Monday, December 29, 2014

The Emperor in Winter

For more than thirty years I was the most powerful critic in the history of the world. I say that with complete humility. There were many critics in my chosen field, but they were to me as carbuncles are to my hairy butt—I never saw them, but they were forever riding my ass.  My words alone were enough to make fortunes, while their weak exhortations were the critical equivalent of Bitcoin—imaginary money, imaginary influence. I declared geniuses and goddesses in an occupation that otherwise generated only pretenders, robots and dinosaurs. I found no joy in being the most powerful critic in the history of the world. I’m glad to be done with it. I hope to miss it someday.

Now that it’s over, I can reflect on my accomplishments. With the clarity of hindsight, I can see the reach of my influence. Wine will never see my like again. The world has changed. I began in the print era, when reviews had the timeliness of messages in a bottle. Reviews had to be delivered by the Postal Service, which is like wiping your nose two weeks after you sneeze. Really doesn’t do anybody any good. Every review seemed to be published months too early, or weeks too late. There were only a few important regions to cover—Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa Valley, Tuscany, and the Rhône Valley. No one bought German wine. They still don’t buy German wine. Who buys German wine? German Riesling is the greatest white wine in the world that nobody buys. It’s the Edsel of wine. It’s the Betamax of wine regions. It’s the Conan O’Brien. I drink it about as often as I read Decanter. Which is also too often cloying.

I was in the right place at the right time. Wine publications are in their death throes now. Many of them are magazine zombies, still stumbling around stiff-legged, eating the brains of their contributors, which are slim pickings, and not even aware they’re dead. They’re frightening consumers, all these wine critics walking around dead, still publishing scores when they should be resting in their Graves. And now the zombies are eating other zombies. Vinous devoured the brains of International Wine Cellar to create a super-zombie. Tanzalloni! Tanzalloni wants to become the most powerful critic in wine, but even a super-zombie is still the walking dead. Even a team of Tanzalloni zombies walking the wine regions of the Earth won’t have the power that I once possessed. Everywhere they go there is the smell of death on them, a smell that will not go unnoticed by winemakers. Marketing people won’t smell it, of course, they’re used to the smell of death, having killed truth a long time ago. But the wine world has begun to notice that there are nothing but magazine zombies among us, and that their days of walking the Earth, dead or undead, are numbered.

When I ruled the wine world, people knew what to expect. “Integrity” was my middle name. Even my severest critics at the end of my career acknowledged that. They always referred to me as “R.I.P” in tribute to it being my middle name. When I had all the power, the wine world was a simpler place. I made it that way. I introduced the 100 Point Scale to criticism. What’s simpler than that? I understood before anyone else the wine-buying public’s deep-seated need to be shallow, their passion for the easy answer, for shortcuts to expertise, their love for distilled wisdom, their willingness to pay for someone else to make them seem savvy to their friends. I wrote complex and florid tasting notes to go with the scores I awarded, but I knew that those notes were read about as often as Miranda rights in Missouri. It was the numbers that were magic. Wine doesn’t have to be complicated, the numbers said. No wine is unique, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No matter what, they all have numbers, somewhere between 80 and 100. Only 21 different kinds of wine. Even you can understand that. This is my proudest accomplishment.

When I was at the peak of my power, wine knew it had to answer to me. When I awarded a wine 100 points, everyone knew how to make a great wine. Before I came along, the wines of the world were all over the place stylistically. This was stupid and confusing for the average consumer. Imagine that every time you read a James Patterson book it was different! How annoying would that be? You want it to be the same formula every single time. Same with Bordeaux, or Australian Shiraz, or Super Tuscans. Thanks to me, the average consumer can go to his local wine shop and buy a $150 Napa Valley Cabernet that will taste exactly like the last $150 Napa Valley Cabernet he purchased! Sure, there’s some variation, winemakers aren’t perfect, they don’t really know a 96 point wine like I do, but it will be pretty damned similar. Again, I’m proud of this. I standardized Bordeaux and California, Oregon and Washington, Spain and Italy.  There may be 5000 different grapes, but, dammit, there are only a handful of styles. Someone had to do it. It was chaos when I started. Someone had to set some standards. I was to wine what The New York Times Book Review is to literature. Its savior.

And now I’m through. I refuse to become a zombie. Let the damned Singapore mafia be the zombies, I’m finished. I’m the Emperor in Winter. I leave the wine criticism to the current tribe of zombies—Laube, Robinson, Olken, Meadows, Teague, McInerney, Bonné, Asimov… Be careful out there, wine lovers, they’re here to eat your brains. McInerney will probably go for your nuts, too. As for who will replace me, and the zombies still walking the Earth, I don’t know who that will be. Surely not the feckless and tiring voices of the Internet, that loud chorus of poodles barking into the darkness. If they ever move the needle, it’s just the irritating sound of it scratching along the surface of the LP. Their influence is that of a single Saccharomyces in a puncheon of hedonistic Syrah—not measurable or unique, and destined to die once all the sugar has gone. And the sugar is almost gone.

No, there will never again be a most powerful critic in the world. Oh, certainly wine will endure. People will still buy according to the 100 Point Scale—it is so stupid it is immortal. But wine will be adrift. Lost. Untethered. Wine drinkers will have to fend for themselves, try to understand wine on its own terms, find their own measure of its quality.

More’s the pity.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Some Christmas Thoughts from the HoseMaster of Wine™

I’m pretty lucky to have had a career in wine. I’m not sure what else I could have done with my life. It seems like the wine business attracts those without the talent to have chosen a genuine career, or those completely lost and confused about what to do with their life. A career in wine is like having been a lifetime Psych major. I just couldn’t figure out anything else to do. And isn’t that probably true of most of the major wine figures of our time? Parker might have spent his life as a low-level attorney at the firm of Extract, Premox and Brettanomyces, LLC had he not found wine as his calling. And what line of work would Matt Kramer be in? Maybe holding a chair at a prestigious university. Not a professorship, just actually holding a real chair. Laube would be a life model for a wax museum. Though one would have to admit that Eric Asimov would still be writing science fiction.

It’s Christmas week, and society forces us to be grateful. We’re not, but there’s a lot of peer pressure to try to be grateful for all we’ve been given. And to give generously to those who have less. I have a perverse fondness for the Christmas wine gift suggestions that are published everywhere. It makes the people who love wine--your Dad, your crazy uncle, the waitress you’re trying to screw--seem so petty and materialistic and, well, stupid about wine. Does anyone really need a Coravin? I don’t care if it works. It’s just an expensive, high-tech, wine Pet Rock. Cool for about a week, then gathering dust in that wine junk drawer we all have, alongside the aerator, the stupid sleeve that wraps around a bottle and tells you the temperature (by the way, it’s great for taking the temperature of your anaconda, if you get my drift), and the Vac-U-Vin. These shopping lists also always include glassware. Really? I need a $60 wine glass to appreciate my Natural Wine? Shouldn’t I just use Natural Glass, like the crap that washes up on shore after a hurricane? And, anyway, I’m a wine lover. I have 50 wine glasses. I need wine glasses like a fat guy needs forks. The current rage is a wine glass by the rather Norse Goddish name of Zalto! I’ll give Zalto credit. They out-bullshit Riedel. The Zalto, they say, is designed so, “The curve of the bowls are tilted at the angles of 24°, 48° and 72°, which are in accordance to the tilt angles of the Earth.” That’s pretty fucking stupid. I serve my wine at 65°. I like a nice wine glass as much as anyone, but the whole wine glass fetish for Riedel and Zalto makes wine lovers look like assholes, assholes tilted at 90° so that glass makers have easy access. Drinking wine out of expensive wine glasses is the equivalent of snorting cocaine through hundred dollar bills—you do it to show that you can, but, in truth, you’re still just a common addict.

But I digress.

I’m grateful to have had a long and undistinguished career in wine. Wine is still a mystery to me. I’ve found that over the years the greater my wine knowledge became, the greater the gaps in my wine knowledge grew. So that when I began my career in wine, I knew a lot more than I knew after thirty years of studying it. There was so much I didn’t know I didn’t know at the beginning, that I knew a lot. As I learned more, I began to know far less. Now that I’m forty years into a life in wine, I’m completely ignorant. I’ve lost the certainty of the beginner, the certainty that dominates the wine blogosphere, the certainty that is represented by the fatuous 100 Point Scale. When I was young and knew a lot about wine, I used the 100 Point Scale mercilessly, followed it faithfully. Now that I’m more experienced and far stupider, I just don’t see how it adds anything to the enjoyment of wine. It’s a crutch, but, dammit, it’s a crutch everyone likes, like Tiny Tim’s, so it has to be good! I’m so stupid about wine now that I no longer believe in the 100 Point Scale. Sad, really. When I was young and deeply informed about wine, I could also tell you which wines were better than others. Natural wine was better than whatever you call the other stuff. Wine with lower alcohol was better than wine with higher alcohol. Cheap wine was just as good as more expensive wine. Balance was so easy to define and every wine I loved, every great wine, had balance. Duh. Everybody knows that. I was certain of it. Now I’ve been tasting and studying wine for so long, I no longer know shit about it. So, really, if I were you, I’d follow those who are certain of their wine opinions. They have the blessing of certainty, the gift of having tremendous insight into wine through that tiny little window they know, the window that reflects their own image back to them. I prefer the mystery of wine, so I’ll pass. My ignorance has become my bliss.

At least in my memory, wine has never been more interesting or more diverse. I’m grateful, this Christmas, for that. I no longer taste 7000 wines a year as I once did (yes, in fact, I did keep track). I taste about 365. I no longer lead the sommelier life. I haven’t had a unicorn wine in years, and don’t give a fuck. I had my share. It’s no great achievement to have consumed rare wines, just as it’s no great achievement to be a sommelier. It’s certainly a gift, and a wondrous gift. But to brag about gifts you’ve been given to those who cannot afford them, to post pictures of the empty bottles like you'd post nude photos of your ex-lovers, well, that’s a monument to human thoughtlessness, stupidity and conceit. Glad you enjoyed the wine. Now welcome to the Go Fuck Yourself Club™. You know where you can put that Zalto.

I am feeling very grateful this Christmas for my long life in wine. I was lucky. I never really had the talent for it, was never a gifted wine taster, or particularly smart, but I had passion and tried hard. I’ve been called the Pete Rosé of wine, which makes me blush. And that passion is what also drives HoseMaster of Wine™. A passion for wine, and, in the words of Sabatini, being “born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.” I’m grateful for all of you who are common taters, and for those of you who send me private emails to express your thoughts on my work here. I’m also grateful to all of you who hate what I do here. It’s often you who drive me, your scorn that I crave. Thank you. And welcome to the Go Fuck Yourself Club™. And I am grateful for the support of folks far more talented than I for my work on HoseMaster of Wine™, folks like Tim Atkin, Robert Parker, Charlie Olken, Lettie Teague, Dan Berger, Mike Dunne, and STEVE! Heimoff. Your support has been extremely gratifying.

Merry Christmas to each and every one of you. Or Happy Hanukkah. You choose. Have one of each. May we all have an interesting year in wine in 2015, and the health and happiness to enjoy it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lo Hai Qu on Wine Magazines

In an effort to provide some wine education for my unpredictable intern Lo Hai Qu, I gave her gift subscriptions to most of the major wine publications, and Sommelier Journal (oh, my mistake, SOMM Journal, which is a subsidiary of LADYHOME Journal—Jerry Lewis, Editor Emeritus).  She asked if she could use HoseMaster of Wine™ to express her opinions about these august magazines, most of which are published in the other months as well. Buckle your seat belts, here we go.

So, like, I’ve been reading all these wine magazines for the past few months, and, fuck me, they are so boring. I mean, like, Oprah-What-I-Know-For-Sure boring. Here’s what I know for sure, Oprah, you rich and I ain’t, and all that preaching you do is making my ears bleed. If you’re every woman, I’m every woman’s ass you can kiss.  Oprah is kinda what most of these wine mags are like—they just preach at you, but all the time they’re doing it, what they’re really doing is promoting how great they are, how you should try to be more like them, wise and all that arrogant shit. I always think two things when I’m done reading an issue. One, “It’s only wine!” And two, “I’m horny.” Which is the opposite order from when I’m at the local wine bar with Shizzangela. But that damn Shizzangela always gets all the attention with her sparkly wine shirts. Her one last night said, “Pull Your Cork for These.” That Shizzy, she crazy.

But after a bunch of months reading all these wine mags, I think I’m starting to understand them. Wine magazines are a lot like porn. It’s mostly the same positions over and over, just new dicks doing it. And it’s mostly about dicks. But for the occasional article about a woman winemaker, an article usually written in a sort of “Oh, isn’t she amazing, doing a man’s job and all” kind of tone, you’d think the only things women do in the wine world is wear stupid fucking hats to charity auctions, or work for bigass corporations peddling wines with insulting names like “Bitch,” or “Skinnygirl” or “Kung Fu Girl.” If one of my girls buys me a bottle of “Kung Fu Girl” I’m going to Bruce Lee her ass into next week. I find that “Kung Fu Girl” label kind of offensive. I’m guessing they’re not gonna come out with a “Welfare Queen” Moscato any time soon. What kind of low self-esteem, Oprah-worshipping, tasteless chick buys a bottle of “Bitch” or “Skinnygirl?” You don’t see any dudes buying “Limpdick” Pinot Gris or “Beergut” Zin. I felt like all these magazines treated me like I was a stupid woman. I don’t need that from wine magazines. I can get that from Ann Coulter. Fuck, if she isn’t an argument against empowerment, I don’t know what is.

According to the HoseMaster, Wine Spectator is the most successful of these wine rags. You know, for me, I just looked at the damned format of the magazine and that told me a lot. That big, glossy, supersized Wine Spectator just screams fake. It’s like a wine magazine with breast augmentation, all shiny and way too big. You just know it cost a lot of money, and even though the wine tit job looks good, you know it’s fake the minute you touch it. And this is really a men’s magazine that rates wine. It’s written by men for men, so if you have a vagina, you’d best just smile real pretty and some nice Wine Spectator man will show you the pretty full-page ads while the real wine buyers read the wine scores. And it’s all really old dudes! Like all the Wine Spectator columnists are WalMart greeters. “Hello, my name is Harvey. Welcome to Wine Spectator! Can I get you a shopping cart?” It’s James and Matt and Marvin and Tim, all smiling in their photos like the After pictures in Cialis ads. Guys at Wine Spectator, hey, we girls buy most of the wine in this country! We don’t much care for your condescending tone. Bite me. Cancel my subscription.

And what is up with that Wine Enthusiast? I mean, what a stupid name, first of all. Enthusiast? Who the fuck uses that word except snotty British guys? And why do all these wine magazines put the scores in the very back of the magazine? It seems like that’s what the people who read that crap are paying for is the stupid scores. I guess it’s like grocery stores that put all the milk and butter and pharmacies in the very back of the store so you have to maneuver your way through all the junk to get to what you actually want—milk and drugs. OK, yeah, they put a few scores in the front, just like those paid-for endcaps you see at Safeway, but all the other shit you need is way in the back. You have to flip through all the fascinating pictures of grapevines, and people holding wine bottles, and women winemakers looking all cute with their tussled hair, to get to the drugs. The scores. They’re drugs. Seems like wineries are hooked on them, like the whole wine business is jonesin’ all the time for scores. They get so addicted and desperate, they start whorin’. It’s like me and my cigarettes. I know I’ll die from the goddam death sticks, but I crave ‘em so bad cuz they make me look cool. A big glass of naked Chardonnay and a lit cigarette? Man, they go together like insects and windshields. And it seems like wineries want to die by scores. Scores are a great high, like meth, but only stupid people and addicts don’t know they’ll kill you one day.

Wine Enthusiast is like a wimpy baby brother to Wine Spectator. It’s the momma’s boy of wine magazines, all self-important and needy. They, like, give awards for anything and everything, which is hilarious, like if I gave awards to all the guys I date, even a guy I awarded “Sweetest ED Enthusiast.” Like they award things like “Wine Region of the Year.” So it’s like if they gave an Oscar for “Best Country Making Movies that Aren’t Quite as Good as Hollywood’s.” Come on, the Wine Region of the Year? New York? Man, if you want junkets and free wine, just ask. I’m just sure the Wine Region of the Year is totally honored. It’s like being the First Runner-Up for Miss America. Yeah, you’re beautiful and all, but, really, you need just a little more talent to make it big. Now go celebrate! You got an award!

These magazines all seem to think they’re important, which is kind of sweet, really, like brave little Chihuahuas. But you give ‘em a little shit and they just pee all over themselves. Wine and Spirits tries really hard to be smart and pretend it's powerful, and that’s cool, but it’s also not any fun at all. Like that guy who drones on and on about what he loves, wine or football or how popular he is on Pinterest, which is like being popular at church, which no one interesting ever attends either, but when you start talking his mind wanders. “Yeah,” he says over and over, “but what about wine? Let’s talk more about wine.” So smart isn’t what Wine and Spirits is, but it aspires to smart, and to be admired for being smart, only it’s as ill-equipped as a one-armed sommelier. And almost as smarmy.

There’s other magazines, too. Decanter and World of Fine Wine. These are both written by members of a club for geniuses related to Mensa, guys not quite as smart, called Densa. Man, are those magazines for the Densa. How is it that a beverage that makes us so much more fun to be around, makes us giddy and drunk and happy to be alive, can generate so much turgid prose? Decanter puts the t-u-r-d in turgid. And World of Fine Wine, I couldn’t stay awake reading it. I think they use it to induce comas in people with serious brain injuries, like wine writers. It’s like 400 slick pages without a single laugh, not even one light moment. It’s so fucking serious, it’s like reading 400 pages of your cancer diagnosis, though death, in this case, might be welcome.

Oh, maybe I’m being too mean. They mean well, these men’s magazines, they try to educate me about wine, but what they really do is trumpet the importance of men writing about a subject that, really, has little importance. So what did I learn reading all these magazines? I don’t know, I’m just a dumb girl. I learned that ads don’t buy scores, scores buy ads. And that, in the right hands, even the best wines I’ve ever tasted, having Coravined those suckers from the HoseMaster’s cellar, can be made to sound downright boring. Oh, and that, when it comes down to it, wine magazines are just like the men that read them—fun for a night, but then easily disposable.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The HoseMaster's Letter to Santa 2014

Dear Santa,

You were so generous to me last year, I feel guilty even writing to you today. You brought me a brand new Coravin last year, which I used to successfully anaesthetize my cat, as well as drink little tiny amounts of all my best wines, which I refuse to share with my undeserving wine friends. “Coravin—because you know wine isn’t really about sharing©.” Screw them, Santa, these are unicorn wines and I only drink them alone or with virgins. And the only virgin who knows anything about wine is Lettie Teague. So thank you for that! Also, thank you for the subscription to the Wall Street Journal Wine Club! As expected, all the wines have been Standard and Poor.

I am writing you today, Santa, but not on my own behalf. I’m older now, Santa, and I have everything I want or need. Though I wouldn’t mind a few more cat patients. Instead, I’m writing to ask for a few things for my colleagues in the wine business, the people who love and care about wine the way I do, and, yet, seem to have lost their way. Maybe you can help them, Santa, maybe you can make the wine world a nicer place in 2015. I hope so.

Santa, don’t you think it’s time for all of the old wine critics, and I mean OLD wine critics, to retire? What are they, the fucking Supreme Court of Wine? Appointed for life? I did notice the uncanny resemblance of James Laube to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Yes, experience is a wonderful thing, and we should honor their many years of guiding us toward the finest wines, but old is old. It’s time to hang it up. The senses start to fade quickly as we age, like the finish of a cheap Prosecco. We smell what we expect to smell instead of what might really be in the glass, we taste what our experience teaches us to taste, and we assign scores that feel right. Of course there’s score inflation in the wine world, Santa, those old farts are getting sentimental. We’re critical in our 30’s and 40’s. After 60, it’s about acceptance, it’s about forgiveness, it’s about 94 and above. So, please, Santa, give my old critic friends the gift of retirement. They’ve had their day, it’s time to pass the battonage.

And while you’re at it, Santa, why not try to wise up some of the younger wine critics? So many of them jockeying for position trying to be the next Robert Parker. Look at Antonio Galloni, trying to buy influence by acquiring Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, and all Tanzer’s elves along with it. The Vinous acquisition of IWC reminds me of “Dancing with the Stars.” Some C List celebrity trying to curry favor by dancing with a washed up icon and thinking it will revive a career. It’s beneath both of them, like a midget dancing with Sofia Vergara. Santa, can you please let them know that there won’t be another Parker, and that, truthfully, that’s a good thing for wine. Give them the gift of contentment. They’re good critics, informed critics, talented critics—they have no place at the top of the wine review heap.

I know this is a lot to ask, Santa. But I wouldn’t ask you if it weren’t really important, if the very future of wine and wine journalism weren’t at stake. I just have a few more requests, bear with me.

Please, Santa, convince God He’s not Matt Kramer. Much simpler than the reverse.

And, Santa, remind those In Pursuit of Balance that pursuing it requires knowing what to do with it if you catch it. The donkey has been In Pursuit of the Carrot for a hundred years, and he’s still just an ass.

Make the discussions about Natural Wine go away, Santa. The only people who care are very troubled people. They’re the Mormon missionaries of wine, convinced of their own truths, and seeking converts in every backwater. I’m tired of reading about them, weary of their smugness and willful ignorance. I can get that from wine blogs. Wine has given in to the fashionable fanaticism that characterizes our age, and we all suffer. But, in the end, there is money to be made there, a niche to fill, a lonely choir to preach to, so just do your best, Santa. Do it with minimal intervention.

Just for laughs, Santa, make wineries tell the truth about their production levels. Let regular wine folks know that Silver Oak is about as hard to get as food poisoning from a Tijuana taco truck. That Opus One is about as exclusive as the Hair Club for Men. I’d appreciate it.

Maybe you could deliver a nice Christmas gift to Dr. Conti in prison, Santa. I’m thinking maybe a lovely Pardon from the Governor. Fake, of course. But it looks real. Only the Governor wasn’t in office in 1936.

I hope that this year, Santa, the wine business will see the true meaning of Christmas. That would be a first. James Suckling could rate the Virgin Birth 100 Points—“There’s good old conception, and then there’s Immaculate Conception. This one is perfect. God slipped it to Mary like I did to Wine Spectator.” Robert Parker could give 100 Points to countless wines. Wow! He has! Fast work, Santa, thank you. Bill Koch could donate his fake wines to homeless sommeliers, who wouldn’t know the difference anyway. Marvin Shanken could generously endow a wine writer scholarship for terminal patients whose last wish is to review wines—the Make-A-Fish Foundation. Oh, but I’m dreaming, Santa.

I’m simply grateful 2014 is almost over, Santa. I’m amazed I made it another year since my last letter to you. I think everyone will agree I’ve been in the business too long, that my bit is tired, my voice grating, my outrage tiresome, and my jokes lame. So, Santa, if you can, give me some inspiration to continue. When I wake on Christmas morning, I want to find courage in my stocking, and wit. I want to find wisdom and talent under the tree. I want to find laughter and honesty all wrapped up neatly. I’m about out of all of those things. So please bring them this Christmas, Santa. Please.

I hope to write you a letter again next year.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Adventures of Brett Bung, CERTIFIED SPECIALIST OF WINE!

Born of normal parents on the outskirts of a great metropolitan city, no one would have been able to anticipate that humble Brett Bung would one day emerge as the CERTIFIED SPECIALIST OF WINE! By day a low level accountant, an invisible man in the giant accounting firm Usury, Penury and Perjury LLC, at night Brett becomes the modern-day superhero CERTIFIED SPECIALIST OF WINE! I think we all know his intro:

“Faster than a sommelier refill! More powerful than a Tim Fish review! Able to leap big egos in a single bound! Look, up at the wine bar! It’s a jerk! It’s a boor! It’s CERTIFIED SPECIALIST OF WINE!

Yeah, the intro needs some work.

Oh, this is going to be exciting! Don't you just love superheroes? But you'll have to make the leap over to Tim Atkin in order to read the rest. It's worth it. Well, it's free, so it's worth it! Feel free to leave your pithy common tater remarks at Tim's, or, if you can't figure out this danged internet thing, you may leave a comment here, though I may not unwrap it until Christmas.