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Great Wine Books: “The Romance of Wine”

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I blogged the other day about “California’s Great Cabernets,” Jim Laube’s book that had an influence on me. Another book with a far more lasting impact is “The Romance of Wine,” which H. Warner Allen published in 1932.

Herbert Warner Allen (1881-1968) was an English dandy and polymath, the son of a Royal Navy Captain and grandson of an Oxford don; Allen himself attended Oxford, where he specialized in modern languages. His passions (there were many) included journalism, Greek and Roman literature, detective books (which he also wrote) and, of course, wine. Of his multiple wine books, “The Romance of Wine” is considered his masterpiece. I put it beside George Saintsbury’s “Notes on a Cellar-Book” (1920) as one of the important wine books in the English language of the early 20th century, and it’s noteworthy that Allen and Saintsbury were friends.

H. Warner Allen, a good-looking man

Allen wrote in a style which has completely disappeared from our language: Victorian, floral, perfervid, allegorical and verbose. His greatest fondness was for pre-phylloxera Bordeaux, the older the better. Of an 1869 Latour he drank when it was 50-something years old, he wrote, “The palate recognized a heroic wine, such a drink as might refresh the warring archangels, and the perfection of its beauty called up the noble phrase ‘terrible as an army with banners.’ The full organ swell of a triumphal march might express its appeal in terms of music.”

You don’t get that kind of literary overdrive anymore!

Allen’s penchant for the Classics resulted in frequent insertions of Greek and Roman quotes (without translation), as well as poetic references. Concerning the joys of old Port, he wrote, “There are many wine-lovers who prefer the vigour and splendour of a younger wine to the more subdued and complex charms which make its old age as radiant and peaceful as that of old Cephalos in the Republic”; readers not familiar with Plato will not know that the Master asked Cephalos, already at that time a very old, wealthy man, for his definition of “justice,” which he offered as “giving what is owed.” But even if most of the Classic references go over one’s head, the language is haunting and lovely; we may not be familiar with old Cephalos, but knowing that he is “radiant and peaceful” in his dotage tells us something vital about what Saintsbury called “centennial Port.”

What can the contemporary wine writer learn from H. Warner Allen? That writing can be a vast labyrinth of meaning and beauty. It’s one thing to write, as Anthony Galloni recently did, “The 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Leopoldina Vineyard is powerful and heady, with all of the intensity that is typical of this site on the eastern hills of Oakville. Dark, savory and powerful, the 2017 has so much to offer. The balance of intense dark fruit and muscular tannins makes for an absolutely compelling Cabernet.” Workaday enough; I might have written it myself for Wine Enthusiast. Contrast it with Allen, once again writing of that 1869 Latour:

“The tapestry-like purples…contained that sheen of molten gold which only comes after many years of secret ripening in the still darkness of the cellar. The French call it ‘pelure d’oignon’…which recalls the homely simile in the Nineteenth Odyssey when Odysseus’s purple tunic that glistened like the sun is compared to the sheen upon the skin of a dried onion.”

Or this, concerning an 1871 Margaux: “Its magic bouquet envelopes the senses in a cloud of airy fragrance, raspberry-scented like the breezes from the Islands of the Blest, a dream of grace and delicacy, the twinkling feet of dancing nymphs, suddenly set free in our tedious world.”

Well, you won’t read that sort of thing in Wine Enthusiast, or Wine Spectator, of the Wine Advocate, or anyplace else anymore. H. Warner Allen’s Victorian, donnish world was already over when he wrote “The Romance of Wine,” although he perhaps did not know it. History was rushing on; ordinary people no longer studied the Classics, and modern publishers demanded simpler, more easily-digestible fare for their impatient readers. But for me, “The Romance of Wine” had an indelible impact, reminding me that wine writing once was the garden in which esthetes cavorted with delight in the English language.


Classifying Cabernet? I don’t think so

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The University of California at Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology asked me to donate my wine books and paraphernalia to them for permanent display, which I’m honored to do. As part of it, they want me to identify the books that were most important to me.

One of them was certainly California’s Great Cabernets, the 1989 tome by Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube, my former colleague. It was, and remains, “a landmark book,” as Marvin Shanken described it in his Foreward. I devoured every word, as I suspect a lot of other Baby Boomer wine fans did, back in the day when California wine, and Cab in particular, was dramatically increasing in importance.

There is, however, one aspect of California’s Great Cabernets that has not aged well. Jim decided to classify the Cabs into five categories: First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths. He justified this for two reasons: “I hope to put the top California Cabernets…in historical perspective.” And “I have tried to sort out for consumers the quality of the wines and how they rank.” Jim himself conceded that such an effort is controversial and is “resisted” by “most California vintners.” While modeling his 5-tier system after the 1855 Classification of the Medoc, Jim admitted that the Bordeaux classification is “outdated,” and he predicted, accurately, that no classification “will ever be undertaken by the California wine industry.” Still, despite these provisos, he went ahead and classified anyway.

Jim wasn’t the only writer of the era to attempt a classification. Seven years previously, Roy Andries De Groot wrote The Wines of California, which he subtitled “The first classification of the best vineyards and wineries.” Roy opted for a four-tiered system, using not numbers but adjectives: “FINE, NOBLE, SUPERB and GREAT.”

I loved both books, but even at the time, I had an uneasy feeling. The Bordeaux 1855 Classification had centuries of data upon which to depend, and was moreover fixed by law. California Cabernet, in the 1980s, had barely a few decades of serious production, and was in a state of constant evolution; my old friend Rob Thompson said keeping track of California wineries was like trying to count “rabbits in a hutch.” Many of today’s superstars (Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Bryant Family, Colgin and so on) didn’t even exist at the time, while others that Laube and De Groot praised have faded away completely, or been downgraded by new owners.

Still, as historical curiosities, both books have their place. Speaking of Cabernet Sauvignon, I opened this bottle recently, and here’s my review:

Stags’ Leap 2013 “The Leap” Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap).  Tasting this wine reminded me of those 19th century clarets I’ve read about that remained stubbornly tannic for decades. It was wicked of me to pop the cork when the wine is only eight years old; I should have known better. That’s awfully young for a Cabernet, particularly from Stags Leap, where the tannins tend to be hard in youth. But open it I did, and what I found was a flood of fruit. Massive, gigantic in black currants, blackberry jam, mu shu plum sauce and raspberries, with subtle nuances of espresso, dark chocolate and spices. Dry and smooth, just a splendid wine, but I’m kicking myself for committing vinous infanticide. It’s nowhere near ready. Will the fruit outlive the tannins by, say, 2030? Will it be alive in 2040? Who knows? I won’t be here. Score: 93.


Say goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing

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Robert Gorman, in his 1975 book California Premium Wines, identified “three Englishmen—Harry Waugh, Hugh Johnson and Kathleen Bourke”—as the first “to write on California wine with any depth and sense of perspective.” This was not so much a slam on our native writers of the 1960s and 1970s, who could not have had the perspective of their much more experienced literary cousins across the pond; but it was a lament that came home to roost not ten years later, by which time American (which is to say, Californian) wine writing had descended into gobbledegook.

I was, on re-reading Gorman the other day (I’ve owned the book for decades), unfamiliar with Kathleen Bourke. It took a Google adventure to understand why: she’d been editor of the British publication Wine Magazine, the progenitor of Decanter, in the 1950s, and had given Michael Broadbent an early start in his wine-writing career. Of course, the magazine was unavailable in the States in those pre-Internet days, and so Kathleen Bourke was terra incognita for me.

Not so Harry Waugh and Hugh Johnson. Waugh wrote his inimitable wine diaries throughout the 1960s and 1970s and in his spare, leanly elegant and self-deprecating prose introduced a generation of Americans to French wine and a generation of Britishers to California wine. Hugh Johnson, of course, rose to stardom through his many books and articles, particularly his magnificent Vintage: The Story of Wine (1989); my dog-eared copy testifies to my eager devouring of every literate, lovingly crafted word, inspired no doubt by Macaulay.

In America, though, the ground broken by Bourke, Johnson and Waugh lay largely fallow, as our wine writers chose a path of greater expediency and commercialism. There was an explosion of wine books in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, but few made for good reading. They might have gotten their facts straight, but 35,000 words of facts makes for dull reading. There were exceptions: Bob Thompson’s 1993 Wine Atlas of California owed everything to Hugh Johnson in terms of style and even the book’s design (no wonder: they both shared the same publisher). Matt Kramer made quite a few ripples with his books (which were much admired in Europe) but, again, while accuracy might have been his forte, readability was not.

The main reason American wine writing fell into such doldrums was because of the wine magazines. They were frankly advertising vehicles. Writers, who were paid poorly, accepted their bleak compensation with grimness, and enjoyed the non-monetary aspects of the lifestyle their jobs provided. The less said about the quality of the average wine magazine article of the 1990s, the better—and I include myself in this indictment. Prose became captive to word count (itself enslaved to advertising), as well as to the whimsy of publishers who did not want unkind things said about potential clients; and there was, also, a pedantic “magazine style” that crushed creativity. Then, too, the advent of periodicals like People magazine (along with music videos on MTV) meant that the typical American had the attention span of a hamster. Wine magazines, no less than those in other areas of the culture, gave readers brevity, with its accompanying clichés and irritating reductionism.

I at least tried to overcome all this with the publication of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River (University of California Press, 2005). It was not a commercial success, but it was an artistic one and I enjoy reading it today. Despite the magazines, there might have been, in the 2000s, a burgeoning interest among writers to aspire to Johnson-hood and Waugh-hood, but if there was, the infant was strangled in its cradle by the rise of the wine blogs. No longer was there even the appearance of writerly quality. Any yahoo could blog, for free, with the resulting democratization of vulgarity—not in the sense of obscenity, but in its Latin root-origin of unrefined crudeness. In my blog, I tried to write wittily, and think I succeeded, but I, too, succumbed all too often to the snarkiness to which bloggers remain subject.

Is there a body of American wine writing today we can admire? I have enjoyed the books of Jordan Mackay and of Benjamin Lewin, MW (another Johnson-phile), but while his dust jackets say “he divides his time between the eastern United States and the wine regions of Europe,” he is essentially British, which explains his unique literacy. There may be others of whom I am unaware. But then, I don’t pretend to keep up with wine books anymore. The Golden Age of wine writing, it seems to me, is past.


Politics, or the inner life?

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Possibly because I’m a Gemini (not that I’m a big believer in astrology), I’ve always had a strongly dualistic mind. Half of me inclines toward metaphysical, mystical explanations of the world, but then the other half is strictly rational, which makes me a firm believer in science as well as in politics.

This schism is reflected in my daily interests. As readers of this blog know, my political instincts are strong and unwavering. I believe that politics is the best way for humankind to learn to live with each other and work out our differences, while avoiding bloodshed, especially in a multi-everything country like ours. I admire the rationality of politics: the objectivity of voting, of facts, of winning and losing, and of the laws which politics seeks to preserve and perfect. My aversion to Trumpism is based on my profound belief that it represents everything amoral, hostile and dangerous to the kind of country I want to live in. Trumpism, which is the current expression of the Republican Party, is an enemy worth fighting.

At the same time, I’ve always had a renunciate side of me—a kind of Hindu hermitism that seeks realization, not in the grimy, grinding politics of this world, but in the inner mind. This is why I took LSD in the 1960s and sought God; this is why I dropped out of society (in Timothy Leary’s phrase) to join a spiritual commune in the 1970s. This is why in the 1990s I devoted considerable time to the study of Kabbala with a Chasidic Jewish teacher. And this is why the most recent books I’ve read have been Carlos Castaneda’s “A Separate Reality” and Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.”

Although the background and setting of the two books couldn’t be more different, both tread the same metaphysical ground. Castaneda’s book deals with the Yaqui Indian culture of Mexico in the 1960s, while Yogananda’s details his upbringing in India in the early 20th century. And yet both men were nearly identical in this respect: they sought God (by whatever name), and they realized that non-participation in (or non-pollution by) the greater materialist society was essential to further their search. Castaneda headed for the Central Mexican mountain wilderness to find his guides, while Yogananda went to the Himalayas in search of his guru.

It’s weird having these two opposed points of view vying with one another in my head! Politics plunges me into the world of strife, turmoil and struggle. Mysticism removes me from that world (or tries to), letting me explore the wide open expanses of heart and mind. But are these two concepts really inimical, or do they somehow complement one another?

Politics is indeed difficult. When you win (Obama in 2008 and 2012, the midterm elections in 2018, Biden in 2020), you’re ecstatic. When you lose (the midterm elections in 2010, Trump in 2016, Merrick Garland in 2017), you’re plunged into anger and despair. Well do I know of the philosophical tradition that says winning and losing are all the same: both manifestations of Maya, of illusion—worldly grasping which the true seeker must renounce upon recognizing their illusory nature.

Well and good, but there’s an element of the ostrich sticking its head into the sand about renunciation. The poor ostrich may believe that because it cannot see the tiger rushing towards it, the tiger is not really there. But the tiger really is there, toothed and clawed. I know many people here in Oakland—a city of a fantastic diversity of religious and spiritual approaches—who loathe politics, who are serious about meditating and following their divinities (whomever they happen to be), and who think that by taking political sides (Democratic, Republican, Socialist, Green, whatever), one merely aids and abets the confusion and rancor of this world. They’re right, to a degree; but America has profound problems (poverty, social inequality, racism, sexism, global warming, homophobia, religious extremism, and all the rest of the gloomy Almanack de Gotha), and crawling off to some cave somewhere and sitting in full lotus hardly can be the cure for these problems. Or so it seems to me.

Politics is war, to be sure, a nasty business, and politicians aren’t necessarily the kind, loving persons they want us to think they are. But we’re going to be led by political leaders whether we like it or not, whether we vote or not: someone is going to be Mayor, or City Councilman, or Congressman or Senator or President, and that “someone” is going to have control over our lives and over the lives of our loved ones. Don’t we have a personal responsibility to make sure that the decision-makers are making the right decisions? My beloved friend Philip, who adorned my body with his tattoo art, absolutely scorns political involvement, including voting, as evil: he would rather go to Tibet, or Burning Man, or to a drumming ritual in the Redwoods. But as I always tell him, nearly every aspect of his life–indeed, his life itself–is determined by laws and rules made by politicians and bureaucrats: his tattoo license, the roads upon which he drives, the safety of his car, the cleanliness of the air he and his son breathe, the ability of his gay friends to marry, his freedom from having alien religions imposed upon him or of having his own (slightly Wiccan) religion discriminated against, the purity of the food he eats, the existence of a police force to protect his storefront during riots—all of these things are political in nature. Philip acknowledges these truths, but he nonetheless sticks to his loathing of politics. We agree to disagree.

For myself, I will never stop seeking the “inner truth,” but I do so not as an alternative to political involvement, but as a balance to it. The inner life, for me, is like a refreshing bath in a cool pool of crystalline water, after the heated bloodletting of political battle. The words of Carlos Castaneda (and his spiritual teacher, Don Juan) and the words of Yogananda reveal to me vistas of peace and spiritual potential that are as important as the air I breathe and the food I eat to live. I want, need and believe both in politics as a worthy struggle for man, and in mystical contemplation as the proper field of inquiry for the human mind.


On Islamic wars, useful idiots and Republicans

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“I firmly believe that California is a lot redder than most people think,” said a woman in a MAGA hat at a Trump rally in the state capital, Sacramento. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, an MSNBC reporter said that after talking with dozens of locals, she was convinced that “most people here support Trump, and they’re glad he visited” their riot-torn city.

News junkies like me keep our fingers to the wind trying to discern pattern changes. And I have to say, the riots of the last several months seem to be having the effect of driving more and more people into the Trump camp.

Trump is doing a good job exploiting the riots. He’s become what George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were before him: a law-and-order Republican. Americans are rightfully concerned to see entire cities fall into the chaos of anarchy and looting. Regardless of their views on race relations—and most Americans, I would hope, want to see equity and fairness—they’re scared by what they see happening in Kenosha, Portland, Oakland, Louisville.

When I was out walking the other day, I passed two Black men who were sitting on their front porch having a conversation which I couldn’t help but overhear snatches of. “People are afraid of change,” one said to the other. I thought about that. What does being “afraid of change” mean? I can’t answer that without more information. What specific changes are people supposed to be afraid of? Speaking solely for myself, I’m not afraid of change, per se. What I am afraid of is having my city and my neighborhood plunge into a welter of criminality and dysfunction. I am afraid of homeless camps down the block from me, whose inhabitants roam the streets at night, overturning recycling and garbage bins to see what they can find, breaking into cars, jimmying the lock on my building’s front door and ransacking the mailboxes, stealing UPS and FedEX packages. All these things happen all the time; there’s nothing we can do about it; the police don’t care and won’t come even if you are able to get through to them. It doesn’t take a fan of dystopian movies like Mad Max to play this thing out into the future and see a city devolve to the point of collapse.

So, if there’s a group in America I hate more than any other, it’s the violent BLM protesters. They’re not only needlessly, pointlessly wrecking American cities, they’re doing their utmost to re-elect the felon Trump, a second term of which will plunge the nation and the entire world ever closer to catastrophe.

I’m reading an interesting book now, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, a 1,368-page history of the wars ranging across Islamic Africa, Israel and Palestine, the Arabian Peninsula, and north and east into Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. The book is a comprehensive account of how the European colonial powers originally stole those lands from the natives, and how the natives revolted, first as nationalists and, later, as Islamicists. The stories are replete with the savagery, butchery and treachery that typify these wars, civil wars and insurrections, with both sides convinced that God favors them. When you think God is on your side, you can do anything, commit any atrocity, trample on any freedom and crush any opponent, however gruesomely you want, because God is all-powerful and will forgive you.

That’s how I see Republicans. It’s not a coincidence that most of their flags, posters, bumper stickers and T-shirts feature the word “Christian” prominently. Their political platform is, essentially, the same as the old European colonizers who plundered the Middle East, Africa, East Asia and the American continent. “Gold, glory and the gospel,” it used to be said of their reasons for their long, dangerous expeditions across the open seas from their homelands of Britain, Spain, Holland, Portugal, France. They wanted gold for their King’s treasury, they craved the glory that came from conquering, and of course they were told it was their earthly duty to spread the word of God and Jesus Christ to pagans.

Their modern-day spawn are the Republicans, with one difference: they’re no longer in search of “gold,” at least, not more than any Democrat. In place of “gold” we might substitute Donald Trump and the Trump family, the psychological equivalent of gold’s wealth and security. But like their ancient forebears, they seek the “glory” of overturning the existing order (“the Deep State”), and of spreading their particular gospel, in the form of evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity. In both cases—the 16th-century plunderers and the 21st century Trumpers—they see themselves as an Army of God, trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, glory, glory halleleujah!

The author of The Great War for Civilization, the journalist Robert Fisk, reports on a conversation he had in 1992 with an Algerian Muslim prelate, Hassan Turabi, who told him of a chat he, Turabi, had had with one of the Islamic leaders of Algeria. “I asked him, What’s your programme like? What are you going to do after the elections?…And he just said, ‘No, no, we just want to win the elections.’”

No program. No plans. Just the acquisition and maintenance of power: that is the way of all authoritarian regimes. And that is the way of the Party of Trump. No plan or program concerning climate change, income inequality, healthcare. No vision for restoring the belief of the American people in a fair and effective government. No plan for immigration, beyond insane walls and detention chambers. No plan for restoring America’s credibility around the world. No plan for how Americans of all races, religions, ethnicities and sexual orientations can live together, in peace and harmony. Their only plan: to win the elections and push their far-right, radically evangelical agenda.

I began this post with my concern that America might be redder than anyone thinks. I end on the same note. The violence in the cities is doing exactly what Trump wants it to—and anyone who supports the violence is, at best, a useful idiot, and at worst, a collaborator.


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