The Simple and the Sublime in San Francisco

San FranciscoThrough my rosé-colored lenses, one of the greatest dividends of travel is the ability to take advantage of the diversity of wines now available. By diversity I mean not only the astonishing range of grapes, regions, and styles now on shelves and wine lists, but also the pleasure that can be had at both ends of the price continuum. No experience better captures this truth than a day last month in San Francisco.

It started with my first visit to Swan’s Oyster Depot, a timeworn feeding station as unapologetically simple as the oyster crackers that accompany your food.  With its rickety stools, homespun menu board, and no-nonsense countermen, Swan’s has the feel of a San Francisco drugstore soda fountain, albeit one plopped down in the middle of a seedy city block; if Dirty Harry knew his way around a bivalve, this is where his day would be made.

We started with buttery Kumamotos accented with house-made mignonette sauce, then devoured cocktails of impossibly fresh Dungeness crabmeat — meaty, sweet, and pure.  In just a few bites, this glistening fare provided cosmic retribution for every Filet-o-Fish sandwich ever to roll off the conveyer belt.

What really catapulted this lunch to “eleven” was the addition of wine — nothing expensive or complex but lean and piercing glasses of $7 Château la Tarciere Muscadet from France’s Loire Valley.  Muscadet can be disappointingly bland to flavor-cravers accustomed to high-octane Chardonnay.  But with shellfish, a well-made Muscadet operates like a lemon-squeeze or a spoonful of mignonette sauce, heightening flavors and making oceanic creatures taste richer and sweeter.  It may not be a party sipper to be savored by itself, but with seafood of Swan’s caliber a good Muscadet is one of life’s deep pleasures.

If daytime brought ecstasy through modest means, nighttime provided a onetime pass to the gastronomic equivalent of Avatar’s Planet Pandora.  But instead of reveling in the movie’s luminescent creatures, twelve fortunate wine lovers and I were treated to something even more extraordinary: a dinner featuring the wines of Henri Jayer from 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, twelve different bottles in all, including one magnum.  Organized by a collector whose taste and bonhomie is as epic as his generosity, these wines are the vinous equal of an Iberian Linx:  you might read about its magnificence in magazines but you doubt that it actually exists in the material world.  If the celebrated premier cru Bordeaux Chateau Margaux is like a late-model Bentley – regal, powerful, but relatively prevalent on certain streets — Jayer’s best vintages are like a ‘30s Alfa Romeo Mille Miglia Roadster: finely styled, achingly beautiful, and so rare that many pros wouldn’t even know where to find one.

Considered to be one history’s greatest fermenters of the grape, Henri Jayer, who died in 2006 at the age of 84, made Pinot Noir from Burgundy vineyards of microscopic size and monumental quality.  He was especially noted for his pioneering vineyard practices and for performing them with a minimum of assistance.  As one of my fellow guests related it, when a visitor to Jayer’s vineyards saw his sparsely populated winery, he demanded of the legendary vigeron, “Who helps you with all of this?”

With a twinkle in his eye, Jayer replied: “Les deux mains” (“My two hands.”)

And what those hands wrought.  While words fail to adequately capture the sensations that aged Burgundy of this caliber can offer, suffice it to say that this was one of those rare instances when wine achieves the ethereal.  As you sit with the wine, your nose inhales kaleidoscopic aromas of red berries, violets, Asian spices, earth, and smoke.  These and other notes echo on the palate, joined by an enduring velvetiness that rivals the pleasure of a long, intense back scratch.  The ‘78 Richebourg was especially commanding, its nose voluptuous with hints of cassis, rose water, and nutmeg, and its texture hauntingly vibrant and silky.  It is not overstating the case to say that this was one of the best wines ever to pass my lips.  I’m convinced that many of the world’s mood disorders would vanish if that Riche’s essence could somehow be captured and added to the world’s water supplies.

Like the Avatar audiences for whom reality pales next to the sensory splendor of Pandora, no one wanted this dinner to end.  But the bottles were eventually drained and so I said my goodbyes and shuffled my lucky bones back to my hotel, easing my reentry into reality by toting along the empty bottle of Richebourg.

I probably wouldn’t have believed this night in San Francisco had transpired it if I didn’t wake up the next morning with that bottle watching over me.  Its existence was a comforting sight, and then I looked closer: a few mouthfuls remained in the bottle!  No matter that the sommelier had intentionally withheld this sediment-saturated juice; it could have been Tijuana tap water and I still was going to make productive use of it.

So I slipped the bottle into a discreet bag and walked two blocks to Yank Sing, San Francisco’s venerable dim sum house.  When the frenetic trolley dollies weren’t looking our way, a friend and I took turns sipping the remains of the Richebourg, completely unbothered by the flecks of sediment swirling in our glasses like snow shakers.  As we relished the wine with bites of soup dumplings, I contemplated the previous 24 hours in San Francisco and how ecstasy was found, by turns, in the simple, the sublime, and now a bit of both at the same time

Originally appearing on

The Biggie Show: Aspen ’08

Once again, the Aspen FOOD & WINE Classic proved itself a gastronomic Shangri-La — a confluence of sips, sustenance, and setting of Mr. Roarkian wondrousness.


My seminars this year were “Rosé Renaissance” and “ABC’s of Wine”.  To ensure that each wine was worthy of the Classic’s illustrious attendees (including my sister), I again enlisted the palates of my Manhattan-based “Civilian Tasting Panel,” a circle of discerning but non-professional tasters organized by my buddies Mark Hernandez and Judge Kirby.  After sampling close to 90 wines this winter, these winners emerged:

Rosé Renaissance:
1) Delamotte Rosé Brut NV (France, $90)
2) Domaines Ott, Chateau de Selles, Rosé 2006 (France, $38)
3) Domaine de la Mordorée, “Dame Rousse,” Tavel Rosé 2007 (France, $28)
4) Tablas Creek Rosé Paso Robles 2007 (California, $22)
5) Crios de Susana Balbo Rosé Of Malbec 2007 (Argentina, $12)
6) Bodegas R. Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia, Rosado 1997 (Spain, $28)

ABC’s of Wine:
1) Mionetto “Sergio MO ” NV (Italy, $22)
2) Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2007 (New Zealand, $20)
3) Beringer Chardonnay Private Reserve 2006 (California, $35)
4) A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir 2006 (Oregon, $19)
5) Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder 2004 (California, $50)
6) Peachy Canyon Zinfandel Paso Robles Westside 2006 (California, $29)

Being at the Aspen Classic also affords the opportunity to visit with various superheroes of food and wine, including, this year, Gail Simmons, the irresistible judge from Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

Finally, I offer a grateful knuckle-knock to the Aspen Daily News for their kind words in this Monday’s issue:

“Mark Oldman had to be the most entertaining wine speaker of the weekend.  In his seminar, Rosé Renaissance, the wine author managed to incorporate some Biggie Smalls lyrics while discussing a $90 bottle of French champagne; led a little chant and dance on how to taste wine; and shared his method of pouring undrunk rosé into a Gatorade bottle when unable to finish a bottle of the pink stuff in a restaurant.  While his seminar slightly overlapped the Saturday Grand Tasting, very few looked as though they wanted to leave as the volunteers signaled that his time was up.”

A Splendid Spin in Aspen

Report from the 25th annual FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen.

aspen food & wineoldman aspen oldman food & wine

The old airplane’s propellers groaned and wheezed like a wounded beast.  While my seatmate (a chef from the Midwest) and I tried to distract ourselves by talking about much we were looking forward to this year’s Food & Wine Classic, I couldn’t help wondering why a blue-chip airline like United was flying such a shanty prop plane from Denver to Aspen.  Shouldn’t an illustrious destination like Aspen merit the airline’s best commuter jets, or at least ones with engines?—not a rickety propeller job, the kind of 70’s jungle jumper you’d have seen ferrying Jim Jones’ disciples on a one-way trip to Guyana.  There wasn’t even toilet paper in this jalopy’s bathroom – just a lonely, half-used box of Kleenex lying next to an outhouse potty hole.

The turbulence intensified as we started our initial approach into Aspen.  As the nose of the plane pitched down in a Kamikaze dive, my seatmate and I slid down in our seats, stretching our legs under the seats in front of us as if trying to reach an invisible break pedal.  And then, in an unexpected and poignant moment of primal desperation, she and I – two total strangers – clutched each other’s hands, waiting for the final death plunge.

It didn’t happen, of course, and comic relief came in the form of a preternaturally relaxed Drew Nieporent, stretched out behind us like the cool kid in the back seat of a school bus.

“Ah, this is nothing,” the insouciant and kingly restaurant impresario declared, “I’ve been on far worse flights to Aspen.”

His words helped a bit, as did the thought that with Todd English, Marcus Samuelson, and other super-chefs on board, an unplanned “forest landing” would have made one hell of an obit.

We survived – sweaty, shaky, and grateful to be on terra firma — in a paradisiacal place of azure skies, verdant hills, and bountiful wine, no less.  And things only got better from there. Speaking at the Food & Wine Classic was an unalloyed pleasure.  I developed two new seminars for the Classic – “Sparkling Substitutes” (i.e., non-Champagne bubbly) and “Looks like Red Wine, Acts Like White” (light reds), each taught twice.

The audiences couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and wine-curious.  We had great fun from start-to-finish, whether it was performing a group chant to pronounce Gewürztraminer (“Guh-vurtz” and “tra-me-ner”) or laughing about rap-star Ludacris’ admonition in my book not to “guzzle one’s Cristal”.

My fellow speakers were the best in the business, including Best Cellars guru Josh Wesson, whose attendance at my red wine seminar was a special treat, as the spirit of his classic tome, Red Wine with Fish, fit perfectly with the subject matter. And how often does one get to the opportunity to exchange sartorial advice with Tony Giglio, as much a maven of pocket squares as he is of the imbibable.  And it is always a delight to visit with the über-talented Lettie Teague, Food & Wine’s executive wine editor, whose new book, Educating Peter, is as scintillating as her columns in the magazine.

To ensure that the wine at my seminars would be well received, months ago I had assembled a “Civilian Tasting Panel” – nine non-wine-pro friends who helped me blind-taste over 70 selections of both non-Champagne bubbly and light reds. This made for two memorable, wine-soaked evenings, where we sat around a long wooden table like a big Tuscan family, slurping and sloshing and giving honest, off-the-cuff reactions to the wines.

The favorites that emerged from these tastings became the line-up for my seminars in Aspen.  They are all fetching sips for summer:

“Looks Like Red Wine, Acts Like White”: Light Reds 

  • Ponzi Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 05
  • Duboeuf Julienas Domaine de la Seigneurie 05
  • Domain Bailly-Reverdy Sancerre Rouge 04
  • Remy Pannier Chinon 05 * Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche 04
  • Bodegas Nekeas Vega Sindoa El Chaparral 05

[Note: these light, low-tannin reds are all chillable.]

“Sparkling Substitutes”: Non-Champagne Bubbly

  • Mionetto Sergio Extra Dry NV
  • Schramsberg Blanc De Blancs 04
  • Brüder Dr. Becker Scheurbe Sekt 04
  • Llopart Leopardi Brut Rose 03
  • Hill of Content Sparkling Red NV
  • Ceretto Santo Stefano Moscato D’Asti 05

Devastate Your Friends on New Year’s Eve: The Kit

To coincide with my seminars at the 25th anniversary of the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen this weekend, I am auctioning off a very special “Devastate Your Friends on New Year’s Eve” Kit. All proceeds go to FOOD & WINE’s Grow for Good campaign to raise $1 million for Farm to Table, a national initiative dedicated to encouraging sustainable agriculture and increasing people’s access to locally-grown foods.

Mark’s “Devastate Your Friends on New Year’s Eve” Kit

Be the vinous hero among your friends when you serve these rare gems straight from Mark’s personal collection.  Before and during the ball drop, you will enjoy a fascinating face-off between two best-of-breed Blanc de Blancs Champagnes–one from a top “indie producer” and theother from a legendary Champagne house.  The first is a magnum of the stunning no-dosage Grand Cru Cramant from Guy Larmandier, the marvelous artisanal grower-producer whose Champagnes are mostly only obtainable at auction.  The other, the Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Brut Blanc de Blancs, hails from the splendid 1996 vintage and has received ecstatic praise from top wine critics.

As you and your guests savor the first hours of the new year in a state of bubbly bliss, you will cap the evening with divine nectar from Austria- the ultra-rare Nittnaus Trockenbeerenauslese Neusiedlersee Pinorama 1995.  Your guests will marvel at both your ability to pronounce the unprounceable [TRAWK-uhn-bay-ruhn-OWS-lay-zuh] and how such a delicate dessert wine can offer so much complexity – a rapturous swirl of honey, orange, apricot, and chocolate, buttressed by a racy vein of acidity. To master these wine types and many others, we are including a signed copy of the best-selling Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine.

  • Guy Larmandier Grand Cru Cramant Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (1500ml magnum)
  • Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Brut Blanc de Blancs 1996 (750ml)
  • Nittnaus Trockenbeerenauslese Neusiedlersee Pinorama 1995 (375ml)
  • Signed copy of Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine (Penguin)