Monday, June 26, 2017

Blind Book Review: Alice Feiring's "The Dirty Guide to Wine"

I’m not sure what happened, but, apparently, my review copy of Reverend Alice Feiring’s latest sermon was misdelivered. I have no idea how this happened. I am certain that the publishers want my opinion of the book and must have sent me a copy. I can’t find it. But that’s not a problem. I’ll simply write my book review blind. Much as Feiring can predict the nature of a wine by the soil from which it originated without having to actually taste it, I can review one of her books without having actually read it. It's probably the same old schist. I can truthfully say that I have never enjoyed not having read a book as much as I thoroughly enjoyed not reading “The Dirty Guide to Wine.” If I were you, I would rush to my nearest book store and pick up a copy! Then put it down, and leave.

Can Feiring write a book without a stupid title? “The Dirty Guide to Wine” is about soil. I was sure from the title it was going to be about exposure. That’s dirtier, especially near a playground. She saved the world from Parkerization with her first book, and then wrote a book called “Naked Wine,” and now we have “The Dirty Guide to Wine.” What’s next? “Orgasm in a Glass”? “WILF Hunter”? Does the publisher really think the title will sell more books? It’s not clever, it’s stupid. And, hey, who knows more about that than I? For maximum sales, I would have entitled it, “The Dirty Guide to Wine for Idiots.” Though, honestly, maybe just carrying this book around implies the idiot part.

Feiring is proposing a “new” way to think about wine. Her way. The way where you have to subscribe to her newsletter to know what to drink because she’s out there grilling natural wine producers on your behalf. She’s a truth teller, she’ll have you know, and, you, well, you’re sort of a sucker. You believe it when a winemaker says he makes natural wine, and, spoiler alert, he might be lying! People lie to you in the outside world. They’ll tell you what you want to hear. They’ll corrupt you. You can only trust one truth-teller. And you should subscribe to her site and buy her book! There is but one truth, and it’s the redheaded one who speaks it. This is how cults work. Is the natural wine movement a cult? Have you ever met anyone who managed to escape? But, I guess, better the redheaded cult than the orangeheaded cult. It’s only wine. At least the natural wine cult is benign. The orangeheaded cult is malignant.

“The Dirty Guide to Wine,” which I’m looking forward to not reading a second time, is, at its heart, about terroir. “Terroir” is French for “I haven’t any fucking idea how to explain why this wine tastes like that.” But “The Terroiry Guide to Wine” is too hard to say without sounding like you have a speech impediment. When someone tells me I can taste terroir in a wine, I immediately wonder if they can sense my aura turning red. Feiring focuses on soil in this book, which is one of the elements of terroir. Which is like being one of the cards in the Tarot deck. Isn’t it meaningless without all the other cards around it? Or is it more like a book about biodynamics that is 250 pages about cow shit? I’m so confused.

Wine confounds us much as our reason for existing confounds us. So we turn to a sort of spiritualism, a religion of wine. We assign all sorts of emotional power to wine. We go into mystical rants about our favorite wines, we dance around in ecstasy and speak in bungs. Feiring finds that natural wines, unlike the wines she’s disqualified as high priestess of natural wine, speak to us on an emotional level. Which is just peachy, though what if one is emotionally crippled? Lot of that in the new world of sommeliers and wine experts online, as I can attest. Isn’t that part of how wine speaks to you, through your own emotional demons? Does wine elevate our souls, or just drown our sorrows? Must there be more to wine than the simple fact of its ability to alter our consciousness? Yes. I guess there must. People can’t stop writing dumb books about it.

Is wine from a chalky soil more alive? Does wine from a granite soil have a different energy? Don’t you find these questions embarrassing? Wine might make us feel more alive as we consume a great bottle of it, but the wine’s not alive. Wine is made from a living organism, true, but so is cotton, and I don’t think my shirt is alive. It’s loud, but I can’t hear it. As for emotion, we bring the emotion to the wine, not the other way around. To say that a natural wine, however you define it (and it’s mostly defined by the writer, who demands your trust), is one that is not only better but also speaks to you on a more emotional level is profoundly fatuous. The wine isn’t doing that. YOU are doing that. You see the label and you get emotional. You bring your emotional baggage to the glass just as surely as you bring your palate. The wine speaks to you of your values, perhaps, or of your visit to the winery, which changed your vinous life. It speaks to your human weakness, too. You so want to be right and so want to be admired that when you know it’s natural wine it tastes alive to you, and when you know it’s not a natural wine, you immediately sense the evil that lurks within. The fervor with which natural wine proponents write and speak about wine is eerily reminiscent of people who have found Jesus. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Different soils affect grapevines in different manners resulting in different flavors in the wine made from those vines. Skilled tasters can detect those differences. They can taste the differences in oak barrels, too. I’m pretty sure the oak forests used to make barrels aren’t organically farmed, but somehow that doesn’t enter into the definition of natural wine. Hey, screw that habitat. It’s also obvious that the health of the soil is of utmost importance to the vines and the wine. I dislike manufactured wine as much as the next wine expert, though it probably represents the vast majority of the wine produced in the world. And I love many wines considered natural. But the natural wine world, represented so famously by Feiring, is the new face of wine snobbery. It’s an attractive face because it leans on environmentalism and spiritual, feel-good, mumbo-jumbo. But it’s still snobbery, and it’s unpleasant to read and be around.

Snobbery was once 100 point wines. Natural wine lovers would have you believe that only wines farmed organically or biodynamically and made with minimal intervention are the true reflections of beauty and greatness in wine. The points they award are for doing what they tell you is the right way to make wine. It’s snobbery, plain and simple. There are shit wines that received 100 points, and there are shit wines that are natural. Feeling better about yourself because you drink 100 point wines or feeling better about yourself because you think the wines you drink aren’t ruining the earth is about the same thing. It’s not about the wine, it’s about feeling better about yourself. Either way, it’s about wine speaking to the emotionally crippled. I just want to drink interesting wine, I don’t want to ascend to natural wine nirvana.

It’s lovely to think that Alice Feiring and Pascaline Lepeltier MS (Run!) are crusaders for a better wine world. It was lovely to think that Robert Parker was our wine advocate, too. Pick your guru, worship at the church of your choice. Now I just want to know who’s going to save the world from Feiringization.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Linoleum Project™--Philosophy First, Winemaking Second

The Linoleum Project™ originated as a spoof of Abe Schoener's The Scholium Project, and as a reaction to a particularly loathsome puff-piece about Abe in the New York Times Magazine written by Bruce Schoenfeld. I returned to The Linoleum Project™ in this piece, originally written in September 2014. We're still talking about natural wines in 2017, but rarely about Scholium Project or the New York Times (the original piece may have been the first example of FAKE NEWS). I hope this piece is funny the second time around. It wasn't the first time.

Harvest is in full swing here at Splooge Estate, and while our neighbors are bringing in their incredibly boring Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc—the so-called “workhorse” grapes (“workhouse” because their only worth is to get you plowed)—we’re harvesting more important varieties, varieties you haven’t heard of. The best and most obscure are earmarked for The Linoleum Project™. We thought we’d take a moment of your time to explain in a bit more detail the philosophy behind the wines of The Linoleum Project™. Unlike most wines produced, these are not wines aimed at pleasure. These are wines meant to express the ultimate meaninglessness of life, the charade of importance that is human existence—the very things that make you want to drink. Everyone pays lip service to a philosophy of winemaking, but they put the cart before the workhorse. At The Linoleum Project™ we put philosophy first, and winemaking a distant second. We believe in winemaking by philosophy. We are teachers first, winemakers second. We truly believe in the old saw that, “Those who can do, those who Kant philosophize.”

Perhaps the best way to understand our winemaking by philosophy is to understand how each individual wine is made, how philosophy and overthinking combine to make wines that reflect not only their terroir, but each person’s hopelessness in the face of a godless universe. Certainly one can enjoy wines that only express a sense of place, a minerally and precise Grand Cru Chablis, for example. But there is a price to be paid for living an unexamined life. Isn’t it far more rewarding and satisfying to murder an innocent oyster with a blunt knife and then wash it down with a crisp white wine that celebrates not only the oyster’s salinity, but your own feeling that life is worthless, nothing but a snotty slide down eternity’s esophagus? Of course. Welcome to our world.

2014 Gaglioppo
The vineyard that is the source of our Gaglioppo is in the Carneros region of Napa Valley. While many wineries have complained about the unfortunate earthquake that struck the region this year, at The Linoleum Project™ we celebrate it. In truth, our Gaglioppo perfectly reflects its tumultuous terroir. Put your nose in a glass of any vintage. What do you smell? Faults! You might be tempted to think that those faults are the result of poor winemaking. This reflects your usual simpleminded approach to wine, an approach that believes pleasure is wine’s chief goal. Don’t feel bad. Your limited intelligence is how you became one of our mailing list customers. In truth, it’s philosophy that defines our Gaglioppo.

When we reflect upon our own character, it’s our faults that plague us. As Kafka memorably put it, “Wir sind ein Haufen Scheisse.” (“We’re a pile of shit,” which considering his intestinal problems, is a loose translation.) So not only will our 2014 Gaglioppo reflect its origins in Calabria, it will also reflect man’s ultimate unworthiness. We are our faults, and our faults are us. We live our lives trying to embrace our faults. It’s this basic philosophy that informs the wines of The Linoleum Project™. If you love our wines, you must embrace faults. You cannot love yourself if you cannot love our faulty Gaglioppo. This is how wine can enrich your life—through following philosophy instead of cold, hard, unfeeling chemistry.

2014 Ebola Gialla
We very much like the look of our 2014 Ebola Gialla clusters. Ebola Gialla is a very rare variety, thought to be Ribolla Gialla crossed with a fruit bat. Over the past few vintages, our Ebola has done very poorly with the press. James Laube called it, “maybe the worst white wine I’ve ever had that wasn’t Grüner.” Robert Parker thought it “despicable, though it helped me lose some weight.” Jon Bonné says our Ebola is “maybe the finest white wine coming out of Napa Valley, though, in truth, I hate wine.” These quotes are exactly the point of our Ebola.

At The Linoleum Project™ we take a nihilistic approach to our Ebola. Nietzche is our guiding light, and it was his assertion that all values are baseless, that absolutely nothing can be communicated, that nothing is known. This is the precise basis for all scoring systems and wine reviews—indeed the 100 point scale is baseless, and wine descriptions communicate nothing. “Nothing is known” is pretty much the resumé for Neal Martin.  So it seems appropriate as a philosophy of winemaking as well.  We even take it a step further, utilizing the truth of existential nihilism (not just Nihilism Lite)—the certainty that life itself is meaningless. Then isn’t winemaking itself meaningless? Isn’t trying to assign meaning to wine futile and ignorant? Isn’t this apparent when you read wine blogs? Our Ebola reflects the words of Nietzche, “Nihilism is . . . not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plough; one destroys” Starting with your liver.

We encourage you to share a glass of our Ebola at your next meaningless meal with someone you don’t particularly care lives or dies. This is more than likely yourself.

2014 Tannat
Tannat is a variety that has gained some popularity in recent years, perhaps because, like life itself, it’s the same thing backwards or forwards. In France, Tannat is the primary grape in Madiran, and an important component of many wines from Cahors. In terms of philosophy, it may have been tempting to place Descartes before Cahors, or maybe mullah over how mad Iran is. But, fundamentally, at The Linoleum Project™ we hate Tannat. Which is why each vintage we seek it out. We don’t believe in working with varieties we actually enjoy. That would give us pleasure, and pleasure leads to complacency, a quality prevalent in winemaking today. No, we make our Tannat with a focus on anhedonia, and we think that makes it taste better because it is incapable of delivering taste.

In our view, too often we expect pleasure from wine. We reach for a bottle with an expectation of joy and sensual pleasure. Only to be routinely disappointed. We want you to know that our Tannat is made with the philosophy that life is better when you are unable to experience happiness, and that our wine is designed to make sure you do not. In this respect, our Tannat shares much with rating wines on a numerical scale, for isn’t that very scale about anhedonia? Can you consume a wine rated 89 and enjoy it knowing that somewhere someone richer than you, smarter than you, and better looking than you is drinking a wine rated 100? When you drink 89 point wine aren’t you denying yourself pleasure, illustrating your basic self-contempt, but, more importantly, not caring. Not caring because you cannot feel joy anyway? This is our Tannat in a nutshell.

Enjoy it alone, in the darkness of your soul, with a nice venison stew.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sam Euthanasia, World's Oldest Wine Critic, on the Napa Valley Auction

When I think of June, I think of weddings, Father’s Day, and the Napa Valley Wine Auction, none of which has any importance to me. I’m rarely invited to weddings, my father died in 1980, and if I want to see rich people pretend to be charitable I can watch Congress on CSPAN. This year’s auction raised $15.7 million for charity, a bargain compared to what the folks bidding should actually pay in income tax. I didn’t attend the auction (yes, I know, that’s a surprise), but I thought I would check in with Sam Euthanasia, the World’s Oldest Wine Critic, and ask him what he thought about the whole thing.

“I only went because Francis Ford Coppola was the honorary chair,” Sam told me. “I went up to  him and said, ‘Smell that? You smell that? Napa, son. I love the smell of Napa in the morning.’ That’s a quote from one of his movies. I think the actor who said it was Clos Duvall. I could be wrong. I’m old. But, anyway, I thought an ‘Apocalypse Now’ reference suited the occasion. War is hell, and so is the goddam Auction.”

Sam Euthanasia, a spry and incontinent 95, has been covering the Napa Valley Auction since its inception in 1981. “Back then, I think they raised a 100K. That’s chump change now. Jean-Charles Boisset spends that on sequined Depends. All I remember about that first auction is that it was hotter than tasting-room-only dessert wine, and stickier. I was sweating like a Treasury shareholder. Jesus. But it was fun. Mostly just normal people there. I think the highest bidder was a drifter who thought the paddle was for swatting the flies. It was pretty casual.”

“It’s perfect that Coppola was the honorary chair. Overstuffed chair, for sure,” Sam went on. “The Napa Auction is turning into the Oscars of the wine world, may as well honor Francis. It’s about wine about as much as the Oscars are about movies, which is to say, not hardly at all. The wine is basically the equivalent of the designer gowns and borrowed jewelry—just there to make the players seem like they have taste. If you’ve been a wine writer as long as I have, and I covered the wine by-the-glass choices at the Last Supper, Jesus White and Jesus Red, the Auction is the worst weekend of your year by far. It’s even more fake than en primeur week in Bordeaux. Just so much wine business baloney.”

Sam can be a bit cantankerous. I told him that at least all the money raised goes to charity. He stared at me for a minute, chewed on his ever-present cigar, and said sarcastically, “Yeah, the money goes to charity, and that’s why people attend. Like the reason there are beauty pageants is because of the scholarship money. Don’t be a putz. It’s another kind of beauty pageant. People competing to look more beautiful and giving than others. They sell overpriced wines to other rich people, auction off trips and dinners like a Silicon Valley ‘Price is Right,’ give the money to charity, and take a big tax write-off. They’re just tossing crumbs to the poor unfortunates the guy they voted for wants to send back where they came from. All the folks who tend their vineyards and pick their grapes. It’s modern day Marie Antoinette saying, ‘Let ‘em eat Cakebread.’”

“Listen,” Sam continued, “I’m all for charity. The money from the Auction has probably done a lot of good. How can you be against that? But how sanctimonious can it get? Isn’t there a way to do it with some dignity? Don’t these clowns see how the rest of the world perceives their annual wine debauchery? The Auction intends to help Napa Valley’s image. It intends to show how compassionate the wineries are, how much they want to do good in the world, how they want to help those less fortunate than themselves. By opening hundreds of large bottles worth unimaginable sums, getting lavishly shitfaced, eating meals that would shame the Roman emperors, and dancing to recording stars? By auctioning off trips around the world on private jets? Hey, why don’t you use those jets to bring in more people to pick Cabernet? Easier to get through security, and you’re going to need them. Is auctioning off priceless overpriced wine in huge bottles accompanied by dream vacations with other wealthy people the image that sells Napa Valley as a caring and compassionate community? It’s a public relations nightmare, only they don’t see it. They only see how wonderful they are, how caring, how generous. I had no idea Narcissus could see his reflection in a lake of Chardonnay.”

“You want respect for your charity, Napa, tone it down,” Sam continues. I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t brought up the subject. Sam looks like he’s going to have a heart attack. He’s chomping at his cigar like it’s an aspen and he’s one pissed-off beaver. “Have some dignity. Make it about wine, not consumer excess. Make it about heart, not about wallets. Then regular people might see it as beautiful and heartfelt. Yeah, you’re the big boys in the wine auction world, your wines cost the most, your Auction makes the most money for charity, take your bows. Just stop waving your dicks around like size matters, and waiting for the admiration to begin.”

Sam Euthanasia probably won’t get invited to the Auction next year. I don’t think he cares.

“Frankly,” Sam tells me, clearly exhausted from his tirade, “I’m too old for all this. I mean, there I am in Napa Valley, once this beautiful and humble agricultural Eden, looking at a huge hot air balloon in the shape of Marvin Shanken. I was so depressed. How much more self-indulgent and self-congratulatory can a charity auction get? Really, it was horrifying to me.

“And then a ray of hope! Turns out, it wasn’t a hot air balloon.”

Thursday, June 8, 2017

News From the Court of Natural Sommeliers

The Court of Natural Sommeliers is pleased to announce that it is now accepting applications from qualified people in the wine trade who wish to pursue their N.S. There are currently 256 Natural Sommeliers in the world—220 are women, 30 are men, and the other six are wine writers, about whom no one is certain. Candidates who are accepted into the program are expected to pass three exams. There is the Practical Exam, where candidates blind taste six wines in front of a panel and then carefully wash the feet of their N.S. proctors. There is an oral exam that guarantees the candidate has the correct amount of teeth. And, finally, there is the service exam—a rigorous testing of the candidate’s ability to properly open a bottle of natural wine tableside, as well as demonstrate utter contempt for a customer who brings his own bottle of unnatural wine to the table. Candidates must pass all three exams within three years and never once smirk.

I'm about to stand for my oral exam for the N.S. degree, but, dammit, I'm missing a couple of teeth. I bit my wife yesterday, and it turns out I'm Gummo Marks. Nevertheless, I still receive the Court's occasional newsletter, which I've posted over at Tim Atkin's site. (I recently met Tim Atkin MW for the first time--a story for another time.) You'll have to cyberleap over there to read the rest of the news from the Court of Natural Sommeliers. Oh, it's fascinating!