i’m going to go ahead and take issue with Michael Bauer

UPDATE: Michael Bauer e-mailed me and confirmed that he did in fact write the wine list review, contary to what others have suggested might have been the case in the comments and to me privately in e-mails. Thanks for that, Michael.

Joe Dressner pointed me to this review earlier, and i couldn’t help but take the bait.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/02/28/FDEA1BVE5S.DTL#ixzz0gxUAWV2f

In his review of San Francisco’s new Baker & Banker restaurant it would seem that Michael Bauer enjoyed himself a great deal. he enjoyed the food (calling it “soulful, well-crafted food that subtly spans the globe for inspiration”), the service, the atmosphere. That is until you get to his comments on the wine list. “Strange” he calls it.

“Strange?”

What the fuck does that mean? Well later on he explains himself:

While I appreciate the International bent of the menu at Baker & Banker, I find it difficult to warm to the wine list. It’s as if the restaurant tried to collect every exotic varietal on one compact menu.

Aside from Chardonnay, the most listed varietal is Chenin Blanc and Malvasia, the main grape in a Croatia selection. I’m sure the 2007 Clai Bijele “Sveti Jakov” from Croatia is a hard sell at $74, even if it is a good wine.

The tendency is even more pronounced in the red wines. Among the 33 on the regular list, there are at least five wines using Rhone varietals, and four Gamays. There’s also Zweigelt from Austria, Frappato from Sicily and Hondarribi Beltza from the Basque country.

Heres the actual list: http://www.bakerandbanker.com/index.php/site/wine/

Looking at the list i can see a lot of care went into it. There is Hank Beckmeyer at La Clarine and Mike Dashe right there, two of the most interesting winemakers in California. There is a Pinot from Pyramid Valley in New Zealand, some of the most interesting wine coming out of that country. There is Beaver Creek, the ill named but incredibly interesting sans soufre merlot from California. There is that bastion of spanish tradition, Lopez de Heredia right alongside the Loire newcomer Noella Morantin. There is America, New Zealand, Spain, Croatia, France, Italy, Austria, Croatia, Portugal. Almost all the wines are from producers that are dynamic, working naturally, traditionalists and terroir driven winemakers pulling wine back from the brink of homogenization. Soulful? You bet? Globe spanning? Check. Inspired? Damn right.

So what is the problem? Does Michael Bauer even know these wines? Does he even discuss how they pair with the food? Does he even care beyond the fact that a Croatian wine is a hard sell (it is, but maybe someday it won’t be).

Wine lists and menus are often treated as separate entities instead of as an integrated whole. Inventiveness in a menu is usually acclaimed, in a wine list it is treated as an annoying distraction. Ingredients that are wild or exotic are highlighted, played with, explored. Croatian wines that are hard to pronounce are looked down upon. Pairing is so rarely brought up. The most important part of the list, how it and the menu mix, is not mentioned.

i’ve talked to Colin (the wine director at Baker & Banker) quite a bit. He is nothing if not inquisitive when it comes to wine. He is often talking about pairings. “What would you do with this?” was a common question. His twitter feed is packed with pairing ideas from his list and the Baker & Banker menu. And for this adventurous wine list he gets dumped on? i don’t even agree with some of his picks, but the wine list is very much his wine list.

Like Slows Barbecue in Detroit this is a wine list that should make you want to go in the restaurant even before you see the menu itself. it speaks volume about the willingness of a place to step outside of other people’s comfort zone. Even the California selections on the list are challenging and unique. Did you even know that someone was making a fascinating sans soufre merlot right here in California? No? Interested?

Then Baker & Banker’s wine list has you covered.

Note: i had no idea joe also posted this earlier on his blog, with similiar thoughts (i thought it was just a wine discussion board post). Read Here:

http://captaintumorman.com/comment/48/440/

~ by Cory Cartwright on March 1, 2010.

36 Responses to “i’m going to go ahead and take issue with Michael Bauer”

  1. You might reach out to Michael and ask him about the wine comments. If I remember correctly, he sometimes has a friend, Diane Teitelbaum, look over his list for comments.

  2. Damn right. Well said. Bauer’s review of the wine list called to mind my recent visit to the Slanted Door in San Francisco. Not to pat myself too forcefully on the back, but I exulted in the creative, thoughtful wine list that championed Chenin Blanc and Gruner Veltliner. I didn’t hear people complaining about the off-the-main-path nature of the list. Instead, I heard a well trained service staff carefully explain that the list was created to match the food. It was an enormous hit, as it should be.

  3. Yeah, Alfonso is right. It’s not entirely MB doing the list comments on reviews. I agree with you about the list of course — it’s awesome — but now might be the chance to ask Bauer how the wine list coverage is assessed as part of his review. You could send him an email with a link to your post and see if he’ll discuss it on his blog (which he often does).

  4. Ellenbogen’s list is one of the best in SF and one that has consistently been knocked for being too European. It’s unfortunate that the pairing is often ignored.

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  6. Thanks Cory for bringing this to light. We can’t let this kind of hack criticism stand without challenge. If Bauer is this ill informed and narrow he should refrain from commenting on a list that is obviously way over his head. Stick to the vodka and soda Mikey…

  7. I’ve gone ahead and emailed Mr. Bauer for clarification. Thanks Alfonso and anon.

  8. I’d love to hear his response to your email cory.

    Btw, It’s Noella Morantin. (I’m sure you know that)

  9. You know, the list is beautiful in it’s breadth but it IS unusual. What Mr. Bauer may have said better was what he hinted at regarding the Croatian wine being a tough sell. To have a list like this, you need excellent servers or an engaging sommelier to be able to entice people to explore.

    However, I just don’t see that Bauer’s remarks were in any way inflammatory as he never actually complains about a bottle, the wine recommendations, and he even compliments the pricing.

    Regards,

  10. Leave the sales up to the staff, I want to know if the Croatian wine went with the food. I don’t get any sense from this review that the wine and food are matched. That is my issue.

  11. Post removed at the request of the poster

  12. i’m generally not in anybody bashing camp, but why do restaurant reviews get to give such poor wine reviews? Wine is so integral to dining!

  13. since when is gamay considered “exotic”?

  14. Post removed at the request of the poster

  15. Colin, I really liked the list — it was the kind of list that would attract me to a place without knowing a thing about the food…but Txakolina Tinto? I didn’t even see that on any restaurant lists in San Sebastian…

    I’m kidding — it’s an inspired list, prices are reasonable and should have been one of the strong points of the review, no matter how delicious the food. I say bravo.

  16. Noella Morantin? I didn’t know Ro had a sister!

  17. As a wine loving person, I appreciate the list for it’s wine geeky-ness. I personally dig it.

    But, without defending Bauer, I can see where his (or the person who reviewed the list) perspective may come in. The wine world is basically becoming a caricature of itself – everyone and their brother is trying to be a wine blogger or do video reviews like Gary V.

    Then, restaurant somms try to “one up” each other by out obscure grape-ing each other. If your focus is to find wines that go with your cuisine and your list is a reflection of that – then party, bonus, to you. BUT – most somms are purposefully attempting to share the pairing focus with “let’s see how cool I can be and show off my WSET or Court of Master Sommelier chops and show I know more about wine than X”.

    Also, if you’re going to tout an obscure grape variety (please people, use variety and varietal correctly) – it should be a value. But somms try to push these varieties on us a a premium – and that is where I could “call bullshit” on the somms.

  18. There is nothing I hate more than a wine list that has nothing on it that I would order and if I were the critic, that would be my biggest peeve on reviewing restaurant lists. The list is thoughtful and balanced and even has California selections that I would choose. Familiar does not a good wine list make if the “familiar” selections are ordinary. I would hardly call the list exotic or pandering to a somm battle either. I find it challenging in a good way and also a list that should be well known among the wait-staff. They should be able to help the diner navigate it to making a good selection suited to their meal and this can only come through education.

  19. Daniel, your reply applies ONLY if you are attacking sui generis all out of the ordinary (i.e., mediocre) lists and all sommeliers that pander to other somms and not the customer. I’d say that doesn’t apply here, not at all.

    So as a general rant, your reply is fine. As a comment on this list and this listmaker…eh.

    I like lists and selections that show thought and care. When a list shows as much involvement and interest and care as a menu in a dynamic restaurant, that’s when I’m a happy customer.

  20. @Mig — “he never actually complains about a bottle, the wine recommendations, and he even compliments the pricing.”

    That’s exactly what Cory is complaining about. The quality of the bottles, the matching, and the recommendations are not even mentioned! It’s like he’s avoiding the important topics and sticking to stuff he can write negatively about. Look at it — he wrote 4 paragraphs of negative ink and one sentence complimenting the markup. You call that fair?

  21. It’s not about being fair. It’s about his impressions of the wine list and while his take may be limited, it is a fair assessment of an eclectic list. Even intermediate level wine drinkers will have trouble identifying matches on the list. Again, I don’t defend what he said, but instead merely make the point that he does point out that wine-drinkers that aren’t wine junkies may not be able to navigate the list. That is important information to the consumer.

    He should have phrased it differently, making a recommendation to diners to have the staff help them choose wine but his core point is entirely valid. We should all learn from the review, not merely dismiss the reviewer.

    These are just my thoughts on reading the piece. I understand if others, especially wine insiders in the area, see it differently.

  22. Hoke –

    Point Taken and agreed on all your comments as well. I like lists that are thoughtful, stretch my comfort zone, etc.

    I think I was trying to guess as to what the perspective of Bauer or his surrogate was – I have been to tastings and dining events with wine/food writers and they sometimes get fatigued with the “over-doneness of trying to be too different” as opposed to giving the customer a good experience without being pretentious.

    But, from appearances (since I have not been to the restaurant), Baker & Banker appears to not be in that category and the wine director there falls into the category of my statement “If your focus is to find wines that go with your cuisine and your list is a reflection of that – then party, bonus, to you.”

    Cheers.

  23. I am acquainted with Michael Bauer (although I haven’t seen him for years) and quite good friends with the other person over twenty-some years. I’m a bit surprised at the comments, frankly, because I know what that person likes—and she has a broad palate and likes adventure. On the other hand no mainstream newspaper pushes aggressively to the outre. Too little audience there. I could surmise that perhaps there was an editor’s hand here, or getting to deadline and filling in a line. Don’t know, really.

    (And if I didn’t say so previously, your rant was well ranted. :^))

  24. I think it’s a great list! Fun, interesting, very good wines. Not boring. So, a restaurant critic wants the wines to be boring but the food shouldn’t be? How does that make sense?

  25. Great comments all. Daniel / Mig / Josefa all raise good points – many of which I agree with. I think Daniel is spot on with regards to Sommeliers (wine geeks and wine bloggers as well) trying to ‘out-obscure’ one another, and that this is wine geekdom at its worst. But I also can appreciate that this is a viewpoint that may not apply completely in this situation.

    Mig/Josefa both highlight the important role of the service staff in helping diners navigate a wine list. I don’t care how interesting/well thought out a list is – if your service staff/wine director is unable to help the diner in his/her wine selection, the overall wine service is a failure – and that’s a no-win situation for anyone involved.

  26. Hi. I am the evil witch. I have 28 years in the biz as consultant to the trade and collectors; writer (major newspapers and mags); contributed to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Encyl for the first and the second book, teaching wine in colleges and for international trade orgs, the consumer, wait staffs; and an appraiser accepted in legal courts, IRS, insurance companies and others. I have known and been friends with Master Somm Demi-God and US Founder Fred Dame for more than 20 years. I am Bauer’s researcher-consultant on the lists but he goes and he writes. I hope you all enjoyed playing “Crucify the Critic” – a long time favorite game. Does it occur to you that Bauer is beyond excellent and widely respected? He has the ethics to consult an expert on any area in which he is not totally educated. He is the protector of the public and never pontificates.

    SO…The list may make all the younger wine geeks and Somm students hot and wet but it’s not a good restaurant list. There are no “helper” things – descriptions, rankings by weight and style, color codes or anything else – on the list. The list is quite esoteric and like Bauer, did not discuss or suggest matchings. I really think it a “Mine is weirder or bigger than yours” list. If you have spent even an hour talking to these guys starting out you immediately see the hubris and arrogance. Should the customer have to work like a dog to order? Does the somm go to EVERY table? Doubt it. The diner can be horribly disappointed if not brave enough to ask questions. And how about the owners/ backers? How many wine sales have they lost to intimidated diners? What is the list profitability? The restaurant is a for profit business. Must it be so odd that there is not even a gesture to have something on the list for Mom and Pop?
    Where we taking about a wine bar known for adventure, or talking about a private collection – no prob. But this self-indulgent list is just plain rude. Dinners love to learn about food and wine sometimes. Other times they just want a quiet dinner, and would sign up for a seminar to get this heavy.

  27. Does anybody else want to go hard on this geriatric crackpot first, or should I?

  28. Well, Alex, go ahead but don’t address the crappy tone that was taken by Ms. Teitelbaum. I would focus on her rather valid point that a vary eclectic list can be off-putting to many diners. Now I said the point is valid but may not be significant to the discussion depending on…..the question becomes, what is the target market for this restaurant.

    I just don’t see that this needs to be so hostile but apparently there is some incoming anger at Bauer. In any case, have at it.

  29. Thanks for the comment Diane, but you don’t address the main point of Cory’s post. He writes:

    “Wine lists and menus are often treated as separate entities instead of as an integrated whole. Inventiveness in a menu is usually acclaimed, in a wine list it is treated as an annoying distraction.”

    Cory and I ate there the night before he left for Italy and France, and I have to say it was the best dinner we have had in a while. It was extremely well put together food that was interesting and intelligent. It was food that makes you think. Kind of like the wine list.

    You mention that the wine list doesn’t have something on the menu for “Mom and Pop”, whoever that is. However, while there may not be that many recognizable producers on the list, there are plenty of popular grape varietes such as chardonnay and zinfandel. Also, while we were there, the woman at the table next to us looked at the wine list and didn’t know what to order. She told the server she liked California chardonnay, he suggested something and poured her a taste. She liked it. How many restaurants are there where the server is capable of doing that? Not many.

    You also did not address the point that Mr. Bauer apparently didn’t make any effort to find out the level of wine service. It is extremely unfair for him to say a restaurant wine list is “strange” (becuase, as you point out, he is widely respected) without mentioning how much help can be offered by the servers and somm. This is just sloppy and unprofessional.

    And I just have to ask, did he consult you when reviewing this wine list?

    -Ms. Saignee

  30. Wow! The Wicked Witch of the East evaluates wine lists for the SF Chronicle. Who would have guessed.

    I’m an older guy with brain cancer who needs a cane to walk around. I’m happily married and have two children I love. I also have a dog.

    This is a wine list for this Mom and Pop.

    Has the Wicked Witch tasted the wines she doesn’t know? On what basis does she make her judgement.

    I think it is shameful that a major publication uses such a hack to evaluate wine lists she knows nothing about. Presumably, all the critic did is survey the list. Did she actually eat at the restaurant?

    This is just a shameful example of bad journalism.

    Shame!

  31. I am Bauer’s researcher-consultant on the lists but he goes and he writes.

    And based on this comment, I think we should all be grateful for that last bit.

  32. So diane, are you also responsible for the bashing of slanted door’s list?

  33. Mig,

    It’s so endearing that you want to cut Bauer & Ms T all the slack in the world for their tone, but cut no slack at all to the opposition’s tone. Gotta love a double standard in action.

  34. Diane Teitelbaum, another enemy of wine.

  35. I had dinner at Baker and Banker last weekend. Within minutes of being seated, the somm came over to ask if we needed help. Given the white CdP and the Occhipinti frappato by the glass, I did not. My friend, however, asked for help and was given a taste of two wines before making her choice. The table next to me requested something “like a California chardonnay” and seemed happy with what they were given. As far as I could tell, that service was available to every table.

  36. Thank you SOOO much for defending Clai’s Malvazija “Sv. Jakov” (and in general Istrian and Croatian wines). I am from Istria and a friend of Clai – can’t wait to tell him about the whole story :) He will be delighted. By the way, he told me that in this particular Malvazija there is less then 40 mg/L of sulphur in it! Incredible. Check out how I enjoyed “Sv. Jakov” few months ago with stuffed duck http://bit.ly/dbZcwB
    Greetings from Istria!

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