FOREWORD BY STAN LERNER: downtownster does not celebrate its first birthday until February, but I still feel compelled to post the TEN BEST downtownster blogs of 2009. And while I think all of our blogs have been great, these are the ones that readers read the most and gave us the highest level of props for writing. In the case of “The Extraordinary Case Of Mike Berger” the great Alec Silverman shines a bright light on one of the best human beings I’ve had the good fortune of calling my friend. The wine tastings are not as frequent as they were when this was first posted, but Mike Berger is better than ever.
Stan Lerner, editor-in-chief and creator of Downtownster is a revered cohort for whom I am indebted to Mike Berger, the subject of this entry, for making possible our acquaintance. Mr. Lerner has been googled over 1.2 million times; his blogs (articles for Downtownster and his satirical serial Downtown Oliver Brown) have around 2 million hits; he is a screenwriter receiving residuals in seeming perpetuity; he is published in hardcover as a novelist, a long-form satirist and a children’s book author. I am honored that he invited me to be a guest contributor to this blog and, after much consideration concerning what form to proffer (e.g., an op-ed piece, a film review, a vignette, etc.), I found it “altogether fitting and proper” to pay homage to Mr. Berger. This piece however, strictly speaking, could be classified as a restaurant review. The restaurant is an ad hoc wine bar and it is Mr. Berger’s one-man show.
On the north side of 9th Street between Hope and Flower – as any denizen of downtown knows – is the entrance to Ralphs Market. Its manifestation on the cityscape was like an oasis created by a meteor. At last, under one roof, downtown had a purveyor of some of the most essential trappings of civilization. What too many apparently do not know is, that within this architecturally unimaginative space, like gleaming crystals in a geode, lay a treasure for wine enthusiasts unparalleled anywhere in Los Angeles. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays between five and eight p.m., one can get both the best value and the best wines by-the-glass downtown. For twelve hours a week, four nights of happy hours, if you will…. Don’t blink or you’ll miss out. This is all because the store opened with an exceptional department manager. You see, dear reader, with the advent of this civilization, like a gift from an extraterrestrial race, came a subtle, dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool service professional – a one-off, wine and spirits manager by the name of Mike Berger. That’s right, you read correctly, in Ralphs Market.
Part of what makes him seem like he dropped in from another planet is the complete absence of the more-knowledgeable-than-thou baggage associated with wine experts of all stripes. Yet, Mr. Berger is at least a fourth-dan black belt in the fine art of wine and spirits. It is equally other worldly to see one so perspicacious and sentient in a Ralphs uniform vest smiling affably at some nimrod. Did I see him winking at another of the incognito beings sent to infuse refinement into our downtown culture?
A large man possessing a full head of fine dark hair, and an excellent, unlined brow which presides over keen brown eyes and a remarkably smooth, pink-tinged complexion, Mr. Berger hosts the best happy hour for wine drinkers in the downtown area. He has a determined yet unaggressive mouth and is always impeccably clean-shaven. This fresh, youthful appearance makes him look a generation younger but belies a wisdom that becomes apparent to any engaged listener. There is a cultivated depth to his softly spoken tenor voice as he, with unfailingly polite deference, holds forth to the assembled imbibers a condensed education on the evening’s four or five wine offerings, like some exegete of the cannons of all-too-arcane wine jargon.
The first time I heard this voice I was seeking produce and potables for a spur of the moment party invitation. This was in early September of 2007. Suddenly, an unusual announcement wafted over the store’s P.A. system: “…we’re tasting rosés…perfect wine for the summer months…”. I only registered part of the message. It’s somewhat serendipitously strange I noticed at all, since I am oblivious to such background noise in any shopping venue, as I believe most people are, just like the sound of traffic. It all translates subconsciously to: “Attention Kmart shoppers”. Perhaps it was because of Mr. Berger’s unobtrusive vocal delivery but more likely, for me, it was the Pavlovian keywords: wine, rosés, tasting. Having thus been skewered through the cheek with the proverbial hook, I followed his directions involuntarily to the wine tasting area.
This sectioned off area has the highest ceiling in the store. It is separated on the entrance side by a four-foot fence-like wall dividing it from the deli and the main communal dining area. Shared by deli patrons, it is a sort of indoor beer garden, the effect of which is heightened by heavy, black, cast-iron garden tables and chairs. Floor to ceiling twenty-foot high plate glass windows afford an excellent view of the street scene just south of the intersection of 9th and Hope. I later learned it has a special use alcoholic beverage license that permits wine and beer service. I arrived to discover an unassuming but highly alert man presiding over a makeshift rolling bar that had a marvelous tray of four types of artisanal cheeses priced between $10 and $16 a pound and accompanied by a freshly sliced baguette from the peerless La Brea Bakery. There were likewise four wine buckets chilling dry rosé wines, three from Europe, one from California, priced between $14 and $24 per bottle.
I then met Mr. Berger, who did not presume I wanted to know his name; rather, he politely informed me that the tasting of four wines and unlimited buffet privileges would cost me seven dollars. As if this wasn’t a good enough deal, he added: “You get to keep the glass.”. (All right, I must say the glassware was laughable. An old-restaurant style white wine glass with a proper pedestal and stem but too conical a bowl to be good for swirling. The kicker being the kitschy Ralphs logo in fire engine red.) Albeit on paper plates with plastic utensils, I had this bacchanalian feast completely to myself. This is a function of dry rosé being somewhat of an orphan wine category in the United States.
I then began to notice that attractive women of all ages could be seen both inside and outside the store from this vantage point. I could spend all day watching the feminine form navigate sidewalks, push shopping carts, peruse display cases, hold up and evaluate items for purchase or any other thing that they do. The pleasure of this lifelong avocation is only enhanced by fine wines and hors-d’oeuvres. I commented on this to Mr. Berger, as I introduced myself and learned his name. He explained: he had selected the cheeses to pair with each wine; the wines’ grape varietals, style, region, etc.; what types of food pairs well with each; and the frequency of the wine tastings themselves. After consuming roughly three glasses, heavily weighted towards re-tasting my favorite and sating my appetite with supercheeses, I decided to forgo the party. I had stayed until the end and Mr. Berger had suffered through some two hours of my mindless prattle and hyper-enthusiastic ranting on wine in general. This can be pretty bad. I’ve even been accused of being an oenophiliac: one who derives sexual pleasure from wine.
Since that first experience I have spent innumerable hours in the company Bacchus and Aphrodite discovering nectar and ambrosia in heretofore unimagined forms: viogniers from the Rhone Valley, cabernet sauvignons from South America, ice wine from Canada; fig jam from Turkey, puréed roasted orange bell pepper spread, exotic pestos, artisanal and farmhouse cheeses of every variety. With each subsequent event it became evident Mr. Berger never puts out a pedestrian selection. He has been known to serve sevruga caviar (at least $60 per ounce in most restaurants) complete with white toast and crème fraîche at Champagne tastings. Recent highlights include a wines of Chile and Argentina tasting that featured a spectacular sauvignon blanc ($30 per bottle) and the Wine Spectator “Wine of the Year” cabernet sauvignon ($65), served with tapas and Spanish cheeses; four very good California chardonnays ($20, $28, $35 and $65) with California farmhouse cheeses; and a Champagne extravaganza to which I’ll devote the next paragraph. On Monday, May 4th, Mr. Berger presented a spectacular pairing of sparkling wines and seafood. He went to the store’s kitchen and whipped up a scampi-style preparation of prawn-cocktail-sized shrimp to which he added just enough cayenne pepper to bloom the flavor without giving it heat, and prepared large trays of both a credible in-house made gravlax and highly touted smoked salmon from Ireland served on Carr’s Table Water Crackers, to keep a neutral palate on the subtle flavors of the salmons and the Champagnes. There were four Champagnes, two from Mumm ($30 and $35) and two from Perrier-Jouët ($40 and $111). The $111 wine was the sensational Fleur de Champagne. In order to be called Champagne a wine must be grown and vinifiied in Champagne, France using precise methods prescribed by French law. All other wines in that style are referred to as sparkling wines. There were also two sparkling wines ($19 and $24) from Mumm Napa, the California branch of the Champagne house. The value of this $9 tasting in downtown currency would at least $75, excluding tip, at any other of our neighborhood’s establishments. Mr. Berger, a talented cook, sometimes does his own off-premises catering where he is known for an exceptional crusted prime rib, twice-cooked Italian chicken and bacon wrapped stuffed Medjool dates. He has wowed 300 revelers with a giant outdoor wok while preparing a sumptuous Chinese stir-fry. He also provided the excellent hors-d’oeuvres and wines at the book signing premiere of Stan Lerner’s Criminal.
I hate to sound adulatory but considering what one ought to expect from a wine tasting in a supermarket, this is off the charts. First, consider the price. For nine dollars in my former employer’s bar, two blocks away, you could get one six-ounce glass of pedestrian wine ($10 to $12 a bottle retail). There would be at least a 40% chance, as there is in most bars, that this wine was either open too long and therefore faded, or that it would be corked (spoiled due to bacteria that occur in up to 7% of all wines that use natural cork). If you’re a good tipper, you’re down $11 for one glass of what – if it was in good condition – the British refer to as plonk (undistinguished, “quaffing” wine) and maybe some complimentary stale pretzel mix. Second, consider the elements of surprise and delight. Although the theme of each night’s offering is decided in advance and posted on a hand-out calendar, the selections from those wine categories and their accompaniments are only decided the day of the event.
An evening at Mr. Berger’s wine bar is more than a connoisseur’s picnic. He is a gifted raconteur who draws his audience in with the cadence and soft-spoken intimacy of his storytelling style, the net effect of which conveys respect for the sensibilities of each specific listener. He bears the constant interruptions of our current national conversational style as if he doesn’t even notice. Of course, any blowhard will render Mr. Berger mute as he fades seamlessly into the role of wine host. He laughs politely at the anemic humor of oxen. Though, if you get to know him, he will intimate he doesn’t really suffer these fools in his heart. He simply allows them the bliss of their ignorance until they disappear from sight. Then, if pressed, he may confide, with the gentlemanly wit of a veteran bartender, some well-observed traits of their asininity. He quite possibly laments about me: “Of all the wine joints in all the towns in all the world, he walks into mine!”. There are one or two nods to the beer cognoscenti monthly. Inherently, these are not as great a bargain because even the most premium beers are cheaper than fine wines. Nonetheless, these events are still great happy hour fare as Mr. Berger puts out beer- appropriate pairings such as hot sausages with German mustard, smoked cheeses and pumpernickel croutons. Of special note are the Sam Adams sponsored events ($5) on account of at least a dozen beers, many of which are not available in the western states. Similarly, sake and sushi ($9) may be featured up to twice each month. Though Ralphs sushi is no Nobu, it is more respectable than most $20 all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants and, as you would expect, the store’s most premium sakes are served. Sushi nights are not to be missed.
Every tasting is completely free of pretense (on the establishment’s part). Even visiting wine and beer vendors seem under the spell of Mr. Berger’s no-arrogance aura. I have often told him that a man of his talent is wasted in these environs. This is a real show of selflessness as his presence here has been so much to my benefit and if he were to leave I would be adrift in hopeless despair for some time. I think I’ve accurately described a mirage-like wine aficionado’s paradise that appears only three hours at a time, four nights a week. Like an oasis within an oasis. This most ephemeral of all downtown’s bar scene is mostly attended by baby boomers and generation X-ers but drawing lesser numbers of patrons in their early twenties and over the age of 65. Typical attendance is only about eight people; occasionally, 25 or more guests show up. This has been the slowest building snowball in hospitality history. How a cat of this enormity and ferocity could be kept in the bag this long boggles the mind. (In the interest of being evenhanded it should be noted, for heterosexual females, there is a disproportionate ratio of men to women at these tastings, I speak, without permission, on behalf of all the men: this is not our preference.) If you stay ’til the end, as I often do, you will learn a terrible truth. The unconsumed wine, regardless of price, gets dumped down the drain. Talk about Stan Lerner’s Criminal, what about Ralphs’ Downtown Criminal? They could never prosecute Mr. Berger though. They made him do it! I’m a witness. Postscript: Since Mr. Berger himself became the author of a column on this site entitled Hello Wine Lovers, I realize accusations of nepotism could surface, but let me assure you, dear reader, my motivation lay in the selfish goal of making this wine tasting program too successful for cancellation as well as my genuine gratitude for Mr. Berger’s unwavering provision of hedonistic pleasures along with his attendant witty and edifying banter. Ralphs Market wine tastings $6 to $10 Mon, Tue, Fri. & Sat. 5pm to 8pm Mike Berger, host Recommended: “Champagne”, “Napa Valley Nights”, “Bordeaux vs. Meritage”, “Viognier and Alternative Whites” and “Sake/Sushi”. Although, there is never a dog here.