August 2007


In the July 31st issue of The Wine Spectator, MaryAnn Worobiec had an article called “Moving Beyond Oak” that discussed the trend toward not only producing chardonnays with little or no oak influence but promoting the wines an “unoaked” on the labels. The trend is a reaction against the tendency of so many wineries in California to heap oak on their chardonnay through barrel fermentation and extended aging in toasty new barrels, thus, some feel, erecting barriers of wood between the drinker and the purity and intensity of the chardonnay grape.

In response to Worobiec’s story, Bob Chick, of Spring, Texas, writes, on the WS’s “Letters” page (September 30): ” … a soft, fruity wine may be good for some, but I’ll stick with my rich, oaky Chardonnays — no matter how hard to find they may become.”

As if the only choices where chardonnay is concerned are Soft and Fruity versus Rich and Oaky. As if chardonnay can’t age for a period in oak and emerge silky and supple and subtle, not oaky or woody, or, as I commonly write in my notes, “Stiff and unwieldy with oak.”

I guess Bob wouldn’t appreciate the chardonnay we had last night at home with our turkey tonnato and a spinach and heirloom tomato salad. It was probably our third bottle this year of Olivier LeFlaive’s Rully Premier Cru Vauvry 2004. It’s a lovely wine but rully.jpg anything but soft or wimpy. In fact, its mineral component, composed of soul-stirring strata of limestone and shale, edges close to being formidable but opts, by the time of the wine’s finish, for crisp elegance. Is there oak? To be sure, but oak at its most flexible and scarf-like, acting as a drape of spice and toast and a hint of cream over the wine’s essential structure of scintillating roasted lemon and lemon curd flavors (flecked with candied lime and a touch of pineapple) and electrifying acid. No, this is not as sizable or deep or layered as its potentially sublime chardonnay cousins from the appellations of Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault a few miles north; I mean, this is the Cote Chalonnaise we’re talking about. But for its location and its price, this chardonnay is close to perfect. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York. About $22.

And I suppose that Bob would pay no heed to the Terlato Chardonnay 2005, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, that we drank terlatochard_01.jpg with swordfish a few nights ago. This is so clean and fresh, so not seeming to have anything to do with oak or wood or oakiness or toastiness, that it’s well-nigh miraculous that the wine was fermented 100 percent in oak and aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 20 percent of which were new. That takes skill and thoughtfulness in the winery. The wine offers pure and intense lemon scents and flavors with an overlay of pineapple and grapefruit. It’s spare and elegant but infused with the grape’s inner richness in the form of lemon drop and a touch of honey. It opens beautifully in the glass, yet remains vibrant, even taut, with acid and resonant with mineral elements. The alcohol level is a sensible 13.8 percent. A delightful chardonnay with substance and a hint of seriousness. About $24.

So, Bob, you might want to try one or both of these wines to see how pure and intense chardonnay can be without being “oaky.” On the other hand, if you’re happy the way things are, don’t bother. That will leave more for us.

I just posted a “Featured Article” by that title over on KoeppelOnWine.com. Geographically, the wines hale from Tuscany, allegrini.jpg Piedmont, Umbria, Sardinia, Sicily, Friuli and the Veneto. Vintages include 2004 and 2003 and several from the superb 2001 and ’99. The wines cover the gamut of styles, from traditional Barolo aged two and a half years in huge oak casks to sleek Bordeaux-style cabernet sauvignon and merlot-based wines aged in small French barrels. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice, and speaking of money, the majority of these wines, I regret to say, are not bargains; only a couple get down to the $25 or $30 range, but I hope that it’s as fascinating for the curious or the avid to read about the wines as it was for me to try them and write about them.

… if you drink too much. Which I did a couple of nights ago. Waking (if we can call it that) in the morning feeling as if several IEDs had gone off in my cranium. I had only myself to blame for several million of my brain cells being carried off in body-bags and being slipped into shallow graves in the Potter’s Field of Hopes and Dreams. Instead of sipping sparingly, sensibly, I just kept pouring amaro_01.jpg shots of Amaro Nonino Quintessentia into my cunningly-wrought and delicate little liqueur glass. Master, as usual, of my own destruction. Of the product itself, I have nothing but delirious praise.

Amaro Nonino Quintessentia is produced by the Distilleria Nonino in Italy’s northeastern-most province of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, hard by the borders of Austria and Slovenia. The company was founded in 1897 and is still family owned, the present members being mother and father Giannola and Benito and daughters Cristina, Antonella and Elisabetta, and a damned fine-looking bunch they are, as you can see in the accompanying image. Giannola and Benito Nonino revolutionized Italy’s grappa industry in 1973 by producing the first single-variety grappa from the pomace of picolit grapes. (Grappa, as the French marc, is distilled from noninofamily.jpg pomace, the residue of grape skins, stems, seeds and pulp left after pressing white grapes or, for red grapes, after fermentation.) This innovation shifted the emphasis in grappa-making, as other distilleries followed the lead of Nonino is making a variety of single-grape grappas.

In 1984, Nonino was the first to distill whole grapes, marketed as a line called ÙE. These single-variety products cannot be called grappa, because they’re not, and are instead designated as “Distillates.” In 2003, the family added a unique line of distillates called “Gioiello,” distilled directed from honeys derived from a number of different fruit blossoms and flowers. I tried several of the Gioiello distillates when they were first released; they’re spectacularly seductive.

But back to Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, which I adore and which taken to excess was my recent downfall. The term “amaro” — Italian for “bitter — refers to any number of liqueur-like digestifs composed of a neutral alcohol base infused with roots, flowers, herbs and spices and intended for after-lunch or dinner sipping to settle the stomach and aid digestion. European monks produced such concoctions for a thousand years, but the notion of making the products commercially emerged in the mid 19th Century. Companies that make amaro place a great deal of value (tradition, on one hand, marketing on the other) on their secret formula. The website for Terlato International, Nonino’s importer (formerly Paterno), gives us some clues. Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, we are told, is made from “cereal alcohol, grape acqua vitae aged five years, roots of gentian, saffron, rhubarb, sweet orange, bitter orange, quassia wood, tamarind, galenga, licorice, cinchona.” The producer’s website, nonino.it, mentions that the base consists of ÙE distillate and prune distillate.

Quassia, by the way, is a tree that grows in Surinan or Jamaica, which is a bitter tonic or “stomachic,” as they used to say, and is slightly narcotic. Galenga (or galengal) is also known as “Thai ginger,” though it is more aromatic than regular ginger. Cinchona is a South American shrub or small tree that is a source of quinine.

Of course we don’t know what proportions of these substances are used in Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, and those mysteries should not concern us. The point I’m making is that being a fan generally I have tried numerous other amaros, Fernet-Branca, Averna and so on, and none of them is as deep, as complex, as darkly resonant, as harmonious, as medicinal yet amusing and gratifying as Amaro Nonino Quintessentia. Most of them make the mistake, to my palate, of keeping the licorice element too high and bright and of emphasizing their amaro’s sweetness over the bitterness, leaving them unbalanced.

Anyway, it’s about 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon. I’m finishing this post. Surely it’s not too early for a nip of Amaro Nonino Quintessentia to celebrate another job well done. Well, it is?

I invited five people to the house for a double-blind wine tasting. That means that not only do the tasters not know the genre of the wines, they don’t know anything about them, neither grapes nor region nor country nor vintage, only the color. Ha! What fun! My guests included people from the wholesale and retail arms of the wine business and one fellow blogger, Ben Carter earthquake1.jpg (wines-by-benito.blogspot.com). The wines, all red, were arranged in flights of six, six, six and four. As I usually do with tastings at home, I arranged the bottles in a semblance of sense (concealed inside brown paper bags) but allowed a hired pourer to determine the final order.
After the first flight, I revealed that all the wines were made from the same grape. Groans, curses, pens thrown into the air. “Well,” said one taster, “that ruins whatever I thought was going on here.” Tee-hee!

After the second flight, I revealed that all the wines came from the same region, but not what the region was. More consternation of the “you-have-got-to-be-kidding” variety. I also mentioned that there was a general order to the tasting, but left that for my colleagues to figure out. Snicker-snicker!

Finally, when we had gone through four flights, all questions were answered. The wines were made from petite sirah grapes. The place was California — and all over California, from south in Santa Barbara to north in Lake County — and the order was from lowest to highest alcohol content, about a modest 13.5% to a blockbuster 16%.

Petite sirah — not “syrah” — is a confusing grape because while it is a hybrid grape, a cross of peloursin + syrah, its name has girardps_012.jpg became attached over generations to the true syrah grape and to the rough ‘n’ ready durif grape. In fact, most of what’s called petite sirah in California is actually durif, with many of the “old vine” vineyards being a combination of all three, with other red grapes, mainly Rhone Valley varieties, thrown in. Petite sirah is notable for shaggy tannins, rollicking spice, deep colors and jammy black fruit flavors. If not handled carefully, the tannin can overwhelm a wine, and my lower scores tended to go to wines with out-of-control tannins. Treated deftly, the grape can produce wines of rustic nobility. The alcohol levels tend to be high, as you can see by the list of wines that follows.

Here are the results of the tasting, from highest score down to lowest on a 20-point scale. My score is in parantheses. (The rating system is for convenience; I never rate wines by points on this blog or on my website KoeppelOnWine.com.)

1. Michael & David Petite Petit 2005, Lodi. About $22. Score: 18.66. (My score: 19) Alcohol: 14.5%. This wine has a high petit verdot component, hence the name.

2. Michael & David Earthquake Petite Sirah 2004, Lodi. About $28. Score: 17.5. (My score: 17) Alcohol: 15.5%.

3. Rosenblum Cellars Pickett Road Petite Sirah 2003, Napa Valley. About $35. Score: 17.42. (My score: 14) Alcohol: 15.6%.

4. Epiphany Cellars “E” Rodney’s Vineyard Petite Sirah 2004, Santa Barbara County. About $30. Score: 17.33. (My score: 14) Alcohol: 15.8%. “A smidgen of cabernet sauvignon.”

5. Girard Vineyards Petite Sirah 2005, Napa Valley. About $28. Score: 17.16. (My score: 18) Alcohol: 14.5%. The blend includes “7% Rhone-varietal old-world” grapes, that is, syrah, grenache, mourvedre and so on. This is always one of my favorite petite sirah wines.

6. Marr Cellars Shannon Ranch Petite Sirah 2004, Lake County. About $24. Score: 16.69. (My score: 17) Alcohol: 16%.

7. Marr Cellars Petite Sirah 2004, California. About $24. Score: 16.5. (My score: 18) Alcohol: 14.45%. I loved this wine’s classic warmth and ripeness, its lovely size and shape and resonance.

8. Bogle Vineyards Merritt Island Reserve Petite Sirah 2004, Clarksburg. About $18. Score: 16.42. (My score: 17) Alcohol: 14.9%. A freakin’ bargain!, but only 500 cases produced.

9. Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah 2005, Clarksburg. About $11. Score: 15.69. (My score: 16) Alcohol: 13.5%. Another freaking bargain! and plenty to go around. marr-pets-04.jpg

10. Mettler Family Vineyards Petite Sirah 2004, Lodi. About $25. Score: 15.58. (My score: 19) Alcohol: 13.7%. The wine contains nine percent cabernet sauvignon. One of my top wines of the tasting, beautifully polished and balanced, yet deep. We had another bottle recently and it was equally alluring.

11. Concannon Vineyard Reserve Petite Sirah 2003, Livermore Valley. About $30. Score: 15.42. (My score: 16) Alcohol: 14.5%. 98.5 percent petite sirah, 1.1 percent cabernet sauvignon, 0.4 merlot. 577 cases.

12. David Bruce Petite Sirah 2004, Central Coast. About $18. Score 14.83. (My score: 16) Alcohol: 13.9%.

13. Stags’ Leap Winery Petite Syrah 2004, Napa Valley. About $38. Score 14.83. (My score: 13) Alcohol: 14.2%. This is a blend of 78 percent petite sirah, 15 percent syrah, 4 percent grenache, and one percent each viognier, carignane and mourvedre. I have never understood why Stags’ Leap spells “sirah” as “syrah” on this label, a habit that leads, in my mind, to confusion, discord and barbarians at the gate.

14. Cecchetti Wine Company 39 (degrees) Petite Sirah 2005, Lake County. About $15. Score: 14.5. (My score: 14) Alcohol 14.5%.

15. Vina Robles Jardine Vineyard Petite Sirah 2004, Paso Robles. About $26. Score: 14.42. (My score: 16) Alcohol 14.5%. 792 cases.

16. Pedroncelli Family Vineyards Petite Sirah 2003, Dry Creek Valley. About $14.50. Score: 14.16. (My score: 14) Alcohol 13.9%. The wine contains seven percent zinfandel.

17. Silkwood Petite Sirah 2004, Stanislaus County. About $39. Score: 13.83. (My score: 16) Alcohol 13.5%. 297 cases.

18. Eos Cupa Grandis Petite Sirah 2003, Paso Robles. About $55. Score: 13.83. (My score: 17) Alcohol 14%. Yeah, that’s a big price for a petite sirah.

19. Eos Petite Sirah 2004, Paso Robles. About $18. Score: 13.37. (My score: 14) Alcohol 13.5%. This finely-tuned wine contains 1.9% cabernet sauvignon, 0.7% zinfandel, 0.4% merlot and 0.2% cabernet franc.

20. Oak Grove Wines Reserve Petite Sirah 2005, California. About $8. Score 13.19 (My score: 17!) Alcohol 13.6%. mettler.jpg

21. Novella Fine Wines Petite Sirah 2003, Paso Robles. (Made by Eos.) About $12. Score: 11.5. (My score: 13) Alcohol 13.5%. The wine contains six percent zinfandel.

22. Concannon Vineyard Limited Release Petite Sirah 2004, Central Coast. About $14. Score: 11.3. (My score: 15) Alcohol 13.8%. The wine contains 6% grenache and 3% valdeguie. For Concannon, “limited release” means 65,000 cases.

Attentive and mathematically-inclined readers will say: “Whoa, F.K., your scores were higher than the composite scores almost 73 percent of the time!”

Alas, ’tis true. Am I more generous and forgiving? A push-over? I reminded the tasters before we launched into the first flight that one always has to be careful at the beginning because the wines are unknown and there’s no context of comparison. Yet I gave the first wine of the event, the Oak Grove Reserve Petite Sirah 2005, an eight-dollar wine, 17 points. Perhaps the other tasters, taking my warning to heart, were too cautious. Here are my notes on this wine: “V. intense & concentrated purple color, intense and concentrated nose, smoke — potpourri — currant and blackberry — briers, brambles underbrush — cedar, black olive — smoke, ash & minerals, lovely depth and personality, excellent.”

Sounds pretty good, huh, but perhaps these are indeed the notes of a nicely-made, drinkable, respectable 11 or 12-point wine rather than a 17-point wine. In fact, we took a bottle of this wine to a BYOB Greek restaurant last night, and that was exactly our impression: nicely-made, drinkable and respectable. Rats.

… and their way with words, get a load of this comment from wine.elitistreview.com, the site whose motto is “If it is possible to live it is possible to live well.” Isn’t that what’s printed on Lindsay Lohan’s t-shirt in her latest mug-shot? Anyway, in writing, back in March — I stumbled upon this a few days ago, which happens so often on the Internet and makes surfing so much fun — about the Tim Adams Pinot Grigio 2006, from Australia’s Clare Valley, our elitist says: “Much better than that Italian pinot grigio filth.” Wow, I mean I know that I’ve had some pretty damned bland, innocuous, generic Italian pinot grigios, but that’s rather harsh, isn’t it? Swill, yes, but filth?

So while it may be presumptuous for me to recommend wine to someone of such strong opinions — I wouldn’t be surprised if our elitist flew to America and kicked my American butt — I’m going to name some pinot grigio wines that I think are of superior quality. They’re certainly better than, you know, “filth.”

From northeastern Italy, I recommend the pinot grigios from Alois Lageder from the Benefizium Porer vineyard (Alto Adige, about $20) and La Tunella (Colli Orientali del Friuli, about $17). Turning to California — quelle horreur! — I have recently enjoyed Morgan’s R & D Franscioni Pinot Gris 2006 (Santa Lucia Highlands, about $18) and the Terlato Family Vineyard Pinot Grigio 2006 (Russian River Valley, about $17). I would also look to Oregon for the Elk Cove Pinot Gris 2006 (Willamette Valley, about $15).
These are clean, fresh, lively and quite engaging pinot grigio-style wines (I mean not in the denser, spicer style of Alsace), packed with far more presence and character than our elitist might suspect.

Unusually for an Englishman, by the way, (or a British guy, is that what we’re supposed to say?), our elitist despises what the English (or the British) have called “claret” since time immemorial, “claret” being red Bordeaux wine. We mustn’t forget that a great deal of western France, including Gascony and Bordeaux, became English territory when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry claret2_01.jpg Plantagenet in 1152 and remained part of England until the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453. Trade restrictions with Bordeaux were eased during those 301 years, leading to the English taste for what came to be called claret — pronounced “CLAR-ette” — though the red wines of Bordeaux were much lighter all those centuries ago. (And that’s your history lesson for today.) The English became great connoisseurs of the wines of Bordeaux, producing great cellars, a number of well-known commentators on the wines, from George Saintsbury to Michael Broadbent, and a healthy auction market.

Anyway, our elitist begs to differ. After opening a bottle of Domaine de Chevaliers 1995, a red wine from Pessac Leognan, formerly a part of Graves, he writes, on Monday, August 6: “I own only one bottle of Claret, I hate the stuff. Red Bordeaux is simply dull unless it is fabulously expensive, and most of them are still crap. After this I am not going to buy another bottle of red Bordeaux.”

Well, O.K.

If I’m ever invited to the elitist’s house for dinner, I’ll have to remember to take Burgundy. And a bottle of pinot grigio.

“The young man is used to claret” is from gutenberg.org.

… but that’s one of the reasons why the wines can be great, the sparseness of the stony soil forcing the ancient vines to work for their supper. The small region lies in Spain’s extreme northeastern province of Cataluña, northwest and inland from the coastal spainwine_01.jpg city of Tarragona. Vines have been grown and wine has been made in Priorat since the 12th Century, though a thousand years ago the vineyards were under the care of Carthusian monks. Long neglected because it was difficult to find workers to toil in the steeply-terraced vineyards, Priorat made a comeback in the 1990s, led by a producer called Scala Dei — “ladder of god” — that occupies the buildings of one of the old monasteries. Since 2001, Group Codorniu has owned 25 percent of Scala Dei. You can see how tiny the region of Priorat is on this map of Spain’s wine regions. In fact, you can see all of Spain’s wine regions. Thank you F.K., for this terrific educational feature of your blog!

Priorat is unusual in that its principle grape is grenache — garnacha in Spanish, garnatxa in Catalan — which in this arid climate and demanding topography manages to ripen and produce deeply colored and flavored wines. An irresistible example is the Scala Dei 648.jpgNegre 2005, a 100 percent grenache wine that features luscious, fleshy and meaty black currant, black raspberry and plum scents and flavors permeated by dried thyme, cedar and smoke, dust, tobacco and garrigue, that earthy, parched and weedy yet perfumed herbage of the south of France. This panoply is wrapped around an intense core of licorice, bitter chocolate, tar and minerals, while the whole package is framed and founded on bastions of polished oak and grainy tannins. Yet the wine is approachable, even likable and essential with grilled red meat. Excellent and Great Value for the Price, about $20.

Grenache composes 88 percent of the Scala Dei Prior Crianza 2001, with the balance made up of eight percent syrah and four percent cabernet sauvignon, a blend that serves as an example of Scala Dei’s innovative methods (along with aging in small oak barrels). Lord have mercy, what a mouthful of wine! This is like drinking liquid blueberry and blackberry jam with licorice and lavender, rose petal and plums and touches of something wild like muscadine and cranberries; it’s that exotic, but it’s never out of control. And though the wine is intense and concentrated, dense and chewy, there’s a touch of rose petal softness to the texture, that is until the tides of oak, tannin and minerals inexorably rise. It’s a tremendous achievement, meant to be consumed from now through 2011 or ’12. Excellent. About $25.

Last in this trio is Scala Dei’s Cartoixa Reserva 2001, a blend of 55 percent grenache, 30 percent syrah and 15 percent cabernet 652.jpg sauvignon that saw 12 months aging in French and American oak. This is a wine in which personality and character are one, in which detail and dimension are of a piece. The color is inky purple, the bouquet an amalgam of macerated and roasted black currant, blackberry and plum infused with minerals, smoke and an edge of charcoal, chocolate-covered raspberries, cloves and sandalwood. These elements segue seamlessly to the mouth, where palate-tingling acid keeps the oak and tannin structure vibrant. The finish, not surprisingly, is long, spicy, dry and increasingly austere. Try from 2008 or ’09 through 2014 or ’15. A triumph. About $36.

These three wines register 14 percent alcohol, not an outlandish level nowadays. And I would say that for the superb quality, they’re underpriced, especially compared with high quality wines from, say, Tuscany or the Napa Valley or Australia’s Barossa.

The importer is Vinum International, Napa, Ca.

The map of Spain’s wine regions is from customtours.com.

Is there an uglier word that “gastropub”? Yum, I certainly want to eat there. Leave it to the British, heirs to Shakespeare, Milton and P.G. Wodehouse, to invent for categorizing a restaurant a word that sounds like an alien creature that transports itself on its own slime.

We read the reports of wealthy collections slapping down hunks of change for California’s cult cabernet sauvignon-based wines: Shafer Hillside Select, Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Araujo, Bryant Family, Dalla Valle, Harlan Estate, Bond, Abreu and others. These wines cost $100 to $350 a bottle and fetch more at auction.

Add to that list Dominus, the Bordeaux-style wine overseen by Christian Moueix, owner and winemaker of legendary Chateau dominus1_01.jpg Petrus, in Bordeaux’s Pomerol region. Dominus was launched in 1982 as a partnership between Moueix and Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, the daughters of John Daniel, who owned Inglenook Vineyard, in the Napa Valley, during its greatest years of the 1940s through the end of the ’60s. It was a terrific pedigree, one over which Moueix, one of the world’s best winemakers, became sole proprietor in 1992. These are wines that possess infinite degrees of power and elegance and never see too much new oak. For 2004 Dominus is composed of 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, eight percent cabnernet franc and seven percent petit verdot. It spent 14 months in barrel. It retails for $113.

Moueix produces a second wine from the estate, Napanook, which for 2004 is blended from 83 percent cabernet sauvignon, nine percent cabernet franc, four percent petit verdot and one percent malbec. It also sees 14 months in barrel and costs $42.

Proceed, however, to the Carpe Diem Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley. The blend here is 89 percent cabernet sauvignon, seven percent merlot, two percent cabernet franc and two percent petit verdot; the wine spent 12 months in oak. carpediem.jpg

Here’s the point. The Carpe Diem Cabernet ’05 was made under the direct supervision of Christian Moueix and his winemaking team; its grapes derive from the same estate that Moueix controls. It’s a superb Napa Valley cabernet, deep and rich, bursting with detail and broad with dimension, layered with smoke and spice and intense, concentrated yet generous cassis, black raspberry and black cherry fruit. It’s a wine of tremendous character, balance and poise that seems to change minute by minute in the glass, passing through infinitudes of seductive complexities. It is little short of a masterpiece and will drink well through 2012 to ’15. I rate it Excellent.

And the suggested retail price is $25. I have seen it priced on the Internet as low as $21.

Let the plutocrats drop hundreds of dollars on their cult cabernets, some of which cost for one bottle what you would happily spend on a case of Carpe Diem Cabernet 2005.

The waiter comes to the table to ask if we want coffee. The usual discussion ensues: What types of coffee does the restaurant waiter2_01.jpg offer, are all the choices available in regular and decaf and so on. The waiter takes the orders and then asks, “Will you be needing cream and sugar with that?”

What happened to the days when an order for coffee meant that the waiter automatically brought to the table a little tray that held the cream and sugar and the other accessories with which we decorate or alter our coffee? The service would take different forms. In a diner, you would be brought a little metal pitcher for cream or milk and a little metal canister, usually holding sugar or sugar-substitute packets. In a fine restaurant, a silver tray might hold a silver bowl of sugar cubes, while the milk or cream pitcher would also be silver and have a lid. These luxuries fascinated me when I was a child, especially the sugar cubes wrapped in paper, because when you unwrapped them, the paper kept its tiny neat folds and you could play games with it. Not that my family went out to eat in restaurants frequently, or ever.

Anyway, before I get all teary-eyed with nostalgia and fantasies about lost childhoods, let me say that the seemingly polite question that we hear so often now in restaurants, “Do you need cream and sugar with that?” is merely another way in which restaurants abdicate their responsibilities toward good service and erect a wall of faux-etiquette between waiters and customers.

And then the check comes. Now obviously the vast majority of checks in restaurants are paid by credit card; that’s the way of the world and the expense account. But occasionally I’ll pay with cash, slipping those greenbacks between the covers of the fake leather booklet. What happens nowadays is that the waiter picks up the book, turns slightly and then says, “Will you need change back from this?”

Well, honey, it’s not a negotiation. That question, disguised as polite concern and a way to save you, the customer, time, is such a naked plea for a tip that the waiter might as well get down on his or her knees and say, “Please, please, please!” It’s really a form of intimidation. Why take time to figure out a proper tip, is the theme: I’ll just keep the rest of the money.

No, waiters, take the booklet the way you’re supposed to, keep yer mouth shut, except to smile pleasantly, and bring back the change. Then the diner can figure out the tip and leave the appropriate amount.

Yes, I know, waiters have a hard life, and I’m not being ironic about this — all you have to do is listen to their horrific tales to understand — and, I hasten to add, the points I gripe about in this post are not the fault of the waiters; these are management decisions to deliberately diminish the quality of service.

But the tone of a restaurant, the pace of the meal, the cordial yet detached relationship between waiter and patron, the unspoken yet always fulfilling round of little details that comfort and assuage: These all need to be maintained in order for diners to have a successful experience in a restaurant, whether chomping on a grilled cheese sandwich at Mom ‘n’ Pop’s Road House or slicing into foie gras at La Maison de Upper Crust.

Service with a smile, dude!

Image of the happy waiter is from ckm2005.ucsd.edu.

Car Rental:

The topic of lost cafe rituals is very popular among coffee bloggers around the world. What used to be automatic doesn’t apply in some coffee shops anymore. A coffee blogger who ranted about his terrible car rental experience got more turned off as his day went along because of what he called was poor cafe service. The anonymous blogger is admittedly a coffee enthusiast which explains his extreme sensitivity over the topic of proper cafe values. There was no particular reason as to what exactly turned him off but it had something to do with lost good old cafe a.b.c’s

… come into a bar, No, ha-ha, what I meant to write was, Seven inexpensive Spanish wines show up on the “Refrigerator Door Wines” page for wines priced under $15 over on my website, KoeppelOnWine. I posted 10 wines on that page a few minutes ago and encourage you — what else? — to take a look. Included are three rosé wines made in different styles, from Spain, South Australia and Washington state, and a delightful Spanish unoaked chardonnay, as well as a clutch of simple and appealing red wines that would be great with grilled meat like lamb, veal and steak.

And speaking of steak — I’m on a self-promotional roll here — the “Eating and Drinking” page I posted yesterday on KoeppelOnWine mentions three meals and the wines we drank with them. It’s called “A Little Turf, a Lot of Surf.” The steak comes into it because I seared a t-bone steak one night, and we tried five red wines with it: Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel, petite sirah and sangiovese. The “surf” part refers to sauteed swordfish we had one night and a pick-up pasta of smoked salmon, tiny heirloom tomatoes and vodka another night.

I hope you enjoy reading about these matters as much as we did eating and drinking. Well, no, you won’t, actually, sorry, but please try to live vicariously.

Next Page »