Thursday, December 10, 2015

EPHEMERA: "UnCorked"--the Heitz of Stupidity


I always hated winemaker dinners. They were more often catastrophes than not. And so were the dinners. Early in my sommelier career, Joe Heitz was the featured winemaker at one. It’s hard to write about the late Joe Heitz without using the word irascible. Late in the meal, as the guests were tasting the Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet and Joe was speaking about it, one of the restaurant’s best customers, a lovely woman whose husband probably spent twenty grand a year entertaining in the place, asked Joe, “Why does the Martha’s Vineyard always smell like eucalyptus?” Mr. Heitz took a short breath, seemed rather resigned, and then told her, “Shut the hell up! Eucalyptus smells like cat piss. My Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet smells like mint!” Joe always hated when people referred to his most famous wine as smelling like eucalyptus. Which, by the way, it doesn’t. Though it may have been more accurate to say eucalyptus smells like koala farts. Cat piss is way off.

I tell this story because it came to mind when I watched an episode of “Uncorked.” In that episode, one of the sommeliers participating in the Top Somm challenge was asked to describe the aroma of a “’68 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard” that he was supposedly opening and serving three Master Sommeliers. The sommelier guessed that it smelled of “spearmint.” The Master Sommeliers pushed him, belittled him, questioned him, until he finally said the magic word, “eucalyptus.” In a brief scene a moment later, after the sommelier had left the room, one Master Sommelier, Laura Maniec, says, “How could he not know that Martha’s Vineyard smells like eucalyptus?”

All I wanted was for the late Joe Heitz to appear and tell her, “Shut the hell up.”

“Uncorked” is the worst hour of television since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vaults. Both are utterly and embarrassingly empty. I’m sure most of you haven’t seen “Uncorked.” It’s on EsquireTV. Why is there an EsquireTV? No one has read Esquire since the Kennedy administration. You may as well have LOOKMagazineTV, for Christ’s sake. I didn’t even know I had EsquireTV as part of my cable package until I went looking for “Uncorked.” Fuck me, I did.

I know, I know, “Uncorked” is already yesterday’s blog post. Truthfully, I was avoiding the show. A reality show produced by The Hair and the guy behind SOMM? The whole concept made me cringe. But then curiosity got the better of me. I watched an episode. Then I watched one more (I think there are six). And I fast-forwarded through a couple of others. So remember to take everything I write with that in mind. I’m not a professional reviewer. I didn’t take notes. I didn’t watch every frame. I just couldn’t. It made me want to gouge my own eyes out.

“Uncorked” follows six miserable humans who aspire to become Master Sommeliers. It also features about six miserable humans who are Master Sommeliers. Oh, they’re a lively bunch. The show is edited in the way of all reality shows—that is, in such a way as to make a stereotype of each miserable human competing. The editing is designed to try and construct a narrative out of this mess, giving you someone to cheer for, someone to laugh at, someone to identify with; but the show seems to have been edited by someone suffering from narcolepsy. Scenes drag on and on, and then suddenly the editor wakes up again, remembers to cut, and we move on. The only thing worse is the music. I began to find the music hilarious. In one dull scene after another, the music would try to convince you something dramatic was going on. Yes, trying to guess which of the three Chablis is the Grand Cru is harrowing, and needs three or four cuts to different faces, and an intense musical score to build that suspense. This is high drama, wine’s Sophie’s Choice. Why, it had me on the edge of my coma.

It’s no crime to produce a landmark in dull television viewing. I can’t say that I found “Uncorked” offensive in any way. Well, except for how often a Master Sommelier would say something like, “She did that just perfect.” Perfect? Sigh. There’s something about watching an hour of inarticulate people interacting that grates. I never heard a single person say anything insightful, wistful, original, or, God forbid, funny. Wine terminology they can handle—speaking as interesting, intelligent people, not so much. Well, maybe that was the damned narcoleptic editor.

I don’t want to belabor the subject. “Uncorked” is simply as bad as television gets. I was dozing off when Fred Dame appeared, and in my stupor I thought I was watching an episode of “Law and Order” with the late Fred Thompson. click here Geoff Kruth, for whom this is a vanity project, has the charisma of most game show hosts—he’s essentially Alex Trebek, only not quite as witty. I kept expecting him to ask the sommeliers to put their answers in the form of a question. “What is eucalyptus?” He seems constantly aware that he’s being filmed, always as carefully casual as his hair. It’s a show filled with unlikable people, now forever associated with wine. I was a bit mortified. For me, it was like stepping back and watching your family and realizing how essentially dull and witless and self-absorbed they all are.

But, most of all, the entire series is an insult to wine. Sommeliers, too, but they richly deserve it. In “Uncorked,” wine is nearly joyless. It’s like a cadaver that medical students are dissecting endlessly in order to become doctors. Like a cadaver, the wine is DOA. During the blind tasting segment, where each sommelier has twenty-five minutes to identify six wines blind, Kruth, as the game show host The Hair, explains that a candidate is awarded points for everything correct he says about a wine, its color and aroma and body and blah blah blah, and that if he correctly describes each wine in perfect detail, it can only lead him to one correct conclusion about which specific wine he is tasting. Only a loser unworthy of an MS after his name could fail to make it add up. I wanted to throw my cat at the television, but I don’t own a cat. There it is, wine pared down to its essence, wine made as simple as a box score, all the hundreds of thousands of wines produced in a single vintage easy as ABC to categorize—just check the appropriate boxes on the wine description chart and, bingo, you've pinned all the wines down like butterflies in a natural history museum. It's what death looks like.

If I were a wine novice, I think “Uncorked” would have made me hate wine, and sommeliers. Loving wine was never meant to be the point of the show, I know. The point, I suppose, was to illustrate how difficult it is to become a Master Sommelier, to become Geoff Kruth. But that never for a moment seems like an accomplishment because there’s so little palpable passion for wine shown by anyone on screen. Certainly not any more than medical students show their cadaver. “Uncorked” shows sommeliers as necrophiliacs, the wine just lying there as they fuck with it. It’s not just unsettling to watch, it’s creepy.

“Uncorked,” what I watched of it, left a bad taste in my mouth. I’d call it eucalyptus. The show was the Heitz of stupidity.

29 comments:

William Stephenson said...

I haven't seen a single episode yet, but I'm wondering if the producers could make it more appealing by turning it into an interactive event - i.e. A Drinking Game.

Every time Fred Dame casually corrects someone, you drink.
Every time a SOMM guesses incorrectly, you drink.
Every time Geoff Kruth has a hair out of place - well that's not gonna happen.

Tom Hudson said...

Your description of Joe Heitz reminds me of my meeting with Georg Riedel. Georg was the guest of honor at my wine bar where he was going to give a speech during the wine tasting we were hosting featuring his varietal specific wine glasses. Even though we had a sold out event, Georg walked in my wine bar, looked at the seating arrangement and left. His rep told me he only does events when everyone can face him at all times.

I guess his rep forgot to tell him my establishment is a restaurant, not an amphitheater.

Douglas Trapasso said...

Oh Tom, what serendipity! You know that the Riedels are all BFFs with the HoseMaster!

Ziggy said...

Plain and simple ...........
Now, without the blindfold, The Hose has hosed "Uncorked" period

Wish I had "Smell-O-Vision" TV.
Eucalyptus doesn't grow down here in South Florida but I've been to Australia an experience kaola farting. Now I gotta try a bottle of Heitz's MV Cab. Where's my Som?

Zigmeister

Don Clemens said...

This makes me SOOOOO happy that I don't get Esquire TV. Ron, once again, I love your writing. I feel almost as though I've seen the series. Thanks for saving me so much time! And also, thanks for the "Law & Order" moment.
Don

Charlie Olken said...

Joe may not think his MV Cabs smelled like eucalyptus, but there is a big eucalyptus stand on the edge of the vineyard and the joke around here was that some of those leaves found their ways into the fermenter.

I thought this entry was going to about Joe Heitz, and I have a great story about Mr. Heitz' well-known sharp tongue, but I guess it will have to wait for another time.

No, wait, there is more.

Some years ago, back in the mid-70s (you remember the 70s, don't you?), I was walking across the lawn at Charles Krug on my way back to my car having attended the Napa Valley Wine Library tasting. Mr. Heitz crossed in front of me, gave me a look and then gave me the finger. I said "what was that about?", and he responded, "Aren't you Harvey Steiman?".

Talk about cut to the quick. Twice.

Don Clemens said...

Charlie: That is a GREAT story. One among hundreds, if not thousands, I am sure. Joe Heitz's abruptness (being kind here) was legendary.

Mel Knox said...

Charlie, that is just hilarious.



Joanna Breslin said...

OK, but please leave your poor hypothetical cat out of this!

VinoNovato said...

Many moons ago, multiple small fermentations were done with grapes gathered at increasing distances from the boundary Eucalyptus trees to capture and measure the influence of the odiferous source. Yep, the closer the stronger the influence.

I was speaking with the owner of a well respected vineyard tuck some Euc leaves, while he knowingly smiling at me, into a bin of grapes about to depart for an even better known winery. This is no joke, just the source of more vinous complexity.

Joe Heitz, if you met him, good chance you had a story to tell.

Sara Guterbock said...

I fucking LOVE you.

Ed G said...

I've watched all of "Uncorked" and generally found it more engaging and watchable than I expected. There is plenty of spitting. You articulated, perfectly, the problem: the entire cast of characters on this show seem very unhappy, angry or downright depressed. If you're doing it right, wine is a lot of fun.

JaneK said...

Clearly unwatchable TV -- but inspiration for a hugely entertaining review from The HoseMaster. Thank you so much, HMofW!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
I still haven't forgiven you for inspiring me to watch that Uncorked. I watched one episode and shan't be watching another anytime soon. Just don't get that kind of wine, well appreciation is hardly what it is....that kind of breaking it into pieces, so not the way I do it, or what inspires me and has for the past 20 years, so it is quite like watching something with subtitles in, in Swahili. They lost me when the two hipsters were at dinner, drinking an older Riesling, as they would, and when a woman asked what they were drinking the one hole said, "Just a foofy white wine" and he just sounded like such a giant tool for the rest of the conversation. The upside is he was a trainwreck for his exam so he hit his head falling off that high horse. Butthead.
Thanks for the much needed afternoon giggle. I love you!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Gang,
First of all, Charlie, that's a classic story! And Vino Novato has it right that meeting Joe Heitz was usually memorable--for you, not for him. I think Joe thought everyone was Harvey Steiman.

And, certainly, the presence of eucalyptus trees around a vineyard can affect the flavor of the wine--the damn trees drop oil all over the closest clusters. If you know it's Martha's you expect to smell eucalyptus, and so you do. Blind, I'm not so sure it's that obvious, or maybe it's not even there at all. Nonetheless, if you watch that episode of "Uncorked," and I'd encourage you not to, it's apparent that the wine the sommelier is opening isn't a bottle of Martha's. They take great care not to show the label on camera, but, I'm sure most of you would see what I saw--that ain't a bottle of Heitz. Not even a forgery that Dr. Conti would be proud of. I'm sure that a '68 Martha's wasn't in the budget. So not only is he not smelling Martha's, he's supposed to imagine smelling Martha's and then remember to smell the stereotype eucalyptus.

Sara, now that's a sentence where word order means everything. I fucking love you, too! Why don't you visit more often?

Ed,
I was engaged in the way one gets engaged in terrible television--disbelief that it got on the air. Though EsquireTV doesn't really count as a major network. It's like TV self-publishing.

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Again, I didn't "inspire" you. I told you it sucked, and you watched it anyway. But, truthfully, it's hilariously tone-deaf, nearly a parody of that sort of reality TV for cretins. And, like the scene you mention, clumsily and obviously edited to make that butthead look like a butthead. Staged and probably suggested by a producer, though it wouldn't be hard to get a tired and drunk MS candidate to act like a dick.

I love you, too!

Sybaritewino said...

Cork screwed! Good laugh. Cheers.

Unknown said...

Ron:
My only Joe Heitz story? When WW was selling the wine and we took tours to Napa Valley, fearless leader Don Schliff warned us on the bus as we were approaching the winery that the wine was "cabernet sauvignon" and absolutely NOT Cab, or Cab Sauv. Oh, and I was told that my imitation of Rollie Heitz was spot on, but that's another story...
George Ronay

Ron Washam, HMW said...

George,
You impression of Rollie wasn't half as good as Fred Dame's impression of Fred Thompson, I'm sure. Or was it?

Bob Henry said...

Ron and George are familiar with the San Fernando Valley wine merchant Duke of Bourbon (now under new ownership and management, and relocated out of the Valley).

In the 1990s, I attended an Alice and Joe Heitz winemaker dinner hosted by The Duke at a restaurant located adjacent to Los Angeles' Griffith Park (whose main access road is lined with eucalyptus trees as a wine break).

One handout distributed to each dinnner participant was a review from an Italian wine magazine (translated into English).

That handout described the "Martha's Vineyard" bottling as having a eucalyptus character.

During the audience Q & A with Joe, I asked him about the purported eucalyptus character of his wine -- citing the handout.

The room went deadly silent. After a long pregnant pause, Joe intoned:

"Young man, I describe my wine as classic California claret." And then he took another question.

Later in the evening, there was a drawing for the door prize: a signed magnum of 1974 "Martha's Vineyard."

My guest sitting next to me won. She was too shy to walk up to the podium and accept the prize, so she egged me to do so.

Laughter erupted in the room, when the guy who moments ago had "insulted" Joe joined him at the podium for a handshake and a photo op.

Alice and Joe and I chatted. The curmudgeon instantly became affable when I informed him I had attended Santa Clara University, and his son Rollie had been a classmate in the business school. That I knew the head Jesuit at Santa Clara (a chemistry professor and winemaker at Novitiate Winery in Santa Cruz), who was one of Joe's enology students at Fresno State.

From that moment on, Joe and I were BFF.

As for that eucalyptus character and Joe's temper, let me quote an excerpt from his obituary in the Los Angeles Times (dated January 3, 2001 by Rod Smith):

"Connoisseurs consistently identify a distinctive scent of mint in Martha's Vineyard wines. In some vintages it is overtly eucalyptus-like. However, Heitz refused to acknowledge it. He believed that a little mintiness is characteristic of Cabernet, but also felt that singling out one component demeans the beauty of the wine as a whole.

"I discovered that the hard way one spring afternoon in 1985, when I dropped by Heitz Cellar to interview Joe for a magazine article. While rhapsodizing about the lovely hint of eucalyptus in the nose of a '74 Martha's Vineyard Cabernet I'd enjoyed recently, I had a sudden suspicion that this affable, white-haired gentleman with the twinkling eyes was getting angry. To my relief, he kept his temper and enlightened me gently.

"'Eucalyptus stinks,' he said with a smile, 'and I don't think my wine stinks. Cabernet Sauvignon smells like Cabernet Sauvignon -- period.'"

Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2001/jan/03/food/fo-7498

Bob Henry said...

Oops!

In the 1990s, I attended an Alice and Joe Heitz winemaker dinner hosted by The Duke at a restaurant located adjacent to Los Angeles' Griffith Park (whose main access road is lined with eucalyptus trees as a WIND break).

BigTed said...

LOL! No really. This Joe Heitz story really did make me laugh so hard I cried.

Amy said...

Because I'm partial to comatose television, you've left me with no other choice than to watch every episode of this show. I'll report back when I wake up.

gabriel jagle said...

Sommelier's seem to have the right personalities for reality TV. If UnCorked isn't working, I'm sure they'll find a way to make it fit. How about a show called "Tastemakers", or something equally self-aggrandizing.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Bob,
I was hoping this piece might trigger Joe Heitz stories. Charlie's wins, but yours is good, too. He really hated that eucalyptus thing, and it was always funny to folks in the biz.

Amy,
Been nice knowin' you. See you next fall.

Gabe,
"Tastemakers!" Perfect. Though I was leaning toward "Gatekeepers." "Jackass" was already taken.

Bob Henry said...

Irascible?

Here's a Heitz anecdote -- from Wikipedia:

"Following a review by Robert Parker where he wrote about Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that it 'lacked aroma', Joe Heitz sent Parker a box of linen handkerchiefs, insinuating to the critic that he ought to clear his nose.[10]"

# 10 footnote: Goldfarb, Alan, appellationamerica.com (September 3, 2007). "Heitz and Seek"

Link: http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-review/463/Heitz-and-Seek.html

Excerpts:

"'... Many years ago, my [David Heitz's] father got into a big argument with him [Robert Parker]. It goes way back. It had something to do with Parker’s comments and dad took exception to it. He said that Martha’s didn’t have a smell. Dad sent him a box of handkerchiefs because he said, ‘you must have been coming down with a cold.’”

Cocktail party factoid: it was David Heitz, not Joe Heitz, who made the acclaimed 1974 vintage "Martha's Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon.

Explained David in Goldfarb's piece cited above:

"... what some don’t realize is that while Joe Heitz might have been the driving force and inspiration behind the winery’s three great single-vineyard wines – Martha’s, Bella Oaks and Trailside – he hadn’t been making the wines since 1973.

"That job was left to Heitz’ son David, who has been the winemaker the last 33 years. Yes, it was David Heitz who made the 1974 Martha’s, probably one of the most pivotal in California wine history.

“'It was my first solo vintage. Dad was out with a back injury during harvest and I gradually grew into it more and more,' the 57-year-old Heitz related recently. But by the way he told the story, one is hard-pressed to imagine that this is the winemaker for one of the most prestigious and important wineries in America. That’s because Joe Heitz’ son has difficulty standing under public scrutiny; most likely one of the reasons Heitz Cellars has seemingly fallen from wine’s pop cultural stage.

"Does he recognize that his dad’s once highly visible winery has been overlooked of late? Of course not. Does he care? Heck no. Does it bother him? He doesn’t think so. And so it goes for a winemaker in a high-profile position, who couldn’t give a fig about what others say or more recently, don’t say about his wines.

“'I’m not very good at talking,' said Heitz, as if he were having a molar extracted. 'I’m just a matter of fact guy. I’m not a bullshit artist.'"

Miquel said...

Samantha,

As usual The Hose is an enjoyable read. Not sure if I fully agree with all of his and Blake Gray's ideas on the show but the points are well-argued.

I think Episode 1 is probably the worst though. I'm not encouraging you to watch the whole series but that one was the most screwed with and the sommelier with the glasses (Morgan I think?) admitted later that that whole bit at the table was staged--how "reality". And that's one of Ron's most salient points is that the editing for the whole thing is complete crap. The movie Somm was much better in this regard.

It is indeed a show that probably won't get more people interested in wine but I'm not sure it's the worst thing ever made (that honor goes to any offspring from a Kardashian.) I think people just want to hate the show due to hating the whole "sommelier" trend at the moment. There's some truth in that but at the same time, it's a lot like the ABC thinking in regards to Chardonnay.

-miquel
Wine on VI

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Miguel,
I didn't read what Blake Gray had to say about the show because, well, I don't bother to read anything he writes. But it says a lot when so many folks in the biz don't like a TV show about wine. So much of it is clearly staged, and manipulatively edited--but that's how reality shows work, so that's not my complaint, simply an observation.

From a satiric standpoint, I make fun of sommeliers. I was one for a long time, so I have some standing. But "Uncorked" is simply dull. Hours of your life you'll never get back. Like reading HoseMaster of Wine™. Wine just isn't very photogenic. Watching people taste and spit, watching people open wine bottles, just looking at wine on camera, isn't the least bit interesting. Food is appealing on camera. It's more sensual to watch people preparing it. It's visually more stimulating. Wine is just colored water to a camera, and all the random and subjective descriptions of it don't really do much for the viewer.

If there's a backlash against sommeliers, and I'm not convinced that's true, then shows like "Uncorked" only add to the fire. I think it was unpopular because it was boring, not because it was about sommeliers. "Sideways" was good for wine because it made fun of snobbery, because it was funny (not to me, I found the script lackluster and predictable), because it portrayed wine as social lubricant, as part of the fabric of friendships and love. If sommeliers want to be adored, have more fun with the whole thing instead of portraying yourselves as some sort of wine heroes. Though I don't think most of them are the least bit capable of that--not from my experiences recently.

Martin said...

Sorry I've come to this column so late but like you Ron I try to avoid wine blogs and have not read yours for a few weeks. Never watched SOMM or this show or EsquireTV or met Joe but my point here I'm shocked you've reviewed something you actually watched! I thought you sent a rather compelling standard, a blog constitution even when you started reviewing books blind and you've broken that rule. What not TV shows too? They're almost bound to be rubbish because as you say as on screen wine is just coloured liquid and people drinking and devoid of sensuality and we knew that already!
Martin Moran

Thomas said...

I love Martha's Vineyard! It does smell like mint.