Love at First Flush

All of TeaSource's teas are priced by those quarter-pounds, but on my visit Waddington seemed to try hard to steer people toward smaller eighth-of-a-pound purchases for fear of saddling them with a tea they didn't want. Tea is also sold by the to-go cup and, for consumption on the premises, in two-cup and four-cup pots. These pots follow a pricing schedule that reflects the cost of the tea leaves; a two-cup pot of a relatively common tea is $2, while the same quantity of a particularly rare brew runs $4.50.

This works out such that some of the pricier teas are sold significantly below cost. For example the precious "Silver Needles," made exclusively from the new buds of a growing tea plant--buds that, not yet having unrolled and toughened, are pliant, downy, and silvery--retails for around $150 a pound, which means most of us would never try it. But at $4.50 a pot, it becomes quite accessible.

You might say that offering fine teas at steep discounts is akin to drug dealers giving "free samples"--a small investment in creating lifelong dependence. But such cynicism fades after a morning of watching Waddington evangelizing tea and searching for each customer's perfect brew with questions like "what sort of coleslaw do you like--creamy or vinegar-based? What beer--a light, crisp lager, or a deep, malty stout?" If you answer "Guinness and creamy slaw," Waddington might steer you to a malty assam tea, something with a big flavor that goes nicely with milk and sugar. If you respond with "Kirin Dry beer and vinegar dressing," perhaps you'll want something more astringent, like a Darjeeling.

Whichever you choose, chances are you'll never go back to Lipton--especially if you mention that dreaded name to Bill Waddington, whom it sets to shuddering. "Lipton makes some good teas, and sells decent mass-market teas in the rest of the world," he says, "but what they sell here is literally dust. My thinking is that Lipton figures Americans aren't tea drinkers so they can just dump dust here." Shudder.

Let's hope that the lowest-common-denominator attitude is on its way out. We probably will never equal the elite Germans and Saudis who, Waddington says, regularly corner the market on single-estate first flush Darjeelings, driving prices into the $20,000-a-pound range. But at least it looks like we'll be drinking our teas, not popping them.

 

TABLEHOPPING

THE TREND IS...GROUPIES! I was fairly doubtful when the Napa Valley Grille launched its "Women's Afternoon at Napa" series of wine lunches. I mean, this is a land so steeped in recovery-think that my health-care provider thinks she can determine whether her patients are alcoholics by the simple yes-no answer to the question: "Have you ever done or said anything you regretted while under the influence of alcohol?" I think if you haven't said at least two dozen things you regret by the time you're, say, 25--well, then you're just not giving matters around you your full attention.

So I thought it would go without saying that hereabouts nice girls don't have wine with lunch. Once again, shows what I know, because these women's wine lunches at the Mall have become the hottest ticket since outpatient liposuction. Unlike traditional wine dinners, where the chef is hidden in the kitchen while someone chats about the wine, these are demonstration events, with Grille executive chef Eric Scherwinski leading ladies through the preparation of every dish, and the ways in which wine can enhance it.

After a season of getting established, the events are selling out months in advance. "Yeah, it started out slow," says the cherub-faced chef. "But I've got groupies now. They don't let me make a move without them. I don't even have menus written. People who've been to the lunches say they've become a unique experience, less like a lecture and more like a dialogue, with regulars critiquing Scherwinski's recipes and growing ever more opinionated about their wines. (Still, in my book they won't be real dialogues until people start saying things they later regret.)

While the November 18 Ferrari-Carano lunch is already sold out, you can call 858-9934 to reserve your place at the December 1 and 2 Alexis Bailly luncheons; the December 22 holiday lunch including wines from the Simi and Chandon wineries, with a focus on holiday appetizers and desserts; or the January 27 Oakville Ranch Vineyard event. Most luncheons cost $29.95, a price that includes tax and tip, but the expensive sparkling wines at the December 22 event will push its price tag to $32.95

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