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Fire Scorches Chez Panisse

Plus, Château Palmer learns no one is safe from wine crime, Bolivia's president prescribes coca wine to the new pope and Moët & Chandon gets a questionable endorsement from Justin Timberlake on SNL

Posted: March 14, 2013

Chez Panisse, the iconic Berkeley restaurant considered by many to be the spiritual home of California cuisine, is still recovering from an early morning fire that damaged a section of its main dining room March 8. The fire, which was reported just after 3 a.m., started under the restaurant's enclosed front porch, a small eating area on the first floor, burning the room and charring the front of the wooden building. The cause of the blaze is still under investigation. "Luckily no one was hurt and the main structure of Chez Panisse [is] intact," reported famed chef and founder Alice Waters on her Twitter account the morning of the fire. The rest of the formal dining room, as well as the kitchen and upstairs café, were saved by the restaurant's sprinkler system, which kept the flames from spreading to the rest of the building. Chez Panisse staff informed Unfiltered that the fire did not directly affect an adjacent building that houses the wine cellar and the offices. Waters opened the restaurant in 1971, focusing on Mediterranean-style cuisine using organic and local ingredients. Chez Panisse is closed for repairs while the damage is addressed and, according to staff, no fixed date has been set for reopening.

• A Sydney wine storage facility had little to celebrate this Australia Day. Two containers holding 72 pallets, or 4,700 cases, of Australian wine were stolen during the holiday weekend. When the wines were delivered for storage, they were left unprotected outside the grates, which was not uncommon: Some two-bit crook could not walk off with 4,700 cases of wine. Rather, the heist, estimated at $517,000, seems to have been more a planned job. "The thieves would have needed their own specialist prime movers, forklifts and a significant area to store the wine," a detective told Sydney's Telegraph. "The theft would have taken a fair bit of organization and time." Missing wines include Loom, Gemtree, Chapel Hill, Lakebreeze, Shingleback, Tapestry, Dandelion, Setanta and Tomich Hill.

• So far that one's an unsolved mystery, but another recent hit, on Margaux third-growth Château Palmer, shook out more favorably. While investigating the theft of a jewelry shop, Bordeaux police could not help but notice 30 cases of Palmer, valued at $93,000, stacked up in one suspect's flat. Police believe that a team of burglars broke into Palmer through the roof, Mission Impossible-style, just as the gang is suspected of doing at an area hardware store and supermarket. The wines were returned to Palmer, and Unfiltered has reason to hope they're undamaged, since the Gironde maintains a natural temperature control of cold and wet during this season.

• The newly elected Pope Francis I might hail from Argentina, but Bolivian President Evo Morales hopes that the Pontiff will take a liking to his own country's coca wine. The wine became popular in 19th century Europe when pharmacist Angelo Mariani invented Vin Tonique Mariani, a drink made from three varieties of coca leaves blended with Bordeaux. Enjoyed by Pope Leo XIII (who awarded the tonic a Vatican gold medal and appeared in coca wine advertisements) and his successor, Pius X, the beverage contained trace amounts of cocaine and was touted as a healthful supplement. Nowadays, according to Morales, the coca leaves are chewed in Bolivia as a stimulant intended to reduce hunger and altitude sickness and are used in a variety of products including tea, toothpaste and wedding cakes. Morales, himself a former coca leaf farmer, said in an address to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, "I really hope the new Pope will also use the wine like Mariani."

• Can't a delegate get a drink during budget negotiations anymore? When not hearing coca endorsements, the folks at the U.N. headquarters in New York have long relied on alcohol as a fixture of the diplomatic process. Now that could change, if the U.S. ambassador for management and reform, Joseph Torsella, gets his way. Last week, the diplomat submitted a so-called "modest proposal" that "the negotiation rooms should in the future be an inebriation-free zone." The extent to which alcohol is a problem at the U.N. appears to be in dispute. Some inside sources claim to have never witnessed drinking during business hours; others recount instances of certain delegates reaching levels of intoxication that prevented them from fulfilling their basic duties. The New York Times described the response of Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin as playful when he commented, "My national response is there should be no drinking during business sessions. After hours is a personal matter. We all have our private lives, don't we?" Added Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at New York University, "I think there is a lot of snickering."

• Moët & Chandon might have been the official Champagne of the Golden Globes, but if anyone's going to take the luxury and class out of sparkling wine, leave it to Saturday Night Live. Last weekend's show, hosted by Justin Timberlake, featured a sketch in which two very questionable pitchwomen peddled the brand, all the while gravely mispronouncing its name and slurring their words. After claiming that the drink offered opulence, splendor and "esservescence," the ladies went on to praise its fair price point ("Other Champagnes are too 'spensive," said one) and to tout the wine as a celebratory drink for "occasions" and "sussessful surgery." Moët & Chandon, they insisted, could make your taste buds feel as though they were taking a shower. Later in the sketch, a mustachioed Timberlake appeared, clad in sand-wash denim cut-offs, to offer valuable advice on seducing a woman: "If you want to treat a lady right, you'll buy her Monica & Chandler Champagne," he said. "It's like nice Champagne, but some of it's Sprite."

• Wine to Water, the charity that has involved itself in barrels and barrels of good works since its 2004 founding, recently came to town as beneficiary of a new wine project, a coffee-table book from publisher Chelsea Prince's company Chelsea Print and Publishing called Rock and Vine. The company will donate a portion, between $1 and $40 (from leather-bound editions) to the clean-water cause. The wine connection is appropriate: Rock and Vine highlights the "next generation" of California wine folk and "how they're going to be influencing what we'll be drinking," as Prince told Unfiltered at the launch party recently. Some of the young movers are less known, like Jordan Kivelstadt, whose kegging business has replaced over 600,000 bottles in the packaging scene, but others Unfiltered readers might recognize: Joe Wagner, early adopter of California Pinot with the Belle Glos label and son of Caymus' Chuck; Christina Turley, daughter and presumptive torchbearer of Larry; and Bachelor Ben Flajnik, Danny Fay and Mike Benziger of Envolve Winery. Wine to Water's Doc Henley was also on hand at the launch, pouring one of his own wines. Nearly half the scratch spent on every bottle (or about $7) goes toward providing clean water sources in impoverished countries. Considering that it only takes $100 to install one filter in Uganda that will provide drinkable water to 100 people for 10 years, Henley's many partnerships—he's also worked with star consultants Stéphane Derenoncourt and Michel Rolland—can go a very long way. As he told Unfiltered, "We can do so much with so little." And much more with a lot.

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