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    Discovering San Francisco & California

  • –  Piyush Gadkari

    For over a decade, my wife and I have travelled almost exclusively in the relentless pursuit of really good food and wine.

    My being in the wine industry usually ensures great wine experiences too, but give us a cracking cocktail, and we’ll place both our front paws in your hands and keep them there.

    Usually, the prospect of travel floods my limbs with nervous energy. I deeply enjoy deciding where to eat and drink in a new city. The prospect of last-minute travel, though, fills me with dread. I’m forced to rely on ‘best of’ lists that are more likely to ensnare me in a tourist trap, than lead me to a sublime food experience.

    In this instance, it couldn’t be helped. My wife had gotten an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco andI’d always wondered what ripe Cabernet tasted like. We arrive in San Francisco during the breakfast hour to be greeted by maddeningly blue skies and my sister.

    Back at my sister’s home, I can’t help but notice that every bottle in her wine rackhappens to be a California Cabernet.It’s easy to be enthralled by Californian Cabernet. While Cabernetstruggles to ripen in most parts of the world, it will usually ripen perfectlyin California.When you first taste a California Cab, its lush aromas and lipsmackingly delicious flavours will make you grin broadly. Nitpickers complain aboutCalifornian Cabsbeingsimple and a bit too alcoholic, butvery few buyers care.

    Apart from Cabernet, California produces stellar Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. I had my heart set on tasting a very specific Pinot Noir made by Rajat Parr, India’s most famous wine personality. I first heard of Parr through Jancis Robinson – the world’s most respected wine critic – who tweeted a link to a fascinating article that she’d written about Parr and his ravishing Sandhi Chardonnay.

    After working in hotels in India and around the world, Parreventually moved to San Francisco, where his love for wine blossomed. He not only became one of America’s most important sommeliers, but also a winemaker of note. I’d sampled the Sandhi Chardonnay on a stopover in Hong Kong; it remains one of the best wines I’ve tasted.

    I dropin on RN74, a bistro cum wine bar run by Parr and his partners, hoping to meet him and taste his new Pinot. Parr was away on harvestand the Pinot had run out. I did however get to taste some excellentwines by the glass at the bar.

    Next was Sushirrito, an outlet that combines Sushi and Burritos to delicious effect. The Satori Roll, a marvelous mix of Yellowtail kingfish, fish roe, pickled red onions, cucumber, sweet corn, ginger relish and guacamole. We can scarcely believe how good it is. We spend the afternoon there and finally end up at a wine bar that offers Coravin by the Glass.

    Coravinis not a producer of wine, but rather the maker of a nifty device that allows one to draw wine out from a closed bottle without exposing the rest of the bottle to oxygen.  This is done by inserting a syringe through the cork to pull out as much wine as necessary, and replacing it with an inert argon gas. The hole formed in the cork seals itself. This only works if the bottle has been stopped with natural cork. A bottle of wine can thus be consumed over decades without spoiling.

    It has become hugely popular as it offers wine connoisseurs a taste of rare and expensive bottles. The restaurants and wine bars that offer Coravin by the Glass give you the option oftiny pours (as little as 50 ml) so that you can taste a range ofwines at once. In one sitting, Itasteda few high-end Burgundies, some Bordeaux from the 1960s, a couple of aged Rieslings (sensational), and twoscreechingly expensive Californian Cabs (so-so) without getting hammered.

    That evening my cousin (a San Francisco native) takes me toSotto Mare, a loud and bustling Italian seafood restaurant, foroysters and Cioppino. San Francisco is famous for Cioppino, a traditional fish stew made by Italian immigrants in the 19th Century. No Cioppino is more famous than Sotto Mare’s; brimming with crab, shrimp, fish, squid, clams, mussels, tomatoes and penne, it’s hard not to adore it at first whiff. After wiping our bowls clean with the last of the sourdough, we walk to 15 Romolo’s for some of the best cocktails you will taste in SF. Despite not having done any prep work, I’ve been lucky with the food and wine, so far.

    Over the course of the week, I punctuate food and drink crawls with rest stops for coffee, chocolate, ice cream and pastry. Despite Peets and Starbucks being ubiquitously present at every street corner, I seek out Blue Bottle for theirdelicious New Orleans Cold brew (with milk, chicory and cane sugar) and their Afogato.I find their obsession with coffee to be comforting.

    I’m unable to visit several San Franciscan institutions dueto the queues. HumphrySlocombe ice cream and Cowgirl Creamery have snaking queues in front of them. The queue at Tartine Bakery stretches down the block. San Franciscans love to queue up. On weekends, they will queue up for three hours, for a brunch that will end in just over 3 hours. It’s not unusual to walk past a tiny restaurant that can seat just six having a queue of 8 people outside, less than 30 minutes from closing time.

    Over the weekend, we decide to go out to wine country. Not having done any research, I literally take a back seat, and let my sister drive us to her favourite wineries. My sister prefers Sonoma over Napa; Sonoma’s wines are more expressive, its cellar doors less crowded, and its tastings less expensive. Sonoma’s Chardonnays do seem livelier, and the Pinots delicate and floral. Every cellar door will have a range of Chardonnays, Pinots and Cabernets from different plots and estates, one better than the next. It becomes difficult to walk away from these wineries without buying anything. At the end of day’s play, we already have a dozen bottles in the boot.

    We drive to Napa, for dinner at Ad Hoc. Ad Hoc is Thomas Keller’s other Napa restaurant; not being able to snag last-minute reservations to his Michelin Three-starred French Laundry, we decide to eat at his family-styled restaurant instead. The four course menu changes daily, with a choice of mains and a wine pairing. We each opt for a different main course, and decide to share one wine pairing. While my sister’s  tortellini with morels and spring peas is sensational, everything else is completely forgettable. Even the wine pairings seem dispirited. We leave, confused but not embittered by the experience. Sometime later I chanced upon the New York Time’s terribly damaging review of another one of Keller’s Michelin Three-starred restaurants, and can’t help but agree with many of its observations. Despite this, I am likely to dine at the French Laundry at some point.

    After spending our last night in California at the Napa Valley Marriott, we proceed to meet Cathy Corison, the maker of what is routinely described as Napa’s best Cabernet Sauvignon. The Corison winery is an assuming green gabled building, snugly housing the winery, tasting room and barrel room. Cathy’s Cabernets are not overly alcoholic or too simple; they are elegant, restrained and complex. In other words, the complete opposite of what one has come to expect of Napa Cabs. We taste through the 2006, the 2010 and the 2012, each one quite different from the previous one. My sister, the lover of big and bold Cabs, is blown away by the delicate perfumed aromas in her glass. We buy a few bottles, bid Cathy a very fond farewell, and say goodbye to California later that evening. Despite a few blips, California has treated us generously. It’s very hard to not leave it with a staggeringly heavy heart. We miss it terribly, almost daily, and hope to be back very soon.

    Piyush has worked in the wine industry for eight years; he travels for good food and great wine.