May 29, 2019
It Was Probably the Best Sandwich Ever Made: An Impromptu Lunch with Alice Waters
I met Alice Waters on a Saturday afternoon in September 1971, soon after she opened Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley. I was working at Connoisseur Wine Imports, a wine importing business in San Francisco owned by two brothers-in-law, Art Formicelli and Bal Gibson. Art was an attorney in San Francisco, but he lived in Berkeley, and had heard about Chez Panisse when it opened. He met Alice there one night, and after learning of her interest in French wines suggested that she visit the store. Connoisseur was one of the largest fine wine shops in California at the time, and because of a wrinkle in the state alcoholic beverage laws, we could — unlike other wine stores — sell wine both to consumers and to other licensed businesses. Alice began to visit us regularly on Saturday mornings to assemble a few carefully selected cases that would then serve as the basis for the restaurant’s wine list for the next week or so. I loved waiting on her as she was filled with enthusiasm about every wine she saw, and she talked about France in a way that made it come to life for me. Moreover, I was comfortable answering her questions, and she seemed to listen attentively as I explained to her what I knew about the different wines. I was helping her load her car after one visit when she took a business card out of her wallet, and wrote on the back of it ‘Dinner for Bruce and guest’. She signed it, then handed it to me. ‘Come to dinner tonight,’ she said. ‘We’re grilling lamb from the Dal Porto Ranch.’ I’d never had lamb before and didn’t know anything about the Dal Porto Ranch, but an evening out was a big deal back then. When I arrived home, I announced to Barbara that we were going out to dinner that night. We ate magnificently at Chez Panisse – I can still remember many details about our meal – and after dinner, Alice sat with us and helped drink one of the bottles of wine that I’d brought along. It was the first of what became countless meals we have enjoyed at Chez Panisse, and the beginning of a friendship with Alice that continues today. One Friday night a few years ago, Barbara and I celebrated our wedding anniversary at Chez Panisse. In addition to making a special meal, Alice invited us to spend the night in her guest house, so we didn’t need to drive home after dinner. The next morning she suggested we have coffee at Cafe Fanny, the small coffee bar named for her daughter. After breakfast together we were about to drive Alice back to her house before going home ourselves, but she wanted to stop first at Acme Bakery to buy some bread. When she walked out a few moments later, she waved a loaf of Challah bread at us. ‘I’ve got a great idea,’ she reported. ‘They only bake Challah bread here on Saturday, and there was still some left. My tomatoes are ripe, and I’m going to make BLT’s for lunch!’ Spontaneity has always been one of Alice’s long suits. We drove back to her house with our loaf of freshly baked Challah bread, stopping along the way at a local charcuterie shop to buy some bacon. Once in her kitchen at home, she set about frying the bacon while Barbara went to the backyard garden with a basket and began to pick ripe tomatoes and some of Alice’s famous ‘baby lettuce’. The aroma of that sizzling bacon was making me even hungrier. Alice carefully sliced the Challah bread, and began to toast it in the stove. The bacon was almost done, and Barbara had already begun to slice the tomatoes and wash the lettuce. I opened a bottle of wine. What about the mayonnaise, I thought? I opened the refrigerator, looked around, and reported the bad news to Alice: ‘There is no mayonnaise,’ I said. ‘Of course not,’ she replied. ‘We haven’t made it yet.’ With that she scooped up a bowl that contained the eggs she had brought home from the restaurant the night before, cracked them and expertly separated the yolks. She started to whisk the eggs while she slowly added some other ingredients arranged neatly next to the stove. As she wielded the whisk, she handed me a bottle of Laura Marvaldi olive oil with its distinctive gold foil, and instructed me to slowly drizzle it into the bowl as she whisked it. After ten minutes or so she finished and handed me the bowl. ‘Taste it,’ she said. It was wonderful. At Alice’s house, I learned, you don’t buy mayonnaise — you make it. Alice began assembling the sandwiches. It was August, and it was already beginning to warm up in Berkeley. We sat down at the kitchen table, a little flushed. Alice opened a window to let in some fresh air, and I took a bottle of chilled rosé from the refrigerator. ‘August is always the best time to drink Tempier rosé,’ she remarked. Maybe, but that sandwich was the best one I have ever eaten.
Not long after that, Barbara and I visited Chez Panisse to meet with Jonathan Waters – no relation to Alice – who for the past two decades has been the talented and knowledgeable wine buyer there. Alice stopped by and sat with us briefly as we tasted through a handful of Neyers wines with Jonathan. It was a Friday afternoon and she was leaving to prepare dinner at home for some guests visiting from Italy. I asked her if she would like to take one of the Neyers bottles home with her. She didn’t hesitate, and reached out immediately for the bottle of ÂME Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that we had just tasted. She’ll probably never know just how flattering that gesture was.
We recently began shipping our 2016 ÂME Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. This remarkable wine comes from vines planted by Napa vineyard manager Dave Abreu in 1996 on the highest and rockiest parcel on our Conn Valley Ranch. It’s a Massale Selection vineyard developed from budwood that originated in Margaux, and was brought to the US in 1940, then planted on the Inglenook property. The yields were barely two tons per acre, and the wine was fermented using only native, wild yeast, aged 16 months in 60-gallon François Frères barrels, then bottled unfiltered. It’s a complex wine, rich and loaded with wild blackberries, cassis and minerals. The finish is bright and long, and it’s sure to complement anything you’d like to try it with. By the way, Barbara frequently makes the Chez Panisse version of fresh mayonnaise, and if you’d like the recipe, please write and we’ll get a copy off to you. You’ll never look at store bought mayonnaise the same way again.
Our mailing address is:
PO Box 1028
Saint Helena, CA 94574-0528
May 27, 2019