Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mailing List Hysteria - Rhys Vineyards

So, it appears that I just got on the active mailing list for Rhys Vineyards.

For those of you who don't know, Rhys Vineyards (pronounced REESE) is a fairly new California producer that has garnered a lot of press lately for producing pinot noirs that emulate the flavors, elegance, and restraint of the red wines of Burgundy. Burgundy, located in eastern France near the Saone River, is considered the benchmark location for pinot noir (and some would say all red wine varieties) in the world.

Though it is probably debatable whether pinot noir was first cultivated in Burgundy, historical records date viticulture to Burgundy from the early Dark Ages and show that the Cisterician monks farmed the pinot noir variety in the Clos de Vougeot vineyard from at least the early 1300s (and for those who are interested, there are still many modern producers who grow pinot noir in the Clos de Vougeot today). With centuries of trial and error, the Burgundians have (arguably) identified the best vineyards for the cultivation of pinot noir. And, unlike the Bordelais, who tend to blend all their wine together irrespective of vineyard, the Burgundians vinify and bottle the wines from the finest vineyards (identified as premier crus and, for the very best, grand crus) separately.

While California does not have the same history of pinot noir production as Burgundy, the state has been producing pinot noir for some years now, with demand skyrocketing after the release of Sideways. Arguably the most famous location for pinot noir in California is the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. There, pinot noir flourishes because the Russian River Valley has a cooler microclimate than the rest of Sonoma County, but nonetheless produces wines that tend to lean towards the fulsomely fruity and marked with less restraint, structure, earthiness, and minerality (and much higher sweetness and alcohol) than those found in Burgundy. Although Russian River Valley producers argue that these characteristics are just hallmarks of their terroir, and not cellar techniques, agricultural practice, or other forms of "manipulation" as some have contended, they nonetheless produce wines that do not enchant those who first fell in love with the pinot noir variety through Burgundy.

And this is where Rhys Vineyards come in. Kevin Harvey, a Silicon Valley software mogul who had developed a taste for red Burgundy, decided one day to grow pinot noir in his backyard. As recounted in Mike Steinberger's Slate article, Harvey vinified the grapes in his garage and produced a wine that was "shockingly good," marked with the restraint, precision, and minerality of red Burgundy. Having, through "pure serendipity," stumbled on a great vineyard for pinot noir in his backyard, he abandoned plans to start a winery in Sonoma County and focused on finding plots of land closer to home...namely the Santa Cruz Mountains (for the full story, I recommend you read the entirety of Steinberger's Slate article, hyperlinked above).

What separates Rhys Vineyards from many others is Kevin Harvey's precise methodology for researching the soil and exposure of the vineyards he chooses to purchase. In many ways free-riding on the centuries long trial and error process of the Cistercian monks, Harvey looks for traits similar to those found in the vineyard of Burgundy: shallow soils with geological diversity (preferably with a high dose of limestone), cool climates, good exposure to sunlight without heat, and ideally a slope for drainage. Through his research, Harvey has found vineyards that produce pinot noir wines that are ripe, yet low in alcohol, and built with the structure (that is acidity and tannins) to age and develop complexity.

Thus, among burgheads, Rhys has developed a cult-status, being one of the few California pinot noir producers making overtly Burgundian wines. Which bring us to the issue of the "mailing list."

As Harvey remarked on a thread on Wine Berserkers, the mailing list is similar to Churchill's characterization of democracy---"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Basically, for those of you who don't know, most California wineries run mailing lists through which they offer to sell wine to the general public. For small, cult producers like Screaming Eagle, Sine Qua Non, Carlisle, Alban, and, yes, even Rhys, their most coveted bottlings can only be purchased through the mailing list.

No problem, right? Just get on the mailing list and you can get that bottle of Screaming Eagle (if you have a spare $1000 on hand, that is). Not so fast. The issue is that because of the huge demand, only those few who got on the mailing list early get offered wine, while the Johnny-come-latelies, who want to buy because of the three digit Parker score in Wine Advocate with its rhapsodic tasting note describing the "hedonistic nose of jammy, brambly garrigued fruit coated with butterscotched church spices slathered on pain grille (yes, he means toast)," are placed on the waiting list.

And, here comes the kicker: in order to stay on the mailing list, one has to buy. Otherwise, you get dropped and replaced by one of the hundreds of dittoheads on the wait list. Well, at least you get your wine, right, even if compelled to purchase it? Obviously, since I asked this rhetorical question, you know the answer is no. Because, even if you are on the active mailing list, many are still on a wait list of sorts. That is because not all members of the mailing list are equal. Each person gets an "allocation" of wine and can only buy what the winery offers. The logic is that people on the mailing should all get an equal shot at getting wines without worrying that it will be bought up by just a few. However, those who have a record of buying more for a longer period of time get larger allocations, and more importantly, are allocated the wines that get the three digit Parker score with the ridiculous tasting note. All the others get offered only the entry level wines that the wineries are having a difficult time unloading. And, people keep buying the entry level stuff with the hopes of building enough of a purchase history to one day be allocated that single bottle of Screagle, SQN Pisoni Hillside Select Super Duper Reserve, Manischevitz Supreme+ Cubed, Gary's Vineyard of Bacchanalian Awesomeness, etc..

Luckily, for me, my tastes for wine tend to be more old world, so I have managed to avoid the California cult-wine mailing list shit show. Back when I didn't know what I liked, I tried to sign up for several cult mailing lists, but, thankfully, usually never got off the wait list. To this day, I still get a postcard from Alban every fall and spring, sadly informing me that I have yet to make it to the elect of the mailing list and getting the opportunity to purchase their Zin-fully delicious Rhone Rangers. I did once get promoted to another mailing list, and they informed me via my credit card account by charging me for the full allocation without bothering to call me first. Thankfully, I managed to talk to the winery, and with some convincing (and intervention from the winery owner himself) managed to reverse the charge and get my ass off the mailing list.

But, here I am, now on a mailing list for Rhys. To Rhys and Kevin Harvey's credit, they don't play the ridiculous games that most other cult wineries pull with their mailing list. First, they offer an allocation, but don't force you to buy wines you don't want to buy. Purchasing any wine will keep you on the mailing list, no matter if its the cheapest or most expensive allocated. Furthermore, you don't have to buy every time they make an allocation. You can skip one so long as you buy once a year. They have also been fair about the waitlist...because they have increased production this year with vines from a vineyard now deemed suitable for cultivation, everyone on the list was offered a small allocation of highly rated and regarded wine. While the most coveted wines were already taken by those on the active mailing list, they were still offering to those on the waitlist wines that were in high demand, and not just some negociant plonk they were seeking to unload (to be fair, their negociant plonk is also reputed to be of extremely high quality, though it appears they don't make them anymore).

But, nonetheless, even on this relatively fair-minded mailing list, there is still plenty of cause for hysteria. I have been on the wait list for over a year, when in fact I was on the active mailing list when I first signed up, but declined to buy anything from my allocation last year. After discovering I was waitlisted after not receiving an allocation for Spring 2011, I began to panic. I thought I had blown my chance, to be condemned to receive the semi-annual postcard sadly informing me about my waitlist status as I get to read about all the other mailing list members crowing on the Internet wine boards about their allocations. Lamenting to a friend about my "plight," she told me point-blank, "you're screwed."

The reasoning was Rhys was not only getting plaudits from Parker and Antonio Galloni of the Wine Advocate, representing the mainstream fruit-bomb wine press, but also reviewers respected by the burgophiliac, anti-flavor elite nerdlings (namely Allen Meadows and John Gilman). Rhys was even garnering grudging respect from spoof-a-phobic, vin jaune-swilling, amphora aged pineau-d'aunis loving, wine geeks on the Internet boards, who would rather risk blindness and drink antifreeze than an oaky and overripe red burgundy imported by North Berkeley Imports, much less a California pinot. There was no way Rhys would be able to keep up with the demand since they seemed to have pulled the hat trick of getting unanimous acclaim from every corner of the oeno-sphere.

There was of course the option of buying from someone else's allocation (there were so many "offers you couldn't refuse"). On Wine Berserkers, numerous people, seeking to boost their purchase history record, were offering to those not on the waiting list a bottle or two from their allocations. And, much like slinging crack on a Baltimore street corner, this was a Faustian bargain. By buying through them, I could get a bottle, but, in the long run, to accept such a deal would only condemn me to an even longer stay in waitlist purgatory. This is because buying from others only boosted them through the hierarchy of the mailing list, ever expanding their allocations as they took credit for MY PURCHASES! It would also keep people on the active mailing list that normally would have been dropped for not buying. To quote Cicero, O tempora! O mores! But, there it was. With a simple PM (private message), an e-mail, even a clandestine rendezvous in an offline (that is face to face meeting) I could get the forbidden nectar of Rhys. But, at what a cost.

With this whirlwind of hysterical paranoia swirling in my head, when I was offered an allocation this time, of course I jumped on it. Not to get the wines, mind you, but to be a member of the elect! Well, here I am, now a captive on the active mailing list. I've beaten the odds. While I wasn't allocated anything from the celebrated Home Vineyard (Harvey's backyard), I am still on the list. And with enough sweat, perseverance, and most importantly, dollars, can one day struggle my way up to the top of the heap, getting that single bottle of Home Vineyard to nurse, cradle, cellar, and not drink until I'm on my deathbed. God help me.

(And, if you want anything from my allocations, PM me and I can hook you up...muhahahah!)

Alberto's Pizza - Dupont Circle

Having just gotten off the Circulator starving, I went down into this basement level restaurant to get a slice. Of course, this being DC, it was "jumbo-sliced" (essentially serving a portion the size of 2 normal slices and charging you $5 for it). I vaguely remember enjoying the pizza before, even though the only other times I have been here have been past 2:00am on a weekend night with my taste buds blurred by PBR and bottom shelf rail drinks. But, what the hell, how bad could it be?

Of course, whenever someone ends a paragraph with a rhetorical question like that, you know it has got to be pretty friggin' bad. I basically spent a good 10 minutes trying to choke down a sheaf of dry, tasteless crust slightly reminiscent of pre-vamped Domino's (which is to say, corrugated cardboard). The sauce imparted texture, but no flavor, and the cheese was heartily preprocessed. Basically, I managed to salvage the meal by pouring on powdered "parmesan" cheese and red pepper flakes that helped cover up the taste.

But, I wouldn't necessarily mind returning, just so long as it is past 2:00am and my liver is on the brink of needing a transplant because of alcohol poisoning.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shamshiry - Tyson's Corner

Shamshiry is a sit down Persian restaurant located in what appears to be a nondescript office park in the middle of Tyson's Corner. I ordered the salmon kebabs with scented rice. The salmon was well-seasoned, if a little well done and dry for my taste. The scented rice, on the other hand, was intriguing. It was perfumed with dill, which you could smell as you took a forkful of rice and put it in your mouth. It was actually fascinating because the aroma of the rice enhanced the flavor of the salmon as a whole (an interesting example of the olfactory sense affecting one's taste, much like a fine wine's flavor being enhanced when you inhale deeply from your glass while sipping the wine). Slivers of fava beans were also mixed into the rice, giving the dish some welcome heft and heartiness.

In sum, I am not sure this is worth a detour to go to, but the food was generally well done. The rice was the best part of the meal and I would be interested in coming back one day and trying out some of their other rice dishes.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Yechon - Annandale

Yechon is an Annandale institution. It is a consistent, reliable standby that serves a wide variety of Korean staples 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most non-Koreans probably come for the BBQ (which I have yet to order), but there are plenty of items to choose from on the menu for bold epicurean or even the slightly less adventurous palate.

For those seeking to expand beyond Korean BBQ, try the dolsot bibimbop. It essentially is rice served in a hot, stone bowl with various vegetables, both pickled and fresh, tossed in with a portion of Korean BBQ beef (bulgogi). When mixed together with the hot pepper paste and a little sesame oil, you get a nice melange of earthy spiciness, piquant acidity from the vinegary vegetables, and the heartiness of toasted rice. I would also urge you spend the extra money on the hot, stone bowl: the slight crust it develops on the rice really elevates the dish. They also have bokumbap, which is a Korean fried rice dish, that is a little softer and less sauced than Chinese fried rice. The stir-fried noodle dish (japchae) is also well made and an utterly correct rendition.

For the more adventurous, I am a big fan of their oxtail soup (kkori gomtang) which is essentially just a milky beef broth made by slowly boiling beef bones and oxtails for several hours. It is a very refreshing dish, though many would probably characterize it as bland. But, throw in some diced scallions, salt, and red pepper, and it becomes a marvel of simplicity. On the other end of the spectrum you have the spicy buckwheat noodle dish (bibimnaengmyung) which is served cold. Traditionally a summer dish, I think it is still suitable for the fall.

The gratis banchan dishes are all solid if unspectacular. The radish kimchi (kaktugi) is good, though I find the cabbage kimchi (baechu kimchi) a little bland. The potato salad and bean sprouts are nice.

All in all, I ate with two other people and we got a huge spread for $40 plus tip. Service is efficient and polite and the ambiance is quiet and sedate (though I hear that it is quite hopping late night on weekends). It is a good place to go to try Korean food for the first and you really can't go too wrong with any of the Korean dishes they have to offer: probably one of the more consistent menus I have tried in Annandale.

N.B.: One amusing detail my sister noticed as we left: the staff were eating Domino Pasta Bread Bowls for dinner. I guess even they get tired of Korean food (though I suppose it shows that we generally can't really kick our love for carbs).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

District of Pi - Penn Quarter

I must confess: perhaps I just don't get deep dish pizza. I remember vaguely being thrilled with Uno's when I was ten, but I must concede the possibility that my tastes have evolved since then. Nonetheless, even if I am somewhat biased against pizza casseroles in general, I can't help but feel that my ambivalence towards District of Pi is justified.

First, the positives. The ambiance of the restaurant itself is great. Lots of brick walls, cozy tables, and comfortable seats...a wonderfully convivial atmosphere. The staff, generally, were friendly and welcoming. However, the food just was not up to snuff for me.

The appetizers we ordered were fine. The meatballs were solid, the genoa salami was nice enough, and the pickled thai cucumbers actually quite pleasant. But, the pizzas...

One side of our table ordered a Southside Classico (Sausage, Mushrooms, Green Peppers, Onions, Mozzarella) while my side ordered a Western Addition (Ricotta, Mozzarella, Spinach, Mushrooms, Onions, Garlic). I took a slice of what I thought was the Western Addition and tasted a pile of blandish, chunky tomato sauce on crust. No cheese, no spinach, no nothing. Then, we discovered, that the waitress had actually misidentified the pizzas, and I had been eating the Southside Classico. Well, I tasted no sausage, no green peppers, no onions, no mushrooms, and maybe the occasional wad of mozzarella. When I finally got to taste the Western Addition, it was an improvement. At least there was a discernible amount of cheese and spinach underneath the pile of sauce, but tasting any of the other "toppings"? Fuggedaboutit.

I don't know. Maybe it is just me, but I kind of like Italian food that isn't swimming in a pool of sauce, drowning all the other ingredients in a deluge of tinny tomato. Unfortunately, that is exactly what I got at District of Pi.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shophouse - Dupont Circle

Shophouse is essentially Asian Chipotle, and I mean that literally (it is owned by the same company). It follows the same assembly line process as Chipotle, primarily slinging rice bowls, but also serving "banh mi" sandwiches as well. You can pick one out of four different proteins (chicken "satay," pork and chicken meatballs, grilled steak, and tofu); one out of four different carbs (jasmine rice, brown rice, rice noodles, or the banh mi); one veggie; one sauce; one garnish; and one topping (the banh mi restricts to you to only the green papaya slaw garnish and the crushed peanuts topping). While I normally avoid "Asian" restaurants that serve food that require me to make copious use of scare quotes in order to describe them (like just now in this paragraph), I suppose I can cautiously recommend Shophouse.

Now, my primary concern with this concept is whether all these different ingredients will taste good regardless of the combination chosen by the customer. Otherwise, you are going to end up with a "Slophouse" of discordant flavors swimming in your paper bowl. Luckily, at least, my selection of brown rice, meatballs, red curry, long beans, pickled vegetables (almost a kimchi like concoction), and crispy garlic worked reasonably well together. The red curry was just beneath the threshold of my heat tolerance and the pickled vegetables added quite a bit of kick as well. The long beans were also crisp and flavorful. Surprisingly, the meatballs were the least exciting part of the bowl, though they were still good. My friend ordered green curry with chicken and long beans and also enjoyed it (the green curry sauce, while milder, is still hot---my friend couldn't even finish his bowl).

But, on the other hand, there were some things I noticed that gave me pause. For example, the rice noodles were pre-boiled. I wouldn't claim to be an expert on "Asian" food, but I would assume that it is just about axiomatic among all cuisines, both oriental and occidental, that noodles and pasta should be prepared a la minute; otherwise they become a gummy, unappetizing mess. For some reason, I would assume that Shophouse has yet to discover a way to overcome the primordial laws of physics, so I would avoid the noodles. And, while I enjoy spice, I think it is inevitable that they will tone down the sauce eventually. While, with respect to a Thai palate, the spice is probably normal and authentic (I've had curries and papaya salads that were as spicy as this), there is no way that a mass-market chain restaurant will be able to get most middle class Americans to eat this regularly for lunch. It is just too spicy for the American palate. But, I can also see Shophouse retreating too far the other way and serving the same creamily confected unctuous sludge that one can find at any strip mall Thai restaurant in the lower 48. I truly hope that they try to make the sauces more approachable, but still retain significant heat.

For $7.50, I suppose you could do worse. And how many times can you eat Chipotle anyway?