San Francisco Grape & Grain, Part 2: Or, Thinking Drinking Through Time & Space

Vintage Barrel Man

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

A SURPRISING OBSERVATION: beer geeks are snobbier than wine connoisseurs. Compare, for instance, my experience in the beer shop Healthy Spirits in the Castro district of San Francisco, and my experience at the Larson Family Winery, in Sonoma (which sits beside the more famous Napa Valley in the Bay Area). In the former I asked the extremely knowledgeable and, it has to be said, very friendly, man behind the counter for advice in buying a wheat beer. He took me through some of their stock, pausing over the Hell or High Watermelon beer from 21st Amendment brewery – which I had drunk and enjoyed the previous night at Starbelly – to tell me to avoid it because “it’s shit out of a can.” Several days later at the Larson Family Winery the manager of the tasting room, Marvin, was expounding the delights of trying everything and judging nobody. “There’s wine educators and there’s wine snobs,” he told me. “Wine snobs want you to think how they do, educators will admit that there’s so much stuff out there that you’re always still learning. Every wine you drink, every bit of wine lore you gather, it’s another brick in the wall of knowledge.” This may sound like a line that Marvin repeats to all who visit his tasting room, but it reflects an accepting attitude that I have found to be common amongst wine lovers, but less so amongst beer fans.

Marvin does his customary duck impression before pouring the wine.

Marvin does his customary duck impression before pouring the wine.

Slosh slosh.

Slosh slosh…

Sip sip.

Sip sip….. Repeat. It’s easy to get the hang of wine tasting.

We were in Sonoma with Green Dream Tours (highly recommended: you can read my wife’s review of them here). Eli, the owner of the company, was our tour guide for what was the first day of the wine tour season. The sun was shining and the wind was blowing in that customary Pacific Coast way, where it whips the breath out of your mouth and makes you regret wearing only a T-shirt. Stepping off our air conditioned bus at Robledo Family Winery in Sonoma County, outside of San Francisco, it felt about ten degrees hotter then in windy SF. But within 15 minutes of arriving at the winery we had ceased to care about the heat, because we were all pissed. Drinking alcohol in the morning is like all the best bits of being 16 again: you either have no responsibilities or you don’t care about them, and it feels like literally anything could happen, all of the time. Being drunk and partly hungover in the early evening, after a wine tour, whilst wandering around an REI store in search for kit for going backpacking in Yosemite is like all the worst bits of being 16 again: responsibility for sensible decisions is something you’re ill equipped for and EVERYTHING IS SO FAR AWAY. But that was future David’s problem: at 11am I was supping my wine and loving every moment of it.

I think that you'll agree, I am ROCKING the socks and shorts look. Have I always been this tragic, or is it something that happened when I got older? On the plus side, after 3 glasses of wine this is exactly the kind of thing that you don't care about.

I think that you’ll agree, I am ROCKING the socks and shorts look. Have I always been this tragic, or is it something that happened when I got older? Please don’t answer that. On the plus side, after 3 glasses of wine this is exactly the kind of thing that you don’t care about.

The Vexillologists (ok I admit it: I just learnt that word through google) amongst you may recognise one of the flags in the photo above as being Mexican. Papa Robledo came to the US as a teenager in 1968 to pick grapes for the season, and never went back. Thirty years later he bought his own vineyard. Seven years after that, Reynaldo Robledo became the first former Mexican migrant worker to open a winery and start making his own wine commercially. On the walls of the tasting room there are pictures of him meeting with the former Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, and Barak Obama. In the tasting room we met one of Reynaldo’s six sons, Lazaro Robledo, who proudly took us through the history of his family and the winery. It’s one of those immigrant success stories that to my mind are so defining of America. It wasn’t grape picking season when we were in Sonoma, so there weren’t workers out amongst the vines; but later on in our trip as we drove through the Californian heartland we passed through acres and acres of fruit farms, with lines and lines of immigrant workers picking fruit. We drove for miles and miles along dusty, flat highways where every other car was a pickup truck and the sun baked the road until it cracked at the edges. The scenery changed only with the crop – from apricot trees to cherry trees, from peaches to plums; and in every field, at every junction were immigrant workers. If they weren’t toiling in the fields then they were sheltering from the sun at the side of the road, under makeshift tarpaulin sunshades, and selling fruit to passing motorists. We stopped at a few of these places, and the people were uniformly grim and downtrodden, dusty from the road and hot from the sun. No typical cheery American welcome here of “how ya doin’?” This experience of passing through the fruit farms later put Reynaldo’s journey much more into perspective for me. The tale of an immigrant coming to American and building success from nothing may be a cliche, but that doesn’t make it any the less real.

Not appropriate to use for bobbing for apples. This photograph would be better if it was straight but I was a little unsteady on my feed when I took it.

Not appropriate to use for bobbing for apples. This photograph would be better if it was straight but I was a little unsteady on my feed when I took it.

I'm guessing they're not seedless.

I’m guessing they’re not seedless.

By 1pm we had visited two wineries, lunched and were now stumbling around the pretty little town of Sonoma, presumably so that our tourguides could have some respite from a tourbus full of loud drunkards.

As we wandered, I pondered on both the Robledo family’s journey and Marvin’s words about learning. There’s something that visiting a winery has over visiting brewery: community. Yes it’s true that they were small, family owned wineries that we visited in Sonoma and so it’s inevitable that there would be a sense of community, but there’s also something about the link between the land and the wine. I imagine that very few breweries grow their own grains on site; the best wineries will always have their own vineyards, probably in the same place where they also crush, ferment and ultimately bottle the grapes. There’s community around breweries, but these are the communities created amongst their drinkers, their fans, rather than the people who make the beer. This fact struck home with me when, later on in our trip we visited the newly opened ol’ Republic Brewery in the small, close community of Nevada City. A lady I spoke to in the brewery bar told me how happy everyone was at last to have a brewery of their own in town. “there’s a few microbreweries close by, like 20 miles or something,” she told me, “but they’re not ours. This one is for Nevada City.”

Beer and wine are different drinks, often drunk at different times and in different social settings. We might order a bottle of wine when out for a romantic meal, but it’s less likely that we’d order a bottle of beer. Whilst wine is a more intimate drink, beer is a drink which is social in a different way – it’s easier to imagine it being drunk at a BBQ, or amongst a group of friends at the pub. And I think that the different ways in which we consume these beverages are also reflected in the way that they’re produced, and the history – and geography – behind that production. Clearly I’m generalising here, but having visited both breweries and wineries in such quick succession, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something in the different way that we as a culture consume (in every sense of the word) the two drinks, and that this difference starts even before the first drop of alcohol is fermented.

ANYWAY, WITH ALL these thoughts kicking around my mind in Sonoma, I knew that I had entered the contemplative, thoughtful stage of drunkenness and it was time to push on through. So, we headed on to our final vineyard, where I was looking forward to rounding off my thoughts about immigration, geography, family and community by hearing about another American success story. And who did it turn out that the brewery was owned by? A bloody Brit.

Note the humorous play on a famous British actor's name.

Note the humorous play on a famous British actor’s name.

Something witty

It may have been the last glass of the day, but that didn’t make it any the less tastier. Cheers!

Advertisements

San Francisco by Plate, Fork & Chopstick: Or, How Stuffing My Face Showed Me San Francisco – Part 2

Welcome to San Francisco - Proceed With Caution

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

I’LL JUST come right out with it: in San Francisco we spent $558.22 on one meal for the two of us. It is the most expensive meal that I have ever eaten. And it goes without saying – but shouldn’t be left unsaid – that being able to enjoy such a meal is a privilege; if it weren’t a wedding gift we would never have enjoyed it. But it was and we did. So: with the expensive-eater guilt statement out of the way, let me tell you what that kind of nosh $558 buys you.

Eleven courses. I mean, that’s pretty good don’t you think? If you’re spending a lot on food then you want to be able to measure how exceptional it is in some way, and number of courses is a great metric. I lost count of which one we were on. It’s a cliché, but actually how many times in your life can you actually use that phrase and mean it? Excepting the times when you’re so drunk you can’t count your own fingers, obviously.

It was our second night and we were at the restaurant Coi (pronounced not like the fish but like the French “quoi” because, apparently, San Franciscans cannot spell). There’s plenty that you can read on the internet about the place and the chef behind it (Daniel Patterson), so I won’t repeat any of that here (but here’s a great summary from a food writer that I really rate). To give you a picture, though, Coi is a small, exclusive restaurant of perhaps twenty tables. There is no menu outside for you to browse if you happen to be passing. Your napkin is replaced with a new one if you get up to use the restroom half-way through the meal. There are decorative pebbles in the bathroom sink, so washing your hands is like participating in some kind of Japanese rock garden ritual. It’s that kind of a place.

And here's the menu from the night we were there. Our server presented it to us right at the end of the meal, after watching me desperately try to scribble down all the ingredients after each course.

And here’s the menu from the night we were there. We had the tasting menu, so we also got a glug of each wine paired with the appropriate dish. Unfortunately we got a bit excited on the first serving, so I have no idea how the sake tastes with the Geoduck (whatever that is). I can also testify that the herbs served with the strawberries at the end were, indeed, tiny.

But Coi’s not sniffy. No question was too dumb for our Jude Law-lookalike waiter. Which is good, because I asked him some dumb questions. Like, is this tiny piece of bread you’re serving me now another course? “No, sir,” said Jude Law, “the bread is not a course.” Or, what’s in this little jar? “That’s butter, sir.” Thanks Jude.

The food, he told us, would be “aroma and flavour forward,” with “no heavy and cloying French-like sauces.” When I didn’t recognise one of the ingredients, he would painstakingly describe what  it was and where it came from. He had the patience of a man serving people prepared to pay for one meal what many earn in a week.

Never before have I been so excited by turnips as at a farmers market in San Francisco.

In Northern California, ingredient is king. Everything is fresh and it all looks like it came out of some food-porn magazine. Never before have I been so excited by turnips as at a farmers’ market in San Francisco.

In Northern California, they love food so much that they spread it over their bodies. Don't try this with turnips at a farmers market.

In Northern California, they love food so much that they spread it over their bodies. Don’t try this with turnips at a farmers market.

I have to say, I found the laid back, unpretentious-but-discerning approach to food in Coi, and NorCal more widely, refreshing. If I were in Paris and I asked which item of cutlery I should use, then I’d certainly feel like the ignorant English tourist that I am. But here it was a fair question. “Daniel [the chef] thinks about the whole eating experience, down to how you’ll eat it,” our server explained. “I remember that we once had a chicken wing on the menu and it was in this broth, and Daniel didn’t want people just to pick the wing up and eat it with their fork, he wanted them to taste the broth as well. So we served it with just a spoon. That confused a few people.” It would confuse me too.

The whole meal, from start to finish, was like a culinary narrative of place, time and taste. It was the ultimate dining experience. It was, in my opinion, money well spent. I’ll even forgive Jude for forgetting to bring me the ketchup.

I WOULDN’T want you to think that San Francisco is all bank-breaking eateries. As with so many North American cities these days, there’s a big food truck movement. And, yes, to those unfamiliar with the concept – a food truck is just a glorified burger van. But what burgers…

It's street food, so it's ok to let the sauce dribble down your chin when you bite into the deliciousness. Note: this is not ok in Coi.

It’s street food, so it’s ok to let the sauce dribble down your chin when you bite into the deliciousness. Note: this is not ok in Coi.

And San Francisco, it turns out, is next to the sea, so there’s a lot of fish. Who knew? San Franciscans used to eat a lot of seafood, but then they realised that they could make a lot of money just selling it all to the tourists instead. All of the seafood restaurants being sensibly clustered around the piers, this development also had the happy effect of ensuring that all the tourists just went to the piers, where they were corralled into a single place called Pier 39, attracted by flashing lights, overpriced tat and, inexplicably, an Irish giftshop. Here idiotic Englishmen could have their photos taken with crabs (the crustacean, you understand), leaving the rest of the city happily free from blundering Brits, so prone to walking out into the road in front of a car whilst looking the wrong way. In fact this last phenomenon became so much of a problem that the city began issuing crash helmets to all those from countries where they drove on the left.

Life in the San Franciscan piers.

Life in the San Franciscan piers.

Those tourists just go crazy for the San Franciscan seafood at the piers. This one is dangerous because she hasn't been issued with her crash helmet yet.

Those tourists just go crazy for the San Franciscan seafood at the piers. This one is dangerous because she hasn’t been issued with her crash helmet yet.

Sometimes the tourists inadvisedly wander out of the Piers. But it’s ok, because the San Franciscans have developed a special tram just for the tourists called the F Line, which picks them up and dumps them back at Pier 39. Regardless of whether they want to go there or not. Then they eat some more crab and forget about what they saw in the rest of the city. It’s a bit like the Hunger Games, but in reverse. True story.

AND THAT’S how stuffing my face in San Francisco showed me the city. From high end to low end, from burgers to crabs – it was all delicious. And I even left the pier. Don’t tell anyone though.

NEXT TIME: I’m Drinkin’ in SF.