Monday, June 29, 2009

Wine And Roommates

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Some of you veteran OWF readers may dimly remember that I write for other publications. Some of you may also remember that I occasionally write for this one. Ha ha. Yesterday, my article about managing roommates and wine tastes appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. I had fun writing it and hearing the different stories of people who have had to wrangle wine interest into the already complicated dynamics of roommates in San Francisco. I also like the juxtaposition of this piece — almost certainly one of my most "wine light" wine articles — with a piece I have coming out in a couple of weeks for a different publication — almost certainly one of my most wine-geek-oriented pieces.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

A Guide To Berkeley Wine Stores

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The other day, I mentioned in conversation that I live within a short drive of four excellent wine stores. And while I often assume that every wine lover in the town knows every wine store, I've noticed that even the students in my Berkeley Extension classes — who are obviously passionate about wine — don't always know about all of these. Inspired in part by the "I love this town" vibe at the new In Berkeley blog, I'm offering my guide to these stores.

If you're not in the Bay Area, this post may not interest you. But no matter where you live, I urge you to patronize the small, independent wine stores in your area. This isn't just my normal plea about local businesses and community economies: This is about service. Get to know the staff at your local wine store, and you'll get better wine. You can tell them what you like and don't like, and they'll steer you to wines you'll enjoy and introduce you to new ones you might never have found. Want to drink well? Let a true wine merchant help. A supermarket or Beverages & More employee may also steer you well but it's less likely — s/he probably doesn't love wine the way a wine merchant's staff does — and s/he's not likely to remember anything about you the next time you go.

A lot of people are intimidated by wine stores, because speaking about wine still has a veneer of snobbishness. Here's how to ask for help in a good wine store: Go up to one of the employees and say, "I need some help finding some wine. I typically like <fill in wines you like here>, and I want to learn more about other wines that are out there." That kind of question makes a wine person's day, and any good merchant will take your tastes into account. They won't hand you a barnyardy, earthy Burgundy if you say you like Napa Cabernet. Buy a few of the bottles they suggest, try them, decide what you like, and then go back and say (ideally to the same person), "I bought X, Y, and Z from you last time, and I really liked X but I wasn't very keen on Y. I normally drink <fill in wines you like here>, but I'm curious what else you have that's like X." Do this a few times, and you'll be a regular.

Kermit Lynch, 1605 San Pablo Avenue
Easily the most famous of our wine stores. Kermit made his name in the early 1970s by championing and importing the artisanal wines of France, and to this day he carries French wines made with integrity and care. (There are some Italian wines in the store as well.) Domaine Tempier, and the entire Bandol region, became famous because of Kermit. So did true Beaujolais. So did Chinon. Several top Alsace producers grace his shelves as well. The list goes on and on.

I can barely move in the compactly arranged store without the urge to grab every bottle I spy and put it in my basket. But that brings me to the downside about Kermit's bottles: They tend to be a bit pricey. Not too much so, and there are, as he recently noted in his eloquent newsletter, 80 bottles in the store that sell for less than $20, but I don't have quite the budget to buy as much there as I'd like. That said, the annual "Get the old Burgundy off the shelves to make room for the new inventory" sale should not be missed.

Note that Kermit actively encourages you to develop a relationship with the salespeople in the store, many of whom have worked there for years.

Vintage Berkeley, 2113 Vine St. & 2949 College Ave.
I've been a fan of Vintage Berkeley since I walked through the door the first time. Owner Peter Eastlake focuses on quality wines from around the world that are under $25. He has a fantastic palate (I know this, I tell my students jokingly, because it aligns with mine.) I have never been disappointed with a bottle I bought from him, and even when I don't know the folks who are working, I can pick up any bottle with confidence that it will be a solid, enjoyable wine.

But do ask the staff their opinion: The Vine Street store staff can cheerfully talk about any of the bottles around them (the College store probably can, too, but I've been in there less often.) Or, if you're shy, read Peter's excellent and witty "shelf talkers" for the wines. They're well written and they never mention scores, Robert Parker, or Wine Spectator. He carries the wines because he likes them.

There are only two down sides to Vintage Berkeley for me. One, I don't get the chance to chat with Peter too much since he often seems to be at the College store when we're at the Vine store, and vice versa. Two, he sells his inventory quickly enough that if you find a wine you really like, you have to remember to go back right away and buy it: Otherwise, you risk disappointment.

There are free tastings on Saturday afternoons if you want to try before you buy.

The Spanish Table, 1814 San Pablo Ave
I hear that The Spanish Table carries a wide range of Spanish foodstuffs, cookbooks, and gear in the front part of the store. I wouldn't know: I always walk straight to the wine section in the back. Not surprisingly, the selection is largely Spanish, but Portugal is well represented, too. In general, if it's good and it's from one of those two countries, Kevin (the wine buyer, who's usually working there) carries it. And probably knows a ton about it.

Sure you can find wines from Spain's famous Rioja region. But you can also find cava, Txakolina, Vinho Verde, and more. There's a wall devoted to Madeira and Port. There's a long shelf devoted to different sherries. Right now, he's carrying a Basque cider which is a beautiful summer drink: 4 percent alcohol, $9 and a sherry-like taste. We've also seen Spanish beer there.

Spain is one of the top spots for value wines at the moment, and the store's prices are quite reasonable. Kevin even maintains a "house wine" area in the back where the bottles are $7 each. But even outside of that small section, it's not hard to find wines under $15.

Paul Marcus Wines, 5655 College Avenue
Paul Marcus is not in Berkeley. But it's so close to the border, and it's such an excellent wine store, I couldn't leave it out. It easily has the best Italian selection in the East Bay, but it's also got excellent coverage in Burgundy, Austria, Germany, the Loire, the Southern Rhone, dessert wines, and more. When we lived in Oakland, this was our primary wine store, and we know most of the staff well (they're one of the stores I usually hit up when I'm hunting for corked wines for class). Everyone there has a ton of knowledge and is eager to help you find the right bottle. In fact, they recently added a "staff picks" section where each staff member gets to call out a few favorite bottles.

Here's a quick tip if you're looking for values: Poke around in the front of the store, which is where they keep their more affordable wines.

North Berkeley Wine Imports, 1601 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
A friend of mine who seeks out good Champagne says that North Berkeley is now where he goes for his favorite Champagnes. But the store, which like Kermit Lynch imports its selection, brings in a wide variety of wines. I don't take advantage of this store as often as I should, mostly because it's not near one of our normal shopping destinations, but every time I've been in there, the staff has been helpful and knowledgeable.

Solano Cellars, 1580 Solano Ave
To be honest, I haven't been in this store much since Peter Eastlake, Vintage Berkeley's owner, bought it a couple years ago. But I know he's kept its spirit intact: It's a neighborhood wine store with a broad selection of good wines. Solano isn't on our normal shopping route, either, but the wine store has never had a real personality to me. (It probably has more of one now with Peter at the helm.) Still, for North Berkeley residents it's an excellent resource. Unlike most of the other stores on this list, Solano Cellars offers wine tasting classes that will give you a solid introduction to any given topic, and the store pulls out some nice surprises: I once saw Terry Theise there giving the crowd at the bar a splendid tour of his German wine portfolio.

Vino, various locations
When I speak of a wine store having personality, I often use Vino!, a local chain, as a good counterexample. Each store that I've seen has a good selection and a knowledgeable staff, but I never feel like there's a mission statement or driving passion behind the inventory other than just selling wine. This is no doubt unfair, but even though the one on 4th Street is on a normal shopping route, I rarely do more than just breeze through. It doesn't grab me.