23 February 2011

Who are you writing for?

[que es la veritat?]A mentor, and friend, died last week.

I choose the exceedingly unwelcome occasion of his passage to mount a passionate defense of the critical, of the unconstructive, and of the negative. (Yes, this is wine-related…to a point.)

Clif Garboden was not my first boss, nor was he my first editor. He wasn’t even, as a boss, my editor for the vast majority of our time working together. My early attempts at wine writing (oh how glad I am that most of them aren’t available on the web, and oh how I wish that I could choose which of the rest weren’t) were done for someone else, who was patient and excellent in his own way. But I did, on occasion, write for Clif on subjects non-vinous.

Clif was a journalist. A real journalist, of a type that’s very nearly extinct. He was also a crusader, which is all too common these days, except that crusading’s many, many practitioners usually lack the previous skill. In the alternative press, in which he spent the majority of his career, he was a giant. A towering figure. He had history, he had passion, and he had True Belief. In alternative media, where the hours are punishing, the pay laughable, and the positive outcomes an epic narrative of disappointment, only a True Believer could thrive as he did.

Click on Clif’s name in the third paragraph. You’ll pick up the style, the skill, and the inexorable, bulldozing passion right away. You’ll notice the humor. You’ll also see the unfiltered, often seething, occasionally boiling-over rage. He wasn’t just like this on the page or screen, either. Woe to anyone who ran afoul of Clif in person. More clever, incising, and precisely-directed acid I’ve rarely heard from any tongue.

The thing is, most people who worked for or with Clif loved the hell out of the guy, and respected him even more. So did I, even when he was yelling at me (which was not infrequent), because his venom was neither spiteful nor pointless, and it was never misdirected. The target was, each and every time, someone who disappointed him. Who let him down. Who wasn’t doing their best. Who wasn’t doing the right thing…which, for Clif, was not usually separable from the previous standard.

One of the longest things I’ve ever written – and regular readers of this blog may feel a certain measure of fear at that notion – was edited by Clif. It was for a single-subject supplement to the regular newspaper, which meant even lower freelance rates than the penny-pinching norm, more attempted interference from the sales department than usual (supplements were always stuffed beyond their gills with ads, and the constant tug-of-war between sales and editorial grew muscle-straining at such times), and as a result, a less-free hand at the keyboard than was afforded within the paper’s regular areas of coverage.

I wrote accordingly. Much sweat, much toil, and much second-guessing ensued. By the time I turned over the finished product, I lacked any sense of perspective on the quality of the piece. Not even a half-hour later – Clif could read faster than Watson – my phone rang. Could I swing by Clif’s desk?

“First of all, it’s good. Really good, especially for something this long.” I started to feel a warm suffusion of pride. “But…”


“There’s an incredible amount of bullshit. For instance,” he pointed at his screen, “you spend two whole paragraphs avoiding saying that this technology sucks.”

“Well…” I paused to muster a defense. What followed was weak, and I knew it as I said it. I think I offered some mealy-mouthed sauce about not wanting to bite hands that fed and so forth. He cut me off.

“Who are you writing for? Them?” The way he said “them” carried decades of withering scorn. “Is this a job interview or a newspaper article?”


“I don’t care if they’re your friends. You’re a journalist. You’re writing for the readers. No one else. If you can’t stop bulshitting and get right to the point, if you can’t say something’s crap, if you can’t tell the harsh truth, then you shouldn’t be writing.” I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t. He was right. “Your job is the truth. You don’t go out of your way to be an asshole, but you can’t be afraid of calling somebody one.”

We spent the next two hours going over the piece. I’d say nine out of every ten comments were more or less identical to the above. I went back to my desk, chastened. After which followed a lot of soul-searching, deleting, and rewriting.

When I sent the piece back to Clif, it was so much better. Not because it was tighter, crisper, or any of those buzzwordy things that garner editorial style points, but because I was finally in the words. What I thought, what I felt. What I really wanted to say, once I dropped the filters and the evasions.

I won an award for that piece. I should have given it to Clif. I still would, if I could.

Say what you mean often enough, and someone will get angry enough to call you a name. It’s part of the package, the free-gift-with-purchase of the opinion-mongering membership card. For every name that you’re called to your face (actual or virtual), you can be sure that dozens of unheard imprecations have been uttered your direction.

This is normal. It’s how it’s supposed to work, frankly. People who cannot handle the rebounds shouldn’t be in the game, or at least shouldn’t be taking shots. Should the sting of a rhetorical slapback be felt? Yes, and even more so when a critique of a critic is on-point. Any good counterpunch, any blow soundly-struck, needs to lead to betterment. And if the damage is no longer sufferable, it’s time to cede the field.

Some writers really can’t deal with this sort of thing, and practice various methods of avoidance. For example, saying nice things or nothing at all, per the motherly advice we’ve all received. That’s a worthy, and socially graceful, way to navigate one’s life. But it should not, except in an impossible Panglossian world, be confused for telling the truth.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should be mean, or even that anyone should say exactly what they think regardless of the consequences. That’s an ideologically fundamentalist position that would result in a lot of bloodshed, both metaphorical and actual. Most people should be nice, most of the time.

But critics aren’t most people. Critics are tasked with saying what they think. It’s their job, and more importantly it’s their mission. As such, while they may prefer to be nice, that preference must submit to the necessity of being honest. While honesty does not mean one must be willfully savage, it also means that one cannot avoid saying bad things if bad things are what need to be said.

How much concern has been expressed, over the years, about the dangers of compromised judgment among critics? What most people incorrectly call bias (as if bias is avoidable, which it isn’t), but is actually an problem of entanglement vs. independence? Whether it’s insisting that all tastings must be conducted blind, or that a critic must avoid social contact with those who make or sell what they critique, there is almost no subject capable of getting wine consumers more exercised than the possibility that their critics are not giving them the straight story.

What this really boils down to is honesty. Whatever standards to which one insists a critic must hold, the shared foundational concern is that a critic is telling the truth. I’ve written, many times, that I think people get wrongly hung up on the minutiae of process when what they’re actually interested in is integrity. Does a critic have the personal integrity to call things exactly as he or she sees them?

(Even though I keep using the word “critic,” this question applies in equal measure to the writer, because bias is unavoidable and information is no less malleable via external influence whether or not one is engaging in criticism without trappings.)

If this is all really so frightfully important – and though there’s much disagreement on standards and practices, I think most of us agree that honesty and integrity are crucial – then why should we trust a critic who allows honesty to be filtered, even if it’s through politesse? I doubt many would trust a critic who took the opposite tack and held back commentary that wasn’t venomous. But because we like politeness, because we think we should be nice (and again, in most cases we should), we forgive the everything’s-sunshine-and-roses approach. Let’s be honest with ourselves, though: if we apply such a filter, if we file away at our most negative expressions, we probably don’t exercise corollary pruning of our most positive thoughts.

In other words, we put our fingers on the scale.

Where’s the integrity in that? In the real world of weights and measures, there are punishments for doing this sort of thing. In many judged sports, the highest and lowest scores are thrown out before a final tally is reached. Would those results be improved if we only threw out the two lowest scores? Of course not. So why should critics be encouraged to do exactly that?

Posit a critic who, working with an alleged point rating scale that runs from 50 to 100, only publishes scores above 85, or 88, or some other arbitrary cutoff of superior quality. Do people appear to find this to be serving their interests? Or do they complain about the deliberate holding-back of information they feel they can use…knowing, for example, whether a product was judged inferior (and why) or was simply not encountered by that critic? People are up in arms, of course. They don’t like the imbalanced scale, the unrealistic skew towards smiley-faced positivity. They want the whole picture, blemishes and all. And if that’s what they want, critics are the ones who are supposed to give it to them.

So maybe negativity is not only defensible, but necessary. Maybe it’s the only truly honest way to approach commentary. Still – some will object – do critics have to be so negative about it? Can’t they at least be a little more genteel as they slip a stiletto into the already-bleeding guts of a critical victim? A little less mean?

[pigtail]Here’s an example. A little while ago, someone in the industry accused me of expressing myself in an “antagonistic” way.

There’s a certain truthiness in that. The accusation does not go unacknowledged. It also does not pass without some regret at its applicability, because only sociopaths really like being mean. Especially…and this finds great application in the genial wine world…to people one likes.

But there’s falsehood, as well. Mostly, because it’s untrue: there is never an intent to antagonize in what I write, so anyone who sees antagonism is in error. As I wrote earlier, someone willing to dish out commentary both constructive and un- must be willing to receive same with generous spirit. Thus, I could see this very accusation as antagonistic, but I don’t. Aggressive? Pointed? Sure. But I’m not antagonized, and since I can’t read the mind of the person who uttered the criticism, I can’t accuse him of being antagonistic either. Merely wrong.

Further, for something to be effectively antagonistic, it must be written with self-assurance that antagonism will result. Deliberate untruths will usually do it, but active dishonesty is so easy to spot that this is rarely attempted. Another is to critique motives or intent (especially imagined versions of either) rather than a work, which is at best a logical fallacy and, at worst, a sleazy way to spread insinuation in lieu of argument.

The latter is something I’m sure I’ve done, at some point. It’s wrong, and I shouldn’t have. I try, as one should, very hard to make the only important pronoun in a commentary the first-person singular. I almost certainly fail, at times. But the effort and intent are there.

Do I like saying unkind things? No. I doubt anyone does (and if they do, I have concerns for them that go well beyond the ethics or practice of criticism). Do I have special sadness for relationships damaged or lost as a result? Yes, absolutely. A few seemingly irreparable breakages are a source of ongoing regret; some now linger well over a decade or more, others glisten with fresh ink.

Still, I accept this as one of the costs of offering honest commentary. “Who are you writing for?” asked the most influential crafter of my motivations. Were I writing with no hope of dissemination and no interest in response, the answer might be “me,” and then I could legitimately trump the demands of integrity with a desire to be thought of with kindness by as many people as possible. But no published commentator can do this with their honesty and integrity fully intact, and this is true whatever the subject of commentary, and whatever the grandiosity and remuneration (or, more likely these days, the decided lack of either) of the dissemination.

And yet, despite this, I and most other commentators continue to have friendly relationships with many, sometimes even most, of the subjects of our commentary and criticism. Why?


The opposite of love (goes the cliché) is not hate, but indifference. I wonder if the same might be true for respect…that its true antonym isn’t just oppositional disrespect, but the greater disrespect of apathy. The ultimate act of disrespect is thus to ignore, rather than to criticize.

This leads to another anti-negativity argument, though perhaps it could be more generally characterized as an anti-criticism argument, that hinges on the issue of respect. It claims that to be negative can demonstrate a lack of respect for a work. With this I could not disagree more strongly, and the major reason is contained within the previous paragraph: an actual lack of respect is demonstrated by deeming something unworthy of response. The very act of criticism is to, in some sense, accord respect.

To address this complaint properly, however, one must ask: respect for what? There are four entities that may be an object of potential respect: a work itself, a work’s creator, the effort behind a work, and a creator’s feelings about a work.

Respect for a work is inherent in bothering to craft a critical response to it, so that can’t be it. Conflating a work and its creator is a logical fallacy. Emotions? Well, what if the creator hates a work and I love it? Would I be disrespectful for me to say so? I doubt most would think so…in fact, I suspect many would think it an act of kindness. After all, we generally applaud the value of supportive words when a more honest assessment might be negative. Since this is the case, concern about feelings really boils down to the same old argument about whether or not we should say negative things, which has already been addressed (a few thousand paragraphs upward) and can be summed thusly: concern yes, dishonesty no.

So it’s the third entity that’s under examination, and the assertion is that it is disrespectful to criticize a work because of the effort that went into that work. Most often, the complaint is one about proportionality…that the duration or blood/sweat/tears that go into the crafting of a work are not met with a critical assessment reflecting similar effort. As, for example, criticizing a wine with a several-sentence tasting note.

It’s true that wine has a rather long temporal existence before it’s even available to be criticized, if one counts time from grape to glass. One might also consider vine age, a winemaker’s lifetime of experience, even generations of inherited knowledge to be creative factors. Viewed through a narrower lens, the production of a wine is considered “harder” than the production of critical responses to that wine, especially as most will come in the form of tasting notes.

To this there are several possible responses. One is that unless the producer of the note is a complete novice, both history and effort are no less involved. This may include decades of learning to use words in a competent and stylish fashion, a breadth and depth of tasting experience necessary to write better and more contextualized notes, actual training in the science and history of wine, and so forth. The notion that a tasting note is somehow effortless is demeaning to its author. No, tasting and typing isn’t anywhere near as “hard” as the often backbreaking work of making a wine. But do all winemakers write well? Are all wine professionals’ evaluations eagerly sought by consumers? Clearly not. Good criticism requires a different set of skills than winemaking or salesmanship, but it does require those skills. I don’t seek to elevate them above their value, but to dismiss them is offensive.

A second is to wonder if respect is really the right way to think about this. Posit an industrial wine, made with craven commercial intent from the cheapest possible materials. A critical response proportionate to the respect demanded by such a wine would be minimal, at best. (One could easily argue that to treat such a wine to a long, careful analysis would be disrespectful…not to the aforementioned industrial wine, but to other wines that are the result of greater effort, and especially to a reader who’s time is being wasted by serious consideration of a decidedly unserious effort.) By this standard, the respect due other wines would thus be proportional to the effort expended in their production.

But is this wine criticism? No, it’s not. It’s effort criticism. It’s not the letter grade on a report card wherein a student’s actual work is evaluated, it’s the secondary grade wherein the teacher rates effort, judging (by whatever purely subjective standard they choose to apply) the relationship between results and ability. Is little Johnny working up to his potential, or is Jane slacking off? And if they’re both getting an A in the class, which grade matters? Moreover, is effort vs. potential really what we want critics to be judging? “Well, Françoise, I liked your wine, but I think you could have done better if you’d just exerted a little more effort in the vineyard, whereas Michel is a complete incompetent who just made his best wine ever, so even though I like yours more I’m going to spend most of this article praising his.”

The thing is, that sort of effort- and intent-evaluation is exactly the sort of critical arrogance that drives winemakers and their commercial representatives nuts, especially because it’s oh-so-easy to say from the removed comfort of a tasting note, and far less easy to do when one’s ability to pay the utility bills is at stake. Also, it’s ultimately useless, because critics are never going to agree on what efforts should or shouldn’t have been expanded to improve a wine. More or less oak? A later or an earlier harvest? More acidity, or less? Is this climat red-fruited by definition, or is blackberry within the acceptable range? Should a Beaujolais-Villages be built to age for several decades or should it give its best at release?

This isn’t to say that commentary on intent and effort isn’t welcome. It certainly can be, if treated with the right balance of clearly-identified reportage and subjectivity. But as the object of criticism, rather than a context for it? The notion is as misguided as intuiting nefarious motivation in a critic just because one doesn’t like what that critic said.

A third response is to ask if longer-form criticism is actually more desirable. Is, for example, this an inherently superior form of criticism to this? Why? According to who? Opinions certainly vary, because people consume criticism for different reasons and in different ways.

Furthermore, how does one measure respect by length? There’s a wine book on my shelf, written by Jacqueline Friedrich, that treats noted Savennières producer and leading biodynamicist Nicolas Joly to several pages of detailed commentary, finally concluding that he’s lost in ideology and doesn’t actually like wine. Is that “respectful” at any length? Does Joly think so?

Personally, I’m much more interested in whether or not it’s right. For Friedrich it is, for others it might not be. (For what it’s worth, I agree with Friedrich on Joly & ideology, though I wouldn't wish to comment on his regard for wine.) But she could have reduced her commentary to a single line, as I just did, and still been just as right or wrong. So how did the addition of so many more words make her conclusion more respectful? Maybe there exists some objective and measurable scale of proportional effort. If this is true, a critic must first assess (or divine) the amount of effort that went into a work, and then craft a proportional response. But in that case, an author’s conclusion that Nicolas Joly doesn’t care about wine nearly as much as he cares about ideology would result in a proportional criticism amounting to an indifferently-delivered one-liner; only criticism of his ideology would deserve the “respect” of length.

Note, too, that this assumes one has correctly assessed the effort involved in a work; if one has not (or cannot), a respectful criticism is impossible, except by luck. ESP seems like a high bar to set for any critic, and that doesn’t even begin to address what happens when people disagree about how much effort was actually involved.

And here’s yet another problem. Let’s say there is counter-criticism of the original critique. Who gets to judge the critic’s effort? Critics of critics? By what standard? And must their critiques also be proportional? One can see how this reduces to absurdity in short order. Everyone’s trying to judge effort and intent, usually based on woefully insufficient data and often on utter guesswork, when what they’ve been asked to judge are works.

Then again, the possibility is that this isn’t actually about proportional respect at all. Because I think a survey of the complaints regarding same will not yield a plethora of examples in which too much respect and positive commentary, verbose or otherwise, has been expended on unworthy efforts. No, it’s exclusively about negative criticism.

Now, does this seem probable? That if the true issues are proportionality or respect, that every single example of alleged failure in this regard should just happen to be negative commentary about something beloved of the complainant? If it does, I have a Mr. Ockham here that would like to sell you a bridge in Atlantis.

And so, we’re back to no one appreciating criticism of their work, or work they admire. Not artists, not artisans, not craftspeople, and certainly not critics. But unless we’re prepared to reject evaluation in its entirety – and it’s possible some would like exactly this, though they’re in for a rude awakening regarding human nature – we can’t live in that alleged utopia. So the complaint is really no more than it was before: that we shouldn’t say mean things. Which, again, may be both admirable and a way to accumulate friends, but requires an acceptance of dishonesty if one intends to be a critic.

The assertion that work deserves respect is an unassailable one. (It can be questioned, but there’s no standard by which to adjudicate the matter.) The assertion that any given criticism is disproportionate or disrespectful to the works being criticized is by no means unassailable without more knowledge of intent and effort than anyone non-deified possesses. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. What, then, is the solution?

It’s not to be found by tinkering with the components of criticism. If the time span of agriculture, knowledge, culture, and effort that go into a wine can be measured in decades (which is quite reasonable), a proportional criticism of that wine might also take decades, or at least years. How is that even possible? Obviously, it’s not. And as I’ve already explained, we can’t avoid negativity without fudging numbers and suppressing honesty. So we’re going to have criticism, it’s going to be generated faster than much of what it evaluates, and some of it is going to be negative. You can fight these truisms, but you will not win. They’re fundamental to the act of criticism.

We can wish for, or even demand, certain words over certain other words. But isn’t this a just a cleverly reversed version of a critic telling a creator how they believe the latter should perform their job? It’s really no more admirable for someone to tell a critic which words they should and should not use than it is for a critic to tell a winemaker which tools they should and should not use. If winemakers object to the latter – and they have a legitimate claim to their agitation on this point – then critics should object to the former.

But this all misses the true answer, I’m afraid. The actual “solution” to the problem of critical negativity was provided by my much-missed mentor. Ask the following: who is it that’s complaining about negativity, proportionality, and lack of respect? Winemakers and the people who sell wine. The very people whose work is being critiqued, whose monetary oxen are being gored. And is it their judgment that we wish to triumph in this debate? Do we really want Universal Studios deciding which film critics can say what about their movies, Atlantic Records telling music critics that they need to be nicer, Todd English hectoring restaurant critics about respect?

If you are the creator of a work being critiqued, by all means speak up. Correct. Defend. Counter. You are as welcome to the marketplace of ideas as anyone…more so, in fact, since you have specific and relevant expertise. But understand the limits of your role. You have control over what you’ve created. You do not have, nor deserve, control over what the critic creates. They don’t work for you.

And if you’re a critic, ask yourself who you’re writing for. It’s a question that must ground every critic’s work, every word from their pen, every judgment from their mind. The answer must never be those who create or derive monetary benefit from the works being criticized, unless they actually sign your checks. The answer must always be the consumers of both the works and your commentary. If one is critiquing subject to the preferences of the targets of that critique, one has already sacrificed their integrity and their honesty.

Or just listen to Clif, who was always good at getting right to the key point: “You’re writing for the readers. No one else.”

No one else.

19 February 2011


While I'm editing the next exercise in verbosity (I swear I'm trying to remove words!), there's a parade of imbibery going on over on the tasting notes blog, oenoLog. You know, if you're bored or something. Thirsty and bored.

01 February 2011

The kids in the Hall

[windows]The Gorbals – Lacking any good way to describe this funky little hangout – that’s the vibe here, much more than “restaurant” – the chef has, on occasion, fallen back on “Kosher Scottish.” Well, it works as well as anything, I suppose, since there’s both haggis and bacon-wrapped matzo balls on the menu. The latter, much-hyped on the internets, are OK and amusing, but I have to say that pretty much everything else we try is better. The confit beef tongue, especially, is so luxuriant one wants to lick it from the plate in a misguided dalliance with bovine Frenching.

I will note several caveats. First, the wine list (such as it is, and there isn’t much) is absolutely abysmal. Have a cocktail or two from the daily board – they’re clever and very good here – but bring your own wine. Second, while I do successfully navigate a satisfying-to-all meal despite a vegan dining companion, it would be hard to argue that this isn’t a place aimed primarily at carnivores. Having an interest in alternative cuts and “parts” helps, too. It’s not Incanto- or St. John-like in terms of offal worship, though there are certainly organs on the menu, but if minor departures like beef cheeks or sweetbreads seem intimidating and weird, this is probably not the venue for you.

Caveats aside, this is a really fun place, built for grazing and conversation (though I suspect it can get rather noisy at peak times), rather than sitting down and tucking in. It’s casual, quite laid-back, and the sense of comfort and low-key whimsy carries though to the plate. I don’t know if this restaurant could succeed everywhere, just because the vibe is so anti-restaurant, but it certainly works here.

Dettori 2007 Romangia Bianco Badde Nigolosu (Sardinia) – 100% vermentino. Looks, tastes, and feels like an orange wine, though the maceration isn’t all that long (ten days). It’s perhaps that it’s unfiltered and un-everything-else that leads to an orange sort of palate impression, though there is evident tannin. The luxuriant yet not overly polished texture is the wine’s primary highlight (among rather a sea thereof). Dried white flowers, some fresher buds, grasses, herbs, dried citrus, leaves, minerality to spare, and gravity without weight, density without concentration. Brilliant wine. Absolutely brilliant. (11/10)

Dettori 2006 Romangia Rosso Badde Nigolosu (Sardinia) – 100% cannonau (grenache). Subtle, seeming to rise from its lotus position with a slow unfolding of limbs. The subtlety never really goes away, though, and those expecting a more standard Sardinian cannonau – that is, one with a big and fruity palate impact – might be disappointed. Well, their loss. This requires attention to its graceful swirls of dusty berry and rich, semi-volcanic earth. The finish is so quiet that the inattentive will consider it to have departed long before it actually does. Not as showily brilliant as the white, this has more peaceful charms, and they’re more than OK. (11/10)

6.02 * 10^23

[mural]Monte Alban (11927 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles) – Sleepy, despite the widespread acclaim it has received from friends and sources. Though I guess there’s no shortage of Mexican food in LA. As is somewhat typical for the better restaurants of this genre (and to be specific, I believe this restaurant tends towards Oaxacan cuisine), the opening nachos and their salsa are so amazing that much restraint is required, lest the heartily-portioned dishes to follow become impossible to finish. There’s molten cheese, ever-succulent huitlacoche, an Oaxacan mole with chicken…all of it excellent. But where are all the customers? They’re missing out, wherever they are.

Tasting the limits

[historic urn]The Tasting Kitchen – One of a number of restaurants I’ll encounter in LA whose menus are decidedly not designed for the typical course-by-course procedural, but rather for random sampling and plate-sharing. There are some dishes that look like “main courses” just based on their price, but frankly the very form of this sort of menu dissuades putting so many of one’s consumptive eggs in a single basket. I’m not sure if this is the intent or not, but it seems hard to understand what they’re doing here otherwise.

Some plates are a single idea (charcuterie, cheese, oyster), others a brief, tapa-like notion, and still others (mostly the aforementioned expensive items) are a more standard sort of composed dish. It’s a really fun way to eat, especially as – with a few exceptions – rigid adherence to completion while ordering is not required; one can order, eat, order, eat, order again, and so forth, pending the restaurant’s tolerance for table-hoarding.

Despite a clientele that tends upscale hipster and a deceptively simple yet “design-y” interior, the room has as relaxed a vibe as the food, which is very well-executed and yet really all about taste rather than preparation. (Given the fundamental simplicity of most plates, it kind of has to be.) I like this place..

Carballo 2008 Lanzarote Negramoll (Canary Islands) – Diffident. Never gets around to developing. It may be mild TCA that’s below my threshold, it may just be a muted or otherwise damaged wine, but there’s nothing on which to base a note here. (11/10)

Masters of their Domaine

[elements]Domaine LA – I’m here to visit a friend, but end up invited to sit through a few visits from bottle-toting sales reps who, if they mind my presence, don’t make a fuss about it. This plus auxiliary chat means that I don’t see as much of what’s on the shelves as I might like. What I do see, however, is impressive in its pointedness. I don’t mean the point-score kind of pointedness, I mean that there’s a point of view. Since I share it, that’s all to the good. But if you’re looking for wines to provide immediate public validation while drinking with those for whom such things are crucial to their enjoyment of same, you’re in the wrong place. This is a store where both the employees and the wines themselves would prefer to have a conversation with you before you start indulging.

(Given the above, it's worth stressing: the wines notated below don't necessarily reflect the offerings at Domaine LA. They're what I tasted while I was there, but they were brought in by sales guys, not opened from in-store stock.)

Pietratorcia 2009 Ischia Bianco Superiore (Campania) – Sour lime, green apple, and saline solution. Gets right to the point, but then there isn’t any sort of coda. (11/10)

Pietratorcia 2009 Ischia Bianco Biancolella (Campania) – Papery. Grape skins. Not very interesting. (11/10)

Pietratorcia 2008 Ischia Bianco Superiore Vigne del Cuotto (Campania) – A softened version of the previous two wines, and bringing a lot more interest along with its mellow: ash, chalk, and dried lemon rind. Quite long, in stark contrast to its younger brethren. Interesting. (11/10)

La Grotta del Sole 2009 Gragnano della Penisola Sorrentina (Campania) – Strawberry soda pop with a little bite of tannin. Finishes green and somewhat dirty. This is not my favorite from the ever-more-frequently-imported rose-colored froth category. (11/10)

Kopke Dry White Porto (Douro) – Almond, hazelnut, chestnut. A bit hot. (11/10)

Kopke 10 Years Old Tawny Porto (Douro) – Bitter wood with maltiness (that’s a first, for me, in a wine) and raw cane sugar. Weird. (11/10)

Kopke 20 Years Old Tawny Porto (Douro) – Cherry skin, cough syrup, and ash. No thank you. (11/10)

Kopke 30 Years Old Tawny Porto (Douro) – Lush fruit, silken-textured and appealing except for the minor inferno on the nose. (11/10)

Kopke 1997 Colheita Porto (Douro) – Blueberry jelly. Really, this has an exceptionally gelatinous texture, more akin to a Mollydooker than any port of my experience. And while that’s interesting all by itself, it’s a very simple wine. (11/10)

Kopke 1987 Colheita Porto (Douro) – White pepper, raspberry, apple skin, and blood orange. Beautifully acidic, though I should caution that the acidity probably won’t be to everyone’s liking. Me, I love it. This is the most complete wine I’ll taste from this lineup, though for “best” it has some competition. (11/10)

Kopke 1980 Colheita Porto (Douro) – Balsamic-textured raspberry and red cherry, with sweet orange candy the lingering impression. Very, very, very sweet orange candy. High fructose colheita? (11/10)

Kopke 1978 Colheita Porto (Douro) – Mixed pepper dusts, coal-like minerality. Poised. Delicate throughout, and turns very shy at the end. Has the organoleptic appeal of a colheita at a good balance point of maturity, but the physical presence of one many decades past that point. Frankly, it confuses me. (11/10)

Kopke 1966 Colheita Porto (Douro) – One long crescendo of tangy fruit, then there’s some sort of accident due to clumsiness, and the finish dries out to decidedly unappealing wet ash. (This is, I should say, not at all an unusual impression for me to draw from colheitas that are past my preferred drinking age.) (11/10)

Kopke 1957 Colheita Porto (Douro) – Thinning, balding, starting to get a little skeletal, and yet extremely elegant. Brilliant acidity. Long and floral. Despite the fade, there’s a lot here to like. I suspect the price would not, for me, reflect my interest in the wine, but those with more of a taste for this sort of thing should give this a look, because the appeal is undeniable. (11/10)

Kopke 2007 Vintage Porto (Douro) – Black cherry coffee (just typing the words gives me a shudder), alternately sticky and powdery, with smooth tannin up front, then dusty tannin out back. Sort of like a port’s version of a tannin mullet? (11/10)

Kopke Fine Ruby Porto (Douro) – Simple, dark fruit with a touch of green sugar. (Not food-coloring green, underripe green.). An otherwise fine tannic counterpoint collapses into a pile of gormless powder as it finishes. Odd. (11/10)

Kopke Rosé Porto (Douro) – Eww. I say again: eww. Strawberry lime Rickey, ginger, and layer upon layer of makeup that someone in a sleazy off-strip Vegas mall beauty parlor though looked “hott.” Um, no. A world of no. (11/10)

Kimchee whiz

[womens’ commode]Park’s BBQ – Confident, even swaggering. That’s not just the design, nor the wallpapering of awards and press coverage in the entrance, but also the firm assurance of the proprietor that “you’ve come to the best place” as you sit. Well, I can’t adjudicate that, but it’s pretty awesome. Nor can I eat like this every day; I’m completely gorged when I leave. Meat over fire is the thing here, of course, both beef (heavy on the wagyu options, by the way, which is appealing in print but perhaps not best-suited to this particular presentation) and pork. As is traditional for this style of dining, the meat soon becomes almost lost in a vast ocean of accompaniments and accoutrements, many of them decidedly fiery. The meat is excellent, but it’s all the ways to mess with it once it’s on the plate that make Korean barbecue so incredibly delicious (and why I question the utility of Wagyu, which one is almost certainly going to overcook in this environment). Do bring your heat tolerance, because you’ll need it.

Lou, sir

[bar sign]Lou – I have to say this right up front: the aforementioned Lou (a fellow Minnesota escapee, by the way) provides on this night a silly quantity of wine and grossly undercharges me for it.

Anyhoo, this is a little wine bar/restaurant tucked into in one of those corner strip malls that, in any east coast city, would mean culinary disaster…a bad take on the sub/hoagie/grinder genre, mediocre pizza, or horrid MSG-instead-of-flavor Chinese takeout. Here in LA, it very often means something awesome, though that awesomeness is more typically confined to non-western foodstuffs. In any case, I doubt many people are casually driving down Vine, see the sign out front, and opine, “hey, honey, there’s a sign says ‘Lou’…let’s stop there and see about dinner.” Or, I dunno, maybe in LA people do exactly this sort of thing. But I suspect that, to be here, one has to want to be here. Well: I do.

I glance at the menu, which looks interesting, but I’m here on a Monday and so the fixed-price “Monday supper” is offered in its stead. Not in the mood for dessert and such, I fail to partake. Given the amount of wine I’m about to encounter, this is an exceedingly regrettable error of judgment, though I won’t necessarily realize this until the next morning’s head-throb. Instead, I snack my way through the menu’s grazing options: candied bacon, a light and delicious chanterelle and goat cheese tart, salad, bread (both natural and garlic-toasted), cheese, and so forth. Everything is fine to better-than-fine, and serves the wine well…and since wine is most definitely the focus here, that’s OK. Pretty much everything liquid is offered in two tasting sizes and by the bottle. As for what’s on the list: natural, “natural,” alternative, interesting. Not fully-described in most cases, so to know exactly what you’re drinking you’ll either need to see the bottle or have a conversation with one of the staff, and given how often aromas and tastes roam afield from the norm, I would highly recommend the latter. I suspect they would, too.

Laroche “Domaine aux Moines” 2001 Savennières-Roche aux Moines (Loire) – Layers of oxidation. Fulsome with a barky, drying palate. Snow globe-like with its swirling tartrates (and my pour is far from the bottom of the bottle). Copper-jacketed and starting to preserve itself in amber. I spend a good twenty minutes trying to decide if I like this, and never quite come to a conclusion. (11/10)

Bornard 2007 Arbois Pupillin Ploussard “La Chamade” (Jura) – Delicate and sweetly pretty, like a country girl in gingham and braids, or perhaps a Norman Rockwell portrait of same. Succulent. (11/10)

Tedeschi 2007 Monteviglio “Spungola Bellaria” Pignoletto (Emilia Romagna) – Pine and tarragon with a slight prickle, though the latter doesn’t rise to a fully tactile sensation, preferring to remain a background shade. Seems to sweeten or dry as each accompanying food requires, which is a neat trick, and a small glass taken an hour later has grown in both aroma and richness. Fabulous wine. (11/10)

Causses Marines 2008 Gaillac “Les Greilles” (Southwest France) – Lemon and ripe apple, but there’s more going on here than just a few fruit descriptors. It’s a kind of ineffable complexity, though, which is why my note stops where it does. There’s a sheen and a fairly deep core, but I couldn’t put a name or specific descriptor to either. Very good. (11/10)

Giard “Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil” Cidre Pays d’Auge “Cambremer” (Normandy) – Absolutely opaque and luridly aromatic; the Islay Scotch of ciders. There’s more pear than apple, at least to my palate, but the apples are something fabulous and iconic (perhaps reine des reinettes), and there’s a heavy hand with the white pepper grinder as the finish develops. Extraordinary. (11/10)

La Casaccia 2007 Barbera del Monferrato (Piedmont) – Presents itself with a smooth slickness, but soon gives its true self away: vibrant acidity, dark and rough-necked minerality, and a fair bit of churn and motion. It finishes as pristine and poised as it started. Experience suggests that this is a wine that rewards aging, and it is quite primary right now. (11/10)

Bermejo 2008 Lanzarote Tinto (Canary Islands) – I’ve never tasted this much spice in a red wine, not even a lavishly-oaked one. If Penzeys released a wine, it might taste like this. The dominant spices include nutmeg and mace, coriander, white pepper, and turmeric. So, so, so exotic. And – pardon the expletive, but it’s needed here – fucking delicious. This is the first quarter-glass that, by the end of the night, turns into a fully-drained bottle. (11/10)

Gramenon 2009 Côtes-du-Rhône “l’Élémentaire de Gramenon” (Rhône) – Firm tannin leftover from creating the leather sofa on which this wine lounges. Blackberry fruit-leather as well, plus an herbal stew. This tastes as much like a chinato as it does a Côtes-du-Rhône, and that’s an interesting conflation of styles. Challenging. (11/10)

Bebame 2009 Red (El Dorado County) – It takes me a long time to move past an active dislike for this wine into a wary tolerance, but ultimately I’m happy when my glass is empty of it. Tart, puckery fruit (not overly acidic, though there’s plenty of that, but without enough generosity to support the acid that’s there), underripe melon, sour greenness, green sourness. I feel like I should like this more, given that my favorite California winemaker is involved, but I just don’t. (11/10)

Barral 2007 Faugères Valinière (Languedoc) – Spicy mixed berries and cumin seeds. Quite tannic, but it’s a beautifully ripe tannin, and everything is both concentrated and in flawless balance. This is terrific now, but the question is whether or not anyone will wait long enough for it to be the even better wine it should become, many years from now. Masterful. (11/10)

Domaine de la Tour Vieille Banyuls “Vin de Meditation” (Roussillon) – Rancio, plum, and caramel. The first sip is enticing, the second tiresome…and that, unfortunately, is too often my reaction to this house’s various takes on Banyuls. So drink it in single-shot quantities, I guess. (11/10)

Primitivo Quiles “Fondillon” Alicante “Gran Reserva” (Levant) – “The best sherry I’ve had all year,” I joke. I’m not even sure if the joke’s true, but it’s a pretty extraordinary wine in that style, volatile, pointing and gesturing at oxidation, and mold-influenced (in a stylistically authentic way). It’s really big, though, and there’s not much subtlety to it at the moment. Maybe that will emerge and maybe it won’t, but it’s hard to ignore, and eventually the din is very slightly wearisome. Another wine for small-quantity consumption. (11/10)

Vin d’Autan de Robert Plageoles & Fils 2001 Gaillac Doux (Southwest France) – Silkily-sweet bronzed apples and syrup-cured citrus. Extremely appealing. (11/10)

Overnoy 2005 Arbois Pupillin (Jura) – Loaded with bretty stench (or maybe it’s reductive; frankly, I’m thirteen jibs to the sheet by this point in the evening and could be drinking stealth Franzia for all that I know, yet my notes indicate surety that there’s brettanomyces, and I probably shouldn’t second-guess). One will either be able to get past that or not. The wine underneath the assreek has the sort of breezy power that lovers of syrupy wines don’t think something this light can actually have. Well, they’re wrong. Potentially fabulous, if one is not sensitive to whatever’s stinking up the joint, or if there’s bottle variation…which isn’t exactly unheard of at this house. (11/10)

His noodly appendage

[cacti]Santuoka Ramen (655 Paularino Ave.) – Anthony Bourdain often laments the pathetic state of food courts in the U.S. (as compared to those in Asia and elsewhere), but he probably doesn’t have places like this in mind. There’s a large handful of dining options clustered within this Japanese grocery, but the favorite is clear by both the line at its ordering counter and the identical bowls a few inches beneath pretty much everyone’s nose. I go mostly basic, adding a little bit of extra pork belly, and am rewarded with a pretty special bowl of noodle soup. Is that all it is, though? No. That’s the point. I have neither the experience nor the locality to argue whether or not this is among the best in LA, as many do, but it’s extremely good by any standard.


[candle at aoc]AOC – Surprisingly big and quite a bit more formal-feeling than I’d have suspected based on concept; it self-advertises as a wine bar, and while it is that, I think pretty much everyone I can see – including us – is treating it as a restaurant. The clientele is dressier than I’d have expected, too, and I suspect there might be a slight tension between how this place was conceived and how it is being utilized. Well, one rolls the dice one is given.

Small plates are the thing here, and everything is pretty good. Yet I wouldn’t call anything inspired, and there are a few trips and stumbles – dry duck confit (which takes some effort to ruin), undersalted clams (which I actually enjoy, usually finding this particular prep to be grossly oversalted) – and some haphazard plating. Vegetarians are well-served, and dairy is used in such a way that vegans can pretty successfully reconstitute most vegetarian dishes to their preferences (yes, I am here with a vegan friend).

Service is fine and friendly when we enter a half-empty restaurant. By the time we leave a packed-to-the-gills upstairs room (a quarter what the equally gill-packed first floor offers), the service is clearly overwhelmed; plates are cleared with efficiency, but I never do get to order the glass of dessert wine on which I’ve my eye, and even getting the bill is a bit of a hand-waving chore. I think they’re about one person short on the floor, and since for all I know that might actually be the case this evening, I can’t be overly critical.

The wine list is really good, and I have to say this despite a fair – but not unreasonable – portion of it not being in my palate wheelhouse. The non-wheelhouse swaths make up the majority of the high-ticket entries, so noting that the list isn’t exactly priced to fly only really affects those with different tastes than mine. But this also needs mentioning: it is a persistent peeve when places labeling themselves wine bars offer a spectacular list of bottles and yet an anemic, uninspired handful of by-the-glass options. I can’t conceive of how a place can call itself a wine bar and do that, yet I find it happens again and again. Here, the opposite is very nearly true: the glass (and carafe) list is long and much more inspired and inventive than much of the bottle list. I find that commendable.

Graillot 2008 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (Rhône) – Really quite reticent, but the bones, shells, and raw almonds have a clean appeal. I find myself wishing for more, but the wine is unwilling. (11/10)

Swan 2008 Pinot Noir “Cuvée des Trois” (Russian River Valley) – Absolutely gorgeous, bringing lush New World fruit into a fine simulacrum of maturity even at this very young age; while past experience suggests that the wine will endure and morph for a while, this specific bottle gives me cause to question that norm. In any case, I see absolutely no reason not to drink this right now, because it’s delicious. Soil, baked plums, fall leaves, rich morels, and soft golden memories of old-growth forest and well-tilled earth. I could drink a case of this, and still be on my feet…Joni Metaphorically-speaking. (11/10)

Fèipu dei Massaretti 2009 Riviera Ligure di Ponente Rossese (Liguria) – Light, airy, saline, and somewhat insubstantial in the midpalate. The fruit that’s there is light in the fashion of, say, a Sancerre or Alsace rosé, but with less acidity and a softer expression. I almost like this, and in a less critical context I probably would, but the wine needs to exert more of an effort towards my affections. (11/10)

Tenuta Luisa 2008 Refosco dal Peduncolo (Friuli Venezia-Giulia) – Very, very, very restrained, almost to the point where I suspect TCA (but after long airing, I’m convinced it’s just the wine). Lots of structure (which is muted) and some black raspberry, as if there’s fruit-weight and firmness pressing against an impenetrable barrier, and I’m tasting the wine on the other side of that barrier. Just OK. (11/10)

24, 24, 24 hours to go

[lamp, palm, moon]WP24 – All presentation, no content. In a hotel that’s an absolute masterpiece of glittery urban architecture, I can’t say that I expect more than spectacular views. Those we get, for sure, and the bar’s interior has a playful imagery to it as well. Our waitress tries her best to be helpful, but a complete lack of cocktail skill behind the bar isn’t her fault. They don’t appear to know any of the more tasteful classics (really, now: what bartender in this cocktail-resurgent era has never even heard of a Sazerac?), and the “signature” cocktails are…pardon the characterization…exceedingly “girlish” concoctions. So, I’m forced into a choice between boring standard cocktails or a glass of wine. But taking another glance at those signature mixes, I’m not sure I want to see how much damage they can do to a martini, so I choose wine instead. My mistake. Anyway, I don’t want to be overly negative about this space; it is what it purports to be, and what any sensible person would suspect it to be: a showy hangout atop a showy hotel, more about scene than substance. It’d be nice if they’d offer more, but I doubt they’ll ever lack for patronage.

Sforzando 2009 Gewürztraminer Alisios (Santa Barbara County) – Bland, characterless, massively insipid. (11/10)

Sapping strength

[coffee sign]Sapp Coffee Shop (5183 Hollywood Blvd.) – In a stretch of LA absolutely littered with tiny Thai establishments (it is Thai Town, after all), some sporting nary an English letter on their signage, it’s unlikely I would ever be otherwise compelled to enter a door bearing this name, nor frankly even suspect it was actually a restaurant at all. Lay the blame a certain foodster TV show. Or, in this case, thank that show (which, if I understand correctly, drew its own inspiration from a noodle-obsessed Angeleno blogger), because this is awesomely good. My boat noodles with beef, tendon, and tripe are as terrific as advertised, and the resultant broth is dense, impenetrable magic, increasingly spicy and increasingly wonderful as I drain it to its dregs. Just as interesting are the dry jade noodles with peanuts, barbecued pork, and chiles.

So the food’s terrific and the prices are almost laughably insignificant. But here’s what else I love. We’re here with a vegan friend, and even in diet-obsessed LA I’d be wary of the conversation necessary to eliminate certain ingredients from dishes (it helps that she’s not particularly militant and probably won’t throw a fit if a dollop of unmentioned fish sauce shows up in something). But our waitress, who has already talked me out of a simpler preparation of my boat noodle dish and into a more complex, “native” version, while talking another fellow diner out of the soupy version of jade noodles and into the delicious dry variation, enters into a long dialogue with our friend about exactly what she does and does not want, constructing a satisfactory dish (of vegetables, rice, and very spicy tofu) in that conversation. Later, another employee arrives with a little chile-infused dipping sauce, pauses after a glance our friend’s plate, and asks, “do you eat fish sauce?” When the answer’s no, I expect this to be the last we’ll see of the sauce. But no…another one arrives, this time with soy. Not everyone would do that, because not everyone would care; many would be annoyed at the very idea of substitution, others at the potential waste. This restaurant knows it’s good, wants you to know it, and wants you to love it. It’s hard to see how one couldn’t.

The Eveleigh brothers

[pacific tower]The Eveleigh – This Sunset Strip restaurant (God help them) is, on my visit, brand new and a little breathless, and very clearly not yet fully settled-in, so read what follows in that context. There’s a smallish interior dining room, but it’s open to an exterior heated tent (nothing unusual for LA), and that’s where we sit. First problem: the tent is extremely dark, and the menu is tiny black print on a dark olive-tan background (at least, I think it is; in this much darkness, colors blend). As the youngest of the five at the table, I am the only one who can read the menu without the assistance of a pilfered candle or an overturned iPhone, and even then much of it reads as hieroglyphics.

Service is mostly very good, with the exception of the second problem: a bad habit of interrupting conversations (or, at least, our waiter does), to the point where one of my fellow diners finally puts his hand on the waiter’s arm and says, “I’m sorry, you can’t interrupt another conversation; please come back in a few minutes.” Which he does, good-naturedly and making a joke about being released from purgatory, but one hopes the general message gets across. To be fair, the breathlessness of the restaurant comes from a very steady stream of both reserved and walk-in customers, some famous and some not, that they’re obviously very eager to accommodate; we do hold our table for a fair time, and maybe they’d like to turn our seats a little sooner than we allow. The solution would be to make this intent clearer, rather than constant interruption. But, again, this is a very new restaurant.

Design? Well, it’s dark. Dark wood, dark tent, etc. The biggest and brightest light comes from the kitchen, and when one is in the front (semi-enclosed) portion of the restaurant that light is a little blinding if one is facing it. This, too, is a design issue in search of a better solution.

We order a fair array of things from both the menu and the nightly specials (which are offered only after we ask; more post-opening jitters). First courses are small and share-worthy, and the unquestioned star is a frankly brilliant roasted eggplant dish; as a life-long eggplant agnostic, it takes something for me to say this. There’s also an excellent crudo, which I won’t identify because it’s certainly something that changes regularly, except to say that the restaurant may wish to lend a closer eye to the sustainability of certain fish, because I think this one may be on the red list. As for second courses, they’re reasonably-sized and clearly preference heavier expressions from the animal realm; nothing we have that’s not pig or cow quite measures up. My pork belly is well-flavored and nicely crisped, but the meat layers are a little dried out (it should be noted that a fellow diner finds the belly too fatty, but from my perspective the balance of meat and fat was perfect), and the beef rib cap is a really beautiful piece of flavorful flesh. The dish I don’t order but am most interested in by its description, braised beef cheeks, is slightly more problematic. The cheeks are cooked perfectly, at that flawless stage where there’s just enough melt but not a complete loss of texture, and the aggressive spicing is extremely enticing at first bite. But at more than one bite, the spice eventually overwhelms the luscious flavor of the beef itself. A slightly lighter hand, please, and this dish will be perfect.

We’ve hauled a quantity of our own wine into the restaurant, but I do take a peek at the wine list. It’s short but purpose-driven. Those of a Europhile bent will need to be ordering white wine (though see above, re: meat-dominance), because the Old World is highly underrepresented on the ruddy side. Instead, there’s a lot of domestic and a surprising Australian presence (that is to say, it’s surprising until one learns that a good portion of the ownership is Aussie), and to my eye gets pricey pretty quickly. This location may well be able to handle that sort of thing, though. In both shades, size is definitely preferred, and despite it not being to my personal taste I think that’s appropriate for the cuisine.

Tyrell’s 1999 Semillon “Vat 1” (Hunter Valley) – Sneaks up, taps you on the shoulder, waits for you to pay attention, then slips away, laughing at your sudden realization that you haven’t been paying enough mind, and now you’ve missed something important. It plays this teasing and eluding game over and over, never surrendering and just showing what it has. It’s not entirely divorced from the flavor profile of a delicate old white Burgundy, though with a little more grass and lemon, and quite satin-textured. The finest white pepper dust, maybe, later in the play. Those who think they can understand a wine’s adulthood and retirement from its birthing pains are, or at least should be, routinely mocked into abashed humility by the journey that this and other Hunter Valley semillons take. (11/10)

Bründlmayer 1979 Grüner Veltliner Kirchengarten (Kamptal) – Powerfully fizzy, so much so that were there any other sign I’d worry that this was refermenting in the bottle. As it is, there’s so much pétillance that the table discussion is over to what extent this was a deliberate winemaking choice; a little early prickle isn’t unexpected from this house, but at this age the outright froth is a little shocking. So what else? Celery, still, but fossilizing into a mineral form. Salt, kelp-infused. A brightness, as well, but the light rests on decaying bones…there’s no actual weakness yet evident, but there’s a certain trembling that indicates that the wine may begin to corrode fairly soon. This – grüner of an age I very, very rarely encounter – is an absolute thrill to drink, though I admit part of the thrill is the identity, rather than just the organoleptics. (11/10)

Texier 1999 Hermitage (Rhône) – Cellared since release. Packed up in a hand-constructed individual stryo sleeve. Stuffed into a bag and checked, paying the airline’s asinine baggage fee to do so despite not otherwise needing to check a bag. Collected at baggage claim after much foot-tapping delay. Unwrapped and rested, upright, in the hotel room to let the sediment settle. Transported, with care to avoid further sedimentary disturbance, to a restaurant. And – wine people can see the inevitable conclusion coming a mile away – corked. (11/10)

Allemand 1995 Cornas Reynard (Rhône) – Hey Zeus, this is good. Entering a bit of a soy phase, but it’s soy-soaked springbok jerky, very saline and entirely meaty. There’s salty brown minerality, too. Herbs, sometimes (though not always) found in older Cornas? Not so much, but in their place is a sort of lurid necro-floral aroma that’s really much better than that descriptor makes it sound. Balanced, still muscled despite much maturation, and really beautiful…if you’re a carnivore, that is. (11/10)

Allemand 1999 Cornas Chaillots (Rhône) – Still sorting itself out, but the folders are starting to populate. In one, there’s an herb-infused slow-cooked meat, still enveloped in a certain mystery. In another, something very floral and even a little aggressively aromatic. In a third, rocks piled upon rocks. This is still headed somewhere, and though it’s quite approachable now I think there’s more to see before it decides to stop for a rest and an idealized drinking experience. (11/10)

Seppelt 1986 Sparkling Shiraz “Show Reserve” (Barossa Valley) – Right out of the bottle, there’s the baked soy and caramel thing that I loathe, and too often find, in Barossa shiraz. But that doesn’t last long, and after an hour or so of nudging and sipping, the last glass is by far the best. Moreover, I fear there was still more to come as the dregs are drained, though of course I’ll never now. The intended froth is still present but the wine is so full-bodied (and this is in a worldwide, not strictly Barossan, context) that you don’t much notice it after the first few sips. Luscious dark fruit, certainly sun-drenched but not overly so, and black pepper, with a more particulate and coal-dust texture than I would have expected. Fun just because sparkling shiraz is, but with a serious side as well. This wine, decades ago and from a different (and older) vintage, was the one that convinced me sparkling shiraz could be something other than a parlor game and the setup for jokes about goat sacrifice. I’m glad to see that little has changed. (11/10)

Domaine Saint Vincent Brut (New Mexico) – Extremely bright. Lemons, apples, other tart citrus. A little copper adds some interest, but this is mostly about upfront fruit. A party sparkler. (11/10)

Umami said knock you out

[view from observatory]Umami Burger – A mini-chain that’s been much hyped on the food-geek interthingy, and as a fan of the en-sandwiched ground meat arts, I feel it’s my duty to assess the hype/quality ratio. At this Santa Monica outpost (stealthily camouflaged by a nondescript Fred Segal), and somewhat surprisingly quiet at Saturday lunch, the quasi-ironic Manly Burger – whether it’s named after the attitude or the Australian beach, I don’t ask and thus don’t know – and the signature Umami Burger are both entirely delicious. The former carries crisp onion strings, cheese, and hearty lumps of excellent bacon; the latter presents a more complex array of accompaniments. I have to say that, while the Manly is a classic experience, the Umami is something special. Both are quite superior to In-n-Out (I’m not factoring price into this assessment), and while I’ll have to recontextualize them on the chain burger lusciousness scale by returning to, say, Fatburger, they’re certainly “better” than that chain’s offerings by less hedonic measures, and maybe even by organoleptic ones as well. And while I realize this is highly subjective, I think they’re flawlessly-sized.

The accompanying cheesy tots are delicious as tater tots but could be cheesier. As for the tempura onion rings, their taste is almost magical, but their crispness fails very quickly, and so their primary quality is disappointingly ephemeral. An aside: the latter absolutely must be accompanied by the jalapeño ranch condiment, which is very nearly a perfect marriage between unhealthy fried stuff and unhealthy saucy stuff. Prices are upscale-burger but entirely fair, service is friendly in a casual California way, and the only negative is that almost everyone else is eating their burgers with knife and fork. Man up, people of Los Angeles and tourists alike. Use your damned hands. It’s a burger, not a Wagyu torchon.

Anderson Valley Brewing Company “Boont” Amber Ale (Anderson Valley) – Somewhat fulsome, but also somewhat thin in the middle where it counts, and the only thing that’s never in question is that it’s bitter in a raw hazelnut sort of way. A good, not great, beer with character but without commensurate appeal, at least for me. The intrinsically embittered might find more here.(11/10)

A post-facto coda: the role that the owner played in the outing of an LA Times restaurant critic? Dickish. As a result, my current interest in returning, despite my above-expressed culinary approval, is nil.