Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ephemera: Great Palates Don't Exist

I am of the opinion that there are no great palates, only very experienced palates. I’ve had the great pleasure, and the occasional great misfortune, to taste with many of the most acclaimed and famous wine people, and that has convinced me of it. Yes, there are certainly physical differences between people in terms of their tasting abilities. Most of us are very sensitive to certain flavors and compounds, while being anosmic to others. And there are people branded as “supertasters,” which would seem to be the equivalent of an enormous penis or big breasts. Impressive, but more fun to imagine than actually possess. Not that I’d know about either one. But how good or well-endowed one is at the sense of taste, that isn’t really what makes you a brilliant wine taster. In fact, a supertaster is a miserable judge of wine (right, Tim Hanni MW?). What makes you a brilliant wine taster is the depth and breadth of your experience with wine, and, more importantly, with great wine.

None of what I’m saying has to do with the enjoyment of wine. Anyone can enjoy wine. Nor is it a sin not to know much about wine, though it would explain why most wine bloggers are going to Hell. And unless I’ve sat and tasted with someone, compared notes and talked about wines with him or her, I have no idea about how accomplished that person is as a wine judge. I don’t even care if he/she has letters appended to their name. I promise you, many of the worst judges I’ve been around have letters after their name, and most of the best have none (yeah, I know, I use HMW after my name, but that’s a joke…or is it?) It’s far more about experience. Lots of folks like to string letters after their name like so many dingleberries, and it’s nearly as disgusting.

Here’s the thing; unless you’ve tasted the “great” wines of the world, and tasted them often, it’s impossible to know where the bar is set for wine. We can argue about what makes a “great” wine, and which wines qualify, but those arguments are rather silly. There are many. But they are rare, and hard to taste for free, and in big demand. For a reason. They’re great wines. My list is my list, but a comprehensive list would include hundreds and hundreds of wines, but begin with the First Growths (oh, I do love Cheval Blanc), and Chave Hermitage, Chateau Rayas, Raveneau Chablis, Y’Quem, Spottswoode (a personal favorite), Jayer, DRC, Biondi-Santi, Giacosa… I’m leaving out hundreds of wines. But these wines set the bar very high for their appellations, and for other appellations that use the same varieties. If you haven’t been exposed to them, it’s nuts, and the height of human folly, to assign scores to other wines. 95? Relative to what?

Forget about scores, it’s about educating yourself to what a great wine tastes and acts like. No, they’re not all the same. They are different frames of references, just as great painters are different but represent a pinnacle of their style. Every great wine taster I’m aware of has a built-in catalogue of great wine in their head, a palate memory deeply ingrained, that they use to judge a new wine. Just how good is this Napa Cabernet? Well, it’s fine, but does it have the depth and grace of a Spottswoode, or the power and richness of Harlan Estate, or the voluptuousness and sweet fruit of Screaming Eagle? Extrapolate that to every region and suddenly you have a great palate. Only it’s really an experienced palate.

“Great palate” bothers me. I think about this shit all the time. There are a lot of pretty inexperienced wine experts pretending they have a great palate. It’s certainly enough to put a wine in your mouth and say, “I like this.” Nothing wrong with that. But that doesn’t make it great wine. There are standards, even if you’re ignorant of them. I’ve said it a thousand times. There are NO great wines under $20. Just stop pretending there are. You’re making a jackass of yourself. You insult great wines, and you insult the intelligence of your readers, the cheap fucks. Greatness is subjective, but not 100% subjective. Only the daft and thunderstruck think something can be 100% subjective. Few accomplished wine people would argue that any of the wines I spoke of earlier are only average or above average wines (Biondi-Santi would be controversial), but our ranking of them among the greats might be subjective to us. I’d kill for Cheval Blanc, but I can take or leave Mouton-Rothschild. Assuming I could afford either one, which I no longer can.

Much of this is about perspective. Don’t lose it. Enjoy every bottle for what it is. Every wine has something to say. But some are profound and life-changing (not that many) while the rest just sort of pleasantly babble. It’s a lot like wine writing. Thank you for reading my wine babble. But while enjoying wines, don’t toss the word “great” around so easily. Stop heaping praise on wines that aren’t particularly brilliant. Great wines have restraint; great wine experts also have restraint. Much of the joy of learning about wine is the joy of knowing that no matter how long and how much you’ve tasted, there’s always something even better out there. Wine humbles us. It makes us all look stupid. Anyone who blind tastes regularly knows that. We’re groping in the dark when it comes to wine. But that’s its gift to us. Wine gives us pleasure even if we’re not its match. Maybe, like the best marriages, because we’re not its match.

I think I hate email. I like it better than texting, which is the modern day equivalent of smoke signals, only less eloquent. Texting is the greatest blessing bestowed upon men since Viagra, though it serves a similar purpose—screwing your partner. Lovely to be able to text, “Thinking of you” while you’re actually watching sports on TV. And women fall for it. Or settle for it. And it takes no effort or thought, just a text. A perfect way to communicate when expressing your feelings is as foreign to you as child birth. No matter. But when I open my email I usually cringe. I’m good at eliminating spam, and I’m not on FaceBook, so, truly, I get the least email of anyone I know. But so much of what I get is dull, or hate mail, or weird marketing letters (some guy yesterday told me how much he loved my blog, "HouseMaster of Wine"), which I quickly delete.

However, the other day I received an invitation to attend World of Pinot Noir with a Media pass. My first thought was, Really, have you read my blog, HorseMaster of Wine? But it turned out to be a legit offer, which I happily accepted. I have no idea who put me on that invite list. I don’t really seem like a wine marketer’s dream. I’m thinking it may be a trap to finally kill me. I’ve never attended WOPN, and I’m pretty excited to go. I think it’s already a sellout, which makes me a perfect match! WOPN has quickly become one of the most important Pinot Noir events in the US. Which makes my invitation even more nonsensical. But I’ll be there, purposefully concealing my name tag, and will certainly have a few things to say when I return.

A big thanks to the WOPN for the invitation.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Have You Ever Meta-Winemaker to Watch?

The inspiration for this post was published on Inside Scoop SF

Winemakers to Watch. It’s a wine writing gimmick, but a damned fine gimmick. I taste countless wines generally unavailable to my readers, I speak of them with great regard, using only my finest journalistic muscles, confident that there will be almost no one to contradict me much less even taste the wines, and then I bestow upon those winemakers who returned my admiration the most fervently the honorific of Winemaker to Watch. When, really, all you’re doing is watching me. Oh, it’s genius, I tell you. Works every stinkin’ year.

Winemakers to Watch are harder to select than the Winemakers of the Year. Duh. Winemaker of the Year is just one of the guys I called a Winemaker to Watch a couple of years ago. I don’t even have to think about that one. Hell, I usually just do it randomly and hope they’re not dead. Though, now that I think about it, a Posthumous Winemaker of the Year has a certain ring to it. I love a deadline. And there’s a lovely irony to Winemaker-In-A-Box. Many look better in an airtight bladder. Anyhow, Winemakers to Watch are not easy to find or select. I don’t just focus on the quality of the wine. In fact, I don’t really care that much about the quality of the wine. Quality in wine is vastly overrated. I’m looking for iconoclasts, people on the cutting edge of winemaking, winemakers who aren’t afraid to take chances and charge you a bunch of money for the privilege of tasting their experiments—you can’t expect quality, too.

I doubled the number of Winemakers to Watch in 2015 to ten. Five seemed arbitrary. Clearly, ten is twice as arbitrary. I’m also an iconoclast, and pretty likely to make my Wine Writers to Watch in 2015 list. Let’s be honest, you have about much chance of finding these wines as I have of finding a new gig if this newspaper cuts my position and puts me in an airtight bladder. So if I give you ten wineries to search for, your chances of finding a wine improve. So, really, Winemakers to Watch is like a Scavenger Hunt for wine dweebs. The dweeb who finds the most Trousseau Noir wins.

Now that the task is done for 2015, I decided to do a brief meta-analysis. I never meta-analysis I didn’t like.

Why acknowledge that wines are made outside of California? I guess I had to if I wanted to get to the non-arbitrary ten Winemakers to Watch. California is overcrowded with talented and professional winemakers, none of them worth watching. Most of them just make Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Who drinks that crap? That said, half of the list work in California, and the others work in Oregon or Arizona. It takes courage to make wine in Arizona. For example, where the hell do you find the Mexicans to pick the grapes? The New Mexicans won’t do it. And Arizona is building a fence on that border, too. The real Mexicans are pretty much target practice for rednecks. The Oregon wine industry, on the other hand, needs my help something desperate. Who the hell buys Oregon wine outside of Oregon? Sheesh, those people hate everyone in California, why should we buy their wine? Well, I’m on their side with that, and with so many obscure people making so much strange wine in Oregon, it was hard to keep the choices down to a couple.

What happened to Washington? I had a Winemaker to Watch from Washington, but he came in eleventh. It seemed arbitrary to include him. I fucking hate arbitrary. And the best wines from Washington last year came from established winemakers, and what good would it do me to list them? Talented winemakers making great wine isn’t what Winemakers to Watch is about. Think of it more like a season of “The Bachelor,” and I’m the hunk handing out roses to really outrageously drunk people no one’s ever heard of who give me a bonér. That’s pretty much how the system works.

Yes, I’m a hunk. But let’s not over meta-analyze.

What about the wines? How do they breakdown? I think there’s a nice balance. It’s about evenly split between white wines that want to be red, and red wines that seem to be white. This is what real wine drinkers want. Not much Pinot Noir, and, just to rub it in, no Syrah, and, well, no Zinfandel. But, hey, my Winemakers of the Year make a lot of Zinfandel. Though mostly I awarded them Winemakers of the Year just to break the balls of those “In Pursuit of Balance” clowns and remind them, hey, I made you, I can break you.

How come not much Pinot Noir? Have you tasted the crap that’s out there lately? Pinot Noir is a very challenging wine for most winemakers, and I wanted to focus on winemakers who are really good at the easy stuff. It’s like choosing up sides for Tee-Ball. And, frankly, it seems like all the great Pinot Noir producers are old and boring. I try never to mention them. (And, really, there’s a lot of terrible Pinot Noir being produced in California. But at least it's balanced!)

How about prices? Don’t care. Doesn’t matter. Nobody buys them. They’re all out buying that terrible Pinot Noir other critics are mistakenly rating highly.

This year’s class seems older. So what? What kind of a stupid, pointless observation is that? I’ve about had it with this interview. I think it’s important to ignore age as a factor in choosing Winemakers to Watch, so I did. What of it? It takes years to develop the chops to become a great winemaker, to learn all the tricks to make weird wines taste good. And getting a new label off the ground is often a lot more than some of these glorified cellar rats can manage. Older! Shut the hell up.

You listed four women. Yeah, but I managed to ignore all the other minorities! My Winemakers to Watch is the goddam Oscars of wine lists!

Does anyone else get annoyed by this sort of vapid wine writing?

A Wine Lover's Guide to Best Picture Oscar Nominees

Leave it to the Wall Street Journal, once the home of Jay McInerny, the Crown Prince of wine schlock, to come up with wines paired with Oscar-nominated films. It seems wine writers are so bereft of original ideas they find it necessary to come up with “whimsical” pieces matching wine with absolutely every artistic endeavor. And the result is uncompromisingly stupid. The author suggests a Klein Constantia wine to sip while watching “Birdman.” Maybe take a mouthful and feed it to your mate! That’s the spirit! Now go crap on her car. Watch “Selma” with a bottle of Torbreck? That’s Martin Luther King, not an aborigine. And, hey, why not a bottle of Negrette? And nothing like Sherry to wash down “American Sniper!” Yes, when the movie’s finished you’ll have Post Traumatic Sherry Disorder—Wall Street’s equivalent of serving their country. Frankly, shouldn’t you drink a wine that’s sight specific?

While this kind of article is, of course, meant to be lighthearted, it’s really aimed at morons. It reads like something you might see on Wine Folly, where they assume their readers have suffered Blunt Force Trauma. I read a recommendation for a piece of shit article like this and I feel like everyone thinks people who love wine, as I do, are obsessed with wine to the exclusion of common sense. What wine should I pair with the ballet? I’m reading the Top Ten New York Times Books of 2014, what wines should I open? There’s a new PBS series about Hunger in America, I should drink something lean.

For the love of God, stop writing crap like this. With “Whiplash,” the story of a drummer and the teacher that browbeats him relentlessly, an Albariño! Of course! Silly me, I drank an orange wine because I thought skins contact would be appropriate. No wonder I didn’t like the film, I drank the wrong wine. And Bollinger Grand Année with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is genius, as is the suggestion to pair it with “seafood-inspired” small eats. What the hell is “seafood-inspired?” Some clam that found God? A lobster that recently devoted himself to charity so he’s no longer shellfish? I expect this sort of twaddle from wine bloggers, but WSJ? Yeah, OK, maybe so.

But you have to admire the suggestion to serve a German wine in order to more fully enjoy a movie about a man dedicated to stopping the Nazis in World War 2, "The Imitation Game." Brilliant. But why not a good bottle of Lynch-Bages for “Selma?” New Zealand Riesling with “Boyhood!” Why didn’t I think of that? And “Craggy Range” pretty much pegs Ethan Hawkes acting style. And when watching the story of Stephen Hawking’s life, “The Theory of Everything,” what else will do but Volnay? And if you really want to enjoy it, take it intravenously, like the great man himself! And if you need a song to pair with the movie and the wine, try Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vein!”

I find wine writing like this offensive. Well, I guess if anyone has it coming, it’s me. Lots of people find me offensive. But I do it on purpose. There’s a stuffy, rigid, insipid, mindless school of wine writing that fancies itself articulate, witty and interesting, but is, in fact, condescending and insulting. There are many examples, they appear regularly on WineSearcher and Pallet Press, but this piece is a marvel in that category. Many of those wine writers who are of that persuasion spend a lot of time making fun of wine bloggers, dismissing their work as ill-informed and worthless (which it most certainly is). I’ve been the object of their scorn, too, to my credit. Not that I give a damn. Not when I read their work and wonder at its emptiness.

But I know what to drink with the Wall Street Journal. Something Standard and Poor.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The HoseMaster Regrets the Errors

I am now willing to admit that I may have been exaggerating when I said that I was the person who made the Cabernet Sauvignon that won the 1976 Paris Tasting. I was once in Paris. Ms. Hilton was drunk and immobile at the time, but I may have confused that encounter with the Paris Tasting. I never meant to mislead the public. I was 21 years old the year the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine that won the Paris Tasting, was harvested, and being of legal drinking age at last may have become confused in my mind with making the wine. I’m sure you can understand why. In my defense, many Napa Valley winery owners claim to make their wines when, in fact, they have highly paid “consultants” that do the actual winemaking. So claiming to have made a wine that you actually didn’t make is a time-honored tradition in wine. Like disingenuously mentioning that your vineyard is right next to Screaming Eagle, implying that it must therefore be as good as Screaming Eagle. I may have been right next door to where the wine was being made, so I may have been the winemaker. I see now where people may have perceived my statement as a lie. I regret the error.

When I said that I was the first wine critic in the world to use the 100 Point Scale, I may have been confused. I thought of it first. You can ask my Mom. Well, she’s dead. But she was there the night I said to her, “You know what would really help people to know what wines to buy?” And Mom said, “A magazine that reviewed all the wines in the world and then recommended them with little Happy Faces?” (As an aside, my Mom at that moment invented Happy Faces—Fuck You, Walmart.) “No, Mom, a magazine that rated all the wines using a 100 Point Scale!” “Oh, son, that’s just stupid,” she said. And though she was right, and so I abandoned the idea, I guess in my head I thought I was the first wine critic to use the 100 Point Scale. I regret the error. And I’ve already apologized for losing my temper and killing Mom. Just how much longer do I have to keep saying I’m sorry? As a Mom she was a 98, but as her son, I used a .45.

Now that I think about it, it’s possible I haven’t won a James Beard Award eight years running. Yeah, that’s kind of silly. Even Tom Cruise has won only two Beards. I may have been thinking about the eight merkins I have, but those are Richard Beards. But if I had to guess, I think that I confused my Nobel Prize for Wine Writing and my seven Pulitzers in my trophy room for Beard Awards. I know this sounds like a stretch, but if you’d ever seen my trophy room, you’d understand. It’s really dusty. And, really, I’ve been nominated for, like, 57 Wine Blog Awards, which you can cash in for a James Beard Award at a Wine Idea Recycling Center (otherwise known as Palate Press). I just haven’t had the time because I’m running for President. I regret the error.

I unequivocally stand by my assertion that I write under the pseudonym “HoseMaster of Wine™.” I have ample evidence to prove that assertion. However, and, again, I regret any inadvertent confusion it may have caused, I may have mistakenly claimed to have written under the name “Michael Broadbent.” I most certainly didn’t write the erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey Riesling” under that name. I may have accidentally left out a word in writing about an episode where I wrote the word “Blowhard” under the name Michael Broadbent in an issue of Decanter. In which case I also write under the name “Andrew Jeffords.” Also, there has been some confusion concerning an interview I did with CBS News where I may have said that I’d published 42 wine books using the name “Jancis Robinson.” I simply misspoke. I meant to say “Jackie Robinson,” who famously wore the number 42. Jancis Robinson never broke the color barrier, though she fucked up a glass ceiling once. Boy, can that girl spit. I stand behind the fact that I first translated the works of Emile Peynaud to English, though I’m a bit abashed that my original translation of “The Taste of Wine” was “Wine Gave Me Gout.”

I never intended for people to believe that I created biodynamics. I apologize to the Steiner family. I was the guy who told Mr. Steiner, “Why don’t you take your bullshit and bury it in your fucking vineyard,” but I see now that that doesn’t give me the right to say I came up with the idea. I regret the error.

I may have written that I was the high bidder at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. In hindsight, I might have been confused because I did pay a lot of money for a glass of Caymus Cabernet at the Meadowood Lounge one day, and there was an energetic game of Ping Pong being played nearby. I did attend the Napa Valley Wine Auction, but I only bid on a special Caribbean Wine Cruise with Robert Wagner—they only serve wine with no Wood. So, let’s get this right, I was not the high bidder at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. I regret the error.

When I said on “Late Night with David Letterman” that I was the first person to pass the Master of Wine exam, the Master Sommelier exam, and a tapeworm on the first try, I wasn’t being dishonest, I had simply misread some correspondence. The first two had told me to “blow it out your ass” when I took their exams, and I confused that with the tapeworm. I believe I may have inadvertently asserted that I had identified blind all twenty wines in the Master of Wine exam absolutely perfectly. Upon review, I realize I identified the First Growth Bordeaux as “Lee Harvey Oswald.” I regret the error.

I recently sat in on a Merlot tasting. The results aren’t especially interesting. But the tasting made me wonder what happened to my love for Merlot. I can still remember the excitement that surrounded the release of the first Duckhorn Merlots, especially the ’78 Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot. Before that bottling, Merlot in California boiled down to Clos du Bois and Rutherford Hill and Markham—hardly thrilling wines, but well-made and successful. Duckhorn changed the landscape of Merlot in California, really lifted Merlot into the same conversation as Cabernet Sauvignon, where it belonged. Not long after Duckhorn, along came Newton, Matanzas Creek, St. Clement and Shafer, among others. I still think the ’87 Matanzas Creek Merlot, made by David Ramey, was one of the best Merlots from California I ever tasted. But the memory of an old romance can be deceptive. They become more beautiful in your mind than they really were, the experience more sensual; and also, in my memory, I was wise and worldly even though still something of a wine novice.

There were ten wines in the Merlot tasting (not conducted blind). Sadly, the Chateau Clinet 2012 was corked. Of the other nine, which ranged in price from $51 to $225, only one aroused that old Merlot love of mine—the 2012 Leonetti from Walla Walla. Oh my, what a beautiful Merlot, with that gorgeous red fruit lightly accented by Merlot’s trademark leafy green tea, the sweetness of the fruit bringing a satisfied smile to your face, the finish luxurious and lingering. And the 2012 Shafer was also very pleasing, a gorgeous young co-ed, as well as the least expensive of the wines. The other seven, a lot of expensive wine, were acceptable. But more like Meh-lot.

I am weary of every Merlot discussion beginning with a line quoted from a lousy Hollywood movie, a buddy film without any flair, a film as dull and formulaic as Clos du Bois Merlot. Go fuck yourself, Miles. (Yes, I know his line in the context of the film is ironic. It’s a lousy film filled with lousy irony.) Merlot can be as good as any red wine. I guess in my eagerness to explore the other great wines of the world, I neglected Merlot, forgot about her, like how we forget the names of former lovers. Or maybe it’s that there just aren’t that many great winemakers who want to make Merlot, because you then have to sell it. Aside from Petrus and L’Evangile and other great Bordeaux, throw in Masseto and others from Bolgheri, who’s bothering to try to make great Merlot? Not David Ramey any more. Though I wish he would. I sort of miss my old love affair with Merlot.

Or, maybe, really, you just can’t rekindle those old flames once they go out.