Hugh Johnson, the venerable English wine writer, came to town to flog his new book, a memoir. UC Press had sent me Hugh Johnson: A Life Uncorked a few weeks earlier, and it was sitting on my desk at the office when I got an e-mail at home from a local publicist asking if I wanted to meet Johnson for lunch the next day. Johnson and I have been cordial colleagues for years, my lunch slot was free, and I thought, why not? Knowing that he professes to dislike ostentatious restaurants, I suggested Brindisi, a casual Italian seafood spot not far from his hotel in downtown San Francisco. Done.
It was too late to get the book and even glance over it. I wish I had read it first, because Johnson takes some rather nasty swipes in it against American wine writing in general, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate in particular. He does not spare Wine Spectator, either. All three references to our publication cited in the index are not only snide, they are flat-out wrong. We could have had a lively, if polite, debate over the appropriateness of his characterizations. Instead, we chat amiably about his current travels and attitudes about wine.
We also run into some classic wine snafus. Wouldn't you know?
I arrive early and check out the wine list. Not long, maybe 70 wines. Brindisi is a town in Puglia, the southernmost tip of Italy's Adriatic coast, so it's not surprising that a significant percentage of the wines are from southern Italy. Since Primitivo, the Zinfandel-like red, seems inappropriate for the seafood on the menu, I focus on the whites, which are mainly from Campania, across the boot where Naples is. I zero in on Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina 2003, a light minerally white. I know and love Feudi's wines, and I expected this would be a refreshing sipper.
The Italian-born waitress nods approvingly, only to return a minute later with the wine list and a different bottle. "We are out of this wine," she says. "But the owner recommends this one. He says it is better and he will sell it to you at the same price." She held up a bottle of Taburno Falanghina 2004. Not knowing the wine, I go back to the wine list and notice Montesole Greco di Tufo, another Campanian wine I know and like. She is back a minute later with two half bottles of Greco di Tufo from another producer I don't know, and the same story, just as Johnson arrives.
He looks at the wine list and zeroes in on ... the Feudi Falanghina! After considerable back and forth with the waitress—the owner apparently is holed up somewhere else—we decide to try the owner's suggestion and open the Taburno. The 2004 turns out to be pleasant, a lovely balance of delicate peachy-melon fruit and mineral notes, finishing crisp.
Having just rhapsodized over the oysters he had the day before at Hog Island Oyster Co., a wonderful oyster and wine bar in the Ferry Building, he wants to know what type the oysters are. "Rockefeller oysters," replies the waitress. Are they cooked? I ask (knowing that Oysters Rockefeller are baked in the shell with a topping of greens). "No they are raw," she responds. "They are called Rockefellers."
Johnson and I blink in unison. We know that can't be true, but whatever they are, he will take the oysters on the half shell. Turns out they are Kumamotos, the little Pacific oysters that are so sweet and mildly briny. Johnson especially appreciates the match of the Falanghina with his first course of oysters. The wine also drinks well with my grilled sardines and our main of grilled Alaskan halibut fillet over sautéed broccoli rabe spiked with just a hint of red pepper flakes. The food is good. I would go back, but maybe cover my bets by bringing my own wine and paying a corkage charge.
I later look up the wines. My colleague James Suckling rated the Feudi 90 points. He had not yet rated the '04 Taburno, but the '02 got 88 points.
Johnson would be appalled at my mention of the points. He thinks the rise of the 100-point scale is a shameful chapter in wine history. "I don't think of wine that way, and I don't want to write about wine that way," he says between slurps of oysters. "I want to convey to people how enjoyable wine can be."
Well, gosh, doesn't the fact that all the wines in question rate pretty high indicate that they're all worth drinking? Lighten up, Hugh.
Chris Lavin — Long Beach, CA — April 26, 2006 5:07pm ET
Apj Powers — Dallas, TX — April 27, 2006 12:54pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 27, 2006 5:40pm ET
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