Sunday, January 30, 2011

Noble Rot Infestation Spotted In St. Helena

I have been to a lot of wine tastings.  Almost without exception, the focus of events described as “wine tastings” has been either the wine, or the drunken state of attendees.  Before last Saturday’s Noble Rot event, I had never been to a wine tasting where the people behind the wine actually came first and foremost.
Not that the wine poured on Saturday was in any way undeserving of center stage—but the opportunity to chat with Hardy Wallace (of Murphy-Goode social media contest fame), Heather Munden (creator of St. Francis Winery’s single vineyard projects, as well as her own new label), and Christina Turley (former somm at Momofuku, and scion of Napa’s Turley family) about whatever came up in the casual, house party atmosphere certainly was a breath of fresh air.
The Noble Rot is a self-described “traveling wine saloon” that throws offbeat and irreverent wine tasting parties, combining (as the mood strikes) doses of stand-up comedy, theatrical flourishes, culinary riffs, and smartass coups designed to make you trust your palate and go with what you like.  The two ringleaders of this NYC-based operation are “self-appointed Master Sommelier” Jonny Cigar, and “state-certified gentleman” Brian Quinn, who believe in the dying art of face-to-face conversation, and the power of wine to promote it.  Tasting pours at Noble Rot events are not one ounce, unless you choose to pour your own.  On arrival, guests were handed a warm-up glass of wine to help with pre-program mingling, and then provided a second pour (from different bottles, but—as was revealed later—of the same wine) to compare with the first as the three special guests of the evening took to the stage.
From L to R: Brian Quinn, Hardy Wallace, Christina Turley,
Heather Munden, Jonny Cigar
This “formal” portion of the event was deliberately brief, more of a primer on the three special guests than a substantive presentation.  We learned just enough to intrigue us, and all questions had to wait until the end to ensure that you would go up and start a real conversation. 
I'll post a link to the podcast they recorded when it's available (UPDATE: it's here), but for now you'll have to make do with my abbreviated account.  The charming and indefatigable Hardy Wallace moved on from his six-month gig at Murphy Goode to work with The Natural Process Alliance, a hands-off, let nature take its course kind of group that produces fascinating, funky wines in resusable 750 mL stainless steel canteens, designed to be consumed young, alive, and within a 100-mile radius of the Santa Rosa winery facility.  You can find these crazy canteens at Bay Area restaurants like Chez Panisse and Gary Danko, to name just a few.  We got to sample the 2010 sauvignon blanc, and the 2010 pinot gris—which due to the skin-on, whole-cluster fermentation, turned out a striking orange color reminiscent of beer or cider.
Christina Turley’s dad Larry is the owner of St. Helena-based Turley Wine Cellars, known for its huge, intensely concentrated, over the top Zinfandels.  He was famously quoted by The Wine Spectator a few years ago as saying that Cabernet people drink the label, but Zin drinkers drink the wine.  After eight years in New York City working in the restaurant biz as a sommelier in her own right, Christina has returned to California to help her parents start a new wine brand… of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Far from pretending Larry’s diss never happened, the Turleys have christened their cab brand “The Label” and are downplaying label-related bragging rights as much as possible with their minimalist bottle design.  And, to further emphasize the restrained, old-school style in which the wine is made, they use the same flat-bottomed claret bottles that Napa wineries used in the 1970s, when Napa cabs could fool French wine experts in blind tastings.  We got to try barrel samples of The Label 2010, as well as the 2010 Turley Wine Cellars Hayne vineyard Zin.
Heather Munden joined the St. Francis winemaking team as their Artisan Series winemaker in 2007, after years of working around the world in places like New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Puglia.  She shared the trials and tribulations of making small-production single vineyard wines at St. Francis’ 400,000 case facility (she has her own mini-winery within the winery), and broke the news of her nascent independent label, called Fama.  In Italian, "fama" means fame, reputation, rumor, and renown... or a woman with all of those things.  (Hmm, Heather... what are you saying?) Since the seven barrels’ worth of Fama 2009 Chardonnay from her ex's well-known Carneros vineyards haven’t been bottled yet, she brought barrel samples for us in repurposed Carlo Rossi jugs.  Rock on, sister.
I’m not really talking about any of the wines here, because the conversation was really the focus and purpose of the evening.  Chatting in the kitchen about Heather's new outdoor wood burning oven and homemade charcuterie, commiserating with Christina about the culture shock of sleepy St. Helena after years in the city, and laughing about the distribution system Hardy “the Milkman” uses to get his canteens of wine to restaurants—he delivers them himself, packed into milkcrates in the back of his car—really made the night what it was.  Tasting the fantastic and interesting wines was really more of a bonus... and yet, like the cheeses from Raymond Cheesemongers, the array of tasty crostini and passed appetizers, and the beautiful St. Helena home that hosted it all, completely essential to the experience.
This event on January 29 was the first west-coast foray for Noble Rot, but Jonny and Brian definitely have plans for more California mayhem... including a possible City of Napa event I could walk home from.  You can follow their rollicking adventures and teasers on their website, via Twitter, or through their blog, 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Enough positivity! Time for a rant.

I make a real effort to write food related articles that work positively for everyone involved.  I emphasize the good stuff for restaurant-specific reviews, and avoid public discussion of things that I can't praise in good conscience.

But I got pissed off today at lunch, so I'm going to rant about it a little.  You can tell me in the comments if you think I'm overreacting.

Restaurant X offers four different versions of a salady type dish for lunch.  The pork, chicken, and vegetarian (with stir-fried bamboo shoots, red onion, and tofu instead of meat) versions are all the same price, let's say $11.50.  The shrimp version is an extra $3.75.  All of the meat versions come with a little side spring roll, included in the price.

I told my server I wanted the chicken version, but did not want the little side spring roll that came with it.  I asked her if I could substitute something for the side spring roll.  She told me the veggies from the vegetarian version were great, and that she thought the best version of this dish was the chicken bowl with the vegetarian veggies added.  I said great, let's do that then, and thank you for the suggestion and substitution.

No reference to any additional costs associated with this substitution of vegetables for a pork spring roll.

A few minutes later, the expo arrives with my food, but he's brought me just a vegetarian version (tofu and veggies on top), with no side spring roll.  I say to him, I ordered a chicken version of this with the veggies.  He takes it back, returns moments later with the same veggie salad bowl topped with grilled chicken.  All good.  I'm wondering at the added tofu, but not concerned because it didn't really affect my ability to eat the dish.

When the bill comes--or more accurately, once they've run my card on the bill as presented--I notice that the server rang up my lunch as a vegetarian salad bowl ($11.50), with added chicken ($4).  The only thing that looked as I expected was the fact that I didn't get a discount for foregoing the spring roll.

Not cool! If there's a charge associated with a requested substitution that's not disclosed anywhere on the menu, the server should tell the customer at the time they are ordering.  Particularly when the server is the one suggesting the substitution.  The server is the keeper of the restaurant's information, and it's part of the server's job to inform customers of off-the-menu details that may affect their enjoyment of the experience.

I didn't ask to have the veggies until after she'd told me that was an option for replacing the unwanted spring roll on the chicken bowl I did want.  Had she told me of the surcharge when I was ordering, I might have chosen differently... or I might have gone ahead and done it the way I did... but either way, I would have had the knowledge I needed to make an informed decision and maximize my enjoyment at the restaurant.

But she never mentioned any surcharge.  And, even worse, she rang up the dish in a way that maximized the extra charge! I asked for the chicken bowl.  She rang up the veggie bowl, and added on chicken... which curiously was more expensive than the shrimp add-on... and, I suspect, more expensive than whatever a veggie add-on would have cost.


That kind of underhanded upselling really pisses me off.  It's not about the money--I will happily pay an extra $4 to get what I want--it's the principle of the matter.  Feel free to try to upsell all you can, but don't do it sneakily with undisclosed charges and strategic re-classification of the original order.

Was this whole thing an inadvertent mistake when she rang it up? Possibly... though the remarkable choice of the cheapest base item and most expensive add-on makes me wonder.  Even if it was an honest mistake, though, the server should at the very least have pointed it out and explained the extra charge to me before I was asked to pay it.

I'm not identifying the culprits here, because this is more about principle than about that particular restaurant, or that particular server.  But I have to say, I probably won't be back to Restaurant X any time soon.

Am I overreacting?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Short List for Napa Valley Restaurant Month

January 2011 is the very first Napa Valley Restaurant Month, a full 31 days of promotions by local restaurants to get people dining out in this slowest month of the year.

The complete list of participating restaurants is excitingly long, but also peppered with copious amounts of fine print and limitations that are different for each restaurant.  If you're like me, this makes for some slooooow dinner decisions.

And this is why, after spending hours looking into all of these offerings (and sampling the delights of a few), I wrote a primer to share what I perceived to be the absolute best deals of the lot.

You can read it on's Napa Valley blog, here.