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” Eater.com 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 dot.com 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 Pets.com? 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.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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