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Food Network chef smackdown: Bourdain v.s Deen

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There’s a hissy fit going on in celebrity chef TV land that makes the occasional sparring between wine bloggers seem like a love-in. Seems that Anthony Bourdain gave an interview to TV Guide, in which he called Paula Deen “The worst, most dangerous person [in] America,” accused her of having “unholy connections with evil corporations” and, as if that’s not enough, added the ultimate putdown for a chef: “her food is f—ing bad for you.”

Then Anthony told us what he really thinks about the Food Network’s Guy Fieri. “I look at Guy Fieri and I just think, ‘Jesus, I’m glad that’s not me.’” But wait, there’s more! Anthony on Rachel Ray: “Does she even cook anymore? I don’t know why she bothers.” And, last but not least, the Bourdman on Sandra Lee, also a Food Network star (whose boyfriend happens to be Andrew Cuomo, the Governator of New York). “Don’t mess with her…I hate her works on this planet…”.

Meow!

It didn’t take long for Frank Bruni to get his two cents in. The New York Times’ restaurant critic slammed Anthony for his “gratuitous schoolyard-crass putdown[s]” and accused him of  “moralizing and snobbery,” because he [Anthony] is a “self-appointed sophisticate” who thinks the Food Network cooks are “rubes.”

The whole thing is funny. For once, I’m glad I’m not involved. Been there, done that. But it does raise important issues, since obesity is a huge [no pun intended] problem in the U.S. Anthony is essentially saying the Food Network is the television version of a greasyspoon diner whose cooks show an already fat nation how to get even fatter. Whereas he, Anthony, is more of an Alice Waters kind of guy–eat healthy and green. There’s certainly truth to that. The main problem, of course, with Anthony’s elitism (if we can call it that) is that it costs more–a lot more–to eat along an Alice Waters’ line than to eat Paula Deen’s bacon cheeseburgers between two donuts. That was the essence of Frank Bruni’s criticism of Anthony–that Anthony was insensitive to poor people. (Incidentally, Anthony kinda-sorta apologized to poor Paula yesterday in this radio interview. Also yesterday, Paula Deen, who seems like a real nice southern lady to me, finally fired back at Anthony. He “needs to get a life,” she told the New York Post’s Page Six.)

Well, there is a split between the Whole Foods crowd and the Penny Saver shoppers when it comes to food, and we have the same kind of split here in the wine industry. It’s only to be expected, because we have that split in America with any consumable good. If you’re a Paula Deen person, you drive a Chevy or a Ford pickup. If you’re an Anthony Bourdain person, you drive a BMW, or maybe a Prius. Rachel Ray’s people drink Two Buck Chuck; Anthony’s look to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s just the way it is–but at least we in the wine biz don’t get down in the mud like Anthony did. We’re much too civilized for that!


Zinfandel: The good, the bad and the whatever

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I don’t think I’ve devoted an entire blog posting to Zinfandel, but I did a Zin flight yesterday that put me in touch with my inner Zinman, which is to say, it resurrected years of thoughts about this frustrating, inconsistent, loveable, problematic, unique and sometimes great variety of wine.

I can’t recall the first Zinfandel I ever drank, but the first I ever took a note on was Wine and the People’s 1976 bottling from Sonoma County. I opened it at the age of seven (no, not when I was seven, when the wine was seven). It had cost me all of $10 when I bought it, in 1979. I liked it a whole lot. The alcohol was 13.5%, and it was absolutely dry.

In the 1980s, Zinfandel was undergoing review by the then famous critics, who were declaring that it was actually a great wine, California’s only authentic variety. I took them at their word. But by the time I started to actually review wines, I was over my Zinfatuation. Too often the wines were overripe and pruney, with high alcohol and residual sugar. This problem was particularly acute in the Sierra Foothills and in certain Sonoma bottlings. When Paso Robles Zinfandel began to appear on the scene, in the 1990s, it too joined the parade of awkward, sweet freaks.

I always thought Napa Valley produces the most claret-like Zins, that being a compliment, although if you were a purist, you could object that they were too elegantly tailored. They were made to resemble Cabernet Sauvignon, and did, but didn’t reflect Zinfandel’s truest nature, which is or should be rustic, like a country cousin who likes Wayne Newton, wipes his nose in the napkin at the table and, all too legitimately, makes fun of citified ways. This high estimation of Napa in my mind is, however, a construct of the sort wine reviewers often form without checking the facts. For, if I revert to my database at Wine Enthusiast, I see that I scored 24 Sonoma Zinfandels higher over the years than anything from Napa Valley (which in this case was Rubicon’s 2007 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel, from Rutherford). The reason why I think of Sonoma Zinfandel being not as high as Napa Zinfandel is because, on average, there are far more bad Sonoma Zins than from Napa. But that’s mainly because there are waaay more Zins from Sonoma than Napa, which distorts one’s county-wide perception.

It’s not likely I would ever buy a Zinfandel, were I a normal wine consumer. I can’t think why I would. That’s my guilty secret. When I’m of split mind regarding Zinfandel, I always suggest pairing with barbecue. If you understand my reviews you know this is a code word that means, basically, “This isn’t the greatest wine ever, and in fact it’s a little rustic. But then again, if you’re grilling burgers, you’re not particularly fussy.” Such wines have their place in our lives. But Zinfandel for me is a little too country cousin. I actually have such cousins, and I like seeing them every few years. But please, not more than that.

The highest score I ever gave a Zinfandel was 96 points, which was for Hartford Court’s 2007 Highwire Zin, from Russian River Valley. It cost $55. That’s a lot of money to pay for a Zin, and I wouldn’t. Of those other 24 Sonoma Zins I’ve given high scores to over the years, the cheapest was Joseph Swan’s 2003 Lone Redwood Ranch, which back in 2007 when it was released cost $25. That was an anomaly. In yesterday’s tasting that I just referred to, Ravenswood really starred. It is gratifying that Constellation, which owns Ravenswood, so far has kept quality high; we’ll have to see if that remains the case. On the other hand, I have to admit to being disappointed by the Ridges, which have been too alcoholic and sweet. I hope that’s just a lapse on their part, rather than a permanent degradation of the wines.

All this makes me yearn for that Wine and The People of olden days. I wish I could retaste it now and see if I thought as highly of it as I did in 1983. Would I find a 13.5% Zinfandel green and leafy? Back then I called it “fruity and elegant” and I don’t believe my palate has changed that much over the years. How they managed to get a Zinfandel that low in alcohol that good, I don’t know.


Thinking about drinking

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Slow Sunday yesterday, nothing to do and not wanting to do anything. So just sat around the house and read the paper, caught up on the Irene news (which included hearing from old friends in western Massachusetts and southern Vermont and seeing some scary YouTubes of the rampaging Deerfield River which, when I lived there, was just a pleasant little stream). Then I decided, since I’m paying for premium movie channels anyway, I might as well watch one.

I’d seen Julie and Julia when it first came out and to be perfectly honest, didn’t much care for it. True, Meryl Streep was awesome as usual, but  Amy Adams’ Julie seemed self-centered and annoying (she herself admitted to being a bitch), so much so that I had an unpleasant memory of the film. But, as sometimes happens, on second viewing I liked it considerably more.

One of the more interesting aspects for me was Julie’s experience with blogging. As you know if you saw the film, she began blogging more or less as a lark, with no expectation that anyone would read her or that blogging would bring her to the brink of a real career. And yet, in that climatic scene where she finds 67 phone messages after the Christian Science Monitor wrote about her, overnight Julie was sought after by editors, publicists and all the other denizens of the celebrity world looking for the next big thing for the next 15 minutes.

I thought, why did Julie start blogging? Why did she go through all that work–not just holding down a fulltime job all day, but then cooking all night and, when the cooking and eating was over, far from laying her weary body down (with her husband), she then prolonged her workday by blogging about it? This line of thought naturally brought me, by extension, to my own reasons for blogging and–by extension from that–to all the other bloggers, both known and unknown to me, who cannot sleep at night, or who cannot wake up normally in the morning and go about their lives, until they’ve put their thoughts online for all to see.

At first, this seems like very self-centered behavior. Why would anybody think that one’s thoughts would be of the slightest interest to anybody else, much less a bunch of strangers out there in cyberspace? It’s very strange. I can see why (for example), people might be curious about what Dick Cheney has to say in his new book.  Regardless of what you thought about Cheney, he impacted our lives. But why would anyone care about the thoughts of a wine writer? It’s not as if we’re smarter than anyone else, or wiser. I’ve been reading classic Greek literature lately and am working my way through The Apology, in which Socrates/Plato makes the point that he who is wisest is the one who knows that he is utterly without wisdom. The older I get, the more I feel precisely that way, which makes it even weirder that this blog would attract the attention of anyone.

I know that some of it has to do with the fact that I am said to possess a certain kind of “power” through my job as a wine critic. People are curious, I suppose, how I perceive that supposed power, how I use it, how it shapes my thinking. The answer is: I perceive it as an illusion. It is an accident of my history and karma that came without my conscious bidding and will disappear just as abruptly as it arrived; and my responsibility as its vessel is to preside over its loss, when it goes, with equanimity. Which is to say that, like Plato’s Socrates, I’m aware that “power,” like “wisdom,” is a forgery.

The rest of the question had to do with you. Why do you read this blog, or any blog, for that matter? I like to think (maybe I flatter myself) that it’s because the writing pleases you. I’m not much for social intercourse in person, and I seem to get lamer with each passing month. It’s hard for me to be myself with others, unless they’re people I know extremely well and trust. Otherwise, my life’s experiences have made me rather mistrustful of people; and especially if they’re in the industry, I can never be sure exactly what their motives are. It’s hard having all the time to guess what’s really going on behind somebody else’s smiling facade.

Still, like most people, I’m a social animal. I think, I drink, I think about drinking, and wine–more than any other beverage–stimulates the deepest, best thinking because wine is the best beverage. It’s simply easier for me to frame the thoughts I want to share in words on a computer screen than to express them verbally in a social situation. Conversation happens quickly; half the time our words just fly out of our mouths, surprising even ourselves. With writing, you can take the time to express a thought articulately, so that you’re sure that what you just wrote is precisely what you meant. Which reminds of of something Meryl Steep’s Julia Child character said in the movie. She wanted (she said) to write down her recipes with “scientific precision” so that nobody who attempted to use them would ever make a mistake. That’s the way I feel about writing, and wine reviewing in general. I want to get it right.

Just in: Wine Enthusiast’s 2011 Wine Star Award nominees!


Forests or vineyards? North Coast can’t decide

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This is a tough call. Fine winemakers want to put Pinot Noir where redwoods and Douglas firs grow now, and environmentalists say No! You can’t rip out these wonderful trees for a farm crop.

I see both sides. Nobody more than I wants more great coastal Pinot Noir, and this area is right there in the Sonoma Coast AVA that produces such great wine. Can’t have too much of that.

On the other hand, our big trees are some of our greatest natural treasures. Anyone who lives in the Bay Area, even the innermost parts such as I do, is only a short drive away from pristine nature. You’ve all heard the bad stuff about Oakland, but within our city limits–a ten minute drive from my house–are hills and valleys as wild as they were before the white man invaded these parts.

Nobody of good conscience wants to see our wildlands destroyed. Yet that doesn’t mean not a single redwood tree or fir can ever be cut down. The area in question doesn’t include Old Growth redwoods, which would be protected. These are subsequent generation trees. There are young redwood trees across the street from where I live. I’d hate to see them cut down for any reason–but I’d hate to see any of the trees on my street cut down, whether they’re oak, magnolia or Doug fir. So I can’t see exempting redwoods from cutting down simply because of the name of their species.

This contentiousness between environmentalists and vineyardists is nothing new in California. I’ve reported for years on ongoing battles between (sometimes anonymous) defenders of the land against winery interests who want to terraform the hills and install vineyards. My instincts are usually with the wineries. I happen to think that vineyards are very beautiful things, and while they’re not “natural,” strictly speaking, they’re preferable to most any other kind of development. But, yes, it’s true that a wild, untouched landscape is the most beautiful of all.

There has to be a balance between preservation and development, which means that each side has to be willing to talk to the other and give a little. Lord knows, compromise is not popular these days. Just look at the BART situation in San Francisco and the protestors who want to shut down train stations because BART turned off their cell phone signals a week ago. I’m not taking sides in that one–but whenever both sides in a pitched battle become intransigent, things just get worse, and solutions fade away.

In this particular case, it seems nearly impossible to find a middle ground. One one side are Pomo Native Americans who are incensed that their tribal burial grounds and sacred spaces are being tampered with. On the other are the winery economic interests that, if successful, will bring much needed jobs and tax revenues to Sonoma County, which like most counties isn’t doing so well these days.

Like Rodney King once asked, Why can’t we all just get along?


Goodbye yellow brick Parkerchuk

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I’ve said for years that Gary Vaynerchuk wouldn’t do wine videos forever–only as long as it took to launch him to something else that presumably pays more money. I always suspected he wanted to be Ryan Seacrest and make $30 million a year as an impresario. Now he’s taking a leap that could get him there.

So what does a post-Gary Vee world mean for wine? To begin with, Gary’s lost a lot of juice lately. It was a good time for him to get out. Like the old saying goes, Leave while you’re still having fun. Such was Gary’s dominance of the wine-social media nexus that it sometimes seemed no other blogger could really get any traction because Gary sucked up all the oxygen.

Yet he’s been deflating over the past year, as his act wore thin. I don’t doubt that hundreds of thousands of his loyal fans will miss him, but there was always something of a one-trick pony aspect to Gary. He reminded me of those rock bands that gets a hit or two, and then you never hear from them again.

I give Gary credit for proving that the Internet can be a viable home for a wine writer/blogger/videographer. I personally never thought much of his oversized personality. I thought he brought a bloated ego to wine media. I mean, it was always more about Gary than the wine, or whoever his guest was. Maybe that’s what it takes to succeed. Years ago, I ran into Adam Sandler, the actor-comedian, in the green room of a San Francisco comedy club. This was way before he was famous. I didn’t much like him. He was very conceited and full of himself, yet he also projected a confidence that made me think he was destined for stardom (and likewise made me realize I wasn’t!). As indeed he was. Adam is said to make $27 million a year, which is probably more than Gary makes–so far.

I analogize Gary’s retirement to Parker’s leaving California. Same kind of forces involved. Parker too was so dominant, he distorted the space around him, like a massive gravitational object that bends light to warp speed. I think Robert Parker was a nice man, but his impact on the world of wine was unhealthy. It’s not good for one person to have such power over one piece of reality, unless it’s Steve Jobs (who also retired yesterday as CEO of Apple). Parker’s influence on wine style is well known and need not be reiterated here. It has been sad for me, in my job, to travel up and down California and witness the veneration bordering on fear with which so many winemakers saw him. People said I was jealous, but that wasn’t it. It’s just pathetic to see winemakers so in thrall of a single critic that they practically wet their pants just thinking about him, male and female alike–a neurosis particularly noticeable in Napa Valley. So with Parker’s departure, I am hopeful that, after a period of adjustment, California winemaking circles can get back to normal and begin to make wine the way their winemakers actually want to, instead of the way they’re ordered to by one isolated critic with a palate to protect.

So goodbye to Gary and goodbye to Parker. Both these individuals have writ their signatures large on the history of wine. They will be long remembered, and honored in the pantheon. With their hegemony now gone, this is a good moment for pause for a moment, and then to move forward, without them, into brighter uplands.


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