Tonight on this edition of Wine Tonight, we’re featuring the newest and perhaps hottest celebrity in the world of wine, Yuji Chibikawa, proprietor of Zen Bareru in California’s fashionable Napa Valley.
From the outside, Zen Bareru looks just like any other wine bar, albeit a sleek, contemporary one, de rigeur for the Napa Valley. Then what’s so special about it?
The diminutive Chibikawa-san doesn’t serve wines per se to his patrons, he serves barrel samples.
That’s right: barrel samples.
For the uninitiated, before wine is bottled and readied for sale, it spends time in large oak barrels undergoing fermentation and other processes that transform it from grapes to the fabulous beverage that’s everyday becoming more and more popular in America.
There’s a multitude of choices facing a winemaker when it comes to fashioning the final product that appears in the bottle you take from the shelves at your local wine shop: Should the wine spend time in stainless steel tanks, or should it go into oak? If oak, new oak or aged oak? American oak? French oak? If steel tanks, new tanks or rusty ones? Should the wine undergo malolactic fermentation or not?
We don’t have time to cover what all these terms mean and frankly our audience could care less anyway, so let’s cut to the chase. Why barrel samples and not the finished product from the bottle? We asked the polite and gracious Chibikawa this question, and more.
WT: Why barrel samples? Why not wine?
YC: Why sushi or sashimi and not cooked fish or shellfish? You don’t have to cook a fish to appreciate it and in fact the raw version captures the essence of the flavors so much better, I think. You don’t have to “cook” a wine to appreciate it, either.
WT: And your patrons enjoy that?
YC: Standing room only every night, and we are turning people away at the door. These are all samples rated in the 90-point range by either Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator.
WT: What is your most popular wine – er, I mean barrel sample? Sorry, I can’t get used to referring to it that way.
YC: What most patrons do, since they are filthy rich or else have to act like they are, is to simply go the omakase route.
YC: Yes, similar to the way it is handled in sushi bars; it translates to “put yourself in the hands of the chef.” In other words, they trust me to pick and choose what will be the best experience for them.
WT: Which is?
YC: Which is normally a selection of 6 or 7 one-ounce portions of barrel samples starting with the lighter white wines and progressing to the big, full-bodied reds. Some people opt for a smaller selection, or tell me they prefer whites or reds, but some heavy hitters want the whole tour- 14 or 15 courses. And some patrons want only pinot noir. I am happy to oblige.
WT: Presentation is everything, I’m told. And you’re a master at that.
YC: We make it a point to put on a show of drawing out the samples from the barrel and using custom-made Riedel stemless crystal specially designed for this type of tasting. It’s artfully presented to the patron, arranged soothingly on a platter to be consumed right to left. Japanese-style, you know.
WT: Right to left..
YC: Yes, just like reading or writing in Japanese. It is done right to left, not left to right. If we see someone begin to consume the barrel sample on the left first, all of the barrel sample “chefs” will loudly point it out, ridiculing him and causing him to lose face in front of the entire room.
WT: Must be kind of embarrassing to the patron, no doubt.
YC: They learn quickly. As atonement, they have to stand up, bow, and ask us to please kill them.
WT: What’s the tariff for the barrel samples?
YC: These samples are of the highest, freshest quality. We do everything first class. Each sample may cost anywhere from $15 to $250. An omakase can run up to $3,000 or more.
WT: Yowie. But I guess that’s no different than many a sushi bar these days.
YC: Most people are afraid to even ask about price. And what price true quality? We offer something unique, wouldn’t you say?
WT: I would say. Yes, indeed. Last question, Yuji. What happens to the barrel samples that are left over?
YC: Left over? (shakes his head). No such thing.
WT: Thank you Chibikawa-san for a most instructive time!
YC: You are most welcome.
WT: And there you have tonight’s edition of Wine Tonight. From Zen Bareru in the Napa Valley, we’re signing off. See you tomorrow!