Monday, August 15, 2016

Wine Critics in Hell Act 3

Hell appears to be a very sleazy natural wine bar in Lodi occupied by four dead wine critics, a Stranger, a single woman, and the bartender, who does not speak. The dead wine critics seem particularly restless as the scene opens, caged animals pacing about, while the bartender polishes the Riedel stemware, “Riedel—The Official Stemware of Eternal Damnation”®, every other one of which breaks at the stem. Ms. Feiring, the only woman in Hell, which may be the very definition of Hell, is sitting coquettishly at the bar, drinking her bottomless glass of natural wine Rosé. ACT 1 is here, ACT 2 is here.

Feiring: (flirtatiously) Why, I wish you boys would stop pacing like that. A woman gets tired of men who ignore her. (fanning herself with a copy of Le Pan, the only wine magazine in Hell) Why does it have to be so hot in here? (to Parker) It’s hotter than those 100 Point Napa Valley Cabs you love so much, Bobby. May I call you Bobby? I like the name Bobby. I once had a gentleman caller named Bobby. Oh, he was so handsome, and so natural. He had the prettiest skin, all shiny and smooth, like the taint of a newly minted Master Sommelier, before life tears her a new one. We were lovers, Bobby and I. Well, lovers in every way that really matters. Not the dirty way you boys are thinking about—I see how you stare at me. (No one is looking at her.) Does it shock you that I had a true love, a man who wanted me, who wanted to marry me? Bobby appreciated my feminine terroir. He always said a good old fashioned plough was what I needed. Not some cold mechanical thing. He was so romantic, my Bobby. He used to tell me that he had a secret spray, his own “magic tea” he called it, that he wanted to squirt all over me! Isn’t that a lovely thought? A man spraying his magic tea all over you? But only on a Fruit Day. He said it had to be a Fruit Day. He never did squirt his secret spray all over me, though I asked him to over and over and over. Made me wonder what he meant by “Fruit Day.”

Feiring opens her purse and removes a cigarette from her cigarette case. Laube rushes over to light it for her, but he is drunk, and tries to light her cigarette with a tiny statue of Jon Bonné he keeps in his pocket. Lifesize statue. Parker casually walks over, eyeing Feiring skeptically, shoves Laube aside, and lights her cigarette.

Feiring: Why, thank you, Bobby. (Parker grunts.) Is it OK if I smoke? I find smoking so relaxing. It leaves that little taste of death in my mouth, like drinking Vin Jaune from the Jura. Not that you boys know what that tastes like, now do you?

Parker: Smoke away, Alice. We’re all dead here anyway.

Kramer: Speak for yourself. Bobby. I might be dead, but my wine books are immortal.

There is a stunned silence. And then everyone begins to laugh at once. Laube pisses himself again.

Suckling: You know, Kramer, you really are a jackass. Do you really think you’re in this fucking bar because you had talent, because you “made sense” of shit? You’re just one of us, one of the blowhards you’ve always looked down on. You never helped make sense of anything wine to anybody that wanted to love wine. You were in love with the sound of your own voice. Narcissus staring at his reflection in a glass of DRC Montrachet. You never even loved wine, Kramer. You only played at loving wine. Writing about wine for you was like karaoke—you just mimicked being real, and waited for the applause of the idiots who sat there and listened to you. (Suckling mimes a mic drop.)

Feiring: (raising her voice) Boys! Boys! Don’t fight over me, boys. Please, I’m a delicate flower. I have plenty of stamen for all your heat-packing pistils. I am not your precious vitis vinifera, I am a woman, I am not self-pollinating! We have eternity. There’s enough of me for everybody. (Parker breaks wind.)

Parker: (threateningly) Let me tell you something, Alice. You don’t belong here. I don’t know how you got in here, I don’t know who decides these things, but this isn’t the place for you. Not among us. You’re not one of us. We see through you. That sultry thing, it doesn’t work here. (He gets close to her, right in her face.) I know what you want. I know why you’re here. (She glances aside, blows smoke from her cigarette at Laube). Look at me. (She doesn’t.) I said look at me! (Parker grabs her face, turns it to his, and kisses her. It’s a longer kiss than either expect.) How’s that for fucking natural? (Alice spits in his face. He just smiles.)

Suckling: Our dolly spits like a llama.

Stranger: (speaking quietly but firmly) I brought her here.

Parker: Then get her out! Can’t you see, Stranger? She’s here to unravel us, one at a time.

Stranger: (sarcastically) Yes, Bobby. This is Hell. Were you expecting a medal? Guess what? Hell is your Lifetime Achievement Award.

Feiring: I believe I’m getting the vapors. My, all of this anger, all of this testosterone. (She turns to Laube.) Jimmy, will you help me? Bobby is being a brute. And so hedonistic! I feel so violated. You’re the real gentleman here, Jimmy. I know that. Come over here and take my hand. Take me for a walk outside. I love the smell of sulfur on a warm night, it reminds me of my favorite wines.

Laube stands up slowly, clearly still inebriated, gently brushes his hair with his hands, runs a finger over his moustache, and reaches for Feiring’s extended hand. Parker looks disgusted. Suckling is smirking. Kramer is pouting from lack of attention.

Stranger: Oh, you can’t go outside, Alice, not with Jimmy, and not with anyone else. Not until you’ve finished what I’ve brought you here to do, and maybe not even then. Like it or not, Alice, you’ve been locked in a room with these…men…for all of your professional life. That’s what Hell is about, Love. Discovering that who you hated in life were those who were the ones who were the most like you. You’ll see, all of you will see, as you unravel them, as you diminish and ruin them, it is your self you have damned to Hell.

Kramer: Can we talk about me now?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Napa Valley Then and Now: A HoseMaster of Wine™ Book Club Selection

A few months ago I wrote a Blind Book Review of Kelli White’s “Napa Valley Then and Now.” I
love writing Blind Book Reviews. It may be my favorite all-time HoseMaster premise. I certainly abuse it like it is. The best part is, I don't actually have to read the books, which are so often dismal or derivative, and I don't have to lie about having read the books like most of the other wine book reviewers in the blogosphere. I just admit I haven't read it, and then I talk about it anyway. It's so liberating! Sort of like Trump with the Constitution.

I ran into Kelli White at a party in Yountville not too long ago. She and I had never met. Kelli was very gracious about my stupid satiric review (and believe me, many authors are not), and even presented me with a copy of her book. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do with it. I felt a little silly, a bit awkward with this new book. What the hell does one do with a book? I finally figured out to put it on my Kindle, but that broke the damn thing.

So I began to read Kelli’s book. Out of idle curiosity at first, and then for enjoyment. I have never written a review of a book I’ve actually read on HoseMaster of Wine™. I wasn’t convinced I should. But then I skimmed many of the reviews of Kelli’s book, and most of them were dull, poorly written and had very little insight. Hell, I can do that! The worst of them were putrid, as well as poorly written and devoid of thought. You know who you are. We gripe about the quality of wine reviewing online, but these book reviews seem to have been written by people who learned English from Scooby Doo cartoons, and literature from Cliff’s Notes. My blind review of Kelli's book was insane, but I like to think it wasn’t dull.

I haven’t written a critical book review since college. I decided Kelli White’s book would be a fun starting point, though, depending upon how this goes, it may also be my finish line. Though Kelli and I have become casual friends (that might be presumptuous—Kelli?), I will attempt to be as objective as possible. My starting point is that “Napa Valley Then and Now” is an important book for any serious wine lover to own. Though I’d rather know a lot fewer serious wine lovers. Serious wine lovers, go and buy “Napa Valley Then and Now”! And leave me the hell alone.

A lot has been written about the physical size of the book. It’s the first wine book I’ve ever owned that has its own terroir. I had the heater on in my room one day, and it started a thunderstorm. Yet, I’ve come to love its size. Like I love the feel and weight of an Imperial of a great wine. It seems like too much, and yet you find it somehow comforting and abundant. White’s book is an abundant book in so many ways. Abundant in history, abundant in useful and historic tasting notes, abundant in her raw talent as a writer. It also weighs a lot. But I’m old-fashioned; I like a reference book with heft. White’s has physical heft, but also intellectual heft. I can’t explain it. I have come to love that it’s so large. Reminds me of my Dad’s ’58 Buick. I loved that car. It was a two-hour hike to the back seat.

There cannot be very many people who have tasted more older vintages of California wines than Kelli White. Probably Charlie Olken and Stephen Eliot of “Connoisseurs’ Guide,” and a few collectors I know, but that adds up to a small number of humans. Many of the older wines reviewed in White’s book I’d had when they were released—but I’m old. In her position as sommelier at PRESS in St. Helena, Kelli and her fiancé Scott Brenner used Leslie Rudd’s resources to assemble an unrivaled list of vintage Napa Valley wines. The majority of wines White writes about in “Napa Valley Then and Now” were sourced directly from the wineries. Not a Rudy fraud among them. Though, after this brilliant book, that’s probably next. No one has, to my knowledge, done this before, assembled this kind of wine knowledge as well as tasting notes of older vintages—not for Napa Valley. I’ve always referred to Michael Broadbent’s books for tasting notes on older Bordeaux. Amazingly, she’s only 36 (I started as a sommelier at 36!), White’s book is now my resource for tasting notes on older Napa Valley wines. It’s a very valuable resource.

Before she gets to writing about the 200 Napa Valley wineries she chose for the book, White writes some wonderful pages about her own criteria for tasting “…I prefer narrative tasting notes,” White writes, “and am wary of the way a number can reduce a wine’s worth to a single fixed value.” That’s perfect tone, and smartly said. The brief history of Napa Valley that follows is especially wonderful reading. White is a very talented, if still unpolished, writer (I cringed when I read “undeniably unique”) whose ability to communicate an enormous amount of information in a relatively brief section is breathtaking. There are better, more in-depth, histories of Napa Valley, which she acknowledges, but none as concise, entertaining and easy to read. White’s strengths as a writer—precision, pacing, insight, style—are on glorious display. I found that I was not only learning a lot, I was thoroughly enjoying her company. It may not rise to the heights of literature, little wine writing does, but it is very fine work. When reading White’s brief history of Napa Valley, I felt as I once felt reading an old Decanter wine column of Gerald Asher’s. There isn’t higher praise than that. If you ever plan a trip to Napa, just those sixteen pages will enlighten you more than a hundred stupid guide books.

The section on the appellations of Napa Valley is also very useful and informative. I was relieved to read it and find nary a single use of the word, “terroir.” Only a very confident and skilled writer, and White is all of that, could manage that. White summarizes succinctly the climate influences and soil types (always a yawn to me—like naming all the crus of Barolo—I just don’t care) of each appellation, and passes along interesting factoids (there’s a word I hate, “factoid”—sounds like a nasty polyp on your face). About Yountville, the hippest town in the Valley, White points out, “The buildings that now beckon with their restaurants and tasting rooms used to house an impressive selection of barrooms and brothels, with taxis lined out front to ferry the overindulged.” Not much has changed, except taxis are now Ubers, and brothels are now natural wine bars, with all the attendant and similar off-aromas.

As White herself points out, “It is quite likely the older tasting notes that give this book its true worth.” I did not read the winery profiles in alphabetical order. How anal would that have been? It would be like planting a vineyard in alphabetical order, the Abouriou next to the Alicante, next to the Barbera. Has Randall Grahm done that yet? If I have reservations with “Napa Valley Now and Then,” most lie in these pages, the bulk of what is a bulky book.

The tasting notes are fantastic. I might cite a hundred examples, but here are three. “2000 Maya [Dalla Valle’s prestige red wine]—One of the more soft-spoken and poetic vintages of Maya, the 2000 displays soft, refined fruit, an easy charm, and a compelling bouquet of baked cherries, mulch, sarsparilla, and mint.” I want that.  White can be sweet and lethal at the same time, a perfect quality for a wine writer. About a Scholium Project 2010 Androkteinos Syrah (is anyone more gleefully pretentious than Abe Schoener) White writes, “…scents of salted, candied violets, dried black currants, sweet garden soil, and smoked meat, punctuated with a ton of VA.” The wonderful back and forth of something that sounds appealing, dried black currants, with something that doesn’t, sweet garden soil, with the time bomb of a ton of VA at the end of the sentence gives you a real sense of the wine. That you might want to stay the hell away from it. Of a 1959 School House Pinot Noir (Oh, I’ve always loved School House—a real wine geek’s geek wine) White says, “Surely one of the greatest Pinot Noirs ever made in the United States…It was perfect, with a shockingly youthful nose of rich cherry fruit, a kiss of sweet earth, brown spices, and a beautiful floral tone.” I find this precise without being too precise. Though Kelli seems to be eating a lot of sweet dirt lately.

Writing tasting notes is a difficult, challenging, and unrewarding task. I would never read a lot of them in one sitting, I don’t care who the author is. White excels at it. Again, that’s like excelling at writing recipes, but try it, it stretches your sensory vocabulary and abilities. She makes it look easy. To a great degree, the book’s success is centered on those notes, on their reliability and precision. Tasting notes are easy to parody. Writing ones that are not self-parody is very challenging. White has a fine touch with tasting notes. I can’t think of higher praise than to say I wish I could taste alongside her.

There are too many wineries in the book. Too many selections smell of politics. Some of the new wineries in here don’t deserve to be. There are few notes for many of them, and White’s lack of enthusiasm starts to leak through. She’s going through the paces, and her own interest flags. I hated reading about newer projects. Too often the winery summaries smelled of a bad Laube article on “Ten Wineries to Watch.” They were treacle in an otherwise scintillating book. It is a mystery to me how quite a few of her selections made the cut, when, for example, Trefethen did not. Skip those, they don’t belong here.

I also felt White gives some folks an easy pass. There’s too much David Abreu worship, far too much. A lot of stricter environmental laws came to pass in Napa Valley as a reaction to Abreu’s disregard for simple nightmares like erosion. Yes, he’s an important figure in Napa Valley’s current history, but not simply a positive influence. White doesn’t need to be harsh, simply more objective and willing to be a little bolder and more opinionated. But she’s 36, and so supremely talented, that perhaps what she needs is simply more confidence in her gift.

The long sections on the truly historic wineries in Napa, among them Charles Krug, Mayacamas, Louis M. Martini, School House, Inglenook, Lail, Robert Mondavi and Stony Hill, are an incredible resource, and will be, I believe, for many future generations of wine lovers. White's comprehensive tasting notes of older vintages are a treasure trove, a serious study of wines that have been shamefully underestimated and overlooked. I am so envious of Kelli, that she was able to taste so many remarkable wines. She precisely and with great eloquence completely dismantles the old wisdom I’ve heard in the wine business for my entire long tenure in it, that California wines don’t age as well as their European counterparts. That has always been false. Leftover Old World elitism repeated ad nauseum by the uninformed, inexperienced and ignorant. With her deft use of language, original and valuable tasting notes, her enviable background and piercing intelligence, Kelli White has performed a miracle for the folks who made Napa Valley what it is today. Napa Valley has always commanded high prices. With the work of the young and talented Kelli White (I just may hate her), Napa Valley may finally command the high regard it richly deserves.

This is the best reference book for the historic wines of Napa Valley. It’s virtually the only one. It holds endless treasures. Flawless? No. Essential? To my mind, absolutely. It’s $95. That seems like a lot, but when you consider that $95 barely gets you a bottle of decent Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon these days, it’s a steal. You've spent far more money on crap less valuable.

"Napa Valley Then and Now" isn't available on Amazon, or anywhere else that I'm aware of. You can, and should, purchase it on her website:

Or write her at Tell her the HoseMaster sent you.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The HoseMaster of Wine™ Previews New Wine Books

I’ve been wading through the upcoming releases of new wine books set to debut just before the holiday season this year. Oh, it’s an exciting lot! All kinds of fascinating, controversial, and just plain must-have books for the literate oenophile. Both of them. Many of these new releases are self-published, but the rest are actual books. Here are some of my favorites. All of the books were reviewed totally blind to guarantee objectivity.

“The Completely Amateur Guide to Writing Worthless Wine Books” by Madeline Puckette

Ms. Puckette, pixieish author of the fairy tale website “Wine Folly” (why, just kiss a frog and, Abracadabra, you’re a knowledgeable wine writer—with frog breath, just like Michel Bettane!), has written a very useful book for wine bloggers who want to publish. So many wine bloggers ask themselves, “How do I create a successful wine book when I know very little about wine, and have the writing skills of AutoCorrect?” Ms. Puckette managed that very feat with her book, “Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine.” If by “Essential” you mean “facts don’t matter.” The Donald Trump approach to wine. Turns out it’s simple, though one might assume that given the author. This useful book gives the aspiring wine writer worthwhile tips on how to write a worthless wine book:

Use lots of graphs and pie charts. They look official even when they are totally worthless, sort of like Scientologists.

Who needs experience when you have Wikipedia? With a few quick strokes and deletions, you can take any wine information found on the internet and Melania Trump that motherfucker. Simple.

Get a cute haircut. No reason. Just, for once in your life, get a cute haircut. All the wine experts have them!

“The Completely Amateur Guide to Writing Worthless Wine Books” is an Essential guide to wine writing. And I do mean Essential.

“The Finger Lakes Clean and Jerk” by Kelli White

The prolific Ms. White, author of the heaviest wine book on record, “Napa Valley Then and Now,” has outdone herself with the supersized “The Finger Lakes Clean and Jerk.” Used by juiced-up Russian weightlifters as a workout tool, “The Finger Lakes Clean and Jerk” is the authoritative guide to the Finger Lakes wine growing region—the Wine Book of the Year no one has been clamoring for. Don’t let the title fool you, it’s not an autoerotic sex manual for lonely Master Sommeliers. They already have “World of Fine Wine” for that. (Never borrow their copies. The Terry Theise pages stick together like natural wine writers.) Rather, White has managed to produce the definitive guide to what she calls, “America’s premiere cool climate grape growing region, if you don’t count Barbara Banke’s lingerie drawer.” Weighing in at just under Peter Dinklage, this is a fascinating account of the winegrowing history of the Finger Lakes, and includes White’s perceptive reviews of the best wines of the best producers, giving special attention to the wines of the Middle Finger Lake, known as Lake Fuckyou, named for a local Native American tribe. White is a delicious writer, and you'll want to devour this massive tome with a knife and forklift.

“Riesling: Who Really Gives a Shit?” An Anthology

The perfect companion book to Ms. White’s, “Riesling: Who Really Gives a Shit?” is the newest in the “Who Really Gives a Shit?” series, following “Orange Wine: Who Really Gives a Shit,” “Wine Blog Awards: Who Really Gives a Shit,” and “Dry Furmint: Who Really Gives a Shit.” The “Riesling” edition may be the most controversial in the WRGAS? series. Riesling has long been touted as one of the world’s finest wine grapes by authorities ranging from Stuart Piggott to the highly regarded Stuart Piggott, and everyone in between. In this anthology, the editors have compiled articles expressing the majority opinion that, while Riesling may be one of the great wine grapes on the planet, most folks don’t really care. Sure, it’s great, it’s the Barry Bonds of wine, but let’s not pretend we actually like it when, really, we’re just afraid of it. Who buys Riesling? Oh, it goes with so many foods, just like bad breath. Contributors to “Riesling: WRGAS?” include Eric Asimov (“If One More Sommelier Suggests Riesling, I’m Going to Take a Wikileaks on Him”), James Laube (“I Get Enough Diesel Sucking Marvin’s Tailpipe”), and Jancis Robinson (“Riesling: It’s Rheingaud Awful”).

“Making Sense of Phoning It In” by Matt Kramer

Some wine writers tirelessly impart wine knowledge; Matt Kramer is our leading wine writer who tirelessly speaks of his own. In this collection of columns first published in Wine Spectator, Kramer delights us with clever satire (“Letter to a Wine Snob: Be More Like Me) and hard-hitting editorializing (“Letter to a Wine Snob: You’ll Never Know as Much as I Do”). Kramer has an easy-to-read style. He’s the Easy Bake Oven® of wine writers—he works with one low-wattage light bulb. This is the latest in his “Making Sense of…” wine books. The wine world is eagerly anticipating next year’s release, “Making Sense of Hanging it Up.”

These are all must-have wine books. And keep your eyes open for these other about-to-be-released titles:

“Melania Trump and Me” by Natalie MacLean

“Mama Mia, Logorrhea!” by David Schildknecht

“The Fred Dame MS Story” by Fred Dame MS, as told to Fred Dame MS, English Translation by Fred Dame MS, published by Fred Dame MS, foreword by Fred Dame MS.

“A Crash Course in the Wines of Sicily” by Eric Asimov with Alfonso Cevola.