Thursday, April 30, 2015
I wish someone would start a Syrah appreciation society, throw an annual Shirazapalooza. Is there one I don’t know about? For God’s Sake, Petite Sirah has a fan club! Really? Petite Sirah? It’s a hybrid variety, the feckless offspring of Syrah, not a grape as God intended. It’s the damned Bruce Jenner of varieties. Syrah deserves its own fan club outside of the Rhône Rangers. It’s nuts to me that so many people ignore the indisputable greatness of Syrah. When you start talking about the varieties that make the great wines of the world, you are an imbecile if you do not have Syrah near the top of that list, and an imbecile if you do have Petite Sirah on that list. No Durifs, ands or buts.
How did the unwashed public come to loathe Syrah? The tired old answer is that too much Syrah in California was planted in the wrong places and made crappy wine which turned folks off to the grape. But you could make the same argument about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Merlot, and they’re still selling a lot of wine. That argument about Syrah is a lazy answer. It’s almost become folklore. When I began drinking Syrah, it was a long time ago, and it was a lot of Rosemount Syrah from South Australia. I realize now what a lousy and manufactured wine that was, as bland and predictable as a Dave Koz concert. Now, of course, you have abominable wines like Yellow Tail Shiraz, which, if a wine can be heinous, is heinous (though if you remove the “h” from heinous you, amazingly, have its perfect aromatic descriptor). If you grew up drinking those cheap Australian Shirazes, as I did, you would have had no idea what Syrah tastes like. Maybe that’s where all this started.
I don’t have any idea what the first great Syrah I tasted might have been. Hell, I don’t remember what the first average Syrah I tasted was. It was probably from California, only because I didn’t really understand French wines early on in my wine tasting life, and rarely bought any. It was probably one of the early Joseph Phelps Syrahs. In the mid-80’s there were but a few hundred acres of Syrah in the state, and it is the late Joe Phelps who is credited with making the first Syrah in California back in the mid ’70's. The first vintages of Phelps Syrah were pretty lousy, if I recall correctly (but what did I know?), and they were followed by a lot of other pretty lousy California Syrahs from a lot of other producers. It would have been hard to fall in love with Syrah at the time based on the offerings from the Golden State.
Somehow, perhaps spurred on by my “discovery” of ’78 Rayas, I became enamored of the wines of the Rhône Valley. And once I found Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Cornas, I was a Syrah convert. I almost feel sorry for wine lovers who have never had the pleasure of drinking a well-aged Chave Hermitage, Jaboulet “La Chapelle” Hermitage, Clape Cornas, Rostaing Côte-Rôtie, Jamet Côte-Rôtie, Guigal “La Landonne,” and, well, maybe even a Chapoutier Ermitage “Le Pavillon.” Those are all crazy expensive now, and I’m being one of those overbearing wine name-droppers we all hate, but how in the world can Syrah, which produces these brilliant wines, not have its own party? It’s shameful.
No matter. There were quite a few wonderful Syrahs at the Rhône Rangers tasting this year. Though, admittedly, I didn’t get around to tasting as many as I would have liked. I had the time, but I didn’t have the willpower. In my glory day, I think it was a Tuesday in 1994, I would canvas a large tasting like this and taste at least an hour or two past when any human could reasonably assess a serious wine. The more one tastes, I think, the more one loses any chance at detecting subtlety or character, and those are two of the most important qualities of great wine. After tasting too many wines in a day, one shifts to simply detecting intensity, which is like judging music by how loud it is. So now, in my dotage, I stop tasting a lot sooner, content to have tasted fewer wines but, I hope, to have tasted them more consciously. Believe me, I see a lot of unconscious tasters at these events, many of whom go on to “rate” the wines. You know the ones, the ones who “tasted” 150 wines in two hours. Ignore them, if simply for their air of superiority. Ignore me because I’m unimportant.
I’ve written previously about Steve Law and his MacLaren Syrahs. Steve is an unabashed fan of wines from the Rhône Valley, a guy who has tasted widely of those wines, and so has a knowledge base that serves his wines well. I tasted eight MacLaren Syrahs, and there wasn’t a dud among them. The only other California producer I know of with that kind of consistency with Syrah is Adam Tolmach at The Ojai Vineyard (just a white Ford Bronco drive away from Santa Barbara), who I think is the best Syrah winemaker in the state. I’ve too often found that a California Syrah producer who makes a great Syrah one year, then makes a stinker the year after. There are dozens of reliable Cabernet producers, and reliable Pinot Noir wineries, but when it comes to Syrah, it seems like there are only a few—and most of them only make one or two different Syrahs. Steve makes several, and Adam makes even more. Their talent for Syrah dazzles.
Steve was showing both his 2011 and 2012 Syrah. I think he’s more passionate about wines from cooler vintages. He almost apologized for the ripeness of his ’12’s, which were, by most California standards, not that ripe at all. He might qualify for In Pursuit of Balance, only he makes unworthy Syrah. His newest vineyard for MacLaren made his best wines, I thought. The MacLaren 2011 Syrah Atoosa’s Vineyard is brilliant. Here’s an example of what I mean when I say you can buy world class Syrah for $40—not a statement you can make for Cabernet. It’s cool climate Syrah, and it shows in its beautiful lean-ness. It’s a champion greyhound of a wine, and I’m not talking buses. Distinctively spicy, with red brambly fruit, it has power and grace, and is absolutely delicious. The 2012 I liked even better. I think it’s just showier at an earlier age--Lindsay Lohan, without the emotional problems. Around 13% alcohol, it shows a lot fleshier and riper than that, which seems to be a characteristic of Atoosa’s Vineyard. Both are, to my palate, wonderful Syrah.
But I think you can buy any of MacLaren’s Syrahs and you’ll be happy you did. Each is distinctive, and you’ll find your own way. Just as you might prefer Cornas to St.-Joseph, or Crozes-Hermitage to Cornas, you might like MacLaren’s Samantha’s Vineyard (a vineyard DuMol uses as well for Syrah) a bit more than the Stagecoach. But they’re all good.
For me, a Rhône Rangers tasting isn’t complete without a visit with Steve Lagier and Carole Meredith of Lagier Meredith, a clever name, though "Steve Carole" might have hit it big when “The Office” was popular. I was lucky enough to be tasting at the Lagier Meredith table with Steve Eliot of Connoisseurs’ Guide, which is always a pleasure. And Carole is as forthright and honest about wine and the wine business as just about anyone I know, which makes her my kindred spirit. You get the feeling that if Lagier Meredith made crappy wine, she’d be the first one to say so. Luckily, the wines are always terrific. So it was great fun to taste there.
Steve Lagier was serving three vintages of their Mt. Veeder Syrah, the ’02, ’11, and ’12. Out of curiosity, I looked up the Parker scores for the wines, and the Lagier Meredith 2011 Syrah received the lowest score of any Lagier Meredith Syrah—90 pts. I was surprised, really. I thought this was lovely Syrah, and very reminiscent of Parker’s beloved Northern Rhône wines. I immediately thought of Cornas, with that tightness and structure that holds fruit with lots of promise, floral right now, with Syrah’s trademark white pepper and deep, dark fruit. My hunch is this will be a beauty a decade from now.
They had poured the 2002 Syrah at one of the seminars, and Steve had some left for the tasting, and it was beginning to show more of the smoky, roasted meat sort of character that older Syrah can develop. There’s still some available to buy on their website, and it’s a very, very nice older Syrah. The 2012 Syrah is certainly of a piece with the other two, the character of the vineyard shining through. Where I think the 2011 needs a lot of space to grow, the 2012 is already luscious. This doesn’t mean the 2012 won’t outlive the 2011, it probably will. But it is brimming with that dark blackberry and plum fruit, which almost overwhelms its floral aromatic aspect, but not quite. The Lagier Meredith 2012 Syrah was one of my favorite wines at the event. I know Carole and Steve know it, but you should, too—this wine comes from a very special site.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Lagier Meredith 2012 Malbec (yes, I know Malbec is not a Rhône variety). Only 37 cases were produced, so you’ll have to buy it from their website (and you should). Steve Eliot and I agreed that it was topnotch Malbec. I cannot remember a Malbec from California that I liked anywhere near as much as I liked this Lagier Meredith wine. It won me over the minute I put my nose in the glass. Very pure, very sweet aromas of blackberry and black cherry. It just smells like something you want to eat. And as plush and as sexy as it is on the palate, it still has Malbec’s acidity and is not the least bit flabby. Someone buy me some of this.
I’ll briefly mention a couple of other Syrahs I liked. Tercero 2010 Syrah White Hawk Vineyard has lots of guts to it, intense and layered with dark fruit and that iron/meaty character of Syrah. Owner/winemaker Larry Schaffer seems to be indefatigible. You can almost feel his energy in his wines. I think that’s a compliment. Anyhow, this is terrific Syrah, and a good deal at $35. I also very much liked the Holly’s Hill 2010 Syrah Wylie-Fenaughty Vineyard. I won’t try to entice you to buy it because the website says it’s Sold Out. But Holly’s Hill is a great source for Rhône wines at very fair prices, so you should at least be aware of their name.
To those of you who actually read all this crap down to this last paragraph, thank you. To all the fine wineries whose tables I never got around to, you’re welcome. Next year, I’m not wearing my name tag. And maybe not my pants.
Monday, April 27, 2015
It wasn’t the first time Corky Taint had run away from home. But he’d always returned before. Gotten scared, or corraled by a cop, or hungry. Except for a few months ago, when Corky suddenly vanished one night, leaving no clues behind for his desperate family. Months later his family learned the horrible truth. Corky had been recruited online. Hours and hours spent on a website chatting with older males pretending to be his friends, and he had decided to leave everything he knew behind, his friends, his family, his dignity, to join a radical group of misanthropes whose sole aim is to intimidate and brutalize everyone who doesn't agree with them, who doesn't follow their path. Corky had left home to join a highly secretive and dangerous group of people, a group that has systematically and successfully recruited large numbers of young people from across every economic background to terrorize modern society, to intimidate ordinary citizens, people like you and me, in such a way that we are frightened to do something as basic and simple as go out to dinner. Corky had left home to become a sommelier.
Corky’s story is not the least bit unusual now. All over the United States, young men and women are joining this terrorist organization. Where once the United States was home to but a few dozen sommeliers, experts now believe there are tens of thousands. “Sommeliers are proliferating like cockroaches,” says the FBI’s Counter-Terrorism Chief Noah Clue, “cockroaches that can spit.” Many, if not most, of the new members are recruited online, at seemingly harmless websites and chat rooms that turn out to be radicalizing young men, and the occasional woman, into believing that they know everything about wine, and that those who don’t agree with them, or aren’t as knowledgeable, are beneath contempt, and deserve overcharging. Once recruited, these young people are subjected to further brainwashing, as well as tests of endurance and training in the fine arts of oenological torture. Let loose on an unsuspecting world, these radicalized fundamentalists of wine spread chaos and misunderstanding, intimidate hundreds of people every week, extort large sums of money to fill their organization’s coffers, and just generally degrade society. And yet there are many who say there’s little proof this is happening, that there aren’t really more sommeliers than there used to be—these are the microclimate change deniers. Time has proven them wrong. One can no longer lift a seat without seeing a sommelier floating in the bowl.
FBI forensic computer specialists were able to track Corky’s online whereabouts before he disappeared. Without his parents’ knowledge, Corky was haunting a particularly subversive website, a website known for its subtle but persuasive propaganda and dick-wagging. The site is WineBozerkers, a male-dominated forum where women are allowed only if they swear to God they’re wearing a veil. Corky’s first post, dated September 11, 2012, was commented on by most of the iMams (so called because they love Apple and mammary glands), who profusely welcomed Corky to their online world. This is how it usually starts, according to Noah Clue. “Women who comment are usually universally ignored, or asked if they like blush wines, or Randall Grahm. This is a way of making them feel isolated and unwelcome. Young men are embraced, and made to feel that their comments, though often as naive and as uninformed as their female counterparts’, are intelligent. Acceptance into this secretive world makes the young men feel important. It doesn’t take long before an insecure guy like Corky, and this is a terrorist group that personifies insecurity, feels like part of the group; and soon he begins to preach and believe the basic tenets of the iMams. He’s fucked. And not long after that, he tells everyone he’s a 'sommelier.' The two things together make perfect sense.”
Criticism of the iMams of WineBozerkers is forbidden. In the guise of “civility,” members are slowly brainwashed into conforming. From there, it’s a short road to believing you’re always right, incredibly insightful, and one of wine’s chosen people. Most leave it at that and waste their lives on the chat room. But many young men, believing their own press, convinced of a superior palate, feeling invincible and drawn to the mysterious mystique that surrounds sommeliers, take the next step. They move to a different Internet site, lured by the promise of fame and money and a hundred virgins in the afterlife, most of them wine bloggers (almost all of whom, judging from their About photos, are clearly virgins). Corky took that next step. He moved over to the website of the Court of Master Sommeliers. It is every parent’s nightmare.
Each year, hundreds of young people register on the site to try to join the Court. Simultaneously enriching the Court and providing it with young, disposable meat, these young people give up their free time pursuing what for most of them is a completely unreachable goal—becoming a Master Sommelier. In reality, they fall under the spell of a handful of that terrorist organization’s most famous and powerful members, including the ironically named Fred Dame. “If he were a dame,” says Clue, “he’d never have made it past the first test.” The FBI has a list of Master Sommeliers it watches. I wasn’t allowed to view the list, but one assumes it also includes men like Geoff Kruth, thought to be at large as a Jay McInerney impersonator, but without the humility, and Larry Stone, one of the men most responsible for Master Sommelier plots to terrorize the public. “We sent a drone to watch Stone,” an FBI man who wished to remain anonymous for fear of having Stone send him some of his crappy Oregon wine in retaliation, “but it couldn’t find the little bugger. Or, we think maybe the drone felt a kinship to him as another little machine and purposely threw us off the track.”
Master Sommeliers believe their time has come. Their websites are filled with delusional proclamations telling their members to be prepared, that they are the new arbiters of wine, that the old men who have been running wine for years now are impotent and disgraced. Their diatribes tell their followers to take every opportunity to declare “Death to Parker!,” “Death to Shanken!,” “Death to Asimov!” They urge followers to be prepared for war, be prepared for doubters, but to rest assured that sommeliers will conquer, sommeliers will rule, sommeliers will dictate, all at 300% higher than cost. And the Court just doesn't care how many young lives are ruined along the way. The ruthless leaders of Master Sommeliers seem to truly believe their tastes are the future, that they, and they alone, will determine what the public will buy. This is always the way of nearsighted and misanthropic zealots.
Corky Taint, some time in the year 2014 (everything about the Court of Master Sommeliers is shrouded in secrecy, except how often they mention they’re Master Sommeliers, which is more often than Elton John mentions he’s gay, only louder) passed Level One of the Sommelier exam. They all do. The Court makes sure even the dumbest among them pass. Corky was hooked. From a young man with a passion for wine, with a great future and a supportive family, Corky’s online path had led him to the shady underworld of the sommelier. No one knows where he will surface. But when he does, when yet another sommelier infiltrates our society, slips through our complacency and our underfunded security measures to keep them away from vulnerable civilians, who knows how many people Corky will make suffer. And then expect a tip.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
I’m very relieved. It appears that HoseMaster of Wine™ has not been nominated for a Poodle Award. In fact, I only noticed the nominations were open by accident. I’m not sure anyone cares, it appeared there were far fewer nominations than usual, except those who took the time to nominate their own blog seventeen times. I skimmed the nominations, and was happy to see I wasn’t listed. I don’t want to win another one. I didn’t want to win the first three either. I’d love to win a MacArthur “Genius” grant. I’d be thrilled to be nominated for a James Beard Award, or a Roederer Award, but there’s absolutely zero chance of any of those. I’m more likely to win Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, or Miss Congeniality.
The folks behind the Wine Blog Awards, in their wisdom, eliminated the “Best Writing on a Wine Blog” Category. Their reasoning was that by winning any of the other awards, well, best writing was understood. Morons. I can state without fear of contradiction that nearly all of the “Best Overall Wine Blog” winners, while perhaps deserving of that award, are barely above average writers. What eliminating that category does is diminish the importance of language, the importance of originality and talent. Oh, I suppose they eliminated it for budgetary reasons. You just can’t hand out awards worth absolutely nothing willy-nilly. What are they, made of penury? I won that award the previous two years (so what?), but I will say that the other people that were nominated in that category, all of whom deserved it more than I, are the most talented people nominated, the most original, the most interesting to read. So, yeah, get those people out of here! They’re making us all look bad.
So, once again, I won’t be attending the Wine Bloggers Conference. The keynote speaker this year is Mother Karen MacNeil previewing the second coming of her “Wine Bible.” With any luck, there will be a Poodle Rapture.
I was generously invited to attend a new event in the Sierra Foothills that looks like a pretty cool deal. It’s called Amador Four Fires (not Amador For Fires, which is the prestigious annual convention of pyromaniacs—no wine, but plenty of cocktails, mostly Molotov), and you should check out the website, see if you can attend, too.
There is a lot happening up in Amador County, and it’s been too long since I’ve been there. I love the Zinfandels from Amador, always have. So different than Dry Creek Zin or Paso Robles Zin or Napa Zin. I find the Amador Zins show more high-tones in their aromatics, yet have great richness and power on the palate, a prettiness you don’t get that often elsewhere. The best ones, say from Jeff Runquist or Scott Harvey or Shenandoah Vineyards, can be mesmerizing. I’m hoping to find some new producers as well.
And let’s not forget Barbera! Oh, man, I have a great fondness for Barbera. There’s something about good Barbera that reminds me that what I’m drinking came from the earth. Cabernet, as much as I love it, doesn’t do that for me, nor Pinot Noir. Mostly, they’re too pure, too polished and seductive. Barbera (and maybe old vines Carignane) has that edge, that wildness, that, when it’s right, reminds me just what a miracle wine is, this utterly captivating, intoxicating liquid that grows from the ground. I’ll taste a lot of Barberas.
This looks like a great event. Plenty of Rhône varieties available as well, so I’m going to be one happy taster. They were kind enough to invite me, so consider this a gratuituous and fawning plug. It looks to be a great event, and the price ($75) seems well worth it. If you’re anywhere near Amador on May 2nd, and you love the wines from that underrated region, you should attend. If you see me there, make a point to say Hello. I’m the one wearing the designer hair shirt.
Monday, April 20, 2015
I don’t recall what year it was, but at one of the Hospice du Rhône Grand Tastings in Paso Robles it was 114℉! It was so hot, the local squirrels were using the Rosés to chill their nuts. It was so hot, you couldn’t tell if the Syrah smelled like bacon, or if that was the fat guy pouring it. Man, it was hot. And at the Paso Robles Fairgrounds, the “air conditioning” was provided by swamp coolers. Yeah, that works. It was like tasting wine in CeeLo Green’s underpants. A lot of really sweaty things rubbing against each other. It was miserable, and yet the Rhône crowd was in pretty good spirits. It’s just a fun crowd. And that was the first tasting I’d attended where, because of the heat, it was the Rosés that stole the show. First of all, they were cold. Second of all, they were good, though we didn’t care about that being good part. At the outdoor luncheon, the Rosés vanished like there had been a saignée Rapture.
I am of the opinion, and I’ve been in lots of arguments about this over the years, that the best Rosés are made from Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Sangiovese. I don’t like Pinot Noir Rosé. I find it almost unfailingly insipid and boring. It’s the press release of Rosé. There is the occasional compelling Rosé from another variety, and once in a while I taste a Pinot Noir Rosé I like, though I’ll deny it, but I’m drawn to Rosés from those three aforementioned varieties. At the recent Rhône Rangers tasting, the Rosé I liked the most was Tercero 2014 Rosé of Mourvèdre. Weirdly, I thought it smelled a bit like Sauvignon Blanc, but in an earthy vein. It has that feral Mourvèdre character, but it also shows terrific strawberry and watermelon flavors. This may not be for everyone, but if you like traditional Bandol Rosé, give this wine a chance to age a bit in the bottle, don’t serve it too cold, and it will speak to you.
Of the red Rhône varieties, it’s Grenache that owns my heart. I’ve written before about my love for Chateau Rayas, which is nearly 100% Grenache, and whenever I ask a winemaker who focuses on Grenache what wine they model their Grenache after, it seems like Rayas is inevitably their response. I’ve yet to find a domestic Grenache in Rayas’ league, at least in that remarkable Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s best vintages, but great Grenache is glorious stuff. There were a couple of Grenaches I quite liked at the 2015 Rhône Rangers tasting, but I didn’t taste one that truly captured my heart.
Law Estate is a newish Paso Robles property with Scott Hawley making the wines. Scott has his own label, Torrin, which has something of a cult following for Syrah. He clearly understands Grenache as well. The Law Estate 2010 “Beguiling” was beautiful, but perhaps a bit too polished for my liking. I guess I mean that I like Grenache with a bit of wildness about it, an edge, not so seamless and, well, slick. At that point, the wine is less about place and more about winemaking. I suspect the wine will get high scores, and I certainly understand why, but while I’d recommend it, I think it’s quite good, I wouldn’t buy it for myself. Yeah, I know, damning with faint praise. (The Torrin Syrahs, while not at this tasting, are quite good, and I have bought them—which is damning with HoseMaster praise.)
Whereas I would happily buy the Skinner 2012 Grenache. How often do we mention a wine that is fun to drink? Too often we fret about big wines, “profound” wines, wines that will amaze us and impress our friends—the Law Estate might do that for you. The Skinner 2012 Grenache has all of the grape’s bright, sweet red fruit, cherry and raspberry, but with a subtle bit of what they would call “garrigue” in France—that ineffable aroma of an herbal landscape. (I’m tempted to say the Skinner Grenache is a garrigueste wine, but that’s far too vague and stupid. Or exactly too vague and stupid, depending on what you think about my writing.) I looked, and the 2012 Skinner Grenache is sold out on their website. But sign up and buy the 2013 when it’s released; it will be terrific, I’m sure, and well worth the $26. I’ve liked every bottle I’ve tasted from Skinner, and loved many, if not most. If you love Rhône varieties at very fair prices, man, start buying Skinner.
Do I even have to mention the Tablas Creek 2012 Grenache being delicious? No, didn’t think so. Though I think, for my palate, Tablas Creek does Mourvèdre better, I’d happily stash some of their 2012 Grenache in my cellar. The sweetness and energy of the fruit is irresistible.
Grenache might own my vinous heart, but I do also love Mourvèdre. When I taste one I like, I can’t resist breaking into song. “Mataro! Mataro! I love you Mataro!/You’re only a day away.” (I hate that joke, almost as much as the red fright wig I don when I sing it.) Mourvèdre has a savory character that is unusual among grapes, that umami thing, a character I find delicious, even as unsavory a character as I am. And there were two particularly brilliant, and several damned fine, Mourvèdres I discovered at the tasting.
Maybe the single best wine I tasted all day (and I sampled but a mere pittance, about 70 wines, of what was available, so forgive me my hyperbole) was the Skinner Vineyards 2012 Mourvèdre Estate El Dorado. Winemaker Chris Pittenger is one talented guy. Much of his career he focused on Pinot Noir, with time spent at Williams Selyem, and four years working at Marcassin. Bob Cabral and Helen Turley AND John Wetlaufer?! I’m guessing Chris used to be six inches taller. Yet it’s those Pinot Noir guys who seem to grasp the delicacy of Mourvèdre’s aromatics. They aren’t easy to get right, it seems. But the Skinner Estate Mourvèdre is pitch perfect (and from what must be pretty young vines). Blueberries dominate the high notes, but then all the savory components chime in—that garrigue again, olive, balsamic, soy sauce, maybe fennel. It’s that captivating mix of sweet (very sweet blueberry) and savory and it comes across that way as it dances across the palate. It’s $58, but at this level of quality, that’s a fair price. I know it will age beautifully, it has the sort of balance one admires in a ballerina, a balance earned with hard work and talent, and I hope I get to rendezvous with it again one day about fifteen years from now. It was tutu delicious.
The other brilliant Mourvèdre I tasted was the (no surprise) Tablas Creek 2012 “Esprit de Tablas.” Now it’s only 40% Mourvèdre (with 30% Syrah, 21% Grenache and 9% Who Cares?), but I think the Mourvèdre is what makes the wine. It has Mourvèdre’s unmistakable meatiness at its core, but is also loaded with plum and blackberry fruit, with a sweet and savory finish. It’s just a pleasure to drink. That’s one of the things about great wines. Your first impression of them is simple and intense pleasure. Analysis flies out your ears, your mind goes blank, while all of your pleasure measures go off the charts. Great wines have a sensuality that cannot be faked, like the best lovers, the ones you think about even years later and want to be with again. You don’t care how they do it, you just want it done to you again. (Makes you want to give them a score, doesn’t it? Somewhere out there is a woman who’s reading this and thinking, “That guy was an 85 in bed—not bad for being so cheap.”)
I think that it’s the great wines, and I try not to use the word “great” very often when it comes to wine, that are the wines that make a mockery of the worthless and stupid 100 Point Scale. I don’t have a huge problem with all the countless wines rated 89, or 92. Many of them are sort of the same. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. I know what an 89 smells like. It smells like failure. When it comes to the great wines, the numbers are transparently stupid. It seems incredibly idiotic to me to lump all of the great wines in the world into 99 or 98, and assume that has meaning. It’s insulting to the individuality and greatness of the wines. Rayas equals Chave Hermitage equals Grange equals Petrus equals Romanée-Conti? That’s like saying Einstein equals Van Gogh equals Twain equals Beethoven equals Astaire. Genius and greatness defy categorization, and that should be respected. I’m wasting my breath, of course, the 100 Point Scale is too simpleminded to die, and the simpleminded will forever keep it alive.
Where was I? Oh, Mourvédre. I very much liked Tercero 2011 Mourvèdre Santa Barbara County. Where the Skinner Estate was all power and richness, the Tercero is damned lovely, an exotic beauty that shows the floral side of the variety. Yet it still has the savory element, that mushroomy meatiness, that so often characterizes the grape. It’s much lighter on its feet than the other two wines, the Tablas Creek and the Skinner, and I love that about it, its dark-skinned beauty. It just seemed like a fun wine to drink. And it's even more amazing given the difficulties of the 2011 vintage. Maybe it's the thick skin of Mourvédre that helped it through a rainy harvest. I know a lot of winemakers who could use that thick skin.
Brecon Estate was a new winery to me. The Brecon Estate 2013 Mourvèdre Paso Robles was very impressive. It’s quintessential Mourvèdre, a wonderful example of the variety. I don’t think any knowledgeable wine person could taste this wine and not know immediately it was Mourvèdre. The wine is very polished, though I’m not sure that’s praise, and what I loved about it was the beautiful intensity, the mushroom and forest floor edges to the blueberry fruit, and the savory finish, which was nearly as long as this boring post. Next time I’m in Paso Robles, and it’s not 114℉, I’m going to have to visit Brecon Estate, see what else they’re up to.
I hadn’t meant to babble on so long. I haven’t even touched on Syrah. So I guess there will be a Part Three. Crap.
TO BE CONTINUED...AD NAUSEUM
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Alas, the Hospice du Rhône had to fold its tent, pass its last Guigal stone, take its job and Chave it. I miss it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. I have some indelible loss of memories from that great event. I was so drunk after the dine around one year, I couldn’t find my hotel room. I was on foot, fortunately, staying at the Paso Robles Inn at the head of the town square. I knew where I was staying, but I couldn’t figure out what room I was in. It’s those fucking credit card keys they have now. There’s no room number on them. Sure, the name of the hotel is on the key, but what good is that? I know what goddam hotel I’m staying in, I need to know the room number. I tried about four different buildings—I knew I was on the second floor of one of them, in the corner room—and finally, through sheer luck and the presence of the God of Drunken Fools, I magically unlocked a door and fell into bed. Though when I woke up, the bed had transformed into a rug. Luckily, my clothes were in the bed, comfortably sleeping.
Instead of Hospice du Rhône, now there is the annual Rhône Rangers tasting. It’s a great event, sparsely attended, it seemed, especially compared to most of the 300 Pinot Noir tastings now being held, and I worry that the tasting’s days are numbered. It felt like the Trade and Media far outnumbered the paying public, which can only be frustrating for the wineries. The last couple of years, the tasting has been held in Richmond at the Craneway Pavilion. (What’s a Craneway? Oh, about fifteen pounds.) It’s a spectacular venue, an old Ford Motor Company assembly plant, I’m told, rather appropriate for the Edsel of wine tastings. The venue is airy and uncrowded, floor to ceiling windows with a view of the Bay and the City, the high ceilings keeping the noise level to the low rumble of a Mustang idling. The location might discourage the high and mighty in San Francisco from attending, but that may be a good thing. It’s one of the few tastings where I never feel crowded or jostled or deaf. If you live in the Bay Area, you should go next year. Maybe get on the mailing list at www.rhonerangers.org. It’s well worth the price of attending, which I didn’t pay. “I’m Media, you know. People read my blog. I’m somebody. Really. I am. Please believe me.” (For those of you who don’t know, this is the Blogger’s Mantra. The attention-barking of us lonely Poodles.)
I am an unabashed fan of the Rhône varieties, white and red. And I find that the people who dedicate their wineries to these varieties are incredibly passionate. Cabernet and Pinot Noir make some of the great wines on the planet, but so does Syrah, and so does Mourvèdre, and so does Grenache. But it’s hard to get rich, or attention, making them in the United States. I often advise people that if you want to buy great wines that will be jewels in your cellar for foolishly low prices, buy great Syrah or Grenache or Mourvèdre, and stay away from Cabernet and Pinot Noir, for the most part. You can buy world-class Syrah from California or Washington or New Zealand or France for $50, maybe $75. I mean great wines, not just good wines. You cannot say that about Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, or much Pinot Noir from anywhere. This isn’t news to anyone who knows about wine. When friends and I would get together to taste older wines from our cellars, back when I had friends, many of them would bring old Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet. I would bring an old Hermitage, or an old Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Rhône wine would very often be the favorite wine of the night. You just have to get over the notion that some wines have more prestige than other wines, that Cabernet is somehow superior to Syrah. That’s nuts. That’s a notion bought and paid for by the traditionally wealthy folks who live in places like Bordeaux and Napa Valley, a notion still promulgated, with their overly generous scores, by much of the wine press, for no apparent reason. Who the hell cares about Bordeaux En Primeur prices any more? Who cares about the fundamentally insane scores given to barrel samples tasted at the Chateaux? It’s about as antiquated a tradition as there is in any profession, the equivalent of a medical convention about leeches. Leeches being a wonderful metaphor for many of the wine press attending. But I digress.
I would imagine that selling wines from the white Rhône white varieties is challenging, sort of the tofurkey of wine. (Is there toficken or tofeef?) There’s the unfamiliarity of the varieties to begin with. Most people think Roussanne was a big hit single for The Police. And Viognier was the first white Rhône variety with any measure of following in California, and the vast majority of those were lousy and turned people off to white Rhônes. Is there a harder wine to find in California than a really delicious Viognier? Maybe really good Nebbiolo, but not much else. Marsanne doesn’t show up too often, though Qupé has always made a nice version, and Picpoul Blanc is very uncommon. (Though I just had a wonderful 2014 Picpoul from Gramercy Cellars that possessed a gorgeous nose of lemon meringue and almost Gewürztraminer spiciness—get some of that if you can!) I have an inordinate fondness for Grenache Blanc, especially those that have a sort of lime zest and mandarin orange character. Love those. I thought some of the most interesting wines at the Rhône Rangers tasting were the white wines.
I guess this is where I should mention my usual disclaimer. Big public tastings are the worst places to evaluate and rate wine. I spent far too much time at the tasting chatting distractedly with friends (so many folks wanted to talk about my “Dear Jon” post that I was getting embarrassed and anxious), and not enough time tasting in a focused fashion. So I undoubtedly missed a lot of terrific wines. And I undoubtedly misjudged some that I tasted. But the wines I’ll mention were able to crash through all of that noise and capture my attention. Something, I’m not sure what, to be said for that.
Do I even have to mention how good the Tablas Creek 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc is? What a beautiful blend of Roussanne (75%), Grenache Blanc (20%) and Picpoul Blanc. This might be the most interesting white wine in the state. One day I’d like to have an older version because I suspect that they will age splendidly. The ’12 is delicous, with pineapple and ginger, a Key lime brightness, and a very lush and appealing texture. This wine is never a surprise, but is instead a touchstone of white Rhône wines in California. I often taste at Tablas Creek first or second at a Rhône Rangers tasting in order to calibrate my rusty Rhône palate. They set the bar, I think, and particularly with their whites. Their 2013 Grenache Blanc is also a classic, with a quince and lime blossom nose, and great energy. Tablas Creek must make its famous parent, Chateau de Beaucastel, proud.
Many years ago, I attended a tasting of Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape at some ritzy Beverly Hills hotel. Upon arrival, they served us their rare and remarkable Roussanne “Vieilles Vignes.” I don’t remember the vintage, though 1990 seems about right, but it was the first time the Roussanne had been shown in the United States. We were there to taste the Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, which had received its usual gigantic Parker score, but all anyone could talk about was the Roussanne. We all wanted to buy it for our wine lists, but we were told they had only imported a tiny bit for their tastings. They weren’t sure the Roussanne would sell in the US. We strongly insisted otherwise. That first taste of their Roussanne “Vieilles Vignes” was one of my wine Ah-Ha moments. I’ll never forget it. It has become an expensive bottle, but if you ever have the chance, you should certainly buy a bottle and taste it. One of my favorite white wines on the planet.
There were two Roussannes at this year’s tasting that I liked (though, of course, the aforementioned Esprit de Tablas Blanc is mostly Roussanne). I didn’t see much Roussanne at the Rhône Rangers this year, which is too bad, but probably linked to how difficult it is to grow, and how shy yielding the variety is. Hard to grow, hard to sell, not the greatest combination. Sort of like, hey, he’s not very good-looking, but at least he’s poor. Which explains my unpopularity. I loved the Roussanne that Lagier-Meredith makes with Aaron Pott under their Chester’s Anvil label. It’s the Chester’s Anvil 2012 Gretna Green, a wine largely Roussanne with a bit of Viognier. And the only thing I understand about the name is the “2012.” If your Gretna is Green, it could be about to fall off, and you don’t want that. And, if I’m not mistaken, Chester’s Anvil is right next to Chester’s Stirrup, so ‘ear’s looking at ya. Anyhow, I found this Roussanne to be lovely, a great example of the variety, with honey and tree fruit aromatics and a weighty texture. Just delicious. Nice bottle for $30. I also have a fondness for Bill Easton’s Terre Rouge Roussanne—the 2011 was what he served this year. It’s more classic white Rhône than the Chester’s Anvil, that same honeyed aroma, but with more quince and apricot, and built like a brawny white Hermitage. And $25? Man, that’s a great deal. Bill Easton seems to have a consistently nice touch with Roussanne.
Viognier is like an orgasm—I can’t wait for the next one, but only once in a while is it really satisfying. But, really, it’s Viognier that launched the Rhône Ranger movement in California back when Mat Garretson and John Alban started crusading for the then little-known variety. It wasn’t that long ago, back in the ‘80s, Viognier was confined to Condrieu, with a few hectares in Côte-Rôtie. When Mat and John began stumping for the grape, their first few releases were all the buzz in the biz. Viognier started turning up everywhere, but few winemakers seemed to understand the variety at all. That initial excitement seems to have faded—it is white wine, after all, and it’s the rare serious wine dweeb who spends much time thinking about great white wines for his cellar. White wines are passing fancies, the one-night stand of wine lust, but, hey, an orgasm is still an orgasm, great or not.
The best Viognier I tasted this time around was Ranchero Cellars 2013 La Vista Vineyard. Now this is gorgeous Viognier. One measure of Viognier for me is how much I want to smell it, how often I want to stick my nose in the glass and inhale deeply. I stuck my nose in this glass like it was other people’s business. It has a glorious perfume of apricot, honey, pear, and quince. Great foreplay for the taste. The Ranchero Cellars Viognier even gets the texture right, that wee bit of oiliness but tempered by vibrant acidity. I loved this Viognier. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted Alban’s Viognier, one of the touchstones of California Viognier, but this will do nicely. You want to smoke a cigarette when you’re finished. Or, being a guy, fall asleep.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Monday, April 13, 2015
The worst possible way to experience wine is in words. It’s the equivalent of sucking a new book. Whereas sucking old books is Teague’s back catalog. There’s a possibility this is the point of Lettie Teague’s new book, to experience wine in the worst way. I wouldn’t know. As a wine book reviewer with integrity, I am going to review Teague’s book without having read a single page. This is how it’s done on “The Today Show,” so it’s good enough for me. Actually reading the book while knowing who wrote it guarantees a subjective and useless opinion. Ignorance promises objectivity. Yes, I could pretend that I’d read Wine in Words, but I haven’t, though honestly, I’m pretty sure I have. Many times. Written by many wine writers. It’s a book that sets out to debunk preconceived notions about wine, written in Teague’s usual arch style. Once could say Teague is the Arch Debunker of wine. And the rest of us are Meathead.
Lettie Teague is the wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal, which seems odd until you think about it. Forbes has a wine writer, and Better Homes and Gardens has a wine writer—I think the only lifestyle magazine that doesn’t have an actual wine writer is Food and Wine. There’s one thing you can be certain of, wine writers for lifestyle and financial magazines will always spend a lot of time simplifying wine in what they think is an irreverent fashion. It’s this weird tic they have, talking about wine as though it’s the latest fad, like owning a Tesla or a State Senator. Wine not as part of a lifestyle, but wine as lifestyle. They hand their wealthy, and wannabe wealthy, readers little snippets of wine wisdom they can drop provocatively at their next wine-related event, like so many insider trading tips. It’s cool to know about wine, and if you’re wealthy, it’s even cooler to know that the most expensive wines aren’t necessarily the best, that wine is a stupid investment, and that you should just drink what you like. In other words, wine is like charity—only use it to make yourself look better, and the rest of the time wonder why anyone bothers with it.
The subtitle of the book is “Notes for Better Drinking.” Does every damn wine book need a superfluous subtitle these days? They all have them. It’s insulting. These are the same books that talk about what an educated and interesting crowd wine attracts, then they tack on a subtitle that assumes you’re too stupid to figure out what the book is about without it. Wine in Words. Hmm, what could that be about? I know what wine is. It’s that stuff made from grapes that I have to drink to appear sophisticated even though it tastes yucky and bitey. And words are what we use to talk. So I’m guessing Wine in Words is using words to talk about the stuff grapes make. Oh, shit! Wrong! It says right here, “Notes for Better Drinking.” It’s about drinking, and notes. So just like Dad used to leave Mom, “I have to work late tonight. Don’t wait up.” when he was going out drinking with his buddies all night. Now those were Notes for Better Drinking.
Maybe wine blogs should have subtitles. “HoseMaster of Wine™: A Cry for Help” I like the sound of that. “1WineDude: Free Samples and Junkets” Oh, wait, I think he has a subtitle. “Serious Wine Talk for the Not So Serious Wine Drinker” I have one word for him. Seriously? How about “Vinography: A Meaningless Word for Meaningless Wine Drinkers” Maybe “Terroirist: Compiles of Crap” Never mind, back to the book I haven’t read.
I didn’t read the book, but I did read on the publisher’s website that the book is made up of “delectably brief essays,” which says a lot about Teague’s work; that the briefer it is, the more delectable. It’s like pain. A few seconds of teeth on an erogenous zone can be hot, but actual chewing is damned painful. Wine in Words delivers the least amount of pain it’s possible for Teague to deliver. She only barely bites the tip. Brief and clever little essays one is supposed to take in “small, contemplative sips,” much as Socrates enjoyed his hemlock Slurpee. And, the press release goes on, “Lettie Teague breaks down the stumbling blocks that often intimidate us and clears up the myths that cloud our understanding.” Well, certainly “Notes on Better Drinking” should cover stumbling, but are there any wine myths left that haven’t been cleared up more often than Kerry Washington’s skin tone on fashion magazines? Who actually believes these myths? The morons who read The Wall Street Journal? Frankly, I’d run out and buy a book that created a bunch of new wine myths. Oh, wait, I knew I should have bought Isabelle Legeron MW’s Natural Wine.
That said, I do enjoy Teague’s writing style, and I am eagerly anticipating not reading Wine in Words a second time—and a third! Hell, it may become my all-time wine book I’ve never read the most often! That’s how much I like it. Teague is at her best in these brief essays. Here are some of the essay titles, a little taste of the fun in store for you once you decide to go out, purchase the book, and place it unread on your bookshelf.
“Fifty Lamp Shades of Drinking Games”
“Sommelier is Just a Pretty Word for Assistant Manager”
“I Have Three James Beard Awards—Three More Than James Beard”
“Wine and Futures: We Really Don’t Have Either One”
“Men Are From Cab, Women are Only Worth 78% of the Bottle”
“In Defense of Another Wine Journal”
I know, I know, provocative and irreverent!
There are already blurbs about Teague’s book. One from Peter Hellman (whoever the Hellman that is) reads, “If Nora Ephron had been a wine journalist, her work would read like that of Lettie Teague.” So think of Lettie’s book as “When Hairy Met Sur Lie.” Come on, Hellman, Nora’s dead, she can’t defend herself! And Nelson DeMille, best-selling author at airports, says, “Wine in Words should be on every bookshelf in America.” Just, I might add, for God’s sake, don’t ever remove it.
|Tom Koch with Jonathan Winters|
Tom Koch (pronounced “cook”) was not widely known, though he was every bit one of the great comedy writers in the history of radio. Koch wrote a large portion of Bob and Ray’s skits, as well as being a contributor to Mad Magazine. I learned to write jokes from reading Mad Magazine. I also learned to steal jokes reading Mad Magazine, but that’s another story. If you have never heard of Bob and Ray, well, you need to listen to their classic routines. Perhaps the time for their gentle, witty bits has passed, but, to my ear, Koch’s routines, as performed by Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding, are timeless. Bob Elliot noted after Koch’s passing that though they had performed hundreds of Koch’s routines, submitted to them by mail every week, he had only met Koch three or four times. He and Ray simply waited every week for the envelope with Koch’s return address on it to arrive, then performed nearly every word he’d written. I cannot tell you how astonishing that is. In tribute to Koch, I quote him in my HoseMaster headline. Koch has it exactly right.
I have this imaginary image in my mind of Tom Koch sitting in front of a typewriter writing material. And it’s much like what I do for HoseMaster of Wine™, though, of course, Koch was a genius, and I’m just a hack. The insecurity, the fear of the blank page or screen, the strange and mysterious impulse to sit alone in a room and try to imagine writing something that will make strangers laugh, the fear that you’ve run out of funny every time you sit down—it’s as lonely a job as I can imagine. And yet how rewarding it must have been for him to hear Bob and Ray, two men with perfect comic timing, deliver his lines and get constant laughter. I watched some old Bob and Ray appearances on Carson after Koch died, and, well, I laughed. A lot. That’s all we tired old satirists want when we die. Laughter. Somewhere in comedy writer heaven, we hope we get to hear it. Comedy writer hell is what we've left behind when we croaked.
A generation of people who inspired me to write comedy is leaving us. Next will be people like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, Bob Elliot, Woody Allen, Buck Henry, Bob Schiller, Norman Lear and Neil Simon. When they go, friends, laugh. And laugh a little bit today in honor of Freberg and Koch. They'll hear you. I’d consider it a favor.
Monday, April 6, 2015
Most people are uncomfortable talking about wine. They think they lack the vocabulary to speak about wine and, therefore, they sound stupid. They are correct. There is no subject that has people sounding so incredibly ignorant as often as wine, unless you count poetry. So much stupid has been said about wine you’d think it was climate change, or something even more complicated, like the 100 Point Scale (neither of which is real). But it doesn’t have to be that way...
My shortcut guide to being able to speak authoritatively about any wine is available now at Tim Atkin's site. Those of you versed in wine, well, maybe marinated might be a better word, will already know and have used these magical five words. For the rest of you, read and learn. You can sound exactly like an MS in no time. Well, you'll need to learn fake humility, too, but we'll get to that another time. Jump on over to Tim's, and feel free to leave your brilliant commentary there, or drop it like a blind drone strike here, and hope no innocent civilians are injured.
TIM ATKIN MW
I’ve been writing this idiotic blog for about six years now, not including the many hiatuses (hiati?) I’ve taken, and I cannot remember a larger response to a piece than the one I received for “California’s Dear Jon Letter.” I once received a huge response to a piece I wrote parodying Alice Feiring many years ago (called, if I recall, “Mis(s) Feiring”). A lot of people then felt that it had crossed a line, though I have no idea what that line might have been. Another post insulting the Canadian blogger Natalie MacLean who writes the blog “Nat Decants,” entitled “Nat Defrauds,” created a lot of feedback, most of it supportive. And then there was the original, 3-Part exploration of the Jay Miller scandal, “Parkenstein.” I heard from all over the world about that particular parody (and it marked my return, after a long break, to writing HoseMaster of Wine™ again). Other posts have generated a lot of response, but none like the response I received to my Dear Jon letter.
Much of that response came by way of my personal email, as well as comments from friends and strangers at the recent Rhône Rangers tasting in Richmond. All of that stuff is off the record, and will stay that way, but I can say that, honestly, I was surprised by the vitriolic and angry edge to people’s comments about Jon. It’s a funny business, the wine business. It is perhaps a testament to the power of the press that there’s not a single winemaker or wine marketing professional who would have dared to express their opinions about Jon publicly, even though it was often discussed off the record. Even a few whose wines Jon praised in print were not especially kind in their opinions of how he operated. Don’t get me wrong, no one accused him of being unethical. That was never the subject of the conversations. Rather, most felt that he brought an agenda to California and to his critical thinking. As one correspondent put it, I thought quite eloquently, “He didn’t want to report on key influencers and tastes makers. He wanted to be the key influencer and taste maker.”
I wrote the piece because the conceit was irresistible to me, not because I bear Jon any ill will. It struck a nerve, which is what satire does best. There’s a lot fascinating about the whole episode, about the interesting chemistry between winemakers and the press, a chemistry unique to wine, and a complete mystery to the people who read the reviews and buy wines based on them. Most winemakers I know are not that bothered by lousy reviews as long as they feel the critic was open-minded, educated and gave them a fair shake. Jon is nothing if not educated.
Of course, if a critic leaves the building and his subjects are universally sad to see him go, that speaks poorly of him. His job isn’t to win friends. It’s also interesting that the two most disliked wine journalists in California wine country that I know of both worked for the Chronicle. Seems I should apply for the job.
John Cesano, who runs the tasting room and seems to be a John-of-all-Trades at McFadden Vineyards in Mendocino, recently shipped me six bottles of wine. Unsolicited. They just showed up at my door. Many wine bloggers receive countless wines from wineries and marketing people and distributors, some solicited, some not. I do not. Brian Loring once sent me 20 different bottles of wine, a bit of overkill, but much appreciated. When I sent John a thank you, I mentioned that I certainly couldn’t promise I would write about the wines. He didn’t care. He wrote, “…the wines are like my subscriber’s dues…” What a lovely sentiment.
There was a time I was also sent a lot of wine books from UC Press. Not any more. I guess my Blind Reviews scared them off. Instead, they send the books to people who write specious reviews of them, bloggers who claim to have actually read the books, but don’t seem to have a clue about how to write book reviews. Wine bloggers writing book reviews is like blind people reviewing movies. They sort of get the gist of it, but lack the proper sense. The book business is as screwed up as the wine business.
I’m not looking for free stuff, not at all. Not wine, not books, not junkets. I have many friends at prestigious wineries in Northern California who get countless emails from bloggers asking for samples, and, for the most part, anyone who has to ask for samples is unlikely to deserve them. I used to work at a winery where I would see the list of bloggers who were being sent samples and I would laugh. You may as well send the wines to chimpanzees. The chimps, seated at typewriters, would be able to write the same reviews, randomly, in about a week. I think those sorts of samples are drying up for bloggers, except the top ones, whoever they are. But people get paid to send samples, and wineries get a report from their marketing company about where the wines were sent, and everyone feels like it’s Mission Accomplished. It’s the George Bush in Iraq syndrome.
OK, I got sidetracked. Thank you, John, for the thoughtful gesture. I like McFadden’s wines—their sparkling wine seems to me vastly underrated. I’ll write about the wines if I’m moved to. Meanwhile, wineries, want to waste wine? I’m as good a place as any.