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In favor of sherry

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I don’t drink a lot of sherry these days because I don’t have the time, and I regret that. Earlier this week, I drank — not tasted, but actually drank and thoroughly enjoyed — a sherry, and I’ll tell you about it in a moment, but first, some thoughts on why sherry isn’t very popular in the U.S., and why it should be. (I mean real sherry from Spain’s Jerez region.)

Back in the 1980s, when I was in grad school and had the opportunity to drink pretty much whatever I wanted, I drank a lot of sherry. I don’t remember why, because even then sherry was pretty obscure and unpopular. I think it was probably because the wine experts I was reading — Broadbent, Hugh Johnson, Alexis Lichine and others — loved it, so I figured it was something I should know about. I’d pay $6, $7 for finos and amontillados and manzanillas, the drier styles. At first I was puzzled by the strange, exotically oxidized taste that flor yeast gave to the wines. I remember a place in downtown San Francisco that used to serve sherry by the glass and I’d go there and have little tapas — salty Serrano ham, almonds, smoked salmon, ceviche, prawns. And it didn’t take me long to fall in love. The dryness, the way the acidity was so ultra-clean, that yeasty sourness that was so utterly unlike anything else I’d ever had. But then I turned into a hard-working wine writer, and sherry became, alas, a lesser part of my life.

A few weeks ago I had a Palmina Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino #15, at RN74, and even though the meal had its problems, the wine was so good, I had two glasses. I wondered why more Americans don’t love dry sherry. I guess the taste is too weird for them; it does take some sophistication to appreciate; you have to make yourself learn to like it, and, when it comes to wine, Americans don’t want to make themselves do anything. They want the wine to come to them — flatter them, seduce them while they lay back and let it go to work on them. (I’m not getting too explicit here, am I?) Sherry doesn’t seduce anybody. It’s aloof, austere, proud, like a drag queen on stilettos. Sherry says, “Hey, I don’t care if you love me or hate me. Whatever.” Sherry is an acquired taste. But if you get a hankering for sherry, it turns into an addiction.

That’s why more people should fall in love with sherry. The wine bloggers in particular are in a good place to suggest it to their readers, Twitter followers and Facebook friends. There are plenty of inexpensive supermarket sherries from the likes of Hartley & Gibson, Lustau and the famous Tio Pepe that are well under $17, and are terrific. From that price range, you can work your way up. And by the way, the sherry process, including the magical solera system, is fascinating in itself, and is a basic part of any wine education.

The sherry I had recently was during a dinner at our Wine Enthusiast editorial meetings. The bottle was being passed around, and I more or less saw “sherry” on the label and poured myself a glass, being very thirsty that warm night. The first thing I noticed was how dark it was, an amber brown. I thought it might be sweet, but it wasn’t. It was bone dry and exquisite. It was Lustau’s non-vintage Almacenista Palo Cortado de Jerez, and the retail price was $42 last year, when my colleague, Mike Schachner, reviewed it in Wine Enthusiast. He gave it 94 points, and wrote:

A beautiful style of elevated Sherry that’s worth every cent if fine Sherry is to your liking. The nose is pure toffee, roasted nuts, apricot and mellow quince, while the key flavor is dried orange and the nuances hinted at by the aromas all reappear. Muscular but in perfect shape, with a finish as smooth as glass

Nice description. I especially like that “if fine Sherry is to your liking,” which tells me Mike understands these wines are not for everybody. I can’t exaggerate the beauty and thrill of this wine. I would have given it an even higher score than Mike, but maybe that’s because I drank it right after my go-cart race on the indoor track at Grand Prix New York, and I was sweaty and filled with adrenaline. That wine, with its 19% alcohol, was just the brace I needed.

If there’s one wine I wish I could drink more of, it’s sherry, especially a thriller like the Lustau.


Back from NY and glad to be in Cali

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I’m sorry I’ve been so unavailable here the last few days. Our meetings at Wine Enthusiast in New York were relentless, lasting from early morning until after dinner, and I frankly just didn’t have the time or energy to get online.

Of course there were upsides. It was great to see my colleagues, and I got to drink a lot of things I usually don’t — Cahors,Chateau Climens yum yum, old Port, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, German TBA, although somehow, Bordeaux and Italian wines escaped my attention, although there must have been some around.

Planning for a year’s worth of article — scores of them, big and small — up to a year in advance is tricky. You can’t know what’s going to be hot or newsworthy in 2011 or, by contrast, what will be so 2010. Our primary target — he and she for whom we write — is “the consumer,” a beast as mythical as the unicorn. We want to please and inform the consumer, but who exactly is he or she? He isn’t one person, of course, but many. Our circulation is way up these days, into six figures, and we aim to double it by this time next year, so it’s hard to know precisely what all those readers will want. Will Malbec remain hot or will it be something else? Will value still be important or will consumers be willing to spend again? What kinds of food trends will there be? What cocktails and beers will everyone be talking about? Which raises the question: Are we writers leaders who tell readers what the new trends are, or do our readers lead us to new trends, wines, foods, styles?

It’s a little of both, of course, especially these days. Wine (and food) writing is now a two-way street, as the conversation moves online. Wine Enthusiast, like every other print pub, is trying to figure out exactly what this online revolution is — and if we can help lead it. And we think we can.

For me, it’s always nice to get to New York and see my old friends and colleagues, but I do miss California when I’m away. Easterners still love to bash Cali — fruits and nuts, too casual, not hip enough or fast-talking enough, not so quick with the wisecracks, too mellow and laid back — but I always detect a little jealousy behind the put-downs. I don’t have to remind anyone of California’s virtues, do I? The weather, the views, our vibrant cities, wine country, mountains, seas, forests. Some people still like to put down our wines as too this, too that, too whatever. I just smile. Consumers like them, and that’s what counts.

As for next year’s magazine, I have some unbelievably great stories planned. They’ll take me all over the state. I can’t wait to dig in and write them, and I’ll still be blogging five days a week, bringing my adventures to you.

One thing we reviewers talked about in New York was critical consistency in rating wines. Roger Voss, our chief European editor, got off a good one in that regard. We were talking about MWs and how seriously they tend to take blind tasting and replicability, and Roger, who knows many MWs, said, “First, they learn the rules of blind tasting, and then they break them.” I think I know what he meant. I’ve heard the same said of artists. Picasso, for example, first learned how to draw and paint in the classic style, and once he mastered that, he threw the classic style away and invented his own style, which became the new classic. Picasso broke every rule in the book. Is it a stretch to compare wine critics to artists? You tell me.


Major mea culpa

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Wednesday night, 9:10 p.m. Pacific time, right off the plane from NY – I have been virtually out of touch the last 3 days due to our meetings at Wine Enthusiast planning 2011. I feel hugely guilty at not approving comments. I just did. I apologize for not being able to do this sooner. I love and respect my readers who take the time and who deserve quick response. I just can’t always do it. Return to normal tomorrow, Thursday.


What’s wrong with Riesling?

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Nothing, actually, except that so few Americans want to drink it. I know, I know, some writers are touting a new interest in Riesling. Asimov, over at The Pour, wrote that Riesling is finally getting some respect. The Wine Economist just last week wrote about “Riesling’s Rising Tide,” and if there’s one white white that gives sommeliers wet dreams (can I say that in a family publication?), it’s Riesling.

Recently, Jon Bonné more accurately wrote about Riesling’s “serious baggage — the [consumer’s] fear of sweetness, perhaps the fear of insubstantiality.” “[P]eople are not stepping up to the bar to demand a glass of Riesling,” he pointed out. That accords with my own observations.

I personally love a good glass of Riesling. When I go to a nice restaurant or bar, very often it’s my appetizer wine — either that, or Albariño or sparkling wine. Yet I always ask the barkeep or sommelier if the Riesling is dry or close to it, because I really don’t care for an off-dry Riesling except under very strict circumstances, and never for a first drink of the evening, when I want something mouthwateringly crisp, clean and dry.

I used to drink a lot more Riesling than I do now. There was a store down on Bryant Street, South of Market, called Connoisseur’s Wine Imports, that specialized in German and Alsatian wines. I went there several times a week to pick up a bottle. In my tasting diary I have notes on a 1983 Erdener Treppchen Spatlese, an ‘83 Riesling “Les Eglantiers” from Heim, in Alsace, ‘86 Riesling from Domaine Lucien Albrecht (also Alsace), and a Spatlese Riesling from Weingut Kanzemer, a M-S-R that cost all of $7.95. In 1989 I thoroughly enjoyed an ‘83 Piesporter Goldtropchen Auslese that knocked me out, it was so pure. I could write thousands words on all the rest of the Rieslings I’ve known and loved.

These days I don’t get to taste a lot of European Riesling because I’m so swamped with California wine, but I do taste a lot of California Riesling. I’m not a huge fan. I’ve given my highest scores to late-harvest Rieslings, of course: Navarro, Arrowood, Greenwood Ridge, Beringer, Grgich Hills, but we’re not talking about sweeties, we’re talking dry to off-dry. In that category, Pey-Marin, Smith-Madrone, Navarro, Trefethen, Esterlina and Stony Hill lead the pack, more recently joined by Tangent. These are wines that need no oak, have vital acidity and are clean and racy, often showing Riesling’s diesel fuel smell and peach flower notes. Good as they are, though, they don’t seem to have the complexity of Germany or Alsace.

I don’t know how to popularize Riesling with consumers. Sommeliers, like I said, love to push it, but most Americans have never met a sommelier and never will. Restaurants are pushing it, but usually they’re the kind of restaurants that have sommeliers; see the preceding sentence. Maybe American producers need a Riesling Association to promote and market the variety and wine, but it’s hard for wineries in different states to work together. Hell, it’s hard for wineries in the same state to work together. Here in California, there are enough Riesling producers to organize and do something. Maybe they could team up with producers in Oregon and Washington and form a West Coast Riesling Lover’s Association. Just saying.


Planning 2011 in New York

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I’m in New York, where the entire staff of Wine Enthusiast gathers this time ever year to plan the following year’s book, or  editorial schedule. This year, it’s the 2011 schedule. This is a complicated task, mainly because there are only so many pages available to be filled, and far more ideas than can possibly be accomodated in them.

Our magazine has 7 regional editors: Paul Gregutt up in the Pacific Northwest, Roger Voss in most of Europe, Monica Larner in Italy, Mike Schachner who covers Spanish-speaking countries, Joe Czerwinski who does Down Under, Lauren Buzzeo, whose beat is South Africa, and of course yours truly. There’s also spirits and beer. Since all these editors are eager and hard-working and anxious to write as much as possible about their territories, there’s pretty intense competition to get into print. In this Darwinian struggle, we all sit around a table and present the strongest arguments we can for each pitch; also at the table are representatives of senior management, sales, marketing, art and layout, the tasting department, etc. etc. It’s a fairly pure democracy and, being a democracy, it’s not always pretty. But somehow, it works. The prime objective is to get the most wonderful, interesting and relevant magazines out there, and it doesn’t matter what we go through behind the scenes to make it happen. As the old show biz adage says, Never let ‘em see you sweat.

I myself represent California, which means I’m trying to think 6, 8, 12 months ahead and imagine what will be interesting and important for people to read in 2011. That’s impossible, of course, but I have to try my best. An editorial calendar, such as the one that will be developed after our meetings, can only be a guideline, though. You can’t adhere robotically to it. What if (God forbid) an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault cuts a path of destruction through Sonoma County? If I’d been scheduled to write an article on bed-and-breakfasts of the Russian River Valley, that would obviously have to be shelved in favor of instant news reporting.

We used to like to plan future articles with greater detail than we do now. For example, years ago if I’d suggested something on the Sierra Foothills, people would have wanted to know exactly what. Which wineries? Which wines? What places to stay will you recommend? Whom will you interview? Which counties among the nine in the AVA? What’s the precise story line? I never liked this micro-managerial approach. My attitude was, look, wine writing is like news writing: you don’t know what you’re going to find until you get your butt to that place and start snooping around. (I wasn’t the only one who felt like that.) Over time, this approach has dominated, so now we have “place-holder” articles. I know I’ll be doing something about, say, Russian River Valley next summer, but I don’t know exactly what. When the time comes, I’ll pull out my reviews from our database, scrutinize them for patterns, note if there are any interesting newcomers, then set up a visit, with places to stay, and spend a while running around. That’s how I wrote my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. I had told my editor at University of California Press, “Just let me spend a year traveling from one end of the river to the other, having adventures and writing about them.” The danger of too-precise planning is that you rule out spontaneity. There’s another huge danger in wine writing I would point out particularly to younger writers and bloggers: Beware the template. There’s a tendency to write the same article year after year in which only the details change. Example: What wine to drink with Thanksgiving turkey? All magazines are guilty of this, to some extent, including Wine Enthusiast; but I think we’re less guilty of it than most, because we’re not as hidebound as some wine magazines I could mention.

Another thing I like about our annual summer editorial meeting is that we editors get to renew our bonds. We like each other, but don’t see each other very often since we live so far apart, although we are in frequent email contact. It’s nice to have those nights together in someone’s hotel room. Armed with a few choice bottles, we talk shop, get alternately serious and silly, and count our good fortune to be able to have the jobs we do. If Paul Gregutt is there with his guitar, there might even be some group singing. That’s a lot of fun, although, to be honest, you probably wouldn’t want to hear it.


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