There And Back Again, part one

At the end of J. R. R. Tolkien’s two major works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the main characters return to their idyllic homes in The Shire, glad and content to be back where life is good, and the goodness of life is abundant.

I feel the same way whenever I return to the San Francisco Bay Area after venturing to other areas of the United States. When it comes to wine, there seem to be few places in the country that can match this area in quantity and quality, as well as enthusiasm and knowledge. And I am not talking only about wines from California or the western US. Here in the Bay Area we have shops and restaurants that feature wines from all over the planet. If there is a grape variety that you’ve fallen in love with, or some obscure producer that you just can’t do without, you can find those wines nearby. Wine lovers tend to get very spoiled living here, and can easily forget that the rest of the country is not so lucky. Oh, sure, we have our share of restaurants that don’t seem to understand what good wine is, or how glasses are supposed to work, but they are vastly outnumbered by those places that know exactly what to do and how to do it.

Last week my family and I traveled to Massachusetts and Western New York for the holidays and to attend a family wedding. Our first stop, Boston, offered a quick reminder of the how much better America needs to do when it comes to wine. At Sólás, an Irish pub in The Lenox Hotel where we stayed (great holiday rates!!), the wine list was exactly what you’d expect it to be. The house wines were described, amazingly, as “house wines.” The fancier libations listed their producers but not country of origin or vintage. Again, it’s a pub. If you wanted good wine you’d be someplace else. My only beef with Sólás, and it’s a pronounced one, is the markups. A bottle of Roogle Shiraz out of Australia retails for around $11 a bottle, which means the restaurant is getting it for maybe $7 or $8, but that is what they are charging PER GLASS. That’s a 400 to 500 percent markup! Not cool. To their credit, their burgers are quite delicious, service is attentive, and they pour a decent Guinness. Just forget they even serve wine.

The next night, my wife and I, out for what might have been a romantic stroll if not for the freezing temperatures and gale force winds, popped into The Oak Room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, thinking we might find a nice glass of wine to chat over. Is it possible that Sólás and the Oak Room are run by the same outfit? What a disappointment. Fairmont properties are swanky destinations that cater to swanky folks, present company excluded. You’d think the offerings of the Oak Room would match the clientele, wouldn’t you? Well, if you did think that, you’d be wrong. Like their Irish friends from around the corner, the Oak Room takes profiteering about as far as possible, with markup percentages looking like the top batting averages of local hero Ted Williams: too often hovering near 400. And the list of wines by the glass looks like it was put together after Fairmont accountants wandered around Safeway for half an hour, making a list of mainstream brands that might entice gullible tourists to part happily with their cash. The lack of imagination, depth, and breadth this list exhibits is staggering. On the surface, the Oak Room is a profound affair, but deep down it is glaringly shallow. They should call this place the Acorn Room. But at least the service was poor. I’d be really upset if I had to accept mediocre wine from a friendly and attentive server. That would be wrong. Just like the Oak Room’s wine list.

Next, things improve with a trip to one of Boston’s top restaurants, Pigalle. And then it’s on to Western New York.

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