Thursday, March 23, 2017
You never know when the next great wine will appear in your life. “Great” is one of those words that gets bandied about endlessly when it comes to wine, and has become nearly meaningless. I’ve been fortunate enough to have tasted more than my share of what I consider great wines. I’ve never counted how many. That’s a bit like guys who keep a list of women they’ve slept with. I remember them all, but I don’t lump them together as trophies. Not all three women! Great wines, to me, are wines that simply knock you off your feet, leave you virtually speechless, fill you with gratitude that you’ve lived long enough and well enough to put them in your mouth. They are only rarely encountered, and they are never forgotten. They’re true loves, not one-night stands. I recently met one.
I was invited to Chappellet’s 50th Anniversary tasting in February. I haven’t the vaguest idea why. Most of the other attendees were far more illustrious than I. Among the attendees were Esther Mobley, the supremely talented wine writer for the "San Francisco Chronicle," Karen MacNeil, Kevin Zraly, the last name in wine writing, Kelli White (speaking of supremely talented), Laurie Daniel, Elaine Chukan Brown, and me. I felt like John Waters at the Director’s Guild Awards. I don’t belong here, I tell people to eat shit. However, I’m a longtime fan of Chappellet, and always bought their wines, especially their late-lamented Old Vines Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, for my wine list, so I was excited to be there. Yet I had no idea I was going to meet a true love.
There’s something magic about an old wine that is still vibrantly alive. Very few are. Most begin to show their faults as they get older, many just get weird, an awful lot are dead but don't seem to know it. We have families like that. And then there are the blessed, the ones who age obscenely gracefully, a Molly Chappellet (the loveliest matriarch of Napa Valley, especially since the recent passing of Mary Novak of Spottswoode), and the 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chappellets were kind enough to offer us the ’69 at their 50th anniversary tasting, and when a wine can dazzle even the jaded palates of countless wine “experts,” and the ’69 was the talk of the room, it has to be extraordinary.
What’s magic about an older wine is that it takes us on a journey through our memories, through our lives. Nothing else we consume does that. OK, maybe mushrooms. I was a junior in high school in 1969 when Donn Chappellet and Philip Togni were harvesting this wine, and it must have been bottled when I was a freshman at Occidental College—the same year my wife Kathleen was born, 1971. Imagine that. I had no idea in 1969 I would end up a sommelier married to a woman who wasn't yet born. I’d never tasted a single wine when this wine was bottled. Not one. Nor had I met anyone not yet born. And if I had tasted this wine when it was released (I would have been underage, but, more importantly, under-qualified), I would no doubt have hated it. We both needed to evolve.
I won’t bother to attempt to describe it. Esther Mobley did that beautifully in her SF Chronicle column about loving older wines (she said it was maybe the best wine she’d ever tasted). My tasting notes begin, “IT’S ALIVE!!!” I was channeling Dr. Frankenstein at that moment, amazed at the electricity in the wine, and falling in love with it at the same time. Wines like that are ineffable. Like being asked what I love about my wife. It’s both impossible to express in a meaningful way, and too personal. I was an unhappy kid in 1969—lonely and confused, angry and reclusive. And yet somehow I managed to live a wonderful life filled with amazing loves, and end up in 2017 happy to be alive. The ’69 Chappellet was like a message in a bottle from that miserable kid living in that miserable time. A message of hope. A kind of congratulatory experience, a reassurance that sometimes, and maybe more often than we think, if we just hang around long enough, things can work out. Drinking it felt like, despite all odds, I’d had a great life, and, as a reward, ended up drinking that great old Cabernet among my peers. It was humbling. Great wine always humbles anyone with a heart.
The other nine Cabernet Sauvignons Chappellet served us were interesting and variable. Many were top-notch. I’ve never been to a vertical tasting where that wasn’t the case. How did the ’69 turn out so miraculously, so much more compelling than the rest? No one seemed to know. Everyone was guessing, everyone had a theory, but no one actually knew. A bunch of decisions were made, most of them irrevocable, many of them guesswork; the wine was paid attention to, nurtured, but could easily have been undone by any one of those decisions. We’ll never really know how it made it to 2017 so alive and remarkable. And the same could be said for all of us in that room that day, not just the ’69 Chappellet.
The truth is, we don’t have to know how it was made. No wine, no one’s life, can be replicated anyway. Some, inexplicably, just turn out to be miracles.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
The first thing they did was they wiretapped my house. You’re going to hear a lot about this in the next few weeks, believe me. I only caught on when I was talking to my wife in the kitchen and the microwave suddenly said, “Excuse me?” It wasn’t long after that I realized they were watching me through my electric shaver. I was trimming my eyebrows when I heard a guy sneeze, and I felt something wet on my forehead. My dryer has been going through my pants’ pockets looking for evidence. Every last Kleenex was sampled for DNA, and I’ll never get another use out of the condoms. Oh, they’re thorough alright. Even the lint screen is squeaky clean when they’re done. I know what they want, but I’m on to them. They’re trying to silence me.
Most of you wine writers don’t have to worry about them. You write pablum. You write empty paragraphs that conform to what they want. You write the worst sort of self-serving shit, absorbed in your own imaginary importance in the wine world, convinced we care about your opinions on the latest set of designer wines sent to you by the czars at Constellation. You toe the wine line. You never write anything that isn’t regurgitated marketing lies. You feign wine knowledge, and feel every invite to every tasting and every junket validates your importance when, in fact, you’re just a pawn, and an untalented pawn at that. They don’t need to wiretap your house. They don’t need to have drones following your every move like they follow mine. You’re no threat to them. What you write is just the same old tired wine business bullshit. They love you.
Right now there’s someone watching me through my computer’s camera. I know who it is. I just gave her the finger. I don’t care if they watch me have Skype sex with a Master Sommelier. It’s why we do it blind. He told me it’s part of the Service Exam. If they want to spy on what goes on in my work room, I just don’t care. At first, I put duct tape over the camera. But you can see through duct tape. I bet you didn’t know that. You can see through duct tape. Put some over your eyes and try it. Well, maybe you can’t see through it, sorry about your eyebrows, but they can.
I know you’re wondering who “they” are. God, you’re stupid. It’s wine’s Deep State. The Deep State is conspiring against me. They’re afraid of me. They’re afraid of the changes I’m bringing to wine writing, and the wine world. The Deep State is worried because I won a Roederer Award. They’re really scared because the Deep State usually controls who wins a Roederer Award, and last year one of those awards went to me. It wasn’t supposed to. They fixed that this year though. They made Guy Woodward a judge. Yeah, I know. That’s like a Labradoodle judging the Westminster Dog Show. The Deep State wants wine writing to stay the same. You know, “Wine Spectator” same. Trade one old white guy critic for a middle-aged white guy critic. Pull off the Jesus trick: turn oafs into Tim Fish. The Deep State of wine controls everything about wine. Everything.
Think those natural wine people are rocking the boat? Oh, please. Like Alice Feiring and Eric Asimov aren’t embedded agents of the Deep State. The Establishment of wine has infiltrated wine writing up to its highest levels. Who do you think are the Elders of Deep State? Yes. Say the names. Jancis, Robert, Hugh, Marvin. They make all the decisions about wine. They decide what you drink, what you write, what you don’t write. Oz, Antonio, Jamie, everybody with letters after their name. All of them. Can’t you see it for yourself? They’re all the Deep State. And unless we take wine back from them, and it won’t be easy, folks, wine will be the same corrupt and dishonest business it’s always been.
Just remember, when people criticize me, that’s just the Deep State trying to destroy my career. I don’t need their help destroying my career. I’m perfectly capable. The Deep State tries to make me look like a liar. I tell you they’ve wiretapped my house and you ask for proof? Proof? I just said it, didn’t I, what further proof do you need? The Deep State doesn’t like me because I tell you the truth. I’ve been saying for years how specific wine glasses for specific wines is a scam. It’s Deep State propaganda. You really think you need an Oregon Pinot Noir glass? That your Syrah doesn’t taste as good in a Zinfandel glass? You’re a sucker. You’re a chump. You probably think aerators work, too. What’s wrong with you? These are all lies. Deep State lies. You can’t even tell it’s a Syrah in the first damn place. What difference does the glass make? It’s like thinking you smell better because you’re wearing the right sweater. You don’t! You smell like goddam mothballs, and I’m not talking about naphthalene, I’m talking about actual hairy moth testicles. God, you’re an idiot. A Deep State sycophant.
Ah, but we won one over the Deep State. Asimov conceded that the idea that different sorts of wines require distinct glasses is “nonsense.” This in the Newspaper of Record! It’s like FOX News admitting Sean Hannity is an inflatable sex toy. I mean, look at his mouth! And the hair. Asimov’s admission is amazing. Maybe it’s the Deep State just throwing us a bone. The Elders got together and threw Georg under the bus. No one really knows. Maybe the truth is making them nervous. But what next? Alice Feiring concedes biodynamics is mystical Hoo-Hah? The "Dianetics" of wine? Parker concedes that the 100 point scale is stupid? People like it, sure, it’s simple and easy to understand, but so is “Wine Folly,” and we know how worthless that is. Nah, the Deep State will never surrender the 100 point scale. That would be like Tiny Tim throwing aside his crutches.
My phone just rang and there was no one there. Deep State. Just keep saying it whenever you read a column in the “Wine Spectator,” whenever you read about the latest wine junket taken by Jamie Goode, whenever you buy a wine book by Jancis Robinson. Deep State. A “New York Times” opinion piece about wine. Deep State. The lastest vintage report from Bordeaux in “Decanter.” Deep State. Wine competition results. Deep State. What are Master Sommeliers drinking? articles. Deep State. Yet another piece about the superiority of natural wines. Deep State. Every press release from every marketing company and every winery. Deep State.
Monday, March 13, 2017
Remember when corkage fees were a hot topic on wine blogs? We do dwell on the trivial. I wrote this piece about legendary Restaurant Gougé way back in May of 2014. Restaurant Gougé is shuttered now, but this piece lives on.
Recently, there has been some grumbling in the press about the corkage fees here at the World Famous Restaurant Gougé. While we do not feel that we need to justify the $150 corkage fee, Restaurant Gougé is the proud recipient of Three Michelin Tires as well as the prestigious Just for Men® Beard Award after all, we did feel the need to clarify our generous corkage policy. Just so you’ll shut the hell up.
First of all, Restaurant Gougé is under no obligation to allow any patron to bring in his own bottle of wine. What the hell is wrong with you? We’re trying to make money, and you’re bringing in some poorly stored, overpriced trophy wine from your own collection? We have an award-winning wine list filled with poorly stored, overpriced trophy wines! We don’t need yours. And then you expect us to charge you only $25 for the privilege of serving you your own bottle of wine as some kind of thank you for choosing us for your special occasion? How about this? We take $25 off the cost of your meal and then we get to open your “special occasion” wine and pour it down the sink. That’s pretty much what you’re doing anyway when you serve it to your idiot friends, only now, at least, you get $25 out of it. That works for us. Hey, $25 is two martinis that cost us $6 in ingredients—we’re fine with that.
Our generous corkage fee helps us to employ the many sommeliers who work here at Restaurant Gougé. Many have initials after their name, like M.S., or C.S.W. or LOL. These men and women work for virtually nothing so that one day they'll be able to add Restaurant Gougé to their résumé. It’s really cool. We get to pay salaries far below industry standard just because we’re such a famous restaurant and these clowns hope our misplaced good fortune will rub off on them. We’re proud to be known as the industry’s premiere Sweat Shop of Sommeliers, and your generous corkage fee contributions go a long way to sustaining this indispensable form of sommelier slavery. When you pay the corkage fee at Restaurant Gougé, you can sleep peacefully knowing that somewhere a sommelier is being vastly underpaid thanks to your reverence for our dining establishment. Surely, there is no way to measure in dollars what that’s worth. At Restaurant Gougé, we solemnly promise that not one single penny of your $150 corkage fee will see the inside of a sommelier’s pocket! It goes straight to our bottom line with no regard for the folks serving you, just as it should. You have our word.
There are enormous costs involved in having a great wine list. When you are widely acknowledged as one of the great dining establishments in the world, you simply cannot serve pedestrian wines. Not unless you’ve gone to the trouble to find them encased in bottles with very fancy and famous labels. At Restaurant Gougé, we promise that every great bottle of wine on the list is authentic enough to fool any auction house expert regardless of what’s actually inside it. Can you say that about your own wines, even the ones you bought at some shady New York auction house? And even if you don’t care about that, what about us? We’re running an upscale restaurant, world famous, patronized by some of the biggest food and wine fame fuckers you could ever imagine, do you think we can afford to have those bozos see us opening your lame old bottle of Sterling Cabernet and setting on the table?! Are you nuts? Might as well just fart the opening eight bars of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
There are some restaurants that will list all the expenses involved in running a great wine program—the cost of storage, the ridiculously costly inventory, the expensive stemware, the salaries of the sommeliers—and say those costs justify their exorbitant corkage fee, but that’s just a smoke screen. It’s like saying the food is expensive because we have to pay for all those goddamned plates we serve it on, and have you seen the cost of knives and forks! The Chinese are right! No, here at Restaurant Gougé we make no claims that our corkage fee is based on anything other than greed, vanity, and contempt--the very qualities that personify our best, most regular clients. Sure, we could charge a lot less than $150 to open your wine, but what sense does that make? You didn’t make a reservation with us to get a bargain! You dine with us for the ambience, for the experience, for the bragging rights. The big dinner tab at the end of the meal is critical to your enjoyment, and you know it. Tacking on a mere $25 is a slap in the face, and that’s not how we treat our clients. We respect you, and your ability to cough up $125 for the privilege of having our sommelier turn up his nose at your measly little wine. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Your needs always come first at Restaurant Gougé.
If you are mortally offended by restaurant corkage fees, we encourage you to vote with your wallet. Sadly, those of you who complain about our $150 corkage policy have little girls’ wallets and no one here gives a tasty Samoa’s sphincter how you vote. There are countless restaurants with countless corkage policies, but they’re not Restaurant Gougé. Go ahead, write a scathing review about us on Yelp. OOOH, we’re shaking. Yelp is just pinheads talking to other pinheads, a carnival sideshow of sadly deformed humans making a public spectacle of themselves. We’re Restaurant Gougé, we’re review proof now. The more the little people complain, the more the 1% want to be here, away from your lousy table manners and sentimental cheapass celebratory bottles. They don’t want to see you dining in their restaurant, they want to see you busing the tables, washing the dishes, and carefully fetching their Teslas from the valet lot. So please gripe about our corkage policy, gripe as often as you like. It’s exactly what we want.
We hope to see you soon at Restaurant Gougé! Remember, we're not happy unless you're not happy!