Monday, November 30, 2015

The SOMM Old Shit

Hair Kruth
SOMM looks to become yet another Hollywood franchise, along the lines of Star Wars, James Bond and Gidget. The original film, SOMM, was actually the last in the Francis the Talking Mule series, with nothing but jackasses mouthing off. SOMM: Into the Bottle, the second in the SOMM series, answers the timeless question, “If you won’t stop the fucking car, where do I piss?” And just like that situation, the sweet relief comes when the film is over.

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.

SOMM: Namblaists

A strange tale of sommeliers who sleepwalk and fondle boys. Jared Fogle stars. Sponsored by Subway—Eat Freshmen!

SOMM: Breros

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

The Church Of Amy Semple McFeiring--Holiday Edition

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

A Tale of Two Wines

In the beginning, I always wondered when I would be able to drink wines that were ten years old with some regularity. This seemed an almost mythic and unattainable goal. Like most young wine lovers, I imagined that ten-year-old wines were far superior to wines that had just been released, that if only I could uncork older wines all the time I would finally understand the beauty and mystery of wine. I know now that this is foolish. In my experience, the vast majority of wines, and I’m speaking now of fine wines, not the oceans of plonk that make up most of the wine consumed in this country, do not get wildly better as they age. Even at twenty years old, most disappoint, or underwhelm. Wine is certainly different as it gets older, but better? This is a matter of taste. But I suspect most wine people would agree that wines that are brilliant after twenty years of age are relatively rare. But they’re what we live for.

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

Wine Appholes

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 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 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 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 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

Blind Book Review: Kelli White's "Napa Valley Then and Now"

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

EPHEMERA: Acid Freaks and MacBeth

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

Which Wine Goes With Erectile Dysfunction?

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.