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Day One, Wine Writers Symposium


I arrived at the end of Gerald Asher’s talk, so I didn’t hear it, but Joe Roberts told me Mr. Asher basically said that wine descriptions are silly. Mr. Asher is a great wine writer and a personal hero to me, but he’s never been the type of writer who went in for elaborate wine descriptions (much less scores), so he’s entitled to that opinion. After Mr. Asher’s talk there was an interesting workshop on writing personality profiles. Profiles, if you don’t know, are those personality pieces that The New Yorker is famous for. I like writing profiles. I like to get inside a subject’s head and see where they’re really coming from, not where they want you to think they’re coming from. One of the co-presenters was Corie Brown, who’s a principal at She did a live one-on-one interview with a winemaker to show us how it’s done. The winemaker was talking about how important family tradition was to him, and then he said he hadn’t gotten married until he was 45. I thought Corie would immediately ask him why he’d waited so long. Nerves? Didn’t meet the right gal? Stress? Working too hard? Was he gay? But she didn’t, and I thought, “She’s teaching us how to do an interview the right way, and she doesn’t ask the logical question.”

Well, I sat with Corie at lunch afterward and shared this with her, and she told me she had talked with the winemaker beforehand. He’d actually had an earlier marriage that ended with a messy divorce, so she didn’t want to get into that at the workshop. I can understand that, but my first rule of interviewing is THERE ARE NO WRONG QUESTIONS. You can and should ask anything you’re curious about, no matter how much it seems like you’re prying into somebody’s business. You never know where a weird question will take you–potentially to some incredibly interesting place. After all, if someone lets me interview them, they have to expect I’m going to ask anything I want, within bounds (and there are very few bounds). And a person can always answer an uncomfortable question with, “I’m not prepared to discuss that.” Of course, if they do that, they’re in that infamous position of having to explain when they stopped beating their wife.

Anyhow I enjoyed getting to know Corie and will make part of my daily read. Corie has lots of interesting ideas on how to monetize a website and I wish her luck.

After lunch I met with Joel Aiken, by pre-arrangement, at the front desk. Joel, as most of you know, was the longtime winemaker at Beaulieu. He wanted to show me the vineyard of a new winery he’s consulting for, owned by a couple, John and Sharon Harris. The brand is called Rarecat (yes, there’s a story behind  it), and the estate vineyard is in Jericho Canyon, which is in a pocket canyon of the Calistoga appellation. Since I’m writing a story on Calistoga for the June issue of Wine Enthusiast, I was, well, enthusiastic to tour an area I’d been pretty much unaware of. Jericho Canyon is wild and remote and beautiful. John Harris says he’s seen mountain lions partrolling his vineyard. If so, these majestic animals are losing their fear of humans, because the saying used to be you’d never see a mountain lion because they’d see (or smell) you first, and run off. If they’re not running off from John Harris, they’re no longer afraid, which isn’t good news for them or us.

The first Rarecat wines won’t be bottled until later this year; Joel hasn’t even crafted the blend. We went through barrel samples of the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend of Petiit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The first was aromatic and delicious, but thin. The second was profound, and so was the third. John said he hopes to keep his bottle price under $100 retail. We had, of course, the inevitable discussion about the marketplace, and cult wines, and how so-and-so is doing, and is there room for another $90 Napa Cabernet, etc. etc. I don’t think John Harris has the answers anymore than I do or anybody else, but it’s his money. Anyway, I expect the wine will be great, especially with Joel at the helm.

Afterwards, got together with the young winemakers Bruce and Danielle Devlin (Three Clicks) and Peter Heitz (Shypoke) for dinner at Jolé, in Calistoga—really of the best restaurants I’ve been too lately, followed by late cocktails at Solbar. The three of them, between their two wineries, are trying to produce authentic wines of terroir at affordable prices, something I can support. At Solbar, I remember there was a bunch of conventioneers there and we tried to guess who they were (I said proctologists) but it turned out they were property and casualty insurers who joined us and were quite friendly. Then I had a dream I parked my car in the city and couldn’t find it the next morning—a recurrent dream. Then I woke up, mildly hung over, for Day #2 at the Wine Writers Symposium, which I will dutifully write about tomorrow.

  1. Raley Roger says:

    I am curious about how other writers in attendance there feel about you blogging about your experience at the symposium? This question is not meant to instigate. I’m just wondering if they view what you’re doing—-reporting on the inner workings of a symposium attended by wine writers—-tantamount to revealing whose behind the curtain ala the Wizard of Oz.
    After all, we are their intended audience. Those of us who click onto these sites, or read wine columns, or flip through wine mags, over morning coffee are probably what keeps most of you all employed. I truly believe that most wine writing is really supported by most of us here in the industry.
    Are they worried that you are demystifying things? Sharing too much? Giving us an insider’s look into their world, when, really, that’s not welcomed?
    I’m just very curious, because if I were a writer attending there, I’d expect a certain amount of privacy about the prcess of what I go through in my vocation. I wouldn’t want that necessarily available to a wide audience to read, unless, of course, I gave permission first. So, I’d love to know a little more about that dynamic.

  2. Nice little snippet of info on Jericho Canyon, thanks!

  3. Raley, I don’t worry about demystifying. It’s what I do. Besides, Alder Yarrow just shared the twitter feed for us on the big overhead screen. Everybody here is tweeting everything anyway.

  4. Actually, that’s only *one* thing that Asher said, Steve – his talk was full of gems and his all-around brilliance was well on display. Just wanted to make sure readers here didn’t think that was my entire take-away from Asher’s keynote. Cheers!

  5. I realize that, Joe. Thanks.

  6. Raley Roger says:

    Thanks for clarifying. I do think that demystifying is one of your strong suits!

  7. I don’t like being mystified (except, you know, in a spiritual or metaphysical sense), and there is so much crapola out there that I just like to crack it open and say it like it is.

  8. Good to see Steve continuing to pay attention to Calistoga and I look forward to reading the article.
    About those mountain lions: I think it is very cool that one doesn’t have to get too far from the town of Calistoga to encounter wildlife. As I write this from Diamond Mountain, I can see across the valley to a vineyard on Howell Mountain that is often visited by bears who appreciate its tasty Cabernet. Bears roam mostly in the eastern hills, though once in a while they raid garbage cans and scratch trees on upper Diamond Mountain. Mountain lions are definitely around, but tend to avoid human contact. A couple of years ago there were quite a few sightings of mountain lions in our neighborhood. Here’s an experience I had: a few hours after being released from the local hospital after having my appendix removed, I took a walk across our vineyard at dusk to have a look at our vegetable garden. Walking down one of the rows, I saw movement at the end of the row; first thought was it would be a deer inside the vineyard and I was in no condition to chase it out. In the next instant I realized it was too big (rows are 2 meters apart, and could not see the head or the tail) and too muscular to be a deer. I had a moment of doubt as to what I was seeing (how strong were those drugs they sent me home with?). I couldn’t run, luckily the cat did. I sent out a neighborhood e-mail alert about the sighting, in which I wondered if the lions weren’t attracted by the goats our neighbor’s children were keeping for a 4H project. There was plenty of evidence the next morning that it was indeed a lion (lots of scat around, very distinctive, and easy to “key” it on the internet). The goats were moved into town, and we have not had mountain lions sightings since. Not that it ever gets too boring around here. Last weekend a bobcat came through our cat door at 2:00 AM…made enough sounds feasting on Friskies to wake me up, resulting in a rather thrilling encounter in the kitchen. Life on Diamond Mountain!

  9. Corie Brown says:

    Actually, Steve, you are misrepresenting what I said to you over lunch as well as misquoting me. Very poor professional standards. Is this the way you treat your interview subjects? I have to say I’m disappointed in you.

  10. Yes, Gerald Asher’s remarks (I read them on another blog) covered much more than wine descriptions. What a great writer, and revered by the winemaking community.

  11. Corie: Really? How. Please explain.

  12. Because you have referenced Alder Yarrow’s blog, Vinography, I hope I am not out of line in pointing out that Alder has published a very extensive report on the complete Asher set of comments.

    Mr. Asher is a gem, a writer whose writings are so good that he makes many of us, including me, feel somewhat inadequate. The bulk of his comments, as reported on Vinography, were a beautiful lesson in how to write a wine story–or indeed any story.

    But, I do think that his comments on tasting notes are a bit of a muddle. On the one hand, he pretty much says they are useless. But, on the other, he goes on to say that people find them valuable.

    Now, it is true that terse strings of adjectives that fail to discuss balance, varietal and geographical consistency, aging potential, etc. can be less than helpful. But, a good tasting note is more than a string of adjectives. It is a short story–sometimes too short, but, often, for wines that are highly recommended, a more complete telling.

    Indeed, the thing that I love about Gerald Asher’s work is that he can write a three-thousand word “tasting note” and I will read the whole thing. You see, unless a writer has moved his or her readers to some form of action or thought process, that writer has failed. Mr. Asher may not write tasting notes in the way that Steve Heimoff and I do, but he does tell stories about wine, and we listen. And those stories are about wine. They make me want to try the wine or wines that are at the heart of the story. Because if there was no wine there, none of us would be listening.

  13. Charlie, we all know tasting notes are problematic. Always have been, always will be. People will always object to them, as well as to numbers, puffs etc. Notes are simply a part of the job for some of us. To criticize them is a version of NIMBYISM: people know we need power plants to give us electricity, but no one wants a power plant in their backyard. So I say, let people criticize notes and scores all they want. As long as the public likes them, and some of us get paid to provide them, they’ll be around. As for your comments about Mr. Asher, I couldn’t agree more. I have and treasure his books. In all the years I’ve known him I always greet him as Mr. Asher and tell him how good it is to see him.

  14. Karl Summerville says:

    What was the # on Twitter for this event? Would love to read the tweets.

    Great post Steve, thanks!

  15. Karl,. I don’t know.

  16. Jericho Canyon sounds intriguing, indeed.
    Thanks for the report!

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