Monday, November 29, 2010


Saturday was my second shift at Masa's Restaurant, and since Alan, the Head Sommelier there, was out-of-town, I got to try my hand at quite a bit of table-side service. Overall, I really enjoyed it, and I had fun explaining the different wines which had been selected to accompany each course.

There are three different menus at the moment, all prix-fixe: a four-course, a seven-course, and a seven-course white truffle menu. The selections of wine are as varied as the menus themselves, and I really enjoyed sharing some of the quirks and special aspects of the different wines.

There were, of course, a few whoopsies perpetrated by me:

First, I was asked to bring a Coke to a woman at one of the tables. For some unknown reason, I poured the Coke into a glass, and then decided to bring her both the glass, and the bottle with the remaining soda in it.

As soon as I placed both the glass and the bottle down on the table, I knew it was wrong. It just looked wrong. When do you ever see a bottle of soda left on the table at a fancy restaurant?! But once I had put it down, I had to walk away. I couldn't very well take it back, or draw her attention to the fact that the very small glass (for which we were probably charging her $10), barely held three-quarters of the bottle of soda.

So I just had to leave it there, and, once she had drunk some of the soda in her glass, I was able to empty the bottle and take it away. Plus, it was a very small, glass bottle, it's not like I left a gigantic two-liter bottle of soda in the middle of the table so that she and her date were having to look over it in order to see each other or anything. But still....

The biggest whoops, though, came when I opened a very nice bottle of Pinot Noir which a man and his wife had brought in with them. Before I went to pour the wine for them, I was obsessing about remembering to pour lady first. So over I walked to their table, and poured a glass for her and a glass for him.

Feeling pleased with myself, I walked back to my station behind the bar. Only then did I realize that I had forgotten to do the most basic part of the wine-pour at the table: the taste. I had completely forgotten to pour a small amount of the wine into one of their glasses so he or she could taste the wine and make sure it was to their liking.

In service, forgetting to do this is tantamount to just plopping down the bottle on table, putting two giant straws in it and telling them to have at it.

I am beyond happy that Alan was not there to witness my little blunder. The best excuses I can come up with are that 1. I was nervous, and 2. I was used to doing the pourings for the wine pairings with each course, and for those you don't offer a taste, you just pour the wine directly into the glass, remembering to always pour ladies first.

Oh well. This is why I am an unpaid intern at the moment. I return for another shift this week to pour again.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Wine Shadow

Well, I am happy to report that my first evening as a "vintern" at Masa's Restaurant went very well. The place has a cosy, sort of old-world elegance to it, without being stuffy. Luckily, the place is small, so the staff is relatively small and, I am happy to report, extremely nice. I think they fight the stuffiness by having a younger waitstaff, which brings a lightness to the atmosphere. They laugh a lot and don't seem to take themselves too seriously.

This atmosphere is definitely fostered in large part by Alan Murray, their Head Sommelier. He also seems to be manager, and does everything from serving wine and making mixed drinks, to helping to seat new guests and even taking their coats. Everybody helps everybody and pitches in to lend a hand wherever help is needed. I like that philosophy, since it them seems to avoid any notions of superiority, of "I don't do THAT, that's YOUR job".

The wine list is, to say the least, overwhelming. At 800-strong, it would be a major feat to try to memorize it, so at this stage of the game, I'm not even going to try. Since the food is French-inspired California cuisine, the wine-list is heavily French-based, with a large number of wines from Burgundy.

But Alan has fun with his wines, and he seems to enjoy presenting wines that are a bit on the funky side, a bit unusual. One such wine was a wonderful gem from the Loire region of France, a Christian Venier "Les Clos des Carteries" Cheverny 2009. This wine is made from the Sauvignon Gris grape, and if you're like me, you have probably never heard of the Sauvignon Gris grape, but here it is!

The varietal is thought to be a clonal mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, and the flavor it imparts is somewhere between Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. This wine was absolutely delicious: delicate apple notes with a gorgeous floral bouquet of honeysuckle and chamomile. If you have the opportunity to try this wine, please do. It's a lovely discovery.

Other fun wines Alan introduced me to on my shift was a wine from Corsica, a blend of Grenache and Sangiovese; a lovely crisp white from Northeast Italy, very close to the Slovenian border; and a white from the Jura region of France (located between Burgundy and Switzerland), a blend of Savagnin and Chardonnay, with an oxidative quality that gives it a slightly sherry-ish flavor.

The fun thing was getting to taste so many wines throughout the course of the evening, since Alan himself tastes every bottle he opens. So what Alan tasted, I tasted! He also did a comparative wine-pairing tasting with me in a down moment. He had been pairing the roasted Hearts of Palm with a German Riesling, and wondered if he might try pairing it with a dry white instead. So we tasted the salad with the dry white, and decided it just didn't work. Somehow the flavors were just wrong together.

But when we tried it with the Riesling, it was like a little bit of magic: suddenly the flavors in both the wine and the salad were amplified. That's the joy of pairing, and the challenge. It really is trial and error much of the time. You don't know until you taste the two together.

One more fun fact I learned: wines, especially those that can age for a long time, will cycle in and out of drinkability. I mean, I knew, of course, that wines can often improve with age, but i always thought of it as more of a linear progression, that a wine would just keep improving with every year. But apparently that is not the case; it is more of an ebb and flow rather than a straight line.

For example, the 2005 Burgundy wines that had been tasting delicious in the last few years are apparently now "shutting down" a bit; the flavors are just not there at the moment, to the point where Alan is thinking of removing them from the wine list. But in another 3 years or so, according to Alan, those wines will cycle back around to being drinkable again, with even more complexity of flavor then they had before.

That is one of the things I love about wine: it is a living, breathing organism in its way, and it grows, changes, flourishes, and even languishes at different times in its life.

The biggest challenge of the evening was in the "shadowing" element of what I am doing. How to shadow without menacing, without breathing down someone's neck. Plus, people are constantly moving around the floor with trays of glasses, stacks of plates, etc. and it took a lot of focus to find some place to stand where I was not in the way of anybody, not right over Alan's shoulder, not making the diners uncomfortable, but was also close enough to be able to hear what Alan was saying.

I think I managed to find a decent balance; at the very least he invited me back, so it must have gone all right. This Saturday I will return, and Alan will actually not be there, so I may have more opportunity to pour wines myself and really be a part of the evening. I am looking forward to it.

Because of Thanksgiving, I will not be writing a post on Thursday (unless I find myself inspired by massive amounts of Turkey, pie and vino), but will return on Monday. In theory.

Have a wonderful holiday everyone. Let me know if you have any yummy wines with your vittles.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wine for Starting Something New

Tomorrow will be my first day doing a "Vinternship" at Masa's Restaurant in San Francisco. A "vinternship" is a winey way of saying an internship. Restaurants will give a person like myself a chance to watch and maybe even experience service as a Sommelier in a fine-dining establishment. They won't be paying me, and I am guessing I'll be there one or two shifts a week for the next month or so.

To be honest, I am not entirely sure what this particular vinternship will entail. I will be going in tomorrow to work out the details. I am both excited and petrified. I have, of course, forgotten everything i learned in my extensive wine class, and feel that I can no longer remember varietal characteristics, or the names of famous vineyards in famous wine regions.

I have begun reviewing all of my wine notes, while imagining that when I walk through the door tomorrow, the head Sommelier will begin peppering me with questions ("Quick, name all the Grand Cru vineyards in the Cote D'Or!!"), shoving wines under my nose ("Quick, what is it??!!") and forcing me to saber open Champagne bottles for tables of thirsty guests.

Hopefully, none of this will actually happen, but I always get freaked out when I start something new, especially when I am not exactly sure what that new thing will actually be like. Plus I have the added pressure of believing that I must always immediately be perfect at everything I do, even when I have never done it before.

I think I was brought up, or else my personality just led me, to believe that failure and mistakes were unacceptable and shameful. But of course it is from failing and making mistakes that we learn the most, and get better. It's impossible to succeed without some measure of failure; and it is these initial struggles that make the successes that much sweeter.

So with that in mind, I am going to go to the restaurant tomorrow saying to myself that I am where I am, I am there to learn, and they are lucky to have someone willing to volunteer her time and services. Plus, the Head Sommelier at this restaurant was one of my teachers at my wine course, so he knows what I know as far as theory, tasting and service.

So, my wine for starting something new is a Hannah Nicole Vineyards 2009 Viognier. Hannah Nicole was a new winery to me, and Viognier is a lesser-known varietal, so it seemed an appropriate wine for this post.

Viognier is a common varietal of the Northern Rhone in France, and it also grows very well here in California. I helped pour this wine last night with my friend Mike who is one of their sales reps, and it was a big hit. People kept coming back for more.

This wine is light and refreshing, with a fruity nose and palate of apple, nectarine, grapefruit, star fruit, white flowers and vanilla. Viognier is one of my favorite varietals, and this wine is a lovely representation of it. You can buy it on the Hannah Nicole website for $20 a bottle, or if you live in San Francisco, you can buy it at The Jug Shop on Polk Street.

This is a lovely wine to drink on its own as an aperatif, or with a fruit plate, or some light cheeses. The people at the event last night were drinking it with sushi, and they said it paired really well with that, too.

Plus, if you bring this wine to share with friends over dinner, you will most likely be introducing people to a type of wine they have never had before, which I always think is fun. 'Tis the season for trying something new, I say.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Travel Book List

I thought I would share my reading list from when we were on our travels (June-October). I absolutely love reading books, and this trip gave me an opportunity to read a lot. When we were staying in the cabin at Melkevoll Bretun in Norway, we both read for hours every day, and I think we read five books each over the course of those 12 days.

I love getting book recommendations from people as well, so please feel free to share any recent favorite reads of yours in the comments section.


Acqua Alta & two others in the Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries series by, Donna Leon

Spies of Warsaw and The Foreign Correspondent by, Alan Furst

Changing Places by, David Lodge

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

Unseen Academicals by, Terry Pratchett

City of Thieves by, David Benioff

Billion Dollar Brain by Len Deighton

Child 44 by, Tom Rob Smith

Peyton Place by, Grace Metalious

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by, Stieg Larsson

Jaws by Peter Benchley

Gorky Park by, Martin Cruz Smith

River of Love by, Barbara Cartland

Lush Life by, Richard Price

Dune Road by, Jane Green

Royal Flush by, Lynda La Plante

Almost Dead by, Lisa Jackson

Open by Andre Agassi

As you probably can see, by the end of the trip I kind of just started reading trash, books that had been left behind by previous people in the places we were staying. But there was just a point where all I wanted was to read something easy, fun and escapist; page-turners with a lot of exclamation points.

Of all of these books, I have to say that City of Thieves by David Benioff was my hands-down favorite. So beautifully written, I couldn't put it down.

I really love Alan Furst's writing, but his endings baffle me. They feel like he was writing away, and then suddenly either decided he was bored with the story and characters or he just had no idea what to do with what he had created , so he just suddenly wrote "And then they all died." Or "and then, they all moved to France and ate cheese. The End" As a reader I was left wondering what had just happened and why the book had ended 100 pages too soon.

The Raymond Chandler was another favorite; no one can turn a phrase or create a metaphor quite like him. And those dames....

I think Jaws may possibly be one of the worst books even written, and I am amazed at how it was turned into such a terrific film.

Finally, I know Len Deighton is not as famous here as he is in the UK, but if you like Cold War spy novels, you must give him a try. I firmly recommend the ones that feature Bernie Samson. There is a series of nine books in sets of three: Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match; Spy Hook, Spy Line, Spy Sinker; Faith, Hope & Charity.

Now it's your turn: have you read any of the books on this list? Any other faves you think people should know about?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Starting Over

I know, I know, I was supposed to write this post yesterday. What can I say-life is just unpredictable! This is how I keep you on your toes.

We moved on Tuesday to our third and (hopefully) final temporary apartment, which is a vast improvement over our last two temporary apartments. It is, in fact, around the corner from where we used to live, and I still, when walking or driving by my old building, feel an incredibly strong pull to go inside. My brain still very firmly believes that that is home, and that all of our things still remain in our apartment, just waiting for our return.

We also bought a car, and on Wednesday we went to pick it up from the dealership in San Jose. Buying a car is always a little stressful, worrying that you have paid too much, been taken advantage of in some way, and there are always the little surprises; the features you were told the car had it, in fact, does not it goes.

Overall we are happy with the car, a one-year-old VW Golf TDI, a diesel. This is to atone for our former days as planet-killing-Range-Rover-owners.

Additionally, I have been interviewing for wine jobs, and I have a couple of interesting prospects, but since everything is not final, I will wait to get specific.

I have found it to be an interesting and challenging experience, these interviews. Actually, not the interviews themselves, but the kinds of jobs I am interviewing for.

It is hard, starting an entirely new career at 38 years old. And while I know and believe that it is never too late in life to re-invent yourself and to start over, explore new paths in life, it has been a bit of a blow to the old ego to find out that my salary will be little more than a number just north of minimum wage.

It is hard not to hear the hourly rate and think "Holy crap, I have a Master's Degree and THAT'S all I can earn??!!"

But as with everything, you have to start somewhere, and really, apart from my class and a little bit of sales experience, I have almost no job experience in the wine industry. I worked in coffee shops in Los Angeles, but never restaurants; nor have I ever worked in a wine shop or winery.

So to the back of the line I go; starting at the very beginning. Someone once said it's a very good place to start. And truth be told, I am excited at the prospect of some of these jobs; excited to be in new environments and learn new skills; to be in a place where I can be exposed to wine varietals and producers from all over the world.

I met up with a friend of mine the other night who had been applying for admin jobs a while back, jobs for which she was way overqualified. She said she actually had to tell the people interviewing her that she knew she was overqualified but she was willing to do the job anyway. I think these days a lot of people find themselves in that boat.

Perhaps ego gets in the way. If we can remove that inner voice that says "I'm too good for that" maybe there is some thing to be learned. For me of course I have everything to learn, once I get over what my ego believes the low hourly pay is saying about me as a person.

I have to start at the beginning, and learn, taste, meet people, and see where it all leads.

I have no wine recommendation today because my reflux unfortunately is acting up a bit, and wine is one of the worst things for it. I know technically I don't have to drink the wine in order to taste it, but there's just no way I'm going to open up one of my own bottles, taste the wine and then spit it out. I just can't do it! Could you?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Walk This Way

I confess I cannot read, hear or speak that phrase "Walk this way" without thinking of that movie, I think it was YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN with Gene Wilder, in which the hunchback butler says "Walk This Way", and the person following him mimics his slouching, lumbering walk, and how funny my whole family and I found it.

My father thought it was so funny he decided to repeat the phrase, and often. Unfortunately, he never repeated it right, and wound up saying "Walk Like This", which, you know, doesn't quite deliver the joke.

But that is beside the point. I bring up walking because I recently heard a slightly unbelievable but true story on NPR. Oxford Street in England, a very popular shopping and business thoroughfare, apparently has issues with pedestrians. The people who are there to browse and window shop walk too slowly, looking around, and gumming up the works, getting in the way of the business people who are trying to actually get from one place to the next in a timely manner.

By way of a solution, some sort of group, maybe a city office, is trying to create two lanes of traffic on the sidewalk: a lane for slow walkers, and a lane for fast.

As a former New Yorker, and a person who generally walks quickly, I kind of love that idea. Nothing used to drive me more insane than getting stuck behind people who were walking so slowly through the streets of Manhattan that they were essentially going backward. I would rush past them, muttering something like "Stop Dawdling!" or "Good God, Man, get out of my way!!!".

I do enjoy the image of this white line drawn down the middle of the sidewalk with the lanes indicated by signs saying something like "The Move-it-or-Lose-It lane" and the "Thumb-up-Ass" lane.

The NPR reporter took the whole thing very seriously. How, he wondered, would it be enforced, these two lanes? Who would be the judge of what was a fast pace and what was slow? I have to admit, those are good questions.

Would London actually pay police officers to stand on the sidewalks and time people? Measure their actual walking speed? Give tickets for walking fast in the slow lane and slow in the fast lane? Undercover cops who would disguise themselves as fast walkers and tackle anyone walking too slowly in the fast lane, or trip someone walking too quickly in the slow?

The best part of this, however, was when the reporter introduced a representative from the All-England Pedestrian League. That isn't the actual name, but it was something like that, and it is an honest-to-goodness organization that exists only to champion the rights of pedestrians, and they are vehemently opposed to these sidewalk lanes, because they are staunchly against anything that infringes on a pedestrian's right to walk on any part of the sidewalk they please.

I'm sorry, but are they serious? This is an actual organization with actual paid employees who sit around all day and worry about people who....walk??!! This could only be thought up by a person who has drunk one too many pints of lager and eaten one too many fried food items.

What's next? The League of Tooth Fairies (although, actually, for England, that might not be such a bad idea); The Organization of Feet-Pickers; The League of Women Tooters; The Anti-Parking Space Association (for those who object to parking spaces because they should be allowed to park wherever they like); The Anti-Red-Light-League ("Nobody tells me when to stop and when to go!!!); while they're at it, why not object to lanes on streets and freeways ("Lanes?! We don't need no stinking lanes!).

Sorry, I'm ok, really. What do you think?

Do you find some of these organizations as insane as I do?

Would you object to a sidewalk with a fast and slow lane? Are you a fast walker or a slow one? Are you one of those people who think you walk fast, when in fact you walk so slowly you might as well be standing still? Do you find yourself walking with someone who suddenly shakes you to make sure you are, in fact, still awake?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wine for Bundt-Cake Madness

I know, I know, I was supposed to write this post yesterday. I know! I don't know what happened. I am having a consistency issue at the moment, and I apologize. Maybe I'm adding too much water...

Anyway, I recently returned from a visit with my sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew in Los Angeles. The visit happened to be over that wonderful ode to candy, Halloween. I love a holiday that is all about getting and eating as much chocolate as possible.

Of course, the whole costume thing is fun, too, I suppose, especially if you are one of those people who is super creative and able to come up with a really original and unusual costume. I alas, am not one of those people. The most I ever managed in the way of a costume was wearing a full set of scrubs and doctor's mask, simply because my father used to bring loads of scrubs home for all of us to wear as pajamas.

This year I told my sister I was going to be going as "woman in very old pair of jeans". That's about as good as it gets on my end, I'm afraid. My niece went as a pink fairy, complete with wings, and my nephew wore one of the Halloween costumes my mother made me when I was young, a black and white cat costume with a pin-on tail and hood with ears. The costume is essentially a dress made of striped fabric, but with the hood up and black nose and whiskers on his face, he looked adorable. People on the street, however, thought he was supposed to be a zebra.

Trick or Treating in Santa Monica is not what I grew up with. For starters, it starts at about 4pm, in blinding daylight, and takes place on the business street, Montana Avenue, which is full of shops and restaurants. Kids and their families walk in and out of these stores, and are given candy, just like they would be at a house. This trick-or-treating is obviously geared toward younger kids who go to bed early, but for me, it's still a bit odd.

My trick-or-treating memories all involve dark streets, cold, crisp New England air, the shuffle of dried leaves underfoot, and knocking on the doors of people's homes, never quite sure what they would be giving out. And always, in every neighborhood, the one or two houses of people who were felt to be either mean or crazy; houses that were often dark and uninviting, houses at which we were uncertain whether or not to knock at all.

There were always the houses that were known, every year, for passing out the best candy, and then there was also....the raisin house. You know the house I mean. The house that handed out those little red boxes of Sun Maid raisins. Myself and everyone around me would watch those raisins fall into our bags in slow-motion, expressions of frozen horror on our faces. It was like watching someone throw a flaming turd in there, such were our expressions.

Did anyone ever actually eat those raisins? Mine were the only thing that ever lasted longer than a week, and they would sit, forgotten, at the bottom of my trick-or-treat bag until the following year, when out of curiosity, I would open the box to see that they had shriveled even more than normal and were now as hard as if they had been actual rabbit turds left out to dry for a year.

The best part of this Montana Ave store halloween were the bakeries who, instead of handing out candy, gave samples of their wares. There must be at least 85 bakeries and cupcake stores on Montana, many of which are new and trying to lure new customers. One such shop was a new bundt-cake store, and they had set up tables outside the shop with plates and plates of cake samples. Beautiful, neat squares of cake with swirly dollops of frosting on top.

These cakes were delicious: red velvet, pumpkin spice, chocolate, and white chocolate raspberry. I'm not exaggerating when I say there was a small stampede of adults charging forward to get at these cakes. I don't know what it is, but free cake samples seem to turn grown men and women into animals, pushing, shoving, stuffing their faces like they've never seen food before.

By the end of the day, that cake stand was in shambles, trodden chunks of cake ground into the sidewalk, frosting smeared in the hair of the poor woman cutting the samples, those neat squares of cake giving way to large chunks hastily cut with what must have been a spoon. I think eventually, that woman just gave up and threw whole cakes into the crowd, letting people just stick their faces into the cake-pans and fight it out for themselves. It was like a scene from Quest For Fire. It was cake-madness.

I could go on and on about this, but I will stop myself now because I do, in fact, have a wine recommendation for you! This is another wine for which I wrote tasting notes on, and which happens to be on sale today only, on their website.

Let me say before I go any further, that although I write tasting notes for The Wine Spies, I do not make any money off of their wine sales, so when I suggest a wine to you that they happen to be selling, it is genuinely because I think the wine is terrific and the price, for you, is right.

Today's wine is a Summers Estate 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. This is a really lovely wine, and again, Peter, it fits the bill as far as being fruity and full-bodied without being bitter or overly tannic or acidic.

This wine has a beautiful purple berry color, an amazingly layered nose and palate of fresh and stewed blackberries, ripe black cherry, currant, dried cherry, sandalwood, cinnamon and chocolate. It's got a wonderfully smooth mouthfeel, a nice juicy acidity with very subtle tannins. It's a nicely balanced wine, too, with a medium/long finish of fruit, wood and spice. The wine retails for $59 but Wine Spies are selling it today for $39. It's a great holiday wine, with all that stewed fruit and spice.

Let me know if you try it!