RN74: Don’t even think about bringing any wine for corkage. You won’t beat what’s already there.

The prestigious RN74 is the best ticket in San Francisco to enjoying wine and cuisine, whether you’re looking for 1832 Bordeaux or 2009 Burgundy. Anybody who brings a bottle for corkage to this place is seriously criminal.

Contents of the video are as follows:

It had been raining in San Francisco for days when my compulsion to seek out amazing wine goaded me out of my apartment and into the wetness, against my will. I knew, though, that visiting the place I was going to be visiting would be worth it.

For one thing, RN74 is the city’s most prestigious wine venue. For another thing, I knew the father of the restaurant was Raj Parr, and I had just finished reading his book, Secrets of the Sommeliers, which was filled with insights into RN74’s mission. So I knew all I needed to know: That this place was set up for its guests to experience excellence — the phenomenon that makes you say, “Wow,” or “[Beep]. Or [beep] [beep] [beep]. This is delicious!”

Raj Parr at RN74.

There are tons of bottles here from California, Oregon, Germany, Italy and most especially France. There’s wine from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. 1877 Bordeaux, anybody? On my first visit, I limited myself to 21st-century wines, but I got what I expected: The emotional response of “wow.”

I tasted a grand-cru white Burgundy that made me dream of pairing it with fish topped by a light cream sauce.

Then a 2009 cru Beaujolais, complex and delicious, nothing like the average Beaujolais.

Then a Nebbiolo from California with taffy candy on the nose and delightful berry flavors.

Even the $5-a-glass Cotes du Rhone Grenache was a surprising wine for the price.

The dining room at RN74.

I had confirmed it with my own palate: This stuff wasn’t the utterly flat mass-production plonk you see at places with comatose wine directors who can’t tell the difference between jug wine and artfully made wine. This was stuff that sings.

Speaking of singing, my first visit to RN74 reminded me of the similarities between wine and music.

I myself have a sickness for Beethoven’s ninth. I spent years hunting for the best vintage. It was, I decided, a 1942 conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. He bottled this symphony many times — in 1937, ’42, ’51 and ’54.

Furtwangler's best "vintage" was in 1942.

But only his March ’42, like a 100-point wine, makes you say “wow” for the entire performance. It was the vintage of a century, like 1961 Bordeaux, or 1958 Napa Cabernet. Never since has the chorus sounded so eerily like a Borg army. And never since has the finale sounded so horrific.

Terror may not be a quality we seek in wine, but we are seeking a powerful emotional response all the same.

And that’s exactly what a great winemaker, like a great conductor, is seeking to give us, Raj Parr says.

“Usually the person who made the wine or who owns the wine or has designed the wine — that emotion of the person is in the wine. That is a real story. That is a real wine,” Parr says. “If a wine is made as a brand, that is also a wine, but there’s less emotion in the wine. So if we can find the emotion in wine, if we can extract the emotion in the wine … and somehow really understand it, that’s a special moment. Why do people gravitate to wine? There’re so many great wines and winemakers. I’ll give you an example: look at Sine Qua Non. … Sine Qua Non is a very small wine made — Syrah, he makes some Grenache, but it’s a cult following: It’s Manfred Krankl. He’s the man behind it. And his emotion is in the wine. Every bottle is a different label; a different name. And it’s fascinating. The wines are great. And people no matter what buy the wine every single year because they’re fascinated, they’re intrigued, they’re mystified by the wine, by the person. And that love for that emotion which Manfred has in his wine makes the wine special. It’s the human touch. … And then we compare that to classical music. It’s also very personal.”

On my second visit, I had the fortune of different weather. But the experience would be as memorable as the first. I tried a few more tastes from the by-the-glass list, and, just as before, they were all beautiful wines.

At this point, I was hooked on the place. Wine aside, the company’s great. At the bar I met a winemaker visiting from the Alsace region of France. I mentioned that I had made a 2010 Napa Cabernet that was turning out to be quite Bordeaux-like. “Do not say ‘Bordeaux-like!’ ” he commanded. “You are on your own in California!” I thought: Where else in the entire country could you meet a French winemaker?

A bottle of 1971 Petrus from Pomerol.

A bottle of 1983 Volnay.

I decided that the next time I have something huge to celebrate, it would have to be here. (So long as I checked my credit line.) Others have already had reason to celebrate: They’ve ordered dozens of rare and elite bottles from the stash in the cellars here.

Like bottles from the famously to-die-for Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Eric Railsback, a sommelier here, arranged some (sadly empty) bottles that had been poured at the restauraunt recently to discuss them.

Me: You’ve selected these because — why?

Eric: I like these labels. They’re all so different with the different bottlings. But Romanee-Conti is the most famous vineyard — the best Pinot Noir in the world. So, these were some of our favorite bottlings we had, besides the 1870 that I showed you.

1929 Romanee-Conti.

Me: We have a wine here from just when we were about to enter a global depression [1929], just at the end of World War I [1919], just before World War II [1937], and just at the end of World War II [1945]. These are — these definitely mark certain points in history.

Eric: Yeah. It’s amazing to drink these wines that, you know, that, where all these historical things were going on. And you get to taste something that was being made at that same time period.

Me: What were these like? They’re all Pinot Noir——

Eric: All Pinot. Very different than, you know, if you tasted the current-release Romanee-Conti. All the primary fruit kind of transitions into more tertiary, secondary notes. So, much more earth-driven. They can still have some good power to them, but it’s definitely a different animal than, you know, a younger vintage that you’d have.

Me: Do they pair well?

Eric: Yeah. They pair just like any wine. It’s just a different type of dish where with younger wines, you go with a richer meat or whatever with Pinot. And these ones, a little bit more earth-driven dishes; a little more elegant as well, as you don’t want to overpower the wine, so you’re looking for softer, subtle flavors.

Me: What do we shell out for these bottles, by the bottle?

Eric: They get to be pretty spendy. The 1870 we sold for $26,000. These are all in the $18- to $22- to $24,000. So it’s a good, decent car or college down payment.

But lacking any celebratory reason to order such a bottle, my hands were tied. So, I sat down and ordered a croque madame, slathered in bacon marmelade and bechamel, and paired it with a white Burgundy. Compared to most California Chardonnays, it was far quiter and far more elegant.

The wine and food paired produced their own unique flavor that resulted in a third entree, where many heavy California wines would’ve overpowered the food. So I asked Eric Railsback about the European philosophy of pairing at RN74.

Eric: The American palate, too, is definitely more used to sweeter things, fruiter, richer, where the European palate’s much more earth-driven and more towards bitter flavors.

Me: And how about more toward being paired with food? … Some of these American wines … they’re bigger, a lot of times loaded with oak. Doesn’t that make for difficult pairing, whereas these——

Eric: Exactly. That’s one of our reasons for not working with a lot of wines like that. Especially with Pinot, Chard, we keep our wines below 14% alcohol. Because alcohol is terrible. It doesn’t go very well with food.

A pizza clobbered by a California Zin.

Indeed. Hours later at home, I ordered a pizza and poured myself a Sonoma County Zinfandel. And on my first sip, something was immediately wrong. The dark and heavy wine clobbered my palate, and I couldn’t taste the pizza I was having alongside it.

It was yet another emotional reaction to wine. But after having such elegant food-friendly wines at RN74, this reaction was different.

It was all terror.

Published in: on April 4, 2011 at 11:54 pm  Leave a Comment