Burgundy Slim

I like this sommelier parody (see the image below), and I forgot about how much I liked it until my boyfriend texted it to me last week along with a cute smiley emoji (spell check, by the way, still doesn’t recognize the word “emoji.”) When I saw this image a couple of years ago I empathized with the bottom right corner – gaining a few irreversible forehead wrinkles as I crinkled and pummeled through those bottomless yellow legal pads. 

Respectable, good wine directors and/or sommeliers are busy people, like celebrated chefs and restaurateurs.  This means that they don’t have a lot of free easy-breezy time – at times they have a mad wife or boyfriend, a messy apartment, or an expired gym pass (I plead guilty to all of these). Luckily, however, I have a full-proof solution to one of these (as I work on the other 2), and it doesn’t cost money: STAYING SLIM and KEEPING IT FIT ON THE FLOOR. I have narrowed my practices down to 4 small and invisible exercises that one can practice everyday in order to tone and tighten his/her sommelier figure. Here are my rules:


1.        As you pour wine suck in your stomach, and clinch your abdominal muscles. If you have a difficult deep banquet to serve, then flex and stretch your core to give yourself a greater wingspan to pour that fluid and seamless stream of vintage Champagne.


2.       At AQ (the restaurant where I work as a sommelier) we serve our amuse bouche on medium size, charcoal colored stones (like the ones advertised for sexy hot stone massages but larger and bumpier).  These stones are heavy – bonus! As I remove them from the table I use them like dumbbells, secretly moving them up and down with the isolation of my bicep muscles as I carry them back to the dishwasher. Of course, these stones are unique to the restaurant, but most fine dining restaurants will have something that is heavy and expensive that the chef will use to showcase his/her masterpiece. These are your dumbbells; use them wisely.


3.        Set a morning aside to unpack and move most of your wine. This exercise can take up to 4 hours – depending on your sales and volume. Yes, interns and cellar rats are easy targets for the dusty work, but you will be missing an opportunity to burn significant calories but bending down, lifting, and moving a box with your core muscles. Again, as you unpack wine and breakdown boxes bend with your knees – this will tone your leg muscles (I’m sure there are multiple fancy names for those).


4.       Lastly, walk to work 3 times a week, if you live in an urban area (and most of us do!) Yes, it might take you an hour, but this is a good time to do flashcards, listen to yourself blind taste wine, or catch-up with the latest political podcast....







The Secret Musical Powers of Winemakers

As a sommelier music surrounds me, and fortunately, I can't escape it. As I scan the chef’s pass from the hot pink ices of garde manger down to the perfect medium rare at Ben’s meat station, I count one, two cooks who are fluent in bass or guitar in addition to cheap beer and bonded whiskey.  Sommeliers, including myself, we’ve got undisclosed musical abilities. I pick-up my cell phone and peruse my wine-o contacts – I’ve already got 6, 7, 8 (sing, play, compose)…. and I’m just at “Martinez.” It's obvious there is a food-music-wine love connection and as legendary sommelier and musician Tim Gaiser noted, “We could spend a lifetime discussing all that.” Amidst this wired and overexcited phase of the world, most chatter glosses the frontline (our chefs and sommeliers), but what about the supermen behind the scenes, the winemakers?

My first impression of Daniel Chotard I could easily coat in one word, “jolly.”” His Sancerre Blanc is one of the best values in the market, thick with mineral and just ripe fruit that the wines have a pleasant extra layer of texture and cream.  Possibly his wines are like his melodies; he masters the accordion, the odd but charming wind instrument invented in Berlin in the early 19th century.  Have you listened to the sounds of an accordion lately? Animated, zippy, and sharp – feels like a cool climate chalky white wine as opposed to a warm climate irony red. Andreas Hütwohl has multiple big titles at one of Germany’s most acclaimed wine estates, Dr. Deinhard/Von Winning (An estate of dual personalities, Dr. Deinhard is the label for fruity styles of wine; Von Winning is the label for dry styles of wine). He is one of three winemakers as well as the deputy general manager and export manager. When I asked Andreas if he considered himself a musician, he modestly replied, “No,” yet he was the lead singer in a rock and roll band before he went to enology school. He naturally groups wine with music, a categorization tool that helps him to evaluate wine when he is making decisions in the cellar. Equally impressive as Von Winning, one can’t discuss the best wines of the Kamptal in Austria without discussing Schloss Gobelsburg. Fifty miles northwest of Vienna lives another renaissance soul, Michael Moosbrugger, head winemaker, owner and CEO of the Gobelsburg estate. He started playing guitar when he was nine, formed his first rock band when he was thirteen, and because he couldn’t find a drummer, began teaching himself how to play drums. At eighteen he took-up piano and considered enrolling in a conservatory, he still excites the black and white keys an hour everyday.  “As a musician you learn that if you want to master the instrument you need certain skills in your craftsmanship. This counts in the same way for winemaking.” I recommend buying a bottle of Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner from the Renner or Lamm vineyard; the translation is palpable.

 And the tempo moves west. Log onto Arietta’s website and you are lulled by Beethoven’s Opus 111. The musical inspiration behind Arietta in Napa Valley is Fritz Hatton, founder/owner with two degrees from Yale, and a classical pianist, by the way.  At Dunn Vineyards, tucked away on Howell Mountain, we are familiar with Randy, but there is Mike Dunn (his stepson) who considers himself the “cellar grunt” and then replies, “Well, I guess I’m the COO after seventeen years.” He sings in a cover rock band called, “The Last Resort.”  Before that, he sang in a vocal jazz ensemble for six years, and the notes continue-on in the Dunn family, his kids sing and play guitar. Living in the Bay Area, I’m constantly amazed by the quality of wines coming from the chilly and nonchalant vineyards that connect the dots from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. Last week I tasted a red wild and floral Pinot Noir from the Kevin Olson Vineyard in Prunedale. Where the heck is Prunedale? It’s in Monterey. Who’s the winemaker? It’s Ian Brand (who also has his own must seek-out labels, Le P’tit Paysan and La Marea).  His father, a guitar player, groomed his children with an appreciation for American folk, blues, and rock. By circumstance, Ian learned guitar and performed with “a couple of pretty ugly bands” in Santa Cruz. Even though he chose winemaking as a professional career, the music endures. He’s experimenting with how many watts he needs to do his bâtonnage with ratty power chord licks. So far he’s found that 100 tube watts isn’t quite enough to shake some lees without knocking down a few barrels. So if someone wants to sell one of those Peavey or Hiwatt 400 watt numbers… don’t rule-out a winemaker, I know Ian Brand is looking.   

Cats and Littorai

“…And next, for the veal consommé with Jerusalem artichokes… a local Pinot Noir with a little age, Littorai Pinot Noir Les Larmes (a blend of different vineyard sites) from Anderson Valley… 2004, an excellent vintage for Pinot in Northern California…” It’s May 2015 in San Francisco – the Golden State Warriors are hot, Grüner V is back, and I’ve willingly listened to FourFiveSeconds about six hundred times. Now, like the movie Memento from my college days, let’s play a little game called “Wine Pairing Rewind.”

            It’s May 2010 – thick and humid in Miami. The LA Lakers are hot, Sherry is back, and I’m sick of Lady Gaga.  Meet Rachel, my new sales rep., fresh from Hawaii via Southern California with long legs, a warm cozy smile, and black hair so shiny like a Pantene commercial.  New cities and unfamiliar landscapes are tough for a newcomer – you have to comb through the fluff of gold and silver to find the brown and green.  At the time I lived in a house with my best friend, Berenice, who is a chef – I miss that house, the old “Melrose Place.” We had a faded sea green deck that faced north, overlooking an untamed and fuzzy green backyard with a salt-water pool. We had enough lounge chairs to entertain a high school graduation party, and I was convinced our landlord, Bob, won the collection of circa 1987 patio furniture on the Price is Right. There was the “Margarita Tree,” which bore a strange mutated citrus fruit – giant like a pomelo with the flavor of ruby red grapefruit and key lime. Needless to say, these fruits made excellent Sunday margaritas. The bonus of the house was the hot tub. Looking back, I now realize that our Wednesday “after hours” blind tasting group was not an infamous success because of my dry puns and hospitality, it was the charm of the hot tub - drinking 1er Cru Meursault out of paper cups, littering the yard with chards of Riedel glass, and then somehow managing to make it home alive and well, ready to sling some 1990 Bordeaux the next day!

            Rachel was a part of the old Miami crew – the late night Burgundy debates, the sabering of Champagne, and the constant roll of giddy and glee. It makes the expression “those were the days” feel so true.  Yet, convincing friendships endure the lows as well as the highs, and we’ve had our stakes. Daylong hospital visits entertained by a tough mother pissing-off a nurse in the pursuit of her daughter’s overdue morphine dose. Divorce court – monotone wives and husbands lined-up like mad shoppers at the grocery store – “Next!”  Dumps, break-ups, and heartbreaks interweaved with moving apartments, again and again. In between the lows and highs - there is the sweet cream that fills the middle - free rides to the airport with hip-hop and trivial sommelier gossip, happy hour and Beau Soleil oysters at the River Oyster Bar, and cat-sitting Hana. If there is a “Yoda” of animals, then it is Hana, reserved but wise with a piercing intuition. For someone who is not a huge animal lover – Hana has turned me from cold to warm.  I loved when Rachel traveled those romantic ten-day excursions – train rides to Beaune, day trips to the Jura, sleepovers in Alba. While Rachel was day tripping with Savagnin and Chardonnay, I was snug on the couch with a dense book by Jasper Morris, Hana at my feet, overlooking the unbroken strip of fun hotel lights on Miami Beach. The hardwood floors, high ceilings, granite counter tops, even my own washer and dryer, I was hooked. But the best part, as usual, was the wine – Rachel’s modest but well curated stash of limey Meursault, big and rocky Etna, and highly gulp-able Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir. Hana and me… we had it good. 

            As my friendship progressed with Rachel, it also did with Hana. My native Taurus reliability coupled with a strange domesticated love of cleaning pots and pans secured me a cat-sitting role for life. Now, by circumstance and a little bit of luck, we find ourselves far from Miami, a place where an ambient and foggy 65 is a refreshing pause from the wild and sunny 90. And this time, the stakes are higher. Me – a sommelier in pursuit of a grand exam, running three wine programs by the end of the year, and mildly sidetracked with a freelance gig and a “coming soon” pop-up. Rachel – serving almost a decade at the Four Seasons, then transitioning into distribution… selling big and winning big with natural charm and polish, deservedly connecting the right dots to represent Littorai.

            One can’t discuss benchmark California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay without mentioning Littorai and Mr. Ted Lemon. He worked at the best estates in Burgundy and is well noted for being “the first American” to be hired as a winemaker and vineyard manager at the legendary Domaine Guy Roulot in Meursault.  The wines translate the finest vineyard sites in Anderson Valley, the Sonoma Coast, and the western edge of the Russian River Valley. The Lemons (Ted and his wife Heidi) champion sustainable farming. In addition to using only natural materials, they abstain from using fertilizers in favor of their jewel, the estate compost. Just recently (April 2015), Littorai received the esteemed Environmental Stewardship Award. The philosophy in the vineyard continues into the cellar – natural light, wine movement via gravity flow, and recycled water are the Littorai standard. Like the greatest wines of Burgundy, production is tiny. Last week at the restaurant I added four bottles of four different Littorai Pinot Noirs to the list… after five nights of medium steady service, they are gone. To have and drink Littorai is a moment all by itself.  

            “And don’t forget to take the Littorai I left for you, it’s on the kitchen counter!” ~Rachel’s last text before she boarded the plane to someplace far and subzero cold.  Holding my breath as I peeled back the silver lid to mushy cat-food, I eyed the prized bottles – my reward for this week’s daring cat duties! I gave Hana a kiss, cradled the Littorai in between the legal pads in my messenger bag and headed towards my second home on Mission Street. I could pair this with the sweet and crusty soft-shell Crab… maybe the fat-glowing Winkler Pork loin, or the Vacaville Quail, gamey and butchered to master symmetry.  I converse and confide with Chef Mark, “Let’s do the consommé,” he says.  It’s eight o’clock on a Friday night, Che just broke a wine glass at the bar, there is a team of grown men with kiddy backpacks hungry at the door, and I’ve got twelve pairings to put down in the next three minutes. My spiel, “And next, for the veal consommé with Jerusalem artichokes… a local Pinot Noir with a little age, Littorai Pinot Noir Les Larmes (a blend of different vineyard sites) from Anderson Valley… 2004, an excellent vintage for Pinot in Northern California,” attempting to be in-and-out and onto table 57. The gentleman immediately looks-up from his fixated tunnel of conversation in business and numbers, and we make brief eye contact, awkward yet pleasant. He says, “Oh my, Littorai… I looovvve Littorai… thank you, thank you.” As I sidestep my way to table 57, I look down at the iconic label, the charcoal sketch of a storybook valley and forest and feel instantly grateful… for good friends, good cats, and Littorai.

Just Another AQ Sunday

Some of my favorite moments at AQ happen when the blinds roll-down and block-off the ever weird and lively world on Mission street. During the last hour of Saturday night’s service everyone smiles a little bit more and laughs a little bit more as the anticipation of the weekend settles to the bone. As restaurant people, we are fortunate to have our protected Sundays – no high-chair brunches, no line-cook crying about the missed football game, no 9:45pm reservation running late for their romantic Sunday night chef’s tasting menu. For some of us, Sundays are moments to be outside – camp, ski, swim, and hike into Northern California’s extraordinary topography. For others, Sundays are moments to be with family, lay low in the neighborhood or rightfully catch-up with a good book or that secret junkie television series. For me, I look forward to my Sunday walk down Larkin Street past the confectionary smell of almond-y pastry at Mr. Holmes followed by the savory scent of potted pork at Saigon Sandwich. I always cut through the farmer’s market at the Civic Center where I like to watch the hunched Chinese ladies buying lots of green leafy things – thinking that these women, right here, are the best chefs in San Francisco. Then I pass the steps of the courthouse (where I can’t help but feel overwhelmingly patriotic and think of my father and brother who are passionate lawyers), and I know I am close to AQ.    

 As I type these words, it is just another AQ Sunday. I am enjoying an afternoon snack of Amaro CioCiaro over a thick cube of ice, which I like to steal from the bartender’s freezer (they will have to freeze a few more on Tuesday). When I arrived earlier, I found remnants of silver duck tape on the downstairs prep table, a tangible sign that Chef Mark and Chef Jimmy were here, moments before, packing their coolers of abalone and stinging nettles for their special dinner at the James Beard House in New York. An hour later, a few of San Francisco’s most talented sommeliers knocked on the back door, academic satchels and tasting-grids in-hand, ready to tackle a lethal blind tasting of thirty wines. The room is in need of a deep-cleaning by me - decanters lined-up like soldiers on tables 51-55, broken corks and plastic spit-cups married in the blue bin, and a squeaky dishwasher cart, turned fancy guéridon, decorated with corkscrews, wire decanting baskets, and hot pink lighters. I’ll get to cleaning-up in a couple of hours, after I binge on some 64% dark chocolate discs while looking-up market prices for the 2010 Bordeaux vintage, followed by Burgundy. Then maybe I’ll do some Rhône or even Australia, if I’m in the “new-world” mood.

 In the next hour Matt will stroll-in with plastic crates of arugula, borage, and wood sorrel, fresh and zesty from the farm in Cloverdale. Then something that is broken (and requires a power tool) will need to be fixed, and he will fix it. Then Guy and Melissa will park the motorcycle in the back and turn-on a ‘feel good’ Pandora station as they prep their ‘feel good’ pita dough for tomorrow’s pop-up (and soon-to-be falafel craze), Sababa. I’m not sure who it will be next… maybe Ryan will pick-up his bicycle after a friendly night’s excursion with beer and whiskey, or I’m hoping Sonja will swing-by to work on next week menus – so I can find-out what happened on date #3 and the other date #1 (slowly becoming more and more intrigued and rather tempted by online dating). Whoever it will be, a moment will proceed. A small conversation or act will be next week’s memory. Some madly funny, others more profound and cordial, but these memories will slowly join together to become stories and to me, the real rhythm of AQ

Pumped-Up on Chianti?

It was an “on-again off-again” affair with me and Castello di Ama. I was familiar with the Tuscan estate, a touted and very respectable producer in the Chianti Classico region with a flair for international varietals like Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I’d considered them not-so traditional and not-so modern, but somewhere safely in between the two battling wine genres. I tasted their “Chianti Classico Riserva” many times… I liked it. I had it on my wine list, took it off the list, and then put it on again six months later, a slightly annoying sommelier habit. Then in October of 2013, something clicked.

I encountered Lorenza Sebasti Pallanti at a mutual friend’s apartment in Florence. We were chatting in the kitchen enjoying an appetizer of tangy and crusty bread when a confident fist knocked on the door. In walked Lorenza, an angled face too cool for make-up, with boy-short hair that was a little messy but fitting and dressed in thick greys and black. But nothing about Lorenza was grey or black. The conversation of the evening was the wines of Chianti Classico and the perception of the wines in the market in the United States. Are the wines big and bold, fattened with Cabernet and the alluring sweet spices of new oak? Are the wines red-fruited, pure and charming, aged quietly in used old barrels? I listened to Lorenza speak with her anxious shoulders and the up-and-down curls of her brow. Antinori had just completed his new monumental winery in Chianti Classico and Lorenza vocally applauded him, “He could’ve built a winery anywhere in Tuscany, and he chose Chianti!” Lorenza was a stoplight of colors to me, selfless green then fiery red with a softness of yellow. She spoke about the frustrations with the changing laws with the Consorzio (her husband Marco was the former president) and the innate obligation of producers and owners to improve and protect the quality of the region (once wrongly belittled by an outpouring of average quality and market bliss in the 1980s).
Sitting there, listening, in awe of her energy and passion, I thought, “I’m so pumped-on… Chianti?” Lorenza was leaving for Moscow the next day on a business trip, and I was driving back to the outskirts of Siena. Before our good-bye she insisted that I visit Ama. “Marco is hosting a tasting on Friday, you must meet Marco! You must go to Ama!”

Lorenza is Roman. Her family was one of the original families who jointly purchased Castello di Ama in the 1960s. Marco Pallanti, her husband and proud Tuscan, arrived to the estate in the early 1980s after graduating from Enology school in Florence. Almost 32 years later, he is still there. It’s where he met Lorenza; it’s where he would raise three children and unknowingly carve-out the beginnings of an Italian wine legacy. When Marco came to Ama he grafted Merlot vines over the older vines of Malvasia and Canaiolo. These re- grafted parcels evolved into the L’Apparita vineyard and its celebrated namesake wine, the first purely Merlot “Super Tuscan” in 1985, just a year before the release of the iconic “Masseto” in 1986. Lorenza and Marco admire international grapes and play with them well. In the cellar there’s a collection of big and little barrels, but it is unbefitting to call their style “modern” when they’ve been living and breathing Ama together for over thirty years. Their “Chianti Classico Riserva” has a proper stuffing of Malvasia Nera, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, and in “Il Chiuso” you can smell the lip gloss of Pinot Noir but the wines, like Marco, are Tuscan at the core – underneath the skin of shiny fruits, there are seamless threads of Tuscan earth - iron and stone.

It was Friday, and I was sitting kitty-corner from Marco at a thick wood country table, the kind of table built for big eating and conversations initiated by midday drinking. Lunch was Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc with a platter of veal meatballs and bowls peppery spaghetti, followed by a basket of autumn fruits married with a day-cap of Vin Santo.
If Lorenza was a stoplight, then Marco was a beacon, quiet and reserved but powerful by constant. Marco recalls:

"Lorenza she’s…. she’s…. so funny you know… I remember at the winery when we I first met her she use to drink the must from the tanks… ah how she loved drinking must (laugh). Ah, I have to call Lorenza! She’s flying… I have to see if she landed ok, excuse me."

As I reached over to pick-out the nicest-looking fig from the bowl, I saw a bird looking right at me, staring me down. It was the type of stare that makes you feel you did something wrong, and then you stop and think. I can still feel the stare. But the bird didn’t flinch or tweet; it was a strange kind of bird. Its head was the nubby top part of a pear, its beak was a pointed brown stem, and its eye – was the perfect imperfection, a small indentation bruised to the darkest brown. Upon Marco’s return I pointed to the bowl, and he saw the image right away, surprisingly even more amazed and amused than I. From that moment on, Ama stuck with me, wherever I go. Now, I always have the wines on one of my lists, I pass-on the story of Ama, and I’m still pumped to sell Chianti.

Thank you, Michael Jordan

The pixie hair lady with chunky black glasses and an all too serious face coolly replied, “Let's do the 99 Gratien... nice shoes by the way.” My response, “Great. I’ll get that right away for you… thanks!” Eager and giddy to open the special bottle of vintage Champagne, which I just added to the wine list that day, I thought, “Could it be that easy?” (Submissively shifting a guest out of his or her $100 per bottle Champagne comfort zone to something a bit more rare and pricey). Well, yes of course it could be, if you were a dapper sommelier with the right big talk and the right big attitude. Then I thought about myself… a different type of person and thus a different type of sommelier, more reserved, maybe a little too honest, and a sucker for the underdogs and bargains. “I know you’re interested in the bla-bla-bla for $150, but you should really try the bla-bla-bla for $100, it’s totally underrated.”  Making my way down to the cellar, freely gliding and bouncing down the steel-cut stairs, I looked down at myself, past my black tuxedo pants and wondered – “Nah, can’t be, it’s the Air Jordans.”

    As sommeliers, we are constantly judged.  There are villages of respectable eaters and drinkers out there who have experienced an unfortunate or awkward moment with a sommelier. Maybe it was the ridiculous over-pouring of Riesling, too full and top-heavy to swirl and catch the aroma of fresh peach and lime. Maybe the folly was the delicious bottle of Pinot Noir that surprisingly ended in one too many zeros or the cute and perky know-it-all “somm” in the perfectly tailored midnight blue suit that rubbed you from lukewarm to cold.  Whatever the sorry circumstance, certain guests will look you up-and-down, and in an instant judge you – I like her, I don't like her, let's call over the sommelier for help or… let's not.  I’m a sommelier, but firstly I’m a girl, and I like shoes. I like all types of shoes: high shoes, higher shoes, and sometimes, low shoes. Tuesday is my Monday, and I’d start-off the week strong, 3-inch heels. Wednesday, no problem, 3-inch Italian black patent leather it is. Thursday, take it down to 2-inch, a busy Friday, go 1. Come Saturday, 3 private parties, 120 covers confirmed in the main dining room, we’re rolling with one food runner, Chef Jimmy is working and sweating the fish station… give me my Air Jordans!
My shoe pattern began to stick, and Saturdays I properly dubbed “Air Jordan Saturdays.”  Over a three-month period I mentally documented the nights I wore my black sneakers with the bright pink swooshes and noticed two things. Guests were more likely to randomly initiate conversations with me as well as request my assistance in selecting a bottle of wine. I’d walk-up to table 41, an abbreviated, loose version of our dialogue would be:
“Hey nice sneakers (Bob)… Thanks (Me)… What do you think between this wine, this wine, or that wine? (Bob)… I'd get that wine, it’s awesome (Me)…. Ok, we’ll go with that wine (Bob)… Ok great… I’ll bring that right away for you (Me)”

Then table 43, then 57, then the bottleneck of techies at the food-bar, “Hey nice sneakers,” all night long. Would I have the same luck if I swapped-out my Air Jordans for Chuck Taylors or throwback Pumas? This experiment, part 2, I have not tried, but tempted. I am, although, secretly looking forward to “Adidas Stan Smith Saturdays” with the arrival of AQ spring. 
Enthusiastic about this correlation between sneakers and a guest’s behavior, I consulted Teresa, Chef Mark’s wife, a sharp girl I could trust; the kind of lady that could make a witty joke in a room full of suits while being the cool girl that could hang with the boys or with the chicks. We were standing by the cooks’ pass as Saturday night’s final tickets were seamlessly birthing out of the little black box. She diplomatically listened to my theory and asserted, “Did you ever think that maybe it’s not the sneakers, maybe it’s yoouuu in the sneakers …and that is the difference.” Sure she had a point. I was more comfortable in my sneakers, more relaxed, possibly even exuding an extra smile as I glided down the stairs towards the 99 Gratien. So in the end wh0 did Jordan seduce… was it the lady with the pixie hair or was it me?  I’m not convinced it was all of me, but I am grateful for #23, my sneakers, and the special wines I get to taste and drink every night.

Thank you, Michael Jordan.