TEACHABLE MOMENTS AT THE BUNGALOW KITCHEN
Let me tell you a wine and food story that happened recently. It’s a familiar story, at least to me, because there were three takeaways I’ve written about many, many times.
- Even experienced wine people want red wine at dinner, whether eating fish or not.
- America invented the cocktail wine and will pay huge sums for it.
- Traditional European wines need food to taste their best.
The restaurant where these manifestations took place was Michael Mina’s red hot The Bungalow Kitchen at the 2nd & PCH complex in Long Beach. Dale and I were dining with Jim and Rose Witt, longtime friends who were very influential in my decision to enter the wine business in 1982. Jim, in fact, managed the liquor store I shopped in during my very young adult years in the very early 1970s.
In those days, wine was something exotic, special, foreign and mostly fringe. California wineries would beg travelers to stop in their tasting rooms and sample their wines for free, hoping that just one of their offerings would appeal to the taste of the prospective customer. Chain stores only carried jug wines and a smattering of imports. Liquor stores in nicer neighborhoods would have a special section carved out of their floorplans for fine wines, which in those days were affordable to most working people.
Jim would organize blind wine tastings for our circle of friends, all themed around a particular variety like Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir, or a region, like St. Julien in Bordeaux, complete with Davis 20-point scoring cards. It was a great way to learn about one element of wine appreciation, identifying the characteristics of a particular wine, and expanding our tastes at the same time.
The built-in limitation to this type of evaluation is most people don’t drink wine out of brown bags in the real world. Traditionally, table wine was served at the table where the tastes of food—saltiness, fat, acid, sweetness—all influence the flavor and enjoyment of wine, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. Learning those things requires experimentation and awareness.
Fast forward twenty years to the 1990s, and the American wine boom was in full force. Baby boomers adopted wine as their adult beverage of choice, and they looked to wine as the beverage that would give them a sense of upward mobility and cultural superiority over non-wine drinkers. This was all good for bragging rights, acquisition fever and publications like Wine Spectator, but it didn’t do much to guide consumers into making the right wine choices for dinner.
Jim had quit the liquor store business and made a career in the wholesale wine business, but even he consumed wine more as an aperitif—by itself—than as a dinner wine. And he wasn’t alone. Everyone I knew, including those in my family, drank more wine unaccompanied by food than with dinner.
American winemakers who had once tailored their winemaking to appeal to the European table tradition, were now molding the style of their wines to appeal to the mass-tastes of cocktail wine drinkers from the mid-1980s on.
And that is the world we now live in. Some experienced wine people have a vague idea of what wine to select for a particular dish, but most consumers choose their favorite sipping wine styles for dinner. And this was in full view at The Bungalow Kitchen the night we celebrated Rose’s birthday weekend.
“Suppose we have a white for an aperitif?” Jim suggested. He looked at the extensive wine list and suggested, “Albariño?” We ordered a delicious warm crab and cream cheese dip with fried wontons. I wouldn’t say the variety is an inspired food wine, but it can be a charming aperitif. This particular choice was a little flat tasting with the wonton dish, but satisfactory.
The four of us made our menu choices: two Arctic chars, one sole, and one chicken dish on orzo. Then Jim said something that made my head spin.
“How about picking a red wine, Randy?” and handed me the wine list. I looked at him incredulously. If any group of main courses screamed for white wine, this was that group.
“With fish?” I asked.
“We drink red wine with dinner all the time,” Jim answered.
“Even with fish?”
“A light red, then?” I asked. Jim nodded.
The scene in the restaurant was really humming now. The music was blaring and thumping, and people were raising their voices to be heard. Not an environment for contemplative wine consumption, but certainly one to get your heart pounding.
Scanning the wine list, I was surprised to find a lot of trophy Cabernets there, Bryant Family and Kongsgaard, a Hundred Acre Cab for $1,120, Bond for $1,250, Colgin for $1,400, Harlan Estate for $2,300, Chateau Haut Brion for $1,525. A couple red Burgundies caught my eye, Comte de Vogué Musigny for $1,725 and a DRC La Tache (I didn’t jot down the price, but it was in the $5,000 range).
I was amused, imagining a hedge fund manager making his way to the Long Beach marina to hot dog his venture capitalist buddies with one of these wines while the subwoofers pounded to the beat of an R & B remix.
Needless to say, none of these wines would be appropriate with sole and Arctic char.
Then, down at the bottom of the alphabetized list was an affordable ($55) bottle of Greek Xinomavro Young Vines from Thymiopoulos, which we carry at The Wine Country. I suggested it to Jim.
“Never heard of it,” then to his credit said, “Let’s give it a try.”
The light red was surprisingly nice with my tasty char dish and Jim was quite impressed, so much so, he took a picture of the label.
Then a teaching moment presented itself. After Jim had completed his sole, he took a long sip of water. When he went back to his Xinomavro, it tasted funny. Something in the water—too much alkalinity, perhaps—screwed with his wine. I passed him some orzo from Dale’s plate and had him take a bite, then follow it with a sip of the Greek wine. Surprise! The wine snapped back and was enjoyable again.
Or was it really a surprise that a traditional Mediterranean wine would taste better with food?