It was a reporter's dream: Cover a "Pre-Passover Haute Cuisine Seder" — eight courses of kosher delicacies paired with an array of wines at a ritzy San Francisco hotel.
My job: Eat till you can't, drink till you shouldn't, shmooze with food and wine writers from the nation's biggest dailies, and write about it.
What could be bad?
So I wrangled an extra seat for my wife, and we headed one February evening for fine wine and dining atop the Westin St. Francis, overlooking the glittering San Francisco night.
It was all courtesy of the biggest U.S. producers and importers of kosher wine, the Herzog family's Brooklyn-based Kedem Royal Wine Corp., which along with several smaller kosher winemakers is trying to convince Jews and non-Jews that kosher wines can mean Cabernet Sauvignon and not just Concord grape. San Francisco's Too Caterers brought the food.
Enter Kedem, whose smiling machers greeted us on the hotel's 36th floor and led us to a silver ice bucket chilling rosés, sparkling wines and Chardonnays. We sipped and tried to recognize someone, but failing that, we managed to munch a few grilled zucchini tartelettes, smoked trout mousse, and mini puff pastries topped with red pepper and walnut puree.
"Y'know," I muttered between bites, "this is about the best story I've covered since the time those two guys got into a bar fight over the size of their things and one left the place half the man he used to be." We laughed, maybe too loudly, as if I had said the most charming thing.
We had only been there 20 minutes, and had already tasted Chardonnays with Kedem's Baron Herzog and Weinstock labels, plus two of its Israeli imports, Gamla and Yarden.
And that was just the hors d'oeuvres. With all those wine people there, I figured things might get testy, but I had no idea just how ugly.
We sat down to a roasted butternut squash soup with frizzled leeks and toasted pumpkin seed garnish. Waiters quickly filled at least a handful of empty wine glasses to our right with Kedem's Herzog Merlot; Weinstock Cabernet Sauvignon; a '95 Gamay (a blush wine) and something else.
Luckily we happened to be dining alongside Royal's winemaker, Peter Stern. He agreed to talk kosher wines with me, and noted that the Cabernet, made of grapes from prime North Coast vineyard regions such as Alexander Valley and Dry Creek, showed hints of violets on the nose, and tasted richly of berries with well-structured tannins.
I murmured knowingly. As a semi-professional wine writer, I had to adopt certain mannerisms to blend in. I swirled the wine glass in tight little circles to expose more of the wine to air, inhaled the liquid's aromas, sipped a bit and let it swish on my tongue for a few seconds to savor its character before swallowing.
I nodded intently, and, poker-faced, jotted a few comments ("Gamay — made with carbonic maceration, tastes of strawberries and cranberries, very light mouth feel") and faced the next course.
Things were heating up. Stern was discussing the Herzog Chenin Blanc, an off-dry '95 from Sonoma that he said was harvested late and "undercropped," giving it fruitier notes. A Chassidic winemaker from Brooklyn at our table who produced a Muscat dessert wine wondered if screw tops would be cheaper. We ate a gingered poached salmon wrapped in a bok choy chive tie in a bed of papaya and mango coulis. I sampled a Weinstock Sauvignon Blanc and a Herzog White Bordeaux.
Herzog family members who are Kedem executives spoke about the company, which was founded in 1848 in Czechoslovakia and is today the world's largest distributor and producer of kosher California, French, Israeli, Italian and New York wines. I listened to CEO David Herzog and Stern, took copious notes, ate my spring salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing and tasted the Herzog French Beaujolais Villages.
I was beginning to sweat: This was tough work. Just as I was focused on the meal, Herzog called out to the assembled, "Folks — here's another scoop."
I gritted my teeth. When someone excitedly offers "a scoop," it's a sign to escape.
It was too late. The ruby grapefruit sorbet with Kedem Port would have to wait: I needed a story. I went to chat with Dan Berger, the Los Angeles Times wine writer. He masterfully tasted a '95 Herzog White Zinfandel. "This is really a beautiful white zin!" he pronounced.
As Berger spoke, a waiter appeared and offered him a personal bottle of a Merlot from the winery's cellars. Berger glanced at the label and seemed unsurprised at the surprise.
As the waiter poured, I stared longingly at the dark, ruby liquid, fantasizing just how supple and well-textured it must be. "May I have some?" I asked.
The waiter looked at me, searched for a glass, took one half-filled with someone's drink, emptied the unidentified liquid into another glass and reluctantly served me a bit of the Merlot.
I stared, horrified, but knew that I couldn't make a scene. I gamely twirled the Merlot, but this time the wine flew out of the glass and onto my sleeve. Everything was starting to unravel.
Rivulets of sweat ran down my forehead. A thousand half-formed thoughts filled my brain. Should I pretend I didn't spill the wine? Should I laugh, and say something like, "Har, har! That hasn't happened since Bordeaux in '74, at the Rothschilds' chateau!" Should I just pretend it didn't happen?
Realizing a dark red stain had already formed on my cream-colored sleeve, I opted for the latter. No one seemed to notice. Maybe I had fooled them.
I wrapped up the interview and went back to my table, hoping to catch the veal cocotte with caterelle and porcini mushrooms, roasted with Herzog Chardonnay potato gaufrettes and braised seasonal vegetables.
My wife looked at me with pity and a frozen smile. "Can I tell you something?" she whispered. "You have ink all over your nose."
What was going on? The Herzog pen I had taken from my place setting had leaked! My hands and face were smeared blue. Stern started to discuss flash pasteurization of kosher wines. I scribbled some notes, but they were in some weird code, misshapen by big blue blotches. Everyone was suddenly jabbering nonsense.
I looked to the exits for a quick getaway. "Let's skip the chocolate celebration cake with fresh berry sauce and frappe-filled strawberry, and high-tail it out of here," I hissed to my wife. Someone poured a Herzog Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling, some Bartenura Asti Spumante, plus some cognac, vodka and Slivovitz.
We headed out the door, but not before I managed to down the Riesling and Slivovitz. The Jewish wine-and-dine beat was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.