Thursday, July 30, 2015

EPHEMERA: Happy to Be a Recovering Sommelier


I keep a list of ideas for possible pieces on HoseMaster of Wine™. Now and then, an idea comes to me that I absolutely love, but eventually find unworkable. Many pieces are “easy.” They write themselves. The moment Randall Grahm’s crowdfunding proposal hit the press, I received five or six emails from people and friends in the wine business wanting me to lampoon him. It felt so much like a kind of Command Performance, that I thought about ignoring the whole thing. But then I read Randall’s proposal, and it’s comedy iron pyrite—and I’m the Fool who grabs that gold. I always hope that every piece turns out to be funny, perhaps enlightening, but also that, at the very least, it comes from an interesting angle. Wine writing on the Intergnats is so godawful boring.  But I always struggle with the fear that I’ve gone too far. I have to summon a bit of satirist courage to finally hit “Publish.” I don’t mind offending people, but I want to offend the right people. However, all that’s different than just having an idea that I can’t quite manage to express in my comedic voice.

My unworkable recent idea was deceptively simple. What if at the Wine Blog Awards ceremony they had a death montage? Every awards show worth anything at all has that two or three minute photo montage of those among its ranks who died in the past year. We all watch death montages intensely, don’t we? It’s gripping to see that people more famous and more accomplished than we are die, often gruesomely, or at their own hand. Why not have a few minutes at the Poodles devoted to all the wine blogs that died in the past year? You can see the satiric possibilities here. And I actually love the idea.

When I tried to write it, well, nothing happened. Everything I wrote stunk (no surprise there, I can here Will Lyons saying, the humorless douchebag). It’s happened before. Last month, I had another “brilliant” idea to write a piece about a telethon to raise money for Short Man’s Disease. I had about half of a public service announcement written, which focused on the tragic and heart-wrenching case of a well-known wine critic, but it just didn’t work. It tried too hard. Too petty, maybe. Which on this blog seems impossible, I know. So I simply abandoned it.

All of this to say that sometimes the best pieces are the ones I decide not to write.


I’m glad that I’m not a sommelier anymore. I’m a recovering sommelier. I’m glad because it’s become a young person’s game. A man my age isn’t really welcome in the sommelier community, unless you can do something for them, like give them some stupid degree. I’m a dinosaur, an oldfuckosaurus. I think it would be creepy for everyone involved if I attended lavish wine events at my age. First of all, it would be hard for me not to be annoyed by all the worst qualities of a young sommelier that remind me of myself at that age. Only, at that age, I was still on my way to becoming a sommelier. Not through exams or pursuing an alphabet after my name, but through learning restaurant service and hospitality, as well as humility in the face of the dauntingly difficult task of learning about wine. But I still possessed a number of annoying qualities that I see all the time in younger wine experts—arrogance, bald-faced lying about the extent of my wine knowledge, overindulgence, and stupid, childish wine oneupmanship. Sommeliers of both sexes are forever wagging their dicks at each other.

Comedy would have been the same way, I think, had I stayed part of it. Comedy writing is, also, a young person’s game. It consumes you. As wine consumes you when you first truly fall in love with it. You live and breathe it. And then one day, twenty years in, you realize it’s ultimately not that important. That being a sommelier isn’t much of an accomplishment. That writing endless setups and punchlines for someone else to deliver is more assembly line work than it is creatively rewarding. And suddenly the rest of your life opens up to you. You go back to other long lost loves, you spend more time with friends and family. You start to restructure your priorities, discover what truly matters in life. Love and courage and kindness. And that’s the point when the industry is done with you.

If you try to pass along that “wisdom,” who will listen? No one. Don’t get me wrong. I loved being a sommelier. I’ve rarely met anyone in life who loves his/her career more than I loved mine. And when I find someone new to wine who I think loves wine as much as I do, I try to help her. But I know I’m a has-been. Writing HoseMaster of Wine™ is simply a way to try not to be a has-been, both in wine and in comedy. It doesn’t work, but it’s fun. Unexpectedly, it’s been a place where my experiences in both lines of work has come together and made me happy. This is completely surprising to me, and also why I’m still here twice a week. Some of you come here only for the laughter, some seem to like when I talk about wine. I don’t much care. I like to do both. And so I do.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Randall's Folly--Vitis Grahmbrusca


WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The plan is to create 10,000 new grape varieties, Vitis Grahmbrusca. Mainly because the 10,000 that Mother Nature created suck. We need 10,000 new ones. Varieties that will be planted on their own roots, the better to resist disease and drought. Vines that won’t ever need to be suckered—not like you're being at this very minute.

WHY ME?

I thought of it. And who better? The wine business is moribund. We need some new ideas. We need dreams. We need more crackpot science. Vitis Grahmbrusca will do for wines what phrenology did for psychology. But it’s not just numbskulls I’m measuring, it’s credulity.

I won’t be doing this alone. By contributing, you’ll be a part of this research. Research that will change the way we think about wine, maybe not in a good way. I’ll also be consulting with other researchers at prestigious universities, like Davis, Fresno State, and Hogwarts. It will take time, it will take money, and it will take some kind of weird spirituality that I’m still thinking up. But we can do it.

THE PROBLEM WITH GRAPES NOW

Grapes haven’t had sex in thousands of years. Sound familiar? They’ve only had sex with themselves, like monks, and Donald Trump. This means that they haven’t evolved at all. Like monks, and Donald Trump. Imagine if you were exactly like your great-great-great-great-grandfather, the one the sheep were afraid of. Well, that’s what it’s like now when we make wines from Chardonnay and Cabernet— we’re just making more and more of the same old sheepfuckers. Like Donald Trump.

My plan is to try something that’s never been tried before. Unless you count God. Who, by the way, has never been on the cover of Wine Spectator. I’m going to breed grapevines that will be the greatest grapevines the world has ever known. How will I do this? Oh, don’t you worry about that. It’s way over your head. Think of the whole process as being like all the outrageous and obscure puns I put in my writing—you don’t need to know what I’m talking about, just laugh knowingly as though you do. Besides, if you give me enough money, I’m going to let you name one of my new varieties of Vitis Grahmbrusca. Isn’t that amazing? It will be like being a kid again and naming your imaginary friend! Only this time, it’s an imaginary grape. Yeah, I know, it’s remarkable. It came to me in a dream.

WHAT WE’RE BUILDING FOR YOU AND OUR FUTURE

The most important feature is the creation of 10,000 new wine grape varieties. Imagine a vineyard where every single vine is unique. Each vine would contribute to expressing the vineyard’s terroir. Think of it like the internet of vineyards. Remember how boring it was when wine had only one voice, the Emperor of Wine’s? Robert D. Nero fiddling while Rhône burns? Now think about how much better the wine world is with 10,000 wine bloggers! Background and authority have been rendered meaningless, and the world is a better place for it. So it will be in viticulture when Vitis Grahmbrusca becomes reality. Like the internet, the vineyard’s terroir will be revealed by its ten thousand occupants to be a whole lot of empty noise.

Using good old fashioned science, I’ll create grapes that not only produce unique and delicious wines, but will help our warming climate by being far more drought tolerant and disease resistant. Don’t you want to be a part of this? I made a small fortune selling off my Big House and Pacific Rim brands, so I’m set. I’m not doing this for your money. I’m offering everyone a chance to be part of something as big as my chutzpah. One day you’ll be opening a bottle of wine made from Vitis Grahmbrusca and telling your children, “And, yup, I got a poster.”

The vineyard, which is already paid for, because, you know, I got Pacific Rim money, is in San Juan Bautista, which is eloquent and appropriate in itself. It’s a sacred place, this vineyard in a place named for John the Baptist. I feel I am in the mold of John the Baptist, though Vitis Grahmbrusca will be mold-resistant, too. I have wandered the Earth calling in the wilderness, a spiritual messenger preparing the way. And I’ve completely lost my head.

WHEN IS A GMO A GOOD GMO?

When it’s a Grahm Modified Organism, that’s when. I’m not one of those evil and mendacious agricultural corporations that manipulates plants so that they’re more productive and disease resistant. What I’m doing is different. Really. My experiments are intended to be shared with everyone, an open source for the future, and not intended to be profitable. It’s right there in the 501(c)3 status, that it’s knowledge to be shared with our community. It’s stated in what’s called the “Monsanto Clause,” and, yes, Virginia, there is a Monsanto Clause.

Even Michael Pollan has endorsed my plans. And Jamie Goode. If Rudolf Steiner were alive, I’m sure he’d be on board. It’s just that crazy.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU?

Wine is about community. Especially the natural wine community. A central tenet of natural winemaking is that the customers are supposed to pay for the winemaker’s experiments, but usually after it’s been bottled. I’m offering the unique opportunity to pay for those wildly imaginative experiments TEN YEARS AHEAD OF TIME! Opportunities like that don’t come along every day. Ask the friends of Bernie Madoff.

When my plan succeeds, and Vitis Grahmbrusca is a reality, you’ll have been a part of it. But let’s just say that I don’t raise the $350,000, because people like you don’t want to be part of my natural wine community, because you simply don't recognize reality when it's staring right at you. Then how are you going to feel when I succeed? Ask yourself that. I’m trying to build a viticultural Noah’s Ark, and you’re calling me nuts. Where would the world be if Noah hadn’t built that Ark? There’s the reality.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

"A Day in the Dust" 2015



I have no idea what “Rutherford dust” is. It was André Tchelistcheff who coined the expression, (though there are some who say Tchelistcheff borrowed the phrase from Maynard Amerine—I don’t think it matters) and perhaps back in his day it was easy to understand the concept, maybe even taste it in the wines. Though the last time I tasted dust it was because my first wife was leaving me in it. I don’t have any trouble discerning the salinity and minerality of Cru Chablis. I have often experienced the tar and roses character of older Barolo, the bacony edge to Côte-Rôtie, but somehow I’ve never been able to isolate the dust in Rutherford Cabernet. I suppose this is a failure on my part.

I was eager to attend “A Day in the Dust,” the annual tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford appellation of Napa Valley. In the midst of our drought, though, the name seemed a bit cavalier. Every day these days is a day in the dust. It’s dustier around here than the news features on Wine-Searcher. The tasting was held at Francis Ford Coppola’s restored Inglenook Estate. He’s done for Inglenook what he did for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”—raised the stakes.

One of the legendary Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa Valley history is the 1941 Inglenook Estate Cabernet. Imagine, a wine still undergoing ML as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Like the USS Arizona, that’s hard to fathom. I was lucky enough to taste the ’41 Inglenook in 1991 on the occasion of my friend Paul Smith’s 50th birthday. (Paul is proprietor of Woodland Hills Wine Company, one of the absolute best wine retailers around.) Paul had purchased a pristine 6-pack of the ’41 at auction. I just happened to be around when he opened one of the bottles, and it’s one of the most memorable wines of my wine life. At 50, it was still very much alive (as was Paul). I won’t pretend I remember the specifics of how it tasted, I’d be making it up, but what I do recall is just how vibrant and beautiful it was, how it stunned everyone with its longevity and quality. In 1991, as today, there were legions of experts who proclaimed that California Cabernets could not age as well as their Bordeaux counterparts. Not one of them was there when we opened the ’41 Inglenook. I suspect it’s still got something to say. Assigning it a perfect score would seem as stupid as giving Vladimir Horowitz 100 points for his last piano recital. Just shut up and enjoy it.

This year, the wines being served at the historic Inglenook Estate for “A Day in the Dust” were from the wonderful 2012 vintage. Tasting them in July 2015 seemed a bit premature, which is like saying, “I swear, Baby, that’s never happened to me before.” I suspect most of the wines hadn’t been in bottle for very long, but a tasting like this is a good way to gain some insight into the quality and consistency of the vintage, at least in one of Napa Valley’s best districts for Cabernet. I counted 29 producers present, and it was an interesting cross-section of the appellation. There were some notable absences, I would have expected Caymus and Staglin to be present but neither was, yet it was a nice turnout of both the usual suspects, and a few with which I was only vaguely familiar.

Of course, André Tchelistcheff wasn’t referring to a particular character or flavor in Cabernet Sauvignon from Rutherford when he was referring to its dust, but to the soil, and probably the ubiquitous dust that farming grapes creates. I can imagine a visitor to Beaulieu in August saying, “Man, it’s really hazy and dusty outside,” and Tchelistcheff replying, “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet.” Of course, the irony is Tchelistcheff could have said, “It takes Rutherford haze to grow great Cabernet,” and everyone now would be thinking they should be tasting our 19th President in their BV Private Reserve. (That joke is so stupid, I’m damned proud of it.)

“A Day in the Dust” is a walk-around tasting, though there was an earlier tasting for more important people than I conducted by Fred Dame MS. Speaking of dust. A walk-around tasting is a difficult environment in which to taste wine. You’re always trying to elbow your way to a table to taste, there’s always some bonehead thinking he has the winemaker entranced with his brilliant wine analysis when he really only has him entrapped, you’re glancing around the room looking for the nearest spit bucket, and all the while trying to focus on the wine’s aromas and then its taste. It’s hard to concentrate. Add to that the nature of young Cabernet, how much it will change, fill out, integrate, gain intensity over the next couple of years in bottle, changes that can make a fool of any wine writer who isn’t one to begin with, and, well, it’s humbling. Or should be. So please take my remarks with a trainload of salt.

After the tasting, driving home, I was trying to capture some common thread that all the Cabernets I tasted possessed. This seemed like a hopeless task. What I tasted over and over again was more akin to style than appellation. Also, it seemed to me that quite a few of the wines seemed overcropped (certainly plausible in 2012), but that could simply be youthful callowness. Most of the wines I tasted had been made by very experienced Napa Valley winemakers, people who put their stamp on wines stylistically. Almost every wine spoke to me of style more than place. Like listening to 29 jazz pianists play “Misty.” There’s a melody in there somewhere, but everyone’s screwing around with it in their own way. I actually like that, want that to be the case. A wine shouldn’t scream “Rutherford” any more than a person should scream “Cop.” Those are always the worst ones.

2012 is a terrific vintage. Now this statement depends on your perspective. Some will find them too voluptuous. Is this possible? Can anything be too voluptuous? I didn’t note many flabby wines, most were grand examples of California Cabernet at its down and dirtiest, busting out of its clothing, youthful and exuberant and ripe, and unafraid to flaunt it. The best ones gave me a boner (I swear, wine writing needs more use of the word "boner"). Did my heart good. I didn’t find them to be too much, as some naysayers will, but, rather, inimitably Napa Valley Cabernet. Some yearn for the “good old days” when California Cabernets were picked at 23 Brix°. Not me. I like balance, and to my palate, the best wines at “A Day in the Dust” had impeccable balance. It was a nice window to the vintage, and people like to throw Brix° at windows.

I’d like to briefly mention my favorite wines at the tasting. I’m certain that in six months, tasting them all again, maybe with Dusty Dame MS, my favorites would be different. That’s the nature of tasting young wines in such an odd and crowded event. But it’s all we got.

I found myself drawn to two very different Cabernets. First, there was the luscious and juicy Hunnicutt 2012 Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard. Made by Kirk Venge, its forward and seductive and ripe fruit reminded me of the old Groth Reserve Cabernets his father Nils made back in the ’80’s and ’90’s. I think the ’12 Hunnicutt will age better than those Groth wines, it has a nicely integrated layer of chalky tannin, and a lovely and lingering finish. Its all blackberry and cassis, a wine Parker would label “hedonistic.” I just wanted to gulp it. And, no, it wasn’t sweet with residual sugar. So Laube will hate it.

I was also crazy about a wine that is stylistically worlds apart from the Hunnicutt—the stately and beautiful Freemark Abbey 2012 Cabernet Bosché. Oh, boy, this is classic Rutherford Cabernet by anyone’s definition. Tasting it was like running into an old friend. I hope folks don’t ignore this wine because the glory days of Freemark Abbey are long behind us. A lot of cult wines have come and gone since then. This is polished, restrained, elegant wine, but one that is bursting with fun—Charlize Theron in Dior. Ted Edwards certainly knows his way around Bosché Vineyard fruit, and, handed a great vintage, he knew what to do with it. I doubt it will be cheap (the ’11 Cabernet Bosché is $100, and Jackson Family Estates isn't shy about raising prices, so we’ll see), but you can be dead certain that it will become a classic. Maybe not ’41 Inglenook classic, but classic. Very different style than the Hunnicutt. I can’t say I prefer one style over the other, any more than I like the Marx Brothers more than the Smothers Brothers. I don’t have to choose, I’d rather embrace them both. Though the Freemark Abbey and the Marx Brothers will live longer.

I was also very impressed by the two wines Flora Springs offered. I nearly passed them by. My recent experiences with Flora Springs haven’t been especially memorable. Yet the Flora Springs 2012 Rutherford Hillside Reserve was beautiful. It’s what you expect from great Napa Valley Cabernet. Pure, elevated, intense aromas and flavors of blackberries, cassis, expensive oak (that should integrate more with some bottle age) and its cocoa component, and a very sweet fruit finish. Another very elegant Cabernet, one I’d love to spend a few days with to watch it develop. Another wine I’d think would be long-lived and a cellar treasure. The Flora Springs 2012 Trilogy was also terrific. Very different, it was far more open-knit, more accessible and flashy. A wine a sommelier likes because it’s drinking well already, and folks are going to want to taste the 2012’s. I prefer the Hillside Reserve, but the Trilogy is beautiful, and shows a steady hand from the winemaker. I’d happily slug it down.

I don’t want to bore you much longer. I also very much liked the Frank Family 2012 Patriarch, but it’s $225, and no one who reads my crappy blog can afford $225 for wine. They can barely afford to subscribe. It was a gift to get to taste it though. It was quite good.

Finally, a plug for what was, I think, about the cheapest Cabernet in the room, the Chaix 2012. It’s $60, and worth every dime of that. My first note about it reads, “Cab all the way.” Which is how I should have driven home, but actually meant that the wine smelled like textbook Rutherford Cabernet. I love restraint in wine. In fact, I think that almost every great wine has restraint. The Chaix has that. Made by Sam Baxter, the Chaix is seamless. Maybe not the best wine in the room (way too hard to tell at this point, and what do I know?), it was filled with character and quality. Black fruits, loamy, even a kind of stony character, the wine had so much personality and life, I was jealous. I need more of both.