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!

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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.

Saturday Snapshot: Outside the George & Vulture, City of London

In a new and ENTIRELY ORIGINAL feature I arbitrarily choose a day of the week and a suitable alliteration to bring you vignettes of travel past and present. Today it’s the SATURDAY SNAPSHOT and we’re outside the George and Vulture pub in the City of London.

Something witty

The George and Vulture is one of those old London boozers that you find hidden away in backstreets. Allegedly there’s been an inn here since 1268 (thank you Wikipedia) but the current establishment was built in 1748. It’s heavily featured in Charles Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers and still retains a strong link to the Dickens family. 

Something equally witty

Being in the City of London  of course this place hosts archaic and utterly ludicrous groups for dinner. For those not up on their London Boroughs, the City of London isn’t one. Administratively it’s an entirely separate city and authority which, confusingly, sits in the middle of the Greater London Authority. You may also know it as The Square Mile, or simply “the city.” Anyway, whilst the GLA worries about things like transport, poverty, crime and other urban things, the City of London Corporation – serving the 7,000 inhabitants of the city and the 350,000 people who work there – is composed of such groups as the The Worshipful Company of Bowyers, whose website tells us that: “the Worshipful Company of Bowyers can trace its detailed history back to 1363 when the craft of making longbows first appeared on the list of taxation for the City of London.” As I’m sure we can all agree, making longbows is pretty important. The City also has something to do with finance and helping people to make money, but since 2008 we don’t talk about that.

But on the other hand, the City of London does have a pretty wicked crest - a dragon with a St George's Cross - and it's everywhere. So: swings and roundabouts.

But on the other hand, the City of London does have a pretty wicked crest – a dragon with a St George’s Cross – and it’s everywhere. So: swings and roundabouts.

Something even wittier

London is full of these little gems of history that you often stumble upon quite by accident. I remember at one of my old places of work, on Fleet Street, there was a fire alarm and we had to leave the building by a door I’d never gone through before. It exited us into a little courtyard and there, on the wall in front of me, was a little blue plaque telling me that James Boswell,  18th century author of the London Journal and the Life of Johnson, had lived there. Amazed at this litte  slice of history I’d uncovered, I pointed it out to one of my colleagues. He stared in silence at the plaque for a moment, obviously as moved as I was, before saying: “that’s amazing. Now can we go back inside? It’s bloody freezing.”

The WalkFast Philosophy: Commuting in London (Travels in 2012, Part 4 of 4)

Object 4: A 1960s Soviet Fed4 Camera. No I have no idea what all the knobs on the top are for either.

Object 4: A 1960s Soviet Fed4 Camera. No I have no idea what all the knobs on the top are for either.

What has a 1960s camera made in the USSR got to do with commuting in London? Absolutely nothing. Except for the fact that it actually made me take a closer look at my everyday travels. And take some really dodgy photos of London. Let’s call them vintage.*

Some would call it scraping the barrel, I would call it being innovative. Whatever your views on blogging about the daily commute, the journey to work is one we all have to make. (Unless you’re one of those people who make a living by writing witty and/or informed and/or misleading articles about the next best travel destination whilst sipping margaritas next to a beautiful white sand beach; if that sounds like you, then please stop reading now. This really isn’t for you). Even if you work at home, we all have some regular journey of drudgery. Perhaps yours is to the gym or the supermarket. Mine is the daily commute into Central London.

One of the Fed4 photos....

Sometimes I take do take the underground, but mostly I take the train. It’s like the underground, but better.

Picture the scene: it’s the 07:42 into London Waterloo. The carriage is full, but not uncomfortably so. People are standing in the aisle between the seats but people can still step onto the train without having to plant their face into someone’s armpit. People either read, fiddle with their smartphones or stare out the window. As ever, no one talks. The only permissible human interaction is to ask for a window to be opened. But it’s not silent, because a man is listening to his music at an unconscionably loud volume. He’s listening to Jay-Z. It’s offensively loud. I am standing right next to where he is sitting, pretending to read a magazine whilst internally raging against this stranger and his music. He writes a text to someone. I read it over his shoulder. This is what it says:

Don’t think that the stuck up fuckers on this train are enjoying me playing my Jay-Z at full volume. Oh well!

I am a cauldron of hatred and resentment. I stare blankly at my magazine, fantasising about how I might say something to the man and how the rest of the carriage would join in to support me, moved by my stirring words and my willingness to stand up against the tyranny and oppression of loud music. Twenty minutes pass like this; then we reach London Bridge, my nemesis gets off and I have said nothing. Instead I update my facebook status to share my frustration. Three people like it almost immediately. I still can’t help but feel that I lost.

Fed11

PERHAPS THREE weeks later I am standing on the 507 bus from Waterloo, also on my daily commute. A girl with ipod-white earbuds is standing in front of me, sharing her R&B music with the rest of the bus. I ignore her. A woman seated nearby taps Ipod-girl on her arm and, in an Aussie accent, asks her to turn down her music.

“Is it bothering you?” asks Ipod-girl.

“As a matter of fact it is,” replies the woman, “and it’s bothering everyone else on the bus as well, it’s just that they’re all British and so they’re too polite to say anything. But I’m Australian, and I am not too polite.”

Ipod girls turns her music down.

In my mind I am cheering for this Australian woman, this commuters’ champion. It’s victory for all that is good and just in the world. But I say nothing, give nothing away. Perhaps because I’m British, this is London and she’s a stranger.

Officially, the only time that you're permitted to speak to a stranger in London is when it snows. Usually in this instance, it's to share frustration about the disruption to transport.

Officially, the only time that you’re permitted to speak to a stranger in London is when it snows. Usually to share frustration about the disruption to transport.

something

I sometimes forget the thick skin that you develop in London. Recently, family from out of town came to visit. When we met them at our local station they looked shellshocked. “We’ve been up and down I don’t know how many escalators,” they said, “and there are so many people, everywhere, walking so fast and all going to different directions.” Yup, I thought, ThisIsLondon: I do this everyday.

But sometimes something happens to break down that barrier that Londoners put up against everyone else. Snow brings people together. After all, it's hard to ignore someone when they're throwing a snowball at you.

But sometimes something happens to break down that barrier that Londoners put up against everyone else. Snow brings people together. After all, it’s hard to ignore someone when they’re throwing a snowball at you.

The advantage of a sledge as a mode of transport is that there's not going to be someone listening to loud music behind you.

The advantage of a sledge as a mode of transport is that there’s not going to be someone listening to loud music behind you.

LONDON LIVING makes you rush everywhere. I don’t know why, it just does. Walk fast, weave through crowds, dodge tourists. Always ignore the world-class history and architecture around you – that’s for the tourists. And they walk SLOW. You don’t want to be like them, do you? You might miss your train.

There are two incidents that have made me question this WalkFast philosophy. The first cost me a suit. The second cost me my dignity.

I was late to a meeting. I can’t even remember what it was about, but it was terribly important. So I was running, running past the Houses of Parliament to my meeting.

BigBenByNight

Unlike in this photo, it was the middle of the day. There were tourists everywhere, gawking at Parliament and Big Ben. As I dodged inbetween them, I slipped – unsurprising considering that I was running in a pair of leather soled shoes with as much grip as an air hockey puck. Tourists flashed before my eyes as I fell headlong to the floor, skidding on the writing pad I was carrying and sending my papers flying. “Great dive dude!” someone shouted in an American accent. My suit was ripped in three places. I had lost some buttons. A crowd formed around me and a German man helped me up, telling me in impecable English how his 11 year old son did something similar last week whilst ice skating. There wasn’t any ice here, though, he added. I thanked him, collected my papers, and scurried off. I was the first person to arrive at the meeting.

London people are busy people. Stay out of their way, tourists! Unless they fall flat on their face. In which case, please help them up and don't comment on the quality of their dive or how stupid they look. Thank you.

London people are busy people. Stay out of their way, tourists! Unless they fall flat on their face. In which case, please help them up and don’t comment on the quality of their dive or how stupid they look. Thank you.

The second incident happened equally as quickly. I was at Waterloo station, on my way home, rushing for a train (are you detecting a theme here?). My train was at the platform, I was not. There was another one soon, but that was seven minutes away. I ran for the train; I was nearly there, then the doors started to beep to warn that they were closing, but I was going to get on that train; the doors started to close; I jumped on, got trapped in the doors as they were closing, and forced them apart again. I stepped into the carriage, out of breath but triumphant. Everyone was staring at me. The train doors tried to close again to allow it to depart but one of them got stuck because some idiot had forced them apart when they were trying to close. I felt the eyes of everyone in the carriage boring into me. I leaned over, gave the doors a shove, and they closed. And suddenly it hit me: I WAS THAT GUY. I was that guy who was too impatient to wait, so self-important that I delayed an entire trainload of people from departing and forced myself onto the carriage. I might as well have been listening to my music at full volume.

I got off at the next station. No one said anything to me, but I knew what they were thinking while they pretended to read their magazines. Because I’d thought it myself a million times about others.

So now on my commute I try and walk a little slower, look at my surroundings a little more and speak to strangers where I can without looking like a lunatic. All in all, I’m trying to be a bit more of a tourist. I find that a camera helps with that.

Red phonebox

*In case anyone’s interested: the Fed4 pictures featured on this post were developed in matt with a white border and then simply scanned in. For the most part I haven’t applied any filters or tweaked them in any way, as I normally do. I haven’t totally figured out how to use the camera yet. That’s why the images are so… 1980s family holiday.