Thursday, May 28, 2015

EPHEMERA: Cult Wines and Wine Cults

Back in the 1980’s and ’90’s, the wine world was obsessed with cult wines. Cult wines were almost strictly from California (there were outliers like Leonetti and Quilceda Creek—remember Quilceda’s original shit-brown label? Wow, maybe an alltime ugly label), and were created by Parker ratings. Wine folks my age can remember them with great ease and nostalgia, like naming your favorite baseball players when you were a kid—Marcassin, Bryant Family, Colgin, Harlan, Sine Qua Non, Kistler, Aubert, Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, Clemente, Koufax… Ah, those were the days.

I had every one of those cult wines on my wine list, and more (Araujo probably belongs on there, and Dalle Valle). Some I liked very much, others I didn’t. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to work hard to sell them. A lot of wine lovers wanted to try all of them, like birders who want to finally add an Ivory-billed Woodpecker to their life list. Wine geeks even tried to anticipate what the new Parker-created cult wine would be (oh, man, have you heard about Blankiet?!), try to get on the mailing lists before the scores were published. Chat rooms were always ablaze with sad little men announcing “The Sine Qua Non (or some other cult wine) mailing list just arrived!—what are you buying?” Knowing, of course, very few were in their exalted company.

It seems to me that we’ve gone now from a wine culture of cult wines to a culture of wine cults. The impulse is the same, but it’s an interesting shift.

Maybe it’s that 100 Point wines are no longer rare. I’m more interested in a wine that received 99 points—I want to taste what near-perfection tastes like. Perfection is so overrated. When you think about it, a 99 point wine is better than a 100 point wine. It can improve; perfection can only go downhill, like Marilyn Monroe or Whitney Houston. But as 100 point wines have become almost commonplace, cult wines have less of a grip on the imagination of wine geeks, or at least it seems that way to me. Now all the fuss is about wine cults—Natural wines, orange wines, wines from obscure grapes grown in obscure regions, wines in pursuit of balance…

When I was a sommelier, I was paid to participate in a discussion, put together by a marketing company, about how to become a cult wine. Wineries wanted to be the next Kistler, or the next Harlan Estate. At that discussion, the other wine professionals and I agreed that it revolved around Robert Parker—though that wasn’t the answer the marketing folks wanted. As marketing folks tend to do, they believed there must be a formula, a path to being a cult wine. There wasn’t a path, of course, except through Parker’s bladder. So, of course, wineries began to engineer wines they believed he would like and rate 100 points. Which was stupid to begin with, and completely backfired, as marketing ideas often do. Now wineries no longer proclaim they’re a cult wine. Now they proclaim that they’re natural, that they’re honest wine, that they’re authentic. This is what Scientologists and Charles Manson would tell you, “I’m honest, I’m real, I’m authentic.” We’re in the new era of wine cults.

There are lots of messiahs of these cults—Alice Feiring, Raj Parr, Nicolas Joly, Isabelle Legeron MW, to name a few. And if you read their propaganda you read of people whose very lives have changed because they “discovered” natural wines. They’ve seen the Light. And with the fervor of the newly converted, they preach their Gospel of Truth. I think it’s sort of sweet. It reminds me of being in high school and all the born-again Christians would have prayer meetings and sing, “Get Together” by the Youngbloods. I admired how they seemed genuinely connected, even though I had little interest in their mindless message. I feel that way now about the Natural Wine zealots. They seem so committed, and so at peace with being right. It seems to have a way of curing their loneliness, and what better purpose can wine serve? I think the same way about the In Pursuit of Balance folks, although their cult is much more blatantly commercial, a kind of Scientology without the blackmail of homosexual celebrities. Yet they seem like a happy little bunch, such a tight little club, choosing members in the same way as kids we picked the nerds and the fat kids last at softball.

Wine is a big enough tent, of course, to contain all kinds. I’m content to explore wine on my own, without any labels or cults, interested strictly in what each wine has to say to me. I often don’t like what a wine has to say to me, wines can be completely dishonest or fake or insincere. But I think I learn a lot from that. A lot of Natural Wines I’ve tasted strike me as complete fakes, as natural as Mount Rushmore, whereas there are many wines In Pursuit of Balance I find wacky but incredibly interesting, like Amy Sedaris or the guy talking to himself on the park bench who doesn’t even know I exist. I don’t need cults and their rigid sets of rules in any aspect of my life, and I rather pity the folks who do. And I’d gladly trade my Colgin for a Coulée de Serrant, depending on what I’m feeling that day. There’s a reason we taste wines blind. Humans live by labels. Humans love labels. I try not to.


Daniel said...

Morning, Hose!
it's funny that the longer I've been around wine, the more I am drawn to interesting, unoaked whites, and not the big massive reds that so many consumers think they want. This might be partially due to Liver fatigue, you can only process so much alcohol, and boy do I push it. Still, I love it when people ask to taste my "best" wine, and tell me that they really like "big cabs or pinots, but not merlot", and then I pour them a Soave...

I still have some bottles of the original vintages of Marquis-Philips "Integrity" Shiraz; described by the winemaker as "a iron fist in a velvet glove". I'm not sure I really want to drink anything that is described like that. Nothing quite like 15.5%! I'd rather trade them for a couple of cases of Rose for the summer...

DocV said...

Hey Hoser!

You seem to chafe so hard against natural wine! I got one for you...RIDGE!

Have you seen how they are lighting the way with greater transparency in labeling?

If I am "plunking" down my 20-30 bucks for plonk, don't I deserve to know what and how it gets in the bottle?

Is mega purple what gives it such opacity? Is reverse osmosis what makes it balanced?

People who care about aging and buying fine wine would do well to read:
An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California by David Darlington.

When I asked a winemaker if he used colorants or additives he said: "Well your wife wears make up don't she?"

Winebroad said...

I've been thinking of starting my own group for winemakers who advocate the use 200% new oak (switching to new barrels every 6 months) called In Pursuit of Oak, or iPOO. Who's in?

Charlie Olken said...

I am all for transparency in wine--and in everything else for that matter. Like sausage making and Fox faux news.

But I only like ridge wines when they taste better than the competition. In fact neither cult wines nor natural wines nor IPOB interests me much. Why anyone would follow a category instead of wine is mystery.

But that is just me. I do endorse your right to drink natural wines made with wild yeasts and no sulfur dioxide.

Neil Shea said...

Jesus Hoser...... last rant was on Wine Bible, this time I noted born-again Christians, Gospel of Truth, prayer meetings singing "Get Together" by YoungBloods. I am confused but being from the Great White North, par for the course for me. Fine tune though as I copped my first feel that year..........

Thomas said...

So, do we have an AMEN?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Sorry to be so tardy in my reply--busy all day.
The wine pendulum constantly, and slowly, swings back and forth. In the business, and in individuals. What's hot one day--big, intense, Aussie Shiraz--is dead in the water the next. I live with the philosophy that every wine has something to say--some wines are loud and colorful, but they become quickly tiresome. Others are subtle and understated and invite more contemplation. Just like the folks you invite for dinner--do you prefer the loudmouths, the raucous, or do you prefer the thoughtful, insightful, interesting folk? Depends on the day.

Only the undefined category, "Natural Wine" chafes at me, not the wines themselves. I've been in Ridge's wine club for almost 40 years. When we begin lumping wines into vague, mostly marketing, categories, we are doing the same thing as giving them all 89 points--making ourselves comfortable, trying to understand wine with words or numbers instead of just trying to understand its context and quality. "Natural Wines" is already a marketing ploy, and it will only get worse. How many years before there is a "Trader Joe's Natural Wine?" I'm too old and have been around too long to follow cults.

I haven't read Darlington's book. I'll seek it out. But wine, in my view, is for pleasure, not for saving the Earth. Great wines give great pleasure, lousy wines do not. Those are the definitions I care about.

Welcome! Yeah, iPOO, I like it! Call Darioush! Call Rombauer! They'll join. But please don't invite me to the iPOO tasting. A wine cult is a wine cult... But you could maybe give yourself the nickname SUBERGIRL! You'd look cute in tights and a cape.

Puff Daddy,
Agreed. Cult wines were tiresome then (as are discussions of them on chat rooms), and wine cults are tiresome now. But lots of folks are invested in them, and cults have always seduced humans, so it goes. I just wanted to make a small point about how the cults have shifted.

There's a messianic streak to all the various wine cults that interests me. It's a bit sad, and very bizarre. It invites comparison to religious zealots.

I had a huge crush on a born-again woman when I was about 15, and she would strum her guitar and play "Get Together" and I would think about trying to get her naked. So, yeah, there's something of the erotic involved with cults, too.

Amen, Brother! Pass the collection plate.

gabriel jagle said...

Lately I've been noticing that a good many winemakers of my generation are Urban Winemakers making Natural Wine. It seems like a silly marketing strategy: "We don't grow the grapes, we don't add anything to the wine". Well then, what are you actually doing?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

What's interesting to me is that those Urban Winemakers are just following the current zeigeist when it comes to wine. It's not philosophically different than trying to make a wine that Parker liked 25 years ago.

My standard joke is that if wine is made in the vineyard, why'd you build the big fucking winery?

The whole thing is kind of silly. Yes, the greatest wines in the world have less intervention from the winemaker. But less doesn't mean none. "Natural" wine is stupid. Even "terroir" recognizes the hand of man, and gives it weight and credibility. "Natural" is meaningless, and strictly marketing and/or zealotry.

I just read Bruce Schoenfeld's piece for the Sunday NY Times Magazine called (uncreatively and unoriginally) "The Wrath of Grapes." It glorifies Raj Parr and his gang. The philosophy of wine is, in my mind, incredibly boring. And Schoenfeld's piece, while engaging and well-written, is, at its core, propaganda. Results matter, experience matters, style and personal taste matter. I've never met a winemaker or sommelier (these days) yet who didn't think his way was right. Wine writers are just about the same. I'm fine with that. The recent history of wine is filled with examples of people who religiously stuck to their guns and made lousy wine--Natural or whatever-the-fuck-the-opposite-is. Wine transcends empty rhetoric, which Schoenfeld's piece, and Parr's words, certainly are. You can have Sandhi. And Hirsch in a lousy vintage. More aromatics doesn't mean better aromatics, less ripe doesn't mean more elegant, that's all horseshit. Wine is FAR too complicated to be reduced to simple numbers--alcohol, pH, scores, Brix... Only suckers and chumps fall for any of that. Raj Parr may be a nice man (without his "natural" name, by the way), but he's certainly not any sort of wine guru. But now he has the NY Times stamp of approval.

If anything kills Natural and Balanced Wine, it will be that.

Thomas said...

"But now he has the NY Times stamp of approval.

If anything kills Natural and Balanced Wine, it will be that."

But, but...the NY Times has a wine club that selects only the best for the most discerning...

Eric V. Orange said...

"In Pursuit of Oak, or iPOO"
That's funny Tina.

Hose, I like it when you have burr up your ass.
But then......


Ron Washam, HMW said...


I hope you don't mean Raymond.

Eric V. Orange said...

Ouch! Thanks for that mental pic.


Winebroad said...

iPoo: A whole new kind of movement.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Very nice. I was thinking of their motto: iPOO--We put the pH in spHincter.

Yours is better.

Bob Henry said...

Tomorrow’s news today . . .

Excerpt from Wine Lovers
(May 29, 2015):

“Pursuing Balance? Or Anti-Flavor Wine Elite?”


By Robin Garr

[Bob’s “full disclosure”: Robin is a friend and former Los Angeleno, who shared in winning a Pulitzer Prize for newspaper investigative journalist. Not an uncompensated “amateur” / “hobbyist” wine blogger.]

It is hard not to think of Shakespeare’s aging King Lear as the wine world begins moving past the era of Robert M. Parker Jr., the powerful American wine critic who popularized the 100-point scoring system and who once wielded such market-moving power that his taste for big, ripe and alcoholic wines altered the world’s style of wine making from France to California to Australia and beyond.

. . .

Suddenly Parker seems to be only one more voice in a growing generation of younger sommeliers, bloggers, and social-media wine geeks of all ages in a changing world where everyone can have a voice but where it’s difficult for one voice to stand out, particularly if that voice is older, graying, overweight, slowing down a bit, and increasingly cranky (a definition, I might add, which also fits this humble critic reasonably well, except perhaps for the “cranky” part.)

Which brings us to a fascinating, long story by Bruce Schoenfeld. which will appear Sunday in The New York Times magazine, is already online.

[You can click this link to read it in full, and I highly recommend that you do so:]

. . .

[Bob's aside: For brevity, I have excised text from Robin's piece. I encourage you to click on the link to see the full text.]

Bob Henry said...


". . . who shared in winning a Pulitzer Prize for newspaper investigative JOURNALISM."


Bob Henry said...

"I just read Bruce Schoenfeld's piece for the Sunday NY Times Magazine called (uncreatively and unoriginally) 'The Wrath of Grapes.'"

To wit:

[Frank Prial review:]

-- and --

Bob Henry said...

My favorite word in the English language is "serendipity."

Just came across this website:

Darryl Roberts is an former Los Angeleno who moved to "wine country." (Currently based in Healdsburg, California.)

Citing his LinkedIn profile, he "Created and publish/oversee: Wine X Magazine;; Jelly Bean Wine Bar."

Excerpt from the JustWinePoints website:

"justwinepoints represents 20 years of research into why and how consumers purchase wine. After examining and categorizing our data, we believe our easy-to-use, risk-free system presents WINE REVIEWS exactly the way you want them: by the numbers, AND NUMBERS ONLY."

[CAPITALIZATION for emphasis. -- Bob]

Hmmm . . . talk about grade inflation. Like Lake Wobegon's children all being "above average, these scores defy gravity.

An exigesis (or is it an eisegesis?) of their wine scoring scale:

And see this defense of their scoring system:

gabriel jagle said...


I just read the NYT article (sent from my father-in-law). I was very curious to come back and read your take on it.

I agree that the piece seemed to have an agenda, and was creating heroes and villains to sell the story. Still, I liked the juxtaposition between Parr/Parker, and really liked the comparison between Mathisson/Shafer (even if it was clearly biased). I especially liked when he described a wine as "flavorless" because it was "too young". I'm going to start telling everyone who doesn't like my wines that they are too young.

I can understand why your experience as a somm makes you frustrated with the theater of it all, and I completely understand why you write about how f'ing ridiculous the whole thing is. I won't try to defend Alice Feiring or Raj Parr or any zealotry. But I do have to say that after nearly a decade of winemaking (7 harvests and two years of winemaking school), I still find the principles of Natural Winemaking to be sound, and respect it as much more than empty rhetoric. You have way more than 7 harvests under your belt, and I have a lot of respect for your opinion. You've definitely made me less of a zealot. But I hope you appreciate what makes wines like Matthison special, just like Schoenfeld should appreciate that Shafer is also a rare and special wine.

Finally, I want to say that I'm glad you've starting writing these Ephemera pieces. I enjoy the Hosemaster voice, but I also really enjoy the Ron Washam voice.



Ron Washam, HMW said...

I don't think that Alice Feiring or Isabelle Lecheron speaks for natural wine producers. I'm interested in what winemakers have to say, folks like you, not the wine writers who purport to understand winemaking. That's like believing a baseball writer about hitting rather than Mike Trout. Many wine writers have agendas, and their identity is based on that agenda. Without it, they aren't anybody.

All that to say that winemakers are more interesting than wine writers. I was at a tasting of Limerick Lane Zinfandels recently. All of the winemakers who buy fruit from Limerick Lane were there--Steve Matthiason, Adam Lee, Mike Officer, Morgan Twain Peterson...a lot of talent. Talking to Steve Matthiason later about his Zin, he told me he wished he had picked his Zinfandel later than he did. It was his first time buying Limerick Lane fruit, and he picked according to his usual protocols. But after tasting the other wines, and learning about the vineyard, he felt he should have picked later. That's interesting to me. There was nothing wrong with his Zin, not at all, but he felt that a bit more ripeness, and thus more alcohol, would have made for a more interesting, and equally balanced, Zin. Steve is not a zealot. He's a winemaker. He wants to make the best wine possible. Principals are one thing, delivering beauty and pleasure is another.

And, honestly, Schoenfeld has occasionally remarked quite negatively about the HoseMaster. So I am not predisposed to care for his work. Not that I would otherwise.

But I love the ending where Parr says his wines have no style, they just are what they are. I would agree with that completely. It also describes the entire piece.

Thanks for the kind and thoughtful words, Gabe. Always great to hear your point of view.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Yes, Ron, "Principals" are one thing, principles are another. What a dope.

Mel Knox said...

I thought the problem with the NY Times article is that it attempted to explain the story to a bunch of people who don't care or know about wine ('a town called St helena'??) rather than write for the geeks who do know and care. Of course, he could have sold that article to the Quarterly review of Trash Talking, which doesn't pay as well.

People have been looking for the Parker antidote for some time and Raj and Jasmine have given it to them. It's easy to criticize them, just as it is easy to criticize people who have to own cult wines.

Where is Thorstein Veblen who you need him??

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Mel,
The people looking for the Parker antidote are the same wine geeks the article wasn't written for. 98% of the wine drinking public doesn't know any of the wineries that are part of IPOB.

Also, that reverential photograph of Raj Parr, as well as the accompanying puff piece, makes it seem like Parr makes Sandhi's wines. He doesn't. Was there even a mention of Sashi Moorman? Raj Parr may know a lot about wine, but he doesn't make wine. That whole thing struck me as a big charade.

But the Newspaper of Record has made IPOB into wine's savior. Though you wouldn't know it from the crap they sell in their wine club.

Mel Knox said...


When you say Sashi, I assume you mean Mark Moorman.

Before Raj came along he was making 16% alc Roussanne.

As Saul was converted on the road to Damascus, Sashi was converted on the road to Lompoc.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Ah, yes, well observed. I'll have some "Ephemera" on the subject tomorrow. Yes, two days in a row of the HoseMaster! Always publish the pile while it's fresh and steamy.

gabriel jagle said...

Thanks for the response. I really dig the Limerick Lane wines, and their neighbor Christopher Creek has been one of my favorites since I discovered there was more to wine than Yellowtail. I also really appreciate the story about the Matthiason wine. We've had some wacky weather in the Willamette Valley the past couple vintages, and we like to joke that the day you harvest is always the best day to harvest.

I will disagree about one thing you said: some wine writers are much more interesting than wineamakers. I can't speak for Schoenfeld, I've never read anything else he's written, and I'm not famous enough for him to speak ill of me. But I sincerely appreciate what people like you and Steve Heimhoff and Charlie Olken do. It's much more interesting than listening to a bunch of chemistry nerds talk about pick dates and skin contact. Sounds like a bad date.

Brett B said...

With regards to lumping Ridge into the IPOB/natural wine discussion here are some observations. While, yes, I would agree that they are very "transparent" with their new labeling of ingredients, it does not mean that they are making natural wine. They add water in hot years, calcium carbonate to remove acidity, tartaric acid to increase acidity at times and they add "minimal" effective SO2. Being an assistant winemaker, I understand what all these terms mean and I would like to share how they could/should be interpreted.

If you are of the IPOB mindset then Ridge is not a wine you should like. By adding or removing acid and adding water they are acknowledging that they picked grapes that were not "in balance (in terms of acidity and sugar)," at least their ideal of what balance should be. They pick at a flavor balance that they like and shoot for which I admire. You can add acid, take away acid, influence the wines by using more or less oak and any number of other things, but you cannot add flavor to grapes that were picked below their optimal flavor ripeness. Yes you can blend with other varietals and you can even add concentrates if you feel your wine is really lacking, but you cannot add what you missed out on by picking too early.

If you are of the natural wine mindset, adding SO2, however "minimal" it may be is not natural. As far as what is effective, there are many different opinions on what levels of SO2 are effective in suppression of microbial activity that are dependent on any number of factors.

Don't get me wrong, I love Ridge wines. I am a wine club member. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy many of their wines back to the 70s. I see them as a great winery that sticks to their ideal of how to make great wines and they start that in the vineyard. How you farm makes a huge difference in how the vine develops fruit flavors in relation to how fast sugar is produced. With a lot of their wines being zinfandel based they tend to be more head-trained than trellised. When you have sprawling canopies associated with head-trained vines you get more shade on the fruit, which is good in varietals that do not produce lots of pyrazines (green bell pepper), which slows sugar development. Trellises more favored for cabernet and merlot tend to open up the fruiting zone to sunlight to help the pyrazines be resolved so the fruit characteristics can show through quicker. This is done at the expense of shade so the sugars tend to develop quicker as well. This is why the "golden days" of Napa cabernet (1970s and 1980s) produced many great wines in the 13% alcohol range. They were all farmed on sprawl based trellises. With replanting due to phylloxera, many vineyards were switched to VSP (vertical shoot positioning) which in effect led to more alcoholic wines due to higher sugars at phenolic ripeness.

(these views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer)

Brett B said...


The argument to pick at a certain sugar level without regarding flavor development, to me, is bad winemaking. If you are stuck at a certain level due to weather or disease pressure than you live with it but the best thing you can do to make great wine is to pick fruit at the peak of physiological development without regard to sugar or acid or anything else. I have some winemaker friends who were in Europe tasting some amazing Rhone wines from the 1970s in the cellars of the producers and they commented on how great the wines tasted at 13% alcohol on the labels. The producer slightly blushes and hinted that the wines were much higher in alcohol (hinting that they were over 16%!). Just because a label has a certain alcohol level on it does not mean that is what is in the bottle. Labels laws are fairly straightforward but there is some unclear area in the middle, at least to me. The defined limits of 14% are for tax purposes. There is a +/-1.5% leeway for the lower level and +/-1% for the higher level but you cannot cross the 14% line for the purposes of paying less taxes (i.e. label a 14.5% wine as 14% so you pay the lower tax rate). Thus a 14.1% (labeled) wine could be 15.1% and be legal. I have never been to an IPOB tasting or event but it would be interesting to see if they present certified lab results with their wines to show what the alcohols actually are.

(these views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer)

Richard Hilton said...

As a producer, i believe you have to find your style, and stick to it.. this may involve some experimenting along - but you dont' have to sell yourself out / soul every 7 years to fit some new category. As for the purists, I agree; relevance of site, specifics towards nature, no manipulation, and only enhancement, is most definitely the way. The etruscans, greeks, romans and gauls didn't have the tools for 'correcting' or steering a wine into 'purity'. They had to make do with their what they were given and us their 'noses' to guide them along the way.. and add flavourants if deemed necessary, which quite clearly they believed imperative - from sea water, honey, resins and herbs..

Ripeness is a whole other story which didn't weigh too heavily on the ancients for fear of losing a crop.

Let's just focus on creating delicious wines, of best quality possible (given the vintage), but interest ourselves in the myriad of flavours presented to embrace the table and people around us.