Thursday, May 28, 2015

EPHEMERA: Cult Wines and Wine Cults

Back in the 1980’s and ’90’s, the wine world was obsessed with cult wines. Cult wines were almost strictly from California (there were outliers like Leonetti and Quilceda Creek—remember Quilceda’s original shit-brown label? Wow, maybe an alltime ugly label), and were created by Parker ratings. Wine folks my age can remember them with great ease and nostalgia, like naming your favorite baseball players when you were a kid—Marcassin, Bryant Family, Colgin, Harlan, Sine Qua Non, Kistler, Aubert, Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, Clemente, Koufax… Ah, those were the days.

I had every one of those cult wines on my wine list, and more (Araujo probably belongs on there, and Dalle Valle). Some I liked very much, others I didn’t. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to work hard to sell them. A lot of wine lovers wanted to try all of them, like birders who want to finally add an Ivory-billed Woodpecker to their life list. Wine geeks even tried to anticipate what the new Parker-created cult wine would be (oh, man, have you heard about Blankiet?!), try to get on the mailing lists before the scores were published. Chat rooms were always ablaze with sad little men announcing “The Sine Qua Non (or some other cult wine) mailing list just arrived!—what are you buying?” Knowing, of course, very few were in their exalted company.

It seems to me that we’ve gone now from a wine culture of cult wines to a culture of wine cults. The impulse is the same, but it’s an interesting shift.

Maybe it’s that 100 Point wines are no longer rare. I’m more interested in a wine that received 99 points—I want to taste what near-perfection tastes like. Perfection is so overrated. When you think about it, a 99 point wine is better than a 100 point wine. It can improve; perfection can only go downhill, like Marilyn Monroe or Whitney Houston. But as 100 point wines have become almost commonplace, cult wines have less of a grip on the imagination of wine geeks, or at least it seems that way to me. Now all the fuss is about wine cults—Natural wines, orange wines, wines from obscure grapes grown in obscure regions, wines in pursuit of balance…

When I was a sommelier, I was paid to participate in a discussion, put together by a marketing company, about how to become a cult wine. Wineries wanted to be the next Kistler, or the next Harlan Estate. At that discussion, the other wine professionals and I agreed that it revolved around Robert Parker—though that wasn’t the answer the marketing folks wanted. As marketing folks tend to do, they believed there must be a formula, a path to being a cult wine. There wasn’t a path, of course, except through Parker’s bladder. So, of course, wineries began to engineer wines they believed he would like and rate 100 points. Which was stupid to begin with, and completely backfired, as marketing ideas often do. Now wineries no longer proclaim they’re a cult wine. Now they proclaim that they’re natural, that they’re honest wine, that they’re authentic. This is what Scientologists and Charles Manson would tell you, “I’m honest, I’m real, I’m authentic.” We’re in the new era of wine cults.

There are lots of messiahs of these cults—Alice Feiring, Raj Parr, Nicolas Joly, Isabelle Legeron MW, to name a few. And if you read their propaganda you read of people whose very lives have changed because they “discovered” natural wines. They’ve seen the Light. And with the fervor of the newly converted, they preach their Gospel of Truth. I think it’s sort of sweet. It reminds me of being in high school and all the born-again Christians would have prayer meetings and sing, “Get Together” by the Youngbloods. I admired how they seemed genuinely connected, even though I had little interest in their mindless message. I feel that way now about the Natural Wine zealots. They seem so committed, and so at peace with being right. It seems to have a way of curing their loneliness, and what better purpose can wine serve? I think the same way about the In Pursuit of Balance folks, although their cult is much more blatantly commercial, a kind of Scientology without the blackmail of homosexual celebrities. Yet they seem like a happy little bunch, such a tight little club, choosing members in the same way as kids we picked the nerds and the fat kids last at softball.

Wine is a big enough tent, of course, to contain all kinds. I’m content to explore wine on my own, without any labels or cults, interested strictly in what each wine has to say to me. I often don’t like what a wine has to say to me, wines can be completely dishonest or fake or insincere. But I think I learn a lot from that. A lot of Natural Wines I’ve tasted strike me as complete fakes, as natural as Mount Rushmore, whereas there are many wines In Pursuit of Balance I find wacky but incredibly interesting, like Amy Sedaris or the guy talking to himself on the park bench who doesn’t even know I exist. I don’t need cults and their rigid sets of rules in any aspect of my life, and I rather pity the folks who do. And I’d gladly trade my Colgin for a Coulée de Serrant, depending on what I’m feeling that day. There’s a reason we taste wines blind. Humans live by labels. Humans love labels. I try not to.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Karen MacNeil Speaks to the Wine Bloggers' Conference

The featured speaker for the 2015 Wine Bloggers’ Conference is Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible. Many of us believe that The Wine Bible is the literal truth, and not just crazy superstitious stuff most people believe it to be. Especially the Book of Tchelistcheff wherein God reveals Himself to a winemaker as a burning bushy eyebrow. I, for one, truly believe that Parker created the wine world in six days, blind when possible, and on the seventh day He rated.

It should be interesting to hear MacNeil preach the Word to America’s wine bloggers, most of whom still await their blogs being translated into English. Luckily, I was provided with a transcript of Ms. MacNeil’s speech. I swear on a stack of Wine Bibles this will be her actual presentation. (Q: What do you call a stack of The Wine Bible? A: The remainder table.)

Good Evening, Fellow Wine Writers. Yeah, I do love to start a speech with a joke.

We’re here in the Finger Lakes, home of our best domestic Rieslings. Even the Germans are jealous of the Rieslings produced in this region. In the United States, you can use the Finger Lakes to pick your Riesling. In Germany, you use the Finger Lakes to pick your Nahes. Just don’t eat it.

But enough levity. I’m here to speak to you wine bloggers about the noble craft of wine writing, and why you’re ruining it. My latest book, The New Wine Bible, is about to be published, and it’s safe to say that there really isn’t much left for you to write about. I’ve covered just about everything, and in my own irrepressible and captivating style. And I wrote it by myself, not like Jancis Robinson and her stable of writers for The Oxford Companion to Wine. I’m my own team of experts. Jancis is just a franchise, the Brookstone of wine writers, each book filled with useless crap invented by loners and crackpots that you buy and then leave on your shelf forever wondering what the hell you were thinking. The New Wine Bible, or as I like to call it, “It’s Me, God Again,” makes all future wine writing unnecessary, like your tonsils, or Mutineer Magazine, which is to writing what explosive diarrhea is to art.

I know, you didn’t come to the Finger Lakes to hear me say wine writing as a profession is dead. You came here to pretend your voices matter. And they do. Just not to anyone else. Ask yourself, who would miss your little wine blog if you decided to quit tomorrow? You don’t even have as many unique hits as an NFL lineman’s wife. I’m not saying that you should quit writing. You can’t quit something you’re not actually doing. I’m saying you should quit typing.

You all look a bit thunderstruck. But, truly, I am doing you a favor. No one makes any money as a wine writer. You know what kind of advance I got for The New Wine Bible? The publisher put his hand down my pants, that’s what my advance was. Speaking of Finger Lakes. It’s not glamorous being a wine writer; it’s relentlessly dull. It’s the Prosecco of occupations, cheap and full of fake effervescence. You never get to tell the truth. Not if you want to be successful, not if you want to be welcome in the world’s great wine regions, not if you want to keep on getting free samples to sell to the neighborhood kids. You dispense romance, the very mother’s milk of the wine business. You’re just an engorged pair of tits leaking winery stories. Is that what you want to be? You want Marvin Shanken to be your breast pump? When his cup size is larger?

Even if it is what you want to be, I’ve read most of the nominated and award-winning wine blogs, and you don’t have the chops to make it as a wine writer. Your prose is like box wine—a collapsing plastic sack of crap. Reading your wine descriptions is like trimming your nostrils with needlenose pliers—excruciatingly stupid, and a waste of perfectly good tools. I usually wonder if you even tasted the wine, or if you just reworded the back label. I have news for you, back labels are NOT Cliff Notes for wine bloggers. That got you through the JC, but it won’t work as a wine writer. By the way, there are no Cliff Notes for The Wine Bible. You cannot summarize genius.

Wine bloggers have made a mockery of wine writing. Fools say we should treat you as peers. That’s stupid. Just because you have .docx doesn’t mean you’re peers. I’ve won every major wine writing award in English. Can Robert Parker say that? Can Eric Asimov say that? Can Terry Theise say that—well, OK, he doesn’t write in English, but you get my point. You’re all competing for a Wine Blog Award. Ooh, isn’t that special? They give that to a “Citizen Blogger.” What the hell is a “Citizen Blogger?” A rejected Orson Welles movie? A Wine Blog Award isn’t a major wine writing award. It’s a front for a travel company. You just got your ass time-shared—which, come to think of it, might qualify you to write for Wine Spectator. A Wine Blog Award…There is no such thing. You think I’m kidding? Show me one! They’re like natural wines, imaginary things you think will change your life only to find out the only ones making money are the people who made them up. And, hey, if it were a major wine writing award, Karen MacNeil would have several. Did you see my clever videos where I was dressed as a nun? I put the superior in Mother Superior. I looked hot. Elvis hot.

Wine writing in the age of the Internet has become self-parody. It’s a lot like wine itself. In one camp is the overblown and preposterous, think Napa Valley Cabernet and any issue of World of Fine Wine. Both slick and stylish but ultimately just a lot of posturing with very little of interest. Every issue, of both the wines and the magazine, is the damned near the same. And in the other camp, there’s underdevelopment and fake humility. Think low alcohol, self-proclaimed natural wines and the columnists for Wine Spectator. Both feature an awful lot of chit-chat, a parade of puffery, but deliver virtually nothing. We talk about energy in wine, but where is the energy in wine writing? You know it when you taste it, but when’s the last time you tasted it? Not in the pages of a wine magazine, and not on a wine blog. Wine writing is running out of energy. So I guess it’s resorted to fracking, and you, my friends, are the originals, the mother frackers.

Good Night.

I don’t know about you, but this seems a little harsh…

Thursday, May 21, 2015

EPHEMERA: Abolish Sommelier (A Bait-and-Switch Blog Title)

I was just thinking the other day about how much different it would be to be a working sommelier now. I haven’t walked a restaurant floor as a sommelier in almost nine years. A lot has changed. Just as a lot changed from the generation before I started as a sommelier. Well, in the United States, there just weren’t many sommeliers in the generation before me, and what few sommeliers were employed were more often called wine stewards. I still hate the word “sommelier.” It’s difficult for people to pronounce—like “nuclear,” it’s just a word that ordinary folk mangle on a regular basis. This is not a problem carpenters have (one had anorexia, but that’s a different story). And because it’s French, and hard to pronounce, it intimidates people. A restaurant patron once said to me, when I offered him my wine list, “Oh, you must be the Semillon!” I rather prefer that. In a strange way, I think that if we rid the English-speaking world of the word “sommelier” a lot of the pretentiousness and pettiness would simply evaporate from the wine business. There wouldn’t be any Master Sommeliers, for example. They’d be Master Wine Stewards. Who gives a crap about that? That asinine movie about wine geeks would have been called “STEW,” which is far more appropriate. After all, wine geeks are slowly cooked in a liquid, and what is that but a stew? A sommelier is a glorified wine waiter, nothing more, the pastry chef of the restaurant floor. I’d rid the world of the “sommelier.” In my day, I usually insisted patrons call me the Wine Guy, or, well, Ron. And my business card said Wine Steward. But that, as I mentioned, was a different time.

If I were a wine steward now, my wine list would be far different than the one I cobbled together in my day. It would have to be. This is a different world. This is not Harry Waugh’s world, when a fine wine list was dominated by Bordeaux and Burgundy and Port. And it’s not my world, when a fine wine list was dominated by Bordeaux and Burgundy and California Cabernet and Chardonny and Oregon Pinot Noir and maybe an Italian appellation or two (Chianti and Barolo, maybe). I think those wines are now seen as the wines old fucks drink. And there’s some truth in that. If you just look at the stalwarts of wine lists from my era (I’m thinking of the late ’80’s, when I started, through the mid-’90’s), it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting them on their wine lists now.  Why in the world would you have Veuve Clicquot on your wine list now if you were a sommelier? That crap won’t fly any more. Now you have hundreds of Grower Champagnes, far superior wines, and at the same relative price point. Or you’d have something sparkling and hip and Italian. Who carries First Growth Bordeaux on their wine lists now? I had all five on mine, but now they’re stupidly expensive. Stupidly. Plus, they’re from Bordeaux! Is there a less hip appellation in the world than Bordeaux? Bordeaux is about as hip as VCR’s.

It can be frustrating to go to a restaurant and read through a wine list that seems to absolutely require the presence of the sommelier. I’ve been to several where I recognize maybe 80% of the wines on the list, and I know a lot about wine. What about people who just want to quietly order a nice bottle of wine and don’t want to play, “Oh, this is really interesting wine from an underrated appellation” with the wine steward? They wouldn’t know even two of the wines on those lists. Now they have to talk with the wine steward. It’s worse than needing advice in the sex boutique—“I need something big and black, and under $25.” Maybe sommeliers these days are lonely and insecure and covet the undivided attention of total strangers who will admire their vast knowledge of wine. Sure seems like it.

Yet I get it. It is a different wine world now, and I’m an old fuck. Were I starting out now, I would be deeply immersed in Grower Champagne (which, by the way, feels really good on your testicles). I’d be proselytizing for Mencia. I’d be pushing people to South African wines—oh, man, South African Syrahs are breathtaking. Why wouldn’t I list three or four Godellos? And there wouldn’t be a Rombauer, a Jordan, a Silver Oak, a Lafite, a Duckhorn or a damned Veuve Clicquot to be found. Or a Grüner Veltliner (which is German for “Green Trash Can Liner”).

And in twenty years, wine stewards (there won’t be any goddam sommeliers) will have a different set of wines to taste and buy, and it will again be a different world. Climate change is certainly going to change the face of wine, and the next generations of stews (did I say I hate the word “somm?”) will be dealing with wines that Harry Waugh wouldn’t even recognize as wine. And so it will go. Yet the complaints aimed at wine stewards will remain just about the same, and old fucks will criticize them, and everyone, as always, will remain convinced that they know what belongs on wine lists, on what will sell, and on what the next hot new region will be.

A great bottle of wine evolves slowly, over decades. The wine business is slower. Old fucks hate that it changes, that we are constantly falling behind. There was a time I tasted thousands of wines a year. Now it’s a few hundred. I certainly know good wine when I put it in my mouth. I understand wine on a level that only, and I mean only, long experience can provide. But I cannot any longer rattle off the trendy producers, or speak knowledgeably about the latest vintage in the most talked about new wine regions. I’m a has-been. Though not a never-was.

Enjoy it while it lasts, my fellow sommeliers. You are but a few years away from being old fucks, has-beens, and yesterday’s gatekeepers. A word of advice—don’t start a blog.

Monday, May 18, 2015

What We Lie About When We Lie About Wine

The HoseMaster of Wine™ is proud to announce the publication of his first book, “What We Lie About When We Lie About Wine.” If the HoseMaster is famous, he’s famous for lying about. In his first book, the HoseMaster explores the various ways wine experts, winemakers, wine marketers, wine writers and other prevaricators lie about wine. White lies, red lies, orange lies, even rosé lies—it’s dishonesty that drives the wine business. Finally, here’s a refreshingly dishonest look at “What We Lie About When We Lie About Wine.”

In advance of the book’s publication (it’s already reached #1 on the New York Tines Bestseller List—no, that’s not a typo, go fork yourself), here are a few excerpts from the book, as well as some of the rave reviews from many of the lying bastards featured in it.


"One of the easiest ways to spot folks who are lying about wine is the use of wine qualifiers; that is, an adjective that precedes the word “wine.” There are many examples. Natural wine, cult wine, balanced wine, 100-point wine, Gold Medal wine… Remember that it’s unnecessary, and always manipulative and misleading, to qualify what is simply fermented grape juice. Be wary. When you hear “natural wine,” react the same way you react to the phrase “honest politician.” “Politician” is information enough. You can be the judge if that politician is honest, though if that politician has been elected to office, chances are nil. “Natural” wine advocates are like “honest” politicians—they’re always going to tell you the other people are the ones who are lying. I find it best to assume everyone who claims their wine is superior to other people’s wine is being intellectually dishonest. And an asshole."


"Ever since its inception, the 100 Point Scale has been controversial. Robert Parker, the critic responsible for introducing the 100 Point Scale, has recently been quoted to the effect that when he retastes wines that he awarded 100 points, he finds that he agrees with his own points about 50% of the time. Not something wine critics tell you before you buy the wines they awarded high scores. It’s a lot like a brain surgeon saying, “Don’t worry, the operation is completely safe and without complications. For the 50% of people who survive it.” It’s best to remember to buy two bottles of a wine rated 100 points just to be sure that one of them is a 100 Point wine.

Lying about wine with points is one of our favorite ways to lie about wine. We tell ourselves that it makes perfect sense to attach a definitively objective number to a supremely subjective experience because it’s useful, and, moreover, the people love it. The same could be said for public executions and multi-car accidents. However, one does have to be qualified to lie about wines this way. Nothing is more irritating than a liar who simply isn’t qualified to lie about the subject. We expect only our most trusted experts to make shit up."


"The public’s, and the press’, current obsession with alcohol levels is another way we lie about wine. A wine with lower alcohol is praised as having better balance, as being more reflective of its terroir, as being more natural. Of course, to begin with, all of this is based on the information listed on the wine’s label, information that is incorrect the vast majority of the time. Alcohol levels listed on wine labels are about as reliable as the weights listed on people’s dating profiles on With wine and your next date, just assume it’s going to be a lot heavier. But, hey, it might be hotter, too!

And, really, we lie to ourselves about the alcohol in wine because we want to believe that we drink wine for its complex aromas and layered fruit flavors, for wine’s tradition and sophistication, rather than for the alcohol. There is no truth in this. We drink wine first and foremost for the way it makes us feel, for its ability to convince us we’re charming and witty when we’re actually sloppy and drunk. If there were no alcohol in wine, there would be no wine business. Wine without alcohol is like tires without air—flat and useless."


"Our sense of smell is tied closely to memory, but is only a passing acquaintance with language. Describing a wine is much like spending time with a police sketch artist—we try to illuminate a wine by picking it apart and describing the pieces, trying to capture the whole under the illusion we can see all the parts correctly. It’s a kind of verbal autopsy. It might be accurate, but you can be sure the wine is far beyond dead when you’re done. Then we use those autopsy results as an affirmation of the stupid number we came up with to rank the wine, as though those poor results validate the other random ones. And suddenly those once very alive wines are butterflies named and mounted in a frame—really pretty but indisputably empty of life." 

“What We Lie About When We Lie About Wine” is an appropriately dishonest look at the way almost everything we know about wine is based on lies. Here’s what a few influential wine people have to say about the HoseMaster of Wine™’s first book:

“I thought I was the master of wine fraud until I read the HoseMaster’s book.”—Rudy Kurniawan

‘What We Lie About When We Lie About Wine’ might be the stupidest book I’ve read all year, and I read ‘Natural Wine.’”—Kermit Lynch

“To paraphrase Twain, there are lies, damned lies, and marketing. The HoseMaster needs more of all three.”—Jay McInerney

“I’d wait for the audio book, except it would be like a John Cage composition—lots of noise that has little meaning.”—Eric Asimov

Thursday, May 14, 2015

TAPAS Before We Kill Again--Part Dos

If you’re like me (God forbid), every time you taste a lousy wine at a large public tasting like TAPAS, you automatically think about all the really good wines you’ll leave without tasting. It’s the equivalent of going to a restaurant and wishing you’d ordered the dish the guy across from you is eating. Or that you were sitting with his date instead of yours, which is what your date is thinking. There were more than a few lousy wines at TAPAS, but at least you have to admire the effort to produce Spanish and Portuguese varieties in California, Idaho, Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas—states represented at TAPAS, and states where, for the most part, they don’t treat people who speak Spanish all that nicely. It’s a lovely irony.

Like the Rhône Rangers tasting, TAPAS didn’t seem especially well-attended. They had papered the house with lots of media (i.e., bloggers and other freeloaders, like me), but it looked to me as if the actual paid attendance rivaled the recent day game at Baltimore’s Camden Yard. I wonder that people who claim to want to learn about wine don’t attend events like TAPAS. Maybe they never hear about them. Or maybe they have no interest. It’s hard to tell. But so many wine events now are like Diana Ross concerts—the vanity of the star demands a large venue which then has to be filled with people who’ve been given free tickets in order to create the illusion of popularity. But, like Diana’s eight remaining fans, I’m grateful TAPAS continues to perform. I enjoy it. The folks serving their wines at TAPAS cannot afford to take themselves too seriously, and that’s refreshing. You feel like you’re in the struggle with them, which, I promise you, you will not feel at a Napa Valley Cabernet tasting.

When I think Spanish red, I think Tempranillo, the great grape of Rioja and Ribera del Duero. It’s been too long since I last tasted Vega Sicilia, or Pesquera, or any of a number of great Rioja Gran Reservas (Faustino’s 2001 is a modern classic—and stupidly cheap for the quality and history of the wine). They leave little doubt that Tempranillo is a variety capable of producing great wines. It seems that in the New World, we just have to find the right place for Tempranillo—is it Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, or Texas Hill Country, or the Sierra Foothills? Time will tell.

I’d run out and buy the Irwin Family 2012 Tempranillo Sierra Foothills. Derek Irwin is incredibly passionate about Spanish varieties, and he’s a vineyard guy as well as a talented winemaker, a potent combination. His 2012 Tempranillo pops. After tasting a lot of drab efforts, and TAPAS was crawling with them, you notice when a wine sings when you put it in your mouth. I told Derek that his ’12 reminded me of Pesquera (the wine that nearly singlehandedly put Ribera del Duero on the modern map of wine), but, truthfully, it was near the end of my tasting day and I was prone to exaggeration. Hell, I was nearly in the prone position. But I wasn’t anywhere near drunk. My GPS gave me the wrong directions to drunk and was recalculating. I never did get there. Anyhow, I think Irwin Family is one of California’s best Tempranillo producers (though I’m a fan of Yorba’s Tempranillo, not featured at TAPAS, too). The ’12 is luscious, with sweet red cherry fruit, juicy plum and just a kiss of oak. It’s all of $24. And it’s distinctly Tempranillo. Derek told me he’s begun making a Tempranillo in a Gran Reserva style—but his will be two-and-a-half years in wood, two-and-a-half years in bottle. I’m looking forward to tasting that one day.

At Verdad, Louisa Sawyer-Lindquist was pouring both her ’11 and ’12 Tempranillo, produced from grapes from her vineyard in Edna Valley. I liked both equally, though they are very different wines from divergent vintages. The Verdad 2011 Tempranillo has more earthy and tobacco tones to its lively cherry fruit, where the Verdad 2012 Tempranillo has sweeter fruit without much in the way of earth tones, but perhaps has a bit more depth and intensity. The vineyard is farmed biodynamically, so you shouldn’t drink this with a full moon—only take your pants down halfway. Louisa is doing great work at Verdad, and she seems to be one of the guiding forces behind TAPAS, and one of the lights in the California Spanish movement—the Lone Spaingers. Or not. Every one of her wines was damned fine. My favorite red of hers, for the moment, was her Verdad 2012 Graciano Ibarra-Young Vineyard Edna Valley. It struck me as almost a Spanish version of Barbera. Lots of acidity, very bright cherry fruit, with a seamless kind of purity that was very appealing. Plenty of structure to the Graciano, and I suspect it will age quite gracefully, even if it doesn’t develop enormous complexity. Guesswork, of course, pure guesswork, but isn’t that some of the fun when it comes to wine? Wine is like relationships—you never know which ones will last a long time, and which ones will start to smell really bad after a year or two.

Bokisch Vineyards was also serving a Graciano, their Bokisch Graciano 2012 Terra Alta & Las Cerezas Vineyards Lodi. If Verdad’s was like Barbera, the Bokisch was more like Zin. But those are just my stupid impressions. The difference would seem to be ripeness, Edna Valley vs. Lodi. The Bokisch shows some jammier characteristics, but I was impressed by the fleshiness of the wine, and it’s sizzling, almost white pit fruit, acidity. And there’s also a bit a savoriness here, a dash of earthiness and minerality—yes, it’s sort of a rocky Graciano (oh, man, that’s stupid). Graciano is an old and distinguished variety, and judging from the Verdad and Bokisch, one I am drawn to. The Bokisch is $23! On this planet, that’s a deal. The Graciano is a knockout (OK, stupid again--and I hate boxing).

Morgan Winery has a line of Spanish varieties under its Lee Family Farm label, and I quite liked the Lee Family Farm 2013 Tempranillo Monterey County made from fruit from Ventana Vineyards. It has a nice juiciness to its plummy fruit, a nice use of oak, a little herbal character, and a clean and bright finish. It maybe didn’t scream Tempranillo, but it’s completely delicious, and I’d gladly drink it. Though I think I’d much rather drink the Lee Family Farm 2012 Grenache Monterey, which is also rather simple, but has all that sweet, appealing, cherry-berry character I love about Grenache. It’s also a little bit bloody, a firm iron backbone running through it. Like a lot of winemakers who are good with Pinot Noir, Dan Lee seems very surehanded with Grenache, too. This is a very stylistic and pure Grenache. Especially for $24.

Speaking of price, isn’t the biggest hurdle for these domestic wines competing with Spanish wine prices? There are so many wonderful Spanish reds that sell for less than $25. One of the big reasons Napa Valley can charge so much money for Cabernet Sauvignon is because they are pricing on the coattails of Bordeaux. Whereas there are only five First Growths in Bordeaux, Napa Valley wineries believe they are just about all First Growths. Napa has more Growths than the Elephant Man. In Napa, 90% of the wineries think they’re in the top 5% of the wineries. You could argue that California and Oregon Pinot Noir prices reflect Burgundy’s prices. But Rioja prices have always been, and continue to be, ridiculously low, even in these days of the Euro—low considering the ageability and quality of the wines. So if you’re growing great Spanish wines in Lodi, as Bokisch is, or in the Sierra Foothills, as Derek Irwin is, even at $24 you’re getting top-notch Spanish prices—only you’re not making any money at those prices (or not much). And when I see a price for domestic Tempranillo around $30, I automatically think of several dozen Spanish wines that are cheaper and better. That’s very tough on these TAPAS folks. How do you get to be a wine Starbucks and charge six bucks for coffee worth a quarter? Offer free Wi-Fi? I don’t envy the folks dedicated to the Spanish varieties (which are also, for the most part, a lot of the Rhône varieties, too). As in most areas of life, passion can lead you straight to the poorhouse.

Lastly, there is Monastrell/Mataro/Mourvèdre. Mourvèdre has more common names than everyone in Korea. Is there anything better with duck than Monastrell? Yeah, I know, how often do we eat duck? It’s also perfect with cassoulet, a dish that always makes me think of a fat singer working as a bullfighter. (You know, I just let my mind wander in these pieces, I don’t pretend to be editing this crap.) There were better Mourvèdres at Rhône Rangers (especially the Skinner Estate 2012), but I was duly impressed by the Bokisch 2012 Monastrell Belle Colline Vineyard Clements Hills Lodi. At $23, well, it’s striking. Blueberries and plums with a whisper of smoke, and an umami finish—my first impression was simply, “Delicious.” It has delicacy and definition, and has the kind of texture and sweetness one might taste in a good Monastrell from Jumilla. Turns out I like the Spanish varieties from Lodi a lot more than I like the Zinfandels.

Regrets? I have a few. But then again, too few to mention. I did TAPAS my way. I do wish I’d tasted Abacela’s Tempranillo (I’ve liked it in the past), and that I’d tasted the Texas Tempranillos. There seems to be some buzz about Texas Tempranillo and I’d like to quash it. I didn’t get to Twisted Oak, which always strikes me as the Tobin James of the Sierra Foothills—more laughter than substance (that sounds familiar—Ju? Milla?). And I missed out on Quinta Cruz, a winery I’ve heard good things about. So it goes. My apologies to those folks, and anyone else whose wines I didn’t taste.

Hope to see you next year.