October marks 30 years that Carla and I have lived in San Francisco. We moved to California after I finished graduate school at the University of Michigan in January of 1984 initially settling in San Mateo because of the usual periodic housing shortage in the city. Those first nine months in California can only be described as bleak with the stress of finding a job and living in an apartment with no light and the most alarming vomit-hued shag carpet. The only salvation was a shopping center across the street that had a wine shop we often frequented–especially after experiencing the first several earthquakes. Welcome to California!
We moved to the city on October 1st of that year finding a one bedroom apartment on Russian Hill with spectacular views of the bay, Alcatraz, and all of Pacific Heights for a mere $650–including parking! FYI the same apartment today rents for over $4K. It was never our intention to stay here for several decades but having two kids meant first finding day care, then pre-school, and on and on through high school in a blur commonly referred to as parenthood. Contrary to a lot of negative press on the subject both our kids–especially Patrick about whom you’ll read more below–thrived in public schools their entire academic careers. That being said the range of quality for public schools in San Francisco is just as extreme as in any other big city. But just as knowing the right producer in Burgundy is mandatory for getting a good bottle a parent in San Francisco simply has to be an advocate for their kid to get them into the right schools. With special ed programs–and Patrick is a special-needs guy–it’s even more critical that a parent push to get their kid into the right school with the right teacher. Carla was a champion for both Maria and Patrick and a huge part of their academic success. I will always be grateful to her for that.
When I’m on the road-which is all too often–I tell people I live in San Francisco and get the usual how lucky you are or what a beautiful city or what an amazing place. I invariably agree yes to all the above. However, after living here for 30 years I have my own analogy for living in San Francisco that goes something like this: “it’s like dating a gorgeous expensive woman that you can never really quite afford.” And after 30 years she–the city–is more expensive than ever thanks to google and all my new high tech friends who have managed to push rents and housing prices to beyond New York levels. And she’s no fun anymore. In fact, she’s a complete pain in the ass. Want proof? Enter exhibit “A,” a Friday night last summer.
Every second Friday night the ARC center has a dance for its clients from 6:00 to 8:00. If not familiar, the ARC is a national organization for people with disabilities. Patrick is currently enrolled in a special ed program called ACCESS offered through the unified school district in a space attached to the ARC center. He will age out of ACCESS next May when he turns 22 and when he does he will move right next door into ARC programs. But because he’s on site practically every day he now knows almost everyone on the staff at ARC as well as many of the clients. Needless to say, the ARC dances are big fun for him as well as the rest of the clients and parents. But for Carla and me the ARC dances also mean two hours to go on an actual “date.”
On that ill-fated Friday evening we parked across from the ARC center on the corner of Howard and 11th streets (an important reference for later use) and walked Patrick over to the dance. We then clambered back into the vehicle and headed south on Folsom Street for a wine bar on Mission and 22nd where we’d enjoyed a glass of wine just weeks before. Mind you I knew full well we were taking a major risk. I’ve lived in the city more than long enough to know what traffic and parking can be like in the Mission on a Friday night. The phrases FUBAR, impossible, and completely screwed come to mind. But we were game and in serious need of quality time together so we set off in what was really just a sub-ten minute jaunt of less than 25 blocks.
Once there we began the cosmic undertaking of finding a parking place on Mission St. or thereabouts which is somewhere between passing an NFL team through the eye of a needle and a Sauvignon Blanc getting 100 points in the Wine Spectator. Dear readers I really don’t have to tell you what happened next–but I will. We drove around–very strategically mind you–for the next hour trying in vain to find a parking place, any parking place, within five to six blocks of said wine bar. You might hazard a guess, and you would be correct, that we never did find that illusive parking place. It was like the city in the form of my uber expensive girlfriend simply didn’t show up for our date–and she wasn’t even returning my phone calls, texts or e-mails.
I have to say that I handled driving around pointlessly for an hour with great patience and aplomb. After all, if your expectations for success are near non-existent even the least shred of success can seem life-changing. But that never happened either. By now you’re probably thinking that we should have driven somewhere else, parked the car, and taken a cab to the joint. But really? Seriously? After all, we now had about an hour to get something to eat before having to retrieve Patrick.
After making the decision to bail on the wine bar, which was really quite easy to do, we headed back up Folsom Street with the intention of finding a place close to ARC thus salvaging whatever little time we had left. I told Carla to bring up “Near Me” on her phone to find restaurants on the way. But nothing interesting came up and in minutes we found ourselves parking in EXACTLY THE SAME PARKING SPACE we had just used an hour before when we dropped Patrick off. I am not making this up. But stay with me because this is where it gets good.
At the confluence of Howard and 11th streets and across from the ARC center were two restaurants; a Mexican place and a pizza place. We opted for the latter. Before going further I have to confess that I am not the person to ask when inquiring about the latest, coolest restaurants in San Francisco. I travel a lot and eat out a lot on the road so when I’m home I like to stay home and cook and, as you can imagine, there’s more than a few bottles of wine downstairs in my garage. That said I was really not in the least informed about the pizza place we stumbled into because after all it was on the corner literally crawling distance from the car–and we were hungry, thirsty, and had little time left for dinner. But this was not just any pizza place; this pizza place which will not be named was one of those establishments certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletanna in Naples complete with a special wood burning pizza oven.
After the fact Carla and I were to learn that there’s usually a line out the front door at this place and also that the restaurant doesn’t take reservations. But on this Friday night the restaurant gods in San Francisco smiled on us if only briefly and we managed to grab the only open deuce. Inside the place was all austere concrete and cinder blocks with the enormous aforementioned certified pizza oven occupying front and center stage. Quickly I noticed that we were the oldest people in the restaurant and so completely un-hip that we probably didn’t belong there. But screw it, I thought, we’re hungry and now only had about 45 minutes for dinner before having to head across the street.
Eyeing the menu I spotted five different choices for pizza offered that evening all for the mere price of $25 a pie. Mind you these were single size pizzas. Not a big deal. But then my eyes drifted over to the right side of the menu to the wines offered by the glass. And here, meine freunden, is where it got interesting. All the wines poured by the glass were from Campania which wasn’t a surprise given the origin of the restaurant’s certification. But more importantly, all the offerings were either orange wines or natural wines. I let out an audible groan. Carla, who now has a zero-tolerance policy for my reaction to poorly constructed wine lists and/or less-than-adequately trained servers, immediately responded with a terse, “Now what?” I told her about the wines by the glass. She responded with something like, “Oh, it’s probably fine.” But I knew better. I’ve tasted enough of both categories to be a fervent believer in modern winemaking technology and to be just as unappreciative of chemistry projects masquerading as commercially produced wine. More on that later.
Soon the server took our order. I can’t recall which of the five pizzas I ordered but I clearly remember ordering two glasses of Aglianico from a producer I’d never previously heard of. The wine arrived quickly in two of those thick, heavy, and dense tumblers normally used in chain restaurants or bar fights. Dismissing the fact that I was paying $13 for a glass of wine served in something resembling a weapon I put my nose in the glass. Immediately all my internal wine flaw alarms went off. If seven alarms are the max in the firefighting world then I was at nine alarms meaning the wine had more than one serious flaw. Said Aglianico not only displayed a monumental level of VA–somewhere between floor varnish and Sherry vinegar–it also had an extreme level of brettanomyces. The combination made my eyes water and when I went to comment about the tragic condition of the wine to Carla she just gave me the eye. So I sipped the wine in pained silence trying to imagine the less then hygienic conditions under which it had been made. I’m reasonably sure that the winemaker and his/her tribe probably had the best of intentions, but this was way beyond the term “cellar palate” where one loses olfactory sensitivity because of working in a single wine environment for too long; it was more like “stable palate.”
Fortunately the pizzas showed up just as I drained the last wicked drop of Aglianico. I wanted another glass of wine–any glass of wine but the Aglianico. I chose the other red offered by the glass only to learn from the server that they were sold out of it. However, the restaurant had just gotten a new vintage of Piedrosso from her favorite producer that afternoon and would we like to try it. Of course! After all, it had to be better than the previous wine. I was wrong. The Piedrosso arrived in moments in the same big clunky glasses and when I put my nose in the glass I literally saw the color brown. The Piedrosso for anyone keeping score was the single most flawed glass of wine I’ve ever been served. It displayed staggering levels of brett and was oxidized–and it was spritzy! It was as if the wine was still sorting itself out in the bottle after several tortured years, hence my remark about natural wines and chemistry projects. For the record, the pizzas were delicious–absolutely top shelf even if they were a bit pricey. Total cost for the dinner with 20% tip and tax: $124. Experience of tasting “natural” wines: priceless.
Allow me a moment on my soapbox. Regardless of the kinds of wine you feel best suit your menu, you as a professional buyer have an obligation to have a clue about what clean, well-made wine is and to offer your guests sound, well-made wines that are good values. That’s the deal and absolutely no exceptions including orange and natural wines. Further, in keeping with my Mom’s sage advice that it takes all types to fill up the freeways, I would be the first to admit that there’s room for just about everything in the world of wine. But let’s not confuse unusual with flawed. There’s a big difference. And while it’s been interesting to follow the orange and natural wine camps I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s about time they had some kind of certification so the rest of us in the industry know what the hell they’re doing–even if what they’re doing results in completely flawed wine. After all, there are certifications with standards for organic and biodynamic wines. Why not for natural wines? I rest my case.
So on that Friday night my latest date with the uber expensive girlfriend known as San Francisco was–what a surprise–expensive, rushed, and agita-inducing. Oh yes, she was completely unkempt for the occasion.
*Addendum: several people have inquired about the photos used in this post. All the above photos are mine and are as follows: 1. The Transamerica pyramid and North Beach taken from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel during the 2007 Master’s Exam; 2. The nearly famous pet cemetery in the Presidio underneath Doyle Drive; 3. Halloween aftermath in my neighbor’s garbage in 2009; 4. The Transamerica pyramid as seen from the steps of Bix restaurant on Gold St. in the historic Jackson Square district in 2012.