Saturday, October 21, 2017
It’s been so beautiful in Sonoma County the past couple of days. It rained Thursday night, about half an inch. Blue skies returned. Fresh air filled my lungs when I went outside yesterday. It was like tasting a bright, fresh Muscadet. And I felt like shit. Bone weary, as though I’d endured a prolonged beating at the hands of an angry Master Sommelier. And I was one of the lucky ones. How must the real victims of these terrible fires feel? There’s optimism on everyone’s lips wherever you go, but reality is sinking in.
The wine country wildfires were the worst wildfires in California history. By a lot. We’re Number One! We’re Number One! In the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, the sort of middle class neighborhood that reminds me of where I grew up in Long Beach, more than 1000 homes were destroyed. And I mean destroyed. A thousand homes! The neighborhood is still closed to the public to allow the residents who survived the chance to sift through the remains of their homes. I don’t know about you, but I can’t get my mind around that. And that’s just Coffey Park. There’s Fountaingrove, well, there was Fountaingrove, and there are several trailer parks, where the same scenes are taking place. And that’s just Santa Rosa. I’m leaving out Glen Ellen and Kenwood and Napa and Calistoga, all towns with fire stories to tell… People searching through the rubble for what remains of their former life. Everywhere they look is like a Salvador Dali painting, things melted in the remains of trees, the landscape filled with grotesque and surprising shapes created by the fire and its awful heat.
When you visit wine country, though, you don’t go to those places. Driving around Healdsburg, where I live, you wouldn’t even know there had been a fire. You’d just wonder why it was so quiet during such a busy time of year. This is true up and down Napa Valley, too. When I’ve spoken to people from other parts of the country the past week, they were all surprised at how beautiful Sonoma County looks. They’d been led to believe that visiting was crazy, that they were endangering their lungs, that the wineries were devastated. So many irresponsible narratives promoted on television, in the press, on the internet. It literally makes me sick.
There’s not going to be any big smoke taint issue in the 2017 wines. The only smoke taint you’re going to get is from the morons blowing that smoke up your ass. There will be isolated cases, but very few. And, hell, you’re worried about smoke taint? There will be more Brett than smoke taint, there always is. Corked wines are more of a problem. Only stupid, irresponsible people are talking about smoke taint.
Wineries are open, and are deserted. This was entirely predictable. I lived in Los Angeles working as a sommelier during the Rodney King riots. After the riots, business vanished. Where I worked went from 250 dinners on a weeknight to 20. It took years and years for business to return. But this is wine country. Everybody loves damn wine country. If you’re one of those whiners who complains about how crowded and terrible tasting rooms are, you should get on a plane and get out here NOW. I walked into a winery a couple of days ago at about 1:45 PM to pick up my wine club shipment. I was the first human they’d seen all day. And I barely qualify. Some of the few visitors I’ve spoken to said that they were worried, from news reports, that the wineries wouldn’t be open. But for those that burned down, and they are very few (I think the number is seven—out of about 900 between Sonoma County and Napa), everybody is open.
Vineyards didn’t burn down. A few suffered some damage. A few were destroyed. But you don’t drive around wine country and see fried cabernet everywhere. In fact, the vineyards are beginning to go to sleep, the fall colors just starting to appear, the vivid yellows and reds of the season. It’s simply gorgeous right now. The prettiest time of the year. It’s a little hard to appreciate it if you’re one of those who lived through the wildfires, it’s hard not to keep thinking about the events of the past couple of weeks, but nature goes about its business whether we’re rebuilding or not.
I spoke to a woman on Thursday who was here working for the insurance companies. Her job is to find places to stay for people who lost their homes. She’d been in Houston not so long ago, and then she was in Florida after Irma, and now she was in Sonoma County. You don’t want to be on her travel itinerary, that’s for sure. So many disasters, and all of them worthy of your charity. All of them. I think we’re all weary of the death and destruction from natural disasters this year. She was a lovely woman, bought some wine, joined the wine club. Someone who gets it, understands natural disasters in ways we can only imagine, deals with the people whose lives have changed in astonishing ways and with astonishing speed. She understood. She opened her purse and not just her heart. Too many just open their mouth.
I’ve already written about the great events of Winemakers and Sommeliers for California Wildfire Relief. I’m going to drop off some wine this weekend for the Bergamot Alley event in Healdsburg. Some damned nice wines, too. Saxum, I think, and Cayuse, and, well, stuff that might generate real money to help. I hope you sent wine, or that you’re planning to attend. I’ll see you there. The other events, in San Francisco and New York, look amazing, too. If you love California wine country, you need to go. Donate wine, or go there and buy something great. This isn’t to help wineries, this is to help people in our community who are suffering because of these mind-boggling fires. It’s about wineries and wine people helping others. We need your help. One more time, here’s the website:
And if you can get to Healdsburg on Sunday, tomorrow, the 22nd, you should attend the great “Pinot on the River” event. It’s one of the coolest events in wine country. 100 wineries pouring their best Pinot Noirs outdoors in the Healdsburg Town Square! Drive up from San Francisco, or Sacramento, or Oakland (you’ve had fires, you know what it’s like) and spend the day in the wonderful Healdsburg Town Square tasting Pinot Noir from some of the best producers in the world. Stick around and spend some money in a local restaurant afterward. Shop at the stores around the square. Everywhere I go, tasting rooms and restaurants are cutting shifts. They have to. There’s no business. Come up, have a blast, do some good for wine country, help someone keep their job in this terrible time. I promise you, this is a fantastic event. I know it’s last minute. I know you haven’t had time to plan. So what? Fires don’t give you much notice either. That’s no excuse. Here’s the website for “Pinot on the River.” I’ll be there, too. Who wants to buy me dinner? A portion of the proceeds from “Pinot on the River” go to the Boys and Girls Club of Central Sonoma County, and they need the money now more than ever. Lots of kids up here who lost their homes.
Indulge me one more time. There’s another great Pinot Noir event that you should attend. “Pinot Days” is another chance to taste some of the best Pinot Noirs on the planet. It’s being held on November 11th in San Francisco. Go, taste a bunch of great wine, then sign up for the mailing list and buy wine from every Sonoma County and Napa County winery whose wines you like. This isn’t hard. You can do this. Try not to ask too many of them how they did in the fire. We’re all a bit weary of that. Both “Pinot on the River” and “Pinot Days” are having attendance problems. Just like wine country. You can help by going. Get a bunch of friends together, buy some tickets and attend. For once, you can feel good about yourself for wanting to go get drunk on Pinot Noir! You’re doing it to help wine country! I’m so proud of you. Don't hurl on my shoes. Here’s the “Pinot Days” website. I’ll be there, too!
Finally, I’m sorry I’m not being funny when I post lately. I spent eight years writing HoseMaster of Wine™. I managed to create a voice that reaches more than 13 people! First, Kelli White reached out to me to plug the Winemakers and Sommeliers event, and I thought, why not? I reach a few people, maybe it will help. Maybe I can use my bully pulpit to do some good. Then it was Eric Hall from “Pinot on the River,” and Lisa Rigisch from “Pinot Days,” asking for a plug. I never do this. I get way too many insipid, insulting, stupid, poorly written marketing emails asking me to, but I don’t plug events. But this is different. And this just might be the last time. Thank you for indulging me. I try not to bother you with this kind of thing. But I will be personally grateful if you’d do something for wine country right now, and in the coming weeks. Donate money, donate your time, visit us in wine country, buy our wines, whatever works for you. Post this on FaceBook, tell everybody you know, get the word out. Please.
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Even More Thoughts on the Wine Country Fires, Especially How You Can Help, and Maybe Even Meet the HoseMaster
My wife and I had planned a nice dinner at home for my 65th birthday, last Friday the 13th. At the last minute, I had a change of heart, and decided to, instead, evacuate. And not just my intestinal tract, but the house we live in. I’d always wanted to have an evacuation for my birthday, and this seemed like a good year for it. “Memorable” doesn’t begin to describe my birthday.
We were able to return, somewhat cowed, somewhat sheepish, somewhat every other farm animal, the next day. My beautiful wife made dinner, and, for the occasion, I decided to open a very special bottle of wine.
I chose a bottle of 1999 Chateau Rayas. It was, predictably, a great bottle of wine, though I have almost no sense of what it smelled or tasted like. I didn’t really care. Don’t get me wrong, Rayas is one of my favorite wines on the planet, and I’m lucky to own some still. But I chose the wine because that bottle has great meaning to me, as did being able to have dinner in my still-standing house with my still-tolerant wife. We were married in March of 1999, and sharing a bottle from that vintage had great emotional power. Beyond that, my wife Kathleen had given me that bottle of ’99 Rayas for my 50th birthday, back when we lived in South Pasadena. She had inscribed it to me in a gold pen, “Happy Lth birthday, Ron.” I always hated “50th,” so I insisted on using Roman numerals that year. When people asked how old I was in 2002, I responded, “L.” Yeah, I know, stupid.
We spent much of the meal talking about where we’d been, what we’d shared, all that we'd been through the past 15 years together, Kathleen and I. Our week of evacuating, of euthanizing, of sleeplessness and anxiety had brought us closer together, even after 18 years of marriage. We spent 24 hours a day together for 7 days in a row, and it only made me miss her immediately when she left. That’s not really a silver lining, just a wonderful reminder that I was lucky when I married her. That my live has been blessed.
I am often asked if wines really get better with age. Most of us would agree, I think, that from a strictly objective standpoint, wines don’t so much get better with age as they get different with age. “Better” is so subjective, so personal. Yet, in this case, drinking the 1999 Rayas with my wife on the day after my 65th birthday, the bottle itself represented life and time and the pathway of our marriage. It tasted of joy, and of heartbreak. Of both our passion for each other, and the passion of the winemaker. Drinking it felt like a sacrament, and I wasn’t raised in any religion. It was profound and moving to share that bottle with Kathleen. And if you ask me, the ’99 Rayas was far better with age. It wasn’t just wine any longer. It was something so much better. For that meal, it was a reminder that even with all of its trials and pain and loss and grief, life is also a gift.
This is why I cellar wine. The only reason I cellar wine. Marketing people endlessly talk about how stories sell wine, and there’s truth in that, but it’s a cold truth, a truth one uses to sell a product. You sell life insurance the same way. But over time, individual bottles of wine, bottles purchased from love or on vacation or received as gifts, create their own stories. About what year they were born, how they were born, where they were born, and how they entered your life. That story is just for you, the one who opens the bottle on a special occasion, or to create a special occasion. It has no meaning to anyone else. So, the night of October 14th, the 1999 Chateau Rayas, rated 92 by Robert Parker, was a perfect wine. Perfect. I can’t think of a wine that has tasted better to me in one particular place at a very particular time.
As you read this, the fires in wine country continue to burn. They’ll burn for a while yet. If you don’t live in Northern California, I’d guess you are hearing less and less about them on the news. Now that feared orange glow is just President Bozo’s bouffant. New tragedies will cross your radar, God knows the world is filled with them. But wine country is having a very hard time right now, and as the shock wears off and reality sinks in, we are beginning to see how much help we need to rebuild and, for so many, those far needier than I, to simply survive.
If you love wine, and if you love visiting Napa and Sonoma, and if our glorious vineyards have given you the endless joy and pleasure that they’ve given me, and you’d like to return the favor, I’m happy to pass along an interesting and wonderful way to help.
Take a few minutes and go to www.wscwr.com. Go ahead, go there now. I'll wait. It's cool, you want to know about it. And I need to take a leak...
These are going to be GREAT events, and if you can attend, you should! But even if you cannot attend, take a minute today, grab a shipping box, pick out a couple of wines that have some value, some meaning, and donate them to the cause. Don’t wait!! The events are next week, and the wines need to get here! I know you have old shipping boxes laying around, use one. Send that bottle you bought from Dr. Conti--those damn sommeliers won't know, I promise.
Better yet, come to Bergamot Alley, buy some wine, share it with some of the best winemakers in the county, share it with a great group of sommeliers, and, yes, I’ll be there, too. I’m sure that meeting the HoseMaster of Wine™ is on a lot of bucket lists. That they’re from KFC is no matter. I’ll be at Bergamot Alley, Kelli White will be there (Kelli is the woman who asked me to promote the cause, and I’m honored to do so), and a lot of other famous and talented Sonoma wine folks will be there. Look at the stellar list of participating wineries on www.wscwr.com! It will be a blast, and the hope is to raise a bunch of money for those most in need.
You have way more wine than you need. We all do. I’m planning on donating some damned fine bottles, maybe even a Rayas, or some older Saxum, or, well, come and find out! Donate! Do it because I made you laugh for the last six years for free. Whatever motivates you, please do what you are moved to do.
I don’t think I’ve ever plugged anything like this on HoseMaster of Wine™. I may not ever again. But using your wine to help wine country is simply repaying the gift that wine has been in your life. Chances like this come around very rarely. Go for it.
Monday, October 16, 2017
In the coming days you will see countless press releases and articles that will talk about how the malevolent fires in California’s wine country this past week have, for the most part, not ruined the wines. This is true. As I write, the fires still burn; and parts of the vineyard up the road from me, owned by Simi (Constellation), were being picked this morning. There were grape trucks everywhere as I drove into town. Yet it’s true that the vast majority of vineyards, estimates run around 90%, were harvested before the fires started on October 8th. Wineries here are nervous that the wines produced this year will be written off, or devalued. This seems stupidly paranoid to me. And the constant nattering of pundits and marketing types talking about how the fires had little effect will probably have the opposite of the intended effect—the constant repetition will make people, in the long run, skeptical. Like when they told you there’s no way Trump can win. This isn’t exactly the Age of Truth-Telling.
From my own personal point of view, 2017 is a cursed vintage. Let's not forget the year started with Inauguration Day. Then there was an astonishing Labor Day weekend of back-to-back 116 degree days here in Healdsburg. And now the wildfires. All season long, as they do every year, visitors have asked me, “How’s the vintage look?” I always say the same thing, “Anything can happen. It’s not over till it’s over. Everything about growing grapes hinges on luck and weather.” We’ve had little luck and bizarre weather. But the wines will be fine, in some cases, damned fine. Emphasis on “damned.”
I think this is the first important vintage of Climate Change. I mean that from a psychological point of view, not a factual point of view. I’ll never think of vintage 2017 as anything but cursed and prophetic. And not just here in Northern California. Before their harvest, Chile damn near burned to the ground. As I write, there are uncontrolled wildfires in Galicia and in Portugal. Bordeaux suffered terrible frosts in the spring. I haven’t smelled fresh air in a week here in California’s best wine country. The punishment we’ve given the planet the last hundred years is coming back to haunt us. Some of the best winemakers in the world have been running for their lives the past week, and that’s not because they got lousy scores in Wine Advocate. Pieces I’ve written in the past year, I’m thinking of “Climate Change Cellars” and “Wine Critics in Hell,” as well as a few others, aren’t that funny anymore. Well, if they ever were.
Above all, let’s remember that these sepulchral fires affected the residents here far more than the vineyards. To put it bluntly, more people here burned than vineyards. Who cares what the vintage will be like? Oh, goody, Harlan Estate didn’t burn down! Wouldn’t want their mailing list to be upset, maybe not have a vintage for their vertical. Yes, I know, wine is big business here, employs a lot of people, generates monumental amounts of tourist dollars. But it’s the people who are employed in the business who are now suffering, unable to find a place to live, without much money, without much hope. I promise you, not a single one of them is thinking about how the wines will turn out. And this is now the way of the world. Please come here and visit! Or go out and buy a bottle of Sonoma County or Napa Valley wine. Buy a case! Hey, I know, buy a Natural Wine from here, it was, after all, a Natural Disaster. We need you, we need your money and your support. As New Orleans did, as New York did, as Houston does. As your town will, too, one day. Think we’re not all in this together? You’re an imbecile.
It was breathtakingly gorgeous here today. Some smoke around, as there will be for weeks, but it was warm and beautiful. But I wasn’t where the fires had been. I don’t have the heart. I nearly lived there.
Friday, October 13, 2017
Standing outside at 4:00 AM Wednesday morning, I was inordinately thrilled to see Orion’s belt just above my head, through the trees that overhang my house. It was my turn to get up, go outside on a blessedly calm morning, and smell the air for smoke, glance at the horizon behind me and pray there wasn’t an ominous orange glow signalling disaster, like the cotton candy hair of our President. There wasn’t, and I suddenly recognized the irony of being happy not to see fire anywhere near me while I gazed at the heavens and stood in awe of the indescribably gigantic orbs of fire in Orion’s belt and the rest of the universe, from which we are all descended. Wildfires humble you nearly as much as the heavens.
I live outside of Healdsburg, nearly equidistant from that quaint tourist town and from Calistoga in the other direction. The Tubbs fire (Is that really the most intimidating name they could give such a destructive and death-dealing fire? It sounds like it’s at Bed, Bath and Beyond. If only.) is about two or three miles south of where my wife and I live. Perhaps six miles to the north of us the Pocket fire is burning up Alexander Valley near Geyserville. Yeah, I’m scared. Though at the moment, safe and optimistic.
We began to pack our cars with valuables on Monday morning after our landlord awakened us and told us the ridge behind where we live was on fire. It’s forest from the ridge to our house. It was going to burn towards us. Gathering valuables and putting all of our animals in travel cages, I struggled with visions that most closely resembled Heironymous Bosch paintings. Yet a wildfire quickly brings one great focus. My wife Kathleen was the hero. I was more like Daffy Duck bouncing off the walls and repeating, “Woo Hoo, Woo Hoo, Woo Hoo!”
There was time. The winds had vanished. It was very still. We were outside, cars nearly packed, watering down everything like a bartender on a cruise ship. The smell of smoke makes you crazy. At about 10 AM, my landlord said that, “if I were you, I’d leave.” Kathleen and I drove into town to stay with friends in Healdsburg. Less than a mile from our house we had to pull our cars to the side of the road so that about five fire trucks could roar past us, on their way to fight our little fire up Young’s Road. I felt like applauding.
Our house survived that Monday night. The firefighters extinguished the fire about half a mile north of us, and the winds didn’t return. Tuesday morning we returned, and we’ve been here ever since. The cars remained packed. It ain’t over yet.
I haven’t been out to see the destruction in my community. I haven’t had the time or the desire. It’s been five days of sleepless nights and vigilance. I’ll see plenty of that destruction in the coming months and years. I don’t need to see it to know how terrible it is. I can smell it in the air. I can see it in the faces of folks at the grocery store, in the dozens of cars in the parking lots filled with belongings and pets. I can hear it in the planes and helicopters that are constantly flying overheard. I lived through four major earthquakes in Southern California. This is far worse. Earthquakes are the wedgies of natural disasters. A wildfire like this is a brutal beating.
There will be countless stories about these fires. Mine are trivial, but for my wife having to euthanize her beloved Arabian mare Lorian who was tragically injured when she reared and fell, refusing to be loaded into a trailer to be taken to safety, breaking her hindquarters. A three-legged horse has no chance against a wildfire, and a veterinarian, who had lost everything to the fire, her home and all of her belongings, rushed to help. Dr. Tere Crocker’s courage and compassion made all the difference in this horrible incident. Kathleen lost a loved one in this fire. So many have. The death toll is going to be staggering.
But I’ve been lucky. I’m only writing this because many people have reached out to me, worried about me, and concerned I hadn’t posted here in a while. Maybe not my most avid fans, but, nonetheless, concerned. All is well.
So many things run through your mind in these situations. I’m reminded that people we should genuinely admire—firefighters, first-responders, volunteers and law enforcement officers from all over California and Oregon and Nevada—don’t have letters after their names. Should you? Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see WSET after a name, or CSW, or MS or MW. Earn the degrees, follow your passion for wine, but stick the initials where they belong—up your box canyon. This is the kind of chatter that goes on in the brain under stress.
I came home from work Sunday evening late, angry at how crappy my weekend had been, how ridiculously screwed up the job conditions were those two days—essentially feeling sorry for myself. Now I can’t remember why I was so angry. I haven’t given work a second thought. Where I work didn’t burn down like so many wineries have. And speaking of heroes without initials after their names, what about the CalFire helicopter crews who ferried trapped vineyard workers on night pick out of the fires? Trump would have fiddled while those brown people burned.
I’m grateful for the network of friends who checked on us, for our close friends in Healdsburg who took us in without hesitation Monday night and fed us, housed our menagerie. How do you repay that kindness?
All of us will be talking about these wine country fires for a long time. Today is my 65th birthday. I won’t ever have to struggle to remember what I did on my 65th. I’m not celebrating. How could I amid all the loss and grief and pain and fear? It’s just my birthday. I’ve never felt smaller or less important than standing outside at 4AM gazing at the stars, happy to see them so bright and intense, burning into eternity.
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
It’s just so hard to learn about wine. I try and I try, but, frankly, it’s depressing. Really depressing. I guess that’s just the way of the world right now. Everything makes me anxious and hopeless—even wine. There are countless books about wine, and they’re all so damned perky. All of them talk about wine as though it’s a gift from God, a vinous miracle, an expression of how the Universe loves us. I hate that sort of emptyheaded crap. The more I think about wine, the more depressed I get.
So many people I know are distraught about the state of the world. It's hard not to be when we are bombarded by bad news, fake news, and, worst of all, the truth. Wine is a respite from all that for most wine lovers, but maybe it isn't really. That's what sparked this post, a Depressed Person's Guide to Wine of sorts. I hope it makes you both want to drink wine, and not drink wine, simultaneously.
To read the rest, you'll have to make the leap over to Tim Atkin's wonderful site. Please leave your thoughtful and despairing comments there. Thanks for reading.
TIM ATKIN MW