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WineLine No. 3
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
December 17, 1999

Welcome to issue No. 3 of Dave McIntyre's WineLine, my personal take on the world of wine in the post-Sidewalk era. WineLine contains news, views and occasional reviews that I, and I alone, believe might be of interest to wine lovers around the DC area and beyond through the magic of cyberspace. As always, feel free to forward this to your friends and enemies, and to chime in with your own news, comments and suggestions. Remember: You are my editors! I will only keep doing this if I think people are reading, so please let me know.

So far, indications are good. Subscribers signed up at http://lists.lyris.net/wineline have passed the 300 mark, and about 1,500 logged on to Number 2 on Robin Garr's Wine-Lover's Page! Thanks for your support.

As always, you may reach me at mcintyrewineline@yahoo.com.

In this issue ...

Your faithful correspondent was standing at the southeast corner of 6th Avenue and Union Street in Seattle at 10 a.m. on November 30, minding his own business (well, sort of) when police fired tear gas in the opening salvo of the "Battle in Seattle." For those of you too young (or too old) to remember the '60s, tear gas produces a sharp stinging sensation in the eyes and the sinuses, and scorches the back of the throat ... drum roll please ... WINE GEEK JOKE ALERT ... "much like the first whiff of a Central Valley Chablis!"

And no, I was not in Seattle dressed as a sea turtle protesting the World Trade Organization's environmental impact, nor in my anarchist wine-writer guise, but as trade correspondent for the English-language service of the Deutsche Presse-Agentur. Wineries were represented by a multilateral coalition of exporters from seven countries who were seeking an even-handed approach to wine in a new round of trade talks. Organized by the American Vintners Association, the group was seeking to have wine treated on an industry-to-industry basis rather than its traditional role as a trade bargaining chip to win concessions on other issues. (My report on their efforts was published on WineToday.com on December 3.)

The collapse of the talks means business as usual in trade for wine and other products. But AVA President Simon Siegl, who coordinated the wineries' efforts, remains hopeful that agricultural trade talks expected to begin early next year in Geneva will make progress on two goals vital to the AVA: eliminating Europe's agricultural export subsidies and reducing tariffs on wine in developing countries, especially those that are not wine producers. "The goal of reducing tariffs in such countries can only be accomplished through the WTO platform," Siegl says.

What's in it for us as consumers? Not much, probably. The United States already has the second-lowest tariff on wine (only Canada's national tariff is lower). And boosting wine exports won't solve the U.S. trade deficit. But if more wine from larger producers heads overseas, it might open up a little shelf space here at home for those coveted smaller bottlings ...

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In my last missive, I said I don't like to take pot shots at other wine writers (and then promptly took one). This time I'm ready to fire a full broadside. In the November 30 issue of Wine Spectator, columnist Matt Kramer derides the "ballooning egotism of some of today's sommeliers." He gives one example: of an unidentified female sommelier at "one of San Francisco's hotsy-totsiest new restaurants, the kind where the name of the restaurant is that of the chef - a bad sign right there." His criticism: that said sommelier recognized him and presented her business card, and then was slow to refill his wine glass.

Grow up, Matt! Even I would recognize you from that smug photo on top of your column, and insecure and unknown as I am, I'd probably try to kiss up as well. But enough about me ...

And to the point(s): Since when is it a "bad sign" that a restaurant is named after the chef? Has Kramer forgotten that Expectorator named Restaurant Alain Ducasse as the best in France, if not the world? And what about New York's Jean Georges, or Restaurant Daniel? Does he buy wine from Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant? Is the Mona Lisa any less a work of art because Leonardo signed it? Putting one's name on one's work is a mark of authenticity and artisanal pride, and should not be summarily dismissed as egocentric self-promotion.

On the whole, I've had great experiences with sommeliers. Here in the D.C. area, Michael Flynn of Kinkead's and Mark Slater of Michel Richard Citronelle, just to name two who work at egocentrically named restaurants, exemplify the top-notch professionalism of the metier. I've had disappointments, too, such as the time I allowed myself to be talked out of a bargain on a pricey wine for one less expensive (but with a higher markup for the house); but that ultimately was my choice. There are many restaurants serious about wine that do not employ sommeliers; but when the list is extensive and replete with unfamiliar labels, I like to consult the person who put it together and who knows best how the wines pair with the food.

Now, it just happened that a few days before Kramer's column came thudding through the slot in my front door, I had made dinner reservations for a family celebration at San Francisco's Restaurant Gary Danko, recommended to me by a restaurant critic friend as one of the city's best new dining spots. In case you don't recognize the name, Danko made his reputation as one of SF's most celebrated chefs at the Dining Room of the Ritz Carlton before heading out on his own a couple of years ago. His eponymous place near Fisherman's Wharf opened in late August. It did not take me long to connect Kramer's diatribe with my SF dining plans.

I cannot give a full restaurant review based on one visit, but let me put it this way: This was simply one of the best restaurant experiences of my life. Expensive, yes, but worth every penny. I've been to SF several times, always trying different restaurants on the assumption that I'll never return because the city will always offer something new. But I'll return to this restaurant in a heartbeat.

And wine lovers take note: The list assembled by "wine director" Renée-Nicole Kubin is a hands-down winner. Her selection is fearless, including several Austrian and German whites and even a couple of German reds (Lemberger, anyone?) Spain's up-and-comers from Priorat and the Duero are well represented, as are the best of Bordeaux and California cabs. There are four pages of half bottles (not including dessert wines) with selections that will satisfy solo wine lovers or adventurous experimenters. And Kubin's selections for the tasting menu (which I sampled: $66 for five courses, $29 additional for four wines) were not simply from the lowest-priced wines on the list, but reflected careful consideration and her sense of adventure in pairing with the various courses. If there's a weakness, it lies in the short selection of Zinfandels and Syrahs from California, and Italian reds could be more fully explored. Big spenders should ask to see the reserve list; the copy Kubin gave to me did not have prices (if you have to ask ...), but just thinking about the Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc 1959 can be reward enough.

Kubin is also a fanatic for detail. Final bottles are marked on the list, and when one is ordered, she runs downstairs to her computer and reprints the page, changing all the lists in the restaurant even in the midst of the dinner service. That way, no diner is ever disappointed to find that dream bottle out of stock. Our entire experience at Restaurant Gary Danko showed a similar attention to detail.

A caveat: My wife and I paid our own way, and we did introduce ourselves to Kubin, shamelessly dropping the name of a mutual friend. She raised the subject of Kramer's column and said she did not mind if I responded to it here. "Everybody knows who he meant," she said.

One word, Renée-Nicole: "Bravo!"

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Thumbnail restaurant reviews in Wine Country: My wife and I gave a disappointing thumbs down to Bistro Jeanty in Yountville; tired, tasteless food, an uninteresting wine list and a broken front door that kept slamming every two seconds as people streamed in and out of this wildly popular place. But we loved Bouchon, just down the street, which is owned by Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and his brother. We didn't get into the Laundry, but we can give a hearty thumbs-up to Brix, which features Asian-accented California cuisine and an excellent wine list, with several offered by the glass. And having already dissed the Wine Spectator, I will attempt to kiss up by praising the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America in the old Christian Brothers winery. The décor is a bit California Pizza Kitchen, and the place isn't cheap, but the food is excellent and sommelier Traci Dutton has assembled a fine list. "I kinda have to, with 'Wine Spectator' in the name of the restaurant," she says.

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Bad News/Good News for D.C.-area readers: José Ramon Andres, whose innovative and dazzling cuisine earned him a Beard award nomination this year, left Café Atlantico. The good news is, he plans to stay in the area and eventually open his own restaurant. And he'll remain active at Jaleo. Whew ...

More good news: Atlantico is now in the capable hands of Andres' two sous chefs, Christy Velie and Kats Fukushima. I've eaten there when Andres wasn't around and couldn't tell the difference - a tribute both to them and to Andres. The Saturday lunchtime "Latino Dim Sum," where diners and chefs can experiment on a multitude of small dishes, will continue. And manager Todd Thrasher promises to keep inventing those wild cocktails ...

In other local news: Readers know I'm thrilled by the daring Burgundy-and-sushi pairing at Sushi-Ko. Well, the mad genius behind that idea, proprietor Daisuke Utagawa, recently took his team of chefs to France and prepared a Japanese feast for several Burgundy wine makers, pairing the dishes with their own wines to demonstrate how they would go with the minimalist Japanese cuisine. Unfortunately, I was not there, so I cannot attest to the reactions of the vignerons, but the restaurant's press release says they were amazed. "I feel like I went to preach God to the Pope," Utagawa said afterwards.

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"Although man is already ninety percent water, the Prohibitionists are not yet satisfied."

—-John Kendrick Bangs

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The struggle over direct shipping has finally reached the courts. A federal judge in Indiana struck down that state's felony shipping law December 10, ruling that it discriminates against out-of-state businesses in violation of the Constitution's Commerce Clause. Judge Allen Sharp ruled that the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition and gave states the authority to regulate trade in alcoholic beverages within their borders, does not negate the Commerce Clause, which prohibits states from restricting interstate trade. The judge said such laws must seek to further the "core concern" of the 21st Amendment, which was to promote temperance.

The suit was brought by 13 wine loving plaintiffs, including wine critic Russell Bridenbaugh, who claimed the felony law prevented him from receiving wine samples, and "Garfield" cartoonist Jim Davis. Similar suits are challenging anti-direct shipping laws in Texas and Virginia.

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Some bargain wines to look for in your post-holiday, "oh how did I spend so much? I really need a drink" shopping. The Beringer folks have scored again with Viña Tarapacá 1999 Chardonnay from Chile's Maipo Valley. This $7 wine offers crisp acidity and lots of refreshing fruit. It's deceptively gulpable, and perfect to buy by the case for those recipes that require a cup of white wine, because you'll love drinking the rest. For red wine sauces, or your next steak, try the Altos Las Hormigas 1999 Malbec from Argentina's Mendoza region. Italian importer Marc de Grazia and five partners teamed up to bring us this beefy red, full of blueberry and spice, for a mere $8. Double yum!

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Finally, I wish to thank all of you for reading WineLine, and to wish you and yours the best of the holiday season. Until next year!

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