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When Wine Is Not the Priority

Sometimes the pickings are uneven
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 20, 2009 3:05pm ET

I opened the wine list at El Tovar, the fanciest restaurant at Grand Canyon National Park, with some trepidation. The night before, in the casual restaurant at our accommodations at the Bright Angel Lodge, the choices seemed to focus on inexpensive California wines specially bottled as “Grand Canyon” selections. Washington’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates seemed to have done a fine selling job too, as its entry-level tier occupied many of the remaining options.

El Tovar’s list of 100 or so wines had some better choices, but nothing as scintillating as the scenery outside. Some, ahem, depth would have been appreciated.

What do you do in a situation like that? I felt trapped. I wanted to drink something special, because the Grand Canyon is such a miraculous place, but I ended up with something familiar, a reliable bottle of Columbia Crest Merlot. The wine, if not memorable, was better than the food, which tasted like the kitchen knew it had a captive audience.

The night before at the Bright Angel, we decided to have mixed drinks with a nice appetizer of Southwest-seasoned minced chicken lettuce wraps, and a glass of the “Grand Canyon” Chardonnay with the grilled-fish tacos. Tacos good; wine instantly forgettable.

Things got better at times on our nine-day jaunt through Arizona, a vacation in which my wife and I gawked at the Grand Canyon, luxuriated at a resort in Sedona with nonexistent cell-phone reception, and the last few days visiting friends and family in Phoenix and remote Ajo. We had great weather, mostly sunny with daytime highs in the 60s.

I met a cousin I did not know I had who has a successful chocolate truffle business and at the age of 72 is planning to take a professional sommelier course. We hiked among the red rocks of Sedona and sought vortexes to gain some higher spiritual energy. We drove 20 miles over bumpy dirt roads near the Mexican border to see organ pipe cactuses and the whole panoply of Sonoran desert flora.

Finding a good bottle of wine was not always a priority. I took advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. After a long day hiking along the rim of the Grand Canyon, then driving nearly three hours to Sedona, we arrived at the Enchantment Resort wiped out. As we were unpacking, room service arrived with a welcome cheese platter. It had prosciutto and salame, bread and crackers, even a nice little pile of grilled asparagus. My wife and I looked at each other and gave up plans for dining out.

I had a copy of the wine list for Yavapai, the resort’s restaurant, and found a bottle of Betz Syrah La Serenne 2004 on it for $95. We made dinner of that and the cheese platter, feet up on the coffee table. Things were looking up. The Syrah was a spectacular bottle, having rounded its edges into a gleaming, polished texture, the warm, earthy flavors adding depth to the rich fruit. It has years to go, too.

In Phoenix, we made a beeline for Pizzeria Bianco with our friend Marge, drank a bottle of crisp, citrusy Donnafugata Anthìlia 2007 from Sicily while we were waiting, and Titus Zinfandel 2006 from California (silky, generous and brimming with berry and black cherry flavors) with the outrageously good pizzas.

The next morning, we met my cousin Ellie for brunch at Lon's at the Hermosa in Scottsdale, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner. I don’t usually think about wine for breakfast other than Champagne, but main-dish offerings such as braised short ribs with a sunnyside-up egg and grits made me think of red wine, so we drank a bottle of Peter Lehmann Clancy’s 2005, a Barossa Valley blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that was tasting terrific. Perfect pairing.

Ajo is a former copper-mining town peopled primarily by border patrol agents and retirees from up north today. I bought a couple of modestly priced bottles in Phoenix to bring to my wife’s cousin Tana, our host there. She seared steaks for dinner and we drank my Shoofly Aussie Salute 2007, a blend of Grenache, Shiraz and a touch of Viognier. Another hit.

We took Tana out for dinner the next night at the Ranch House, her favorite restaurant in Ajo. The wine list of six options had nothing I wanted to drink, and I wished I had another bottle of that Shoofly to drink with very good grilled chicken tacos.

It’s always a balancing act when you’re not traveling the food-and-wine circuit. Overall, I don’t think we did too badly. Anyone have any better strategies?

Jennifer Knowles
surprise, az. usa —  November 20, 2009 6:00pm ET
Harvey- we met while I was the Head Sommeleir at Waterbar in SF and I love reading your posts! I just moved to the Phoenix/Scottsdale area a month ago after a week in Vegas taking the Advanced Exam for CMS (I passed!)and was so excited to read about your findings here. Any other recommendations in the area? I was just hired at Christophers and can't wait to start making my way around the Valley. Have you seen the crazy list at Cowboy Ciao? Mind boggling! Never seen so much variety at insanely resonable prices. Hope you're well and maybe see you on ur next trip to the desert.
Dave Reuther
Deerfield, Illinois —  November 20, 2009 7:59pm ET
On my road trips across the US I always start out with a half case of wines (3 red & 3 white) that I know to be good and can stand the stress of road travel. I hold these wines in reserve for the places I can't obtain a decent wine locally. When I arrive at where I am staying for the night, I google for nearby places that sell wine and check them out. Also when at a local restaurant with a decent wine list, I may try one made locally. Frequently the wines are good and always educational.
Fred Brown
Maryland —  November 20, 2009 8:26pm ET

If we are traveling in the states, I'll often look on-line for a good wine shop at our destination. I'll then buy a few bottles after landing for consumption during the trip. We generally travel on the shoulder seasons, so a couple bottles stored in the middle of a suitcase (insulated by clothing) normally survive the temperature of a car trunk in April or October.

Restaurants here are generally hopeless if you aren't on an expense account or living on a hedge fund manager's bonus.

Best solution is to just plan your vacations for Chile, Argentina, or Europe. Always good opportunities to try new wines in both stores and restaurants. Too bad about the kids' inheritances.....

Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  November 21, 2009 1:11am ET
Hey Harvey,

My parents live in AZ.

Next time you are in the Phoenix/Scottsdale, try Roaring Fork. The food is great; nice bar and the wine list (Kosta Browne, Flowers, etc...) works well with the food.


Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 21, 2009 1:29pm ET
Hi Jennifer; great to see your name here. That Cowboy Ciao list is fantastic, as is the one at its sister wine bar Kazimierz. Don't miss Sea Saw (same owner) for incredible inventive sushi and Japanese small plates to match with wines. Two other Phoenix restaurants to check out (for wine savviness and interesting good) are Tarbell's and Vincent Guerithault On Camelback, and in Scottsdale Bourbon Steak.

I seem to remember blogging about Roaring Fork, Matt, but I can't find it in an archive search. It's a restaurant I like too.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 21, 2009 1:34pm ET
Dave, I was concerned about packing wines in the trunk as headed to the desert. The forecast said highs in the 60s and 70s, but I know things can heat up unexpectedly. Also, although I knew we would do OK in Sedona and Phoenix, I wasn't sure how receptive restaurants at Grand Canyon or Ajo would be about bringing in my own wine.

And by the way, our host Marge had some lovely California Gewurztraminer and Argentinian Malbec to sip while we grazed her fridge for lunch and a casual dinner. The wine department at AJ's grocery had some good values too.
Jennifer Knowles
surprise, az. usa —  November 21, 2009 1:48pm ET
Harvey- Thanx for the info, they'll be at the top of my list for sure.
Jennifer Knowles
surprise, az. usa —  November 21, 2009 1:51pm ET
Harvey- I also left a post about an amazing nz syrah, Bridge Pa, that I served at Waterbar. Looking forward to more posts, they're always fantastic!
Steve Balmuth
San Clemente, CA, USA —  November 22, 2009 12:33pm ET
Haven't been in a couple of years, but Heartline on Hwy 89A had an excellent wine list and great food to match. Also Cucina Rustica in the Village of Oak Creek was outstanding.
Scott Scherger
AZ —  November 22, 2009 6:13pm ET
Unfortunately Sea Saw closed this summer.

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