Wednesday, September 30, 2009
It's time once again to dispel some of the countless myths that surround wine. Creating these myths seems to be part of the game for wine experts, a way to keep ordinary people from understanding and enjoying wine. As HoseMaster, I have taken it upon myself to destroy these myths, reveal them for the hogwash they are. This is the third in my Myth series. You're welcome.
Myth #1 Drinking wine is healthy for you.
The Wine-Industrial Complex has been cooking up fake results for decades now that have convinced most people that drinking moderate amounts of wine is part of a healthy lifestyle. They often site the soothing effects of alcohol, how it relaxes you, relieves stress--sound familiar? The Tobacco-Agricultural Complex used to say the same things about cigarettes in the 50's. The folks who fell for it then, well, they're wishing they'd inhaled asbestos instead. And then there's all this talk about Resveratrol, a supposed antioxidant which was originally devised to add to Chevron's premium grade of gasoline. Whatever Resveratrol's done for mice, it turns out humans are basically unable to absorb it through the stomach. And, really, wine isn't particularly enjoyable as a suppository, though removing a screwtop that way is a wonderful party trick! And then there was the famous "60 Minutes" Wine-Industrial Complex fake segment hosted by Morley Safer (safer than what? Lead poisoning?) about the mythical "French paradox." A bogus study claimed that despite their rich and fatty diet, the French are less prone to heart disease than Americans because they consume more wine with their meals. Yeah, right. So now that the per capita consumption of wine has decreased in France does this mean they will start dying younger? Just more false hope. Drinking wine is not good for your health, friends, we all understand that deep down. Hey, they preserve dead stuff in alcohol--enough said.
High auction bidder with bottle of Screaming Eagle.
Myth #2 Food Wine
How many times have you been at a wine tasting and been told that the wine you were tasting is a "food wine?" Fifty times at least, right? Now how many times have you been in a restaurant and the waiter recommended a dish because it's "wine food?" Never. "Food wine" is a myth. Couldn't be more bogus. Sure, wine accompanies food like stupid accompanies Paula Abdul, but wines aren't MADE to go with food. Someone tells you a wine is a Food Wine, you know it's going to be a lifeless and dull bottle of wine, a wine that can't be sold on its own merits, so they want you to buy it because it will absolutely dazzle you with food! It sucks on its own, like Lionel Ritchie without the Commodores, but pair it with cassoulet and it's brilliant! Has any wine salesperson ever said to you, "You know, I love this wine but it absolutely sucks Sarah-Palin-style with food."? No. So apparently every damn wine is a Food Wine! This is just palin (I mean, plain) stupid. Makes you want to go out and buy a six-pack of Food Beer.
Myth #3 Wines taste better out of the appropriate Riedel glass.
Yeah, right, and I can steal your nose by wiggling my thumb through my fist. How dumb are humans that they believe this? Riedel is the Bernie Madoff of stemware. OK, that's not fair. Bernie Madoff is the Riedel of Wall Street Investors--OK, that's better. Riedel starts from a premise that their specialized glasses feed the wine to the appropriate spot on your tongue for maximum enjoyment of the wine based on the famous tongue map that has sweetness at the tip of your tongue, bitterness on the sides, etc. Only problem is that tongue map was disproven forty years ago. You might as well believe masturbating makes you go blind, which only makes you feel sorry for Guide Dogs. Your tongue doesn't just taste sweetness on the tip, there are no divisions of labor on the tongue, it tastes every one of the six basic tastes everywhere (including tasting umami--which sounds more like a ghetto epithet than a taste, but I digress). The whole Riedel premise is based on bogus science and the results are therefore bogus. But there's nothing like superstition for a license to print money.
Myth #4 Wine judges spit.
OK, they spit, they just don't spit wine. There's no reason to spit wine when one is judging a wine competition. Frankly, it's dirty and disgusting and the Health Department of most major cities won't allow it. Plus, organizers know that a lot more gold medals are awarded when the judges are stinko so they don't even allow spitbuckets. It doesn't take much to see that this is true. Read the results of wine competitions and then compare their results with the scores from major wine publications. There is virtually no correlation between gold medals and scores above 90 points. Why? All the critics and judges are hammered! Wine judges and wine critics are pissed almost all the time. Sure, they want you to believe that they taste the wines blind and sober, but, really, it doesn't matter if they see what the wine is that they're tasting, they're too drunk to read the label anyway. So how do judges stay conscious when tasting 100 wines or more in a day? An awful lot of wine comes out through their noses.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
A HoseMaster of Wine Pulp Fiction Classic
Chapter 1 Strange Path
I'm a dick. A private dick, but a dick nonetheless. I make a living as a dick, if you call digging through people's trash for private information about them living. You should see what people put in their garbage. It's disgusting. You can tell a lot about a person sifting through their garbage. You see everything that fills their rotten insides, all the filth and refuse they fill their lives with. In fact, life is like a garbage pail, you fill it with useless and stomach-turning stuff and then pay people to haul it away. But not before the putrefying smell of it sickens everyone. I'm the dick who gets paid to sift through life's disgusting garbage. Which is how I got involved in the worst case of my career, a case that nearly got me killed, a case that led me to depths of inhumanity I didn't know existed, which is like Sean Hannity discovering a whole new level of stupid. I thought I knew about garbage, about conspiracy, about evil. But then I got involved with a group that changed me, that filled me with a loathing for people I'd never felt before. Where do I begin?
I don't know how these people find me. I've got a rundown shithole of an office in the sleepy little wine country town of Healdsburg, a town so dull the main hobby is going down to the local hospital to watch folks having contractions. And those are at the proctology ward. Healdsburg is a tourist town now. Once upon a time it served the farmers in the community, now it serves expensive wines and fancy meals. Healdsburg has more tasting rooms than Dick Cheney has condos in Hell, but I like it here. The landscape is beautiful, and when the urge hits me it's the easiest thing in the world to find a drunken tourist in a see-through cotton dress to come home with me and learn how to spit. I see it as a public service.
I'd just wrapped up my recent case involving the Illuminatti, the Freemasons and the Osmond Family, having successfully foiled their plans to prove Michael Jackson was married and had fathered several children and primates and that the titles to his greatest hits were actually an anagram of "Diana Ross is Mary Magdalene's daughter with Thomas Jefferson," when she walked into my Healdsburg office. She smelled dangerous with a pinch of crazy, but I like that smell. It's like Ann Coulter farted on Lou Dobbs--you get the same smell in a good vintage of Silver Oak. But she was gorgeous--blonde and busty with the kind of legs you get in Tokaji Essensia--long and oily. I've seen puttonyos before, and she was way more than five.
"Are you the HoseMaster?" she asked.
"Sure," I said, "how can I help you?"
"I'm told that you know people in the wine business, important people." I was having trouble looking her in the eye. I hadn't seen jugs stacked that high since I bought my wine at a gas station.
"Yeah, I know some important people. Who is it you're looking to meet? And don't say James Laube. I killed him two weeks ago. It was self-defense. He threw his 100 point scale at me--it was banged up, utterly useless, but it damn near killed me. So I plugged him. Just heard they're giving me a James Beard Award for it."
"No, you misunderstand." She sat down across from me and when she crossed those legs I'm pretty sure I got a glimpse of the Sacramento Delta and most of its tributaries, but it was hot enough to be Lodi. "I want to hire you to help me join the secret society of M.S."
I'd heard those evil bastards were going to be in Healdsburg. Recruiting. Their rituals, their "tests," were secret, and they were very careful about who they allowed to pass, who they allowed to join their putrid ranks. But I'd heard stories, horrifying stories, stories that revolved around ritual disemboweling, waterboarding, and Evan Goldstein lectures. Why would this babe want to be an M.S.?
"From what I know, Ma'am..."
"Call me Veronica."
"From what I know, Veronica, the Master Sommeliers don't like women, don't really want women in their ranks, make the whole thing a nightmare for a woman to join. And that's if I can even get you in the door. Do you have the faintest idea what it's like to be an M.S.? Do you really know what evil those people are capable of?"
"I know more about it than you can even imagine, HoseMaster. I have no fear of them, I know exactly who they are and what they stand for. Now, can you help me or not?"
"Oh, I can help you alright, but it comes with a price."
"My friends and I are willing to pay any price to penetrate the M.S. society. Name it."
I paused, took another sip of my Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc, noting the lovely Musque fragrance. Or was that Veronica? "Let's just say I want to dredge the Sacramento Delta when all this is through."
"You're a strange one, HoseMaster," Veronica said, leaning over my desk and giving me a view of the Cote Blonde and Cote Brune, making me think of Guigal and his Bodacious La-La's, "but I like you."
To Be Continued
Monday, September 21, 2009
In recent months there has been a lot of invective aimed at Wine Competitions, the general unreliability of the medals awarded and the questionable competence of the judges involved. So they're pretty much like figure skating at the Olympics without Dick Button commentating. (Though for years when I ordered jeans from Eddie Bauer I always asked for the ones with the Dick Button. I look so cute in them.) Somehow folks have gotten the impression that wine judges are fallible and inconsistent. This seems crazy to me as a guy who has judged many times at competitions, it implies wine judges are human. Trust me, it ain't so.
Typical wine judge at work.
What's curious is that most, if not all, of those criticizing the results of wine competitions are themselves rating wines using some sort of numeric scale. And wine judges are inconsistent? There is not one famous or reliable wine critic using the 100 point or 20 point or 10 point scale who can replicate his number scores twice in a row when blind tasting a set of, say, fifteen wines. Parker has studiously avoided this situation for 25 years, and for good reason. He's fallible and inconsistent and has too much to lose by taking a test he'd certainly fail. Even though he could eat Dick Button for lunch and have room for Dorothy Hamill for dessert. But I'm not here to debate this old chestnut. I thought I'd relate a few stories from my days as a wine judge.
I was asked to judge the first year of a competition in Paso Robles. In the spirit of anything to get out of a weekend at work, I accepted. Paso Robles is one of the more interesting appellations in California for my money. There are more than 200 wineries there, maybe 10 of which are worth spending your hard-earned money on. OK, that's a little harsh. There are at least 12 that are worth your time and money. Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm going to hear from folks who think there are amazing wines in Paso Robles, but these are the same people who think American Idol winners have talent and claim they don't watch NASCAR for the accidents. Sure, there are some great wines in Paso, a handful, but you can spend a week in Paso Robles and quickly find out how little your thirty-five bucks can buy.
The first year of this competition, as I expected, was a bit disorganized. That's fine, it takes some experience to manage the insane logistics of running a wine competition. I'm pretty sure they got their volunteers from the local branch of Slow Food--the Really Slow Food People. One of the volunteers pointed to a glass in front of me and said, "What do you think of that Tobin James?" I think she'd heard it was a blind and deaf tasting.
During a long, they were all long, break, a friend of mine on a different panel walked over to my table. I asked him how it was going at his table. "Oh, fine," he said, "except for that one woman to my left..." "Why, what's wrong with her?" I glanced over at her. She was a very large woman in her late 40's wearing an unappealing short skirt--it was so short you could see her brand. "Oh, just a couple of little things," my friend told me, "first, she's wearing a lot of perfume..." "You're kidding!" I said, "at a wine competition?! Who is she, Cuckoo Chanel?" "And," my friend continued, "she's not spitting." So they had tasted about fifty wines to that point and she had consumed an ounce or so of each. That's two bottles, friends. I'm thinking she had drunk a bottle of perfume too.
I never judged in that competition again.
At a different competition I was assigned to a panel of five judges. Our first task was to taste 80 Chardonnays under $15. This is perhaps the closest I've come to suicide, if you don't count tasting at Castoro Cellars. But we endured, awarded at least twenty double golds just to annoy bloggers, and then we were assigned to taste white Italian varieties. I am a fan of white Italian varieties and have been for many years--Garganega, Arneis, Grechetto, Tocai Friulano...--so I was excited. They do tell you what variety you're tasting blind, and the first wine was a Fiano. None of the other four judges had heard of Fiano. Had no idea that Fiano was even a grape. One judge thought it was what a Fianist played. But whatever the Fiano was we were tasting, it was wonderful. Gold Medal! It was beautiful and rich, just a bit of oiliness, very intense, a bit herbal, and almost honeyed. The other four judges gave it bronzes. It was awarded a bronze. It deserved a gold more than a woman with a penis. The next wine was a Trousseau Gris. They hadn't heard of that either, but since it's not even an Italian variety, not really their fault. And so it goes...
At most competitions you are in a large room with several panels separated simply by curtains. Frankly, I'm surprised the gowns they provide aren't open in the back. Of course, if that were the case, it would be hard to tell where the evocative aroma of ass was coming from, the wine or the judges. At one competition our panel was next to a panel of two men and a woman. The woman was, probably still is, insane. She was browbeating these two guys like she was Joan Rivers on her period, though Joan Rivers hasn't menstruated since her vagina was cosmetically lifted under her chin, which makes it hard to tell which part is burping. It got so bad, she was so insulting to the two men tasting with her, that our panel got fed up with listening to her. We asked her to knock it off and she started berating us. So I thoughtfully retaliated by tossing a piece of bread over the curtain which fortuituously landed in one of her wine glasses. I thought, honestly, that I'd won a goldfish. All I got, however, was more carping. After several hours of her incessant ranting, Lady MacBeth with an M.S., we secretly lured the chairman of the competition into our curtained tasting area. He listened to her rabid chatter for about ten minutes and then asked her to leave. I think he said something along the lines of "Out, damned Snot!"
I'll probably get drummed out of judging after this post. I'm actually judging all this week so I may not be able, or in command of my wits enough, to post for a bit. But I'll be back.
So this post, Gold, Silver, or Bronze? And who cares?
Friday, September 18, 2009
What are you looking for in a wine?
Often I'm looking for backwash. Is it just me, or do you often find little pieces of food in your glass of wine, like a piece of bread or a little hunk of fat? I never really believe the waiter when he tells me it's just the amuse bouche. Hey, if I want to amuse a bouche I'll drop my pants and solicit sympathy giggles.
Oh, you mean what kind of qualities am I looking for in a wine! Ooooh, I love it when I ask myself this question. It's a really good question, and it calls for a very philosophical and poetic answer filled with literate allusions, vague terminology, and cool language that means nothing to anyone else but me. So it's like an Obama speech.
I like to think of my mouth as a wet laboratory, and the wines that I open are given little lab coats, sanitizer, and tiny little name badges before entering. Be careful, I warn them, the floors are slippery. Many of them fall anyway, they come crashing down in my wet laboratory and are swept away down the dark rabbit hole of my esophagus. But the ones with balance, the ones that are graceful and supple, they hang around the wet laboratory and carry out amazing experiments, though no animals are ever harmed in my wet laboratory tastings, and rumors of experiments on twins are patently false, patently false. Balance is key, for a wine that slips and falls on its bunghole is not a wine with the legs to go far, not a wine you want anywhere near the precious Erlenmeyer flasks of your trained palate. No, it's balance I'm looking for. I want wines that have the balance of a Baryshnikov, a Nureyev, a Molotov (one of those flaming ballet guys), a Mazeltov, not a wine that dances like a white guy in a thong too small for him.
Rudy enjoyed many a wet laboratory.
Are there any grape varieties you don't care for?
I've read varying estimates on the number of different varieties of vitis vinifera that are made into wine in the world, anywhere from 10,000 to 6,000 to the Wall Street Journal's best guess of 994.37. So, of course there are a couple I don't care for.
Gruner Veltliner--who drinks this crap? I don't like Austrian wine any more than I like skiing in Cote-Rotie. Every time I drink a Gruner, and I've tasted far more than I needed to, I'm thinking, "Hell, I could be drinking some killer Riesling from Alsace and instead I'm stuck with this pathetic glass of Windex." But I'm a guy, so I finish it anyway and pretend I like it. Like you do when you force yourself to have sex with a woman you know you shouldn't be having sex with so you think about Halle Berry the whole time in order to consummate the whole deal. So drinking Gruner is like that without the erection. This is a grape that is quickly losing its cachet, and the Gruner the better.
Petite Sirah--OK, it's a hybrid, like a Prius, and hybrids are trendy, and I have had a Petite Sirah here and there that I've liked, and that I would drink given that my choice were it or Gruner Veltliner, but, sorry Valvoline fans, I don't really much like Petite Sirah. Drinking it is like watching Jay Leno--it's just loud, predictable and overhyped. It's fine that others like it. Hell, people like professional wrestling, American Idol, Oprah and lots of other mind-numbing, insipid nonsense, why not Petite Sirah? Just not for me. Give me Durif any day of the week.
If you could visit one wine-growing region you've never visited, where would it be?
What's the most difficult job in the wine business?
Oh, that's a tough one. I think it's the person who writes the back labels on wine. Sure, viticulture is hard and demanding work, making barrels is hot and difficult, but coming up with those little wine haikus on the backs of bottles is really hard. Of course, in the good old days there weren't any back labels; now not only do most California wines have them, but also most of the women who make and sell them. I could show you pictures. Right, using this while operating heavy machinery can be hazardous to your health. Back labels came about mainly because of the anti-alcohol lobby that forced the "Contains Sulfites" warning and the health warning onto bottles of wine in an effort to scare folks away from the wonders of the grape. Not wanting to put those party pooping warnings on the front label, wineries created back labels. And as long as you have a back label you might as well use it to wax ecstatic about your winery in 25 words or less. And now, of course, it's become a place for the ubiquitous bar code. But never buy wine with a bar code! Screw the sulfites, it's wines with bar codes that will kill you. Buying a wine with a bar code is like buying milk a week past the expiration date, or looking for romance on Match.com--you know it's damaged goods but you're trying to get off cheap.
All hail the back label writers! They spend hours and hours writing for little or no pay, they never feel the need to check for typos or grammar, much of what they say has been said a thousand times before and better, and no one ever reads their work.
Bloggers, these are our brothers!
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
I'm thinking about only writing about wines from now on. You know, endless reviews of wines I taste with really obscure and annoying descriptions accompanied by a meaningless number. (There was a time in my life when I was involved with mathematics, I nearly graduated with a degree in mathematics, and that's why I'm so offended by numerical scores. A number has meaning to me and is supposed to be arrived at through a rigid formula that gives it credence. Sticking a wine in your nose and mouth and declaring "89!" represents nothing but self-importance.) No more satire, no more lame jokes, no more outrageous opinions. It would sure make sitting down and writing this crap a lot easier. I could write a review in the Gary V. style.
"The Kosta Browne Pinot Noir was amazing! Wow, man, you put your nose in the glass and it's like, hey, you know when you forget to clean your oven for a couple of years and then you have to scrape the charred crap out of there and it smells like roadkill on a Texas blacktop, like an armadillo had an abortion on the road and a semi ran over it and then it was hot for two weeks? Kinda smelled like that but in a good way. And maybe a little bit like the seat cushion after Jancis Robinson left, kinda had a hint of that. Gotta be a 92."
This, of course, is the "future of wine writing." Sort of like Saturn was the future of cars.
It's so damned easy to just review wines and pretend everyone cares about your opinion. I love the Vinography approach. Taste 120 wines and list them in number categories. This is about as helpful as putting phone numbers in numerical order in the phone book. And on a ten-point scale, which actually translates to a four-point scale since wines never get below six. So instead of mining the mysteries of how an 88 point wine differs from an 89 point wine, we behold the marvel of being able to distinguish a 7 point wine from an 8 point wine. Apparently, the 8 point wine went for the 2 point conversion. I wish I'd thought of this system when I was a sommelier. I could have broken down the wine list this simple and effective and informative way.
Pacific Dining Car Wine List
Page 1 "Wine Between 7.5 and 8.0 Points"
Page 2 "Wine Between 8.0 and 9.0 Points"
Page 3 "Wine 9.0 and Above"
Page 4 "Wines I Actually Care About"
I love that wine bloggers express their opinions about wines. I don't read them. Nobody reads them. Only wineries with Google Alert read them, and then just for the sheer comedy. I recently read one that said, speaking of some Tandem Pinot Noirs "...tried about a hundred wines, I don't have notes, though I can remember how wonderful they were..." I'm not making that up, friends. (It's from a blog called "Eat It, Atlanta." Don't go there, whatever you do. The blog, or Atlanta.) Makes you want to run out and stock up on Tandem, doesn't it? Probably tastes really good after thirty or forty wines. And, really, notes are highly overrated. That's for, like, journalists and stuff. Real bloggers don't take notes. To begin with, taking notes involves paying attention as well as literacy! Who can be bothered with both?
So maybe I'll just stick to my usual stuff. Writing about wine, the wine biz, bloggers and anything else that annoys me. There is always something to write about in the world of wine and news about wine. For example, I noticed this interesting little news bulletin:
AP--The group Wine Coopers of America announced today that it is officially changing the name of the plug used to seal a filled barrel of wine from the "bung" to the "Beck," after FOX News analyst Glenn Beck. "Hell, no one can tell the difference between Glenn Beck and a bunghole, so we thought we'd just make it official."
Great news, fair and balanced, indeed.
Statue of Glenn Beck at the Wine Cooper Hall of Fame in Butte, Montana
Monday, September 14, 2009
What if everything were sold the way fine wines are sold? I was thinking about this recently, struck by the absurdity with which fine wines are marketed. So I started imagining a world where panties were sold like fine wine is sold. OK, yeah, I'm still the HoseMaster after all. What would panty salespeople say to get panty buyers to buy their wares. Their underwares. Stuff like this...
"I love the nose on these panties, you can really smell the terroir."
"Parker gave this pair a 94 and said he couldn't wait to try them again in eight years."
"We entered these panties in a blind panty trial and they beat out all of the best European panties--and all of the judges were French! I just wonder if European in your panties."
"This gorgeous pair of silk panties got 3 Puffs from Connoisseurs' Guide to Panties. And it got a good score too."
"The original pair of these panties came over to California smuggled in a bra from a very famous Italian design house. They're 'Thongs From the Mammaries'."
"We brought in Rudy Giuliani to consult on these panties, and David Abreu did all of the irrigation work."
"You know, I could sell you a couple of pairs of the frilly black panties, but I'd really need you to buy a bunch of the Ellen DeGeneres castoffs."
"The guy down the street bought three pairs of these panties right before lunch."
"No, really, these panties are fine, they've just been open all day."
"These panties are from right next door to Helen Turley's panties...you can literally see her panties from there."
"When Clinton was President, these panties were always served at the White House. And I don't have to tell you how often they were used for Bush..."
Friday, September 11, 2009
Every so often you get the perfect customer in your wine shop. One who takes all of your sage advice, a bit of your parsley advice as well, who is deeply interested in learning about wine, who doesn't seem to care about price, and who is charming company for the entire time you work with him. These kinds of customers are rarer than original thought in a wine blog, but I have a vivid memory of one such customer from my days at Mission Wines.
My partner and I started Mission Wines in South Pasadena in 1993. Like most of the dreamers who start their own wine shops, we actually believed we could not only sell the finest wines but educate people to the joys of great wines at the same time. People would flock to us, drink from the trickle of knowledge we offered, and leave satisfied and refreshed, eager to return. We would be overrun with business, cases of the finest Rhones flying out the door like monkeys in the Land of Oz, tastings more heavily attended than Whitney Huston in rehab, the cash registers singing like the voices in Rush Limbaugh's head. It was a lovely pipe dream. The reality, not so much.
Wine shops are interesting places. You get to meet many of the world's best winemakers and taste an enormous amount of great wine. But you also put a lot of stuff in your mouth you would be hard-pressed to identify as wine. And it all got 89 points from somebody. Or a Gold Medal from the Leavenworth Wine Competition and Parole Hearing. But it's the customers who continually amaze and frustrate and frighten you. In the four years I was at Mission Wines I don't really believe I taught a single soul a single thing about wine. No more than the sales woman at Nordstrom ever taught me a thing about womens shoes, like what wine to drink from them (depends on who had been wearing them last). I wrote endless newsletters, offended nearly everyone who read them (you can only imagine), sold boatloads of wine, but never taught anyone anything. No one cared. I always forget, though the wine shop experience continued to remind me, that wine's primary function is inebriation. Classy inebriation. Go to Happy Hour at your local bar and you're a drunk, go to an afternoon wine tasting at your local wine shop and you're a connoisseur. Drunks are filled with self-loathing and kill people with their cars. Connoisseurs are intelligent and educated and kill people with boredom.
But every so often...
I was manning the store one day when a middle-aged guy walked in and asked me for some wine advice. Very pleasant man, articulate and open, engaged with life, charming and just then discovering a passion for the grape. It was a slow day, midweek, and he and I had a long talk about wine, about what makes a great wine a great wine, about tasting wine, about loving wine. When I realized that this guy was serious about wine, had the right approach to wine (the right approach being the one I decided was the right approach), I'm sure I lit up. My passion for wine surfaced in all its pathetic glory and I walked him around the store pointing out my favorite wines. Chateau Rayas, Rouge and Blanc. Chave, any time, any place, Chave. Spottswoode, then and now the classiest Napa Valley Cabernet. Mount Eden Chardonnay, what I imagine you drink when you get to the Heaven where they don't let the Mormons in. And on and on. And every wine I pointed to he bought a couple of bottles. I didn't care about the sale, I just wanted to turn this guy on to the good stuff, the stuff that works its magic on anyone who has even the tiniest bit of taste and transforms them.
I rang up his wine at the register and he gave me his credit card. Out of habit, I looked at his name. It was David Angell. "Hey," I said to him, "you're not the guy who writes for 'Cheers?'" "Well, yes," he said, "I am. No one ever recognizes my name though."
All my life I had studied comedy writing. I knew all the names of the best comedy writers like baseball fans know the lineup of every baseball team. I knew his name instantly, knew he'd written for "Cheers" and was then producing and writing for "Frasier." I knew specific episodes he'd written. David was very flattered and asked me about my stupid career as a comedy writer. I told him how frustrating it had been, how I'd walked away. Then he told me about his journey.
David and his wife had moved to LA from the MidWest so that he could pursue his comedy writing career. They struggled for years and years, barely able to make it by each month, borrowing money from everyone they knew, never giving up on his dream. Yet they had been about to give up, move back to their home town, they had run out of money, all their furniture was in a storage facility, all their dreams in pieces on the ground, when David got a phone call. He'd sold a script to "Cheers." At the very last minute. He eventually joined their staff of brilliant comedy writers, helped to create "Frasier," and now he was successful doing what he loved beyond his wildest dreams. And comedy writers have very wild dreams, believe me. It was, ironically, one of the classic Hollywood stories.
I saw David quite a few times after that first day. He'd come in and we'd talk wine and comedy. Like most comedy writers, he was quick-witted when he wanted to be, but didn't try to be funny in his free time. He damn near made me go back to comedy writing, but wine had captured my heart and I just couldn't face that kind of return to the scene of my crimes. But I was damned proud to know him, like I was on speaking terms with Koufax or Ali or Thurber, and I always watched for his name on the credits of his shows so I could ask him about particular episodes that I'd liked or disliked.
On September 11, 2001, David and his wife Lynn were on Flight 11, one of the planes that was flown into the World Trade Center. I saw his name on the list of passengers a few days after that horrifying day eight years ago. I learned that he and his wife had flown to New York to accept an award for his comedy writing, a Peabody I think, and they had had to catch an early flight home to Los Angeles so he could resume work. I hadn't seen David or spoken to him since I'd left Mission Wines in 1997, but news of his death brought the entire nightmare alive for me. He was my connection to the murders. Everyone I've ever met seems to have found a connection to that massacre, a human connection through a friend of a friend, or a cousin of a roommate, or a guy who used to date my neighbor, or someone I used to work with at Windows on the World. We search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless tragedy through those connections. Yet eight years later the meaning still eludes me. As it has eluded everyone else.
David's work continues to make people laugh even after his death. I think I'll watch reruns of "Frasier" tonight and David will make me laugh through all the bad memories of this day.
I am reminded when I think of David of the opening sentence of "Scaramouche" by Rafael Sabatini that reads:
He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that was the world was mad.
Thanks, David. Save me a glass of the Mount Eden.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
There are a lot of dirty little secrets in the wine business. Stuff nobody likes to talk about. Some of it is even true. Though it's hard to tell which. Like how common it is in California to pick grapes very ripe and then add water in the winery--it's the Tang Method of winemaking. Hey, if it's good enough for the astronauts, it's good enough for you. But wineries hate to talk about it, are loathe to admit it. And then there is all the hush-hush about how much importers might mark up their wines from Europe. Most folks think they all work on the same margin, but that ain't the case. Someone's got to pay for producing the importer's latest vanity music CD. And then there's the biggest little secret of all, the truth no one likes to read about or talk about or do anything about, the shameful fact of sexual discrimination in the wine business, the unspeakable, relentless, and ongoing persecution of men in the wine business. I, myself, have been a victim.
I don't recall exactly when I noticed it. At first I was treated like everyone else in the wine business who is new--that is, disdainfully. I suffered through the usual hazing. Learning how to remove Champagne corks in the "traditional method" by squatting naked over them. Being forced to prove my loyalty by killing rival wine shop owners with an unregistered price gun. Proving my wine virility by sleeping with six Budweiser girls, three of them Clydesdales. I fell for all of that, and just thinking of it now makes me feel all dirty and ashamed and strangely happy to watch the Rose Parade. But I didn't realize it was just the beginning of my humiliation.
When I was first hired as a sommelier I was told I had to wear a "special" uniform. I didn't think anything of it, really. I had noticed how at the time there weren't any female sommeliers, but I just assumed that was because there wasn't any money or prestige in the job so it was left to men to do it. But the "special" uniform which I was forced to wear began my humiliation as a man in the wine business. Imagine being forced to wear nicely tailored pants, a form-hugging clean white shirt that "accidentally" revealed my hairy chest, and a bright, shiny medallion called, ironically, a "tastevin!" I had to parade around the restaurant every night in front of several hundred people dressed as some kind of Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonator. Women took the liberty of staring directly at the bulge in my pants (I was still packing the price gun for protection) as I walked by, summoning me with their wine lists and asking me, "Could you recommend something big for me?" Night after night I was subjected to this kind of sexual humiliation, forced to bend over a woman's shoulder as I helped her select a wine, her lips next to my neck, her eyes locked on my white shirt, her sizing me up as if I were one of the meat selections on the menu, the one that came with a bone. And I was expected to take this and like it. It's why I only lasted nineteen years.
I came to find out that my experience wasn't at all unique, it was happening to all the men in the wine business. Constantly being treated like we have no brains to offer, just our penises. Assaulted daily by female wine reps who shamelessly use us, treat us as fools and lechers only to further their own wine sales, not caring about us at all, but instead playing us until we drop a three-case load. Enduring the endless sarcastic and sexist remarks aimed at guys who sell wine. "I'm sure you like this wine, that's great, but is there a woman around here who can help me?" "Can you just point me to where the woman who owns the store works?" "Women have a more developed sense of taste, though I love the way those jeans fit you--they're tighter than a newly bottled Syrah." Endless shit like that, remarks that make you feel like you're nothing more than a plaything, a sex toy, a ribbed and lifelike Gary Vaynerchuk.
It's the dirty little secret that won't die. Men in the wine biz being constantly and relentlessly sexually harassed. Look at the endless worship that Jancis Robinson receives compared to the vitriol aimed at Robert Parker. And, why? It's that teeny thing hidden in his pants that Jancis doesn't have. And I don't mean Mark Squires. Women have it easy in the wine business. They have better senses, they aren't subjected to the constant humiliation the men in power endure. They have the gift of invisibility. How I envy them.
Friday, September 4, 2009
I'm just not in the mood to post. Writing a wine blog is a thankless task, about as rewarding as doing the makeup on cadavers. You love what you do but all you get in return is a lot of blank stares. The usual reaction to the latest HoseMaster So why keep doing it? Well, essentially, you never run out of dead bodies.
The wine business is full of dead bodies. It often feels like nothing new has been said in a hundred years. So I dress those dead bodies up, maybe it's the old Cork vs. Stelvin cadaver or the smelly Wine Competitions are Stupid corpse, sculpt a smile on their faces, lighten up their cheeks a bit with some rouge, and put them on display. We love the gruesome. "Gosh," we say, "it looks so alive, so real," when it isn't. It's as dead as Dick Cheney's conscience, it's deader than Jay Miller's palate, it's starting to smell like editorial meetings at Wine Enthusiast. But we keep poking at it, trying to make it move, see if there's any life left to squeeze out of it. And even when we're certain it's dead, we feel the need to resurrect it by talking about it. So many dead bodies...
Do Wine Bloggers Matter? Deader than Jenna Elfman's career
The 100 Point Scale It's stupid, it's not stupid, it's subjective, yeah, but it's useful, it's just a guide, but it's so easily influenced, blah blah blah--D E A D.
Social Media--For Selling Wine or For Building a Brand? Stillborn. Never had any life. Cute little thing, but never took a breath. So it makes us especially sad to see its little lifeless body lying there mimicking real life. So sad. Steve Heimoff may never get over it. But it's still dead.
Shipping Laws, Boy Do They Suck Yeah, we know, wineries are victims, consumers are victims, liquor lobbies are evil. This should have been buried with Jimmy Hoffa, if they'd found where he was buried. It's dead like Mutineer Magazine's prose style.
The "Sideways" Effect For Christ's Sake, this idiotic piece of crap film is five years old! It had about as much to do with killing Merlot as Son of Sam did. And, sure, it put Pinot Noir on the map, after all, Pinot Noir had only been popular for, oh, a hundred years. "Sideways" is Hollywood, narcissistic garbage that keeps floating to the surface like a Mafia victim in the Hudson River. It's bloated, it's rotten, it's Dead. All the makeup in the world can't make it seem less revolting.
Parkerized Wines Now that Parker is dead, why are we still talking about Him? No one makes wines to please Parker any more! This is the oldest and deadest opinion in the wine business. Get over it, it's dead. You don't have Parker to kick around any more. There's lots of bad winemaking, but, really, it isn't his fault! There have always been lousy wines, always! And there always will be. Alice Feiring loves a lot of wines that are crap, wines that she saved from "Parkerization." (God, please save me from Feiringization, the belief that one is truly inspiring.) You can dress this cadaver however you want to, but it's dead, dead like Phillipe Melka's cachet.
Wine and Music Sort of like people who think Obama's health care plan is Socialism, this is a subject that is simply too stupid to live. Matching wine with music is something akin to matching your shoes to a loaded weapon. This is one of the subjects wine pretenders love because it illustrates not only their educated choices in wine but their eclectic taste in music, sort of like finding out your date not only dresses like a federal inmate he can also wax ignorant about politics! There is no correlation between wine and music. It's dead. Not even Madonna would adopt it.
And the list goes on and on. But once again, I've dressed the corpse up, made it look real, and got you to look. "The HoseMaster of Wine," you say, "it looks better than it ever did when it was alive."