Thursday, July 30, 2015
I keep a list of ideas for possible pieces on HoseMaster of Wine™. Now and then, an idea comes to me that I absolutely love, but eventually find unworkable. Many pieces are “easy.” They write themselves. The moment Randall Grahm’s crowdfunding proposal hit the press, I received five or six emails from people and friends in the wine business wanting me to lampoon him. It felt so much like a kind of Command Performance, that I thought about ignoring the whole thing. But then I read Randall’s proposal, and it’s comedy iron pyrite—and I’m the Fool who grabs that gold. I always hope that every piece turns out to be funny, perhaps enlightening, but also that, at the very least, it comes from an interesting angle. Wine writing on the Intergnats is so godawful boring. But I always struggle with the fear that I’ve gone too far. I have to summon a bit of satirist courage to finally hit “Publish.” I don’t mind offending people, but I want to offend the right people. However, all that’s different than just having an idea that I can’t quite manage to express in my comedic voice.
My unworkable recent idea was deceptively simple. What if at the Wine Blog Awards ceremony they had a death montage? Every awards show worth anything at all has that two or three minute photo montage of those among its ranks who died in the past year. We all watch death montages intensely, don’t we? It’s gripping to see that people more famous and more accomplished than we are die, often gruesomely, or at their own hand. Why not have a few minutes at the Poodles devoted to all the wine blogs that died in the past year? You can see the satiric possibilities here. And I actually love the idea.
When I tried to write it, well, nothing happened. Everything I wrote stunk (no surprise there, I can here Will Lyons saying, the humorless douchebag). It’s happened before. Last month, I had another “brilliant” idea to write a piece about a telethon to raise money for Short Man’s Disease. I had about half of a public service announcement written, which focused on the tragic and heart-wrenching case of a well-known wine critic, but it just didn’t work. It tried too hard. Too petty, maybe. Which on this blog seems impossible, I know. So I simply abandoned it.
All of this to say that sometimes the best pieces are the ones I decide not to write.
I’m glad that I’m not a sommelier anymore. I’m a recovering sommelier. I’m glad because it’s become a young person’s game. A man my age isn’t really welcome in the sommelier community, unless you can do something for them, like give them some stupid degree. I’m a dinosaur, an oldfuckosaurus. I think it would be creepy for everyone involved if I attended lavish wine events at my age. First of all, it would be hard for me not to be annoyed by all the worst qualities of a young sommelier that remind me of myself at that age. Only, at that age, I was still on my way to becoming a sommelier. Not through exams or pursuing an alphabet after my name, but through learning restaurant service and hospitality, as well as humility in the face of the dauntingly difficult task of learning about wine. But I still possessed a number of annoying qualities that I see all the time in younger wine experts—arrogance, bald-faced lying about the extent of my wine knowledge, overindulgence, and stupid, childish wine oneupmanship. Sommeliers of both sexes are forever wagging their dicks at each other.
Comedy would have been the same way, I think, had I stayed part of it. Comedy writing is, also, a young person’s game. It consumes you. As wine consumes you when you first truly fall in love with it. You live and breathe it. And then one day, twenty years in, you realize it’s ultimately not that important. That being a sommelier isn’t much of an accomplishment. That writing endless setups and punchlines for someone else to deliver is more assembly line work than it is creatively rewarding. And suddenly the rest of your life opens up to you. You go back to other long lost loves, you spend more time with friends and family. You start to restructure your priorities, discover what truly matters in life. Love and courage and kindness. And that’s the point when the industry is done with you.
If you try to pass along that “wisdom,” who will listen? No one. Don’t get me wrong. I loved being a sommelier. I’ve rarely met anyone in life who loves his/her career more than I loved mine. And when I find someone new to wine who I think loves wine as much as I do, I try to help her. But I know I’m a has-been. Writing HoseMaster of Wine™ is simply a way to try not to be a has-been, both in wine and in comedy. It doesn’t work, but it’s fun. Unexpectedly, it’s been a place where my experiences in both lines of work has come together and made me happy. This is completely surprising to me, and also why I’m still here twice a week. Some of you come here only for the laughter, some seem to like when I talk about wine. I don’t much care. I like to do both. And so I do.
Monday, July 27, 2015
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
The plan is to create 10,000 new grape varieties, Vitis Grahmbrusca. Mainly because the 10,000 that Mother Nature created suck. We need 10,000 new ones. Varieties that will be planted on their own roots, the better to resist disease and drought. Vines that won’t ever need to be suckered—not like you're being at this very minute.
I thought of it. And who better? The wine business is moribund. We need some new ideas. We need dreams. We need more crackpot science. Vitis Grahmbrusca will do for wines what phrenology did for psychology. But it’s not just numbskulls I’m measuring, it’s credulity.
I won’t be doing this alone. By contributing, you’ll be a part of this research. Research that will change the way we think about wine, maybe not in a good way. I’ll also be consulting with other researchers at prestigious universities, like Davis, Fresno State, and Hogwarts. It will take time, it will take money, and it will take some kind of weird spirituality that I’m still thinking up. But we can do it.
THE PROBLEM WITH GRAPES NOW
Grapes haven’t had sex in thousands of years. Sound familiar? They’ve only had sex with themselves, like monks, and Donald Trump. This means that they haven’t evolved at all. Like monks, and Donald Trump. Imagine if you were exactly like your great-great-great-great-grandfather, the one the sheep were afraid of. Well, that’s what it’s like now when we make wines from Chardonnay and Cabernet— we’re just making more and more of the same old sheepfuckers. Like Donald Trump.
My plan is to try something that’s never been tried before. Unless you count God. Who, by the way, has never been on the cover of Wine Spectator. I’m going to breed grapevines that will be the greatest grapevines the world has ever known. How will I do this? Oh, don’t you worry about that. It’s way over your head. Think of the whole process as being like all the outrageous and obscure puns I put in my writing—you don’t need to know what I’m talking about, just laugh knowingly as though you do. Besides, if you give me enough money, I’m going to let you name one of my new varieties of Vitis Grahmbrusca. Isn’t that amazing? It will be like being a kid again and naming your imaginary friend! Only this time, it’s an imaginary grape. Yeah, I know, it’s remarkable. It came to me in a dream.
WHAT WE’RE BUILDING FOR YOU AND OUR FUTURE
The most important feature is the creation of 10,000 new wine grape varieties. Imagine a vineyard where every single vine is unique. Each vine would contribute to expressing the vineyard’s terroir. Think of it like the internet of vineyards. Remember how boring it was when wine had only one voice, the Emperor of Wine’s? Robert D. Nero fiddling while Rhône burns? Now think about how much better the wine world is with 10,000 wine bloggers! Background and authority have been rendered meaningless, and the world is a better place for it. So it will be in viticulture when Vitis Grahmbrusca becomes reality. Like the internet, the vineyard’s terroir will be revealed by its ten thousand occupants to be a whole lot of empty noise.
Using good old fashioned science, I’ll create grapes that not only produce unique and delicious wines, but will help our warming climate by being far more drought tolerant and disease resistant. Don’t you want to be a part of this? I made a small fortune selling off my Big House and Pacific Rim brands, so I’m set. I’m not doing this for your money. I’m offering everyone a chance to be part of something as big as my chutzpah. One day you’ll be opening a bottle of wine made from Vitis Grahmbrusca and telling your children, “And, yup, I got a poster.”
The vineyard, which is already paid for, because, you know, I got Pacific Rim money, is in San Juan Bautista, which is eloquent and appropriate in itself. It’s a sacred place, this vineyard in a place named for John the Baptist. I feel I am in the mold of John the Baptist, though Vitis Grahmbrusca will be mold-resistant, too. I have wandered the Earth calling in the wilderness, a spiritual messenger preparing the way. And I’ve completely lost my head.
WHEN IS A GMO A GOOD GMO?
When it’s a Grahm Modified Organism, that’s when. I’m not one of those evil and mendacious agricultural corporations that manipulates plants so that they’re more productive and disease resistant. What I’m doing is different. Really. My experiments are intended to be shared with everyone, an open source for the future, and not intended to be profitable. It’s right there in the 501(c)3 status, that it’s knowledge to be shared with our community. It’s stated in what’s called the “Monsanto Clause,” and, yes, Virginia, there is a Monsanto Clause.
Even Michael Pollan has endorsed my plans. And Jamie Goode. If Rudolf Steiner were alive, I’m sure he’d be on board. It’s just that crazy.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU?
Wine is about community. Especially the natural wine community. A central tenet of natural winemaking is that the customers are supposed to pay for the winemaker’s experiments, but usually after it’s been bottled. I’m offering the unique opportunity to pay for those wildly imaginative experiments TEN YEARS AHEAD OF TIME! Opportunities like that don’t come along every day. Ask the friends of Bernie Madoff.
When my plan succeeds, and Vitis Grahmbrusca is a reality, you’ll have been a part of it. But let’s just say that I don’t raise the $350,000, because people like you don’t want to be part of my natural wine community, because you simply don't recognize reality when it's staring right at you. Then how are you going to feel when I succeed? Ask yourself that. I’m trying to build a viticultural Noah’s Ark, and you’re calling me nuts. Where would the world be if Noah hadn’t built that Ark? There’s the reality.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
I have no idea what “Rutherford dust” is. It was André Tchelistcheff who coined the expression, (though there are some who say Tchelistcheff borrowed the phrase from Maynard Amerine—I don’t think it matters) and perhaps back in his day it was easy to understand the concept, maybe even taste it in the wines. Though the last time I tasted dust it was because my first wife was leaving me in it. I don’t have any trouble discerning the salinity and minerality of Cru Chablis. I have often experienced the tar and roses character of older Barolo, the bacony edge to Côte-Rôtie, but somehow I’ve never been able to isolate the dust in Rutherford Cabernet. I suppose this is a failure on my part.
I was eager to attend “A Day in the Dust,” the annual tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford appellation of Napa Valley. In the midst of our drought, though, the name seemed a bit cavalier. Every day these days is a day in the dust. It’s dustier around here than the news features on Wine-Searcher. The tasting was held at Francis Ford Coppola’s restored Inglenook Estate. He’s done for Inglenook what he did for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”—raised the stakes.
One of the legendary Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa Valley history is the 1941 Inglenook Estate Cabernet. Imagine, a wine still undergoing ML as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Like the USS Arizona, that’s hard to fathom. I was lucky enough to taste the ’41 Inglenook in 1991 on the occasion of my friend Paul Smith’s 50th birthday. (Paul is proprietor of Woodland Hills Wine Company, one of the absolute best wine retailers around.) Paul had purchased a pristine 6-pack of the ’41 at auction. I just happened to be around when he opened one of the bottles, and it’s one of the most memorable wines of my wine life. At 50, it was still very much alive (as was Paul). I won’t pretend I remember the specifics of how it tasted, I’d be making it up, but what I do recall is just how vibrant and beautiful it was, how it stunned everyone with its longevity and quality. In 1991, as today, there were legions of experts who proclaimed that California Cabernets could not age as well as their Bordeaux counterparts. Not one of them was there when we opened the ’41 Inglenook. I suspect it’s still got something to say. Assigning it a perfect score would seem as stupid as giving Vladimir Horowitz 100 points for his last piano recital. Just shut up and enjoy it.
This year, the wines being served at the historic Inglenook Estate for “A Day in the Dust” were from the wonderful 2012 vintage. Tasting them in July 2015 seemed a bit premature, which is like saying, “I swear, Baby, that’s never happened to me before.” I suspect most of the wines hadn’t been in bottle for very long, but a tasting like this is a good way to gain some insight into the quality and consistency of the vintage, at least in one of Napa Valley’s best districts for Cabernet. I counted 29 producers present, and it was an interesting cross-section of the appellation. There were some notable absences, I would have expected Caymus and Staglin to be present but neither was, yet it was a nice turnout of both the usual suspects, and a few with which I was only vaguely familiar.
Of course, André Tchelistcheff wasn’t referring to a particular character or flavor in Cabernet Sauvignon from Rutherford when he was referring to its dust, but to the soil, and probably the ubiquitous dust that farming grapes creates. I can imagine a visitor to Beaulieu in August saying, “Man, it’s really hazy and dusty outside,” and Tchelistcheff replying, “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet.” Of course, the irony is Tchelistcheff could have said, “It takes Rutherford haze to grow great Cabernet,” and everyone now would be thinking they should be tasting our 19th President in their BV Private Reserve. (That joke is so stupid, I’m damned proud of it.)
“A Day in the Dust” is a walk-around tasting, though there was an earlier tasting for more important people than I conducted by Fred Dame MS. Speaking of dust. A walk-around tasting is a difficult environment in which to taste wine. You’re always trying to elbow your way to a table to taste, there’s always some bonehead thinking he has the winemaker entranced with his brilliant wine analysis when he really only has him entrapped, you’re glancing around the room looking for the nearest spit bucket, and all the while trying to focus on the wine’s aromas and then its taste. It’s hard to concentrate. Add to that the nature of young Cabernet, how much it will change, fill out, integrate, gain intensity over the next couple of years in bottle, changes that can make a fool of any wine writer who isn’t one to begin with, and, well, it’s humbling. Or should be. So please take my remarks with a trainload of salt.
After the tasting, driving home, I was trying to capture some common thread that all the Cabernets I tasted possessed. This seemed like a hopeless task. What I tasted over and over again was more akin to style than appellation. Also, it seemed to me that quite a few of the wines seemed overcropped (certainly plausible in 2012), but that could simply be youthful callowness. Most of the wines I tasted had been made by very experienced Napa Valley winemakers, people who put their stamp on wines stylistically. Almost every wine spoke to me of style more than place. Like listening to 29 jazz pianists play “Misty.” There’s a melody in there somewhere, but everyone’s screwing around with it in their own way. I actually like that, want that to be the case. A wine shouldn’t scream “Rutherford” any more than a person should scream “Cop.” Those are always the worst ones.
2012 is a terrific vintage. Now this statement depends on your perspective. Some will find them too voluptuous. Is this possible? Can anything be too voluptuous? I didn’t note many flabby wines, most were grand examples of California Cabernet at its down and dirtiest, busting out of its clothing, youthful and exuberant and ripe, and unafraid to flaunt it. The best ones gave me a boner (I swear, wine writing needs more use of the word "boner"). Did my heart good. I didn’t find them to be too much, as some naysayers will, but, rather, inimitably Napa Valley Cabernet. Some yearn for the “good old days” when California Cabernets were picked at 23 Brix°. Not me. I like balance, and to my palate, the best wines at “A Day in the Dust” had impeccable balance. It was a nice window to the vintage, and people like to throw Brix° at windows.
I’d like to briefly mention my favorite wines at the tasting. I’m certain that in six months, tasting them all again, maybe with Dusty Dame MS, my favorites would be different. That’s the nature of tasting young wines in such an odd and crowded event. But it’s all we got.
I found myself drawn to two very different Cabernets. First, there was the luscious and juicy Hunnicutt 2012 Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard. Made by Kirk Venge, its forward and seductive and ripe fruit reminded me of the old Groth Reserve Cabernets his father Nils made back in the ’80’s and ’90’s. I think the ’12 Hunnicutt will age better than those Groth wines, it has a nicely integrated layer of chalky tannin, and a lovely and lingering finish. Its all blackberry and cassis, a wine Parker would label “hedonistic.” I just wanted to gulp it. And, no, it wasn’t sweet with residual sugar. So Laube will hate it.
I was also crazy about a wine that is stylistically worlds apart from the Hunnicutt—the stately and beautiful Freemark Abbey 2012 Cabernet Bosché. Oh, boy, this is classic Rutherford Cabernet by anyone’s definition. Tasting it was like running into an old friend. I hope folks don’t ignore this wine because the glory days of Freemark Abbey are long behind us. A lot of cult wines have come and gone since then. This is polished, restrained, elegant wine, but one that is bursting with fun—Charlize Theron in Dior. Ted Edwards certainly knows his way around Bosché Vineyard fruit, and, handed a great vintage, he knew what to do with it. I doubt it will be cheap (the ’11 Cabernet Bosché is $100, and Jackson Family Estates isn't shy about raising prices, so we’ll see), but you can be dead certain that it will become a classic. Maybe not ’41 Inglenook classic, but classic. Very different style than the Hunnicutt. I can’t say I prefer one style over the other, any more than I like the Marx Brothers more than the Smothers Brothers. I don’t have to choose, I’d rather embrace them both. Though the Freemark Abbey and the Marx Brothers will live longer.
I was also very impressed by the two wines Flora Springs offered. I nearly passed them by. My recent experiences with Flora Springs haven’t been especially memorable. Yet the Flora Springs 2012 Rutherford Hillside Reserve was beautiful. It’s what you expect from great Napa Valley Cabernet. Pure, elevated, intense aromas and flavors of blackberries, cassis, expensive oak (that should integrate more with some bottle age) and its cocoa component, and a very sweet fruit finish. Another very elegant Cabernet, one I’d love to spend a few days with to watch it develop. Another wine I’d think would be long-lived and a cellar treasure. The Flora Springs 2012 Trilogy was also terrific. Very different, it was far more open-knit, more accessible and flashy. A wine a sommelier likes because it’s drinking well already, and folks are going to want to taste the 2012’s. I prefer the Hillside Reserve, but the Trilogy is beautiful, and shows a steady hand from the winemaker. I’d happily slug it down.
I don’t want to bore you much longer. I also very much liked the Frank Family 2012 Patriarch, but it’s $225, and no one who reads my crappy blog can afford $225 for wine. They can barely afford to subscribe. It was a gift to get to taste it though. It was quite good.
Finally, a plug for what was, I think, about the cheapest Cabernet in the room, the Chaix 2012. It’s $60, and worth every dime of that. My first note about it reads, “Cab all the way.” Which is how I should have driven home, but actually meant that the wine smelled like textbook Rutherford Cabernet. I love restraint in wine. In fact, I think that almost every great wine has restraint. The Chaix has that. Made by Sam Baxter, the Chaix is seamless. Maybe not the best wine in the room (way too hard to tell at this point, and what do I know?), it was filled with character and quality. Black fruits, loamy, even a kind of stony character, the wine had so much personality and life, I was jealous. I need more of both.
Monday, July 20, 2015
I quit. And not just because when I congratulated you on your successful kidney transplant you said I should get on the waiting list for a personality transplant. “I hear Suckling has three or four extra he uses only every now and then, like when he’s fucked up on Brunello,” I think you said. You were pretty doped up. You were talking like Jay McInerney. No, that’s not why I’m quitting. I had an epiphany. “Epiphany”—it’s from the Greek for brainfart.
I’ve been the California wine critic for Wine Spectator since 1980. That’s 35 years ago. I’ve put more of California in my mouth than Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen combined. I’ve spit enough wine to float Harvey Steiman. (And, really, how do you make a Harvey Steiman float? Add two scoops of ice cream! Hahahahahahahaha. That’s funny because Harvey’s never had a scoop in his life.) I’ve scored more than that Game of Thrones dwarf at Comic Con. And, well, I just realized I’m sick to death of California wine. And have been for about fifteen years.
You know I’ve never been very comfortable with the limelight, Marv. I’m pretty quiet. Frankly, I don’t much like people. When you make me write winemaker profiles, I struggle with what to say. Sure, there are a few winemakers I like. I hang out with Tor Kenward, but, well, yeah, now that I think about it, I guess that’s about it. Maybe I should be more friendly. Hang out with more wine people. About time someone Tor me a new one! Hahahahahahaha. I’m on fire today, Marv, like that big horse turd in your mouth you got from Cuba. That seems too much like cannibalism… Anyhow, I’m tired of being the guy who’s the punching bag for people who think California wines are lousy. It’s not my fault they're lousy. It’s Parker’s fault.
In the good old days, Marv, you remember, there was no goddamned internet. We’d publish our little numbers and suck up all the advertising dollars out there. No one complained. Sure, an occasional Letter to the Editor would show up—remember how we’d read them outloud in a funny falsetto voice, like we were Jancis Robinson—but, for the most part, we didn’t ever have to worry about criticism. I miss those days. Now I have to turn off my Google Alert. Some guy the other day said I looked like a barrique’s bunghole with Tom Selleck’s moustache. How stupid is that? It’s clearly Omar Sharif’s moustache. And I can’t go anywhere near those wine chat rooms! Those guys are mean. For the record, I am not Helen Turley’s bee-atch. I don’t even know what that is.
But it’s not being in the limelight so much. Nor is it that I have to write the same stinking blog posts year after year after year. Jeez, Marv, you know I don’t have anything interesting to say about wine. Why do you and Tom make me write a column? Not just “Seinfeld” has a Kramer to spout endless non sequiturs. Matt can barge into any room and say weird shit with the best of 'em. I swear, if I have to write another fucking “Six Wineries to Watch” column, I’m going to go insane. Or “Hot New Chardonnay Producers.” It’s just crap, and you make me fill in the winery blanks like it’s “MadLibs.”
“___(Name)______ is quietly producing some of California’s finest offerings of ___(grape)____. If you’re lucky enough to get on his mailing list, you’re in for a rare ___(noun)____.”
And I’m still miffed that you wouldn’t let me use “boner” as the noun. Or as the Name. Though I snuck in Bonarda as the grape! Hahahahahahahaha. I’m hilarious! There’s not enough boners in wine writing, Marv, even though we’re easily the most sexist business around. We should celebrate that. But never mind, my point is I’m sick of the endlessly redundant columns I have to crank out. I sure as hell won’t miss those. “Six Wineries to Watch?” Yeah, sure, for what? Label reproductions in the wine review section that they’ll now gladly pay for after we give them 92 points? Yup. I guess so.
I can keep cranking out the same useless columns forever. Well, I have. They’re no harder than writing tasting notes. So that’s not why I’m resigning either. As I mentioned in the beginning, I’m just weary of California wine. No, not all of it. There’s still some wineries that make wines I like. Caymus comes to mind.
Oooh, I loved the Caymus 40th Anniversary Cabernet! You know why? Because Caymus has the balls to make the wine the way people want their wines—sweet! And that wine is just yummy sweet. I’ll bet that wine has at least 7 grams of sugar in it. Perfect! OK, maybe not as delicious as the 14 grams in Ménage à Trois or the 18 grams in Apothic, but I can’t give those factory wines a 95. They’re crap. Caymus is Caymus. They’ve scored the number one wine in our Top 100 wines issue twice! Finally, a wine I like I can give a big score to. I don’t want to make a fool of myself.
Sure, I used to like dry wines. I was young once. Back then, the sweet ones, which didn’t come along very often, really bothered me. But now I love the sweet reds! I can’t get enough of them. Hell, I relentlessly give them high scores. If they’re reputable wineries, of course. I’m not going to ruin my reputation for just any winery. I’m trying really hard to influence wineries to make sweeter reds. But they don’t seem to be catching on. It’s frustrating. All day long I have to suffer through these big, nasty, bone dry, unfiltered Cabernets when Papa’s just jonesin’ sweetness. Structured, elegant, lean, bone dry? 89 pointers, all of them. Boom! But, hell, only every now and then do I find one I really like. Smooth and rich and satisfying, like a cork-finished chocolate milkshake. That’s a 95! BaBOOM! Figure it out, marketing people, Uncle Jimmy likes it sweet.
But they won’t figure it out. Not enough of them, anyway. Sure, Parker likes Brett, they figure that out. Suckling likes paid subscriptions, they figure that out. Is this so much harder to figure out? Apparently. So I’m outta here, Marv, old buddy. Done. Finito. In the immortal words of Marie Antoinette, “Let ‘em drink cake!”
Thursday, July 16, 2015
I have to laugh when I see wine writers pontificating about sommeliers. They haven’t a clue about what it’s like to be a working sommelier, except for the few that may have actually done the job. But let’s be truthful, sommeliers spend just as much time demeaning wine writers. Only they deserve it. No one ever approaches a wine writer and asks, “What does Raj Parr think of that wine you just gave 98 points?” But every sommelier has heard, after recommending a wine, “What score did it get?” It’s as if when your doctor recommends you begin to take Cialis, you ask, “If I take it, how many pascals will my dick register on the Vickers test?” Who cares? I’m just trying to make you happy. “How hard does it have to be?” is the equivalent of “How many points do you need?” It just needs to fit with the main course. Or, in the wine’s case, with the meal.
No two sommeliers have the same job. I had one job as a sommelier for nineteen years, and it was a very different job than the sommelier’s job at Spago or Valentino or French Laundry. The jobs are the same in that you buy wine, compile a wine list, work the floor, take care of inventory, all of that. But every restaurant is different, with its own set of boundaries and rules, and more than likely a crazy owner, or a crazy chef, or both. Not to mention the eternal war between the waiters and the sommelier, a war similar to that between the Elvish and the Orcs. Waiters, of course, are Orcs, goblins who serve the Dark Powers. Sommeliers are Elvish impersonators. In Vegas, they can perform marriages.
The definition of sommelier is very elastic. In my experience the past twenty years, most of the people who say they are sommeliers are actually assistant managers, door lockers and schedule makers, who happen to know more about wine than the majority of their customers. (Oh, I mean “guests”—hookers have customers, restaurants have guests. Though, for both, it’s always the tips that matter.) They’re no more sommeliers than drag queens are women. But they got the strut down.
A drag queen has his balls tied, a sommelier, his hands. He (or she—there are so many remarkable women in the profession, many of the best sommeliers are women, but I’m using “he” as my preferred pronoun because I used to be one. A sommelier. Not a he. I’m still a he, though, grammatically, my participle is dangling a lot more.) rarely gets to set prices (though he takes the heat for them). He often has a very strict budget, and usually works for a boss that pays the wine bills very slowly (no slower pay than restaurants)—which doesn’t endear you to wineries, especially the best ones. So earning your salary as a sommelier is quite the juggling act, but a different juggling act for every sommelier. Are sommelier’s roles changing, as wine writers stupidly ask? Yeah, like very fucking week.
When I see articles about “the changing role of sommeliers,” or “sommeliers are a vanishing species,” or “what makes a great sommelier,” I read them and wonder at the emptiness of the prose, and the mindlessness of the authors. And here’s why:
If there’s a job stupider than Wine Writer, it’s Sommelier. Though I mean that in a good way.
There’s endless babble on wine blogs and in the press about “the changing roles of wine writers” and “wine writers are a vanishing species” and “what makes a great wine writer.” Sound familiar? Those are equally emptyheaded as the sommelier articles. In fact, they’re the same articles. Devoid of insight or original thought. And, ultimately, who cares about wine writers and sommeliers? Well, I’ll tell you who cares about wine writers and sommeliers. Wine writers and sommeliers. And that’s about it.
The glorification of sommeliers is laughable. No one should spend even three paragraphs talking about them (though I just have). And no one should glorify them either. Of all the occupations to glamorize, or revere, sommelier isn’t in the top 100. It’s a service job. It’s simple. It’s not that hard to do. It does no measurable good in the true sense of the word. You know a lot about an esoteric subject; you’re the resident restaurant Trekkie. Yes, it’s a cool job, one that somehow has an aura of importance that it hasn’t earned. But it’s completely unworthy of the attention it seems to get in the press and online. A sommelier’s role isn’t changing, the job isn’t endangered, nor is there any such thing as a great sommelier. Except in the sense that, more importantly, a fine restaurant is always looking for a "great" dishwasher. It needs him more than it needs a "great" sommelier.
Though in this new millennium, the dishwasher’s job may just be changing.
Monday, July 13, 2015
Editor's Note: The Emperor’s Diaries were only recently unearthed by an unemployed wine critic who found them in Antonio Galloni’s underwear drawer, right next to the 100 Point Lube (“100 Point Lube—Slip One In So They Hardly Notice!”). After a painstaking translation from Robert Parker’s native tongue, Hedonia, a few passages were provided to HoseMaster of Wine™ for publication before The Emperor’s Diaries are released in full to the public just in time for the James Beard Awards. The diaries are expected to handily win the Beard Award for "Best Book for Gluttons," ending the consecutive win streak held by Mario Batali. We are proud to be the exclusive outlet for excerpts from The Emperor’s Diaries. The diaries were authenticated by Maureen Downey, who noted, “The diaries are real, but as for the Lube, well, it’s a bit slippery.”
I’m in Bordeaux to taste the ’82’s en primeur. I’m not sure I get the hang of this barrel tasting thing. They all kind of taste the same. Big, black and nasty, like Pam Grier. I wouldn’t put it past the French for them to actually be all the same. Like Jerry Lewis movies. You’d think that it would be harder for me to rate them when they all taste the same, but, actually it’s a lot easier. How can anyone say you’re wrong? They’ll never get to taste the same barrel, and even if they did, they won’t know what they’re tasting either. It’s very empowering. Of course, I already know the First Growths will get the highest scores, but I’ll be looking for those underrated wines, the ones that are a lot cheaper, but made at least one barrel as good as a First Growth.
I may have to tweak my 100 Point Scale for barrel tastings, though. I don’t mind putting a single integer on a bottled wine, but it seems presumptuous to be so precise for a barrel tasting. Especially since I have no idea what I’m doing. So if I decide I’m going to give the wine 95, and I’m definitely going to give a bunch of high numbers or why be here, I’ll just put (93-97). What makes it work, I think, are the parentheses. Gives it dignity. Indicates I deliberated long and hard over that barrel sample, when nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that quotation marks are glib. “93-97”? Like I’m quoting somebody else, maybe. They’re almost sarcastic. Parentheses are whispers, secret code between me and my 57 subscribers, information I wouldn’t give to just anybody. Yeah, that’s cool. Plus, I’m awarding four scores instead of just one. Wish I’d thought of that seven years ago.
I am so sick of Bordeaux, I could crap Peppercorn. What a nightmare tasting en primeur. Nothing but a bunch of stuffy old Brits sipping, spitting and proclaiming. It’s like the Royal Shakespeare Company performing “All’s Swill that Ends Swill.” Everybody pretty much ignored me the entire time. The only reason I even managed to taste the First Growths was because I shouted, “Look! Peter O’Toole!” and the old queens took off running.
I’m also beginning to think that a lot of the barrel samples I tasted had been doctored. Which might explain why there was a case of empty Caymus Special Selection bottles behind the Mouton barrel. Oh, maybe I’m just being paranoid. What possible motivation could there be for the Chateaux to manipulate their barrels? They don’t sell futures that much anymore anyway. Only the dribble that the English purchase as futures. Americans don’t buy Bordeaux futures. They’d have better luck trying to sell futures to the Chinese! Yeah, like that will ever happen. More likely we’ll elect a black man to be President before the Chinese ever give a Great Wall of Shit about Bordeaux.
I also overheard a lot of rumbling from the old sots that ’82 seemed like a below average vintage. I was thinking the same thing. They’re all kinda sweet and chewy. But I’m also thinking most Americans really like sweet and chewy, so I should give the wines high scores. And not just high scores, I should rave about the vintage in general. That’ll make people notice me. I know how to rave. How about this kind of quote:
“1982 is the greatest vintage in my experience.”
That sounds great. Though it’s a lot like saying, “Godzilla is the biggest dinosaur in my experience.” Ah, the best hype is the hype that’s the truth about lying. So I’ll stick my neck out and publish high scores for the ’82 Bordeaux. I’ll be the only one.
It worked! Oh, man, I’m a genius. Every major wine retailer in the country is taking out full page ads selling futures of 1982 Bordeaux, and guess who they’re quoting? I’ll give you a clue. It’s not the cast of “Cats.” Andrew Lloyd Webber isn’t the only untalented Brit whose work is about being a pussy, try the whole British wine trade. Those ads are quoting Robert Parker, Jr. (I added the “Jr.” part a while ago because it seems cool, like Sammy Davis, or Martin Luther King, or Mints.) My ratings and quotes are billboarded all over the place!
“The ’82 Margaux is legendary, and should rival the ’59! (96-100)”*
“Wise buyers will be lining up to purchase the brilliant ’82 Cheval Blanc, the greatest wine from this estate since the ’47! (96-100)”*
“Serious wine collectors will want a case of ’82 Lynch-Bages, a tour-de-force that surpasses even the legendary 1870, which was only released to the wine club. (92-96)”*
*Robert Parker, Jr.
My phone has been ringing off the hook with people who want to subscribe. I may have to hire someone to work in my office just to keep track of all the samples I’m receiving. Someone I can trust, and who knows about wine. Come to think of it, I met a guy who might be perfect. German guy, what was his name. Rodenstock! Hardy Rodenstock. I think I’ll give him a call.
Thursday, July 9, 2015
A few months ago I received an email from Linda Murphy, who humbly says she "used to be someone in the wine business" (this to someone who has never been anyone at all in the wine business), asking if I’d agree to an interview for publication in Vineyard and Winery Management magazine. Naturally, I was flattered. Most of my interviews are conducted in either a prospective employer’s office, or handcuffs.
Linda asked me if I preferred a phone interview, or email. I’m a writer, well, self-proclaimed writer anyway, so I preferred email. Linda sent me a list of questions, and I answered them. I wonder that people have any interest in me, or my life. It’s the HoseMaster that generates curiosity, and I’m not him.
I wonder that anyone cares about Ron Washam. I’m a huge disappointment in person—there are a lot of people who will testify to that. I’m willdy uncomfortable with my tiny bit of wine business fame, and yet proud of it. But I know that people expect me to be a lot like the HoseMaster in person, and I’m not. I don’t perform comedy, I write comedy. Those are two very different pursuits. I’m much funnier on paper than in real life. And I care as much about writing as I care about wine, maybe more, after having spent many years studying both. But I feel a pressure to be funny with people who meet me and are fans, or even critics, of my blog, which makes me contemplative and recalcitrant in person. I don’t want to be the HoseMaster on a daily basis. Would you? So, yes, a disappointment.
The editor of Vineyard and Winery Management, Tina Caputo, seems to be a fan of my work. I’ve never met Tina, but I hope to one day. Not because she’s a fan, but because I know her work and admire it. The most recent encounter I had with Linda Murphy my brilliant interviewer, was in the parking lot of our local indepently-owned grocery store in Healdsburg, Big John’s. I was getting into my car with bags full of groceries when a woman asked me if I was Ron. I said I was, and Linda introduced herself and said kind things about my blog. I really need to get rid of my California vanity license plates. Mine say “HOSMSTR.” I’ve had those plates almost thirty years. Maybe it’s time to let them go.
All this to get to the link to the interview. Warning—there are also photos. You may want your children to leave the room.
The HoseMaster of Wine™ Comes Clean.
Monday, July 6, 2015
|Le Pan in the Ass
Le Pan is the only wine magazine that answers the questions to which real wine connoisseurs need answers. Is my private jet a good place to store my First Growths? How does cabin pressure affect Champagne—does it make it just like fine wine sales in China? Flat? Should Grand Cru Burgundy smell like where I stable my polo ponies? Or worse, where I house my sweatshop employees? How do I know auction bottles are genuine, and not fake like the Cartier watches my factory slaves make? Do stupid Americans actually buy Yao Ming’s Cabernet?
There's a new wine rag in town, Le Pan. After you read this letter from the publisher, a Master of Wine, no less, you'll want to subscribe. Or commit suicide. I'll probably do both. To read the rest of the publisher's letter, head directly to Tim Atkin M.W., the only M.W. not on Le Pan's masthead, I think. And feel free to respond over at Tim's, or leave your response here inside a fortune cookie.
TIM ATKIN, M.W.
Thursday, July 2, 2015
I spend a lot of time wondering why I do what I do now, considering where I've been, and considering the big wine picture. It seems to be out of some sort of need for attention. Which is pathetic. Writing HoseMaster of Wine™ was originally a way for me to see if I could still write satire. But after five years and more than 400 pieces I think I’ve answered that question. No fucking way. However, I have received an awful lot of attention, much of it negative, and, like the flasher in a battered trenchcoat who lives for the reactions, I keep waving my weenie around hoping for applause for my limp apparatus. Maybe wine blogging is just another kind of sad and lonely exhibitionism.
The nominees for the Poodles were announced (the winners having just been announced) and I ill-advisedly perused many of the nominees. Ouch. I don’t know who the judges were, but theirs must have a terrible task, the equivalent of judging the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and having to drink the hot dog water afterward. Yet this year I felt some compassion for the nominees. Most must have felt gratified to have been nominated. I lobbied hard not to be nominated, I hate meaningless awards, which is another kind of pathetic. I didn't vote for the Poodles, but I certainly hoped that Chris Kassel would win for Best Writing on a Wine Blog (he didn’t, but he won for Best Blog Post of the Year, ironically, for a post that had nothing really to do with wine, but with Robin Williams' suicide--Morgue and Mindy) because he’s smarter and funnier than I am, and comedy is so much harder to write than tepid wine prose. That said, I’m sure Chris doesn’t give a crap that he won. I never did.
I ask myself all the time, what am I trying to prove by writing HoseMaster of Wine™? I don’t know the answer. Maybe I’m not trying to prove anything. But it feels to me like I am. Only I don’t know what. If anything, it’s to prove that I love wine. Not particular wines, not the romance of wine, just wine. And like any great love, I can’t explain why. I can only say I know my life would have been empty without it. That my love for wine is what led me to everything good about my life. So I feel protective of it, and I dislike those who merely use it, those who talk about it thoughtlessly, those who pretend to love wine, pretend to know more about wine than they actually do, but are merely using wine to benefit themselves. And they are legion.
I’ve always hated the pretentiousness that surrounds wine. Smart people can be pretentious, which is shameful. And stupid people can be pretentious, which is laughable. Wine writing these days seems guilty of being both shameful and laughable. Not all of it, not every single instance, not every single writer, but far too much. On the cosmic scale of being human, knowing a lot about wine barely ranks above being good at pinball. The endless debates that surround wine elevate trivia to heights equalled only by TMZ and pledging sororities. Yet chat rooms and blogs are filled with the kinds of wine frauds that would make Rudy Kurniawan proud, and only because wine is deemed important. I love wine, but I’d never, in the grand scheme of things, attribute it much importance.
In 2014 I judged in six wine competitions. This year I’ve judged two, and I’m probably done for the year. I know why I attend competitions. For the simple joy of being around a bunch of interesting wine folks, many, if not all, of whom know more about wine than I. It’s kind of like attending Bible Study, only everybody’s nuts and drinks too much. So just like Bible Study. Judging reminds me over and over again how endlessly fascinating wine is, and how it unfailingly outmatches us, humbles our feeble senses of smell and taste. Wine isn’t about those senses, though in a strictly objective sense it is. Wine is really about camaraderie, congeniality and laughter, the simple joy of intemperance. Or it’s supposed to be. Too often that is missing from wine judging, and from wine writing.
Truthfully, it’s also flattering to be asked to judge a prestigious wine competition. Not getting asked to return can be disheartening, a kick in the old grape nuts, but when you’re the HoseMaster, well, you never expect to be invited to the cool parties in the first place. Satirists never are. Getting invited even once is pretty cool, makes me feel accepted and appreciated. So, again, we’re back to pathetic.
Pardon my little rambling essay. EPHEMERA has always been about sitting in front of the fucking blinking cursor and just expressing what’s been running through my twisted mind. I do wonder why I do this. I don’t need to; it isn’t keeping a roof over my head. It isn’t a path to fame and reputation—not the way I do it anyway. It’s not even very good, not a repository of wit or insight that the world will some day honor and read. It seems to be some sick way of caring about wine, some way to repay what I owe to wine. As if that were possible.