Monday, October 20, 2014

Blind Book Review: "Sherry"


I’ve been patiently waiting for my review copy of Talia Baiocchi’s Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World's Best Kept Secret. It’s apparently coming Palomino Express. I’m also breathlessly anticipating Jon BonnĂ©’s glowing praise of this already legendary tome, certain to be included among his holiday wine book picks as payback for Baiocchi’s glowing words about The New California Wine. I’ve already seen Momofuku sommelier (yeah, I was called that quite a bit), and friend of Talia, Jordan Salcito’s 5-Star review on Amazon, which begins, “Brilliantly done!” and was posted the day of the book’s release. Damned somms are such fast readers—when it comes to reading and tips, they are accomplished at skimming. It’s safe to assume that neither BonnĂ© nor Salcido will actually read Sherry. No need!  And so, I declare, why should I?


It’s been two whole years since the last definitive book on Sherry was published, Sherry, Manzanilla, and Montilla by Peter Liem and Jesus Barquin! Two years! Finally, Baiocchi fills in the blanks that Liem and Barquin so helplessly omitted. And, let’s face it, Liem, no history of Sherry can be considered complete that doesn’t include Baiocchi’s personal journey of how she discovered Sherry. Her importance to the region cannot be overstated, though she tries. Sherry isn’t just about those wondrous and satisfying wines; if anything, Sherry is a tour-de-force of witty asides and atmospheric writing that will once and for all convince you that, in fact, it’s Talia Baiocchi who is the Wine World’s Best Kept Secret. Sherry’s not so much a secret as it is a dinosaur, kind of like admitting you like Sinatra. Everyone who’s been around knows it’s great, but if you just discovered it, it was a Secret!

Sherry is often vilified as something our grandmothers drank, and, thus, crappy. Like Sanka. I’m old enough to be Baiocchi’s grandmother, if not anatomically correct, but can’t recall ever drinking Sherry regularly. I rarely drink Sherry now, though I like it. But Baiocchi emphasizes how terrific Sherry is with food. And at 17% ABV, it should be. Just like all those highly-extracted Zinfandels and Cabernets that every Millennial hates because they’re so big and hot and suck with food.  The new wave of sommeliers hate those big red wines for their crazy alcohol levels. But Sherry? Naw. It’s great with food! And the alcohol works! As it turns out, Grandma was right all along, though she drank Cream Sherry, which is to Sherry what Korbel Champagne is to Champagne. An insult.

Sherry is made using the solera system. Baiocchi points out that the solera system represents the “origin of the sperm bank.” Indeed. Old stocks of Sherry are used to create new ones, and this sperm bank analogy is thought to be the origin of the name “Cream Sherry.” Normally, in the wine world, the use of old wine would be considered as it is in the sperm bank business—vial. However, in Sherry, it’s perfectly acceptable, indeed required. Grandpa would be proud.

Most wine novices are unfamiliar with the categories of Sherry, and how each is made. Baiocchi makes clear that she was one of those novices, and still is. But she fell in love with Sherry, moved to Spain in order to immerse herself in Sherry, and to unlock the Wine World’s Best Kept Secret. Baiocchi explains the differences between Fino, Amontillado, Manzanilla, Oloroso, Palo Cortado and Larry Sherry, which is a big relief. There’s nothing she doesn’t explain. From how Sherry barrels are only partially filled before closing to the yeast that form over the top of the wines to protect them from oxidation, Baiocchi covers Sherry from flor to sealing.

What I like about Sherry is that it’s a book you can display on your book shelf and feel good about not ever having read it. Indeed, Baiocchi has made her young career out of publishing material it’s completely unnecessary to read. She launched the online magazine PUNCH, which is completely worthy of everyone’s inattention. And she briefly wrote a column for Wine Spectator online, which lasted only a few months but, to her credit, no one noticed. It’s the rare young wine writer who commands this much ennui.

Sherry is unique in the wine world. Or, as the Amazon blurb for Sherry notes, it’s “utterly unique.” One might be quick to note that “unique” cannot be qualified, much like Ms. Baiocchi.
 
Sherry is clearly a labor of love for Baiocchi, and her gift as a writer is displaying that labor. Bouncing between glib and off-the-cuff, the experience of reading the book is like sharing a copita of Sherry with Baiocchi and listening to her explain why you’re a jackass for not loving Sherry. It’s the Wine World’s Best Kept Secret! And now you’re in on it! Leave it to Baiocchi to drop the wine equivalent of the “Tom Cruise is gay” bomb. No?! Really?! The insight is staggering.

If you know nothing about Sherry, I highly recommend you put Baiocchi’s new book on your coffee table to impress your friends. Should you actually read it, something I somehow managed to avoid simply to write this Blind Book Review, you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about this “utterly unique” wine.  And Talia Baiocchi. And hype. All three of the Wine World’s Best Kept Secrets.


Monday, October 13, 2014

62

The Young HoseMaster with Karen, 1975

On special occasions, I used to take my college girlfriend Karen to Hungry Tiger for dinner. (Are there Hungry Tigers still? Aside from those in Detroit? Are there Victoria Stations? Those chain restaurants seemed special when I was in my 20’s.) In those days, it seemed every restaurant in Los Angeles had the same wines on their wine lists: Mateus, Lancer’s, Wente Bros. Blanc de Blancs, Charles Krug Chenin Blanc, Mouton-Cadet, Weibel Green Hungarian, Blue Nun, Soave Bolla and Valpolicella and, for house wine, Inglenook Chablis. But it was at the Hungry Tiger that I discovered a much finer wine list, and Karen and I often ordered the Callaway Chenin Blanc—a boutique wine from the up-and-coming region of Temecula. We were connoisseurs.

Today is my 62nd birthday. Does anyone ever believe they’ll live to 62? Not at the Hungry Tiger in 1974 I didn’t. But it wasn’t even on my mind. Karen was on my mind. I was crazy in love for the second time in my life, and, little did I know, I was also falling in love with wine. I haven’t seen Karen in more than 30 years, but I’m still happily married to wine. We have no children.

I am often asked how I first “got into” wine. “Got into” is an ugly phrase, but it’s the phrase that seems to always be part of the question, a very poorly turned phrase that is tiresome but ubiquitous in our inarticulate society. I always think one should ask, “How did you and wine meet?” One doesn’t ask, “So how did you get into your wife?” There might be a good story, but it’s rude.

My parents didn’t drink. I never saw my father drink any alcoholic beverage. My mother only rarely drank. This may be hard to believe, but I never drank alcohol until my 21st birthday. I tasted a beer once—I think my wayward cousin Allen let me taste his beer when I was about 12—but other than that, all through high school and college, I didn’t drink. I was working in a restaurant when I turned 21, and after my shift that night, everyone bought me drinks. I was a waiter, and at that steakhouse, the waiters wore rugby shirts. Very trendy back then, though I’m not sure I knew rugby was even a sport.

I got insanely drunk. I don’t remember much of that evening, except I was the center of attention for several sexy cocktail waitresses I wanted, in my imagination, to bed (I had no chance, but their flirting with me on my birthday was important to me and my fragile ego), and I just kept drinking what they put in front of me.

I woke up on October 14th, 1973, magically, in my own bed. I was naked and alone, with no idea how I’d made it home. I knew I hadn’t driven—someone had wisely taken my car keys early in the evening. My clothes were neatly folded on a chair. I had had about as much chance of folding my clothes neatly as a monkey has of passing the MW exam. Only happened once. I think he works for Diageo.

Obviously, I’d never had a hangover. Yet I knew exactly what one was, as though humans are genetically predisposed to recognize a hangover like they instantly recognize a snake as dangerous. I got out of bed and puked. In that order, luckily. Then I grabbed my work rugby shirt, folded so nicely on the chair, and put it on.

I was wearing a dress. I looked like the ugliest transvestite in the world, if you don’t count Jean-Charles Boisset. My rugby shirt was suddenly five sizes too big. I thought that maybe all that alcohol the night before had caused me to shrink, like Alice in Wonderland eating part of a mushroom. I had no idea what was going on, waking up naked and losing four inches of height in the same morning, but I was too hungover to care.

That is how alcohol and I met. I ended up naked and a transvestite. If that isn’t love at first sip, what is? I later found out that my friend Pete had, at one point late in the evening, dumped a screwdriver over my head, soaking my rugby shirt in orange juice and vodka. One of the other waiters, a football player, a guy about twice my size, had an extra rugby shirt in his car, which he kindly loaned me so I would be dry. One of the sexy cocktail waitresses, Kristy, a genuinely beautiful woman, had driven me home and undressed me. It sucks when your fantasy comes true and you’re not even there. Though Kristy kindly, and dishonestly, did tell lots of women I had a cute butt.

I’ve never really been much of a hard alcohol drinker. At 62, I have even more trouble with hard alcohol, or hard of any kind. Alcohol and I were love at first sight, but wine and I grew together slowly, almost invisibly, as the great relationships always do. But how we first met, I cannot honestly recall.

It seems as if wine has always been a big part of my life, that there was never a time I knew almost nothing about it. But, reflecting on it here on my self-indulgent birthday, I can recall the first time I had 1974 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, the Estate Bottled. I can recall the first Ridge Geyserville I tasted. I signed up for Ridge’s wine club. This was in 1976, I think. I’m still in their wine club almost 40 years later. Interesting that Ridge Geyserville is still one of California’s great wines, while Caymus has become a sad parody of itself, the Jerry Lewis of wine—all slick and bloated. I can remember my first taste of ’74 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, given to me by a sommelier at a restaurant where I worked. I’d never had wines like these before. And I only lived a few hundred miles from where they were grown. I was smitten. Wine had driven me home, removed my clothes, and taken me to bed.

We spend our youth passionately pursuing hobbies that we think we’ll never tire of—skateboarding, slot cars, surfing, shoplifting. So I always believed I’d eventually grow weary of learning about wine. Even when I was a sommelier, I believed that. Maybe I still believe it. I am certainly weary of the wine business. But I’m more in love with wine now than I ever was. I can’t wait for wine to get home at night. I think about wine, study wine, try to impress wine. I wish I were more like wine. I adore wine. And aren’t those the signs of a healthy romance?

Wine, for me, isn’t just linked to memory, it’s actually most of my memory. Were it not for wine, nearly every significant person in my life never would have entered my life. I doubt accountants say the same thing about keeping books. I’m trying to think of a significant memory in my life after about the age of 25 that isn’t somehow linked to wine, and I can’t think of one. Even the tragic ones are linked, somehow, to wine. When wine and I met, wine became a significant and immutable fixture in my life. And I am deeply in love.

Wine, what would I do without you?

I’ve spent a lot of energy on HoseMaster of Wine™ the past five years mocking, parodying, flaying, insulting, and satirizing anyone and everyone that has much to do with wine. I feel some need to protect wine from all the buffoons, pretenders and wannabes that she has also seduced. And they are legion. It’s a foolish, Quixotean, pursuit, but it brings me an odd kind of satisfaction. Maybe all of us think our relationship to wine is the most intimate one she has, that we know her better than anyone else. So while we want everyone else to understand how remarkable she is, to honor wine and treasure wine, we also want it known that we understand her so much better than anyone else can imagine. It’s simple and foolish pride.

Birthdays seem more precious to me now, though less cause for celebration. Wine has given me an interesting and wonderful life. And I am deeply grateful. I’m also grateful for all the kindness and generosity and love I’ve received from so many of the people who read HoseMaster of Wine™. Thank you for allowing me this silly little reminiscence today. I know you come here to laugh, or to be angry, or outraged, but it’s my birthday, I get to do what I want.

I’m sure I’ll drink something old and rare tonight in the company of my brilliant and beautiful wife and a dear friend. I’ll think about all the people I’ve loved who wine brought into my life, some who wouldn't live to see 62. I’ll wonder how many more birthdays I’ll see, like people who seek answers and reassurance for how long they should keep a bottle of wine, “How long do you think it will age?”

“No one knows,” is the answer.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Anosmia Dogs, and Other Failed MW Dissertations


One of the requirements for becoming a Master of Wine is an original and rigorous research paper of between 6000 and 10,000 words. The words must be placed in sentences, or it doesn’t count. There is no similar requirement for becoming a Master Sommelier, though they are asked to write an original limerick—said to be the hardest part of the exam, after the colonoscopy. As far as I know, the great unwashed public isn’t privy to the dissertations produced by MW’s. However, as Commander of Wine, I have uncovered several dissertations that didn’t pass muster. As brilliant as some of these papers are, they were not good enough to gain their authors acceptance into fine wine’s version of contestants on “The Bachelorette,” the Masters of Wine.

Oh, these are some damned fine dissertations, written by the greatest minds in the wine business--Master of Wine candidates! We're all overflowing with admiration for them, aren't we? To read their brilliance, you'll have to leap over to Tim Atkin's amazing site and read them there. Don't forget to leave your usual brilliant common tater remarks there, and pay tribute to the 300 men and women who bear the responsibility and terrible burden of being Masters of Wine!

Tim Atkin, MW