Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sixty is the New Three

Saturday marks the end of my sixtieth year. Hold the applause. I never expected to live sixty years. I thought I’d be dead by forty, even up until I was fifty. Dimwits say things like, “Sixty is the new forty.” I guess it is if you’re referring to wine prices. Otherwise, sixty is the new three, complete with accidents in your pants.

I don’t think many of you will find this post the least bit interesting. Feel free to move on. Go on over to STEVE! and express your brilliant and insightful opinion. We’ll all pretend it’s interesting, I promise. Or spend a few minutes on Fermentation, which is twice as long as Tom Wark spends on it. I’m guessing you haven’t been over to 1WineDude for a bit. I know Joe, I’m sure he misses you. He’s lonely. I’m going to waste everyone’s time with some reminiscing and ranting and other assorted masturbatory pursuits. I’ll feel good when I’m done, though guilty and depressed as well. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’re excused.

I don’t think my life has gone in any direction that I’d planned. This is pure luck. I went from majoring in mathematics at Occidental College (though I ended up with a degree in Literature) to writing comedy professionally to having a long career in the wine business. Yeah, I know, same riches to rags story.

I never had a drink until I was twenty-one. (Wait, that’s not true. My cousin gave me a sip of his beer when I was about thirteen. It was warm. I horked it up my nose, which, oddly, is still the way I taste wine. Believe me, that impresses the girls.) I may be the only person I know who can say that. I never saw my father take a drink of anything alcoholic, and my mother very rarely. Wait, that’s an awkward sentence. I meant, I also rarely saw my mother consume alcohol. It was coffee that everyone drank in our household. I don’t drink coffee, never have, unless it had Irish whiskey in it and whipped cream floating on top. I don’t smoke, not anything. My mother often said to me as a child, “Never put anything on fire in your mouth.” I’ve tried to live by that. I’m the only person I know who hasn’t ever ingested any illegal drugs. Weird, right? Not once. No pot, no coke, no LSD, no Ecstasy, no ‘Ludes… No one believes this, no one who reads my writing anyway, but it’s true. I took Viagra once, but I was alone. So I laid on my stomach and played compass.

When I walked away from writing comedy, I found that wine made me happy. While I was writing comedy, nothing made me happy. Comedy writers are, in general, a difficult, competitive, angry bunch. The good ones, anyway. I had talent, but was unhappy. Wine, everything about it, made me happy. I spent all my extra tip money on wine at Trader Joe’s. Some of you will remember a time when Trader Joe’s, which only had stores in Southern California back then, was the best place to buy wine. Now Trader Joe’s is like an old hooker still peddling her wares—a lot cheaper, but clearly worn out. I would read every book I could find about wine and then search out the wines that were held up as the greatest. If Connoisseurs’ Guide gave it Three Puffs, I’d go buy it and taste it. (I’ll confess here that when Charlie Olken and Stephen Eliot decided to use the 100-point scale in addition to the Puffs, I felt the same betrayal and unhappiness I felt when the Designated Hitter was adopted by the American League—I didn’t need Parker taking every at bat instead of a weaker hitter, it’s just not the way the game is supposed to be played.)

There weren’t a lot of guides to wine at the time. Wine Spectator was a newspaper, fold and all, that didn’t award numbers, only gave recommendations and descriptions. Imagine that! It was like a sitcom without a laugh track—you actually had to decide what you found amusing on your own. Really, that’s what wine scores are, friends, laugh tracks for wine dummies. Robert Parker was still just a lawyer, though one would have to be amazed that he’d ever passed any bar. Wine just really didn’t matter to very many Americans. So I read a lot of wine books, and opened a lot of bottles. There were nights my waiter friends and I would open a dozen bottles of California Cabernet. The next weekend it might be Chardonnay. I may have been the only one taking notes and paying attention, but their camaraderie and comments were invaluable. As were our youthful livers. I still have my tasting notebooks from 1978 when I started writing them. And you think wine blogs are boring. They are. I started wine blogging in 1978. I just didn't think anyone else would find it interesting. Because they don't.

I loved wine. I wanted to taste as much as I could. I volunteered to assemble the wine list at the restaurant where I worked as a waiter, on my own time, just to be able to taste with salespeople and get invited to industry tastings. I worked in a wine shop for free, stocking shelves and cleaning, with the understanding that I’d get to taste quietly with the buyers. I had the great fortune to encounter wine shops and wine buyers who took me under their wing and taught me about wine. A guy named Eric who worked at Red Carpet in Glendale who used to insist, I mean insist, that I buy these weird wines I’d never heard of and put them in my cellar—Raveneau Chablis, Chave Hermitage, Chateau Beaucastel, Fonseca. J.J. Prum. I did what he told me. There weren’t numbers, there was only the advice of someone who clearly had knowledge and passion. I miss those days. Fuck me, I’m old.

A friend of mine interviewed for a sommelier job in downtown Los Angeles. His father-in-law was a great customer of Pacific Dining Car, and when he heard the restaurant wanted to hire a new sommelier, he recommended his very knowledgeable and personable son-in-law. But his daughter didn’t want her husband to work at night. So when my friend told me that, I asked if he minded if I applied for the job. Six months later, I was the new sommelier. All those nights opening a dozen bottles, all those days working for no money, all those hangovers, had paid off. I was lucky. I’m always lucky.

When I started as a sommelier, in 1987, there were, if I remember correctly, about five, maybe six, sommeliers in the entire Los Angeles and Orange County area. Ten million people, and five of us had the job. Being a sommelier wasn’t anyone’s avocation. It seems to be now. People pay thousands and thousands of dollars to pass tests, get letters after their name, and believe that makes them a sommelier. It’s weird. When I started, “sommelier” was a service job, not a headline occupation. My business card read, “Wine Steward.” No one knew what a sommelier was. I once approached a table with a wine list in hand and the gentleman asked me, “Are you the Semillon?” “Yes,” I replied, “and moldy Semillon at that. Which is why I’m so cloying.”

Sommeliers are stars now, or at least are often portrayed that way. Young ones think their job is to educate customers, enlighten them, show them the error of their antiquated ways. Youth is so tiresome. I recently read interviews with five sommeliers from L.A. conducted by “hyperfresh” wine typer Talia Baiocchi  (“hyper” as a prefix means “excessively,” and the only thing I think of as excessively fresh is dogshit) and it was silly to the point of parody. Baiocchi asked them what wines were hot right now, and the answers all revolved around “lighter” whites, especially from lesser-known (to the average wine drinker) regions like the Jura, or Greece. Assyrtiko is the new Gruner Veltliner. You might want to have a glass of Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio, well-chosen one would hope, but your choices are Assrytiko, Savagnin, and Ribolla Gialla.  Our cuisine is all made from local ingredients, but our sommelier, fresh from passing his second level WSET, has decided the best wines are from the region he’s currently fixated on. Shithead.

And, actually, the “hot” wines turn out to be, simply and more exactly, cheaper. Cheaper is what’s hot, not much else.

I wish I could remember if I were ever that arrogant sort of wine steward. I think it took me a solid ten years of really tasting and studying wine, not just having it as a hobby, to begin to understand it. I know I’ve forgotten half of what I once knew, at least in terms of facts about wine. But that core of understanding wine, of what one is tasting when one samples a new wine, beyond the simple knowledge of whether you like it or not, and armed with years and years of tasting wine, is never forgotten once achieved. No one can test that knowledge, it’s just not quantifiable. But once acquired, it’s then easy to spot in others. And equally easy to see lacking in most. There is a difference between loving wine and having a background and long history with wine. I love books, but I’d make a poor book critic. I know what I like. But at a meaningful level, that’s not really enough.

Wine trends reflect our culture, which always fascinates me. In the days of the boom, the cult wines took off. Each new Napa Valley Cabernet that sold for $150, was farmed by David Abreu, made by Helen Turley or Heidi Barrett, was just a new startup to invest in. You didn’t expect it to succeed, live up to its hype, but, hell, why not invest in it a bit and hope it turns out to be eBay, not As the Millenium turned, spirituality made another comeback, and suddenly the talk turned to biodynamics. Now we’ve ruined the Earth for the coming generations, so “natural” wines are suddenly important. It’s a way for us to soothe our conscience. We’ll travel the world burning fossil fuels so that we can find a wine that doesn’t tarnish the planet. How stupid are we? We eat local organic produce, then buy a “natural” wine that traveled here on a boat in a refrigerated container spewing waste into the ocean, was driven by a huge truck down traffic-infested highways to a warehouse, where it was driven again by a giant truck belching carbon into the atmosphere to our local Whole Foods, and we buy it because the guy didn’t spray insecticide on his four acres. And, of course, it tastes better. It should, it tastes like self-importance.

As I get older, it’s easy for me to tell that my vision is not so great any more, my hearing is lousy, and my organs can’t take the beatings I used to subject them to. I need glasses, I turn up the volume on the TV and make my wife’s ears bleed, and I just can’t drink as much wine as I used to. But it’s hard to tell that my senses of taste and smell have diminished, though they certainly must have. It’s one of those subjects I never see addressed in the wine press. Most of our wine critics are older than I am. Their powers of smell and taste are not what they once were, you can bet on that. But they never retire. It’s not like you can’t hit the curveball any more, or even run the bases, so no one will employ you even if you used to be Ted Williams. Everyone with authority, from Parker to Alice Feiring, is old. They don’t talk about it, talk about aging, but I wonder. And I know, I know, it’s hard to tell your senses aren’t as sharp or as good as they once were. They seem the same from the inside, believe me. But from a strictly scientific and objective sense, they are diminished. Period. And not starting at 60, but well before that. Experience steps in, and can certainly have great meaning, but there is no substitute in wine tasting for the basic ability to smell and taste. I wouldn’t ask a 60-year-old without glasses to read the fine print in my contract. Yet I’m still buying wines by his score. Seems odd. Just one more thing that makes the wine business interesting, and funny.

So I’m nearing the three quarter pole of life, heading down the home stretch. The finish line is there, I don’t know where, but that guy on my back is whipping my tired ass. I’ve won this race, thanks to luck and the wonderful people who so carefully groomed, fed, and exercised me. I’m just hoping that there will be more races.

God knows, I’m useless as a stud.


Andy Perdue said...

Poignant column, Ron. Still made me laugh out loud in places.

The bigger question I hope you'll one day address is the origins of "HoseMaster." Maybe it's too boring, but heck, it's on your license plate.

Charlie Olken said...

Geez, you are old. Us young guys can still taste, and we will be happy to tell you what to drink.

Oh, and by the way, it is NOT Ribolla Gialla or KissMyAssTiko.

Apropos of which is this true story. Steve Eliot and I were invited to a tasting in the Napa Valley of Ribolla Gialla and other thin, northern Italian whites. I say "whites" although there were as many orange wines there as white.

It was a fun event, and we had many great chats with people of all ages--some even older than you.

None of the hyper-young folks had anything nice to say about the better known varieties and some of them were openly trashing the usual subjects.

In the midst of this swirling melee of "my wine is lower alcohol than yours", a couple of different people sidled up to say admit that they still liked Chardonnay. Of course, they were old folks--like over forty.

Chardonnay will be back--if it ever left--which I doubt. But you, my dear friend, and I (one of those writers who is over sixty) will be like those old golfers who never lose their balls but just quietly fade away (and a silver dollar if you can tell me who said that).

In the meantime, it is a funny thing about experience and insight. I think I am a better taster now than I was twenty years ago. I was never an "adjectival" taster to begin with, and I find that I can today pick a wine apart, recognize its flaws, its structure, its depth, its potential in ways that younger tastes have yet to learn. It is not the number of descriptors that one employs but the understanding and analysis that one imparts in wine tasting that is how measure the quality of a taster. All else is just a bunch of parlor tricks.

Oh, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY. I am still older than you, but you are catching up fast.

Jack Stems said...

I thought you were dead.

Mike Dunne said...

Happy birthday, Ron. I'd run downstairs to see what the horoscope in the paper has to say of your birthday, but at my age I might not make it back up to the office. Your concern about the impact of age on our sense of smell and taste is something that could be addressed more often, and memory, too, which also provides he framework to assess wine. Still, I remember sitting by Robert Lawrence Balzar during a wine competition and marveling at his recall. He was 90 at the time, and during breaks beat us all outside so he could light up a cigarette. Of course, he could have been making it all up.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Andy,
I did explain the origin of the name HoseMaster back in 2009. Here's the link:

The origin of the comedy voice is a whole different story, one I don't really understand myself. Something to do with brain parasites.

I have no idea who originally said your golf quote. But I'm guessing Kathy Whitworth.

I think I'd say that I'm a smarter taster than I ever was, but perhaps not better. I do agree with you completely that understanding a wine's depth, structure and potential, and actually recognizing flaws for what they are, is far more important than listing specific flavors and nuances, especially since those will change or vanish as the wine ages. Yet wouldn't it be interesting to be able to taste a great wine as your 24-year-old self and your 60-year-old self at the same time? Maybe I can swing that when my wife trades me in for two 30-year-olds.

Thanks for the birthday wishes, Charlie, and thanks for reading my self-indulgent post.

Jack Stems,
No, that's just my pasty complexion.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Oh damn, I meant to write about memory, but, well, you know...

Someone should create a Viagra for the human nose. No, not a Pinocchio thing. A drug that would arouse an old sense of smell. (If your nose erection lasts for more than four hours, call a plastic surgeon.) So old wine judges could ingest a tablet, have their sense of smell heightened, and then analyze wines. Something to intensify their norgasms. You'd just need plenty of Kleenex.

I'll check my horoscope on Wednesday, if I remember.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,

I've always said that wine has brought the most astoundingly beautiful things into my life and you my beloved man, are at the very top of that list. I've come to see your birthdays as a celebration, feel lucky on these days that I had you in my life for another full year. You and I agree about as much as we disagree about wine, I'd sooner drink just about any Ribolla over 98% of the Sauvignon Blanc grown in Napa or Sonoma, but we do see the draw of wine in much the same way and I get more pleasure tasting wine with you, learning from you, than I do with just about anyone. You have been my gift for four years now and I love you so. Oh, and by the way, "Fuck me I'm old" is one of the hottest pickup lines ever...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
It was a stupid idea to start a blog, I have no idea what I was thinking at the time, but the fact that it brought us together makes me profoundly grateful. I suspect I haven't taught you a single thing about wine, but I shall graciously accept your flattery. Thank you. I don't disagree with you about Ribolla, by the way. Though it's a shame how many people in Africa it's killed.

You, My Love, gave me the gift I truly wanted for my 60th birthday when you decided to quit smoking. Words cannot begin to express my gratitude. Thank you.

Oh, I should confess, I stole that pickup line from Jerry Sandusky. (OK, even I find that joke repulsive.)

I love you!

Emmojee said...

Mandatory retirement ages for wine critics NOW!

BD said...

I kept reading thinking Avril Cadavril would eventually show up.

They say age ain't nuthin' but a number. Unfortunately, Wine Spectator's point scale says 60 is "not recommended".

Thomas said...

Shit. I was feeling fine until the HoseMaster informed me that he is younger than I.

That is what this blog post was about, right?

This is a blog?

This is the Internet?

I am still breathing?

Happy 61, Ron--if it's possible!

Bob said...

60? I thought a smartass like you had to be no more than 30 (I was thinking 33 actually).
No more aging Bordeauxs for 30 years, eh?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Avril is a figment of my imagination, though a damned sexy one at that. If she does show up, you can bet the blog will fold.

This is not a blog and this is not the Internet. You've died and gone to hell. Care for a glass of Gruner?

Smartass, wiseass, dumbass, jackass--none are age specific. Add "hole" on the end, and I've been called all those too.

And why age wine when a few minutes in the microwave accomplishes the same thing?

Anonymous said...

Must have been looking the other direction and not recognized the importance of the day. Happy belated, Ron. Hopefully you found much fun on your day and the rest of your b-day week, if not more. Cheers, man!

Oded said...


Happy belated, had me snort some coffee on the "playing compass" on your own comment... it sometimes sucks being a visual person! sure that was not the REAL origin of the name?

Wathever this thing is, blog or something else. Please keep it going and evolving, us cynics need a bit of daily acerbic bread to survive!

1WineDoody said...

Happy belated... OLD MAN!

Seriously, I wish you many more & hope to share another glass with you to celebrate sooner rather than later.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Peter and Oded and 1WineDoody,
Well, to be clearer than my muddy prose, my 60th birthday is Saturday, October 13th, so neither one of you is belatedly wishing me Happy Birthday, unless you meant my 59th.

Oded, I'm never sure how long I can keep cranking this crap out. Well, actually, I know I can do it as long as my brain doesn't turn to Moscato, but every day I wonder why I bother. Kind notes do help.

1WineDoody, any time you're out here and want to hoist a few, I'm your man. I can help clear your head of marketing lies--are there such things as marketing truths?

Candle Daddy said...

Dear Ron--

Thanks for the invitation to your sixtieth birthday party. I would have been there, but the invitation has somehow been lost in the mail, and now I am busy--have to wash my hair that day.

Anonymous said...

Hosemaster, Sir! Wishing you a most happy birthday and many more! Keep on playing with your corkscrew as only you can, as others are merely "bloggers," but you, sir, are a Blagueur of remarkable talent.
Best wishes,


Ron Washam, HMW said...

I don't have birthday parties. And, coincidentally, I don't wash my hair. It's only a hair, it's all I've got, it's perfectly clean as it is. I do, however, wash my hare.

Anon 1,
Thanks for the kind words. They seem to say I'm not just a Poodle, but a French Poodle. Which I take as a high compliment.

Marcia Macomber said...

"choices are Assrytiko, Savagnin, and Ribolla Gialla." Crimey! I just had some Assrytiko. What are the chances I'd see something in!...about this (now) maligned little grape?

Guess I can always count on this virtual Algonquin Roundtable for the proper doses of satire and spitfire (or spittle).

Happy 39th, Ron! You'll have to tell us all what wine is in your glass Saturday.

Loved the trip down memory lane (well, yours at least) of days of wine yore.

Anonymous said...

you're married?!

Marlene Rossman said...

Hose, you are wonderful. Whenever I need a laugh, I immediately turn to your blog.

The funny part about "are you the Semillon" reminded me about the time I was still a somm in NY (now retired in So Cal (La La Land as my New York buddies call it.) When I handed out the wine list, someone asked me if I was a Somalia. Being uber white, could barely keep from cracking up, but cautiously corrected the gentleman's pronunciation. He said, "I thought
only guys were Somalians." We left it at that!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks, Love. I haven't yet decided what to drink, though I'm eyeballing a magnum of '89 Cheval Blanc, as well as '90 Rayas. Thoughts, anyone?

Hi, Honey, is that you? Love you!

Thank you. You know, as it turns out, a lot of Somalians in restaurants suffer from the Ribolla virus.

Lovely to hear from you. Come visit more often.

Samantha Dugan said...

Happy Birthday Handsome!! I love you!

Beau said...

Ron, please don't stop writing/blogging..Buried amongst the satirical jabs at the wine ecosphere is an incredibly valuable knowledge base for those of us youngsters just starting our relationship with wine. Happy Birthday!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Those are awfully kind words. Knowledge in any field is hard-earned, but at least in wine it's endlessly pleasurable. I always try to view my contribution as cutting through the crap. Wine is full of it, and not just from Brett. It's the smug and self-righteous and close-minded that I take aim at. I'm glad that, so far, you're not in my line of fire.

However, I always quit writing every now and then. The older I get, the harder it gets to keep up the indignation and fury. But for the immediate future, I'm still here.

gabe said...


I don't know if I;ve ever commented on your blog. I appreciate your sense of humor, but appreciate even more when you get serious about wine (while still sprinkling in some humor).
I hope you have (had) a fantastic birthday, and hope that you continue to sprinkle in a few serious wine pontifications with your humorous hosemaster posts.
Cheers to you and your '89 Cheval Blanc. I will take a sip of my $10 Columbia Valley Red Blend in your honor. Happy Birthday

Ron Washam, HMW said...

You might be the only one who likes it when I take wine a bit more seriously. Thanks. Though, truly, sometimes satire has more to say than pontificating, or just quickly typing a poorly thought out opinion.

I know that it can be hard to comment here, it's a tough crowd, but please do so more often. And I'll have to seek out your wine too.

Dean Tudor said...

Hey Hoser!! Chimo! from the Great White North of Canada. It's so friggin' cold up here that we celebrate birthdays only every two years, when we are allowed to turn up the heat. It takes a year to just warm up. That makes me only 34, and you are just a mere tadpole of 30.

Happy Birthday in humour (we always make sure that we put a YOU into everything)...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks, Dean,
Though I have no desire to be 30 again. Or 15. Or however it works in Canada. I'm confused. Which happens when you hit the big Three-Oh. Maybe I have a brain tumour.

Dean Tudor said...

Tumour? Shouldn't that be "tumur" in the US?

Lara Chapman said...

"Never put fire in your mouth." Your mom is brilliant. Seriously, that's a very very accurate statement. Cigarettes killed my Grandma... but they also made her extremely content and happy. So I suppose that's the trade off.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Mom was quite a character. I republished my elegy for her last Mother's Day if you want to read a bit more about who she was. I didn't get my sense of humor from her, but she contributed greatly to my sense of the absurd.

Thanks, Lara, for the comment.

Lara Chapman said...

Wait, do you write comedy or something?

Sure, I'd love to read, is there a link?