Monday, March 28, 2016

Remembering the Great Sommelier Eradication

Gone, but quickly forgotten

Sure, there were some protests, a few heartfelt complaints. None of that was unexpected. The kamikazes at PETS (People for the Ethical Treatment of Sommeliers) were their usual strident selves. A handful of women openly wept, but they were mostly mothers of sommeliers, and people understood. A few ethicists wondered if it was the right thing to do. But now that it’s over, it seems everyone agrees it was the best course; indeed, it was the only course. There were simply too many. And an overpopulation calls for the simplest and most direct answer. They had plenty of warning. It took years before the decision to cull the sommelier herd became official. And now that most of them are gone, I think we can all recognize that the world is a better place.

When we began to produce so many sommeliers, some time around the turn of the century, we didn’t realize how successfully they would thrive in the urban environment. Like the other “garbage species,” opportunists like rats and coyotes and crows, sommeliers soon spread everywhere. We’ve all had the experience of cruising through downtown in our driverless cars and being startled by the sudden appearance of a sommelier darting out from between parked cars, their highly polished tastevin reflecting the headlights, and our car only narrowly avoiding running them down. Yet in many major cities, sommelier road kills kept santitation departments extremely busy. It became a huge problem. Let’s face it, most dumps won’t accept sommeliers. Well, most dumps aside from hotel restaurants and major wine conglomerates. Too many road kill sommeliers ended up piled on the side of the road like so many waterlogged mattresses, Serta-fied sommeliers. They were eyesores, a public nuisance, and proud of it.

Maybe we should ask ourselves why we allowed the sommelier population to get out of hand in the first place. By 2020, we knew there was a problem, yet we continued to turn a blind eye to it. More and more certification programs appeared, nearly all of them morally bankrupt and useless, aimed at creating more sommeliers. There was a time not so long ago when a sommelier was a rare sight, akin to spotting a whooping crane, or an attractive wine blogger. Suddenly, seemingly overnight, they were everywhere. You couldn’t go to a wine bar without the server being a sommelier. You couldn’t attend a wine tasting without the room suddenly filling with sommeliers, who, in a weird parody of cockroaches, would quickly fill the room when the lights came on. Maybe we ignored the trend because they were so harmless, and relatively odorless, at least compared to the liquor reps. Or maybe we thought that once everyone realized that there just wasn’t room for any more sommeliers, they’d stop growing in number. Whatever the reasons, we shamefully ignored the sommelier pestilence, and we all bear some responsibility for the end result. Thousands of sommeliers humanely eradicated. Admit it, now that it’s over, it felt good. 

The shelters worked for a while. Rounding up starving and inbred sommeliers, the newly minted and deranged sommeliers, and housing them in temporary shelters hoping that they’d be adopted was a grand idea. The goal was for restaurant owners, wine shop owners, winery owners, anyone who had some need for a pet sommelier, to adopt one from the Sommelier Shelters rather than hire a new one. You could walk into a shelter and pick one out, one with the cutest eyes, or one that might have been a mongrel, perhaps rabid for natural wine and destined for a short life, but who spoke to you. But soon the shelters overflowed. Sommeliers by the dozens were just dumped on their doorsteps by disappointed owners who had found they just couldn’t live with their sommelier any longer, the constant yapping late at night, their bottomless need for attention, becoming just too much. Sommelier Shelters began surreptitiously releasing sommeliers back onto the streets under the cover of darkness, giving them a few dollars and a bottle of orange wine to live on. It became a national disgrace, the worst since Donald Trump was the Republican nominee for President. Something needed to be done.

Of course, a majority of the self-proclaimed sommelier population weren’t actually sommeliers. They were pretenders. They asked each other, “What level sommelier are you?” as though sommeliers were practitioners of kung fu, or were parking garages. They took class after class to learn facts about wine, as though facts were knowledge, as if knowledge were wisdom. A First Level Sommelier, the thinking went, is still a sommelier. The same reasoning applies in cultures who think 13-year-old girls are ready to be wives. But it didn’t matter if they were actually sommeliers, any more than it matters what species of rat is taking over your apartment. You just want them gone. They’re a nuisance, and it’s embarrassing to be with friends and everywhere you turn there are sommeliers skulking about. You feel like you need a shower.

When the Sommelier Shelters didn’t solve the problem, and hunting down the last of the Master Sommeliers with drones targeting Le Paulée tastings, and destroying countless bottles of fake Burgundy as collateral damage, didn’t seem to end the infestation, the inevitable started to become reality. It was time to cull the sommelier herd. They’re not hard to catch. Sommeliers are nocturnal, shunning actual sunshine where others might see their jaundiced skin, and not particularly intelligent. In fact, even faced with growing unpopularity, they are blind to it, and will just walk right up to you and tell you they are a sommelier, and usually in the first sentence. They learned this behavior from doctors, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to which they are closely related—all three species believe they know more than you do despite evidence to the contrary. Their behavior made them especially easy prey for the people hired to cull their numbers. Maybe the most challenging part of the Great Sommelier Eradication was administering the lottery to choose the people who would cull the sommeliers. Some estimates put the volunteers in the tens of thousands.

Many people demanded that all sommeliers should be eliminated. A radical view, but one that is easily defensible, especially if you know any. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and sommeliers who actually worked as sommeliers—didn’t just have letters after their names, or had lowered themselves to actually make wine, a crime in most states—were left undisturbed. A few hundred now remain around the world in their natural state. More than enough.

Except for their immediate families, and natural wine producers, no one misses sommeliers. Sommelier Shelters are now filled with baristas, yet another national shame. Their “time” is coming. We can only vow that we will never again allow the population of sommeliers to overrun society. We can insure that there are never again countless phony wine accreditation schools that rob our young people of a real life. And now that it’s legal to shoot anyone who claims to be a sommelier, any fucking level, who doesn’t actually work as a sommelier, the arguments over gun control have also vanished. Culling the Sommelier herd worked.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Donald Trump, Your New Emperor of Wine, States His Case

I don’t get why people think wine reviewing is hard. It’s not hard. I have small hands, so what? I can put my whole hand in my mouth and still have room for little Marco’s junk, so I’m cool. He’s so sweaty it just slides right in. You don’t need big hands to be the most important wine critic who ever lived. I don’t get what all the fuss is about. I can judge four or five hundred wines in a day. It’s easy for me. And I don’t need any help. Why would I need any help? I have a brain made for wine. Really, folks, I do. My brain is like one of those fancy French oak barrrels. Just made for wine. All you have to do is check out my bunghole and you’ll see. Go ahead, shine a light up there, see if it needs to be topped. What do you see? Yeah, that’s right, that’s that Matt Kramer guy.

I’ll tell you something. If I’m not the most powerful wine critic who ever lived, if the wineries don’t start sending me all their wines, the people aren’t going to like it. There’s gonna be riots. It will be bigger than when they threw those Kenyans off the Napa Valley Wine Train for doing some kind of war dance or something. Maybe they thought is wasn’t the wine train. Maybe they thought it was the Soul Train. I would never have those problems. I’d just buy the damned wine train and then fly it into Mexico where it belongs. They can’t stop me from being the New Emperor of Wine. Mark my words, there will be riots. I won’t be able to stop them. There’s going to be a lot of dead sommeliers. Give the people what they want.

There’s a lot of people who think the next Emperor of Wine should be an Empress. Think about that, an Empress of Wine. We already had one of those. We had Robert Lawrence Balzer. We don’t need another one. The job needs somebody with some backbone, some balls. I love women. You all know I love women. I can’t keep my small hands off them. Without women, there wouldn’t be any wine. Really, just think about that. They do all the shopping and they buy most of the wine, and that’s the way it should be. But they shouldn’t be reviewing them. I mean, it’s just not natural. Look, what if they’re bleeding right then, do you want them reviewing your wine? Good luck with that. All I can say is I hope you don’t get a 69. You know what I mean.

A lot of people think I won’t be fair when I review wines. I don’t know where ideas like that get started. I’m going to be fair. People know me as a fair person. I’m tough, ask anybody who’s done business with me, but I’m also fair. A lot of people don’t know this, but George Bush wanted to nominate me for the Supreme Court. It’s true. But he said I couldn’t be Chief Justice, and I knew that would cause riots, so for the good of the country I declined. Sometimes I wish I had said yes. I’d be making laws now, and changing the ones that need to be changed. Like shipping laws. I can’t believe there are still states where I can’t ship Trump wines! Why the hell not? If I were Justice Trump, you can bet your ass every state would be able to ship wine to every other state. But not wine that wasn’t made in America. Why is it so easy to get French wine but so hard to get a good smoke from Cuba? Really. What is that? Clos’ but no cigar? That isn’t right. Ban all those foreign wines. That blowhard Ted Cruz, nobody likes him, you know, I heard that even his tapeworm hates him, would let in Canadian wine, because that’s where he’s from. Canadian wine! How bad is Canadian wine? It’s got to be terrible! Canada is a stupid country. They just elected a guy Prime Minister who draws a comic strip! Trudeau. That’s how stupid they are. I’m thinking I should build a wall between us and Canada. And who’s going to pay for that wall? That’s right! Mexico! No, I’m just kidding. When Canada figures out what’s going to happen when I’m the new Emperor of Wine, they’re going to build the wall just to keep Americans from moving there. I’ll have tricked them into building their own wall and paying for it. Now I hope everyone starts saying they’re moving to Mexico! Mexicans are even stupider than Canadians. You don’t see migrant Canadians picking Cabernet.

I’m going to have a perfect system for rating wines. I have some of the absolute best people working on it right now. And not a bunch of elitist wine snobs. I mean real people, people who like wine and know what good wine tastes like. Not a bunch of pathetic sommeliers. I mean, why do we need sommeliers? I’m sick to death of sommeliers, and everybody I know is sick to death of sommeliers. It’s Obama’s fault. Under his watch, there’s been an absolute explosion of sommeliers. There’s the International Society of Insolent Sommeliers, and under Obama, ISIS has thrived. We’re losing some of our best young people to ISIS. ISIS is actively recruiting young people and brainwashing them into thinking they know everything about wine because they’re a sommelier, because they have letters after their names. Because they have TV shows made about them. Who watches that crap? I mean, how low do you have to be to watch a show about people who think they’re on a mission to teach people about wine? Who the hell cares? These are sick people. These are wasted lives. Sommeliers might inspire fear in most people, but not me. When I’m the new Emperor of Wine, I’ll wipe them off the face of the Earth. I’ll bomb them like how they bombed us with “Uncorked.” And then every wine list in the country will be easy to read, and feature Trump Sparkling Wine by-the-glass. It’s really good Champagne. And I’m calling it Champagne whether the frogs like it or not. They can kiss my punt.

I’m not going to take crap from anybody. I’m going to rate wines the way I want to rate wines. It’s going to be YUGE! I’m not going to put up with any bull you-know-what. Natural wines? I’m just going to punch any Natural Winemaker in the face. I’m not kidding. Kapow! Right in the kisser. They’re all sissies anyway. If there’s any Natural Winemakers here, take ‘em out. I’ll pay your legal bills. Hell, bring ‘em up on stage and I’ll make ‘em wear a dress and sing “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” We don’t need sommeliers, and we don’t need Natural Wines, though if you get rid of sommeliers, who the hell’s going to buy Natural Wines anyway? Imbeciles.

I think we all want to go back to the way wine always was. Simple. White or red? That's all we need. No rosé and no orange wines. I hate wine that's the same color as my hair. I’ll rate all the whites the same, and all the reds the same, but higher. These are tough and complicated times. We need simple. All the wines are rated the same, prices come down. We take back our adult beverage. Every bottle of white, twenty bucks. Every bottle of red, twenty-five bucks. This is why you want me to be your new Emperor of Wine. This is why you vote for Trump. You hate women, Mexicans, Canadians, sommeliers, Africans on trains, orange wines, sommeliers and Matt Kramer. I’m a man of the people.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The HoseMaster of Wine™ at a Spottswoode Vertical Tasting

The first time I tasted a Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon I was at Robert Pepi Winery. For all the Millennials who read HoseMaster of Wine™ (yeah, right), Robert Pepi Winery is now Cardinale, a property of Jackson Family Estates, located on Highway 29 in Napa Valley directly across from Far Niente. Pepi was once a reputable winery, though now the label is a dumping ground for some pretty miserable wine. Tony Soter was Bob Pepi’s winemaking partner at Robert Pepi Winery, and Tony had taken on Spottswoode as one of his first (if not his first—I don’t remember) winemaking clients. (Tony also sold his first vintages of Etude at Robert Pepi Winery, including, if memory serves, a pretty terrible Rosé of Pinot Noir.) The ’82 Spottswoode, their first commercial release, was being bottled at Pepi, and Bob asked me if I wanted to taste it. Does a dog lick his nuts?

Bob pulled a bottle of ’82 Spottswoode from the bottling line, we opened it, and it was damned tasty. Banged up from the bottling, maybe a bit shut down, but it was quite delicious. That’s about what I remember. So, with Bob’s blessing (though it wasn’t his wine), I took a couple of bottles. “Stole” would be the accurate verb, but let’s not quibble. At the time, I didn’t have any idea that Spottswoode was destined to become one of the great estates of Napa Valley. Imagine having tasted the very first vintage of Chateau Margaux when it was first bottled. How cool would that have been? Let’s ask Michael Broadbent, he was there. There’s a chance I was the first person to ever taste Spottswoode from the bottle. Now there’s a lede for my New York Times obituary. “Ron Washam, First Sommelier to Taste Spottswoode, Author of Stupid Wine Blog, dead at 99.” To be humble, I’m sure my obit will be below the fold. Though there won’t be any goddam folds by then. Only homeless paperboys.

On the Friday following my debacle at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium, I was invited to Spottswoode to participate in a vertical tasting of ten vintages of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. Others in attendance included Ray Isle, Andrea Robinson MS, Linda Murphy, Lana Bortolot, and Virginie Boone. Begs the question, what the hell was I doing there? Comic relief. Spitbucket Monitor. Seat Filler. I’m a triple threat.

I love everything about Spottswoode. Mary Novak, and her daughters Beth Milliken and Lindy Novak, and the rest of their family, resurrected and elevated one of the great wine estates of California. Theirs is a remarkable achievement, and they are remarkable women. I remember the first time I visited the property, and that gorgeous old Victorian home surrounded by Mary’s beautiful gardens, I was amazed at how the wine barrels were crammed underneath the house. It looked like a dipsomaniac squirrel had stashed them there for the Winter. Which is not a nice thing to say about Tony Soter.

The vineyard itself is 40 contiguous acres, and there I was, its long lost mule. I’m not sure why, but being at Spottswoode always made me think of “Gone With the Wind.” You can gaze out over the vineyards and you can almost hear the vineyard workers singing old spirituals, like “La Bamba.” I’m being my usual stupid self, but, truly, it’s an enchanted place, and I cannot drink a bottle of Spottswoode without envisioning the magnificent estate’s warmth and beauty. Its one of wine’s chief pleasures, I think. How you are able to taste a glass of wine and travel in your mind to the place where it began, recall the way the place looked in the Fall, the way the air smelled, the palpable energy of a vineyard bursting with fruit. Beer cannot do that, nor anything distilled. Walk a great wine estate and the wines produced there never taste the same again. Wine connects us to our senses, and to the places we’ve been, and the trajectory of our life. I know of nothing else that can make that connection. Wine grounds us on this beautiful planet. Maybe if the world had more wine drinkers, we wouldn’t have ruined it so carelessly.

There’s an argument against blind tasting in there somewhere. Though blind tasting isn’t about pleasure, blind tasting is about a false sense of objectivity. I would not want to taste Spottswoode blind, though I have. Once, many years ago, at a blind tasting of California Cabernets sponsored by Far Niente (I could be wrong about Far Niente), I managed to identify three of the twelve wines rather precisely. The other nine I was trying to identify simply by region. I struggled with one, couldn’t quite pin it down, and finally decided it was from Alexander Valley. It was Spottswoode. Spottswoode! I was personally humiliated. I love Alexander Valley Cabernet, but that was like taking a bite of sirloin and declaring, “Wow, great halibut!” Tasting it blind robbed me of the pure joy I feel when I drink Spottswoode. It’s like being blindfolded for a first date, then finding out the next day you had clumsily groped Charlize Theron. Yeah, like that would happen. But you get the idea.

Mary Novak made an appearance at the blind tasting. It was great to see her, and she looked fantastic. She is one of the grand and great ladies of Napa Valley. It’s almost impossible not to smile when Mary is around. I had been carrying around all that guilt from stealing two bottles of ’82 Spottswoode thirty years ago, so I finally confessed to Mary that I had done so. I offered to pay for them. I asked Beth what the release price was for the 1982 Spottswoode. It was eighteen bucks. Eighteen bucks! Hell, I wouldn’t have stolen them if I’d known they were only eighteen bucks! I told Mary I owed her thirty-six dollars. She laughed and told me, “It’s OK, Ron, I think we can afford that.” That Friday night—the first good night’s sleep I’ve had in thirty years.

Beth, Mary, and Lindy
Lindy Novak was also there. Lindy just makes me laugh. I’d be presumptous to declare us friends, but we share a mutual fondness. Did growing up at Spottswoode contribute to Lindy’s loveliness, warmth, wit and beauty? Or is Spottswoode such a beautiful place because the Novaks tend to it? From my perspective, people who tend to a place for a long period of time, and the Novaks bought Spottswoode in 1972, influence the attributes of the land at least as much as the land influences the people. Let’s say my family bought the place in 1972. The land would be a trailer park by now, and I’d be serving samples at Napa Valley Premier Crack Week. Luckily for all of us, the lovely Novak family has been the steward of Spottswoode. It’s equally lucky for Spottswoode.

Beth Novak stayed for the tasting. I adore Beth, too. Aside from our annual allocation fight, I always look forward to seeing her. She has her mother’s sweet energy and determination and smarts, and all of them have that lovely quality of being humbled by the estate they so gracefully manage. There is so little arrogance in the room you can’t believe you’re in Napa Valley. Maybe Alexander Valley…see, I was partially correct. I shudder to think of Spottswoode ever being sold. Spottswoode is the Novaks, and the Novaks are Spottswoode. The wines of Spottswoode are so often described with adjectives like graceful, elegant, beautiful, powerful, and restrained. Sounds a lot like the Novaks themselves. OK, maybe not restrained.

The vintages we tasted were ’85, ’87, ’91, ’95, ’01, ’05, ’10, ’11, ’12, and ’13. Spottswoode’s current winemaker Aron Weinkauf was there to answer questions and pretend he thought we knew what we were talking about. Those ten vintages represent the efforts of four other winemakers besides Aron—Tony Soter, Mia Klein, Pam Starr and Rosemary Cakebread. Usually, one would be worried about following an Aron; but, in this case, Aron had to follow a lot of home run hitters. It’s nice to report he’s doing just fine.

Tasting the ten vintages side by side spoke to, I felt, the slow discovery of what the Spottswoode estate vineyard had to say. I won’t bore you with my descriptions of the ten wines individually. There really wasn’t a dud in the bunch. My least favorite wine was the 2005, which seemed like an anomaly in the lineup, though I’d gladly gulp that wine with a grilled lamb chop. The ’05 struck me as very brooding and unevolved, not descriptors I usually associate with Spottswoode. Actually, I’m often called brooding and unevolved, but that’s a different story.

The first couple of wines from the ’80’s were lovely, but stylistically have very different taste profiles. You sense a winemaker feeling his way with a vineyard, trying to see what works. But then the 1991 starts to say Spottswoode to me. It had great persistence, and enormous presence, two attributes that are hallmarks of a great wine. 1995 Spottswoode dials that up a notch, and at 21 is, you guessed it, at drinking age. And just gorgeous. 1999 was the year I was married, and though it wasn’t in this lineup, I have had it many times and I can tell you it smells exactly like bliss. All through the ‘90s, a lot of Spottswoode’s vineyards had to be replanted, and I’m certain a great deal of thought went into clonal selection and rootstock and all the other stuff that makes a vineyard (how authoritative is that?!). The property was evolving.

And you can taste the Cabernets starting to progress, to hone in on what the vineyard has to say. Some vineyards won’t shut the hell up. Colgin won’t shut the hell up. Spottswoode whispers. The 2001 is very seductive, and focused on the dark black and borderline blue fruit that I associate with Spottswoode in a classic vintage. The 2005 just seemed in a time warp to me, but it will be just fine.

The final four wines are yet another step forward in the evolution of a great wine estate. The vineyards all reaching maturity, and the wines singing. I don’t have the talent to describe a wine like Spottswoode, not adequately. But so often greatness in wine is about great power matched with great delicacy. I think of Baryshnikov or Venus Williams. I think of their focus and balance, of their imagination, of their confident swagger. The 2013 has that swagger. If you can afford the $185 price tag, I’d get some. It’s a lot harder to steal now. Even in a terrible vintage, weatherwise, like 2011, the vineyard manages to show its greatness. Even on a bad night, I imagine Barysnikov was still better than most.

And the 2012 Spottswoode? It’s going to be legendary wine. Bank on it. I tasted it and I was transported--both into the past, when I first had the sense to keep an eye, and my sticky fingers, on Tony Soter’s new project, and into the future, hoping that I’ll be able to taste this masterpiece as I check out from a lifetime of wine. As a reminder of what a beautiful time and what a beautiful place I lived in.

Monday, March 14, 2016

"No Country for Old Men Wine Critics" by Cormac McCarthy

The first one I shot never even begged for his life. Not that it would have mattered none. 89 just aint a good score and he knew it. Ever seen a cow right before the bolt gun goes off? Those great big wet eyes beg you to pull the trigger. My first old wine critic had big wet eyes too. That made it easier. Shame no ones going to make hamburger out of him. He would have gone good with those nasty red wines he rated so high. I read a lot that he was the most powerful wine critic ever lived. Power makes a man crazy. I seen crazy in his eyes. They say the eyes are the window to a mans soul. It was clear he was a royal pane.

Some women get a taste for killing. Not many. I had an aunt once that liked it. There werent hardly no cousins left when they caught her. Sometimes a pig will eat her own. It was kind of like that. I understand the urge. I like pork as much as anybody. It goes fine with the Grenache I made. That I submitted to the weteyed old wine critic. Who gave it 89. 89. Everybody knows the worst number to get is 89. 89 is a slap in the face. 89 is flipping you the bird. 89 is smiling at you while he watches you eat his shit. He knew that. They always know. My aunt knew when she killed people. She told me once she never killed noboby didnt want to be killed. That people who look at you funny want to be killed. Just takes them a while to find someone to do it. Then she got a taste for it. Like you might take a first bite of an applewood smoked pork chop and never want to stop eating it. My aunt loved the taste of killing in her mouth. She gave it 100.

This is what we come to. I never thought I would take to killing old men wine critics. My aunt would have approved. It was her idea. She would have approved of the electric chair she ended in too. Done her to a nice medium rare. Lightly charred. I visited her three of four times before she was roasted. Four times. I must have mentioned to her that the first old wine critic had scored my Grenache 89. I seem to remember my aunt saying I should kill him. I liked the idea. I told her that all the powerful wine critics are old men. Robert Parker, James Laube, Harvey Steiman, Charles Olken, Jancis Robinson. My aunt just sort of stared at me. The way a sommelier stares at the imbeciles he is forced to sell his wines to. That look of disgust. So kill them all she told me. This is no country for old men wine critics. Their time is over. You are my blood she told me. I am about to be pot roast. That is what it come to. My aunt gave me her taste for killing. I was going to make sure I never got no 89 again.

They wasnt hard to hunt. That was my biggest disappointment. It didnt seem like sport. No thrill of the chase. I only had to go to fancy wine events to find one of the old men. Even among a crowd of people they stood out. Old men wine critics are always the worst dressed people in the room. They are not there for long. They show up like they are doing everyone a favor putting a little bit of wine in their overrated mouths. They dress like a dog is their fashion consultant. Yves St. Bernard. The second one I shot was wearing a belly shirt. A fancy Napa Valley tasting and he is wearing a shirt that billows out but doesn’t reach his pants and you can see the lint in his navel. His pants look like the upholstery on the sofa my killer aunt covered in plastic to keep the blood off it. Everyone is still kissing his ass mind you. Putting their noses so far up his butt their ears have curly hairs in them. Never mind he is walking around like that asking to be killed. Ever seen how the oldest elk hangs around the edges of the herd so that when wolves attack he is the one who is killed? Is he forced to the edge? I dont think so. I think he hugs the edges hoping the wolves stop his misery. Wearing a belly shirt to an exclusive Napa Valley tasting is just an old elk wandering around the edges looking for someone to end it. It is asking for it. Everyone knows it, everyone sees it. I do something about it.

He give me an 88 for my Grenache. I asked him why. 88 is a good score he told me. Its a score that means Very Good: a wine with special qualities. I could look it up he said. I pistol whipped him. He smiled. His wet eyes pleaded with me. I wondered how my life had brought me to this place. I only wanted to make wine. It was hard being a woman and trying to make wine. Its an old mans game and old men dont take to women playing their games. Let the little lady play they will say now and again. Like how you let the slow kid take an at bat because it makes you laugh behind your covered mouth. I made wine and the old men liked that I took my at bats. And gave me 88 and 89 and 87. 87. Very good. With special qualities. Like me, they meant. Special. I knew what they were saying. I had already killed one old man and I got the taste for it. The second one I told that I appreciated his 88. I hoped he appreciated my .45. From the slow smile that caressed his face I think he did.

I never thought about how many old men wine critics there was. Worse is there are younger ones coming up to replace them. Future old men wine critics. Much as I wanted to I couldnt kill them all. It come to me I was just buying time. Not changing anything. There is a true evil prophet of destruction living in the wine business. I have seen him. Once. I dont want to see him again. He smokes big cigars and smells of death. Nothin’ can kill him. And if anything could it would not be a woman replaced him. He is everywhere in the wine business. The wine business is all about this prophet. Prophet, prophet, prophet. The prophet of destruction deals out the letters after names. He gives authority to old men to promote other old men. I have the yearning to kill him but not the courage. Nothing would change anyway.

Why does almost everyone listen to old men wine critics? Experience they tell you. What gives them wisdom is experience. Old men say this and we listen. We go to movies and old men are romancing young women. Men get better looking with age society says. Women lose to gravity. They say the same about wine. It gets better with age. Like men not like women. But I dont think so. Old wine is just that. Old wine. Old men wine critics are just that. Old men. Handing out 88s and 89s just asking for it. Cold hard numbers meet cold hard steel I say. I aim to make sure none of them ever gets 89. They have seen their last birthdays.

It comes to this too. I am a hero to so many people. People who dont want numbers attached to wine. People who dont want to be told what to drink by old men who wear belly shirts. Cant hear and cant see and thus also cant smell and cant taste. My Grenache was great. Young and inexperienced people know that. My aunt was right. This is no country for old men wine critics. I tell them to hang it up. Get a blog. Vanish into obscurity where I cant find them. Otherwise you should start looking over your shoulder as you write down 89. You should start dressin’ nicer for wine tastings. Be careful which woman winemaker you stare at with those wet eyes. She just might have your name on her.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The HoseMaster of Wine™ at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium: Part Two

Badgering Hugh Johnson Photo by John Lenart, Thanks Again, John!

Inviting the HoseMaster of Wine™ to speak at the opening night’s gathering was intended, I was informed, to send the message that wine writers shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. This is a little like telling the Miss America contestants not to worry about their hair. They just can’t help it. I spoke for my twenty minutes, and for the rest of the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood (just the damned title smells of taking yourself too seriously) I was free to attend any or all of the seminars and speeches. I went to almost all of them. It was a very interesting couple of days, but not at all what I expected.

I didn’t take any notes. I’m not a journalist, I’m a self-styled satirist with a wine blog. Many of the symposium fellows were wildly taking notes on their laptops, while I just tried to pay attention to what was being said, and the manner in which it was being said. In truth, I was the proverbial fish out of water, the black sheep of the wine writing family, the pubic hair on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ can of Coke. No one knows what I was doing there, but most felt a certain level of disgust.

I didn’t take any notes, but neither, apparently, did Guy Woodward, former editor of Decanter magazine. In a column for Harper’s UK found here, Woodward writes, “By contrast, Johnson’s fellow keynote speaker at the symposium was American novelist Jay McInerney, who observed there at two types of wine writers: writers who had decided to write about wine and wine buffs who had decided they could write.”

That McInerney is pretty smart. Unfortunately, that was my observation at my fireside chat, not McInerney’s in his keynote address. Lovely to see one of the faculty observing only the highest standards of wine journalism. I believe Woodward also attributed the aphorism, “Wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” to Henny Youngman. But, I guess, I make shit up all the time, so I have it coming.

For some strange reason, I thought that the symposium would be more about the craft of writing. In hindsight, I can see how that was silly on my part. What the symposium was about was networking, and pitching. As they say in baseball, you can never have enough pitching. There was some talk about the actual craft of writing, but not much. The advice I heard over and over and over again was for wine writers to “find the story.” Once you “find the story” it’s easy from there. Now this might be sage advice to someone in the sixth grade, but it’s hardly insightful to a working wine journalist. It’s the oldest advice in writing. “Find the story.”

“Hey, Shakespeare, find the damned story. You know, pick up some history books or something, then just tell the story.” Yup, all there is to it.

I was lucky enough to have a couple of brief conversations with Neil Beckett. What a charming and eloquent man. Neil is the editor of World of Fine Wine magazine, and, as such, edits the likes of Terry Theise, David Schildknecht, and Neal Martin. How in the world do you cure that amount of logorrhea? Neil radiates kindness and brains, and we spoke a bit about wine writing, and satire in particular. He told me that the one thing World of Fine Wine hasn’t done well at all is wine humor. Well, I told him, that makes two of us.

Indeed, when Neil sat next to me on the shuttle back to Meadowood from the C.I.A. I remarked to him that not once in the two days that I attended wine writing seminars and speeches did any of the speakers mention humor as a tool for making wine writing more interesting, even more marketable. It never once came up. I found this discouraging, especially considering I’m in a room filled with some of the most powerful editors in the wine writing business, but completely unsurprising.

However, when writing about a subject so fundamentally trivial, and essentially about joy, it would seem to me that humor is appropriate, if not necessary. I don’t mean the brand of raunchy and tasteless humor I employ here, obviously. I mean humor, lightheartedness, a voice that understands that what we’re talking about is wine, not the reason for living. I see occasional doses of wit in wine writing, but, in general, much of it takes itself far too seriously for my taste. Too much wine writing seems aimed at elevating the self-esteem of the person writing it. A tribute to their own insight and wine knowledge. Or it reads like marketing material. When you find the story, when you profile yet another of the 50,000 winemakers walking the planet, do you then have to make it read like you work for the guy? Everything someone like R.H. Drexel writes reads like this to me. (What’s annoying is that she’s such a good writer, but wastes her gifts  with such a transparent marketing style. That’s not being a wine critic, or a wine writer, that’s shilling.) Am I the only one who thinks this? Wine writing is getting to be like watching the Academy Awards. Yes, we are important! Just look at how important we are. We make movies! Do not laugh at us. Which is why they need a Chris Rock. Wine writing needs more Rocks, fewer papers, and a lot of scissors. 

In truth, the symposium covers a lot of ground in a short period of time, and it’s a great event. There are wine tastings that feature many of Napa’s best wines. There were seminars not just on wine writing, but also on self-publishing, on photography, on creating wine lists, on aspects of winemaking and, of course, on selling your work to publishers. That’s a lot of ground to cover in just two days, and it’s gracefully and tirelessly done. I met an amazing array of people, and left on the final day extremely grateful to have been invited. My complaints and peccadilloes are my own, and undoubtedly based almost entirely on my own shortcomings. I’ve been looking around at the websites of others who attended but, aside from what amount to summations of speeches and seminars, I have yet to find anyone else writing about their personal experiences at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium, about what they learned. I’d be interested to see how much their story would vary from mine.

Of course, one of the rules of attending the symposium is to not talk about what happens outside of the seminars and lectures, not write about any extracurricular foolishness you might witness. I intend to honor that. “Off the record” is a useful status to observe in a situation like the Wine Writers Symposium. It encourages candor and liveliness. It’s enough that people worry they’re talking to the damned HoseMaster, not also have to worry that I’ll write about their moral trespasses. Though why they worry about me, I cannot understand. I’m just so damned convivial.

It has been a very long time since I spent so much time in the company of a large group of writers. We are an odd family. That we have chosen wine as our primary subject (with the exceptions of Jay McInerney, who is foremost a novelist, and Hugh Johnson, who is as famous among gardeners as he is among wine lovers) makes us even odder. Writing is a solitary task. Sequestered in front of a keyboard, we search for just the right words, for something interesting to say, and for a way to say it so that it doesn’t appear to be as much of an almighty struggle as it is. I think, deep down, all of us hate the struggle. Most of us read our own words and only see fault, wonder why anyone is the least bit interested in what we have to say. Which is, of course, why we need a story. I have always found that writers are very often profoundly insecure. And they either wear that insecurity on their face and in their conversation, or they try to hide it behind bravado, or machismo, or truly impressive drinking. I learned early in life to develop a very thick skin and wield humor as a weapon, making my insecurity and fear impenetrable to any outsider. I like to think it works for me, but the older I get the more I see that as a mask for insecurity and low self-esteem, it’s pathetically transparent. Like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the symposium was filled with odders. It felt like a place filled with people who felt out of place.

The last evening of the symposium there’s a farewell dinner. It’s quite the feast, and Meadowood more than lived up to its Three Michelin Star reputation. The seating is assigned, and I was a bit nervous about who might be sitting next to me. For once in my life, I was hoping for a seat at the kids’ table. There were plenty of people there I would have been nervous to be seated next to, people I have lampooned over the years who made it a point over the three days of the symposium to avoid speaking to me. Though I always think of my work as “all in good fun,” there are a lot of Georg Riedels in the world. It comes with the territory.

It turns out I could not have been luckier in my seating assignment. I sat between Virginie Boone and Lana Bortolot, and across from Eric Asimov. When I finally found my seat (the dinner guests numbered around 80, I’d guess), my place card had writing all over it. The scribbling, which looked rather foreboding from a distance, turned out to be the signatures of all the Master Sommeliers in attendance, who had been invited to choose wines for each course. From Geoff Kruth MS, Sur Lucero MS, Gillian Balance MS, all the way up to Doug Frost MW MS, nearly all of them at the dinner signed my place card. I don’t know whose idea it was, but thank you. I saved it. It was a lovely gesture, a comic sign of respect for the HoseMaster, and an unexpected honor. It was the most welcome I felt the entire week.

Virginie and Lana made the evening even more memorable. Virginie and I have met on occasion at wine competitions, but never really spoken much. She has a winning sense of humor, a refreshing outlook on her wine scoring occupation, and I felt drawn to her warmth and intelligence immediately. Lana Bortolot snuck up on me. I had seen her at the symposium, but knew nothing about her, aside from having read her work in many wine publications and in Wall Street Journal. I don’t believe we had even said as much as hello to one another for the entire three days. I was initially scared that she was someone who didn’t like my work. But after a few minutes of chatting with her, I felt in the company of a loved one. By the end of the dinner, I was downright angry I hadn’t made her acquaintance the first day. Lana is one of those people whose smarts and easy wit register immediately. She has a rare human warmth, great beauty and strength of character. We seemed to share a lot of the same impressions of the people and events at the symposium. It ended up being a difficult night because I wanted to spend the entire evening talking to both of them individually. Thank you, Virginie and Lana. What a lovely evening.

Each of the Master Sommeliers spoke briefly about his/her choice of wine to go with a course. Fred Dame MS was the final speaker. Fred was kind enough to single me out. “I’m glad to be here with all of you talented wine writers. Except for Ron.” He said it jokingly, and added that his wife had been upset that I had once compared Fred to a serial killer. She’s upset, Fred? You should have seen the letter I got from the Hillside Strangler! Fred went on to talk about how once a year he goes hunting and shoots a deer. I leaned across the table and asked Eric Asimov, “So how is that not being a serial killer?”

I left the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium with a lot of stories, most of which I can’t tell here. More than that, I left having made many new relationships that I hope will continue to grow. I was lucky to meet a few HoseMaster fans, and there are only a few, like John Lenart and Thomas Riley. I was able to visit with old friends like Alfonso Cevola , Deborah Parker Wong and Bill Ward. I met wine luminaries like Hugh Johnson, Karen MacNeil, Andrea Robinson MS, Ray Isle, Jamie Goode, Doug Frost MW MS, Neil Beckett, Elin McCoy and Eric Asimov. And, finally, and unexpectedly, I made the acquaintance of people I hope will become friends—Esther Mobley, Jane Anson, Virginie Boone, Lisa Perrotti Brown and Lana Bortolot. Doesn’t mean I won’t lampoon them, but they were the folks who made the symposium a wonderful experience for me. Not something I expected at all.

I also must thank the people in charge of the symposium: Jim Gordon, Linda Rieff, Julia Allenby, Patsy McGaughy, Ann Marie Conover and Traci Dutton. You all made me feel welcome. I always say that there needs to be a place for the satirist, the Fool, at the table. You allowed me that place, which took some courage. It was an experience I will never forget. Thank you.

My final words at my Fireside Chat were a quote that I love from Steve Martin. When asked by young comedians for advice, Steve would often say, “Just be so good, they can’t ignore you.”

To those who ignored me, Gosh, I hope one day I'm good enough.

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Visit to the World's Greatest Wine Library

Here it is 2095, and I’m only now visiting the World’s Greatest Wine Library. Its vastness is daunting, its resources unparalleled. On that shelf, the first wine book ever published. Printed by Gutenberg, it’s the first edition of the “Wine Bible.” Inscribed by the author Karen MacNeil, who lived to be nearly 600 years old. Her papers reside in another corner of the World’s Greatest Wine Library, stacked up for use as scratch paper. This cathedral of wine history is littered with brilliance. Jay McInerney’s work is here, too.

For those of you keeping score, this piece marks my 500th post on HoseMaster of Wine™, a lesson in futility if there ever was one. It's probably appropriate that it's published in full on Tim Atkin's great site. If it weren't for Tim asking me to write a monthly column for him more than three years ago, I undoubtedly would have retired. I soldiered on, making enemies and insulting wine people tirelessly until now I'm an icon of wine bloggers. At least in my own mind. Thanks to all of you who have been a part of this craziness for many, or all, of those 500 posts. Keep the hate mail coming!

For the rest of this post, a visit from the future to the World's Greatest Wine Library, proceed to Tim Atkin MW. Leave any relevant comments over at Tim's--he does love a lively conversation over there. Leave any meaningless congratulatory 500th piece comments here. And, no, there will not be another 500.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

The HoseMaster of Wine™ at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium

When I told friends that I had been asked to deliver a “fireside chat” for the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium, and that I was extremely nervous about it, many of them remarked that it was good that I was doing something “outside my comfort zone.” I’m not sure what that means. It sounds like the sort of persuasion child pornographers dispense to their victims. Despite that, I agreed to speak. As the HoseMaster of Wine™. Well, I spoke, and I sucked.

After dinner on the first night of the Symposium, everyone gathered in the Vintners Room and I was introduced. Here are my opening remarks:

“This is quite a distinguished group. Though I’m starting to get why Spike Lee isn’t here.

“I’m extremely nervous. To give you an idea how nervous I am, and this is the truth, I have a colonoscopy scheduled in a couple of weeks, and I’m more nervous about THIS. You know, boys and girls, they put a camera up your lower intestine and look around…I’m calling it SOMM 3: Into the Wine Cave.

“I’m pretty sure Fred Dame is in it.”

I have no idea what I was doing up there, really. First of all, I am terrible at standup comedy. I used to write standup, but I never had the talent, or the courage, to perform it. But I knew that I would never be invited to the Wine Writers Symposium again, and that if I wanted to attend, and meet Hugh Johnson, then I had to suck it up and step outside my comfort zone. My audience that night contained a lot of wine writing luminaries, most of whom I had insulted on one occasion or another. A partial list would include Eric Asimov, Virginie Boone, Guy Woodward, Ray Isle, Lisa Perrotti Brown MW, Doug Frost MW, MS, Neil Beckett, Jamie Goode, Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Esther Mobley and Elin McCoy. (Many other bigshots were part of the Symposium, including Hugh Johnson, Karen MacNeil, Jay McInerney, and Andrea Robinson MS, but they weren’t at my speech.) If a bomb had gone off in that room…well, it did, in the form of my monologue. There were no survivors.

Half an hour before I was to speak I was so nervous I thought I was going to throw up. One of the toughest things about comedy is that when you rehearse it over and over, the jokes all start to sound stupid and unfunny. You lose perspective, and then it becomes harder and harder to convince yourself that you shouldn’t just start over. Fifteen minutes before you speak, you hate every joke. Add to that that some of the butts of the jokes are sitting right in front of you and may not take kindly to your witticisms. For example, I had this joke about one of the featured speakers:

“2015 also saw the publication of a lot of wine books, many of the retreads. Karen MacNeil published the second edition of the 'Wine Bible.' The New Testament. Now that’s a title! Wine Bible! I know she considered The Wine Book of Mormon, but Mormons don’t have a lot in common with wine people. You know, closet drinking and lots of wives… Oh, well, I guess there’s Jay McInerney…”

I took a little walk before my speech, my stomach in knots, and called my gorgeous wife. Kathleen is the only person who knows what it’s like to be the HoseMaster (perhaps the only one who cares), knows my insecurities and fears, and she talked me down. Her wisdom and love and patience are beacons in an otherwise dark universe, and when we disconnected, I said a silent thank you to the world for having blessed me with such a remarkable spouse. Then I threw up.

I would print a copy of my speech here, but, after speaking to Kathleen and absorbing her wise words of advice, I changed a lot of it. Apart from that, a transcription of a comedy monologue isn’t always that funny to read. Written humor, like the crap I write here, is much different than standup. Different to write, and much different to read. It’s a bit like poetry in that much of it doesn’t make any sense at all unless you read it out loud. And, as I said, I sucked anyway.

I spoke for about twenty minutes. It was the longest twenty minutes of my life other than my first marriage. When I was done, though, I had no other responsibilities the rest of the Symposium. With that behind me, I could finally relax, meet the famous people who shared the marquee with me (I was definitely the low man on that credits roll; in Hollywood, my part would be described as, “Drunk #2”) and maybe learn a thing or two. It turned out to be a very interesting and rewarding couple of days.

After my Fireside Chat, there was a reception with some older Napa Valley wines being served. I have no idea what I tasted. I was suffering from PTSD from having an IED in the form of my monologue go off in my face. Many of the attendees, both faculty and fellows, said nice things to me about my speech. For example, “It was like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ It felt really good when it was over.” And, “Don’t quit your day job, unless it’s doing standup.” And, “What’s that wet spot?” So I felt loved and supported.

One of the nicest moments of my entire week occurred at the tasting after my speech. I met Esther Mobley, the new wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle (hard to say she has some big shoes to fill, but you get what I mean) at the bar, and Esther, whom I had never met, was extraordinarily kind to me. In a nutshell, she told me that at least I was telling the truth when I spoke, and on my blog, and that telling the truth is what journalism is supposed to do. It was unexpected and welcome sentiment from a wine writer who has a great future ahead of her. Esther struck me as a very talented, very smart and capable young woman, which will not keep me from mocking her, of course, and I’m sure she wouldn’t have it any other way.

The portion of my speech that generated the most response was my mention of “Wine Folly.”

“The best selling wine book on Amazon in 2015 was ‘Wine Folly’ by Madeline Puckette. It’s filled with wine information, information uncovered in what must have been exhaustive Google searches, displayed in countless graphs and pie charts. In its own way, it’s revolutionary. Turns out many pictures are actually worth only seven or eight words. That it outsold the likes of Karen MacNeil and Jancis Robinson says that those ‘Wine for Idiots’ people were on to something. ‘Wine Folly’ has more wine mistakes than BevMo.”

About half a dozen Symposium attendees went out of their way to thank me for my “Wine Folly” rant. The notion that a wine book written for beginning wine lovers is essentially allowed to contain countless mistakes because it isn’t written for professionals is simply ignorant. And an embarrassment to everyone who has recommended the book. I did ask the folks who patted me on the back for making fun of “Wine Folly” why they hadn’t. I never got any sort of an answer.

No one, however, was at the Wine Writers Symposium to see the HoseMaster. I was the tired opening lounge act for the headliners, a Tom Dreesen or a Charlie Callas. Most would say I was more Callas. Though, really, what the Symposium is about is networking, meeting successful and influential wine writers and editors hoping that somehow they’ll boost your career.

“We’re lucky enough to be in the company of a group of great wine writers this week. If becoming a great wine writer were as simple as just hanging around with great wine writers, I’d be one helluva hooker.”

I had decided before attending Meadowood that the only person I was going to introduce myself to was Hugh Johnson. I had previously met many of the faculty and fellows, and many of those I hadn’t met had every reason to dislike what I’d written about them, and I didn’t want to walk into an uncomfortable situation. And I’m shy. In truth, I’m a disappointment in person if the only way you know me is through HoseMaster of Wine™. I had considered backing out of speaking after I had agreed to--until Hugh Johnson was announced as keynote speaker. I very much wanted to meet him because I admire his body of work. His PBS series, “The Story of Wine,” is easily the best wine documentary every produced; which is faint praise given the category, but true nevertheless.

There are two kinds of wine writers these days. There are talented writers, in the mold of Mr. Johnson, who choose wine as their subject. And then there are the thousands of people who love wine and decide they can write. The online world is overpopulated with the latter—all passion and no talent, like having sex with a narcissist. Hugh Johnson is a graceful and erudite writer, not just on wine, but also on gardening. I suspect he could make even make Grüner Veltliner interesting if he wrote about it. Not delicious, but interesting.

Hugh Johnson spoke the morning of the third day of the Symposium, held at the C.I.A. It was touching to see how emotional Andrea Robinson MS, the day’s moderator, was introducing Mr. Johnson, one of her heroes as well. I don’t know Andrea, but her introduction was lovely and moving, and you cannot do better than that. Hugh spoke for about an hour, and I think everyone there would have gladly listened for another hour. He spoke eloquently about the history of wine writing, some of his favorite wine writers (I wasn’t mentioned—I’m the Abe Vigoda of wine writers, apparently. I really should show up in the Death Reel), and wine in general. He graciously answered some questions from the audience as well.

After his speech, Mr. Johnson stayed for the subsequent tasting and panel discussion of “Minerality,” led by Doug Frost MW MS, Jeannie Cho Lee MW and Lisa Perrotti Brown MW. They were for minerality, I’m agin it. Minerality is one of those wine descriptors I consider lazy. From my own experience, I know when I use it I’m being lazy, using it in order to avoid actually having to pin down what it is I’m tasting. What we now commonly refer to as “minerality” certainly exists as a component of some wines, I simply think that’s a lousy choice of words for it, a sloppy choice of words. There are trace amounts of minerals in wine, but at levels too low for a human to detect, even a Master of Wine. From a scientific point of view, it makes no sense to use the word “minerality” when describing wine. What does minerality taste like? How many minerals are there? (Anyone have a vague idea how many?) It’s like someone asking you to describe a rainbow and you say it looked like “colors.” Wine descriptions are intellectually sloppy enough without “minerality.” Do we all have to sink to “Wine Folly” levels?

It was after the minerality seminar that I approached Hugh Johnson to introduce myself. I had two of his books I was hoping he would inscribe. One was for my beautiful wife, a horticulturist by training, the other for me. Hers was “Principles of Gardening,” while I brought Mr. Johnson’s autobiography, “A Life Uncorked.” I felt awkward introducing myself. But the final question asked of Hugh by an audience member was, “What would you like to be remembered for?” He answered that, aside from wine writing, he’d also like to be remembered as a garden writer. That seemed like a message to me from the universe as I sat there clutching his “Principles of Gardening.”

Photo by John Lenart Thank you, John!
I walked up to him, thrust out my hand and said, “Mr. Johnson, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Ron Washam.”

“Ah,” he said, “you’re the HoseMahster.”

In a long career in wine, I cannot remember being more thrilled. Hugh Johnson had heard of the HoseMaster. I won’t pretend he’s read a single word I’ve written, but he knew who I was. I cannot say he likes my work, but he knew who I was. I’ll take it. Imagine you write a blog that showcases your cat poems, you meet Billy Collins, and he says, “Oh, you’re the Lord of the Pussies.” Yeah, like that.

Hugh seemed genuinely happy to see “Principles of Gardening” at a wine event. “Shall I sign it to ‘HoseMistress?’” Not a good idea. He signed both books for me, and I walked away feeling honored to have spent a few minutes with him. I was so excited that he knew my nom de plume, I nearly wet my disposable Comfort Zone.