Some restaurants let the customer be in control of the meal. (Remember "Have it your way"?) In today's high-end dining establishments, however, we've come to revere the chef as artist, and they can become temperamental. They may not actually be flinging their ingredients at the wall to make a Jackson Pollack cuisine, but ask them to substitute a side dish or an ingredient on your entreé, and they might just fling it at you. Our parents went to restaurants to be pampered and treated like royalty; we go to be teased, intrigued, and sometimes so it seems, even insulted or abused.
Apparently the new restaurant Gilt in Manhattan is a place where you have to surrender control of your life for a few hours. At least that’s the impression one gets from reading the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator, where Thomas Matthews relates his experience with the cuisine of chef Paul Liebrandt with this hilarious exchange between diner and waiter regarding the chef’s tasting menu.
“The first time I dined at Gilt, neither its price nor its dishes were listed, so I asked my server how much it cost,” Matthews writes.
“‘Around $135,’ he replied. ‘It depends.’
“‘Depends on what?’
“‘On what the chef sends out.’
“‘And what might he send out?’
“‘Depends on what?’
“‘On what he has in the kitchen, and what he’s inspired to create.’
“‘And what about the wine?’ I asked. ‘Will the sommelier pair wines to go with the tasting menu?’
“‘How much does that cost?’
This article is not yet on the magazine’s Web site, but for what it’s worth (and apparently that can be a lot when the check comes), Matthews concludes: “If you can accept some risk for the sake of exploration, then Gilt should be on your short list of new restaurants to try.”
Is there a dark side to direct shipping? Is it possible that the ability of consumers to purchase wines directly from the winery is not always to the consumers’ advantage?
Consider this: There are several wineries that use direct shipping not only to supplement their sales when they cannot achieve distribution through the traditional “three-tier” system of producer-distributor-retailer, but are marketing their wines exclusively through their private mailing lists. These wines tend to be in short supply, very expensive, and perhaps with high point scores from influential wine writers (ie., not me) – therefore they are in high demand from affluent collectors who like to boast that they have wines that you don’t. There is often an active resale market for them on eBay or wine blogs.
Free market, you say? Supply and demand? Maybe. But have these wines really been subjected to the free market? When I purchase a wine from my favorite retailer, it has been vetted for me – by an anonymous distributor who decided it was worthy of adding to his or her portfolio (or in the case of foreign wine, by an importer whose name is most likely on the label as a guide to the wine’s quality) and most importantly, by the retailer I’ve learned to trust. The wine may not be to my liking, unless I’ve tasted it in the store before buying it, but I can be confident that it is a quality wine, because I trust my retailer.
Now, I’m all for direct shipping, but even if I can have my favorite Finger Lakes Rieslings (or other wines not available in my market) delivered to my door, I’m still going to buy most of my wine through the three-tier system.
The idea that mailing-list exclusivity is bad for consumers has become a rallying cry of Jim Arsenault, managing partner of The Vineyard, a small but classy wine shop in McLean, Virginia, that specializes in small production, artisan wines. Arsenault is well known in the Washington area for his career in retail and wholesale, for his tremendous palate and knowledge of wine, and for his outspokenness.
“One of the best things about the three-tier system in the wine industry is the costs of wine are negotiated in every tier of the system,” Arsenault wrote recently in his store newsletter. “This process actually creates lower pricing so that consumers get the full benefit of a competitive market place. The mailing list phenomenon takes this part of the industry away from the consumer and gives the entire selling price directly to the producer who has set an arbitrary price without competing in the open market.
“The price holds no real value in a competitive market place other than the price goal or the random value placed on the wine by the producer without competition. This aspect flies in the face of a spirited market place where quality-and-price ratio builds reputation and long-term success. What are these people afraid of? Are they really producing a product worthy of your consideration or just over priced wine sold to a chosen few?”
Arsenault is expressing the frustration of a retailer whose customers brag about their mailing list wines – or who offer to flip him a few bottles for a “small” profit – but he makes an interesting point that merits discussion. We advocates of direct shipping are all about the free market and competition, quick to slam the wholesalers for limiting our selection of available wines. Yet here is an example where the free market arguably may not work to the consumer’s benefit.
Ultimately, of course, the “market” here is much narrower than Arsenault’s perspective. If a winery can sell its entire product to an exclusive list at the price it sets, well then, more power to it. And if the people on that list like the wine and are eager and willing to part with their money to get it, well I say go for it. I’ll read about these wines on the blogs. I don’t care if I never taste them. There’s plenty of wine for me.
The Vineyard is located at 1420 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean, VA. 22101. Phone (703) 288-2970. Web site : www.thevineyardva.com .
The 2003 vintage in Europe was torridly hot, which has led wine enthusiasts to proclaim it a wonderful year – ripe wines for a change! But it really is a mixed blessing. In areas where ripeness is not always a problem, the 2003s required careful tending in the vineyard and in the winery. They did not always get it, and as a result, the vintage is really quite uneven in quality.
One place that has bowled me over with its 2003s is the Loire – and I mean for red wines. Remember how often you pooh-poohed a Chinon or Bourgeuil because they tend to be thin and acidic, proof that Cabernet Franc is merely a blending wine that should not stand on its own? Well, here is evidence of what this region can do when the stars align.
The Domaine de la Colline is not one of the “top Chinon” producers, perhaps, but it has been consistent, and this offering is extremely good for the price. It retains the austerity and structure of Loire reds but fleshes these out with juicy cherry fruit, spiced with the typical white pepper of Cab Franc. In other words, it retains its terroir despite the unusual vintage. A bistro wine – not for the ages, but for the next few years.
Imported by Monsieur Touton Selection, New York, NY. Purchased at Schneiders of Capitol Hill, Washington DC.
This is one of those wines I have trouble making my mind up about – at first sip, it seems nice but underwhelming. Sauvignon Blanc, to be sure, with grapefruit and some tropical notes, but fleshy and well, lacking in the middle? I wonder what the fuss is about.
Then several seconds later I notice that I’m still tasting the lingering fruit, and that my mouth still feels coated with the wine’s body. I take another sip … then another with dinner, and the fruit picks up a bit. It reminds me somewhat of the Kim Crawford 2004 from New Zealand that I had last week, which has calmed down a little and lost some of its racy acidity but is still showing beautifully. As I drain the last of the bottle, I’m still trying to make up my mind about this wine – but I’m certain I like it better than I did on the first sip, and I wish I had some more.
Let’s face it – this is a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile that costs $25. That’s more expensive than most Sancerre. So it’s a bit of a stretch for me to recommend that you buy this, especially when you consider that it comes from a company that’s known for producing quaffable wines that go for $7 a magnum.
Yet this is delicious wine. And there are clues on the label that promise quality. First is Concha y Toro – for even many of their cheap wines are impressive in quality. Next is Casablanca Valley. This area northwest of Santiago opens to the sea much like many of California’s prime wine-making valleys. That means it gets maritime fog and cool nights to balance warm, sunny days during the growing season. Chilean wineries are prime on this region for cool-weather varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir. There are also good Carmenere and Chardonnay coming from Casablanca Valley.
The lack of acidity in this wine makes me suspect that it may not age well, but I’m not sure the winemakers really had that in mind. They’ve come up with a fleshy, seductive Sauvignon Blanc that will match well, at least for now, with some of the best in the world. Pair this with simply flavored foods to let the wine speak for itself.
Imported by Excelsior Wine and Spirits, Old Brookeville, NY. And I had to take my #$%*(& progressive lenses off and use them as magnifying glasses just to read the fine print on that – why can’t they use that font for the Government Warning for crying out loud? Oh, never mind …
Well, okay, now I've gone and done it! I don't know if this counts as a "crossover artist" like some hip-hop star recording a country song (more like William Shatner recording anything, perhaps!) but I'm now a magazine restaurant critic. At least for a short while.
Please read my review of David Craig Bethesda, a new bistro that is bringing a little city cuisine to the suburban neighborhood of Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington. It is in the March 2006 issue of DC magazine. It's a two-star (out of five) rating for a restaurant that has already raised the standards in its area and shows potential for even greater heights.
I've always had great respect for the work restaurant critics put into their reviews, but actually putting one together gave me an even greater appreciation. Suddenly I have to pay attention to all sorts of things I really don't give a damn about. This was driven home to me when my editor pointed out that my first draft omitted any description of the decor.
This promises to be a fun ride, and I hope it lasts. My second review will be in the April issue, and I'm stoking my appetite - and my powers of observation - for my third victim. I mean, target. Or whatever ...
Over the years of my research, I’ve enjoyed many late-harvest Zinfandels or Zinfandel “ports,” syrupy, thick, sweet wines from California that make a nice end to a meal or suitable mate to a chocolate dessert, even if they didn’t exactly remind me of their more famous counterparts from the Douro. Faux Ports seem to be the domain of the Aussies.
Recently, however, I tasted a California “port” that blew me away. It was Blue Cellars 2003 Petite Sirah Port, made by Jeff Ritchey, a low-key, high-talent winemaker you’ll probably read more of in years to come. Until last year, Ritchey was winemaker at Clos la Chance, a Central Coast operation that began by making wines from small private vineyard plots – essentially backyard vineyards. Now Ritchey is making wines under two labels with different financial partners, Blue Cellars and Sensorium.
The Petite Sirah port offers bright fruit flavors of plums and blueberries, vibrant color and a long finish. There’s plenty of acidity to balance the sweetness.
But what makes Petite Sirah a better choice than Zin for such a wine?
“Petite Sirah has several advantages over Zinfandel in making a port-styled wine,” Ritchey explains. “First, it has bigger and smoother tannins and that a shows through all the sugar and alcohol in a port. The second is that the color is amazing. Zin doesn’t seem to hold it’s color in port conditions. Third, Zin tends to raisin and that shows in the finished product and fourth, PS has an amazing blueberry syrup character to it that lends itself really well to port. “
Ritchey’s other wines are also worth searching out: There’s a Blue Cellars Syrah 2003 from Truchard Vineyard, and two elegant offerings under the Sensorium label, a 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2003 Central Coast Syrah.