Booze interview – Glen David Gold

Glen David Gold is probably best known for his debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, and its follow up Sunnyside. When I was in publishing I worked on the publicity for the latter and we spent a very pleasant, at least for me, few days together when he came over to England for publication. I didn’t know him well but he always came across as about the nicest most relaxed author one could wish for. Note for readers here, not all authors are nice and they are very rarely relaxed. There’s a very good line in his memoir, I Will be Complete, which comes out this month:

“When I describe what happened, people tend to ask ‘but how did you end up so – ‘ they dance around the world ‘ normal’. then realise it doesn’t apply, and instead they say, ‘so nice’?”

I’m not nice. I’m polite. Nice is a quality and polite is a strategy. But I have ended up happy.”

Glen David Gold c. Sara Shay

Glen David Gold looking happy. Credit: Sara Shay

Glen was brought up in affluence in southern California but when his parents broke up he moved with his mother to San Francisco. By the age of 12 he was living much of the time by himself whilst his mother was in New York. His relationship with his unstable and increasingly erratic mother provides the engine of the book. As a memoir it bears comparison with This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and in a neat link, Glen was taught by Wolff’s brother Geoffrey at the University of California who himself wrote a memoir about his bizarre childhood called the Duke of Deception. Glen’s book has the fluency of the former and the honesty and hard-won wisdom of the latter but with a strangeness and, at the end, a darkness, that is all it’s own. It deserves to sell by the container load as well as win every prize going.

In my correspondence with Glen I discovered that he is a fairly recent but already hopeless wine bore so here he is talking about one of his passions:

Hello Glen, what are you working on at the moment?

My memoir I WILL BE COMPLETE comes out June 26th and although there’s very little (no) wine in it you may very well want to pour yourself a glass while reading it. I’m writing a few brief essays to support it, I’m starting research on the next historical novel, and I’m looking to sit in a writers room for a good TV show and play in someone else’s kingdom for a while.

You mention your father has got into wine at 80, was that your work?

A little bit. My brother Seth started a rum company, SELVA REY, and spent five years coming over to every single family gathering with samples to test on us. My dad is a collector at heart and he loves the stories behind things, so he was a perfect sucker for the small batch bourbon thing. Like myself, he loves stories of growers and stories that begin, “This wine is now $100 but when I bought it en primeur it was $40,” but as you know those stories are very rare. His favorite wine is now Myriad Cabernet Sauvignon. (Update: I think the Sarah Francis Beckstoffer GIII now wins.)

Would you say wine has brought you closer together?

Yes but so has age. He’s a good dad for an adult.

What are you drinking at the moment? 

2016 Henri Boillot Bourgogne. That interview with Mike D in Noble Rot tipped me off to how to surf Burgundy by getting the $20/30 Bourgognes and Bourgogne Blancs of high-end producers, and as a result I am beginning to understand why that region is so terrifying. Dujac’s Bourgogne Blanc is hypnotic, delicious, has massive bottle variation and is utterly unavailable. Is there anything else to know about Burgundy?

Was there a eureka moment with wine or was it a gradual process?

Very gradual. About eight years ago, my friend David came to a party with three William Selyam pinots from different vineyards. He had a complicated experiment he wanted to conduct involving decanting and the terroir of single vineyard designates. Unfortunately another friend saw what he interpreted as giant glasses of wine, and he literally upended an entire, to the brim glass, said “wow, that’s great,” then took down the next one, and the next. I wish you could have seen the solid O of horror on my friend David’s face.

Maybe a year later, I was at a restaurant called Prospect in San Francisco. They’re friendly to me there and someone had left without finishing his bottle of 2007 Radio Coteau Savoy Pinot Noir, so they poured the rest of the bottle for me and my date, and I was intrigued.

About a year after that I had a 2009 Clos St Julien, which is a fairly weird St Emilion, and I realized I was in love with how I was tasting something I was unable to describe — just experience. My writing powers were nullified. Huzzah!

Who do you think writes well about wine/ drink?

I like how detailed Chris Kissack gets in his reports on producers, though he and I don’t have aligning palates.  I also like Kermit Lynch’s book — he was my local wine shop long long before I understood anything about what I was drinking.

Do you have a favourite drink scene in literature?

Wilton Barnhardt has a novel called LOOK AWAY LOOK AWAY about the contemporary American South, and there’s a lovely scene in which a rich relative works dark magic on a family meal, gleefully giving glasses of 1989 Lynch Bages to people who don’t know what they’re drinking. Quite the indictment of social mores.

What’s your favorite everyday wine?

I try to not have an every day wine. When I don’t crave a spectacular experience, but a familiar one, I’m drawn toward gamay in the summer months and older cru bourgeois bordeaux at other times — the 2010 Senejac, which was $17 a bottle, is a stupid value right now. 

Do you have a favourite restaurant for wine?

In St Helena there’s an unassuming place called COOK on the main drag; we’d been told to go in for a bite and a glass. The wines were written on a dry erase board because they changed daily, and sometimes hourly. I recognized some of the names but not all of them. I asked the waiter what we should have and he brought out…something. A cabernet with a little age on it. It was outstanding. What was it? He said not to worry about it. His old landlord owed him some money and had paid him in wine instead. What wine? Oh, something he’d taken in trade for a job done. There was a label on the bottle but it didn’t explain much. It wasn’t a label I ever saw again. And it was perfect.

Do you have a dream wine?

That’s interesting — because of their prices and everyone else singing their praises I’m curious about 1961 first growths and good vintages of Jayer and DRC and all that, but the wine I’m hoping someone will open for me one day would be a 1990 Henri Bonneau Celestins. I’ve had his basic Chateauneuf, and his Marie Beurrier, and even the vin de pays, but I haven’t yet managed to get near his grand achievement, which the ecstatic tasting notes suggest will put you through puberty all over again.

 

You live in San Francisco? Do you often visit nearby vineyards if so which ones?

It’s odd — only an hour trip, but I always felt like I needed to mentally prepare for a day before going. It was like visiting Comicon. My two guaranteed stops were at Acme Fine Wines, which is the Sun Records of St Helena, and the To Kalon vineyard. There is a lovely man, Tom Garrett, who runs DETERT, a very small winery, on something 17 acres of Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. His wines are extraordinary and close to unknown, which is bizarre to me, given his location. We also visited CARTER (the name is a coincidence), as their wine maker, Mike Smith, does some of my other favorite California Cabernets via MYRIAD, SCARLETT and BECKLYN. That varietal can be loud, obnoxious, clever yet facile, designed for mass appeal and have a finish that’s far too long (I have just described every Marvel movie, haven’t I?) Mike’s work is intriguing — it flirts with all that stuff before veering into a better place. But if you want to try something that is far more St Julien like, the final wine maker on my list is Massimo Di Costanzo of DI COSTANZO wines, whose work is exceptionally elegant.

 

Thank you Glen! Some greats tips there. Now everyone, buy the book.

 

 

The ultimate Bouef Bourgignon

How good does a wine have to be to cook with? I remember talking to a wine writer a few years ago and he went to a very posh restaurant in Paris. He ordered a dish that came with a reduction of Hermitage, the only problem was that the cook had used a corked bottle. I think he ended up sending the dish back. My schoolboy French would not have been up to”Waiter, my gravy is corked!”

The story illustrates the point that the most important thing when choosing a wine to cook with is that there aren’t any odd flavours, corked for example, or those strange rubbery taste you sometimes get in cheap wine. Or not so cheap wine. Avoid Pinotage at all costs! If your wine is a little stinky or rubbery or has clumsy oak flavouring, then that will come out in your dish. You don’t want anything too sweet either as that will make your dish taste weird.What you need is a reasonable quality wine, one that will provide a good winey flavour and plenty of acidity. Things like Cotes du Rhones, Barbera d’Astis, beefier Beaujolais are perfect for this. Nothing too fancy though subtleties will be lost in the cooking process.

Far more important than the quality of the wine, is the quality of the meat. I made one earlier in the year with meat from Tesco and then one at the weekend with meat from the butcher in Blackheath. The difference was startling. Not just richer tasting meat but a much deeper flavour throughout the dish. It was like the different between eating in a caff compared with a fancy Paris restaurant.

This is the recipe I used, it is based on Elizabeth David’s. It’s absurdly easy to do. You cannot fail as long as you use top quality meat. The wine can be a little more humdrum.

Ingredients:

2 kg of stewing steak cut into thumb-sized chunks

1 large onion quartered

Stick of celery

2 bay leafs

Fresh parsley and thyme (and rosemary)

1 bottle of wine. I used Ultima Edizione Quatto Uve – a blend of grapes from all over Italy – lots of guts, fruit and flavour, no weird smells.

400g button mushrooms

400g shallots or baby onions

8 rashes of unsmoked streaky bacon

4 cloves of garlic

Small glass of port or other sweet wine (optional)

Brandy (optional)

Two carrots (optional)

plain flour

salt and pepper

Serves six or eight at a push

Put the beef in a large saucepan with the quartered onion, 2 cloves of garlic, one bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, some parsley stalks and a little rosemary if you have it. I find rosemary can be a bit overpowering so would rather leave it out rather than put in too much. Season, cover pan and leave overnight to marinade or for at least four hours.

Drain, keeping the marinade and beef but discarding the vegetables, herbs etc. Dust beef lightly with flour. Cut bacon into lardons and fry until crisp and the fat has come out.Leave lardons to one side. Now brown the beef in the bacon fat in batches and place in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. When all the beef is browned put the heat on low, add a splash of brandy and set alight (not essential but great fun.) Now add the marinade wine, a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf and two peeled cloves of garlic. Don’t add any salt at this stage. Bring to a slow simmer, cover and leave for two hours. Check occasionally that it is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Peel the baby onions/ shallots and quickly fry them in bacon fat, olive oil, butter or a combination of the three. Add to the beef. Quickly fry the mushrooms and add to the beef. Add the chopped cooked bacon. (If you want the stew to go further you could add some roughly chopped carrot at this point.)

Cover and leave on a low heat for one more hour. Now taste, add salt if needed. The meat should be melty. If it isn’t then the stew might need longer. At this stage a small glass of port or similar really lift the whole dish and brings out the winey flavours.

Ideally you’ll now leave it overnight somewhere cold. Any excess fat can be removed when it has solidified. When it’s time to eat, gently bring the stew to a simmer. Add a handful of roughly chopped parsley,  black pepper and serve with mashed potatoes and something green, cabbage is nice.

You’ll want to eat this with something far better than you used for cooking: Bordeaux, Rhone and Burgundy all go well though I had this recently with a bottle of Chateau St. Thomas 2001 from Lebanon. They were spectacular together.

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Would you spend £119 on a bottle of ‘Pommerol’?

One of my favourite articles from last year came from LA  Weekly entitled Hatchet Hall’s Wine List Is A Cruel And Maddening Joke. The author, Besha Rodell, has great fun with a list that is designed to baffle and exclude rather than help. Rather than name producer, region, vintage and grape variety as is normal the restaurant have come up with cryptic descriptions such as “Ham wine” or “Vieilles Vignes  (old vines) 13”. My father-in-law sent me the article. When I was in Los Angeles he took us out to one of the most interesting new restaurants in town, Le Comptoir.  (thanks Da!)

The food is very interesting. It’s based around vegetables grown in chef Gary Menes’ garden which are pickled, seared, or pureed in ways that accentuate the flavours. I was particularly taken with a pumpkin soup with raw mushrooms and toasted breadcrumbs. You don’t really need any animals with vegan cooking this good but you can add extras such as cheese, truffles, beef and scallops. Read Besha Rodell on it here. There’s also wine served alongside. Much is made of the provenance of the produce but oddly not of the wine. The list isn’t as cryptic as Hatchet Hall but it’s still a little opaque with offerings such as Muscadet, White Burgundy and Nebbiollo (sic), Piedmont. There’s no mention of producer’s names. I had to ask to see the bottles so that I can fulfill my wine bore quotient for the evening. I probably don’t need to say that the wines were from well-thought of producers. I was particularly taken with the Chardonnay from Whitcraft Winery in Santa Barbara.

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Le Comptor, meaning the Counter, has room for only ten so it’s not a problem to ask about the wines, there are only five, and indeed it was a good way to strike up a rapport with Menes’s team (though not with Menes who works in silence.)

Things are a little different at a wine bar, Le Bouchon, that has just opened up the road from me in Blackheath. We popped in before Xmas so that my wife could have a glass of mulled wine. The list is long but almost every single wine is listed generically. Even more unhelpfully it says at the top ‘many of our wines are produced by biodynamic methods.’ Yes but which ones?

wine listI asked the owner about this and he said they did once have a longer list with tasting notes but people complained that it was too long. Also the new list saved the trouble of rewriting it when vintages change. So why not have a paper list rather than something laminated? Or a chalkboard? And surely putting the vintage and producer isn’t going to take up that much room. He shrugged and said that people can ask him if they want more information. As a wine bore, I wanted to know almost every producer and vintage. The whole thing seems designed to create more work for him and more likely people just won’t venture further down the list. Who is going to spend £119 on a bottle of Pomerol (or indeed Pommerol as an eagle-eyed reader pointed out – see comments) without knowing the producer or vintage ? It’s a shame because I have a feeling that most of the producers are good. Certainly the glass of St. Chinian I had (Cave de Roquebrun 2013, he somewhat reluctantly showed me the bottle) was very enjoyable.

What was maddening for the wine lover was that both the charcuterie and cheese lists had information about provenance and even short tasting notes. It’s funny that so many restaurants seem to want to withhold information about wine but then give extensive notes on who their butcher is and what their chickens had for lunch.

I’ve written an article for the Spectator that should be out next month examining this thorny issue in greater detail.

 

 

 

 

You Lidl beauty: Côtes du Rhône Villages Chusclan

Like many I was swept up in the excitement of the discount retailers :  no brands! huge packs of bratwurst! cardboard boxes everywhere! I kept on trying to get my wife to go to Lidl instead of Tesco’s or the pricey Ocado order. She was sceptical but I think I was wearing her down until she made a pasta sauce with a jar of Lidl red peppers. We tried to work out why the sauce had turned out so revolting and then we realised that the peppers were loaded with added sugar. It was then that she pointed out that many things I insisted on buying from Lidl weren’t actually that great. In fact apart from the bratwurst, almost everything was better from Tesco though admittedly more expensive.

I do wonder how much of the success of these retailers is based on novelty as well as price and when people realise that they still have to get some things from the old guard of supermarkets, then they’ll stop going. To lure in discount agnostics like us, Lidl have come up with the Wine Cellar. This is a one off parcel of French wine sold at knockdown prices. Each store is given an allocation and when it’s gone, that’s it. It’s really worth visiting if there’s a Lidl near you. The standard is generally very high.

My pick of the selection is:

Côtes du Rhône Villages Chusclan Serabel 2014 – £5.99 

One of the nicest cheap CDRs I’ve had in a long time. Good and savoury with some proper herbal and leathery flavours. This would be £8.99 at Majestic or Oddbins.

Also nice:

Santenay Les Jablieres 2014 (£8.99) – fresh fruity red Burgundy.

Crozes-Hermitage Les Petits Vallons 2014 (£8.99) – smoky, serious syrah

The offer started on 3 September. I bought a case at the weekend but then didn’t linger to buy any food which rather defeats the purpose of the offer. Oh well.

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Serendipity and the joys of old rioja

There are days when becoming a wine bore seems the best decision I ever made. One such time was last Saturday. My father had been to the local auction house and bought a job lot of old wine for £50. There were two cases. About half were probably undrinkable, ordinary wines that had been kept too long, but amongst the dross there were some wines with potential. I set aside some Apostoles Palo Cortado sherry, some old Vin Santo and Monbazillac but these were the wines we tried at the weekend:

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There are three riojas and a red burgundy. The 1990 Mercurey was amazingly robust with a great earthy taste, the Riscal Reserva was a disappointment, a ’99 and already on the way down, the Faustino I ’76 Gran Reserva was showing its age but still enjoyable. The highlight however was the Berberana Carta d’ Oro Reserva 1975. Wow, what a wine! It was the most beautiful colour, a vivid red with only  a little browning at the rim. One sniff and the aroma of cigars filled my nose. There was a touch of mushroom but no mustiness or vinegar. What was remarkable, however, was the vigour of the fruit, sweet ripe strawberries and a touch of orange. There was a hint of tannin and then the most gorgeous finish of walnuts and tobacco. This was one of the best wines I’ve had this year. My father described it as like a good red burgundy and there was definitely something burgundian about it though I’ve never tried one this old. Very very few burgundies would last this long.

What’s remarkable about the Berberana is that it was never an expensive wine. This wasn’t a Chambertin-Clos de Bèze or a Musigny. This wasn’t an artisan/ icon/ prestige wine. Berberana Carta d’ Oro Reserva costs about £15 a bottle these days. This producer doesn’t have the best of reputations. It may have been better in 70s but even then it wasn’t in the first rank of rioja producers. This wine would have been made in large quantities mainly from bought in grapes. It was a commercial wine, not the sort of wine that gets wine bores hot under the collar, but this must have been an exceptional wine when young to last this long and improve.

For some the joy of wine is about trying 100 point wines or cult producers but for me serendipity is the most pleasurable part of being a wine bore. I love going to friends houses and seeing if they have any gems lurking in their cellars or kitchen cupboards. From now on I’m going to be scouring the catalogues at provincial auction houses. £50 for a wine of this quality is an a bargain. And there’s still 20 bottles from my father’s haul to try.

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Two wines kept too long

A very quick post today as a sort of addendum to my article on cellaring ordinary wines. I  bought a few bottles of Qupe syrah 11 from Majestic last year. This is their basic syrah from the Central Coast of California. It wasn’t cheap – £18 I think – and it wasn’t very good. I found it jammy with a not terribly nice whiff of oak about it. I think I gave a few bottles away or left them on tables at parties. Yesterday I found one in the cupboard that I call my cellar. It has been there for about a year.

My wife and I drank a bottle of it fairly quickly with homemade pizzas. After a year in the cellar it had lost the oaky smell and had lost the jam too. Instead it was spicy and fresh. It had a real purity about it. I’ve always thought that a dull wine won’t get any better if you keep it but in this case the extra year worked wonders. I wish I had more.

Soon it was all gone so I dug out something else to have for the nail-biting last minutes of the England France match. It was a cinsault from the Languedoc (Domaine Combe Blanche L’ Incompris 2011.) When I first tried it, it reminded be of a simple New World pinot noir. It was one of my favourite wines of 2013. Now two years later, it had gone all muddy and sweet with an unpleasant leathery smell. It tastes how I imagine Burgundy used to taste when it was cooked up in a warehouse in Ipswich from Beaujolais and Algerian plonk.

Horrid, though maybe if I’d kept it another year it would emerge as something beautiful. Probably not but then I never thought that Qupe syrah would get any better.

Oxford & Cambridge Blind Tasting Challenge

One of the great jokes of the wine trade is:

– ‘Have you ever confused Burgundy with Bordeaux?’

– ‘Not since this morning!’

Last week I realised it isn’t a joke. I’d been invited to take part in the Varsity Blind Wine Tasting Match. It’s sponsored by Pol Roger champagne and they thought it would be fun to have a team of journalists from the Spectator compete against the students from Oxford and Cambridge. Our crack squad was made up of in-house drinks supremo, Jonathan Ray, top sommelier and writer, Douglas Blyde, Nick Spong, the Spectator’s ad man who apparently likes a drink, and me.

As soon as I arrived at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall I realised I was out of my depth. The two university teams were standing in the lobby looking fit and focused. One of them even had bow tie like an old school wine merchant. They’d been training for this day all year. It was like the Boat Race for nose and brain only much more serious. I half expected an appearance from Trenton Oldfield as a protest against elitism.

The tasting consisted of six reds and six whites. Marks are awarded for correctly identifying the grape variety, country and region, and just like maths exams at school, you are also marked on your workings so even if you get everything wrong you can still score. Judging the contest were Jasper Morris MW and Hugh Johnson.

We sat down. The atmosphere was tense. I sniffed the first wine, immediately I knew it was a riesling from Australia. I had a little taste to confirm. This is going to be easy. Then the man to my left started having some sort of fit. I was just about to administer the Heimlich maneuver when I realised he was just sucking air through the wine. Extremely loudly. The man opposite then started choking, then others started up gurgling, gurning and coughing like Bob Fleming from the Fast Show. I read later that the Cambridge team are famous for being noisy tasters – there are even rumours that it’s gamesmanship. unnamed

Journalists at the far end looking old and confused. Credit: Freya Miller

I finished the whites reasonably confident that I’d done well. We had a quick break and it was on to the reds at which point I went completely to pieces and guessed most of them. The students, in contrast, wrote detailed notes and then only at the last minute filled in the region, variety etc. They were working methodically, we were going on hunches, or at least I was. They were concentrating so hard that at one point I was told to be quiet as my (very low-level) conversation about vintage car dealers in Wandsworth was putting some off. Then one of the students knocked over a glass of red (more gamesmanship perhaps?) and I was saved from further embarrassment.

There was a short prize-giving where it was announced that Oxford had won. The tasting champion was Oxford’s captain, Swii Yii Lim, who in the first round got five out of six absolutely spot on. Afterwards we had lunch and we got to swallow rather than spit some excellent wines provided by Pol Roger. Once the terrors of the challenge were over, both teams turned out to be rather jolly. It was interesting meeting these younsters. They are the Hugh Johnsons and Jasper Morrises of the future. I’ve spent most of my adulthood – about eighteen years – learning about wine but compared to them, I was a bumbling amateur.

So how did the journalists do? I learned that I’d confused a Cotes-du-Rhone with a Chianti though in my defence everyone scored badly on the reds. I’d done much better with the whites guessing grape variety correctly in half the wines though the riesling I’d been so confident about was actually German. It was announced that Johnny Ray came top from our lot. Probably to save face, we weren’t told our actual scores though I’d already prepared my excuse in the event of a woeful showing: I was put off by the noisy Cambridge team.

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Hugh Johnson’s shoe. Credit: Douglas Blyde