A new American Viticultural Area is being considered for one of the most distinctive terroirs in America, one that has produced unmistakably great wines. Unfortunately, most of the actual wines won't be able to use it.
On an old riverbed south of the town of Walla Walla, cobblestones litter the ground, in some areas totally obliterating any view of the soil. Locals have taken to calling this part of the Walla Walla Valley AVA "The Rocks." Vines struggle to grow, resulting in tiny grapes of amazing flavor intensity. And yes, the wines show the sort of flavors that fall under the heading of "minerality," although to my taste it's more like black olive and tar.
The stones drew Christophe Baron to plant grapes in the region, just north of the town of Milton-Freewater, Ore., starting in 1997. He named the vineyard Cailloux, French for stones, and planted six others in the area. They produce the grapes for his highly coveted Cayuse wines, no stranger to the Wine Spectator Top 100.
Sommelier Mark Bright poured a splash of Krug Champagne Grande Cuvée as I settled in for an 18-course dinner at Saison in San Francisco. "We welcome all our guests with Krug," he said, a clear message that this is meant to be a luxury experience, if the credit card deposit of $248 per person didn't already do that.
That's pretty ambitious for a restaurant that started life only three years ago as a pop-up. Its first brick-and-mortar incarnation in a tiny Mission District space got two Michelin stars in the most recent San Francisco guide, and chef-owner Joshua Skenes could fill a trophy case with rising star chef awards. The new location, in a historic building a block from the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park, ups the ante with a unique, spacious design, a longer menu and a price tag that puts it among the most costly in the U.S., even more than the long-venerated French Laundry in Napa Valley.
Over a casual dinner of sardine chips, pasta with bergamot and steak with chimichurri and mushrooms at the new Rich Table in San Francisco, Wolf Blass' Chris Hatcher brought me up to date on what his end of the company had been up to. Never among the biggest wines on the block, Wolf Blass has always aimed for balance and drinkability without losing the ripe flavors Australia can do so well.
We tasted three examples of what's coming next. The first wine encapsulated in a single sip the overarching trend in Australian wine today. Wolf Blass Chardonnay Adelaide Hills White Label 2010, silky in texture, graceful, expressive but not at all weighty, tasted like biting into a raw heirloom apple, getting complexity more from maturing on lees in older barrels than from oak. The first word that came to mind was "deft."
Last week, In Pursuit of Balance staged its third annual tasting event in San Francisco, pouring its members' California Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays of recent vintage for trade and consumers. I was traveling for the first two, but I made it a point to get to this one. I wanted to see what the fuss was about.
Whenever I hang out with serious coffee people, I am struck by how much we wine folks have in common with them. We obsess over the sources of the product and how it was made. We even use some of the same language. Coffee tasters assess acid balance, body, intensity and finish, as we do with wine, and describe aromatics such as fruit, nuts and floral notes. They might find winy character in their brews while we might notice a hint of coffee on the finish in our glasses.
I watched my cousin Shawn Steiman, a coffee consultant who seems to be the coffee guru for the state of Hawaii, blend Hawaiian-grown and -roasted coffee beans on the spot. He used to make a distinctive and heady espresso after the dinner he and his bride Julia cooked for my wife and me at their home near Diamond Head.
Matt Penman pulled the cork on a Huët Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu 2011, poured me a sip and apologizes for the glassware. "I'm sorry for the plastic cups, but they won't let us have real wineglasses here."
We are in the green room in the new SFJAZZ Center, which bills itself as the first concert hall of its type in the United States: a freestanding performance venue with flexible seating and staging for artists of every stature, built specifically for jazz music and audiences alike. It opened recently in San Francisco on the corner of Franklin and Fell streets with a series of all-star concerts.