Monday, April 29, 2013
Lo Hai Qu has been bugging me to let her write another post on HoseMaster of Wine™. Three days a week, she’s here at Clos du Hose cataloging the pallets of wine I receive as samples, answering my fan mail (you can’t believe how much ricin I go through), and organizing my panty drawer. Qu does this simply to sit at my feet and absorb my wine wisdom. I think of her as Human Depends. But every now and then I give in and allow her to voice her opinion in this prestigious space. Qu is representative of the generation known as Millennials, so named because they grew up around the year 2000. I’m part of the generation known as the Boomers, so named for the hot, fetid gas we explosively propel from our butts, which we refer to as “wisdom.”
So here is Lo Hai Qu on What Millennials Want From Wine.
I think about wine, like, a lot. Me and my friends think it’s the coolest way to get drunk. Other people my age (I hate that “Millennials” tag, it sounds like we’re insects) like to get buzzed on craft beer. Fucking craft beer! Isn’t that some kind of oxymoron? This guy I know, he’s one of my Friends with Benefits, though I’m thinking of upping his co-pay, is all proud that he knows a lot about beer. Who cares? It’s beer. Like he’s some kind of beermelier, all snobby and shit about beer. Beer is lame. I mean, horses drink it, what does that tell you? That beer only tastes good with fucking hay.
The HoseMaster wanted me to write about what Millipedes want when it comes to wine. He’s an asshole. Thinks he’s all funny and smart, but, actually, he’s old and boring and smells like he drank Ann Coulter’s leg bag. But he lets me taste the wines, and I’ve learned a lot. Mostly that there’s a lot of crappy-ass wine out there, and a lot of it is expensive.
OK, first of all, so what my friends and me want is wine that’s authentic. You know what they say about authentic, right? That if you have to say you’re authentic, you’re probably not. So it’s like saying you’re sober. Which you never are. So it’s the same with wine, it’s almost never authentic. But that’s what we want anyway. See, I think about this, like, a lot. And what we Monarchs actually want is to be convinced that a wine is authentic. It doesn’t really have to be. Duh. We just need to think it’s authentic, and then it is. This is how we roll. We have 578 Friends on FaceBook, and 2500 Followers on Twitter. We don’t care if they are actually our friends or followers. “Friends” is a meaningless concept to us. Our only real friend is our iPhone. It actually talks to you, and not all judgmental like your parents do.
Wine experts, and they’re all dead to me, like every time I see that awesome show “ The Walking Dead” I think it’s all James Laube and Robert Parker and Steve Heimoff come to suck my brains out and I’d like to kill them but they just won’t die (which is what wineries think too), anyway, wine experts like to think they know authentic wines. As if knowledge is the only way to know stuff. We don’t need knowledge, we have Google. Besides, me and my Mealybug friends can tell from the label. If it’s got some fancy looking chateau on the label, or if the label is kind of boring and just has a bunch of fancy script-type writing on it, no pictures, or if it’s from some place that our parents buy a lot of wine from, it’s not authentic. Authentic wine has cool names. And it’s not stacked up in Safeway. It has to be stacked up in Whole Foods. Or one of our friends put a picture of the label on their FaceBook page and it has like 120 likes. Then it’s probably authentic.
Anyway, we can take our best friend out of our pants and look it up. Because one of the other things we Mantises want is a story. We buy wines with good stories. Like the winemaker really cares about the land. That’s a good story. We know it's just a bogus story, but it's real. I read that story a lot when I read about wine. Or another good one is, the winery makes the best wine they can that expresses the place it’s from. See, that’s what I want. I want wine to express where it’s from, though I haven’t the faintest fucking idea what that means unless I look the appellation up on Wikipedia. If a wine expresses where it’s from and the winemaker cares about the Earth, and he doesn’t do all this chemical, modern, technical manipulation of it, it’s going to be real and authentic. And that’s what I want; and I’ll use my iPhone to Google it and get GPS to the nearest Whole Foods that sells it. I want it to be natural. I mean, really, how hard is that to understand?
And I guess we have to talk about price. Marsupials (those are insects, right?) don’t have a lot of money, mostly. I mean, I went to a good college, so I’m in debt up to my blowhole. The minute I read about a wine I want to try and it costs more than $20 my eyes glaze over like I’m watching porn with my dog. I see the prices on all these samples that overflow at Clos du Hose and I’m wondering, like, who buys this shit? First of all, how can “real” wine be expensive? Look at food. OK, so how much does an organically grown peach cost? Like two bucks tops? But Peach Melba at some stupid restaurant? Like $15. Which is more authentic? Millennials (those are insects, right?) aren’t really asking for much. What’s all the fuss?
Millennials want wines that are authentic, that are unique expressions of interesting varieties grown by dedicated vintners who spare no labor or expense, who love the land and cherish the Earth and all its resources, who never, they swear to God, never manipulate the wines, who we feel a connection to because of their story so we want to support them, and, finally, the wines are also delicious and compelling, get you drunk, and don’t cost more than $15. Fucking simple.
And you douchebags think we’re spoiled.
Monday, April 22, 2013
I’m not sure when I first noticed the problem. It only slowly worked its way into my conscious mind. I think the first incident was an old guy I saw standing along Highway 29 just in front of Opus One holding a sign that said, “Homeless Somm—Looks of Disdain 25¢” I was being tailgated by a limo filled with a bachelorette party, Feels on Wheels, so I couldn’t stop. But the sight of him, unshaven and dirty, like a nominee for a Country Music Award, extending his empty tastevin pleading for quarters, stuck in my mind. And once that happened, I began to notice them everywhere.
Leaving the grocery store parking lot a few days later, there was another old somm, distinctive in his worn tuxedo, looking more like an attendant at a funeral parlor in Appalachia than a sommelier (he should be working at French Laundry, I thought), pushing an old, wobbly dessert cart filled with his last earthly possessions—a few corkscrews, a copy of the 1984 edition of Parker’s Buying Guide, several logo hats from varied wineries around the world (I noticed one that said, “Chapeau Souverain”), and an autographed and well-worn photo of Robert Lawrence Balzer. He was clearly mad. I walked over to him and, as inconspicuously as possible, dropped a dollar bill into his tastevin.
“Thanks,” he said, “that’s usually where I urinate.”
Why, I wondered, were homeless old sommeliers turning up everywhere? It’s understandable that they’re unemployed. They got old. Their senses of smell and taste had abandoned them, all the bluffing and prevaricating in the world can’t stop the march of time. Old umpires go blind and live off their pensions. Lame ballerinas open dance schools and torment young anorexics. What does an old guy who’s lost his sense of smell and taste do? All the major wine critic jobs are already taken. But I thought there was a Home for Old Sommeliers. I was sure there was, but why, then, was I suddenly seeing the poor old wine stewards out on the streets begging for food, work, shelter and the latest issue of Mutineer Magazine (apparently, very absorbent)? I decided to find out.
In San Francisco one breezy afternoon, I spoke to an older gentleman who was approaching strangers and trying to sell them old corkscrews for a dollar apiece. “I must have had a couple of hundred of these when I retired from the restaurant,” he told me, “but now I’m down to about twenty. That doesn’t auger well for me.” He chuckled at his own pun. Asshole. So I kicked him. You know, no matter how many times you do it, it just feels right to kick a sommelier.
I asked him how he ended up on the streets after a lifetime of service. “I spent twenty-five years as a sommelier, worked in some of San Francisco’s best restaurants, talked down to its wealthiest residents. In fact, I was the guy who first marked up wine list prices 400%! That was me. Before that, hell, you could pay a few bucks above retail for a wine in a nice joint. I should have trademarked the idea. Everybody stole it. And do you know who created the first wine-by-the-glass? ME! Listen, I told my boss at the time, you’re screwing ‘em on the cocktails, we can do the same damn thing with wine. It doesn’t even have to be good wine! If I tell ‘em it’s good wine, they’ll believe me. I used to sell White Zinfandel for eight bucks a glass. Then it was Chardonnay with residual sugar. Now it’s Moscato. The public doesn’t get any smarter, you know.”
He was very articulate, and, at first, didn’t seem at all mentally ill. But then he told me he’d been married to both Jancis Robinson and Jay McInerney. McInerney I believed. He also claimed that he loved orange wines. I wondered how a guy with mental issues like that could survive on the streets.
Had he ever tried to get into the Old Sommeliers Home? “Oh, for Parker’s sake,” he told me, “yeah, I was in that loony bin for a couple of years. Have you ever been around a bunch of old sommeliers? Hell, man, they can outbore Michel Chapoutier. You fart and they all start to chant, “Mercaptan, O My Mercaptan.” That they can smell. They endlessly bitch about the wines they serve at the home. Like you really need Sancerre to wash down lung oysters. It’s horrible there. And the nurses treat you like crap. Taunting you all the time. ‘How’s your worm workin’ now, old man?’ I just up and left one night. Besides, I hear they closed the place. Ran out of money. Turned ‘em all out into the streets to fend for themselves. Bunch of old guys with no usable skills at all. Sommeliers don’t have skills, they don’t do anything useful. They get people drunk and take their money. Know what we used to call that profession? Father O’Reilley.”
I decided to check on whether the Old Sommeliers Home had been closed. He was right, it was gone. No one had noticed. But I guess there just weren’t that many sommeliers to put there. There just weren’t that many sommeliers in the United States thirty years ago. Americans didn’t buy wine in restaurants, not unless it featured some sort of colored person—a Blue Nun or a Green Hungarian or a Zeller Schwarz Kat. Yet it won’t be long before the need for an Old Sommeliers Home will be desperate. In recent years, there has been a huge infestation of sommeliers. Where will they go when their noses fail, their tongues become as tasteless as Verdicchio?
There are more sommeliers now than ever before. More degrees, more letters to append to your otherwise worthless name, more hubris walking the restaurant floors than a stadium filled with Grammy Award winners. You have a “well-chosen” list of 20 Italian wines in your wood-fired pizza joint—you’re a sommelier! You took an online test and passed the fifth time, you’re a Level One sommelier! You work in a wine bar with eleven different wines that you buy from a different broker every month because you owe all the other ones money—you’re a sommelier! The world crawls with them now. They have Journals and conventions, they’re rock stars and gatekeepers, they’re winemakers and tastemakers. They’re this generation’s deejays.
I asked the old sommelier in the park if he had any advice for all the new, young sommeliers out there. Any words of wisdom from all his years being a sommelier.
“Being a sommelier is like a Riedel wine glass—it’s beautiful and clear when you first pick it up, but everyone can see through it, and, eventually, you can be sure, you will be a victim of planned obsolescence.”
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Monday, April 15, 2013
Here's the first chapter of a Pulp Fiction novel starring the HoseMaster that I first published on September 29, 2009. Written in a strange style that's sort of a cross between Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, the form is the perfect platform for one-liners and outrageous plots. I wrote fourteen chapters of this very shaggy dog story, and never concluded it. But, man, they were fun to write. Here, from the Golden Age of HoseMaster of Wine, long since past, is The M. S. Conspiracy.
A HoseMaster of Wine Pulp Fiction Classic
Chapter 1 Strange Path
I'm a dick. A private dick, but a dick nonetheless. I make a living as a dick, if you call digging through people's trash for private information about them living. You should see what people put in their garbage. It's disgusting. You can tell a lot about a person sifting through their garbage. You see everything that fills their rotten insides, all the filth and refuse they fill their lives with. In fact, life is like a garbage pail, you fill it with useless and stomach-turning stuff and then pay people to haul it away. But not before the putrefying smell of it sickens everyone. I'm the dick who gets paid to sift through life's disgusting garbage. Which is how I got involved in the worst case of my career, a case that nearly got me killed, a case that led me to depths of inhumanity I didn't know existed, which is like Sean Hannity discovering a whole new level of stupid. I thought I knew about garbage, about conspiracy, about evil. But then I got involved with a group that changed me, that filled me with a loathing for people I'd never felt before. Where do I begin?
I don't know how these people find me. I've got a rundown shithole of an office in the sleepy little wine country town of Healdsburg, a town so dull the main hobby is going down to the local hospital to watch folks having contractions. And those are at the proctology ward. Healdsburg is a tourist town now. Once upon a time it served the farmers in the community, now it serves expensive wines and fancy meals. Healdsburg has more tasting rooms than Dick Cheney has condos in Hell, but I like it here. The landscape is beautiful, and when the urge hits me it's the easiest thing in the world to find a drunken tourist in a see-through cotton dress to come home with me and learn how to spit. I see it as a public service.
I'd just wrapped up my recent case involving the Illuminatti, the Freemasons and the Osmond Family, having successfully foiled their plans to prove Michael Jackson was married and had fathered several children and primates and that the titles to his greatest hits were actually an anagram of "Diana Ross is Mary Magdalene's daughter with Thomas Jefferson," when she walked into my Healdsburg office. She smelled dangerous with a pinch of crazy, but I like that smell. It's like Ann Coulter farted on Lou Dobbs--you get the same smell in a good vintage of Silver Oak. But she was gorgeous--blonde and busty with the kind of legs you get in Tokaji Essensia--long and oily. I've seen puttonyos before, and she was way more than five.
"Are you the HoseMaster?" she asked.
"Sure," I said, "how can I help you?"
"I'm told that you know people in the wine business, important people." I was having trouble looking her in the eye. I hadn't seen jugs stacked that high since I bought my wine at a gas station.
"Yeah, I know some important people. Who is it you're looking to meet? And don't say James Laube. I killed him two weeks ago. It was self-defense. He threw his 100 point scale at me--it was banged up, utterly useless, but it damn near killed me. So I plugged him. Just heard they're giving me a James Beard Award for it."
"No, you misunderstand." She sat down across from me and when she crossed those legs I'm pretty sure I got a glimpse of the Sacramento Delta and most of its tributaries, but it was hot enough to be Lodi. "I want to hire you to help me join the secret society of M.S."
I'd heard those evil bastards were going to be in Healdsburg. Recruiting. Their rituals, their "tests," were secret, and they were very careful about who they allowed to pass, who they allowed to join their putrid ranks. But I'd heard stories, horrifying stories, stories that revolved around ritual disemboweling, waterboarding, and Evan Goldstein lectures. Why would this babe want to be an M.S.?
"From what I know, Ma'am..."
"Call me Veronica."
"From what I know, Veronica, the Master Sommeliers don't like women, don't really want women in their ranks, make the whole thing a nightmare for a woman to join. And that's if I can even get you in the door. Do you have the faintest idea what it's like to be an M.S.? Do you really know what evil those people are capable of?"
"I know more about it than you can even imagine, HoseMaster. I have no fear of them, I know exactly who they are and what they stand for. Now, can you help me or not?"
"Oh, I can help you alright, but it comes with a price."
"My friends and I are willing to pay any price to penetrate the M.S. society. Name it."
I paused, took another sip of my Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc, noting the lovely Musque fragrance. Or was that Veronica? "Let's just say I want to dredge the Sacramento Delta when all this is through."
"You're a strange one, HoseMaster," Veronica said, leaning over my desk and giving me a view of the Cote Blonde and Cote Brune, making me think of Guigal and his Bodacious La-La's, "but I like you."
To Be Continued
Friday, April 12, 2013
Jonathan Winters died yesterday. I have had a handful of comedy heroes in my life. Jonathan Winters was one. He was the comedian’s comedian. All the great comedians of his era worshiped him. Mostly because he was just brilliantly funny and fearless, with a gift for voices and improvisation that no one could come near.
Jonathan was one of the many regulars on Jack Paar’s talk show. I was a kid, twelve years old or so, when I first saw him perform. I’d already fallen in love with jokes and comedy, memorizing comedy albums and practicing my timing by simply learning the pace of each comic I admired, from Woody Allen to Bill Cosby to Tom Lehrer (who recently turned 85—Happy Birthday, Tom, you’re another of my personal comedy heroes). Jonathan Winters was a whole different game.
You could see that Jack Paar was thrilled, and scared to death at the same time, to have him on his show. Paar often said that he never wanted to know what Jonathan Winters was going to talk about, or how he would look when he walked out on stage. And when Jonathan Winters got going, the tears of laughter would stream down Paar’s face. Mine, too. As soon as he walked on stage, I began to smile. It made me want to be funny.
Winters once walked out as a “faun,” announcing Spring. With a silly accent, he proceeded to do about ten uninterrupted minutes of pure silliness and genius. Or he might appear in drag as Maude Frickert, the World’s Oldest Airline Stewardess. Maude was a hard-drinking old woman based on Winter’s Aunt Lou, the classic Dirty Old Broad. There were seemingly hundreds of people living in his brain, and you never knew which one would be in charge.
Genius is rare in any field. Winters was a comic genius. He didn’t tell jokes, he didn’t really have punchlines. He created a world and you were immediately drawn into it. He could make you laugh with a simple look on his face, or a tone of voice. Jack Paar famously handed him a stick on the air one night, and Winters did five minutes of brilliant and funny improvisation with that simple stick. It’s wondrous to watch even now. There is no one like him--a simple definition of genius.
I always wanted to meet him. Just to shake the hand of a great, genuinely great, comic mind. One of my most valued books is a book signed by Jonathan Winters, a book he wrote entitled “Winters’ Tales.” That’s as close as I’ll come.
Throughout his life, he famously battled his demons, was in and out of treatment for mental breakdowns. He must have known great heartache and struggle. But he had a great influence on me. It was Jonathan Winters’ example of fearlessness, his ability to just let it fly, say and do whatever your comic mind told you to say, that I always tried to emulate. I stayed up late whenever he was on Jack Paar, or Johnny Carson, or anywhere else. I’m not sure anyone has made me laugh more, and laugh in a way that isn’t about the intellect, but about silliness and childishness and imagination.
Our heroes get old and die. But Jonathan Winters was forever a child. And it’s always that much more tragic when a child dies. I’ll be on YouTube watching him. The tears will be from laughter. I like to think that’s how he’d want to be remembered.
Here's a short tribute that might make you laugh: Jonathan Winters
Thursday, April 11, 2013
Splooge Estate is proud to announce its newest, some might say thickest, releases yet under our proud new banner, The Linoleum Project™. Who knows how high the ceiling is for great wines? Many wineries strive to find that out. At Splooge Estate, we thought we’d try to see where the linoleum floor for wine lies, and so we named our quest, The Linoleum Project™. The Linoleum Project™ is designed to showcase wines from unusual grapes grown in unusual places and pretty much just made however the hell we feel like making them. These are wines of Intention, Pretension and Lack of Attention. We think you’ll like them, but, really, Enjoyment is not the idea. The idea is to take an ancient beverage designed to deliver Pleasure and make it an Intellectual Journey. Frankly, many wine lovers will just be too stupid to understand these wines. Too many wines today are about Hedonism; the wines of Splooge Estate are about Onanism; with The Linoleum Project™, we focus on Masochism. We’re not just after the denial of Pleasure, we want to satisfy the wine lover’s feelings of self-loathing and doubt. Perhaps not that hard to achieve, but no other winery seems to even try.
As you would expect from a Splooge Estate project, the wines of The Linoleum Project™ are Natural, Authentic and Real. To take it even further, the wines of The Linoleum Profect™ are also Certified Sensitive. Certified Sensitive wines are acutely tuned in to what you say and feel about them. We ask that you not talk about their flaws while drinking them. THEY’RE RIGHT THERE, ASSWIPE! They can hear you. How would you like it if one of our Certified Sensitive wines talked about that big red thing you always pick at on your nose? Certified Sensitive wines want you to try to understand them even if you don’t really like them at first—think Neo-Nazi Skinheads. With some time and patience and compassion, you might just discover that you actually do like them, or at least understand them. And that’s the point. Any well-made wine can deliver happiness. A wine from The Linoleum Project™ challenges your brain, your sense of smell, and your ability to forgive yourself for spending fifty bucks on creatively packaged crap. Please remember our motto: You Might Be Too Stupid to Understand Our Wines. Chances are this applies to you.
We started The Linoleum Project™ ten years ago when we stumbled upon an ancient vineyard planted to German Colombard. German Colombard is a rare grape known as a “conquering grape.” It conquered French Colombard and Green Hungarian to become German Colombard. Don’t try to figure this out. It’s grape eugenics performed by a higher grape intelligence. The two grapes were forced to cross breed. In viticultural terms, it’s referred to as a Cluster Fuck. But never mind that, the point is that we discovered these old German Colombard vines, which probably originated around 1939, in an untended vineyard behind an abandoned Best Buy. We knew we had stumbled upon destiny. We tended the vineyard and, in 2003, we harvested a mere 50 pounds of fruit from the six acres of vines. We’d have harvested more but homeless people kept eating them. (We recently planted two acres of German Colombard at the Splooge Estate from seeds we sifted from the homeless people’s excrement. Sadly, the vineyard seems to be afflicted with a rare mold, Hobotrytis.)
The 50 pounds of German Colombard were fermented on their own skins and were not destemmed. Basically, we forgot they were even in the winery. After six months, the grapes were pressed (by the local dry cleaner) and the resulting juice was placed in eleven handmade Whoopee Cushions for extended aging. We did lose one container to an unfortunate birthday prank, but, damn, it was funny. We named the wine POOT, which is the German word for “hopeless,” and is taken from the work of Schopenauer. If you don’t know Schopenauer, You Might Be Too Stupid to Understand Our Wines. The 2003 POOT is now available for purchase to Splooge Estate Ejaculate™ members. There is a 1 bottle limit, and we’d like to assure you that, yes, POOT is the shimmering color of Despair. There were no added sulfites at bottling, and one of the bottles must have a fart whistle in it because one’s missing.
In 2005, a neighboring winery, who knew we were on the lookout for vineyards no one else thought were worth anything, turned us on to an old, head-pruned vineyard that we discovered was 80-year-old Frappato. The vines were not in great shape. They had more suckers than a cult wine mailing list. We decided to let this old and distinguished vineyard, located at 3200’ next to a waterfall popular with suicide victims, express itself without any interference from us. Besides, it was way out in the Boonies and a pain in the ass to get to. We harvested two tons of Frappato from the seventeen acres, most of it from twenty really happy vines.
As part of The Linoleum Project™, we love our Frappato! And, in one of those weird synergies that the Universe provides us if we’d only listen, when you say “Frappato” in a really loud voice, it sounds just like the Whoopee Cushion full of German Colombard did when Susie plopped her big ass on it on her birthday! At The Linoleum Project™ we spend way more time thinking about that kind of stuff than actually making wine.
After harvest, the Frappato was gently crushed, one berry at a time, between the butt cheeks of teenage virgins. This is the traditional way Frappato was made in Sicily a few hundred years ago, though there is not much Frappato left in Sicily, and certainly no teenage virgins. Our cult following for The Linoleum Project™ allows us access to many virgin interns who flock to Splooge for reasons only known to them. The Frappato was aged on the lees from whatever was in the barrel before the Frappato for 60 months. It was pretty good after 16 months, even had the pretty red fruit aromas of Frappato, so we figured after 60 months it would be almost four times better! It’s not, but oh well. And, please, remember that our wines are Certified Sensitive, so keep your opinions to yourself as you drink the wine—Frappato is a notoriously thin-skinned grape, and is Sicilian. You wouldn’t be the first person to die from drinking wine from The Linoleum Project™.
Monday, April 8, 2013
MacLaren Wines I’m Using to Write About Me
MacLaren Wine Company 2010 Syrah Russian River Valley $28
MacLaren Wine Company 2010 Syrah Drouthy Neebors Sonoma County $35
MacLaren Wine Company 2010 Syrah Samantha’s Vineyard Russian River Valley $38
MacLaren Wine Company 2010 Syrah Judge Family Vineyard Bennett Valley $38
I first met Steve Law, owner/winemaker/impressionist, when I was working freelance for Lot18. I never did find out what “Lot18” meant. I always thought it was a partial score. Lot18, Mets7. I was close. Turns out it’s a partial success. It’s a strange business, the online flash wine sales business. Originally on Lot18, a wine would be available for 48 hours only. It was a good way for a new winery to reach a lot of new eyes and move a significant amount of wine at an attractive discount price. But it was always a mystery which wines would sell out and which wines would just lay there like a bad date.
When I met Steve for the first time, I had just started at Lot18. I think I’d had one wine I'd curated featured on the site. It did very well, but it was Pinot Noir. You can sell Pinot Noir from a floor stack in a gas station rest room. (I bought the 2011 Pinot Noir from Cupcake’s sister brand, Urinalcake, at a Shell station. It was $8.99.9/bottle.) I was optimistic that Syrah might do as well, but, let’s face it, Syrah is tougher to get rid of than a cop you once dated. But, as I recall, I think we sold 100 cases of MacLaren Syrah on Lot18.
I love Syrah. My wine cellar probably has more Syrah than any other variety. So I’m grateful that it hasn’t really ever caught on to the degree that Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir have. In just the past few months, I’ve been able to buy absolutely world class red wines for ridiculously low prices, wines that are every bit as great, age every bit as long, as any Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Great Syrahs from the likes of Gramercy Cellars, Maison Bleue, The Ojai Vineyard (Ojai’s Roll Ranch Vineyard Syrah might be the best Syrah in California—and it’s a lousy $40), Carlisle, Peay, Rhys and, yup, MacLaren. It’s an amazing bit of luck that one of my favorite varieties is so undervalued. What can you get for $40 Pinot Noir? Usually, a Pinot Noir with Syrah in it. The wine business is full of irony.
When I began to cultivate my interest in fine wine back in the mid-70's, there weren’t any California Syrahs. There wasn’t an Internet, there weren’t cellphones, and there wasn’t gay marriage. My hunch is that planting Syrah in California is what brought about gay marriage. (Think about it--much of the work of propagating Syrah in California was done by Gary Eberle at the old Estrella River Winery, and, well, don’t we all want to live Eberle happy after?) Without any California examples available, it was the Syrah-based wines of the Rhône Valley that captivated me. And still captivate me.
I’m a fool for Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, and adore the wines of Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph. I have an emotional connection with Saint-Joseph. Though I’m not Catholic, my parents were devout jugglers, St. Joseph is my patron saint. My father’s name was Joseph, my middle name is Joseph, my father was from St. Joseph, Missouri, I was born in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, California, my gorgeous wife and I were married on St. Joseph’s Day, my high school girlfriend (oh, man, I still have it bad for her) lived on St. Joseph Avenue in Long Beach, and I loved to gobble St. Joseph’s Aspirin for Children when I was a kid. I used to sneak into the medicine chest and eat them like candy. It explains why, to this day, I don’t need sunglasses. My eyes are tinted orange.
Steve Law lived in France for ten years and also fell in love with the wines of the Rhône Valley. You can certainly find their influence in his wonderful MacLaren Syrahs. In 2010, he bottled four different Syrahs. That’s it. That’s his game plan. He apparently arrived in California from France with a love of Syrah, and a death wish. I’m reminded, for some reason, of the original Charles Shaw Winery in Napa Valley, back before Fred Franzia bought the brand and then, many years later, created Two Buck Chuck--which is to wine what Cheese Whiz is to cheese. I’m not sure which Whiz I’d rather take. Anyway, Mr. Shaw was determined to make the best Gamay in Napa Valley, going to the trouble of obtaining cuttings from Georges DuBoeuf in Beaujolais. Brilliant! Why not make the best Cabernet in Champagne? The finest orange wine in Chablis? Along those same lines, I always loved the winery model of Jepson in Mendocino, too (now Jaxon Keys), which was to make Sauvignon Blanc, Sparkling Wine, and Brandy! Three totally different sets of equipment, and not a profitable wine in the place. Sounds like a married couple and a transsexual opening a wine bar in Arkansas.
Well, it’s Steve’s collection of dimes, so if he wants to specialize in Syrah, I wish him well. I visited with him recently, and he gifted me with all four of his new releases, the 2010 MacLaren Syrahs. I don’t know how anyone could taste these wines and not fall in love with Syrah. I always ask people who claim to love Syrah, “When was the last time you ordered Syrah in a restaurant?” Usually it’s about as often as they ordered Botulism (for years, I thought Botulism was the deep religious belief in robots made from tin cans). People pay Syrah lip service, as if to seem knowledgeable and cool, and yet rarely buy it--but those fools are simply missing out.
The MacLaren 2010 Syrah Russian River Valley is Steve’s gateway Syrah. It reflects his deft touch with Syrah. The grapes are sourced from Saralee’s Trenton Station Vineyard, but it’s not vineyard designated. I guess somebody doesn’t like Saralee’s. It has great aromatics, mixing berries and herbs with flowers. That’s hitting all the right notes for Syrah from the cooler parts of the Russian River. You’d never mistake it for the youthful linearity and nerve of extremely cool climate Syrah, but it also never ventures into the upper registers of ripeness. The MacLaren is the sort of Syrah that makes the case for Syrah being the next “hot” grape in restaurants, though it never will be. Syrah’s success in the United States has been predicted for twenty-five years, and yet it just seems to get less popular—it’s the Ralph Nader of grapes. (They’re both sort of leathery.) But MacLaren’s Russian River Syrah is delicious, and complex enough to be beguiling. Even the second day its freshness and length weren’t diminished. All that for $28. Really? And you don’t want to drink that?
“Drouthy Neebors” is Scots for “Thirsty Friends.” It’s also the name of MacLaren’s wine club. Catchy, right? Steve is a Scot (and, really, if you have the great fortune to meet Steve, you need to ask him to do his Sean Connery/James Bond impression—it kills, but it has a license), so it makes perfect sense to him. To me, Drouthy Neebors sounds like Gomer Pyle’s slow sister. OK, that’s reaching. Moving on, the MacLaren 2010 Drouthy Neebors Syrah is a blend of the three MacLaren vineyard sources, Samantha’s, Judge Family and Trenton Station. I think that it’s a common perception that blends like this are made after the fact, put together from the leftover barrels from the single-vineyard wines. That’s not usually the case, in my experience. I know Steve puts together the Drouthy Neebors Syrah before he assembles the single-vineyard Syrahs. Like all of Steve’s fabulous Syrahs, it has a freshness, a racy backbone of acidity, that carries the deep, rich, black fruit all the way to the finish. One thing I noted about all of MacLaren’s wines is their mouth-watering freshness. They pop in your mouth. It’s what makes them so damned tasty. The Drouthy Neebors has a darker tone than the Russian River Syrah, which I would attribute to the Samantha’s in the blend, and is spicier. I’d say I liked them equally, but, if anything, the Drouthy Neebors, name aside, is more elegant.
It always seems strange to use "elegant" as an adjective when referring to wine, though I use it all the time. We use so many words like that in our endeavor to make sense of wine. But just as we might agree that Fred Astaire is elegant where Gene Kelly is athletic, we might agree that one wine is elegant while another is certainly graceful, but not necessarily elegant. I know what I mean, but I’m not sure anyone else does. (This is true of everything I write on HoseMaster of Wine™.) Describing wine is much like trying to capture a character’s essence in a novel. You can list the character’s traits straightforwardly, or you can create a character in the reader’s mind in a more meaningful way by illustrating who he is by his mannerisms, clothes, speech patterns, actions… You’re trying for an impression, not specifics. Because specifics, such as a laundry list of adjectives, don’t leave room for the imagination; and wine, and fiction, are all about capturing our imagination. So I’ll leave you to imagine the elegance of the Drouthy Neebors.
Perhaps it’s the influence of the vineyard’s name, but I loved the MacLaren 2010 Samantha’s Vineyard Syrah. How could I not love something named Samantha? If you’ve ever had DuMol’s “Eddie’s Patch” Syrah, another great Syrah, then I'll mention that this wine is sourced from the same vineyard (but is about half the price). Andy Smith, DuMol’s winemaker, is also a Scot, and he’s the one who introduced Steve to the vineyard. Those Scots stick together like the pages of a Playboy Playmate fold-out. This Syrah, and the MacLaren Judge Family Syrah, are two of the best Syrahs I’ve tasted in quite a while. It blossomed over the course of dinner, improving with every single sip. My wife and I couldn’t stop mentioning how good it was. Wine as oral sex. “Yeah, that’s good, wow, yeah, really, that’s perfect. Damn, I finished too quickly.” So, not elegant. More voluptuous. The vineyard is very steep, Steve tells me, as steep as those crazy vineyards you see in Côte-Rôtie. There’s an old saying, “Syrah loves a view,” and these grapes had quite the view. What did it taste like? Plums and berries, a luscious juiciness, layer upon layer of flavor on the palate, and a long and generous finish. We’d have easily finished a second bottle if one had been around.
I just looked at the description of this wine on MacLaren’s website. It has a classic final line, “This is our boldest Syrah in 2010 and can be enjoyed alone or with friends.” So, unless you’re really limber, not like oral sex. Steve, if you’re reading this, a simple question. What wine can’t be enjoyed alone or with friends?
Finally, the MacLaren 2010 Judge Family Vineyard Syrah. The first time I smelled this wine, my wine memory bank immediately thought, “Saint-Joseph.” It has the floral, powdery, herbal, austere character of those wonderful Syrahs. But it's also loaded with black fruit. Here is the very definition of cool climate Syrah. And Bennett Valley is very cool. The grapes for the Judge Family Syrah were picked in November, yet the alcohol is only 13%! Makes LeBron James’ hangtime seem pitiful. It’s very different from the Samantha’s, but I love them both. This Syrah took me back to my old love, the wines of the Northern Rhône. I thought Saint-Joseph, but others might think Hermitage. It’s great wine, but doesn’t quite have the drama of the best Hermitage. It has everything else though. I'm confident you could put it in a blind lineup of Northern Rhônes and not be able to pick it out. I know I couldn't. It has intensity, length, mouthfeel, and was sensational, and I mean sensational, with the lamb we were having for dinner. It’s all of $38. For world class Syrah! I know I’ll be laying some down to see where it goes. Give it six or seven years, and I’m guessing it will be gangbusters.
Altogether, MacLaren produces about 800 cases of wine. And you can drink them alone or with Drouthy Neebors.
As an aside, I know Steve is looking for a broker/distributor in Southern California. I know, just what you need, more Syrah in your book. But these are gorgeous wines at very fair prices, and even you can sell them. So don't hesitate to get in touch with him.
This is your Steve Law, and Order website:
MACLAREN WINE COMPANY
Thursday, April 4, 2013
I confess that I was very surprised when the sommelier approached our table and he was only nine years old. It was an expensive restaurant with an extraordinary wine list, and I’d heard that the MS who was the sommelier had one of the best palates in the world. Rumor had it the food wasn’t that spectacular. It was a notorious knockoff of a Thomas Keller restaurant, most of the recipes stolen from him. So when I showed up with reservations for two at the famed Poached Per Se, I was there to learn about wine from the finest, and already legendary, sommelier on the planet. He was picking his nose.
Jimmy Steward MS was born to be a sommelier from the first moment he emerged from his mother’s womb. That first time he stuck his head out, Jimmy quickly pulled it back inside, and didn’t reappear for several hours. Sound familiar? He had already begun to master his calling. He was already a cervix professional.
As an infant, Jimmy refused to nurse out of just any bottle. He preferred only the finest Champagne, the Grower Champagne Tit-du-Cuvee, and turned his nose up to baby formula or Veuve Clicquot, which are indistinguishable in a blind, or nearly unfocused, tasting. His mother, Jancis Steward, was astonished that little Jimmy could ingest so much Champagne and not seem drunk. “I never knew he was wasted until he asked for a cigarette.” Doctors were amazed that Jimmy didn’t die. And, now, after years of medical research that began due to Jimmy’s amazing life, doctors know that an MS is born with an astonishingly large and high-functioning liver, which compensates for the associated brain damage. Whereas people with large brains and normal livers know enough to stay out of the wine business.
Jimmy was holding a wine list and pulling at his Johnson. No, he didn’t have to pee (I don’t think), he was simply carrying around a Hugh Johnson book that he was editing for mistakes. He was wearing a little tiny tuxedo, I later learned it was a Tom Cruise hand-me-down, and a miniature tastevin, which had a Miley Cyrus sticker in the bowl. “Miley reminds me of great Napa Cabernet,” Jimmy told me, “at about 20 they go down really easy.”
When most children start attending kindergarten, Jimmy was already studying for his MS. A couple of times every week, Jimmy and four other candidates got together to taste and study together. At first, the other four were distracted by Jimmy’s constant questions. “Does the tooth fairy live on the moon?” “Do dogs go to Heaven when they die?” “Can Parker even smell Brett?” But they soon discovered that Jimmy was already a valuable resource, and had an uncanny nose, if slightly snotty, like Larry Stone. Though those four study partners of Jimmy’s have yet to pass the MS exams, to a person they all credit Jimmy with teaching them more about wine than anyone else in their lives. “Jimmy is an idiot savant,” one told me, “and as an MS, he doesn’t need the savant.”
It wasn’t long after he learned his ABC’s that Jimmy could recite all the Grand Crus of Burgundy. “That was easy,” Jimmy said, “it’s Italian DOC’s that suck. Those laws make about as much sense as a Matt Kramer blog post, though they’re better written.” Jimmy had traveled to every major wine region by the time he was eight. He wasn’t usually allowed to taste, except in Greece, where they have the sense to worship young boys, but just being in the great vineyards and wineries of the world formed lasting memories. “I’m proud to say,” Jimmy remarks, “that I’ve been in the lap of almost every great winemaker in the world. Most of ‘em smell like butt mercaptans.”
At Poached Per Se, we opted for the prix fixe menu with Jimmy’s wine pairings. In most restaurants, this would be a big mistake. More often than not, wine pairings in restaurants are bizarre. Ordering them is like wearing a turban in your JDate photo and expecting good results. But Jimmy’s were spot on, genuinely inspired. But he’s nine, and his senses of smell and taste are still unfettered by age. So I didn’t mind that around ten o’clock he threw a tantrum when a waiter used the wrong Riedel glass. “That glass is for Syrah, Poopyhead! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you…” It was a little ugly, worthy of a W. Blake Gray blog tantrum, but I understood. He’s nine. And so's Jimmy.
Jancis Steward had some trouble convincing the Master Sommeliers to allow Jimmy to take the MS exams when he was only eight, but they finally agreed. He’d applied for, and received, a WSET spot—it was on the front of his pants. While they were extremely reluctant to pass Jimmy on his first try at all three separate exams, his knowledge and tasting skill were unmistakably superb. It was the first wine exam written in crayon, at least since Doug Frost. Jimmy identified all five wines presented to him blind by variety, vintage, region and even producer. The sixth wine he knew immediately wasn’t really wine, “It’s Cornelissen Rosé from Mt. Etna.” The judges were impressed.
Some allowances had to be made for the service part of the exam. The examiners were kind enough to sit at a very low table so Jimmy could serve the wines, which he did impeccably. Then, as now, he had the ability to pair wine and food perfectly. “It’s not that hard,” Jimmy has said, “any child, or sommelier, can do it.” Though his presentation wasn’t perfect, Jimmy thought the cigar cutter was for circumcision, the examiners all agreed he was MS material. He passed. Jimmy was exuberant.That night, he and his friends closed down the Chuck E. Cheese.
Jimmy might be nine, but he’s still a sommelier. He’s currently infatuated with orange wines and Austrian Riesling. He thinks California Cabernet is overpriced and that the real bargains are in the Loire. He talks about balance like he invented it. (Though the night I was there he fell down twice and skinned his knees.) And he’s a big spoiled baby.
But despite his fame and position in the wine industry, Jimmy is humble. “Really,” he told me, “any eight-year-old can become an MS. I think that’s pretty obvious. I was just the first one who actually tried.”
Monday, April 1, 2013
Here it is, the first Monday of April, April Fools Day, so my piece is over at Tim Atkin's place. For laughs, I had been perusing the list of nominees for the James Beard Awards. It's a long list! There must be 50 categories now, a way to give everyone who ever dissected a duck, wrote about dissecting a duck, or had sex with a duck, a Beard Award. Or duck herpes. That list triggered the piece over at Tim's. I thought it would be interesting to give awards to wine folks whose decisions were poorly thought out, and what better famous food person to name the awards for than Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet, whose huge career ended when charges of child molestation surfaced against him? He'd have been better off fileting the ducks than the kids.
It's more of my usual nonsense, only with a British accent. And it would make Tim and me happy if those of you who wish to comment, comment over at Tim's blog. I warned Tim to be careful what he wished for.
Tim Atkin MW