — they more or less poach in their own liquid — for about 10 minutes.

The opening created also allows you to test the lobsters for doneness. When cooked to your liking remove the claws and place the whole tails on the grill for about the same period of time (if your surface is large enough you can grill them all together). The tails will want to curl up from the heat but don't worry about that, simply flatten them out or flip them a few times. 

Serve with some melted tarragon butter and a fine Chablis or other white Burgundy of your choice. 

Chill Out

Some years ago my wife and I were lunching at one of San Francisco's best restaurants — okay, it was Zuni — and we ordered a bottle of Marcel Lapierre's tasty Morgon to go with our burger and Caesar salad.

When our server presented the wine to us it was at room temperature. Rather than displaying its usual bright, fresh, bramble fruit, pepper, and earth notes the wine was aromatically listless and dull tasting. Dumbed-down due to being served too warm.

"Could you please bring us an ice bucket?" I asked. The server initially took issue with the obviously ignorant hick sitting in his section, but the bucket arrived with a little water in it and after a few minutes in this soothing bath the wine was happy...and so were we.

Experienced wine drinkers know that chilling lighter reds such as that Lapierre, especially during warmer weather, is the best way to maintain the lively freshness we're looking for from these wines in the first place. But it isn't only lighter reds that can benefit from a cold soak — and this is particularly so if the flavors of a particular recipe (often tomato-based this time of year) — require a juicer red, but the weather demands something cool.

I recall reading how the Peyraud family of Bandol's Domaine Tempier served their rosé with bouillabaisse, but they were also known to serve cold bottles of young Bandol rouge, too.

Photo by the one and only Julie Wertz

Photo by the one and only Julie Wertz

And so it was at a recent sun-drenched lunch party, where we cooked our version of Zuni's Spicy Squid Stew with Roasted Peppers, that I chilled a magnum of Giuseppe Quintarelli's Primofiore to accompany this almost intoxicatingly aromatic, exotically flavored dish. 

Although Primiofiore, which we poured at last week's tasting, is Quintarelli's lightest red, it's still no cru Beaujolais. When it comes to weight and juiciness this remains a relatively hearty red wine. But when I was thinking about what to pair with that squid stew my mind flashed to the table at Domaine Tempier, and somehow a chilled magnum of Primofiore seemed like the most logical choice in the world.

Our guests were surprised and quite pleased by how well the bright tanginess of the ice-bucket-cold red paired with the spicy flavors and texture of the stew. And so was I. 

 

 

 

Swing and a Miss!

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Yuk! Said the man sitting a few seats away. YUK! I don't get it!

My wife and I were at a Giants game, seated in primo spots along the right field line just in front of the opposing team's bullpen. Close friends have season tickets to these seats and every now and again Sher and I attend games they can't get to, and always have a wonderful time. Besides, when our defense takes the field Hunter Pence is RIGHT there, so what's not to like?

We've also been known to bring our own picnics to games: some nuts and prosciutto, leftover grilled chicken or duck breast, cheese, even salad. And wine, of course, though paper cups are no Zalto substitute. 

The couple seated next to us, one of whom is the fellow quoted above, are also season ticket holders. And because our friends had told us about them we introduced ourselves and carried on a lively conversation throughout the game, even about the height and history of the pitcher's mound.

At one point we discovered that it was this guy's birthday. Let's call him Walter. Now, Walter is a beer guy — nothing wrong with that — who takes long breaks from the live action to enjoy the superior suds offered at the Public House beneath the stadium. 

Hearing that it was his birthday, Sher offered him a pour of a Simone Bize Bourgogne rouge Les Perrières we'd smuggled — I mean, brought — into the stadium.

YUK! Said Walter. YUK! I believe that four Yuks were ultimately exclaimed, and I sensed Walter's flair for the dramatic arts.

I found the entire sequence quite amusing, though Sher was concerned that I might punch him. I mean, yes, I enjoy this wine for its coolness of tone, bright berry fruit and spice aromas, lightness of body, and earthy finish. But to a guy like Walter it must have seemed as out-of-the-blue as a foul ball rifled directly his way.

These reminders of different tastes are important. In the world I live in — you, too, probably, if you're reading this — wines like that Bize are the ones that bring us pleasure. And I'll admit to having uttered a yuk or two of my own over the kind of fat, hedonistic fruit bombs that most people enjoy. Maybe even Walter. 

Of Tide Pools, Wildflowers, and Olfactory Awakenings

Sher and I spent the past holiday weekend at a lovely small home perched on a hilltop just a five-minute stroll from Bolinas Beach. On our first morning walk I felt as if my olfactory senses had been jolted alive by the damp freshness of the sea air.

Along with scents of the ocean my nose was practically barraged by various wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs. One smell, a funky combination of musk and cheese, which I initially mistook for a low-tide effect, turned out to be a drooping, slightly sinister looking bell-shaped yellow flower.

My first thought was, "Wine tasting notes are bullshit." My second was, "Including mine."

While that may be an exaggeration, coupled with the self-critical part of me that once made his living as a writer and editor, it remains true, as I've written before, that it's not only damned difficult to describe anything experienced by the senses but it's also that our vocabulary, and how we choose to employ it, is not only limited but quickly falls to cliché, generalization, and overreaching hyperbole.

Moreover, what tasting notes rarely capture is the emotional response a wine can trigger. For example, as we walked the beach to a series of interconnected tide pools my mind drifted to Chablis, whose vines are nurtured by the fossils of ancient seabeds and descriptors like "crushed oyster shell" and "algae" are frequently employed; and Liguria, where the vines grow on steep terraces overlooking the sea, and I swear that you can smell the salty breeze in a good glass of Pigato or Vermentino.

As a Bay Area native I've always lived by the sea, and the Pacific Ocean is something that still takes my breath away, something I am awed by, Earth Mother and Goddess of mysterious beauty. Perhaps that is why these saline, mineral-driven white wines speak to me with such force. 

Something similar happened the next day on a hike that wove through a damp forested area (an analogy used to describe the cool earthiness of certain red Burgundies) but that also crossed sun-beaten paths covered in brush and wild herbs (which conjured the sense of garrigue used to describe southern French reds).

I love the city, and the Farmers' Market is another great place for wine lovers to hone their senses. But after this July 4 weekend I'm eager spend more time in nature, waiting for that next awakening of the olfactory nerves. 

 

 

Of Tasting Notes Strange Impressions & Baby Pictures

 

As I write this I'm swirling and sniffing, sucking in and savoring a mouthful of 2011 Jamet Côte-Rotie. A myriad of olfactory and taste sensations are speaking to me. But what exactly are they saying? 

This is one of the problems — no, let's instead say challenges — with wine tasting notes. After all, attempting to put into words things experienced by our senses is no easy task. 

Curiously, that seems to be a challenge I've been drawn to over the years, as in my (mostly) former life as an audio and music critic I've tried with some success to describe the sound of, say, an amplifier, or speaker, or turntable, or even, believe it or not, a specially designed power cord (please don’t snicker, they do make a difference).  

And just as it's not easy to describe the sonic/musical effect one might expect to experience with a fine audio component, it is equally — perhaps even more — confounding to attempt to describe something we experience with the two, albeit intertwined, senses of smell and taste. 

Plus, it's all so very personal. 

Our noses and palates are all different from each other's. You may smell peach, I may smell petrol. I may say citrus, you might say cat pee (I hope not about wines that I sell). I once had a friend describe a locally made Sauvignon Blanc as smelling like sweaty armpits. Although the winemaker disagreed, I knew exactly what my friend meant.

And while we may agree (or not) with each other about a wine's merits, at the end of the day there are no "wrong" answers. This isn't science, it's an impression tied to emotion. Because smells and tastes are going to trigger, like Proust's famous madeleine, things stored in our memories that make up the very fabric of our lives. 

And fleeting, too. 

Because what I, or anyone, write about a wine at any given moment reflects just that. One moment in time. As I re-experience a wine over the course of one of DIG's weekend tastings it will have changed, sometimes dramatically, sometimes with greater subtlety, with exposure to air. Almost always for the better. But changed it has. And therefore, I encourage my customers to see these notes as snapshots, baby pictures I like to call them, when it comes to younger wines, because they are, after all, in their early stages of development. 

Of course as wine lovers we experience this on a regular basis, with a wine opened at dinner that evolves over the span of an evening. As with people, the more time spent with a wine the more it has to reveal. Of course, like people, some wines will be so open, so lacking in nuance, that they will tell all on the "first date.” But the best wines, like the most intriguing people, only become more interesting, sometimes elusively so, on greater acquaintance. 

Ultimately, tasting notes are a kind of necessary evil for the wine professional. And though many wine lovers take frequent tasting notes, and fine wines definitely should be paid attention to, at the end of the day we want something delicious in our glass.

Sometimes the best tasting notes provide no details whatsoever. To quote a friend who is in the biz, about an Alsatian Pinot we recently shared, “I love that F—ing wine!"

 

 

Wine and Religion

Although I was raised Catholic, and endured countless Thursday afternoons of catechism during my grade school years, religion in any form has not exactly been my thing.

One finds hypocrisy in all things, of course, and the Catholic Church — like all faiths — has certainly practiced its fair share, often resulting in appalling headlines (although Pope Francis, it must be said, deserves much credit for bringing a welcome dose of 21st Century thinking to this ancient institution). 

And one can argue from either side as to whether or not any religion has done much good for humanity. In this regard when I think of, say, the glorious architecture that created the world's great churches, Bach's sacred music, or Michelangelo's frescoes, I'm inclined to think positively.

And then of course, there is wine.

Without Christianity the history of wine would tell a very different story. To quote from Jasper Morris' Inside Burgundy:

"As early as 640 we find the recent foundation of Nôtre Dame de Bèze establishing a vineyard in Gevrey-Chambertin... Then, either side of the first millennium, the monastic foundations really began to exert an influence. The church needed vineyards for various reasons, of which providing wine for communion was but a small part. Hospitality requirements and the prestige of being able to provide wines of quality were vital components which could also play a political role."

Indeed, studying the history of wine in general and specifically Burgundy has made me ever grateful to fellows like the monk pictured at the top of the page (who is depicted drinking from what appears to be an early Zalto prototype). And lest we forget, the monks are also largely responsible for mapping Burgundy as we know it today, and for being what we might call the original terroirists.

And then last Sunday at Z Space in the Mission Sher and I experienced a rather extraordinary performance by New York's Wooster Group, who sang, a cappella, and later sort of danced to a series of historic Shaker Spirituals originally released on the Rounder Records label in 1976. One in particular captured my attention.

"Who Will Bow and Bend like the Willow"

Who will bow and bend like the willow, who will turn and twist and reel

In the gale of simple freedom, from the bower of union flowing

Who will drink the wine of power, dropping down like a shower

Pride and bondage all forgetting, Mother's wine is freely working

Oh ho, I will have it, I will bow and bend to get it

I'll be reeling, turning, twisting, shake out all the starch and stiff'ning

 

A Burgundy Whodunnit

If you've yet to read Maximilian Potter's Shadows in the Vineyard I strongly recommend it as one of the most fascinating wine books of recent memory.

Expanded from an article that appeared in the May 2011 issue of Vanity Fair, Potter's book relays in suspenseful detail the plot to poison — for a million euros ransom — the vines of Domaine de la Romanée Conti.

But more than simply a great crime read, Potter deftly weaves his story with mini-histories of Burgundy and of the Domaine with a cast of characters ranging from the Prince de Conti, whom the Domaine is named after and who was an older, and not especially loyal, cousin to Louis XV, to the Domaine's current head, Aubert de Villaine. 

Though Potter enriches his book with brief biographies of everyone from criminals to cops, as well as the domaine's workers and the families that own it, he can annoy with prose more flowery than a vineyard in springtime, his effusive praise of the quiet Aubert de Villaine, and writing that makes it sound as if he were inside the head of de Villaine as well as the monks who created Burgundy as we know it.

Regardless, the book is more than worthwhile for all kinds of insider information, and despite my quibbles it is a real page-turner for anyone who loves wine, and especially Burgundy.

~ with thanks to DIG customer Chris Ames, who alerted me of the article and loaned me the book.  

How is Joyce's Ulysses Like Burgundy?

Recently my sister and I were discussing icons of literary greatness. I confessed that I'd been unable to crack Melville’s Moby Dick. She, that she'd never read James Joyce's Ulysses. 

As something of a semi-retired Ulysses geek I could well understand her dilemma. Many years ago, before I was able to find the key that unlocked the pleasures of this extraordinary novel, it took me at least five attempts to get past page 30. Because although I loved Joyce’s spellbinding if initially baffling use of language, his earthy sense of humor, and his irreverence for the church, I felt that Ulysses was too dense, too arcane, and, damn it, too long for me to ever “get.”

Then one day a friend played me some old recordings of Irish actors reading passages from the book. That’s when things clicked. I realized that enjoying Ulysses does not require a degree in Irish history or English literature, or a guided tour of Dublin’s streets, or knowledge of the dozens or hundreds of other scraps of obscure references and multi-layered meanings — Homeric and otherwise — that Joyce tosses at us, but that it does ask us to sit back and enjoy the music of Joyce’s brilliant prose.

Understanding the wines of Burgundy can seem equally intimidating, and for similar reasons. Obscure, perhaps difficult to pronounce village names, followed by obscure, difficult to pronounce vineyard names that frequently possess multiple spellings — and there are some fourteen-hundred of these — not to mention the hundreds of producers who make wine from a good many scattered sites, and what are the grapes again? At least that part is easy.

Then there’s the fragmentation. Due to centuries of historic and generational shifts it’s quite possible that one vineyard will be split over a few, possibly dozens of owners who may have a few rows here, another few there, and that’s it. As an extreme example, the large and well-known Clos de Vougeot has as many as 80 owners, according to English wine writer Jancis Robinson. Talk about confusing.

And then the prices, while never inexpensive, can be staggeringly high these days for wines made in such miniscule quantities. (For perspective consider that a top Bordeaux Château such as Lafite-Rothschild produces roughly 25,000 cases of it’s best wine per vintage, and Domaine de la Romanée Conti a mere 5000 cases from what recently increased to seven distinctly different vineyards.)

At their best the wines are ethereal, poetic, magical, and as captivating as a masterpiece in any genre.

But wine is a fickle lover. For a variety of reasons — an off vintage, lesser producer, tainted cork, or simply a closed or awkward stage — there will, on occasion, be disappointing bottles.  This, of course, is true of any wine. But somehow our expectations of Burgundy seem to hold these wines to a higher standard. As well they should.

For those either just getting into Burgundy or perhaps, like my sister with Ulysses, have been reluctant to take the plunge, my advice is to not over-worry about the village and vineyard names, or who the superstar producers are. Better to purchase a few bottles based on solid recommendations, enjoy them over dinner while they awaken in your glass, and let the process unfold naturally. Because like Ulysses, Burgundy is a lifelong study that one will never "get" every aspect of.

And besides, the intellectual part is one thing. Pleasure, ultimately, is what it’s all about.

 

 

Astrology for Wine?

Many years ago I had a close friend who was deeply into astrology, a pursuit that I considered akin to reading tealeaves or fiddling with a Ouija board. Amusing perhaps, but not to be taken seriously. For years she had worked with an astrologer who would give her semi-regular updates — transits and progressions, I believe they were called — on what she might expect over the course of the next several months.

One day she offered to have the same astrologer compose my birth chart, using only my name and place, time, and date of birth. When the cassette arrived — yes, this was a few years ago — and I listened to his hour-long explanation of the actual chart that accompanied it, I was nearly speechless from the exciting but slightly weird sensation that this guy whom I'd never met had been looking over my shoulder my entire life. 

Now, I do not follow astrology on a daily basis, but, given how this astrologer, with such eerie accuracy, was able to define the fabric if not the details of my life, I went from thinking astrology is bunk to thinking: If the moon can affect the tides as well as other earthly things, why not me?

This story is a way of introducing you to an app called When Wine Tastes Best.

Now, wine and how it tastes is something I do follow on a daily basis. It's my passion, and my job.

Without getting into a lengthy explanation, the idea is based on research developed over 55 years ago by a German named Maria Thun, who published an annual calendar for biodynamic sowing and planting, used by people involved with not only grape growing but also every type of agriculture, as well as by beekeepers and producers of cheese and butter.

Quoting the apps developer, "The details of the calendar are worked out by considering all aspects of lunar cycles, solar cycles, star constellations, and the movement of other planets." 

So-called Fruit and Flower days are considered optimal for enjoying wine, while those labeled Leaf and Root are less so. The app lays out the year's calendar, with red bars indicating Fruit and Flower days accompanied by stoplight-like uppercase YESes and NOes for emphasis. 

Some wine purveyors believe so strongly in this that they'll only taste wines on the "best" days. My regularly scheduled weekend tastings don't permit such luxuries, unless, say, you tell me you'd like to attend a tasting from midnight to 3am tomorrow.

Of course many factors — our moods, the weather, a wine's age, temperature, and its own "mood" — will affect its aroma and flavor. And there are days, I'll admit, when a wine is absolutely singing and I'll think, this must be a flower day, and, nope, it's a leaf day, or vice versa. 

Over the years, the biological calendar and this app have earned my respect, if not blind devotion — plus, it's a fun parlor game. But I will admit this: If I've been waiting to uncork a serious bottle I will consult the calendar and wait until an optimal day presents itself. After all, given the many variables involved why not give the wine it's best shot at providing us the maximum amount of pleasure?  

 

11th century horoscope

11th century horoscope


Vacation Diaries, Burgundy, It's so Damn Small!

As a former student of Art History who once toyed with the idea of teaching that subject, a never-ending sense of thrill comes with my first, or umpteenth encounter with a beloved artwork. Standing before a Rembrandt self portrait, Van Eyck's Man in a Red Turban, or the deeply spiritual Rothko room at the Tate Modern — all of which were seen on our travels — never fails to take my breath away. 

Jan Van Eyck, Man in a Red Turban, 1433

Jan Van Eyck, Man in a Red Turban, 1433

Even if, as passionate amateurs, we've read about and studied fine reproductions of a favorite work of art, nothing compares to experiencing such beauty and genius "face-to-face,” while realizing that the artists who created these works, be it years or centuries before, at one point stood pretty much exactly where we, the viewer, are at the moment when experiencing them.

For me, driving through the villages and walking the vineyards of the Côte d'Or elicited a similar electric thrill. As much as one can glean from drinking these wines, studying maps, and reading about the vineyards and vignerons, nothing compares to being there, and tasting with the men and women who work the lands, who make the wines. 

Plus, it's so damn small, far more so than it appears on maps. The entire Côte d'Or is only 30 miles long and roughly 1.2 miles wide, but contains something like 1200 different named vineyards. Moreover, the "sweet spot” for growing the finest wines is a remarkably narrow swath snaking the length of the slope.

Mark Rothko, paintings commissioned for but withdrawn from the Four Seasons, NYC, 1958 - 1959

Mark Rothko, paintings commissioned for but withdrawn from the Four Seasons, NYC, 1958 - 1959

While driving, blink twice and you'll have moved past Chambolle-Musigny into Vosne-Romanée. Drive the back roads of Vosne and see a closely-knit pattern of modest homes that are the domaines of such esteemed names as Anne Gros, Michel Gros, Mongeard-Mugneret, and Sylvain Cathiard. Look up from the village edge to the facing slope that was kissed by God — La Romanée, Romanée Saint-Vivant, La Romanée Conti, La Tache, Richebourg — it's all right there, and a remarkably brief walk from bottom to top. 

Descend into the cellars, they’re small too, and though prices for these wines are necessarily high one begins to wonder why they aren’t higher still, given the small yields and fragmented vineyard ownership.

For example, at the fine Chassagne Domaine of Jean-Noël Gagnard the delightful Caroline Lestimé, Gagnard’s daughter — he was spotted walking down the street sporting a traditional French casquette — drew a sample 2013 Bâtard-Montrachet from one of the two-and-a-half barrels produced that vintage. That’s about 62 cases of wine. Small indeed.

 

Life Altering

Our well-loved copy of the ZUNI Café Cookbook

Our well-loved copy of the ZUNI Café Cookbook

Given the many moving tributes I've read to the memory of Judy Rodgers I was initially hesitant to add my voice to the mix. After all, though I've eaten at ZUNI countless times over the years, and had seen her either behind the stove or otherwise engaged in the business of the day, I only met Judy Rodgers once.

It was at a book signing for her classic ZUNI Cafe Cookbook, arguably the single most important, no, let's instead say useful, contemporary book yet published for the home cook. Ten years in the making, it's one of the best written, too. Although I'd already read the book from cover to cover, I couldn't resist standing in line to thank her, and to say, "I learned something from you on every page." In return she thanked me with that wide-open, gently beautiful smile of hers.

But for me, like so many others, ZUNI is more than just a great restaurant. It's a symbol of the heart and soul of San Francisco. It also happens that ZUNI changed my life; because if not for ZUNI I would never have met the love of my life, my wife Sher. I'd already been going to ZUNI for several years. One day as I was helping an ex-girlfriend find an apartment we decided to break for lunch at ZUNI. In those pre-Craigslist days we were looking at listings in the newspaper when I realized that the pair of young women seated next to us were doing the same thing. 

We started a conversation, realized we had several things in common, and ended up getting together for dinner a few times. One of these women was a close friend of Sher. And though I wouldn't find this out for a while she thought Sher might find me interesting, and vice versa, and arranged the group outing at which we met. When we started dating seriously ZUNI became "our" place. For many years Sher and I would meet there every Thursday night, plus, of course, whenever the mood struck us. Which was, uh, quite frequently. When we decided to marry we considered holding our wedding at ZUNI, but as often happens economics trumped desire.

When we opened our own businesses, without consciously realizing it, we aspired to make them ZUNI-like. Not in terms of look or concept but in the way they make vistors feel — warm, always welcomed, like part of a family.  

The last time we saw Judy was several months ago. She was lunching at Piccino with a friend. Friends of ours were at a table next to hers. And when I walked over to greet them I was delighted to see Judy, looking well, laughing, and flashing that signature smile. 

 

Blame it on Wayne

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I recently discovered that the above phrase has become something of a mantra within a family that purchases many of their wines from DIG (you know who you are). "Blame it on Wayne," the mother told her daughter, the daughter told me, and you know what? It's one of the highest compliments I've received since opening my store.

While I realize that being blamed for something is not a state we generally aspire to, in this case the idea charmed me because what I'd been accused of is altering my customers' palates to a point where they no longer want to drink many of the wines they used to — in short, more fruit-forward and high in alcohol than those found at DIG. 

This is a process, and a passage that not all of us will go through. And each of our palates is unique. Different strokes, as the song says. But it is indicative of the point-of-view that is the foundation of DIG: that lower alcohol, less overtly fruity wine is best with food, and that the best food wines come from France and Italy.

Ah, Ah, Ah — Don't Top Off that Glass!

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If you're like me, part of being a good host is ensuring that your guests' wine glasses are never empty. But recent experiences have convinced me that topping off glasses is in actuality doing a serious disservice to our guests, ourselves, and the wines we pour. Allow me to explain. It all began at a cellar tasting I conducted with Ted Vance of The Source Imports. If you have yet to meet him Ted is among the most passionate, informed, and curious — and, forgive me, Ted — wine nerds that I know. The guy thinks a lot about wine. He observes it through experience and is always questioning received wisdom about topics such as to decant or not, to swirl our glasses or not, and yes, to top off glasses or not?

In advance of our event Ted told me that he wanted to finish the tasting with an experiment. We were pouring a 2010 Savigny-les-Beaune "La Dominode" from Domaine Pavelot. Ted instructed the group to smell, taste, and note their impressions of the wine. We then topped off each person's glass from the same bottle. What had been an open, warmly fruity nose accompanied by typical Savigny earthiness and bright fresh flavors turned into a sour smelling, disjointed wine that was, I do not exaggerate, effectively ruined. We then dumped that wine, and into each now empty glass poured again from the same bottle. Et voila, the wine was itself again. 

We repeated this experiment with another wine with the same result, and since then I have conducted the same little demo with friends and customers. Each time with the same results. Now, some people think it's a load of horse manure, but even the most skeptical become convinced after a few tries. Ted didn't offer a scientific explanation, but one good guess is that the change in aroma and flavor is caused by a disruption of the oxygen that occurs when pouring into an empty glass versus one containing some amount of wine.

Regardless, check it out for yourself. For me, this has changed the way I pour wine at home. But one wonders how the waiters of the world will react when told to keep their hands off of our bottles.  

 


 

My Favorite Wine...?

I've been surprised by how many first-time visitors to DIG ask, "What's your favorite wine?" I'll admit that the question always puzzles me. Favorite wine? Goodness, I mean, every bottle in the store has been personally chosen by me. And with a carefully edited selection of roughly 200 bottles, the challenge is less what to bring into DIG than it is what not to bring in. I have tasted literally thousands of wines to arrive at the offerings on display, and part of the job is to keep on tasting, exploring, and seeking out the best bottles I can find at all price points. Whether a wine sells for ten bucks or tens of times ten bucks my goal is to send you home with something wonderful and delicious, a wine that speaks of the place it came from, a wine that will enhance your meal, perhaps even invite contemplation. 
 
Okay, I'm evading the question. Surely there are wines at DIG that I prefer to others, yes? Of course there are. But, and this is the real point, it depends entirely on the occasion, often the weather, and most importantly what meal my wife Sher and I are planning to cook. And frankly, even if I could afford to drink Burgundy, Côte-Rôtie, or Barolo every night I wouldn't, anymore than I would only listen to "serious" music, watch only "arty" films, or eat nothing but fancy food on a daily basis. For me the world of wine is simply too vast for that approach. There are times when a simple Beaujolais (such as the Lapierre Raisins Gaulois pictured above) is just the right choice for, say, a grilled burger or salmon; or when a light, fruity, dusty Dolcetto makes perfect sense for that pasta dish; or when an icy-chilled Muscadet and platter of briny raw oysters is absolutely the best thing in the world, at that moment. This is one of the reasons why investing in even a modest wine collection makes so much sense. You never know when you might need that Beaujolais, Dolcetto, or Muscadet, or, for instance, when your local butcher might surprise you with some lovely veal shanks, as our local French butcher Olivier recently did for me. Now that is when you'll want a fine Barolo at hand, as we did on the evening when those shanks were made into a classic Osso Buco with risotto Milanese. The wine was the gorgeous, elegant, and vibrantly alive 1985 Cordero di Montezemolo “Annata.” Though not from a superstar name, this classic Barolo offered a bouquet of orange peel, sour cherry, tar, and rose petal, with a dash of menthol and ripe dates. Yes, on that night this was absolutely my favorite wine!