Recently I found myself on an accelerated tour of western cities, "doing media" to promote a book. Now, my book does not in any way concern beverages, but the tour certainly did. I bent elbows with hinterlanders in wildly various watering holes and gathered an impression of what this nation does fairly well, and consistently -- drink.
Some interesting trends emerged. The martini, for instance, is enjoying an American renaissance. In the West there were many martini sightings, including one in the hand of a young woman in a lavender gown in Dallas.
The grand lobby of Dallas' Adolphus Hotel was otherwise dominated by young men displaying Corona beer. If you are not aware of the Corona phenomenon, you should be. Apparently this Mexican beer appeals to a certain well-heeled category of American consumer (there is a hackneyed and thoroughly unscientific term for them that rhymes with guppy). Perhaps the Corona bottle, with its minimalist, painted-on label and long neck, makes this category of drinker feel more exotic. One Corona enthusiast had another theory: A long neck, I was told, allows air to mix with the beer as you upend it, thereby enhancing flavor.
Sounded like froth to me. But I tried a Corona anyway. It tasted like beer going in, and Hawaiian Punch going down, which may say more about its appeal than about long necks. Many who drink it were raised on soda pop, and perhaps they don't really want to switch.
Seattle displayed the most eclectic drinking behavior. A lethal quality prevailed in some establishments, where heavy cholesterol dominated the menu and the favored drinks were the Blue Shark (vodka, grapefruit juice and curac ao) and the Killer Kooler (wine, 7-Up and a sweet-and-sour concentrate).
A restaurant in Seattle's market district, the Cafe Sport, offered highly civilized alternatives, including a wine suggestion with every entree. (The Preston sauvignon blanc did indeed go very well with rare yellowtail and ginger aioli.) Decent wine available by the glass most everywhere, in fact, may be the most startling development. Choices are being chalked up on boards across America, and nowadays they are more likely to be better wines than those from a jug. Chardonnay seems to be the reigning white. At the Columbia Bar and Grill in Hollywood, where meetings are taken with great regularity, the most popular chardonnay was Sonoma-Cutrer's Russian River Ranches -- at $5 a glass.
Curiously, an interest in wine brought me back to beer. "It takes a lot of beer to make good wine" is a common refrain in the Napa Valley, where winemakers and cellar rats drink beer during the hard duty of crush, and a cold six-pack is a part of the grape-picker's ration. In the bar at Napa's Calistoga Inn, I discovered no less than 140 choices of beer. Neither martinis nor Blue Sharks were available because the owner had sold off his liquor license to finance his "brew pub" -- a pub that makes beer to be sold only on the premises.
I can't attest to the quality of Calistoga lager because none had been made when I was there. The owner claimed to have the labels ready and all the equipment in place in an old water tower behind the hotel. He was counting on the draw of his traditional old mahogany bar among tourists and locals, and judging by the turnout and the salubrious atmosphere, his future is rosy.
As I sat there sipping draft Sierra Nevada ale, I found myself thinking of home. Wouldn't it be nice to have a brew pub in downtown D.C.? People could talk deals and politics while the wort bubbled away in the basement, and otherwise enjoy a natural product in an often over-refined and over-priced city. ::