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Living the wine writer lifestyle


Check out the new ish of Mutineer Magazine, which has a multipage interview with me by a guy I’m glad to call my friend, editor in chief Alan Kropf. (The article isn’t online, so you’ll have to buy the zine.) Alan put me through my paces, asking good questions and letting me go on at length. He did a good job editing, so the article is really an accurate representation of our conversation. (And the pictures are totally cool!)

Alan wanted to know my thoughts about “the controversial nature of my writing.” I told him I was surprised by this question, because I didn’t know my writing was controversial. Sure, three years ago there was that blowup about the Rodney Strong “Rockaway” Cabernet Sauvignon (and if you don’t know what that was all about, it doesn’t matter, because it’s ancient history). But it blew over quickly, and as I told Alan, the wine bloggers needed time to get to know me, and vice versa. As far as I’m concerned, all is smooth sailing now.

Alan got me reminiscing about the 1980s and how I got into wine. I love remembering those good old days when, even in San Francisco, not too many people were into wine, and those who were felt like part of an underground cult. One of the things I liked best about the scene was that you met the most interesting people, whom you otherwise never would have. I ended up joining the old Les Amis du Vin group (at one point, they asked me to head it up, but I didn’t want to). We’d meet once a week or so in a restaurant to taste wine with an invited proprietor. I still have my notes from those days. In fact, I advise budding wine lovers to take plenty of notes and keep every one of them. You never know. Look what Michael Broadbent did with all his old tasting notes.

I guess I should consider myself lucky that a younger-orientated magazine like Mutineer is interested in me. But I’m interested in them, so it’s a two way street. I’m interested in how people in their 20s and 30s drink and think about wine. I want to know how they make their buying decisions. I’m curious about whom they listen to when it comes to recommendations. The conventional wisdom is that they go on Facebook or Twitter, and their “friends” tell them what to buy, but I’ve never believed that. I have 2,400 Facebook friends. If each of them recommends a wine (and believe me, lots of them do), am I better off with personal reccos, or am I more confused than ever? The latter, I should think. I won’t buy a wine just because a Facebook friend, whom I may never even have met, tells me to. I’m much more likely to buy a wine if an expert tells me to. And in order to be an expect, you have to have earned the position, in my book.

Alan Kropf called me “a trailblazing wine blogger who is leveraging his experience as a respected wine writer to help evolve the medium through his fearlessly opinionated blog.” That hyperbole is beyond me, but I appreciate Alan for understanding that, in my blog, I try to go beyond what I write in both Wine Enthusiast and the books I’ve been privileged to publish for University of California Press, to express as pure an opinion as you’re likely to get from a wine critic these days. There are times I write stuff on this blog that I can’t believe I said. But I hit the “publish” button, and it seems to work.

Remembering the Firestorm


Today is the twentieth anniversary of the Oakland Hills Firestorm. I’d like to take a few minutes to remember its victims. There’s actually a wine connection, which I’ll mention at the end.

Anyone who lived in Oakand or south Berkeley on that fateful day, Oct. 20, 1991, will never forget it. It’s seared into my memory, in a way that not even the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which had struck just two years previously, could match. I think that’s because the earthquake was over before you even knew it; it was only 15 seconds long. The Firestorm, by contrast, lasted for hour after hour after agonizing hour.

I learned about the bias of the big media establishment against West Coast news from that Firestorm. Although the New York-based television stations and eastern newspapers certainly covered it, they gave it short shrift. If a disaster of that magnitude had wiped out 3,000 homes in a densely populated New York or Washington, D.C. neighborhood, killing 25 people including firefighters, it would have been the biggest news story of the year. It would even have been a huge story if it had occurred in San Francisco or Los Angeles. But because it was in the East Bay–“just Oakland”–the national news media played it down.

I was on my way home from the gym that Sunday morning. At 11 a.m., it already was turning out to be one of the hottest, driest days of the year, with intense Diablo winds rushing from inland toward the sea. Such weather isn’t unusual in October. Walking east from Broadway, I smelled smoke, and the sky had a peculiar orange tinge. When I got home, I turned the T.V. on to see what was happening. The local stations had already interrupted programming and commercials and gone into nonstop coverage. I went up on the roof of my building, and that’s where I had my mind blown.

The East Bay Hills are just about a mile away, as the crow flies. They dominate the eastern view, rising to about 1,300 feet at their highest, which is a pretty good height considering that most of Oakland is at sea level. Most of the topmost part of the hills is semi-wild parkland, preserved forever as the East Bay Regional Park District, one of the greatest urban wilderness areas in America. But the lower elevations, right down to where the slopes hit the flatlands, were and are densely packed neighborhoods.

I knew the hills well, because I had run their fire trails for many years. So when I stood on my roof and saw a 2-mile wide wall of flame, a hundred feet high, filling the sky with black, roiling smoke, I was terrified. It was clear that a catastrophe of the first order was unfolding, right in the heart of Oakland.

I was glued to the television all afternoon. They reported that a house was being burnt down every 11 seconds! I also packed some things to go, in case I had to evacuate. (I didn’t.) There was a major freeway (the 580) between the fire and my house, but the fire already had jumped two other freeways (the 13 and the 24), and there was no reason it couldn’t leap over another. Not only were the Hills engulfed, but the fire was advancing on three fronts: toward downtown Berkeley, toward the Montclair Village section of Oakland, and, particularly horrifying, it was barreling straight through to Piedmont and Rock Ridge, from where it would easily have taken out my neighborhood, downtown Oakland.

Two months later I wrote an article for the East Bay Express on the fire. I interviewed Oakland firefighters who had battled it. They assured me that they’d had nothing to do with stopping that fire. Nothing at all. In fact, they’d had to retreat four times that afternoon, to save their lives. Miraculously, around 4 p.m. the winds changed, from the offshore Diablos to an onshore pattern. That not only pushed the flames back upon themselves, over areas denuded of fuel that had already burned; but the onshore winds are loaded with moisture from the ocean, and are cool. By evening, when the fire had largely ended, the temperature had gone down by as much as 20 degrees. By that time, about 25,000 firefighters from all over the country had gathered along the fire’s perimeter.

The Oakland Hills Firestorm of 1991 was the worst urban wildfire in the nation’s history, and remains so today. I pay my respects here to the families of the people who died–to the people who lost their homes and pets–and to the brave firefighters who risked all and in some cases paid the ultimate price to save us.

The wine connection was that I heard of a guy who had a big wine cellar. When he realized that his house was going to burn down and he had to get the hell out of there, he threw as many bottles of wine as he could into his swimming pool, hoping the water would protect them. It did–but it also peeled off all the labels!

Wednesday Wraparound


I don’t know Jennifer Porter, the new head of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, but I wish her well. She’s got big shoes to fill, taking over from Stacie Jacob, with whom I and Wine Enthusiast worked on several occasions over the years. Paso Robles is one of the big success stories in California. There was no guarantee this inland San Luis Obispo County appellation could become a hit, but it has. Good luck Jennifer!

* * *

What’s that old saying, Dance with the one that brung ya? It’s meant to suggest loyalty to those who never let you down, and I guess that’s why Diageo renewed their contract with Southern Wines & Spirits.

These are two big companies that have discovered life is infinitely better together than apart. Readers of this blog know that I’ve expressed frustration with the three-tiered system and its domination by big distributors, like Southern. But I’ve been put in my place on more than one occasion by people I respect who explained to me that lots of wineries simply couldn’t do business without the distributors. So I’ve officially taken a neutral position on this topic.

* * *

Speaking of happy marriages, one of Bordeaux’s oldest, most prestigious wine schools is fighting falling enrollment by extending its arms to–who else?–Chinese students. I guess you sell your stuff to whoever’s buying!

* * *

Oh, those naughty wine economists! Now they’ve discovered that “monogamous societies are bigger drinkers than those in polygamous societies,” or, to put it another way, “monogamy was indeed positively correlated with drunkenness.”

I wonder how they did their research? As much as I respect economists (did I really say that?), it’s hard for me to believe that the more you drink, the more likely you are to commit yourself to a single partner. But what do I know?

* * *

I have newfound respect for the people of Oregon–at least, those who listen to Oregon Public Radio. Their top story of the week was about Oregon’s cool, rainy wine season, which was even worse this year than California’s, because they’re that much closer to Alaska. I can’t imagine the top story of the week on KQED radio being the vintage weather. Go, Oregon wine people, go.

* * *

Finally, there’s this bizzaro story about a family who got lost in a corn maze and had to call 911 to rescue them. It was in Massachusetts, a state I lived in for 16 years after moving from NYC, and while I knew plenty of strange people there, I can’t imagine getting lost in a corn maze when actually they were only yards away from a nearby road. On the other hand, I did once get lost in a vineyard. It was Firestone’s, down in the Santa Ynez Valley, and the only reason I didn’t call 911 was because I would have been too embarrassed to tell them I  didn’t know where I was. Obviously, I survived.

* * *

That’s it for today. What, you expected Shakespeare?

New Hall of Fame inductees, and a commentary


I’m asked to nominate people every year for induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame, but I never do, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s my aversion to groups, I don’t know. Anyhow, this year’s inductees were just announced, and I’d like to pay them hommage.

Peter Mondavi, Sr. Of course he belongs there, and it’s good that they put him in while Mr. Mondavi is still around to see it. He never was as famous as his older brother, Robert, but Mr. Mondavi truly is a living legend in Napa Valley, and it’s wonderful that the family has managed to retain ownership of Charles Krug Winery this long, while so many others have sold out to corporate interests or gone belly up. Here’s hoping Mr. Mondavi and his famous twinkle in the eye remain with us for many years to come.

Joe Heitz. People can quibble about what the first boutique winery and cult California wine were. For my money, it was Heitz, and the Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It was the hottest wine in America for two decades; a great year, such as 1968 and 1974, set auction records. Heitz Cellars may not be as standout as it once was, but Joe Heitz, who started it all, deserves this recognition.

Myron Nightingale. He was Beringer’s chief winemaker for a long time, and trained his successor, Ed Sbragia, who brought Beringer to its highest highs during the 1990s. Mr. Nightingale less famously pioneered the use of the botrytis spore in the laboratory to artificially produce the dessert wine, called Nightingale in his honor, that is one of the best in California.

Richard Sanford. For my money, the most obvious choice this year. A Hall of Fame inductee should be a true pioneer, and Mr. Sanford is one of the most pioneering winemakers California has produced in the last two generations. He (and his former partner, Michael Benedict) practically invented the Santa Rita Hills appellation, planting its first grapes (at their Sanford & Benedict Vineyard) and early establishing its reputation for Pinot Noir. Mr. Sanford and his wife, Thekla, nowadays own and run the Alma Rosa Winery, continuing his still evolving legacy in Santa Barbara County.

John Parducci. Parducci Wine Cellars dates to 1933, the year Prohibition ended and so many new wineries sprang up. The winery has had its ups and downs, with the Parducci family eventually selling it, but Mr. Parducci has remained active in a number of ventures. He really helped put Mendocino County on the wine map.

With 2012’s five new inductees, the Vintners Hall of Fame now has 38 members. Only two of them are women: Zelma Long and Carol Meredith. I’m not smart enough to calculate that as a batting average (do you divide 2 by 38? 38 by 2?), but a major league baseball player would be returned to the minors if he was 2 for 38 (unless he was a pitcher. Timmy Lincecum AKA The Freak was 5 for 61 this year, for an average of .082). Granted that California (and the wine industry in general) has been female-weak for nearly all of its history, it’s still bizarre that the Hall of Fame can’t improve on this inequality. Maybe it’s partly my fault for not nominating anyone. Right off the top of my head, I can come up with suitable candidates, starting with Margrit Mondavi. And if a relatively young winemaker like Randall Grahm can be inducted (2010), how about Marimar Torres, Heidi Barrett, Genevieve Janssens, Margo van Staaveren, Merry Edwards? What about academics, like Linda Bisson and Ann Noble? Would anyone truly object to Julia Child, even though she wasn’t, strictly speaking, a wine person? I mean, neither was Gerald Asher (2009). While Mr. Asher was a wine writer while Ms. Child was a food writer, still, Ms. Child’s contributions to wine, via her books and T.V. shows, were stronger and more lasting than Mr. Asher’s, profound as his have been.

Making [non]sense of terroir


One sign of a good wine book is when I find something on nearly every page to blog about. By that standard, Benjamin Lewin’s In Search of Pinot Noir is a very good wine book.

Besides being a handsome publication, physically speaking, and well graphicked with superb maps and charts, In Search is written with plenty of informed opinion. I like opinion and even attitude from a wine writer, but only when the writer actually possesses a vast well of knowledge. There are plenty of opinionated wine writers out there whose knowledge suffers from, shall we say, de paucité. When Mr. Lewin, who is an M.W., contends something, it has the ring of truth.

There is an irony at the heart of his book, or maybe an inherent contradiction is the better way to put it. This is not Mr. Lewin’s fault. Rather, it is due to his honesty and perceptiveness that it found its way into the book in the first place. One could suggest that the first duty of a wine book on Burgundy is to celebrate the terroirs of the Côte d’Or, and generations of writers have risen to the occasion, repeating truths they heard from others. This, Mr. Lewin reverentially does, in his discussions of Chambertin, La Tâche and the rest. But he does something else that is rare and refreshing: he raises the question (which he is candid enough to imply has no final answer), Are the historic variations between these wines due to actual terroir, or are they due to differences in the human approach to growing grapes and making wine (including, significantly, ripeness levels, stem inclusion in the fermentation and the amount of new oak)? For, make no mistake, if it is the latter, then not only is our historic understanding of the various vineyards of Grand and Premier Burgundy build on sand, but so is the entire notion of terroir, which as we all know has been appropriated from France to California, especially when it comes to Pinot Noir.

I love that Mr. Lewin testifies to the difficulty of cracking this issue. On the one hand, he can’t quite bring himself to say that “The concept of terroir is B.S.” That would be a bridge too far; besides, he evidently doesn’t believe it. But, having studied his subject matter long and hard, he knows that every theory of Burgundy is shattered by experiences of individual bottles that are the exception to the rule. Read this book, and the take home lesson is that the notion of terroir in Burgundy–specifically, of hard and firm vineyard characteristics–might be true from a bird’s eye view, 500 feet in the air. But get down into the tall grass, and it begins to fall apart, when the wines of two different proprietors, made from grapes grown right next to each other, are so different. Nor is Mr. Lewin enough of an apologist for terroir to claim to find a common thread running through these wines. He might say there seems to be one, but he might also say there doesn’t. Good for him.

What this means for the theory of Pinot Noir terroir we’ve created in California over the last 30 years is that it’s nowhere near as simple as it seems, or as producers of highly coveted wines want you to believe. One of the most frustrating and troubling experiences of my career has come when I’ve tasted with producers who claim that there are vast, solid and obvious differences between single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, when I myself cannot perceive them. Of course, when you’re with a highly regarded Pinot Noir winemaker who tells you how different (say) Cargasacchi Vineyard is from Mount Carmel, you tend to believe him, and you tend to look for the differences he is describing. It isn’t surprising when and if, therefore, you actually find those differences.

What’s scary is when you taste these wines objectively and do not find differences. Then you’re forced to come to one of only two possible conclusions: either you’re a bad taster–and who wants to admit that?–or the person who told you about those vast, obvious differences between vineyards was himself mistaken. Or, if “mistaken” is too prejudicial a word, then he was seeing things that don’t exist because he wanted to. I suppose there’s a third possibility, now that I think of it. It may be that a winemaker who consistently tastes the wines of various vineyards, year in and year out, blind and not blind, as part of his job really will learn to detect the subtle distinctions between them that the majority of us, no matter how gifted, cannot. This shouldn’t be surprising, any more than if your neighbor down the street had identical twins, and you were unable to tell Peter and Paul apart, at least during their childhoods. “What? You can’t see that Pete is totally different from Paul?” dad might ask. “Actually, no, I can’t,” you want to reply. “They both seem the same to me.” (But you don’t want to be rude).

Once again we bump up against the principle of uncertainty, by which what we perceive is relative to how we examine the data. This isn’t to say that there are not ironclad differences between, say, Wllliams Selyem’s Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir and their Estate Pinot Noir. There may well be, because although these two properties are quite close to one another on Westside Road, they are obviously different places. And Bob Cabral, who must live as intimately with these wines as he does with his own family, may well learn to be particularly sensitive to their differences. But that doesn’t mean he would be as sensitive to the differences between Cargasacchi and Mount Carmel, since he does not routinely taste their wines. So do the differences between them, as expressed by those who know them best, actually exist? Probably yes. But do they matter to the rest of us? Probably no.

What the critic looks for–even if he cannot consistently detect the characteristics that various vineyards are said to exhibit–is the quality of the individual wine in the bottle. There may well be an underlying, everlasting quality to any wine from the Cargasacchi Vineyard. Peter Cargasacchi, an eloquent man and superb grapegrower, no doubt could express it convincingly. But one would be hard pressed to taste Cargasacchi bottlings from Siduri, Dragonette, Cargassachi itself, Ken Brown, Brewer Clifton and Loring side by side and come up with a pronouncement that holds true across all of them and across all time, unless it’s something so bland–like “all the wines are deeply concentrated”–that it could apply to most good Pinot Noir vineyards. I could, I suppose, comb through years of notes for every Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted and see if there are words or concepts that apply to all of  them. I should then, however, have to comb through reviews of all other Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted, to see if those same words or concepts popped up with the same frequency, before I could honestly write that the Cargassachi Vineyard alone is marked by those qualities. (For example, minerality, or crushed Indian spices, or firm tannins.) But I don’t know if we’ll ever have, in California, an example where one Pinot Noir is described as consistently feminine and another as consistently masculine. Too much depends on vintage variation, on age of vines, on clones and growing decisions, on ripeness, on maceration and fermentation techniques, on yeasts, on barrel type and length of aging and so on. In Burgundy, of course, they arrived at their famous conclusions centuries ago, and they may have been accurate then. The strength of Mr. Lewin’s book is that he shows how difficult it is now to hold onto those conclusions, much as even a diehard Burgundian may want to. And if it’s hard in Burgundy, it’s just about impossible in California.

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