Thursday, February 23, 2017
Thoughts, News and Reviews
I seem to have collected a whole bunch of random thoughts, reviews and news. The HoseMaster of Wine™ Universe is a busy place, though, like all universes, it mostly consists of inconceivable emptiness. How I wish there were more black holes, but that’s another post altogether. Here then, in no particular order, are many of the thoughts and reviews and news I feel the need to get off my 98-lb-weakling chest.
In the March issue of Wine Enthusiast, on newsstands now, inexplicably, I wrote the piece for the last page of the magazine called “Last Drop.” The lovely Lana Bortolot, whom I met at Meadowood last year, and who then went on to become a Senior Editor at WE, commissioned the piece, and I’m very grateful. Since I first began writing humor, I always wanted to be published in either The New Yorker or Wine Enthusiast. Suck it, New Yorker! I love you, Lana!
I happened to check my stats last Sunday and noticed that I had passed the 2,000,000 page views mark. I have no idea what that measures, but it looked cool. Sort of like those McDonald’s hamburger signs, “Over 50 gazillion served.” You know that at least half of those were actually eaten. I’m very technignorant, but I do know that many of those two million hits were generated by Google’s search engines, spammers, and people to whom I owe money. Still, I’m grateful for whatever success and fame I’ve accumulated here. In many ways, HoseMaster of Wine™ has become one of the most rewarding activities I’ve ever engaged in, and that includes becoming Yelp’s “Biggest Butthole of the Year,” which is a very tough competition. Without the constant attention, I wouldn’t keep doing this crap. Thank you, truly and sincerely, all of you who check in here now and then and laugh at my hijinks. I am in your debt. Keep those cards and letters coming!
I read two wine books last month that impressed me, and I wanted to recommend them to you. I had considered writing full reviews of the books, but I went back and read my review of Kelli White’s wonderful “Napa Valley Then and Now” and I realized I just stink at book reviewing. I wanted to write a parody of myself. But that’s what I do every week, I guess.
I was browsing in my local book store right before Christmas and picked out a book from the Wine section called “Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine” by Gordon M. Shepherd, a professor of neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine—which is like having a CSW, only not as prestigious, obviously, because there are no letters after his name. Frankly, I learned more from the 200 pages of this book than I’ve learned from any other wine book I can remember over the past decade or so. If your career is about tasting wine, you’d be an idiot not to read it, and I don’t care how many letters are after your name. The title tells you what it’s about, but I guarantee you that if you read this book it will change the way you think about tasting wine, and change the way you taste wine professionally. Shepherd is hardly a compelling science writer, he’s no Stephen Jay Gould, but he writes about a complex subject in a clear and precise style. I thought I knew how the senses of taste and smell work, but “Neuroenology” made me feel like Donald Trump at a Mensa meeting. Shepherd clearly knows the subject. Wine, well, he clearly likes it, but doesn’t quite get it, but that’s not the point of his book. His passages about Memory and Wine, about how your brain processes smell, about how the way you smell a wine to some degree dictates your impression of it (the length of time you sniff, deeply or quickly, changes things), his chapter on how much and how subconsciously seeing the wine alters our perceptions, the insightful things he points out about tasting notes—I’ve never encountered another book as authoritative and useful on such an often overlooked subject in the wine writing world. And there’s a lot more wonderful information in the book than that. It’s the coolest wine book I’ve come across in a long time.
I’ve known Patrick J. Comiskey for a long time. I finally got around to reading “American Rhône,” Comiskey’s history of the Rhône varieties in California. The subject might not be fascinating to the every day wine lover, but Comiskey is a very talented writer, with, to paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane, an inordinate fondness for “peripatetic.” His verbal portraits of the characters who became part of the original Rhône Rangers (which I always thought was a typically Grahmesque pun, but turns out to have been coined by Steve Edmunds) are so perfect and precisely observed that I found myself eager to see what Comiskey had to say about all of these famous California wine figures, most of whom I have encountered in my wine career. He nails them, one long home run after another. If you’re one of those folks who thinks this isn’t an interesting subject for a book, you should reconsider. Comiskey is such an engaging writer, he could probably make even Oregon Pinot Gris interesting. I said, “probably.” His essays on the different Rhône varieties are very good, and would be useful for anyone who isn’t versed on these wonderful grapes. It’s as well-researched a book as I’ve come across in a while—the wine book world is awash in lazy writing, so it’s nice to read someone who cares about facts. Remember facts? I am so weary of reading fact-adjacent wine writing, writing which is not only worthless and dishonest, but dull. Comiskey has a lively sense of the absurd, a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, and he knows how to tell a damn story. I lived through just about everything in this book, went to the first Rhône Rangers tasting, and many thereafter, have met most of the characters in the book, so I was sure I would be bored. Nope. This is wine journalism at its best, which is not meant as faint praise, but the way things are going, it just might be. Support one of the wine journalists who actually lives up to the name, and buy Comiskey’s book. It’s terrific.
There’s a restaurant in my home town of Healdsburg, named Bravas, that features Spanish tapas. I go there fairly often. The food is consistently good, it has wonderful ambience, and a decent selection of Spanish wines. But the idiots who own it think that it’s part of the Spanish restaurant experience to use water glasses, you know, flat-bottomed, cylindrical glasses, in place of wine glasses. If you ask for a “regular” wine glass, they don’t have them. You know why they don’t have them? Because every single wine lover who eats there would ask for them because drinking wine out of a water glass is insulting to the wine, insulting to the customer, and completely disregards the basic purpose of a wine glass, which is to focus the aromas towards your nose. Maybe my Rolls Royce isn't authentic because the steering wheel isn't on the right-hand side--that's how they are in England, after all. I'm too ashamed now to drive it. I feel more authentic in my Prius. Because I'm also a hybrid.
I hate faux Spanish restaurants and faux Italian restaurants that pretend the only wine glass you ever get in Spain or Italy is shaped like a water glass. And for a restaurant to use them in the heart of wine country is unforgivable. I don’t want to order a really nice Rioja and drink it from your cheap, crappy, inappropriate water glass. And I don’t want to be made to feel like a pretentious jerk by bringing in my own wine glasses. Your customers, Bravas, are more important than your attempt at authenticity at your Disneyesque Spanish joint. Why not make the waiters speak Spanish? That’s more authentic for a restaurant in Spain than water glasses for wine. You own five (or is it six?) other restaurants with actual wine glasses. What is your fucking problem with wine glasses at your fake Spanish place? Get some. Put water in the water glasses. Lastly, don’t buy Riedel or Spiegelau. Thank you.