Wine is Hard, GARAGISTE Makes It Easy

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

It used to be so simple. Learn a few grapes, a couple of countries, carry a vintage chart around with you, and sound like an expert.

Back in the Stone Age, that’s all you needed to do.

And by “Stone Age” I mean about 15-20 years ago.

40 years ago (about the time I started getting into wine), it was all about France….with a little California thrown in. Remember the Judgment of Paris? I do; I even remember the original Time magazine article about it. The whole episode rated about 300 words on a back page of the ‘zine — barely a blurb about some California upstarts (Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) beating the Frogs at their own game.

Up until then, if you wanted to “know” wine as a consumer, you needed to know Bordeaux. Memorizing the 1855 Classification was essential, and woe to the poseur who couldn’t tell his troisieme cru from a Premier Grand Cru Classé.

There were sub-parts and sub-parts to the sub-parts of these classifications, but by and large, it was all about France. California started flexing its muscles in the early 1980s (bolstered in part by the growing legend of that 1976 Paris competition), but California was always easy: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and that was it.

Back then, Italy was atlas esoterica; Spain, the undiscovered country. Germany, Australia and Portugal? Strictly for the nerdiest of wine nerds. Chile, Greece, Hungary, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, China? Fuggidabadit.

Big, fruity Cabs were what counted in Cali, along with massive, over-oaked Chards. All you had to do was know your producers — few wineries were trumpeting their specific vineyards  — and after a couple of trips to Napa, you could strut around like some imperious Brit, expounding on the merits of the Rutherford Bench, or the superiority of Sonoma fruit.

Was it all bullshit? Of course it was all bullshit. Practically everything about wine is bullshit. Getting past the bullshit (so you can enjoy what’s in the glass) is half the fun.

These days it’s less about antiquated, overblown French marketing ploys and more about the beverage. Like the internet, the world of wine has expanded our horizons while shrinking the earth. Good wine is everywhere, and now being made from grapes no one had ever heard of in the last half of the 20th Century.

Wine is hard now. Very hard. As in, having to learn a dozen languages (plus topography) hard.

The trick is making sense of it. The secret is you don’t have to. All you have to do is know your wine bar.

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GARAGISTE opened late last year and almost immediately became an industry hangout — a place where the cool kids, not the rich kids, drink wine. It eschews the easy pickings of “name brand” wines (famous Burgundies, big hitter cabs, overpriced Bordeaux) for an ever-changing selection of new-fangled bottles from producers you’ve probably never heard of.  (For those unfamiliar with the term, “garagiste” refers to small, Right Bank producers who became known in the 1990s for making cult wines that aren’t worth the prices people pay for them.)

To be sure, you can still pick up some hefty Barolos, big Burgundies, or righteous Rhones here, but the specialties of the house are lip-smacking wines at reasonable prices that are so good you don’t care about their snob appeal.

This poses a serious conundrum for, let’s say, 90% of the fine wine drinkers in the world, who only drink wines based upon reputation. Or even worse, buy bottles based on the “score” some hack writer in some advertising rag (read: most wine journals) gave it.

You’re not going to hear a lot of “The Spectator gave this a ’94′” at Garagiste; nor will you see a lot of label whores showing off their good taste. Instead, you’ll find people who like wine because it tastes good, not by how impressive they think it is.

Las Vegas is late to this party (no surprise there) as these kinds of wine bars have been all the rage in Paris for over a decade. Just last weekend we stumbled upon Mignon in downtown Los Angeles, and it fit the same mold: passionate owners, reasonable prices, exquisite, obscure wines in an unpretentious setting. Exactly the opposite of the snobbery so often (rightfully) attached to wine drinking.

No one is talking scores here. Owners Eric Prato and Mario Enriquez are more interested in describing to you what’s in the glass, and turning you on to unfamiliar bottles, producers, and grapes.

They also do the natural wine/biodynamic-thing, but aren’t obnoxious about it. Both will tell you that some natural wines have a funky, less-polished, rough-around-the-edges taste to them that may not be to some people’s liking. You will get fair warning and also a taste before you have to commit to a whole glass.

You will also be getting an education here unlike any available at any other wine bar in town. Having two gifted sommeliers on hand most evenings to guide you through the pours is something other wine-drinking locations (what few we have) can only dream about. (Some joints around town are “wine bars” in the same way that any restaurant with a steak on the menu is a steakhouse.)

To be sure, there are things I don’t like about Garagiste. The setting is a bit cold, more industrial than cozy. Noise levels are up there — perhaps not at military jet-afterburner levels, but conversation-impeding just the same. (Enhancing conversation should be a wine bar’s second main purpose.) Some cushy chairs and strategically-placed sound baffles would go a long way. The nibbles are little more than a single (good) cheese platter with excellent bread from Esther’s Kitchen across the street, and at busy times, the owners and staff can be over-matched. (I’m actually ecstatic when the place is packed, and some crunchy grissini at the bar would also go a long way when you can’t get the staff’s attention.)

The plus side is that you’re in a wine bar, so relax, pilgrim. You’re not there to see how fast you can catch a buzz.

Also, patrons have quickly embraced options to the limited food offerings…by bringing their own! Prato and Enriquez are totally fine with you inhaling a burrito from Casa Don Juan (down the street) next to a sexy syrah, or pairing some Pad See Eiw from DE Thai Kitchen (around the corner) with a sassy Juliénas. Want a big-ass steak with your Chateau Cantermele? No problem, just get one to-go from Esther’s and eat it on the premises.

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Being something of a cheesehead, I’ve taken to bringing my own platters of Fourme d’Ambert, Comté, Pecorino, and Cabot’s Cloth-Bound Cheddar to enjoy with whatever cheese-wine pairing suits my fancy that day.

Another issue (more like a curiosity) is the way the bottles for sale are priced. Garagiste is both a bar and a retail store. The list you’re given is also what’s available for sale. Bottles to take home are priced at half what they cost if you drink them there. This makes the prices seem like a steal if you take one to-go, and a bit pricey if you opt to pop a cork on the premises. Still, even with this in-house mark-up, everything is at least half of what you’d pay for the same juice on the Strip.

And what you’re paying for is unique indeed. Interesting bottles, ever-changing wines by the glass, low prices, knowledgeable patrons, friendly owners, and a feeling as if you’re at the epicenter of a Las Vegas wine renaissance.

I’ve been saying for years that the craft beer has become ridiculous, and Millennials will eventually age out of all the cocktail folderol. It looks like it’s happening and Garagiste is ground zero for how it’s happening in Las Vegas.

Being someone who has waited 30 F*CKING YEARS,  for a place to drink good wine downtown, it couldn’t have happened a moment too soon.

Skoal!

GARAGISTE WINE ROOM/MERCHANT

197 E. California Ave. #140

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.954.3658

Image(Weird-ass spirits in a wine bar? Yes!)

 

 

EATING LAS VEGAS 2020 – A Review and an Announcement

Image(Snobby, uppity, opinionated, and not objective!)

From CaffeineFiend at Amazon.com:

Simply put: Don’t waste your time on this book. You’re not going to find it a useful resource…let alone an objective resource! The author is uppity, snobby and very opinionated.

Filled with excessive profanity, “Eating Las Vegas” is the author’s highly subjective views favoring high end restaurants. To him, buffets are like eating out of the garbage. He hates people who go to Vegas for conferences or work, aka what he calls “asses with money”. He hates the casual Sin City tourist like men in cargo shorts and women in yoga pants worn “usually on people with asses to big to be wearing them.” Seriously, would you take advice from this clown?

There’s a reason why he’s divorced and enjoys eating out alone.

While I know eating is very subjective and to each to his/her own, but this silly, arrogant clod has no credibility with me. No help.

You’re better off looking at a Fodor’s or Unofficial Guides to Vegas for very insightful, credible and well-written advice from objective and professional authors.

Guilty as charged.

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Except for the excessive profanity part. To the best of our recollection, we drop the F-bomb once, and throw the S-H-I-T word around a couple of times.

And except for the whole Fodor’s, Unofficial Guides-thing….which are guidebooks thrown together by free-lancers who hardly ever step foot in the places they list.

Other than that, this bloke has us pegged harder than Donald Trump with a porn star.

Thank you for buying and reading, CaffeineFiend!

Announcement:

A week from this Thursday, February 27 at 6:00 pm, we will be hosting a book-signing/discussion group at The Writer’s Block, 519 S. 6th St., LV, NV 89101, 702.550.6399.

The discussion topic will be “The Future of Las Vegas Dining” – and a panel discussion (led by yours truly of course) will held with participants Kim Foster, Eric Gladstone and James Trees….as well as among a host of other food and beverage professionals who will be in attendance with plenty of opinions of their own.

Refreshments will be served.

And by “refreshments will be served” we mean good pizza and Prosecco.

Admission (and refreshments) are free…but we’ll appreciate it if you buy a book….or at least bring one you’ve bought for autographing.

The Taste(s) of a Critic

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The rich are different from you and me. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

So are restaurant critics.

Unlike the rich in Fitzgerald’s quote though, we don’t think we’re better than you, just more observant.

More tuned in. Less distracted. More sharply aware of the fine points of the food we are sticking in our mouths.

Are we snobs? Absolutely. Of the highest order. Don’t you want any professional critic (of art, music, literature, design, etc.) to have the highest standards? To bring years of education and discrimination to the subject at hand?

Of course you do.

Nothing would be more boring, and less useful, than a “critic” who liked everything. Fast food tacos? Great! Canned soup? Beat a path to that door! The 24th link in a celebrity chef’s chain? Don’t miss it!

If you’re looking for that sort of reflexive boosterism, Instagram has plenty of influencers for you.

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If you’re looking for an educated point of view, then you seek out and read someone who knows their stuff. And by “knows their stuff” I mean has a wealth of knowledge based upon real world experience, travel, study, and deep involvement with the subject. You want opinions, Yelp is full of them. If you want to learn something, read on.

To a food critic, every bite, every meal is really about one thing:

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Perspective. A point of view. Vision. The intent behind the food. What is it that this restaurant is trying to do and how well do they do it?

There can be as much perspective behind a taco truck as there is at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire. Is the truck content to sling the same stuff dozens of others are doing, at a cheap price, to help you feed your face quickly and cheaply while helping it pay the rent? If so, then there ya go.

Or is it aiming higher? Are the salsas not out of a can? Are the tomatoes riper, the meat better, and the seasonings finer? Were the tortillas made minutes or days ago? After your second or third bite, are you saying to yourself, “Self, I can’t wait to come back here”?  Or are you just happy you are not hungry anymore?

Not every meal can provoke this kind of reaction:

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…but it’s what you always seek — the Holy Grail of Food — something so intense, so transporting, that memories are stirred of the visceral, the elemental, the emotional ties we have to food.

All a critic is looking for is either that imaginary transportation to another place, or to be riveted to where you sit. If food achieves neither it has failed you. Your mother’s chicken soup could do it; Joël Robuchon’s mashed potatoes do it. A great piece of meatloaf can be just as soul-satisfying as a French Laundry degustation.

One of the reasons critics disdain fast food is because it divorces food from time and place, memory and feeling. Fast food is food as fuel and that’s it. There is no connection, no enrichment gained from eating it. The spiritual binding brought forth from a simple home-cooked meal is non-existent. We cram, we get full, we are connected to nothing but the will to stay alive.

If chain restaurants represent one end of the feeding spectrum, then critics occupy the obverse. Food is the furthest thing from fuel in a critic’s mind. It is an ideal to be sought; perfection to pursue….sometimes with hesitance, sometimes with gusto. To search and find perfection is our quest, but we’ll settle for excellence, wherever we find it.

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Perfection is unobtainable, in art or food, but excellence can be anywhere. And in searching for it with every bite, you acquire what I call a taste Rolodex in your head.
Every bite contains a comparison. A spoonful of ice cream gets graded against every other one you’ve ever had. When you stumble into Giolitti in Rome for a scoop, from your first lick you’re comparing it to La Strega Nocciola in Florence, which, you recall, kicked the ass of that poseur franchised crap you had in New York that time. And when you stroll into Gelato di Milano in Las Vegas, consciously or unconsciously you are holding them to those standards.

The glory of course is in the pursuit; the obsessive hunt for the best. And if you’re going to obsess over anything, what’s better than having an all-consuming ardor for something you have to do twice a day to stay alive?

Yes, we can dutifully shovel proteins, amino acids, starches and complex sugars into our piehole, solely to stay alive, and not give them another thought.

But nature gave us a sense of smell and taste for a reason: to discern the edible from the inedible in the wild. Modern man doesn’t live in fear of dying from toxic berries or diseased meat, but the same skills our ancestors used to eat healthily thousands of years ago serve us well today when deciding the right time to eat a piece of fruit, or when a protein has been cooked to its optimum flavor potential.

Image(More liver and wine, and less sodium please)

On some level, that’s all a food critic can tell you. Did they know how to season it and know when it’s done? There is your baseline. Then, there are finer points and deeper dives: Did the foie gras poached in Sauternes (above) taste of wine-drenched, silky liver, or just salt? Was it properly cleaned?  Is the recipe trying to mimic a classic? Or a riff on it? Or is it a copy of a copy of a riff on a classic? Is the ornamentation on the plate for taste or show or both? Are there too many elements to a dish or not enough? (Rarely the latter.)

All gastronomes are searching for dishes of high amplitude – where the flavor elements converge into a single gestalt. A good critic should likewise be such an inquisitive epicure (or at least aspire to be one), even though many, sadly, are not.

A knowledgeable critic has a wealth of experience in his brain (that Rolodex thing again) to give you answers to these questions. Does that mean he’s right and you’re wrong if you disagree with him? No, but if he/she is doing the job right, at least they’ve given you a baseline of information upon which to make your own judgments.

As with movies, a good critic can not only tell you if something is good, but why it is so. No one said it better than Rogert Ebert:

I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn’t have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some “work” and others never could. He can urge you toward older movies to expand your context for newer ones. He can examine how movies touch upon individual lives, and can be healing, or damaging. He can defend them, and regard them as important in the face of those who are “just looking for a good time.” He can argue that you will have a better time at a better movie. We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness. Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully.

Substitute “food” for “movies” in the above paragraph and you have the best defense of a restaurant critics I can think of.

Finally, we come to the question of the actual tasting itself. How does a critic evaluate a dish? Is it different from how you taste food? Most likely. It is certainly a lot faster.

Hypersensitivity is our calling card — to raw ingredients, degree of doneness, balance, temperature, spices, herbs, texture, mouthfeel (not the same thing), harmony, assertiveness, amplification of one note over another — all of which goes racing through our brain before the second bite.

As with wine or music, once you understand the subject on a deeper level, you’re incapable of being satisfied with mediocrity. You might be perfectly happy grooving to the sweet, sweet sounds of Donny and Marie singing their greatest hit, but someone schooled in classical music or modern jazz is not so easily amused. In another life, Domino’s pizza might’ve sufficed; now it makes you want to barf.

Then there’s that pesky perspective thing again: how does this dish, this restaurant, this meal, fit within the context of every other meal, you’ve had?

Back to Ebert again, he quotes Socrates when arguing that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” He pushes the movie goer to understand both their and a filmmaker’s philosophy about a movie, in order to explain with some depth why you like or don’t like a film.

It would certainly be nice if all movie buffs had that level of understanding, just as I would argue that if everyone who eats (and that would be everyone) would examine their food with same intellectual rigor a critic does, the world would be a happier, healthier place.

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In reality, this will never happen. All a passionate critic can hope for is to shine a small ray of enlightenment on your meal. You should go to Bouchon for oysters, for example, because they always seem to get the plumpest, briniest specimens in town. (Or Sage, for their classic Tabasco sorbet-topped beauties, above.) The selection at Bouchon is never too large and the staff always knows their bivalves. This is the sort of information an informed consumer should have in their holster before dropping fifty bucks on a dozen of them.

Does this mean you will identify the watermelon/cucumber notes of a deep-pocketed Kusshis the same way I will? Perhaps not, but if you taste them next to some $1 oyster bar (Hello, Palace Station!), you would find it’s no contest. Such is the ground a critic plows so you won’t have to.

Yes, I get ecstatic over restaurants like Bouchon and Sage, just like I do over oysters, pizza, steaks, tacos and the fanciest French food you can imagine. (I can still recall my oyster epiphany in Brussels almost thirty years ago, when the slippery little critters were so fresh and alive they contracted when hit with a squirt of lemon.) Such was the beginning of a life-long affair.

As any romantic can tell you, once you fall in love, falling in like is no longer an option. To be a good critic, you must love your subject even when it isn’t loving you back.

True love is like that.