Monday, December 21, 2015
There’s so much I want to say after another year slogging through HoseMaster of Wine™. The holidays are not only a time to celebrate, they’re also a time to reflect. If a psychic had told me last January what my 2015 would hold, I wouldn’t have believed her. If I had believed her, I might have put down my poison pen for the year.
I certainly managed to offend an unusually large number of people this past year. I know it seems hard to believe, but offending people isn’t my actual goal. In fact, I don’t even have an actual goal, not when it comes to this blog anyway. Well, maybe to meet hot chicks, but that hasn’t really played out like I’d hoped. It turns out that satire offends people. It certainly seemed to offend Georg Riedel. He had the grandest over-reaction of the year when he had his lawyers threaten to sue me for libel. But he wasn’t the only one who took offense at my shenanigans. The folks at Le Pan were a bit peeved, as were many sommeliers, Master and otherwise. More than a few wine bloggers had harsh words for me, in public or in private. And the truth is, I never insulted the people in the biz I’d really like to insult. There are many I studiously avoid lampooning simply because I don’t want to mention their names, for reasons of my own. I will one day, I’ll get to them, but I need the right vehicle, the right moment. I thought I went pretty easy on folks this past year. Yet I still managed to piss off more people than usual. It’s a gift.
In their own mind and heart, no one thinks they deserve to be satirized. Especially those who believe everything they do is a craft—which they believe simply because if they do it, it must be a craft. More than once, I’ve had emails from wine people asking me to lampoon them. There seems to be some sort of badge of honor associated with being the butt of a HoseMaster column—though a butt is just a butt, and rarely honorable. And there have been several occasions when I’ve skewered someone who asked me to, and nearly every time that particular person took great offense at what I wrote and stopped being a fan. We rarely see what’s genuinely funny or hypocritical or foolish about ourselves, even after it’s been pointed out to us. Satire aims to shine a light into all of our dark places (making us the butt, I guess), to spotlight inadequacies and frailties, faults and hypocrisies, using laughter as a weapon. And there is no more powerful weapon. Laughter is the Force. May the Force be with you, because when it’s against you, it can be painful. Combine laughter with truth, and amazing things happen.
And terrible things. This has been a banner year for massacres—an abundant vintage. But it began with Charlie Hebdo. All year when tiny wine people harangued me, I thought about those poor dorks (and satirists are universally dorks, myself included) being murdered. You see, I don’t mind the least bit being insulted on chat rooms or on blogs or even to my face. That comes with the territory. I have it coming. But bullying, or threatening, that’s a much different story. It doesn’t take courage to write what I write here. Not at all. Don’t kid yourself. Comedians are not brave people, even if they speak hard truths. We’re cowards for the most part, we’re afraid of physical confrontation. And we certainly don’t welcome intimidation or threats. But I welcome critics, and I don’t mind that people hate me. I care who the people are who hate me. I’m happy to say that I’m damned proud of my list of people who don’t like what I do here. A more distinguished list of idiots would be hard to compile.
There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t want to quit. Yes, I know, I threaten to quit all the fucking time. But I mean it every single time, too. Yet it seems like every time I decide, for the last time, to stop publishing HoseMaster of Wine™, something happens to make me go on. So you have only yourselves to blame for this travesty of wine blogging. This year it was many things.
I won’t ever forget the response to Georg Riedel threatening me with a libel suit. The support of the wine writing community, as well as the wine community in general, was amazing, and personally overwhelming. After all of that, I simply couldn’t walk away from the blog. It would have seemed like a victory for Riedel, and I couldn’t let that happen, not after all the kindness and generosity and support that was thrown my way. I’m not used to feeling affection for the wine business. But those weeks, when wine people far more influential and important than I stood behind me, changed my life. I know that, for the most part, they were simply standing up for a cause, and not really for the HoseMaster. It wasn’t really about me. It was about freedom of expression, and standing up to bullies. I knew that almost from the start. Yet the support, its vehemence and rectitude, filled me with pride and purpose. Thank you.
During the course of the past year, I received a lot of kind letters. Many of them, especially those from people in the trade, expressed the same sentiment. That what I write here on HoseMaster of Wine™ expresses thoughts and truths about the wine business that the letter writer wishes he/she was able to express, but doesn’t, for fear of losing a job, or being somehow blackballed. I like to think that I’m expressing truths in a comic manner, but, honestly, it’s hard to know. When peers tell me I have it right, it makes me happy. Thank you.
I also received a handful of personal letters after my piece about “Wine, Memories and Massacres.” People shared their own stories of tragedy, and of how wine has helped them through life, and of how they endured. I don’t usually get that kind of mail, as you might have surmised. Life turns out to be very much about loss, and about how gracefully and honestly we endure it. I endure through laughter, and by attempting to make others laugh. When I inadvertently touch them as well, I’m astonished. I’ve known from a very young age that words have power, that language matters, and that abusing language with sloppiness or ignorance or prejudice is a horrible wrong. My answer for all of those circumstances is satire, is laughter, is lampooning. That I offend the people I aim at never bothers me in the slightest.
I was also invited to speak at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium in February. If this doesn’t ruin its credibility, I don’t know what could. I’ll be sharing the spotlight with people far more talented than I am, many of whom don’t like me. So that should be fun. But Jim Gordon’s willingness to include a satirist in the mix is heartening. And that has kept me writing to an extent, too. Satire should always be present at the table. Maybe not as an honored guest, but, at the very least, as the drunk uncle. If anyone who writes about wine hears the HoseMaster’s footsteps as he writes pretentiously about wine, then my work here is worthwhile. I’m not vain enough to think that ever happens, but I can hope so.
Yes, 2015 was an interesting vintage for the HoseMaster. I’m not at all important, as wine writers go, I never appear on lists of Influential Wine Bloggers (inevitably published by industry nobodies), nor do I have much ambition to be. I just love to write, and wine is my muse. For every single individual who reads my work, I’m very grateful. I know that my work is hit and miss, with miss ahead by a wide margin. I know that it’s foulmouthed and scatalogical and crude. Nothing about its tone or approach is accidental. The HoseMaster, and Lo Hai Qu, are fictional extensions of me, voices in my head that scream to be heard. I don’t need an audience, not really, but there isn’t a day goes by that I’m not astonished by having one, and by your love and kindness.
May your 2016 be filled with a lot more Peace, and a lot more laughter.
From Your Friends,
The HoseMaster, Lo Hai Qu, Larry Anosmia, Avril Cadavril, Loqueesha, Shizzangela, Splooge Estate, the makers of Boner in a Can®, the members of the Go Fuck Yourself Club™, and, of course, me.
Monday, December 14, 2015
I had a wonderful year in 2015. I was threatened with a lawsuit! Thank you for that, Santa. It was my most unexpected gift. Lucky for me, it lasted about as long as a Riedel wine glass before it breaks. So, truly, I don’t need anything for myself this Christmas. But, as I do every year, I’m writing on behalf of others, on behalf of the wine business itself. Truly, Santa, we’re a fucked-up business (pardon my Elvish, but those little pricks can swear) and we need your help.
I’ve been so worried about sommeliers, Santa, that I can’t sleep at night. There are so many of them. They’re the worst invasive species since starlings, kudzu and Adele. They have movies made about them, a whole franchise, worse than the “Saw” movies, with less charm and more victims screaming. They even named it SAWM. I had to turn my head away in horror at this nightmare of human depravity. Though I hear the sequel is cute. TV shows have been made about sommeliers. Sommeliers are the new Real Housewives of Atlanta, portrayed as blathering, egotistical train wrecks you wouldn’t fuck with Dr. Conti’s dick, which may or may not be real, ask Maureen Downey. There’s even a sommelier in the new “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”—Han Job Solo. Enough is enough! Honestly, we could use more teachers.
And, Santa, I had an idea; is there a way to make it so that wine scores are tied to free shipping? I think this would be the best gift of all for wine lovers everywhere. Make it so that wineries who don’t post scores from wine publications are allowed to ship their wines for free to anyone in the United States! Consumers would be all over that, and so happy. “Please, please, please, Favorite Winery,” they’d say, “don’t use any scores! Just ship me a case of wine for free. I don’t give a crap what scores you received. So if it means I don't have to pay for shipping, Don’t Tell Me!” Scores would slowly go away. Wineries would see that their best interest is in ignoring scores, not playing that silly game they cannot win. And when scores go away, consumers win, too. Well, Santa, I’m sure lots of people wish for things that are impossible, like an end to wars, or Gummy Bear dick pills, but do what you can. I don’t need scores to go completely away, Santa, maybe just make them appear as worthless as they are, like wine aerators and Silver Medals.
This Christmas, Santa, my thoughts are also with all the poor and suffering people on Earth. It would be nice, I thought, to do something for each of them, something that would bring a little bit of joy to their wretched lives, by delivering gifts that might give them hope, bring them comfort. Gifts that express our concern for their welfare. Santa, please gift each and every one of the poorest and most down-trodden with a subscription to Le Pan, and a copy of Napa Valley: Now and Then! Gifts that truly say our priorities are in order, we care, and that will burn long into the cold, winter night.
Santa, for the Napa Valley Wine Train, what about a new conductor? Something that would electrocute the whole bunch. Or, at the least, how about giving them a new slogan, “The Napa Valley Wine Train: If you go black, you never go back!”
Like Georg Riedel, Santa, I am all for free speech. But there are a few choice words I’d like for you to get rid of, as a gift to the wine community. “Minerality,” Santa, what the hell is that? And why is it desirable in wine? If I want to be fucking Demosthenes and taste pebbles in my mouth, I’ll wear a toga and visit the Flintstones. And what makes a wine “authentic?” How do we know it’s authentic? Because it has the word “authentic” in front of it? Because a wine writer says it’s authentic? Is that idiot wine writer “authentic?” Does authentic Chablis have lots of minerality? Who cares? It makes more sense if you say it with pebbles in your mouth.
Though, frankly, Santa, I don’t think even you can rid the world of “natural.” Too many stupid people believe in it, like they believe in Wikipedia and read Wine Folly. The world is made up of but two categories of things, it seems to me, natural and manmade. And manmade things that are called natural are called natural out of desperation and marketing, not truth. Like Tang has “natural” orange flavoring. And it’s only “natural” to defend yourself with a gun. Nothing natural yearns to be manmade. Nothing natural is manmade. It’s a step down. Natural wine? OK, Santa, I give up. Let people fall for that tap dance. Wine’s about as natural as a hot fudge sundae. But, I guess I can only hope for a "natural" death.
Santa, would it kill you to keep an eye on Randall Grahm? I sure hope his plans to create 10,000 new grape varieties succeeds. The wine world needs Randall, he’s our Don Quixote, or, at the very least, Dapple. Please, Santa, make sure that when Grahm succeeds at creating a distinctive and new wine made from 10,000 different grapes that he’s created and cultivated that it doesn’t taste like Silver Oak. I think that just might kill him. Make sure it has minerality.
I hope all of this isn’t too much to ask. I tried to keep my list short this year, Santa. I wanted to include a lot of other gifts, like a Do Not Resuscitate Order for the regular contributors to World of Fine Wine—it would only be humane. And probably too late. And a few fresh ideas for Wine Spectator would have been nice, give Marvin the originality transplant he so desperately needs. Wine Spectator’s originality suffered rigor mortis years ago, and it’s been Restaurant Awards, Top 100, Best Wines under $20, and Matt Kramer ever since. It’s hard to tell the Wine Spectators from the 1990’s from today’s, except the scores are higher and the ads are slicker. Oh, wait, it’s the other way around. Wine Spectator is the missionary position of wine magazines--I don't mind being screwed, but can we change positions once in a while?
No matter, Santa. Most of all, I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa (cheap party deals on the Napa Valley Wine Train!), and all the best in 2016.
I wonder if I’ll be here to write you next year, Santa? Like most everyone else, I hope not.
HoseMaster of Wine™
Thursday, December 10, 2015
I always hated winemaker dinners. They were more often catastrophes than not. And so were the dinners. Early in my sommelier career, Joe Heitz was the featured winemaker at one. It’s hard to write about the late Joe Heitz without using the word irascible. Late in the meal, as the guests were tasting the Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet and Joe was speaking about it, one of the restaurant’s best customers, a lovely woman whose husband probably spent twenty grand a year entertaining in the place, asked Joe, “Why does the Martha’s Vineyard always smell like eucalyptus?” Mr. Heitz took a short breath, seemed rather resigned, and then told her, “Shut the hell up! Eucalyptus smells like cat piss. My Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet smells like mint!” Joe always hated when people referred to his most famous wine as smelling like eucalyptus. Which, by the way, it doesn’t. Though it may have been more accurate to say eucalyptus smells like koala farts. Cat piss is way off.
I tell this story because it came to mind when I watched an episode of “Uncorked.” In that episode, one of the sommeliers participating in the Top Somm challenge was asked to describe the aroma of a “’68 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard” that he was supposedly opening and serving three Master Sommeliers. The sommelier guessed that it smelled of “spearmint.” The Master Sommeliers pushed him, belittled him, questioned him, until he finally said the magic word, “eucalyptus.” In a brief scene a moment later, after the sommelier had left the room, one Master Sommelier, Laura Maniec, says, “How could he not know that Martha’s Vineyard smells like eucalyptus?”
All I wanted was for the late Joe Heitz to appear and tell her, “Shut the hell up.”
“Uncorked” is the worst hour of television since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vaults. Both are utterly and embarrassingly empty. I’m sure most of you haven’t seen “Uncorked.” It’s on EsquireTV. Why is there an EsquireTV? No one has read Esquire since the Kennedy administration. You may as well have LOOKMagazineTV, for Christ’s sake. I didn’t even know I had EsquireTV as part of my cable package until I went looking for “Uncorked.” Fuck me, I did.
I know, I know, “Uncorked” is already yesterday’s blog post. Truthfully, I was avoiding the show. A reality show produced by The Hair and the guy behind SOMM? The whole concept made me cringe. But then curiosity got the better of me. I watched an episode. Then I watched one more (I think there are six). And I fast-forwarded through a couple of others. So remember to take everything I write with that in mind. I’m not a professional reviewer. I didn’t take notes. I didn’t watch every frame. I just couldn’t. It made me want to gouge my own eyes out.
“Uncorked” follows six miserable humans who aspire to become Master Sommeliers. It also features about six miserable humans who are Master Sommeliers. Oh, they’re a lively bunch. The show is edited in the way of all reality shows—that is, in such a way as to make a stereotype of each miserable human competing. The editing is designed to try and construct a narrative out of this mess, giving you someone to cheer for, someone to laugh at, someone to identify with; but the show seems to have been edited by someone suffering from narcolepsy. Scenes drag on and on, and then suddenly the editor wakes up again, remembers to cut, and we move on. The only thing worse is the music. I began to find the music hilarious. In one dull scene after another, the music would try to convince you something dramatic was going on. Yes, trying to guess which of the three Chablis is the Grand Cru is harrowing, and needs three or four cuts to different faces, and an intense musical score to build that suspense. This is high drama, wine’s Sophie’s Choice. Why, it had me on the edge of my coma.
It’s no crime to produce a landmark in dull television viewing. I can’t say that I found “Uncorked” offensive in any way. Well, except for how often a Master Sommelier would say something like, “She did that just perfect.” Perfect? Sigh. There’s something about watching an hour of inarticulate people interacting that grates. I never heard a single person say anything insightful, wistful, original, or, God forbid, funny. Wine terminology they can handle—speaking as interesting, intelligent people, not so much. Well, maybe that was the damned narcoleptic editor.
I don’t want to belabor the subject. “Uncorked” is simply as bad as television gets. I was dozing off when Fred Dame appeared, and in my stupor I thought I was watching an episode of “Law and Order” with the late Fred Thompson. click here Geoff Kruth, for whom this is a vanity project, has the charisma of most game show hosts—he’s essentially Alex Trebek, only not quite as witty. I kept expecting him to ask the sommeliers to put their answers in the form of a question. “What is eucalyptus?” He seems constantly aware that he’s being filmed, always as carefully casual as his hair. It’s a show filled with unlikable people, now forever associated with wine. I was a bit mortified. For me, it was like stepping back and watching your family and realizing how essentially dull and witless and self-absorbed they all are.
But, most of all, the entire series is an insult to wine. Sommeliers, too, but they richly deserve it. In “Uncorked,” wine is nearly joyless. It’s like a cadaver that medical students are dissecting endlessly in order to become doctors. Like a cadaver, the wine is DOA. During the blind tasting segment, where each sommelier has twenty-five minutes to identify six wines blind, Kruth, as the game show host The Hair, explains that a candidate is awarded points for everything correct he says about a wine, its color and aroma and body and blah blah blah, and that if he correctly describes each wine in perfect detail, it can only lead him to one correct conclusion about which specific wine he is tasting. Only a loser unworthy of an MS after his name could fail to make it add up. I wanted to throw my cat at the television, but I don’t own a cat. There it is, wine pared down to its essence, wine made as simple as a box score, all the hundreds of thousands of wines produced in a single vintage easy as ABC to categorize—just check the appropriate boxes on the wine description chart and, bingo, you've pinned all the wines down like butterflies in a natural history museum. It's what death looks like.
If I were a wine novice, I think “Uncorked” would have made me hate wine, and sommeliers. Loving wine was never meant to be the point of the show, I know. The point, I suppose, was to illustrate how difficult it is to become a Master Sommelier, to become Geoff Kruth. But that never for a moment seems like an accomplishment because there’s so little palpable passion for wine shown by anyone on screen. Certainly not any more than medical students show their cadaver. “Uncorked” shows sommeliers as necrophiliacs, the wine just lying there as they fuck with it. It’s not just unsettling to watch, it’s creepy.
“Uncorked,” what I watched of it, left a bad taste in my mouth. I’d call it eucalyptus. The show was the Heitz of stupidity.
Monday, December 7, 2015
You don’t need a lot of money to create a great wine cellar. Any more than you need teeth to recite Shakespeare. Or fingers to go bowling. They just help you to not look and sound stupid doing it. You can begin a wine cellar with very little money, just as you can be a toothless Portia and say, “Nuh qualinee ah mernee ih nah strainuh.” It’s ultimately your humiliation, what do I care if you have a boring, worthless wine cellar? I know a fingerless guy who goes bowling every Tuesday, and has the stubs to prove it.
Assembling a great wine cellar isn't easy. Unless you follow the HoseMaster's simple directions, and, essentially, not bother. But you will have to make the magic Intergnats leap over to Tim Atkin's award-winning wine site to read the rest. And Tim's site is free! Not like that site where you're sent by the likes of Vornography's Alderpated and Elaine ChewBakaWakaMileInMyShoes Brown. The HoseMaster cares!
TIM ATKIN MW
Thursday, December 3, 2015
Around noon today, Wednesday, a coworker told me that there was another mass shooting unfolding at that moment in San Bernadino, CA. It just barely registered. Your first response is to wonder how many people were murdered—it’s almost like you want to know the gunman’s score. He received a 20 from Twitter, a 14 from NPR, and all scores were done blind. Not bad, but not in the Exceptional range. Maybe in the Shooting range.
Aside from disgust and anger, I felt a little hopeless at the news. These sorts of massacres are not going to stop any time soon, any more than climate change is going to suddenly reverse. But I’m not here to discuss politics (who am I? STEVE!?), I’m here to write about wine. Trivial, ordinary, meaningless wine. It’s what we do on wine blogs.
Thinking about ordinary folks whose lives are suddenly destroyed by angry human garbage with a gun, I took comfort in wine, that I work, and have always worked, in the wine business. And I realized that all of my life I have turned to wine for comfort, reassurance, and solace. Solace not in the alcohol in wine, though that obviously matters, but in wine itself, and what wine represents. Maybe it’s that I see wine as being one of the things that is best about our Western culture. Literature, art, baseball, wine, jazz, those beautiful creations. Can they compensate for random death (that is, if all death isn’t random to those who haven’t died), or for all the evil that’s in our world? No, perhaps not. But it’s what I have.
Many years ago, I think I was 27 at the time, my girlfriend Josie and I arrived home after working our shifts in the restaurant where we met to find my cockatiel Buster flying crazily around the living room. Buster was often out of his cage, but not after I had left for work. I was confused. I knew he couldn’t get out of his cage. None of us can. My confusion abruptly ended when I realized my television was gone. And my stereo, and my camera, and a lot of other valuable stuff. Our apartment had been burglarized. We called the police, and they dutifully came and filled out a report. I asked the cop why burglars would take my sleeping bag. “Oh, they use it to lug the heavy stuff out. They probably rifled through your panty drawer, too.” A little too quickly, I said, “Yeah.” But that’s another story.
After the police left, Josie and I were not the least bit sleepy. After a burglary, your apartment feels creepy, and your bedroom feels dirty, and sleep is not an option. So I went to the wine rack and opened a bottle of wine. I’ll never forget that wine. I’ve never consumed another bottle of that wine, I refused to buy it for my wine list when I was later a sommelier, and I wouldn’t carry it in my wine shop. It was a Grgich Hills Zinfandel. I cannot even see a bottle of Grgich Zin without recalling the feeling of fear and disgust and anger and violation that I felt when I realized our apartment had been burgled. I thought drinking a nice bottle of wine would help, and it did, it helped, but I wish I had been wise enough to choose a wine that was cheap, or lousy, or Pinot Grigio. The lesson, friends, is that when something miserable happens to you, drink something shitty, not something you like. Maybe keep a bottle of Pinot Grigio in your fridge, just in case.
That burglary was my first lesson in wine’s power over memory. And, therefore, us. For what are we but memories? And bodily fluids. And a side of meat. The Grgich Hills brought me some solace in that moment; it was something civilized to counteract something sad about the human race. But that’s not the kind of example I’m trying to get to. It was my first lesson about wine, and its hold over me, about its connection to memory. More lessons, many more, were to come.
Nine years later, Josie died. Just typing that was hard. I was working as a sommelier, and, eventually, after some weeks away from the job trying to find a way back to my life, back to any sort of goddam life, I returned to the restaurant. I had stopped drinking. Hell, I’d stopped eating and sleeping, what did I need wine for? I discovered death is a great weight loss plan. But I had to continue to buy wine for the restaurant, to do my job. Several nights a week, I would sit with salespeople and have to smell and taste wines, as I always had. And those were the only moments in my miserable life when I was OK. Putting a wine up to my nose and sensing its energy, thinking about its components, about where it was from, just making sense of it, brought me comfort and security. But it was much more than that. Wine smells of the earth, smells of human endeavor, smells of community. Great wine awakens in us a powerful gladness to be alive. Even during the darkest hours of my life, the aroma of a first-rate Châteauneuf-du-Pape made me happy when nothing, and I mean nothing, else could.
The wines I smelled and tasted during my grief reminded me that I had once known how to be happy. I didn’t think I’d ever be happy again, but at least I knew happiness lived in me. The wines triggered memories of happier times, of all the joy my love of wine had brought me, of the people I loved with whom I’d shared great wine. And, as all great wines do, the wines I tasted promised a future. Earth, love, memory, community…wine began to heal my broken life by forcing me to remember them. I was slowly, and this may sound melodramatic and maudlin, but it’s also true, healed by wine, and by its connection to memory, which brought me back into the world, into the possibility of love, into the community of, first, wine, and then the living. Wine’s pull was, for me, irresistible.
The older I get, the more I notice that when I taste wine, I think more about my feelings about wine, my accumulated memories, than I think about aromatics and alcohol level and descriptors. I smell a California Cabernet, and I’m home. I put a glass of Hermitage to my nose and I’m that kid who “discovered” Hermitage 35 years ago and was astonished that anything could be that wonderful. I open a Chablis and I remember all the Raveneau I used to drink and how now I can’t fucking afford it. Wine is memory. And maybe memory is wine. Put the most dramatic ones away for a couple of decades, and when you finally examine them again they’ve transformed into something completely different. Something that makes you deeply grateful, as I am grateful for Josie; or something that makes you buy an automatic weapon and kill people. Like wine, how you store memory is what matters in the long run.
When terrible things happen, from the mundane to the horrifying, from burglaries to death, from 9/11 to civilians killed by drones, from domestic massacres to suicide bombers, there isn’t any real solace, no “closure.” But life beckons us, in all its Sisyphean glory. We open a bottle after a miserable experience, perhaps catastrophic experience, and we begin, again, to try and make sense of it all.
Tonight, I’ll open a bottle of something interesting, not a fucking Grgich Hills Zin, and it won’t take long before the wine will stir memories, will fill my head with all sorts of unpredictable and unforeseeable thoughts. I’ll be struggling with the memories of what it’s like to lose a loved one in the blink of an eye, as many people in San Bernadino are doing today. One day they’re here, next day they’re gone. And I’ll remember Josie, and so many others I’ve lost. And, after that, as the wine embraces and commandeers my memories, I’ll remember this great community I’m a part of, and I’ll remember all that I’ve been given, all the people who have touched me, and loved me and helped me. I’ll remember that it’s the simplest things in life that can bring the most joy. Rather than surrender to anger and grief, I'll try to make some sense of it all.
I turn to wine in tough times to bring me solace, but it doesn’t. It brings me Grace.
Monday, November 30, 2015
The writer/director of the SOMM series, Jason Wise, recently released a list of the next several films he’s planning in the SOMM series. He also announced that he has signed the most important actor in the films to a long term contract. That actor, Geoff Kruth’s hair, was not available for comment.
SOMM: Death to the Salesmen
In SOMM: Death to the Salesmen, Wise focuses on the relationship between sommeliers and the people who sell them wine. Fresh from achieving the Master Sommelier credential, these young somms now realize their power over ordinary wine salespeople. Wise masterfully builds the suspense so that we wonder, along with the salespeople, whether or not the somms will ever return a phone call, treat them with some respect, or even acknowledge their existence. “Calling on most sommeliers,” one saleswoman remarks, “is like having unprotected sex with Charlie Sheen—you expect to get screwed, and then the cocktail is expensive.” In another scene, we watch while Geoff Kruth’s hair keeps a salesman waiting for two hours. His hair always has a nice part.
SOMM: Schwindler’s List
Jason Wise spent months in camouflage gear capturing footage of a phenomenon rarely seen by humans, Master Sommeliers working the floor! The film’s title refers to their uncanny ability to squeeze restaurant clients for money. In a memorable scene, an unwitting guest asks the sommelier if there’s a corkage fee for the wine he’s brought in for his 50th wedding anniversary. He’s told the corkage fee is $150. “To open a bottle of wine?” the man asks, obviously astounded and angry. “No,” the somm says (Geoff Kruth’s hair, in a wonderful performance), “it’s ten bucks to open it. The other $140 is for product.” Wise also shows how restaurant wine prices are decided. “We take the price we paid for the bottle and multiply it by how many years it took me to pass the Master Sommelier exams—so, six. That seems fair.” There’s also a look at how by-the-glass programs work. “It’s pretty simple,” our sommelier tells us, “we serve you obscure wines that an average person doesn’t know, which disguises the price, then we pour a fifth of the bottle, and charge for that glass what the bottle cost to begin with. You know, really, we’re just trying to make movie theater concessions look cheap.” Soon you’ll see why every restaurant wine list is a Schwindler’s List.
SOMM: Thing About Mary
A lighthearted and occasionally crude look at the wine business. Theatergoers won’t soon forget what ends up in Geoff Kruth’s hair. A little Châteauneuf-du-Spunk.
SOMM: Like It Hot
A couple of sommeliers inadvertently witness a crime at Jackson Family Estates, yet another Banke robbery, and decide to dress as women in order to avoid being hired in the business. Hilarity ensues when the sommeliers go on a wine junket to Portugal in the hot summer and end up with Dry Sack. Geoff Kruth’s hair provides comic relief as the love interest for a muskrat.
A strange tale of sommeliers who sleepwalk and fondle boys. Jared Fogle stars. Sponsored by Subway—Eat Freshmen!
A fascinating inside look at the immigrant work force that actually harvests the grapes in California. While our intrepid band of Master Sommeliers travel the world drinking and debauching on junkets, and basking in the admiration of wine lovers, Juan and his crew spend harvest working long hours in the vineyard performing back-breaking work while looking forward to being scorned by the people of wine country. It’s heroes and zeroes—yeah, you decide.
SOMM: Left Behind
Jason Wise’s vision of a world without sommeliers. One morning, Geoff Kruth’s hair awakens to discover that every sommelier in the world has suddenly vanished in the long-predicted Sommelier Rapture. Except him. Kruth’s hair realizes that now he is the only sommelier on the planet—so, in his mind, nothing has changed, really. Wise poses the question, in a world without sommeliers, who will make wine seem unapproachable? Can wine survive without the people who spend their lives studying its trivia? Will ordinary people ever be able to remove a cork from a bottle and make it seem an act of courage? SOMM: Left Behind is a frightening look at a world where sommeliers have vanished. It will remind you of your last visit to French Laundry. Yes, it’s that scary.
SOMM: Goddame Losers
Wise tells the stories of the men and women who fail to pass the Master Sommelier exam. These Goddame Losers (their God is Fred Dame MS) have spent thousands of dollars and wrecked their personal lives in a vain attempt to become a Master Sommelier. Without the MS after their names, these poor souls must learn to live as mere mortals, holding down actual jobs and having healthy relationships. Losers. Imagine. They could be working for Southern Wine and Spirits, or Jackson Family Estates, where they’d earn the undying respect of salesmen. It just doesn’t seem fair. But we can't all be Geoff Kruth's hair. The Goddame Losers, it turns out, can't handle the Kruth!
Monday, November 23, 2015
I wrote this piece more than two years ago, when Natural Wines were all the talk of the industry.
It's Thanksgiving week, and I'm sure few are paying attention to wine blogs, and even fewer are paying attention to me, so I thought I'd drag this old piece of dung out of the compost heap. Nothing better than Thanksgiving leftovers with Natural Wine.
I hope you all have a Happy Thanksgiving. Remember to be grateful, especially for not being a character on HoseMaster of Wine™.
I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a miracle. I never expected anything like this to ever happen to me. I attended the revival meeting innocently enough. I simply wanted to witness this strange and burgeoning cult firsthand. Experience the hypnotic and numinous leader in the flesh, just one in the sea of her admiring acolytes. I didn’t expect to be converted, to be healed of my many enological sins. But those hours in her company, listening to her speak, recognizing her inarguable spiritual truths, have brought me to the Light. Many have called her a charlatan, a nimble-tongued purveyor of half-truths, a self-proclaimed prophet of the pure, who preys upon the dimwitted dipsomaniacs and the mouth-breathing Millennials, whose calls to consume only the Natural, the Real, and the Authentic are clarion calls to the weak-minded and easily befuddled. I was one of those who berated her. No longer. I have seen miracles with my own two eyes. I have awakened as if from a long, sulfite-induced coma. I am newly baptized in the Natural Wine Church of Aimee Semple McFeiring. I’ve been reborn.
My epiphany began under a large tent on a warm summer’s eve somewhere in the South of France. As I entered, the congregation was singing Natural Wine gospel songs. “Fight the Good Sulfite,” “What a Friend We Have in Chauvet,” and “For He’s a Joly Good Fellow,” were sung with heart and conviction. The tent was filled with love—love, and anticipation of Aimee Semple McFeiring’s long-awaited entrance. I was welcomed with warmth and open arms, and a glass of natural wine that had a nose married perfectly with the overpowering aroma of the devoted deodorant-free throng. The worshippers grew quiet, the hymns stopped, the lights in the tent slowly dimmed to the oxidized color of a sulfite-free current release, and Aimee Semple McFeiring walked slowly onto the stage.
It was only then I noticed the people gathered at the very front of the crowd, just a few feet below Aimee Semple McFeiring, their eager and open faces turned to her brilliance. “Brothers and sisters,” McFeiring exclaimed, “is there anyone here who wants to be cured tonight?” What happened next is almost too unbelievable to relate; and if I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t have believed it either. But as Steiner is my witness, every word I write is true.
Wine people with every kind of horrible affliction, those people in front who had seemed the most eager to see McFeiring, began to line up on the steps leading up to the stage where Aimee Semple McFeiring was bathed in that oxidized glow, a glow which seemed to radiate from her purely natural hair color. At first, the sight of all of these terribly deformed wine lovers was horrifying to behold. The first man in line was wearing a Hawaiian shirt with the Trader Joe’s logo, and at the sight of him the congregation gasped and collectively turned their heads, a few attempting to muffle the sounds of gagging. There was a middle-aged, Humpty Dumpty-shaped woman wearing a shirt that had shiny beads spelling out the words “Got Wine?” I tried not to stare, but it was horrible to behold, and I was riveted to the sight, amazed at the woman’s courage to appear in public looking that inhuman and disgusting. A man was holding up a copy of The Wine Advocate, dog-eared and covered in highlighter, and people left a wide swath around him as though he might give them a disfiguring communicable disease, something with scales, a deadly form of 100 Point psoriasis. There were no fewer than a hundred of these pathetic souls in line, and from their dishevelment and grotesque appearance, I knew many of them were winemakers.
“Do you believe, brother?” Aimee Semple McFeiring asked the poor, misguided soul in the Trader Joe’s shirt (a woman next to me whispered to her friend, “He drinks Charles Shaw,” whereupon her friend wet her pants in fear). “I believe! I believe!” he shouted. And with that his Hawaiian shirt vanished, simply vanished, I have no idea how but for the power of Aimee Semple McFeiring, and he donned the hair shirt of the true believers in the Natural Wine Church. (McFeiring told him it wasn’t necessary to wear the hair shirt, but he replied, “It’s cilice I can do.”) Well, it’s not really made of hair, I learned, but of old filter pads cast aside by reformed winemakers. The grotesque woman in the “Got Wine?” shirt crawled on her knees to Aimee Semple McFeiring. There were tears in her eyes as McFeiring placed her right hand on the top of the woman’s head and shouted, “Be gone, Satan! Go back to Hell, Shanken! Leave this woman, Spawn of Heimoff!” The woman’s eyes rolled up in her head, she dropped unconscious to the floor, the crowd inhaled deeply as one. Then she began to levitate. McFeiring’s hand was still on her head, and it was as though she were lifting her with the strength of her will, with the power of her belief, with the pureness of her vision for the True Wine. And when the woman awoke, now alert and on her feet, her shirt now read “God Wine.”
But the man with The Wine Advocate was a different problem for Aimee Semple McFeiring. He held the issue in front of him, arms fully extended, and it was clear that McFeiring was frightened. She hissed, a long, sibilant syllable that made the congregants gasp. “Be not frightened, brothers and sisters. There’s no need to fear the forces of evil as represented by this steaming pile of lies.” She approached the man. “Do you believe, brother?” she whispered, the crowd growing silent in witness to her passion. “I want to believe,” the man replied, his arms beginning to tremble, “but I don’t know that I can.” “Put the ratings from Hell down!” Aimee Semple McFeiring commanded. The man’s voice broke, tears streaming down his cheeks, “But how will I know what to drink? Without the Book of David, and the Book of Neal, and the Book of Lisa, I’ll have nothing!” “You have nothing now,” Aimee Semple McFeiring said, and with that The Wine Advocate burst into flame. The man screamed and cast it aside. His loneliness was palpable, the emptiness of his life flashed across his face. Aimee Semple McFeiring walked slowly to the man. She slipped one strap of her dress off of her shoulder, in the dim light of the tent her breast was exposed, and the man suckled at her breast. A woman behind me whispered, “He drinks Cornelissen Rosé from her teat, it’s the greatest Natural Wine there is.” After a few pulls, the man stood straight up, he seemed six inches taller, and he glowed! Light radiated from his every pore. The tent lights were dimmed, but you could have read “Naked Wine” by his Light. It was a miracle.
And that night I also saw the Light. There is no wine but Natural Wine. All the rest is lies. To let it pass your lips is a sin. But we’re human, Aimee Semple McFeiring teaches us, and we sin. Chauvet died for our sins, so we will be forgiven. But we must strive to be without sin, to taste only what the Natural Wine Church of Aimee Semple McFeiring says is Authentic and Real and Natural, or we shall forever live in Ignorance and worship False Wines. I, for one, believe.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
When I open an older wine from my humble wine cellar, what makes it fun and rewarding is the trip the wine takes you on, the trip back in time and memory. What was my life like back in 1999? (Well, I got married to my beautiful wife Kathleen, most importantly.) It almost doesn’t matter if the wine is magnificent or memorable on its own. I’ve learned how to choose wines that will not fall apart over time, so the wines are rarely undrinkable. But the real pleasure is in the associations the wine brings to mind—that first year of marriage, the wonder of how grand and beautiful life can be. I hold the bottle in my hand, gaze at the vintage, and the producer, and I am overwhelmed with memories. Hell, I almost don’t even have to open the wine to enjoy it.
I always tell people starting out in wine to collect wines that have emotional meaning for you. You ordered it on your first date with your lover. You served it at your wedding. You visited the winery and fell in love with the place. The wine speaks to you, changes your feelings about wine. Those are wines that will reward cellaring, assuming they are wines structured to age. If you cellar wines because they received 100 points, you’ll find little meaning in them when you open them in twenty years. It was in the Wine Spectator Top Ten? Believe me, you won’t care. That’s a fool’s game. I know people with cellars filled with First Growths, 100 point wines, Top Ten wines, and cult wines. They brag about their collections, but that’s all they are. Collections. Meant to impress others. They’re soulless, and the enjoyment of wine is as much about feeding your soul as it is about drinking great vintages. I’ve tasted countless wines that were highly rated, and was grateful each time. But the wines I will always cherish are the wines that were not just magnificent, but nourished my soul, that triggered personal memories, which reminded me to be grateful for my life. It’s memories that make older wines complex as much as the tertiary aromas.
All of this has been said before. There’s almost nothing new to say about wine, though we spend countless hours saying it again and again. Wine is a vast subject, filled with infinite minutiae about infinite bottles, but, in its essence, it’s not hard to understand. Though it takes a while. Every beginning wine lover has to wade through the misinformation and folklore that surrounds wine. Spend a day in a tasting room with ordinary folks and you’ll hear an amazing amount of misinformation about wine that they’ve accumulated from various sources, primarily friends or relatives they see as wine experts, or misinformed tasting room employees or wine shop employees. It’s daunting how much bullshit wine generates. Wine blogs are filled with it. I attended TexSom and heard people with letters after their name say things I know are false, though often to promote themselves or an agenda. And, of course, the HoseMaster does his share.
My gorgeous wife and I were in Cambria for my birthday week in October. I brought along six or eight bottles of wine from our cellar for the occasion. One bottle in particular was reserved for our birthday meal at Bistro Laurent in Paso Robles. It’s that bottle, and another that I’ll get to, that sparked this little essay, that made me think more about aging wines and the rewards of doing so. Not while I was drinking the wine, not at all; while I was drinking it, I was speechless and utterly enthralled by how great the wine was. But later, in the passing weeks, as the experience stayed with me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The bottle was the 1990 Chave Hermitage. I don’t think I have the chops to adequately describe it. Anything I write would do a great disservice to a remarkable bottle of wine. I will say that at 25 years of age it was still young, vibrant and alive with energy. I’ve always loved Hermitage. For me, it’s the pinnacle of Syrah, though I also love Côte-Rôtie. The other legendary Hermitage from 1990 is the Jaboulet “La Chapelle.” I’m lucky enough to have consumed a few bottles of that great wine, also, and, make no mistake, it is a great wine. The Chave is better.
Where was I in 1990? I was in my third year working as a sommelier, and, truthfully, supremely ignorant about wine and the wine business. I was 38 years old, and finally surfacing from the grief of my fiancée’s death a year earlier. Near the end of 1990, I was dating the woman who would become my first wife--a remarkable woman who saved my life, and who awakened me to my own shortcomings and pain when she wisely divorced me. The Dow Jones hit a record at 2800. “The Simpsons” began. Barry Bonds was the National League MVP playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates while wearing a normal-sized hat. The Zodiac killer terrorized New York. And Chave produced yet another remarkable Syrah.
But it was the personal memories that the wine evoked as I consumed it with a fantastic meal at Bistro Laurent that really mattered. Sitting next to my beautiful wife, recalling the heartbreak that was part of my life in 1990, and thinking about my first gorgeous bride, and about all that had happened since, all the luck and all the heartbreak, the tiring and lonesome trail that miraculously led to my wife Kathleen, that was the gift of the ’90 Chave Hermitage. Its beauty and life reminded me of the beauty in my own life, the incredible luck and fortune that have been my constant companions. Nothing else, and not anybody else, could have given that to me. My favorite wine from my favorite Syrah appellation at twenty-five reminding me of how long twenty-five years is, and how lucky I am to have survived all those days. Only a great wine, a wine I’ve carried along with me all those years, imagining the day I’d finally get to drink it, could have done that. I have no idea what it scored, or if it was a Top Ten Wine that year. Only an idiot would care about that. It was a wine I shall never forget, joining a very, very short list of wines in that category.
In the midst of thinking about the Chave Hermitage, I happened to stop by Ridge Vineyards out in Dry Creek to pick up some wine and taste what they had to offer. Ridge doesn’t need my praise. They’re one of the greatest producers in California. And on this day, with that Chave still kicking around in the back of my head, I was greatly impressed by the Ridge 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, after sniffing and tasting, my first thought was, “I’d love to drink this wine in twenty-five years.”
The Ridge is spectacularly good Cabernet Sauvignon that is sourced, I was told, from the younger
vines at Monte Bello Vineyard. Younger, in Monte Bello’s case, meaning twenty years old. If you’ve never had the pleasure of drinking Monte Bello Cabernet, especially one that is twenty years old or so, you should put that on your wine bucket list. Anyone asked which are the five greatest California Cabernets who doesn’t include Ridge Monte Bello simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This 2012 Estate is not the legendary Ridge Monte Bello, but, truly, it seemed as good as its older brother. I was astonished, and kept tasting it trying to pick it apart, see why it was so much cheaper. I’m no Paul Draper, but I would be surprised if, in 25 years, you could tell the Estate from the Monte Bello. No matter, both are great wines.
Let’s put it this way. There are a lot of Cabernets that aren’t half as good made from vines that aren’t half as old that sell for a lot more money to the folks who chase scores and “cult” wines. The Ridge 2012 Estate is fifty bucks. Twenty years from now, that will seem insanely cheap.
Somehow, my brain decided to link the Chave Hermitage with the Ridge Estate Cab. You stick around wine long enough, taste tens of thousands of wines, and your brain alters—and not just from the alcohol. It finds connections that might make little sense at first, but which you mustn’t ignore. You might be tempted to call it intuition, but it’s more certainly wisdom. I’ve learned to listen to that wine voice in my head. When it says, “I want to taste this wine in twenty-five years,” I pay attention. Will the Ridge be another Chave Hermitage? Most certainly not. Doesn’t matter. It will be great in its own way.
If I live another twenty-two years and open the 2012, I know it will be something special. How do I know? Beats me. But I trust my instincts. And when I do drink it, it will remind me of 2012. Of the days when I was the HoseMaster of Wine™. Of the people I met and loved because I write this crap regularly. Of the people who may have passed since then. Of my sweet and adorably dumb Norwich Terrier, Mickey, who was born in 2012, who we raised from birth. And, therefore, of his mother, Kate, a dog I feel is my canine soulmate on her second visit. Of my long and remarkable marriage to the kindest soul who exists in this time and this place. Of a time that will seem imaginary to my future self in 2037, slippery, hard to recall, but was my 60th year on this mysterious planet. Only a wine can do that.
Every old wine, but especially the ones that take your breath away, is a time capsule we open with a corkscrew and a full heart. A living, breathing, energetic reminder of our past that will unearth memories that have long lain dormant. And when people ask me how a wine can be profound, there is the answer.
Monday, November 16, 2015
Nothing is safe from smartphones, their apps, and the appholes that use them. Especially not wine. FYI, I don’t own a smartphone. My wife has one, but I don’t qualify. Besides, I’m creeped out by Siri. She reminds me of a stalker I once had. A lot of bad memories there. I should have known something was wrong when we first made love and my future stalker said, “In ten inches, go straight,” followed by a disappointed, “Recalculating.” So I won’t be purchasing any wine apps. (And why is Siri a woman’s voice? I guess because if Siri were a man giving directions it would be more like, “I think we make a left in one hundred yards, it looks kinda familiar, and, for Christ’s sake, why are you going so slow, it’s just a pedestrian. And use your fucking turn signal, what are we, from the rest home?”)
There’s something rather sweet and simpleminded about the idea of people using wine apps. They take a picture of a wine bottle and wait for their phone to tell them about it. It takes them back to when they were slow little kids and they loved their Fisher-Price See ’N Say. “That’s a Madiran. You won’t like it. It makes a sound like a goat. ‘Tannaaaaaaat’” It’s how we learn! You know, I wonder why Tinder doesn’t capitalize on the See ’N Say mentality of appholes. Wouldn’t it be even easier to select a date if you not only viewed their photo, but also heard a brief recording? “This is Fred. In bed, he sounds like this, ‘Oh, baby, wow, you feel good, I’m gonna…sorry, that snuck up on me.’” Seems like they’re missing out here.
|Oh, that's going to leave a Wine Ring.|
A couple of soon-to-be-former friends of mine are involved with a new wine app called “Wine Ring.” First of all, I have no idea what a Wine Ring is, or what the name even means. Though, apparently, the app’s purpose is to erect a platform that you maintain so that it can advise you what wines you’ll like. So, I guess, judging from the erection and maintaining it, it’s basically a wine lover’s cock ring, which would explain the name. I had a cock ring once, but I was afraid to answer it. No, really, what the hell is a Wine Ring? Aside from what you leave on your date’s lower back when you set your glass of Pinot Noir there. But, for that matter, it seems like most of the wine apps out there have stupid names. I always think Vivino is for pretentious people with speech impediments looking for a good Pepinot Noir.
When you download and use Wine Ring, you begin by rating every wine you taste with their complicated rating system—“Love It, Like It, SoSo and Dislike It™” I particularly like the ™ at the end. Who’s going to steal that? The people who make vibrators? And, really, the goddam 100 Point Scale is so complex and hard to understand that we need a new scale that comes right out and insults our intelligence? It’s really a way to simplify the system for the developers. But I would have liked to have been in the room when all of these MWs (there are five listed as part of the Wine Ring Circus) came up with this rating system. “I don’t know, they’re mostly ignorant Millennials that will sign up for it. Why don’t we just use the ‘OMG, WFM, YMMV and WTF? Scale’”
Once the user has rated a dozen wines, Wine Ring claims, then it’s ready to guide the user to wines they’ll like. I confess that I don’t have any idea, but isn’t this how most of these appholes sell their product? On the premise that you’ll never buy a bottle of wine you don’t like ever again if you download their app. What kind of an idiot thinks that will work? People who know a lot about wine constantly buy wines they don’t like, and they know what they hell they’re doing. You think a smartphone app is going to help? They’re the same people rating the wines and giving advice for the stupid app you keep referring to on your smartphone. They might be wine experts, but they don’t know shit either!
Everything I’ve read recently about Millennials and how they buy wine claims that they are eschewing established (read “old”) wine critics and buying wine based on the recommendation of their peers. So why in the world would they download a wine app? Some wine apps are based on reviews and ratings, some are based on a conglomeration of reviews by other users of the app (think CellarTracker), and some, like Wine Ring, use the opinions of wine industry experts to focus your selections. So, as it turns out, kids, it’s not really your smartphone making the recommendation. It’s still the Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, and the other folks who rate wines for a living. Or it’s a bunch of clowns on a website competing for the most wine reviews posted. It’s a virtual wine world out there. You can pretend to be a hero on “Dungeons and Dragons,” or you can pretend to be a wine expert on CellarTracker! Fantasy is fun! With Wine Ring, apparently your taste is analyzed by a program which then finds other wines to match your taste, based on the opinions of, well, wine experts.
The Wine Ring website has my new favorite pair of oxymorons. It's called both an “Essential Wine App” and a “Crucial Wine App.” The “Essential” quote is from a Liquor.com piece entitled, "The Seven Essential Wine Apps." But the real question is, how essential are you if there are six other essential apps? It’s like saying Dopey is the Essential Dwarf. On the Liquor.com site, the article says of Wine Ring, “In some cases, it will even tell you if you like a wine before you buy it.” Wait. Isn't that the fucking point? I don't really need the app to tell me I like a wine after I buy it. That's like paying for yesterday's weather report. How stupid are the people at Liquor.com? There's a rhetorical question. And why would you take their advice?
Ray Isle (which I thought was where you bought skate at the fish market) of Food and Wine Magazine is the writer who calls Wine Ring one of the seven “Crucial” wine apps. In the same article, Isle recommends two websites for buying wine, Amazon and Wine.com. Yeah, so he’s hip. Buying your wine on Amazon is like shopping for lingerie at Eddie Bauer. So, Ray, you sign up on Wine Ring, rate a dozen crappy wines you bought at the supermarket, then go to Amazon and see what Wine Ring recommends, and that’s how you learn about wine? Wow. It’s like learning about food from Swanson TV dinners--which, coincidentally, is one of the seven Crucial TV dinners. (And you should see the wine blogs Isle recommends…)
I also love Wine Ring’s answer to one of their FAQ, “What is a Master of Wine? A Master Sommelier?” The answer is:
“Both are expert in wine, and study for years to develop their ability to taste. Our wine experts taste thousands of wines a year so you don’t have to! You just get recommendations based on your individual preferences.”
Waddya know? I’m a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier. That was easy. Which explains a lot.
Google and Amazon, and others, build massive facilities that consume inconceivable amounts of energy so that appholes can post photographs of empty wine bottles, their latest meal, and other signs of their importance and status. It’s the new pornography. I need to remember to wear my Wine Ring.
Monday, November 9, 2015
Why is it no one solicits book reviews from the HoseMaster of Wine™? My feelings are hurt. All sorts of second tier bloggers seem to have received copies of Kelli White’s “Napa Valley Then and Now” for review, but not me, and I'm top tier. Which is pathetic on the face of it. OK, maybe it's top tear, but you get the idea. I suppose it could be because I review wine books without actually reading them, which, when you think about it, is the only legitimately objective way to review books. Television hosts have done this for decades, and very successfully. You don’t really think Jay Leno read all the books of the authors who appeared on “The Tonight Show,” do you? It’s possible Jon Stewart may have read all the books he promoted, but it’s pretty unlikely. Television hosts have staff to read the books for them, staff who then provide notes to make the host seem glib and well-read. Which then sells a lot of books. I don’t have any staff to speak of. Lo Hai Qu doesn’t read wine books, she reads toenail clippings (which, according to her, can foretell the future, as well as make interesting tea cozies). So, since I didn’t receive a review copy of “Napa Valley Then and Now” I will review it blind. It’s the only honest way to review.
It was a joy to not read “Napa Valley Then and Now." I enjoyed it Not Then, as well as Not Now.
I’ve always believed that the worst possible place to work as a sommelier is wine country, especially wine country with a lot of obscenely wealthy winery owners. Kelli White is a sommelier at Press restaurant on Highway 29 smack dab in the middle of Napa Valley. And now she’s published a book (well, rather, the owner of Press, Leslie Rudd, has published her book—the guy who owned the restaurant where I worked wouldn’t even lend me a book) about, TA-DA, wineries in Napa Valley, and Napa Valley itself. I wonder what the people who own wineries not mentioned in her book are saying to her these days? “Yeah, so, Shypoke Winery is in the book, but I’m not? How ‘bout I shy poke your eyes out?” I’m guessing Rudd’s winery is in the book. And whoever tips her a lot when having dinner at Press is probably in the book. Though you can starve to death in the sommelier business waiting for obscenely wealthy folks to tip you well, so that’s probably not that much of a factor.
A lot has been made of the size and weight of “Napa Valley Then and Now.” I think the answer to why it’s so huge is pretty simple. I think Kelli told Mr. Rudd she wanted it to be a coffee table book, so he made it a fucking coffee table. Just add legs. And a dash of MegaPurple.
But let’s face it, the book is mostly about Napa Valley Cabernet. So why wouldn’t you make it huge, unwieldy, overblown, self-important, overpriced and sporting way too much wood? It’s perfect! The book itself is exactly like the wines it describes. When a critic tells you it’s “exhaustive,” he means he crapped his pants trying to pick it up to read it. It may be very big, but I doubt it has much to say—again, just like the wines! It’s a brilliant concept, really. Next up, “Mendocino Then and Now,” a book made from hemp. “Napa Valley Then and Now” covers 200 wineries in Napa Valley, a region with, according to Wines and Vines Analytics database, more than a thousand wineries. “Exhaustive?” So 800 just ain’t worth mentioning. They rarely come in for dinner.
Ms. White also works for Antonio Galloni at Vinous, though I don’t read that either. She manages to give him the fifteen-pound-book finger by having Galloni’s old boss, Robert Parker, write the foreword to the book. That made me laugh. Shows you who White thinks actually has clout in the wine business.
Press seems like an appropriate employer for Ms. White. That’s what this book is. Press. For all the wineries featured. It’s sort of “Vanity Fair’s” show biz issue meets wine country. Annie Liebovitz does cult wines. (I’m just hoping there’s a Helmut Newtonesque photo of Bill Harlan in his underwear.) It’s all size and no substance. It’s got more puff pieces than the Pillsbury Doughboy, and it's twice as floury. What else can this book be but one gigantic vanity project? “My first published book weighs more than your first published book! I’m talkin’ to You, God. And Your youdam book was made of stone tablets. Thou shalt bite me.” But, again, maybe a vanity project about Napa is appropriate—vanity is ubiquitous in Napa Valley. Only they’re around vanity so much they seem incapable of recognizing it anymore. It flows in their vains. This big, reverential book—porn for the wine trolls on Wineberserkers—probably seems just right to Rudd and White, and all of the wineries involved. If anything, it’s not grandiose enough. It’s only barely the Castello di Amarosa of wine books. Though White got the torture chamber right.
I’m an enthusiastic fan of blurbs. Send your newly minted book to all of your friends and admirers, as White must have done, your employers and fellow employees, the people you are certain will praise your work, then excerpt their remarks on your website and in your marketing materials. Never disclose your relationships to them because, well, genuine book critics don’t review books that are written by their friends or relatives and you want people to believe the praise is objective. It’s hilarious. It’s Hollywood, and, therefore, it’s Napa Valley. It’s like believing what friends and relatives say about your newborn, but basically ugly, baby being cute.
I perused White’s site to read her Press, her solicited blurbs. Allen Meadows, known as "Burghound" (or "Rudy’s Bitch"), goes so far as to drop the hoariest critical sentence available to a reviewer, “If you read only one wine book this year…”—right after he praises her for her “deft turns of phrase”! So, judging from his deft turn of phrase, he’s certainly an expert on great writing.
Alice Feiring writes that “White has pulled off a beautifully written guide—balanced, while clearly having an essential point of view—to the complex region of Napa.” A region, Feiring fails to add, that she herself essentially despises and rarely visits. I love this kind of stuff. It’s transparently hypocritical and utter bullshit. A gigantic book, ludicrously and unnecessarily large considering the subject matter (it ain’t Audobon’s lifesize "The Birds of America"), a book that is about as unnatural and environmentally irresponsible as a wine book could be, being praised by the Queen of natural wines. Does my heart good to see dear Alice selling out.
Antonio Galloni, for whom White writes, contributes a blurb that clearly proves he hasn’t even read the book. “One of the brightest voices of our generation, Kelli White provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Napa Valley and its evolution over the last several decades. The stories behind the valley’s great wines and the people who make them are told with boundless passion and enthusiasm. Napa Valley, Then & Now is a must-have for anyone who loves Napa Valley wines.” It’s a Mad Libs review. Replace “Kelli White” with “Wink Lorch,” and Napa Valley with “the Jura” and, there you go, another review for a different book. Or substitute “Livingstone-Learmonth” and “Rhône Valley,” and you have another. Galloni’s got a lifetime of book reviews in just one paragraph. Eerily like how he reviews wines.
In conclusion, if you don’t read only one wine book this year, "Napa Valley Then and Now" is a must-not-have from one of the brightest voices of our generation. Unfortunately, compared to Feiring, Meadows and himself, Galloni just might be right about that last part.
Thursday, November 5, 2015
I guess I’m easily annoyed. Because I’m so frequently annoyed. Lately, I’m fed up with how many wine pundits are proclaiming themselves “acid freaks.” Aside from the stupid and misleading reference to the Timothy Leary generation, it’s a way of claiming superior wine knowledge and a more subtle and interesting palate. People always “confess” that when it comes to wine they’re an acid freak, though exactly nobody asked them.
It doesn’t take much leg work to discover that these “acid freaks” also trumpet the importance of balance in a great wine. Wines are, indeed, all about balance. But try making the claim that you’re an “alcohol freak,” or a “tannin freak,” and see how that goes. Or, God forbid, you like a little bit of residual sugar! The wines you like are, gasp, out of balance. Whereas the “acid freak” likes wines that are more “terroir driven,” “better with food,” and “subtle.” You can have too little acid, they’d tell you, but never too little oak or tannin or sugar. Though, truthfully, nothing is manipulated more often in wine than the acidity. And you’d swear “acid freaks” prefer more “natural” wines. But as far as I’m concerned, the "acid freak" puts the bite in Bite Me.
If you say that you like wines with plenty of oak, or wines that are big and voluptuous, perhaps with a bit of residual sugar, or wines that are huge and musclebound, you attract a lot of scorn these days. Yet declare that you’re an “acid freak,” as countless wine writers and sommeliers have done in my hearing, and you’re a person of great wine integrity. You have a deeper understanding of wine. I’m not sure which acid they’re talking about. Lactic? Tartaric? Tannic? Citric? Sulfuric? Though it really doesn’t matter. They’re “acid freaks.” They know wine. Jerks.
I think a lot more often about writing than I think about wine. Wine, as challenging and vast a subject as it is, is simple compared to writing. Nobody has ever suffered from Wino’s Block. Maybe the difference is that wine is a source of inspiration whereas writing requires constant inspiration. Writing produces something, often something worthless, but something. Wine is easy. Every bottle has a story (now I sound like a marketing jackass). Every grape variety is interesting in its own way. I know quite a bit about wine, I’m very comfortable with my wine knowledge, but every time I sit down to write it always feels as though I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m a complete fool with nothing to say. Yet I say it so eloquently.
I really only think about wine when I’m deciding what to drink, or when I’m wine tasting. There was a time when I was obsessed with wine, when I spent countless hours reading about it, spent too much time driving around to various wine shops searching for wines I wanted to try, attended countless wine tastings, took notes on every wine I tasted, opened bottle after bottle with likeminded wine fanatics, and spent all of my discretionary income, and then some, on wine. I was stupid.
When I first became successful in the wine biz, I allowed wine to define me. Wine has this mysterious and unwarranted prestige in the world, and my insecurity loved the prestige. I can’t explain wine’s prestige. In the end, wine is simply another alcohol delivery system. Its hold over mankind emanates from its alcohol content, not terroir or points or history or romance. We spend endless amounts of money farming vineyards so that we can convert the fruit to alcohol. If it converted to soup, no one would care. Though I hear the 2007 Harlan Estate minestrone is spectacular. When I wrote comedy, no one knew who I was, or cared much. Tell people you’re a comedy writer and the response is almost always, “Say something funny.” Become a sommelier, a job far easier than writing jokes, and people ask you hundreds of different questions, and often express their admiration. When I worked the floor as a sommelier, at least once a week a customer would say to me, “Man, I wish I had your job.” No one ever said that to me when I was a writer.
I think about writing all the time. When I’m driving, I’m usually trying to capture ideas to write about. (So, here’s an idea—write about thinking about writing. Pure genius!) I almost never listen to music or the radio when I drive. A baseball game, maybe, but not that often. I ride in silence and think about what to write about, and how to write about it. I talk to myself. I talk about satire, I talk about how satire works, I talk about things that I’ve seen or read that might make good subject matter for HoseMaster of Wine™. What’s cool is that nowadays people think you’re talking on your smartphone when they see your lips moving and there’s no one else present. When my father drove around talking to himself, people thought he was nuts.
I’m very confident in my knowledge of wine. I know more than most people, and I know there are also many people more knowledgeable than I. I don’t feel the need to learn that much more about wine at this point in my life. But I do wish I were better at writing. I may even wish I’d pursued my writing career instead of stumbling into wine. No matter, that’s been decided.
Wine is for many people, as it was for me, a way of being somebody. Making it and putting your name on the bottle with a giant price tag next to it. Having letters after your name and the strange admiration of those who love wine but don’t know much about it. People passing you the wine list when you’re out to dinner. Wine is a way to conceal your self, or perhaps hide from your self, maybe inflate your self (which takes some serious flexibility). Writing, on the other hand, is a way to discover your self, in the quiet of your own head, your own room. I’ve always loved wine. I love wine far more than almost anyone I know. But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. Perhaps spending the past five years here with you writing about wine in a condescending satiric way has finally taught me that. I can still love wine, and I do, but I no longer ascribe it any great meaning. It’s only wine. And, interestingly, that has made me enjoy wine even more. Take away the jibber jabber of scores and adjectives and unicorns, and, you know what, the damned stuff is actually fun to drink. Toss aside its manmade clothing, and it’s a lot easier to enjoy it for the fabulous fuck it is.
When I think about writing I think about all that it has brought me the past several years. I made a living from wine. But writing HoseMaster of Wine™ has brought me so much more. Gifts that are very personal. Reconnecting with the spirit of my late mother, who always wanted me to be a writer, has given me great satisfaction. Achieving the begrudging admiration of people I admire in the wine business with my scabrous and raucous work here has been a complete surprise, and very rewarding. Meeting many of my readers has been life-changing, though that happenstance may be due as much to the existence of the internet as it is to my work. I’ve made beautiful and remarkable friends because people were drawn to my brand of comedy, comedy they would never have found but for the previously unimaginable existence of the internet. The rewards of writing have been far greater than the rewards of working in the wine business.
Lastly, and this has been rather a convoluted and empty sort of essay, in other words, my specialty, it seems to me that there are two sorts of wine writers working. Those who are gifted writers who choose wine as a subject—and they are few. And those who are wine experts who decide to write about it. This latter group seems to dominate serious wine writing. Wine, for them, is grounded in meaning and mystery. So they write columns and books that have little or nothing of either. I can’t read them. They’re joyless. I pick up and read an issue of World of Fine Wine (to pick on but one example, but perhaps the most egregious) and I am reminded of Shakespeare, of the words of MacBeth, “…[wine] is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing.”
Which is why I lampoon as much of it as I can.
Monday, November 2, 2015
There’s an annoying trend in wine writing to recommend wines to accompany experiences other than dining. Specific wines with specific music, for example. How much sense does that make? Though I know that when I listen to John Cage, I always prefer to serve a fine and decidedly empty bottle of Opus One. Cage understands the meaning of silence, which you can perfectly complement by not drinking Opus One. But only a great vintage. Not drinking a poor vintage just seems insulting to the music.
When wine journalists pair wine with preposterous things it irks me. It's insulting. And that's my department. To read my insightful recommendations on what wines go with erectile dysfunction, adultery and canine euthanasia, you'll have to click over to Tim Atkin's award-winning site. You certainly need to know the perfect wine to drink with losing your virginity! Won't be long! That's what she said. As always, please leave your witty commentary on Tim's site, if you can figure out how. But if you can't, you can leave them here. Help yourself to the little blue pills.
TIM ATKIN MW
Monday, October 26, 2015
What Does Wine Taste Like?
Have your parents ever taken you into a winery tasting room? Yes? Well, your parents are buttholes. Children don’t belong in tasting rooms. It’s not your fault your parents are doodyheads, but remember when you have kids one day (see “A Child’s Guide to Fun with Fornication”) that children don’t belong in tasting rooms any more than grownups belong in bouncy castles. Grownups have parts that no one should have to watch bounce, parts you’ll soon have, the parts that are the most fun to touch. Yes, it is disgusting.
Before you learn what wine tastes like, you have to learn how to taste wine. I know, this makes no sense, but wine isn’t something you just taste, like boogers, but something you have to taste in the right way. You’re not old enough now to taste wine, but you can still learn the right way so that when you are old enough you won’t look like a jerk.
Let’s say that someone has poured you a little bit of wine and you’re expected to taste it. What’s the first thing you have to do? Pick up the glass. Now, this sounds easy, but it’s not for a lot of people. How did you pick up the glass? Did you pick it up by the bowl, or did you use the stem? Always pick up a wine glass by the stem. Picking up a glass by grabbing the bowl is like picking up your knife by grabbing the blade. That’s pretty stupid! Or like picking up the gun your Daddy leaves laying around the house by the trigger. Remember when you did that? And now Fluffy is missing that leg? The wine glass has a handle! Use it. The next time one of those “uncles” Mommy has to dinner when Daddy’s on the road picks up his wine glass by the bowl, remember to yell at him, “You’re doing it wrong!”—just like Mommy screams at Daddy when they think you’re asleep.
After you pick up the glass by the stem, the next thing you have to do is swirl the wine in the glass. Why do we swirl the wine? Nobody knows, really. Idiots say it’s to help the wine “breathe.” Remember when you accidentally shot Fluffy? If you swirled her around, do you think that would have helped her “breathe?” No. But it sure would have been fun! I mean, why else does she have a tail? And that’s why you swirl the wine in the glass—it’s fun! See how fast you can do it. Grownups who think they know about wine will tell you that swirling it helps to make it smell better, that swirling helps to release the wine’s aromas, makes it breathe. When they tell you that, go into the bathroom, get your inhaler, and spray it into their wine. “I’m helping it breathe,” tell them. This will make them laugh. Or hit you. Either way, you win.
Don’t forget to look at the wine’s color, too. No reason. The proper way to taste wine involves looking at the color and saying something simpleminded like, “Ooh, what a gorgeous color,” or “Look at the legs!” None of it makes any sense, but this is how it’s done. Does a wine have legs? It has one more than Fluffy! The legs are what run down the side of the glass after you swirl it. Legs are very important to understanding wine. Most importantly, legs teach you that the people who remark on the wine’s legs don’t know shit about wine. So everything else they tell you, you can ignore.
You’re still not ready to taste the wine! I know, I know, this is taking forever. It’s like potty training for slow kids. Yes, in fact, it’s exactly like potty training for slow kids, only they’re grownups now. Before tasting the wine, after picking up the glass by the stem, swirling, and remarking on its color, but not its legs (just like you do with people), you now have to smell the wine. For the most part, wine smells awful. But you get used to it, and you come to love it. Think of grandma, it’s a lot like that. Grandma smells old and sour, and sometimes makes you want to throw up. Wine is the same way! Now, what does the wine smell like? Maybe you smell cherries, or maybe you smell apples, but it doesn’t matter what you say. You probably can’t smell that much really. Wine all sort of smells the same, but if it’s expensive wine, it’s important to think that it smells really good, even if you’re not sure. Knowing how to describe a wine with a lot of words is what is called being a “connoisseur.” That’s a hard word to say. It’s “con-a-sewer.” Remember, knowing a lot about wine involves “con” and “sewer.” One is what you do, the other is where you end up living if you drink too much wine.
Now you get to taste the wine. Finally! Just put a little bit into your mouth. Don’t swallow it! You’re just going to taste it, then spit it out. This is how you taste wine. It’s also great with hot dogs. Take a little bit of wine into your mouth and just let it sit on your tongue. What does the wine taste like? At first, it’s kind of nasty. Don’t expect to like it. You have to be a real grownup to like the taste of wine. In a way, wine tastes like death. Which is something grownups taste a lot, so they like it. Kind of chew on the wine, feel how it sort of burns. It doesn’t take very long, and then you’ll understand why people spit it out. Why wouldn’t you? It’s all sour and tastes like hot dirt. See, it’s death in a bottle. Just a little taste of it gives your life more meaning.
Friday, October 9, 2015
I'm going to take a short break. Next Tuesday is my birthday, and I'm headed to Cambria with my gorgeous wife for a week away. I may do a bit of wine tasting in Paso Robles (watch out, Paso, the HoseMaster may show up...), but, for the most part, I'm just going to relax.
Writing a wine blog, especially one that relies on satire and comedy for its content, is demanding work. Don't try it. I haven't had any sort of break for several years, and I need one. I was going to schedule a bunch of reruns, the oxymoronically titled, "Best of HoseMaster," but decided to simply go away instead. Feel free to peruse the "Compost Heap" for a few old laughs. Otherwise, I intend to return October 26th. No guarantees.
I've had an interesting year. Way more interesting than I wanted, but life is like that. I wish I understood my own motivations for continuing this drivel. That way, I could fix it. No matter. While I'm away, please look after the place. I'm leaving it in your hands. You've got the keys, and the gate code, and there's plenty of wine in the cellar. Don't trash the place.
See you in a couple of weeks.
Monday, October 5, 2015
I’m feeling a bit disappointed. I just opened the Fourth Edition of “The Oxford Companion to Wine” and not a single one of my entries was published. Admittedly, Jancis Robinson didn’t solicit any contributions from me, but I submitted them anyway. I was certain my well-researched entry on “Overblown Wine Encyclopedias” was going to get in. I’m certainly as qualified as many of the contributors to the OCW4, particularly those who are deceased. Who must be great fun at the book signings.
To read my inexplicably rejected entries for "The Oxford Companion to Wine," you'll have to jump over to Tim Atkin MW's site. Honestly, I cannot believe my entries aren't in the book! And she calls it complete. Maybe for the Fifth Edition I'll be asked to contribute. I might make it as one of the deceased.
As always, feel free to comment on Tim's site, he does so like to have witty ripostes and retorts posted there. Or put your torts and postes here, and I'll have them for breakfast.
TIM ATKIN MW
Thursday, October 1, 2015
I don’t think there’s a more accurate, or predictive, verb to describe how I got into the wine business than “stumbled.” Believe it or not, the first time I drank any alcoholic beverage was the day I turned 21. Well, that’s essentially true. My older, mischievous cousin Allen once gave me a sip of his beer when I was about 13, I think it was a Miller High Life, the “Champagne of bottled beer,” which is like being the foie gras of pigs-in-a-blanket, but I hated it. It smelled like the laundry hamper after my sleepwalking brother had peed in it. I had no interest in drinking when I was in college. I had little interest in anything other than self-pity and comedy. Drinking made one better, but ruined the other. But once I tasted a few interesting wines, I was smitten. I don’t think I’ve ever liked the fact that wines make me drunk, but I am in favor of wines making other people drunk.
I never wanted to become a sommelier. It just wasn’t on my radar. Or anybody else’s, back in the day. But when a friend of mine turned down a sommelier job, I decided I’d apply. I would never have heard about the job I worked for 19 years if my friend’s father-in-law hadn’t been a regular customer at the restaurant. When I started as a sommelier, in 1987, in all of Los Angeles and Orange County combined, that’s about 10 million people, I think there were six of us—there may have been a few more, but it wasn’t more than ten. In retrospect, it was a very strange turn of events. I’ve often wondered where my life would have taken me if I hadn’t eventually taken that sommelier position. I sure as hell wouldn’t be writing this stupid blog. And I wouldn’t know much about wine. Nor would I have met my wife, or all the amazing folks I’ve met because of this stupid blog. I’d be drinking Miller High Life and chowing down on pigs-in-a-blanket.
In my dreams.
I know that I didn’t take the sommelier job because I wanted prestige, that became an unforeseen consequence, one I still don’t understand. I needed a new career. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. Why people get into the wine business. What do they want out of it? Why wine as a career? And that’s tied into how I think about new people I meet who want to be in the biz, who decide to get an MS or MW, who write about wine, who pursue wine as a lifestyle. And the more I think about it, the more I’m struck by the insignificance of it all. Which is not a great way to reflect on your life or career. Truth is so damned inconvenient to how we view ourselves, and so widely ignored in the wine racket.
In many ways, the culture of wine trains us in the insignificant. The ubiquity of scores is the obvious example. Scores are now widely heralded as a “necessary evil.” Why is the adjective more important than the noun in that description? Also, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of what is written about wine is tedious, meaningless, and too often regurgitated marketing (if that’s not redundant). There’s little truth in it, I know that. And, also, little joy. But it’s the current culture of wine. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s how overwhelming the wine market is now, how many wines are available. That leads to far more competition, and, thus, far more noise, far more hype, in order to be heard, to be tasted, to be purchased. Doesn’t matter, it’s the world we live in. If we choose to.
Wine is endlessly fascinating to me. I think I’m as transfixed by my own profound ignorance on the subject as anything else. But why does wine captivate me? I can get all poetic on you, but that would just be blowing the usual kind of smoke that Kermit Lynch is so good at, and Terry Theise, guys who sell wine for a living, the sort of smoke that passes for profundity in the pages of World of Fine Wine. The sort of writing that impresses me with its erudition, but leaves me feeling like I just finished a very expensive meal yet I’m still famished.
Truthfully, I’m rather embarrassed that wine is so important to me. It reflects poorly on my life’s priorities. It’s moderately shameful how much money I’ve spent on wine. Yes, it was my money, but it’s still something I try hard to ignore. Does anyone seriously engaged in wine want to actually see how much money they’ve spent on wine in their life? I don’t want to know. But, again, this is rather shameful, I’m glad I did. But why does wine have such a powerful hold on me? It’s not love, any more than being obsessed with a woman to the exclusion of your self is love. It may appear to be love to the casual observer, but it’s a distortion of love. And much as you might be defined by your obsessive love, you can be defined by your obsession with wine. Both situations are unhealthy.
Why is there so much competition to be thought of as an authority on wine? Wine! Really? At this stage of my life, I hope folks remember me as someone who made eight people laugh once a week, not as any sort of authority on wine. Yet I certainly spent countless hours reading about wine, tasting wines, thinking about wines, touring wine countries… What the hell was I searching for? The prestige that comes with being a sommelier? That’s illusory. I like to think I always knew that. Was I looking to define myself in terms of my extensive wine knowledge? I think so, I think there was a lot of that. And I regret that, now that I’m out of the game for the most part. Because it didn’t work. I think, if anything, wine helped me stay lost to myself. And I think that’s true of a lot of people I meet in the biz.
I wonder if the recently anointed MWs won’t regret their decision to spend all that money and effort to join that exclusive little club. That’s not sour grapes, as they say in verjus, that’s just a thought. I read Rebecca Gibb’s statement about becoming an MW, and she remarks that she did it partly so wine people would take her, as a young woman in the trade, seriously. Wow. There’s an indictment of the wine business. Women still aren’t taken as seriously as men. We all know this is true, but no one talks about it much. That’s how insignificant a world it is, how self-congratulatory and smug. Focused on initials and numbers and descriptors, not equality and fairness. But that’s a subject for another day.
Why become an MW? Because it’s the Everest of wine diplomas? Sort of a typical privileged attitude. Forget the Sherpas, it’s the white folks who conquer Everest. But how is an MW different than an MS to regular folks? And why do we care? Once, I’m sure, it was a ticket to a decent salary in the wine business, a real career. Is it now? I can’t say as I’m qualified to express an opinion on the matter. But it’s a much larger investment than it once was, and the return is unlikely to be its equivalent. So why do it? Because it sounds like fun? Or because you want to be defined as a wine authority? OK. But remember to acknowledge the ultimate insignificance of it. Don’t get lost in it. Lead a real life, too.
The wine world is awash in petty arguments. I participate, to be sure, on a comedic level (or so I tell myself). And what’s more useful at winning a petty argument than credentials? But they’re still insignificant, petty, hollow arguments. Why is there so much at stake on being right about wine. It’s comic, really. From the blowhards all over chat rooms, to the pretend heroes who comment anonymously on wine blogs (anonymous because they’re so damned important, they cannot use their names!), to the judges at wine competitions who are convinced the world needs to hear their opinions, their monumental, Thurgood Marshallesque dissents on why a wine doesn’t deserve a medal. There are a lot of people lost in wine. One could argue I’m the wine poster boy for the guy without a clue, a compass or a map.
All of us take wine too seriously. Which, I think, is at the expense of the things that really matter. More and more, I’ve tried to make HoseMaster of Wine™ about seeing behind the curtain, when I'm not just being silly. But it’s a gigantic curtain. And there are thousands invested in keeping wine behind that curtain, in making us think that what goes on in front of the curtain, in the spotlight, is reality. They write columns in wine publications that are self-promotion, pure and simple. They write online puff pieces that obfuscate but pretend to inform. They're really just infomercials, cranked out in a journalistically sloppy manner, and repulsively rank. They go on countless junkets and try to make every wine seem fascinating, every region special, every winemaker a genius. I use the word “they,” but you know who “they” are because I make fun of them as often as I can. Not that I think anyone is listening to me. But because it’s satisfying for me, makes me feel a little better for having led such an insignificant life in wine.
I’d ask you to ask yourself what you want out of the wine business, if that’s your chosen field. I think I thought I was following my passion, in the now jejune parlance of Joseph Campbell. I don’t think now that I was. Wine’s been good to me. It has never lost its charm. The wine business? I don’t know. It’s something of a trap. I wish I’d spent more time chasing character and integrity and humility instead. Ah, hindsight.
And now that we’re done here, I’m guessing you’re famished.