Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Way I Love Wine

I didn’t choose wine as a career. Wine chose me. How many of you feel the same? I woke up one day and I was beginning a job as sommelier in a prestigious old steakhouse in Los Angeles. How did that happen? I haven’t any idea. It’s not something I set out to do. It wasn’t a lifelong goal. I wanted to be the next Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, or Mel Tolkin, not the next, well, pretentious wine dude in a bad suit.

In much the same fashion, I don’t feel that I chose to be a wine satirist, either. When I sat down five years ago to begin writing the blog you’re reading, satire was just what seemed the most appropriate. When it began to catch on, when I began to gain some notoriety, I knew what I was in for. Plenty of adulation and an equal amount of hatred. Frankly, I’m not fond of either. But if you have any success as a satirist, if you manage to do your job and make people laugh at uncomfortable truths, as well as make people angry at the way in which you do that, that’s what happens. I learned a long time ago, in a previous life as a comedy writer, to never take the admiration or the anger to heart. If I use them as any sort of measure, and I am loathe to, I think about which people love what I do (or profess to), and which people actively hate me. For the most part, I’m very comfortable and proud to say that I’m happy with the folks that are in each camp. I love my fans, and, perversely, I treasure those that despise me. They all make the job worthwhile.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Garry Trudeau quote at the top of the page. “It’s not personal. It’s a job.” Wherever I go, I am constantly reminded by wine folks that it’s an important job. Though I am not an important writer.

I want to write about wine from a skewed perspective. So much wine writing on the internet focuses on tasting notes. Nothing is more worthless to wine writing than tasting notes. Taking notes for yourself is very worthwhile, and forces you to actually think about the wine you’ve just consumed. I have 30 years of tasting notes. Believe me, my tasting notes make “The Fountainhead” seem brilliant. My notes have no value to anyone but me. Yes, if you’re a wine critic, tasting notes are your preferred medium, and I feel sorry for you. Assigning scores is easy, writing coherent tasting notes is hard. And tasting notes never capture why we love wine any more than a list of qualities can capture why we love another person. “Honest, compassionate, kind, beautiful, with just a hint of trashy” might be an adequate description of a person’s character, but it doesn’t explain why we love that person. Not at all. Tasting notes are a clinical approach to what is, at heart, an emotional connection. I can describe my favorite wines, but that will not explain why I love them. Yet that’s what matters.

It’s a wine business cliché that stories sell wine. Scores also sell wine. No one claims that tasting notes sell wine. Are tasting notes necessary? At all? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t miss them. I used to think pay phones were necessary, but I don’t miss them now. And too often, tasting notes make me feel ignorant. For example, I’m not sure I know what cardamom is. I thought it was what bartenders do to get better tips. I described Gewürztraminer as tasting of lychee for fifteen years before I ever tasted a lychee. Turns out that’s an accurate description much of the time. But I was faking it. I’ve still never had a gooseberry, but I swear Sancerre can smell of them.

To a great degree, we learn to talk about wine by imitating tasting notes, much as we learned language by imitating adults. Slowly, the more we practice, we begin to understand what we’re saying, and we begin to understand wine. And then, it seems to me, it’s time to move on to greater forms of expression. Tasting notes will always be a part of wine writing, but it’s the least important part. We learn simple language so that eventually we can begin to express ourselves in a meaningful way, not just parrot others. Tasting notes teach us the language of wine, but eventually there has to be more. Stories. We make up stories. We’re human, it’s what we do.

The stories we tell about wine are so often false. More often false than true. The wine business is always selling you romance. Which makes sense. For most of us, wine is about our love for wine, and our love of how alcohol makes us feel, why wouldn’t we fall for romance? Apart from the wine business, on a personal level, wine, for us self-proclaimed wine experts, also becomes part of our identity. A part we cherish and brag about. And what is the internet if not a place to create a new, completely fabricated, identity. The place is littered with people who want to be recognized as authorities on something or other. Wine attracts its share. Eventually, we begin to believe our own stories. We believe we’re right. We believe we're talented. We believe we're fascinating. We must be. We’re experts. Hell, we have our own blog! What we say must be true, it must be right. We have a President like that. He’s as much an Internet creation as the HoseMaster of Wine™, only a bit more dangerous. Yeah, but I’m more delusional!

Satirists go after the stories that have come to be seen as truth. Everyone knows that Bordeaux en primeur is a fraud. The critics know the wines are doctored, the wineries know the wines are doctored, the scores that are published are aimed at self-promotion for both the wineries and the critics, but no one says anything. Except the satirist. Truth is hard for everyone to swallow. The dull don’t like to be called dull. The hypocrites don’t like to be pointed out. The talentless don’t like to be told so. They often react with indignation. But it’s the job. I must like the job, I’ve been at it for a while.

I started out to write a piece about how tasting notes are inadequate and nearly useless by definition. That every great wine writer worth a nickel has to move on from tasting notes to something better, something different, in order to adequately express what she loves about wine. The wine writers who engage me express their love for wine in many ways. With stories of how wine has changed their lives, with insights earned through years of tasting and paying attention, with honesty about the wines they love and the wines they hate, and with truth, not marketing stories. They are few and far between these days, but well worth seeking.

I express my love for wine through satire. Satire, without exception, relies on outrageousness, profanity, raucousness, venom, anger, and, one hopes, wit and laughter. I’ll admit that I often miss my target. Which can be embarrassing. I often make people angry. That’s pretty much the point. Angry people unfailingly betray who they really are. SNL helped show the world Trump’s character. But as much as anger drives comedy, it’s love for wine that drives me to lampoon the stories we tell ourselves about wine and the wine business. When I do hit my target, I’m proud and I’m energized. That makes it worth it. I guess I could have published a little blog filled with tasting notes and podcasts, but that would mean nothing to me, that would have been entirely unsatisfying. Satire makes me happy.

Satire isn’t about telling truths. It’s about examining truths, and seeing the absurdity underneath. It doesn’t take courage, it takes fearlessness. It isn’t about hate or prejudice, it’s about love. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t make you laugh.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Wine Critics in Hell Act 8


Everyone’s starting to feel a little cooped up here in Hell, which turns out to be a Natural Wine bar somewhere in Lodi. If there’s a somewhere in Lodi. Weary of the first seven acts of the play, and aren’t we all?, the wine critics are scattered about the bar sitting quietly, seemingly contemplating their horrible fate. As it turns out, Act 8 is part of that horrible fate… It’s the Stranger who breaks the silence.

Stranger: (standing up from the table where he’s been playing with his Tarot cards) I thought it would be a lot more fun to be in a bar with six famous wine critics. Instead, it’s like “The View,” only everybody’s Whoopi. It’s like talking to the starting lineup of the NHL’s All Head Trauma Team. I brought you all here not just because you deserve it, but because I thought I might enjoy your company. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Galloni: Sorry to disappoint. I’m happy to take my Vinous elsewhere.

Stranger: I thought you learned this already, Antonio. Nobody gets to leave this room, not ever. There is no elsewhere. I can leave, and I’m sure I will soon the way this play is going, but the rest of you…well, you’re my little repertory company. So you know, this is just the rehearsal. It’s going to get a lot better.

Kramer: What do you mean, “I brought you all here?” Who are you? I keep thinking I’m just dreaming and I’m going to wake up any minute now.

Stranger: Oh, you’re sort of dreaming, Matt. But you’re as awake as you’re going to get. (He pauses and looks around at all the critics.) It doesn’t matter who I am. Everyone I meet sees me as someone, or something, different. In here, I don’t know, maybe think of me as the Wine Buying Public. The Wine Buying Public getting its Day of Reckoning.

Suckling: So you’re like a blogger?

(The Bartender loudly slams a baseball bat against the bar. Everyone but the Stranger is startled.)

Laube: Fuck, I wet myself again.

Feiring: (she holds up her wine glass) Oh, I thought that was this Vin Jaune I was drinking.

Stranger: (angrily) I’m not like a blogger, James. Be careful about insulting me. The Bartender is very protective of me. Wine bloggers are fools. They have no power, no clout. Tell me, honestly, what’s the difference between a dick and wine blogger?

Suckling: Beats me.

Stranger: Not much. Only a dick has a mind of its own. (Laube laughs a little too much.)

Parker: So, Stranger, we’re here, and we’re here for eternity, according to you, but what’s the point?

Stranger: Now there’s irony. Parker asking me about points. What if there isn’t a point? Oh, then it could be like an Alice Feiring wine review—not just without points, but naturally pointless. There doesn’t have to be a point to all this, Bob. Who says there has to be a point? Every wine critic’s life is either a comedy or a tragedy. But it doesn’t necessarily have a point. I think you’d all agree with that.

Parker: So which was my life, Oh Great and Powerful Oz? Comedy or tragedy?

Stranger: (after a long pause) I’m glad you asked me that, Bob. That’s an interesting question. And it gets to the very heart of why we’re all here—here in this God-forsaken natural wine bar. (Looking around.) You know, I really could have done better. Oh well. It’s a question each of you has to answer for himself, or, dear Alice, herself. Was your life, in particular, your life as a wine critic, a comedy or a tragedy?

(No one is looking very eager to participate in the discussion. Introspection isn’t on the list of qualifications for being a wine critic. In fact, it’s a significant handicap.)

Stranger: Nobody? (He walks back to his Tarot cards, which are laid out on the table.) Maybe think of your life as one of these Tarot cards. (He holds one up.) Look at it right side up, and it means one thing. Turn it upside down, it means something else entirely. (He holds up the card for everyone to see.) Comedy. (He turns it upside down.) Tragedy. Or (he tosses the card as far as he can), perhaps, worthless.

(The door to the bar opens and a young woman walks in. She looks utterly lost. She’s very pretty, well-groomed, and openly surprised to be in a strange bar with a bunch of old people.)

Woman: Oh. Hi. You’re all staring at me. I’m kinda lost. I was just looking for a glass of wine.

Bartender: (as he speaks, and he speaks loudly, everyone is astonished that he is able to) You got any ID?

Woman: Why, yes, I do. (She takes her driver’s license out of her purse, walks over to the bar and hands it to the Bartender.) I’m 25.

Stranger: We’ve been expecting you! Welcome. Allow me to introduce you to this marvelous cast of characters. (One by one, he introduces the wine critics to the woman.) This is Robert Parker. The gentleman with the wet trousers at the bar is James Laube. That’s Alice Feiring. The guy salivating is James Suckling. Matt Kramer is off by himself in the corner—you get used to it. And, finally, that’s Antonio Galloni.

Woman: Nice to meet all of you.

Stranger: Anyone’s name ring a bell?

Woman: No. I don’t think so. Should I know any of you?

Laube: Oh, Jeez. Fucking Millennial.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Introducing Prick Family Vineyards!

Dear HouseMaster,

I thought you’d like to be one of the first to discover the Napa Valley’s newest and finest winery, Prick Family Vineyards. If you haven’t heard of it yet, you will. In fact, you just did! Are you interested in writing an article for your website about Prick Family Vineyard? Feel free to reach out to me for the usual fresh pack of lies about our newest client.

Richard Prick, the owner of the beautiful Prick Family Vineyards, made his fortune with his innovative ED product, Boner-in-a-Can™. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It seems Boner-in-a-Can’s™ motto is on everyone’s lips these days. “You may not win the popular vote, but at least you won the erection.” Maybe you’d like a free sample. Word is you need one! Mr. Prick tells me it not only helps with erectile dysfunction, but it also works as a replacement cartridge for your Coravin! Gives your wine a raging argon.

Rich Prick fell in love with wine when he realized that having a great wine cellar gave him status. “It’s not so much that I love wine,” Prick says, “it’s more that I love the thought of myself drinking great wines that most other people can’t afford. I wanted to make wines like that.”

Ten years ago, Rich began searching for the perfect estate. He found it on Pritchard Hill, high above the Napa Valley, away from the hustle and bustle of the valley floor. It was a pristine 100 acre property, and Rich Prick sees himself as a steward of the land. “Once I cut down the pesky old growth forest to put in a state-of-the-art Cabernet vineyard, I knew I wanted to protect this beautiful land. The earth is covered in forest, but there aren’t nearly enough Napa Valley Cabernet vineyards. My neighbors and I up here on Pritchard Hill are trying to change that. I wake up every morning to the sound of chainsaws and cave digging equipment. I don’t know how to steward the land any better than that!”

The winery at Prick Family Vineyards has to be seen to be believed. Designed by noted architect Frank Gehry, it resembles nothing so much as a pile of panty shields, like most of Gehry’s works. Rich sees it as a tribute to his product line. Inside the winery, you’ll find only the best and most expensive winemaking equipment. Prick Family’s Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in 100% new French oak barrels, which are lined up in the cellar so that they all face magnetic north. This is done for harmony, and because it’s expensive to do so. “When I got into the business,” Rich tells me, “I was told that wine was made in the vineyard. So explain to me why I had to build a goddam 50 million dollar winery. Cuz Helen Turley says so? Christ!”

If you’d like to visit Prick Family Vineyards, perhaps I can arrange a tour with Prick Family’s Master Sommelier Larry Anosmia MS. Here’s what Larry says you can expect:

“The tour lasts for about 90 minutes, and includes a taste of our latest Cabernet Sauvignon. Please don’t ask for more than the ounce and half I serve you. The wine is served in a special hand-blown Riedel Rich Prick Cabernet Sauvignon glass. No, the glass wasn’t named for the winery. It’s just the name of the Riedel Cabernet glass. I think it’s named after Georg, but don’t quote me. The tour is $100, but it includes a selfie with me.”

Rich also has the most beautiful and elaborate wine cave anywhere! Hand dug by inner city children, the cave features an underground waterfall, a dining room that can hold up to 100 people, and Rich’s collection of antique airplanes. “Maybe a cave isn’t to everybody’s taste,” Rich admits, “but, to be honest, I fully intend to leave behind a shrine to myself. One day, a couple of thousand years from now, an archaeologist is going to stumble upon Napa Valley, unearth my winery, and realize that a Rich Prick lived here. Hell, a whole lot of us live here. And we got the caves to prove it!”

Rich fell in love with great wines that most people can’t afford, and now he makes his own. The wines come in three-bottle boxes made from only the rarest of endangered hardwood trees. But don’t worry, for every box sold, Rich donates $1.00 to the Rain Forest Make-a-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to terminal lumber. Each bottle is numbered and signed by James Suckling, because he broke in one night with a Sharpie and we couldn’t stop him. The first release of Prick Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon was recently served at the White House, for obvious reasons. We think you’ll agree that Prick Family Vineyards is the new Screaming Eagle. Screaming Eagle is so Parker Past.

If you’re interested in reviewing Prick Family Vineyards for your site, I’m afraid that’s just not going to happen. Really. What do you know? Why would I let a blogger review my wine? What am I, desperate? However, if you’re interested in featuring Prick Family for a future blog post, I can offer you a chance to interview either Larry Anosmia MS or Richard Prick himself. I’d pick Rich if I were you. I mean, Larry’s an MS. You’d be better off interviewing the terminal lumber.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you. I know you’ll want to share the story of Prick Family Vineyards with your eleven readers. Maybe you have a story about wineries to visit in Napa Valley coming up. If so, we’d like to make sure you don’t include us. Send them to that stupid castle. Or that place with the sky ride. That’s what your readers want. But if you happen to know anyone with a lot of money, we’d be happy to hear from them. While our wines are heavily allocated and unavailable to the public, they are always available to anyone with a trophy wife and a lot of cash.

Thank You,
Chlamydia Jones
Chlamydia Jones PR
“We Spread the Word, and Just About Everything Else”

Monday, May 8, 2017

The M(S)etamorphosis

One morning, when Gregor Sommsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his tuxedoed back, and if he lifted his head a little, he could see a silver tastevin glistening in the morning sun. There was a strange pin placed ominously in his lapel, and he was certain that he could name all the rivers that course through every major wine-growing region. The bedding was barely able to cover him, and his arms, weak and thin as commercial Pinot Grigio, waved helplessly around him, each hand holding a Zalto.

“What’s happened to me?” he thought. He wasn’t dreaming. His room appeared normal, if small, and the table in the corner was covered with wine samples—Gregor was a wine sales rep—and above it there hung a picture that he’d recently cut from an illustrated lifestyle magazine that had nothing to do with wine, “Wine Spectator.” The picture showed an older balding white man, the author of a regular column in the lifestyle magazine, so it could have been any one of a dozen who fit that description.

Gregor thought he should just go back to sleep, and when he awoke, his nightmare would be over. But he liked to sleep on his stomach and the tastevin bore into his solar plexus. “I hate the world,” he thought. “My sales rep job is terrible. I spend all day sucking up to young sommeliers who lecture me on why my wines are terrible, or I have to beg them to taste a wine that got 98 points because it’s Napa Cabernet and they only want wines from Mt. Etna. They seem to think people go out to dinner because they love being around sommeliers, and being made to look ignorant. That’s not why you go out to dinner, that’s why you read Matt Kramer.”

At that moment, Gregor’s mother entered the room. Like most wine sales reps, Gregor still lived at home and was single. Gregor looked up at his mother and tried to say “Good Morning” to her, but when he spoke all he said was, “Pyrazines.” His mother looked at him with horror, unable to grasp the nightmarish image of what Gregor had become, that horrible vermin that infests fine restaurants other than roaches. She clapped her hand over her mouth and fled his bedroom, slamming the door behind her and calling for Gregor’s sister Grete.

Gregor slowly eased himself out of his bed. He could hear his family arguing about him in the other room, his mother expressing her disgust and fear at what he had become. “That’s not a real job,” she was saying to his father, “that’s just an excuse for a job. What will we tell our friends?! That our Gregor is a Master Sah…” “Don’t say it!” his father cried. “I’ll squash him like an insect if that’s what he’s become.” Gregor walked over to his table and began to put his wine samples into his rolling carrying case, as if he were going to go to work like any other day, as if nothing had changed. Then he noticed that all of his samples had changed, too. Instead of his interesting portfolio of small producers from all over the world, the wines were all from Constellation! “My God,” he thought, “I must really be that horrible vermin if this is what I have to peddle for the rest of my life!” He called out to his family, to his loving sister Grete.

“What are those horrible noises he’s making?” his mother said. “It sounded like, ‘Donkey and Goat Radikon Abbatucci Joly’” his sister said. “It’s gibberish! He must have had a stroke!” Grete rushed in to help her brother, whom she loved very much, only to find a very different man, one that made her skin crawl and her grip tighten on her purse. Gregor had gained thirty pounds, his teeth, once whiter than a WSET graduate, were stained purple, and he was looking at her lasciviously. “Creep,” she thought. And then she ran, slamming the door behind her as her mother had done. Gregor was a wine sales rep, having doors slammed in his face seemed like just another day.

When his father entered the room Gregor could see the anger and odium in his eyes. His father was carrying a copy of “Somm Journal,” and was waving it at Gregor. Gregor cowered at the publication, and felt his own unexpected wave of revulsion. He didn’t want that magazine to touch him, though he didn’t know why. His father was swatting at him with the magazine, and stomping his feet, frightening Gregor into cowering in his closet. Gregor was pleading with his father to stop, but his father showed no sign of understanding a single word out of his mouth. Content with forcing his son into the darkness, his father turned to leave the room. Gregor tried to follow, his tastevin pounding against his heart. His father turned and removed a Screwpull from his pocket, throwing it with all his might at him. It lodged in Gregor’s back as he turned to try and avoid it. Gregor screamed in pain, an unearthly sound that reminded his father of something horrible, like the beginning of another Levi Dalton podcast. Gregor didn’t know what to do, how to remove the tool. Vermin like he’d become had never known any sort of Screwpulls. He rolled around on the floor of his bedroom in agony, his father kicking at him, forcing him to crawl on his hands and knees like a maȋtre d’ looking for a quarter, a trail of blood from the Screwpull wound like inexcusable drops of Tannat on the carpet. Gregor whimpered, and his father told him, “Go ahead, Gregor, you’re one of them now, whine away. You’ll need it to get out those carpet stains.”

His father kicked the door shut with his foot, Gregor lay on the floor in his expensive tuxedo, and, then, finally, all was quiet.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sam Euthanasia, World's Oldest Wine Critic, on 2016 Bordeaux

While other critics try to be the first to publish scores of a new Bordeaux vintage, Sam Euthanasia, who, at 95, is the World’s Oldest Wine Critic, as well as the most influential, takes his time. “Listen,” he tells me, “I’m in no hurry. I sit on my scores like I sit on my bedpan. Sometimes it takes a while for my scores, but the result? Hell, it’s Bordeaux, it’s en primeur, it’s a carnival sideshow—no matter how hard you push to get the scores out of your ass, it ends up just the same old shit.”

I have become rather fond of Sam Euthanasia, the World's Oldest Wine Critic. First of all, there's a lot of competition for that title among regular wine reviewers of the most famous wine publications. I couldn't exactly make him 75--I think a bunch of them are older than that. Or seem like it. I thought it would be fun to check in with him about the highly-touted 2016 Bordeaux vintage. He has a lot to say about the en primeur tasting, but you'll have to head over to Tim Atkin's prestigious site to read what Sam has to say. Feel free to engage Sam with your comments over there, or return here and write your comments really loudly so that Sam can hear them.