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!
“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.
TO BE CONTINUED