Christopher Caen: Enjoying subtlety, fine company in San Francisco

Some days are better than others for us columnists. As enthusiastic members of the fourth estate, we are certain of variousfacts. For instance, no columnist is ever going to be on the cover of Time, Newsweek or People. We will never own four houses, three cars and racehorses. Expensive jewelry will never drip from our significant others. Let’s face it, we ain’t gonna get rich on this gig, folks. However, before the violins show up for the dirge and you coax that one crocodile tear out, let me tell you about the other side of the coin.

Last week the phone rings and it is none other than James Monaghan calling in from New York. Sharp-eyed readers will immediately recognize James as one of the instigators of the great bartender shoot-out last December between Bombay’s Jamie Walker and San Francisco’s own Tim Stookey. James had a new offer for me. A client of his was going to do a few stops on the West Coast and would I like to be one of the media people to meet him.

Then he hit me with the name: George Sandeman. I tried my best to not crawl through the phone lines and give him a hug. Yes, that is George Sandeman, as in the House of Sandeman, producer of world famous port. And sherry. And vineyards all up and down Portugal. This was going to work out fine.

Then it got even better. He was bringing a satchel full of port with him and we were going to crack them open at Coi, Daniel Patterson’s hotter than hot new restaurant on Broadway. And then I realized I had my hook: radical port meets radical restaurant. Sandeman has always been the crazy child of the staid porto world. They started growing their own grapes before anyone else could spell “vintage” and then started producing a port that didn’t have to lie around for half a century before you could drink it. Crazy ideas all, and given the ever-present twinkle in George’s eye, you know there will be more.

Daniel Patterson needs no introduction. Elizabeth Daniel, then Frisson and then he went and penned a piece in The New York Times last year lambasting the church of Chez Panisse for creating too much similar food in Northern California and dulling the edge of our local cooks. To say that people have been waiting to see what he would do at Coi is an understatement. So I was ready to rumble on Wednesday night.

George showed up with several buddies in tow, including Deussen Global President Christine Deussen and the raucous duo of Jose Chao and Julio Martins. These latter two met in Hong Kong years ago in the alcohol trade and have stayed in touch ever since. They also seem to have three discussions going at any given moment and about five jokes in the air at the same time. In several languages. They were smart, multilingual and funny. I took an immediate liking to both of them.

I had my notepad at the ready and was anticipating fireworks over the next three hours. What I got was something slightly different. Both George and Daniel seem to possess something that is rapidly disappearing in this world: subtlety. George’s business card doesn’t even have a title on it, and he has an aw-shucks approach to how he got where he was.

Given my history, I asked him how he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He smiled and said, “I didn’t. It was decided for me.” George is actually George Sandeman VII, and there was no doubt where his future lay. He intentionally did not name his son George and the pressure is officially off his decision.

Yes, the bottles. Christine tried to get him to announce each bottle, to the predictable response. And yet, as he drank each one the conversations would start, the insight, comments and thoughts pouring out of his head as fast as the liquids.

As each delectable, subtle and clever dish emerged from the kitchen the conversation would range across food, wines, port, customs, history and traditions. Believe it or not, the favorite topic of these global connoisseurs was none other than San Francisco. Restaurants in New York or San Francisco? San Francisco. You want to get into wines? San Francisco. What place do you love to visit? San Francisco. I’ll admit it, I was pretty proud of our little town, and Coi was doing its part to keep our reputation intact.

As we prepared to leave, Christine looked over and mentioned the fact that it was my wife’s birthday. Julio and Jose immediately started singing a soft Latin-tinged birthday song. And then George pointed out the centerpiece of our table: a low wooden tray with four depressions for four candles. “Blow ’em out!” he chortled, and she did. As the smoke wafted up, we drifted back outside to everyone’s favorite city.

Christopher Caen’s column appears Fridays in The Examiner. E-mail him at

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