Thursday, December 29, 2016
I must be out of my mind to still be writing HoseMaster of Wine™. Another year has passed, and I still spend my drive time to work kicking around ideas for my next post. A White Supremacist Sommelier? Really? Who thinks about shit like that? Wine Critics in Hell? Well, yeah, we all think about that, but I’m the idiot who makes it a play. I thought it was faux Eugene O’Neill. Turns out it was more Shaquille. Alice in Naturaland? Just nuts, really. In the words of the great Elwood P. Dowd, “Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.”
This is the final post for 2016, and I often use the last post of a vintage as an opportunity to reflect on the past year. Not all of you will want to wade through this sentimental garbage. I don’t blame you. You’re excused. No offense taken. If you want self-indulgence you can read any blog on Wine Spectator’s site, you don’t need me. The Wine Spectator columnists are like the CIA in Afghanistan—they drone endlessly until death actually seems like a relief. My turn.
I’ve had one of the strangest years, not just in my wine writing career, but of my life. I spoke at a wine writers’ symposium, I was asked to write for Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast, I met Hugh Johnson, I became friends with Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, as well as Lana Bortolot, and, most astonishing of all, I won a Louis Roederer International Wine Writer Award. I also lost an old friend in the wine business, one of the nicest men any of us will ever meet, Ben Pearson. I pissed off folks at the Court of Master Sommeliers enough that one of them tried to influence my employer to fire me. In other words, I had a blast in 2016.
When I was young, in my 20’s, I was that lonely guy who sits alone in his room all day writing jokes. Somehow, I became a sommelier, so in my 40’s I was that guy who knows a lot about wine. Here I am in my 60’s and, well, once again I’m that lonely guy sitting alone in his room writing jokes. Where does the time go? The internet changed my life, though I’m not sure how it happened or if that’s a good thing. More and more I think maybe the internet is puberty. You’re glad it’s here, but it scares you, you haven't the slightest idea how it's affecting you, and everyone thinks you have a weird voice.
Among my first few posts of 2016 were both my first “Trump, Your New Emperor of Wine” piece and my parody of “Wine Folly.” At the time, I failed to see how they were linked. When I spoke at the Napa Valley Wine Writers’ Symposium in February, a lot of other writers thanked me for calling out Ms. Puckette and her brand of internet wine post-truth. Now she’s one of the writers featured at the 2017 Symposium. Simply put, that's depressing. The Trump pieces were wildly successful, and a hoot to write. Now his brand of internet truth, that is to say, lack of, has put him in the White House. We don’t seem to care about honesty and facts any more. In fact, they tend to hamper success (though Hillary is hardly an exemplar of honesty and facts, she is, at least, not a bald-faced, orange-haired liar). The internet, like puberty, has confused us. We have all these powerful new urges. We’re finding weird hair where it never was before. We’ll let any old fraud screw us. Oh, but one day we’ll look back and laugh!
The truth is we are all frauds. Only some of us know it and admit it. The internet is this imaginary place where we create new personalities, exaggerate our own worth, and hope like hell we don’t get caught. We have FaceBook profiles that read like the back labels of corporate wines—slick, but virtually devoid of truth. We pretend we have thousands of Friends when, in truth, we have but a few—you know, the ones who don’t ever read your feed on FaceBook because they actually love you. We flame people anonymously, bully them, and feel great pride in doing so, especially without revealing who we are, which would take courage. Frauds almost never have courage. We have our real life identities, our weaknesses and our flaws, and then we have our selves as portrayed on the internet. We are all a Hollywood biopic now. Who we are on the internet is simply “Based on a True Story.”
So many nice things happened to me as HoseMaster, my fictional persona, in 2016 that I was made to feel like a fraud constantly. Who am I to harangue Master Sommeliers, imagine a bar full of dead wine critics, satirize every wine writer who inadvertently stumbles across my crosshairs? And then win a bigshot award for it? In a weird way, I understood how Bob Dylan acted when he won the Nobel Prize. I also didn’t have the nerve to show up at the Roederer Awards ceremony. I knew I didn’t deserve it, and so I was sure it was a setup. Yes, here’s your award, Ron, now stand right there for a minute while we…drop buckets of pig blood over you! In my dreams, come January, I hope a little bit gets splashed on the robe of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Though when it comes to pig blood, 45 is more a universal donor.
I’ve never had more fun in the wine business than I’m having now. The internet allowed me to be reborn as the obnoxious and unrepentant HoseMaster of Wine™. Thanks to him, I’ve become a household name in the wine business, both adored and loathed. I receive far too much praise, and equal amounts of scorn. What’s weird is how I’m more comfortable with the scorn. The praise makes me feel like the fraud that I am. At industry events I am often recognized, though just as often the mention of HoseMaster is met with a blank stare that would do Rick Perry proud. Which is humbling, and much appreciated. It’s the same stare of non-recognition I see every morning in the bathroom mirror. So, it says, who the hell are you?
I’m going to miss 2016. It was a very rewarding year for the HoseMaster, and gratifying as well. I keep writing because I am forever curious about where my mind will take me once a week. I feel like 1WineDoody, or Jamie Goode, always on a junket to somewhere weird, and then making shit up about it. My agenda has always been to try not to be dull. To make it about the writing, to try to find some value in writing about wine, not write about wine in order to get things that are valuable for me. I almost never live up to my own expectations. I think that I either have a really great idea which I then completely ruin, or I have a stupid idea and run with it anyway. I keep hoping I’ll get it right one of these tries.
I’m very curious about what 2017 will bring for the world. Satirists are, contrary to what you may think, optimists by nature. We point out human foibles and follies, insult liars and fools, lampoon the powerful, because we think that will change them, or change peoples reactions to them. Pretty stupid and hopeless when you think about it. So, yeah, that’s optimism right there. The internet, like TV and advertising before it, is about selling you death, fear and sex. And the pills that will help you with them. I spend very little time here compared to most people. I’m not fearful of Trump, or of Brexit, or of ISIS. I’m more fearful that I won’t live long enough to have the last laugh.
So long, 2016. Like my old friend Ben Pearson, I suspect your like will never come around again.
Monday, December 26, 2016
This piece was originally published in May of 2014. I have a fondness for it that defies explanation. So I thought I would trot it out again as a Boxing Day treat. I'm still waiting for the Hasbro My Little Wine Snob™ to appear under the Christmas tree. Maybe next year...
When we were children, around eight or nine years old, most of my friends liked to play Cowboys and Indians, or Cops and Robbers, or Priests and Don’t Tell Anybody. But there was a group of us who spent a lot of our free time playing Wine Steward and Customer. Man, that was so much fun. We couldn’t wait to get home from school and set up the tables to play, and then we’d play until our mothers called us for dinner, or until one of the stupider kids ordered Chardonnay to go with his loogie. Everyone knows Riesling always goes with loogie.
I think all kids idolize wine stewards. (We couldn’t pronounce “sommelier” very well, and it seemed like a dirty word, so we wanted to. Once, in a fit of childhood rage, I called my sister a “slutelier," and my mother washed my mouth out with Blue Nun.) We’d see a wine steward on the bus on his way to work, maybe, and we’d steal glances at him, admiring his shiny shoes, and being amazed at his ability to tell the homeless guys apart just from the way their urine smelled. I never had the courage to go up to a wine steward and talk to him (in those days, only men were wine stewards—women weren’t allowed to wear a tastevin in public and were thought to be queer if they did), but my friend Frankie did one time. He walked right up to a wine steward who was waiting at the bus stop and nervously asked, “Are you a sombullyay?” When the wine steward looked at Frankie, I think he peed a little. Not Frankie, the sombullyay.
“Yeah, Kid,” he said, “I’m a wine steward. Pretty cool, huh?”
“Are you a MS or a MW?” Frankie asked. I was tongue-tied with fear at Frankie’s audacity.
“MS” the wine steward said.
“Oh,” said Frankie, “that’s too bad. My dad says an MS is basically the Learner’s Permit of wine.” And then Frankie took off running, the wine steward chasing him until he stepped on his own self-importance and fell down. That Frankie, man, was he fearless.
I was the oldest of the kids who played Wine Steward and Customers, so I mostly got to be the Wine Steward. Plus, I had the toys to be one. I’d relentlessly begged my parents to buy me Hasbro’s “My Little Wine Snob™” kit. I can still remember how badly I wanted it from the first time I saw it. Other kids wanted cowboy outfits or Army uniforms or their own Wham-O Asbestos to play with, but I had to have “My Little Wine Snob.” It had everything—a shiny little tastevin you could wear around your neck (which was also part of Hasbro’s “My Little Sammy Davis, Jr” kit, complete with glass eye), a little corkscrew, a wine list with imaginary prices (just like real ones!), a little lapel pin with the words, “Sommelier in Training” on it, and, best of all, a sweet little three inch marble tube you could shove up your butt, which really made the Wine Steward illusion complete. I begged and begged my parents to buy it for me, and, finally, my dad let me earn it by spying on my mom when all my uncles came to visit and writing down their license plate numbers. When I had ten, he’d buy it for me. The next day, it was mine.
I’d never been to a restaurant with a wine steward, so I had to make up what a wine steward would do. My parents didn’t take us kids to nice restaurants. In those days, parents just didn’t take their kids to nice restaurants unless it was to put us in a wheelchair in front of the restaurant and panhandle. I wasn’t very good at this, but my brother could make ten bucks in no time by tying his chair to a customer’s car bumper and asking for a pull home. One time a drunk said OK instead of giving him money to go away, and we didn’t find my brother for a couple of days because going 60 miles per hour in a wheelchair, he’d missed the offramp. My dad was pretty pissed at how messed up the chair was though. Anyway, I had a good imagination, and I acted like I thought a real sommelier would act.
Frankie was the best at playing customer because he was such a jackass. So he’d sit at the table with one of the neighborhood girls, usually Ellen because he had a crush on Ellen and was always playfully banging her head into a fire hydrant, as boys like to do, and act like he was reading my play wine list. I’d improved the Hasbro “My Little Wine Snob™” wine list by adding my own selections. I added my own categories of wines to drink, like “Cat Pee,” and “Girl Parts” and “Orange Wines.” I had so many wines on my list that I gave myself a Wine Spectator Grand Award, and just like the real restaurant winners, I also didn’t really have most of the wines! Frankie would pretend to read the wine list, and then ask Ellen what she wanted. Ellen, however, didn’t speak much any more.
Then I’d approach the table and say, in my most serious voice, “Good evening, sir, may I help you select a wine to go with your dinner tonight?” Frankie was supposed to say Yes, but sometimes he would just throw food at me to make me go away. I later learned to do this as an adult when I was at an industry wine tasting and a lot of sommeliers were around.
“Yes,” Frankie would say on cue, “I’d like you to choose a wine to go with my steak. What do you suggest? I was thinking maybe Silver Oak.”
“Silver Oak?” I’d say, simply aghast, “I’m out of that.” I wasn’t, but I’d pretend I was because I knew wine stewards hate to open Silver Oak because it’s popular and not hard to get. “But how about this wine?” And I’d point to a cult wine I’d put on my wine list for Eleventy Hundred Dollars, which, really, was a bargain since I’d seen the same wine at an auction price of way over a Gazillion.
“OK,” Frankie would say, and I’d go into the wine cellar, which was this old refrigerator box we had in the backyard, and bring out my one bottle of wine that I used no matter what one of my friends ordered. It was empty, and it had a screw top because I couldn’t really work the “My Little Wine Snob™” corkscrew, but I’d unscrew it and pretend to pour Frankie a little taste. Ellen was usually asleep by then and had her head in the food.
One time, Frankie yelled, “A fucking screwtop! Eleventy hundred bucks and I get a goddam screwtop?! Stupid wine steward, I hate you.” Apparently, Frankie had been to dinner with his grandfather and that’s what his grandfather had said. We laughed so hard. Even we knew that screwtops are for crappy wine. Even now Stelvins give me the giggles. Which is embarrassing when I’m peeping into my neighbor’s windows.
Frankie would swirl the empty glass (we used Hasbro’s “My Little Pretentious Asswipe” Riedel stemware), and then say, “I don’t know, I think it’s corked.”
I’d grab the glass from his hand, swirl it very dramatically, take a deep, snot-filled whiff, and exclaim, “It’s not corked, you poophead, it’s got terroir! You’ll drink it and pay for it.”
And before he could object, I’d hear my mother screaming in her happy voice and I’d have to run home to write down another uncle’s license plate.
Monday, December 19, 2016
If you’re like me, right about now you’re wondering what to buy for the Master Sommelier in your life for Christmas. There are 230 Master Sommeliers in the world. Though it’s possible the one in the Philippines was shot by the President. Oh, yes, it’s true. You always Duterte the one you love. One down, 229 to go. Those 207 men, and 23 of these other kind of people, not sure what they are really, but they smell good, how did they get their pins again?, can be difficult to buy gifts for. They’re picky by nature. For example, most of them will only put their nose in a fine Burgundy, a Grower Champagne, and Fred Dame.
Holiday shopping is coming down to the wire. I have a few ideas for you for what to buy for that persnickety Master Sommelier on your Christmas list. The catalog is over at the Wine Advocate's newish Wine Journal site. Grab your Apple pay and head on over there. No comments allowed over there, but feel free to return and leave your milk, cookies and automatic weapons here for good ol' Santa Hose.
Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!
Thank you for your support of my stupid blog throughout 2016. Perhaps in 2017 I'll get it right. Don't bet on it!
WINE ADVOCATE'S WINE JOURNAL
Monday, December 12, 2016
Well, one thing about Trump winning the election, we’ll have a White Christmas this year. And a lovely tree decorated with big shiny balls, courtesy of Anthony Weiner. Though one would assume that Hillary will have a Blew Christmas.
The holidays are upon us. I’m not sure I’m in the mood to celebrate, though after reading about plans to clearcut several hundred acres and threaten watersheds for more vineyard development in Napa Valley for Walt Wines, I am ready to deck the Halls. However, in the spirit of the season, which seems to be Bourbon-barrel-aged wines (what’s new about that? Silver Oak did it for 30 years), I wanted to express my wishes for gifts I hope the wine business receives this holiday season.
Let’s begin with the gift of forgiveness. I hope that we find it in our hearts to forgive poor Rudy Kurniawan, and all the other wine forgers in the world. It’s only wine. Furthermore, it’s wine coveted by the worst sorts of people—wealthy wine collectors. It’s mostly dirty money used to buy fake wines. There’s a poetry to that. There’s peace of mind in knowing that the cellars featured in glossy wine publications, the doting owner standing in front of his collection like King Tut in his tomb, are probably full of fakes, much like the staff of the glossy magazine itself. We have Rudy and his like to thank for that. And consider this, the more fakes there are in the market the greater the value of the real things. It worked for tits! Try to think of Rudy as the breast implant king of wine. Hard to be mad at the guy.
Though it may be much harder to forgive the auction houses that have gone unpunished for their part in the scam. They received a healthy cut of Dr. Conti’s ill-gotten gains, and laughed all the way to the Left Bank. I would wish this holiday season that everyone take a year off from buying wines at auction. Throw away your Acker Merrall catalogs, your Sotheby’s wine porn strokebook. Give the money to your local wine merchant. Buy wines from struggling young producers. Invest in your local wine bar. Boycott auctions. Fakes only go away when there’s no market for them—the Cosby Effect. And Acker Merrall practiced Cosbyism—Convince them there’s something good in their glass, then fuck ‘em!
While we’re at it, let’s forgive John Fox of Premier Cru for peddling phony wine futures. As if there are any other kind. He did the best he could. Give me tens of millions of dollars for pieces I have to write two years from now and, trust me, there are going to be some mighty happy hookers out there. It’s sweetly ironic that his name is John, and Fox. I’m reminded of Aesop’s fable of the Fox and the Grapes. If a bunch of sheep had come along and offered Aesop’s fox a bunch of money for grapes he knew he was never going to able to obtain anyway, he would have taken it, too! That we cannot forgive John Fox is sour grapes on our part. Hey, it’s not like he sold them fakes! Or burned down a warehouse full of other peoples wines. He had integrity! He sold people imaginary wines from a warehouse that didn’t exist. Think of the money he took as gratuities for his wonderful storytelling. Hard to be mad at the guy.
And what about the gift of peace of mind? I think the wine business needs a big dose of peace of mind. I, for one, am tired of all the people taking potshots at the Natural Wine movement. That’s cowardly, and I won’t stand for it. These Natural Wine people are doing God’s work, freeing Him to create more Master Sommeliers from the ribs of Fred Dame. You’d think they’d be women once in a while, but He works in mysterious ways. As does God. Anyhow, it’s time for the wine business to make peace between the Natural Wine folks and the people who make inferior wine. I know this, the wine doesn’t care if it’s Natural Wine or not. Wine is wine. Is it organic, biodynamic, authentic, honest, natural or Certified Sensitive®? Who cares? Let’s not judge. Let’s love wine unconditionally. Let’s embrace each wine for what it is. A way for us to get hammered. A way to impress others. A way to feel better about ourselves. That’s why we got into the wine business, after all. The wine is only secondary to our need for affirmation and envy. Let’s not muddle that with unnecessary and pointless conversations about how authentic a wine might be. Does it make us feel superior? That’s the only job of a wine.
Also, this Christmas, how about the gift of humility? Can we stop pretending that being a sommelier is an important job? Or wine critic? Or wine writer? /satirist? There are more sommeliers now than there are homeless veterans. I saw a somm at a busy intersection with a cardboard sign that said, “Will Decant for Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.” It’s really sad when they aim so low. In Sonoma County, near where I live, there’s an encampment of unemployed sommeliers living under the freeway. On warm nights, they huddle together for cold.
Is there a chance this holiday season that wine critics will stop gloating all the time? It isn’t that hard to be a wine critic. I think that’s rather apparent. In fact, the only hard thing about being a wine critic is having to write countless descriptions of wine and not sound like a complete jackass. Which no one has done yet. Reading Parker’s descriptions of California wine remind me of one thing—they gave Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature! For less. Parker’s body of work is every bit as unintelligible and pretentious as Dylan’s! Every bit. Of course, Parker isn’t eligible for the Nobel. It’s never awarded posthumously. Dylan only got it because his lips still move.
Awarding points to wine doesn’t take any talent at all. There’s nothing to gloat about. It’s essentially the same job as calling Bingo at the church social. People worship you because you give them the numbers they want, but, for you, it’s just random. You pick them out of a bowl. Yes, you can gloat because you get to taste all the best wines in the world, and you get your butt kissed endlessly, but deep down you know you’re a fraud. It’s a game, and you’re holding all the cards. And then you throw in a little false humility. “I gave the wine a 95+ because I may have underrated it.” Oh, how nice of you to admit you may have been a little bit wrong. We’re so grateful for your candor, your sense of honesty and purpose. It’s OK, really, give it a fucking 96! When the day comes that we taste it, which won’t happen because only 40 cases were produced, we’ll forgive you if it turns out to be a 95. Whatever the hell a 95 is.
As for wine writers, try not to be so predictable. Try to remember that every damn thing you have to say about wine was said more articulately by someone more talented than you fifty years ago. Asimov, no more wine school! Every damn month, more wine school. It’s just filler. The New York Times Wine School is the styrofoam peanuts of wine writing. How the hell do we get rid of that useless filler crap? Wine Folly! Way to be trendy. You were way out in front of the fake news phenomenon! You can fool all of the people all of the time. Now go. Matt Kramer! “Drinking Out Loud” is called belching! And it sounds the same every time you burp it up. Take some damn Gas-X. You’ll feel better, and we can get some peace and quiet.
My final wish for the wine business this holiday season is that we take ourselves and our wines a lot less seriously in the coming year. Wine is not the romantic and mystical product so many of those invested in it want us to believe it is. Wine experts are not more sophisticated or intelligent than other people. Wine reflects place like dumps reflect their neighborhood—nothing magical about it, just a lot of inevitable and endless garbage. Enjoy wine more, every wine, while you have the chance. Too much of the business revolves around making you feel there’s something better out there than what you’re drinking right now. And that has never been true.
Monday, December 5, 2016
As a young boy, Sid Heil decided he wanted to make wine his career. “My Dad taught me that white people had invented wine, and that it was an industry that was still about 99% white. But that was a long time ago, and things have changed. That might not be the case any longer. It’s probably only 97% white now. Bunch of Yao Ming types buying property, which nobody seems to care. None of those on my wine list.”
I have no idea what's wrong with me. This premise occurred to me over lunch with my beautiful wife, but I was very uncertain whether I could make it work. A few minutes later, the name "Sid Heil" jumped into my head, and I knew that the piece was demanding to be written. In a strange way, it's connected to my feelings about how sexist, even misogynist, the wine business is. If it can be misogynist, why not bigoted? And so it goes...
You'll have to jump over to Tim Atkin's award-winning site to finish reading the post. I wasn't sure Tim was going to accept the piece, truthfully, but he loved it. It says much about his character, and his four-year support of my HoseMaster nonsense. I hope I get to meet the man one day.
As ever, please feel free to leave your brilliant comments on Tim's site, or come back here and leave your remarks while disguised under a big tall, white hat.
TIM ATKIN MW