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More California bashing in a beautiful new book

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I revert quite often to the theme of wine’s “authenticity” in this blog, not because the concept is all that meaningful to me—it isn’t, in the sense I’ll get to shortly—but because it’s become the go-to meme with which others place wine into value tiers, usually to the disparagement of California.

We’ll call them the Authenticists, that nouvelle school of wine critics who claim that, in order for wine to meet their criteria of “authenticity,” it must be

–       made in a foreign country, usually Europe

–       with decidedly little technology or intervention

–       in a place with a medieval heritage

–       produced from a family whose winemaking traditions extend far back into history

–       and who live modestly, even quaintly

–       and it doesn’t hurt for them to have charming characters: a curmedgeonly Patriarch, a wise old Matriarch, a revolutionary son

–       the wine itself must be modest in alcohol

–       from an individual, usually old vineyard

–       and satisfy the Authenticist’s version of “connectedness” to the land

The latest author to celebrate these values is Terry Theise, whose 2010 book, Reading Between the Wines, is out in paperback from University of California Press.

The book, rightfully, has been touted for the beauty of its writing, something Theise, who imports wines from Europe into this country, wanted to accomplish; his preface lauds the “lapidary style” of writing, which is “polished and cut to the point of transparency…that allows the object to shine through.”

As an admirer of good writing myself, I support this aim.  That a wine writer should take the time to actually focus on impeccable writing is, mirabile dictu, a stirring antidote to this age of 140-character Tweets and wine “writing” that is characterless to the point of morbidity. Theise writes the way I like to read: with muscularity and attitude, precision and color, passion and intelligence. He must have left his editors at UC Press (who were the same as mine) with precious little to do because he gave them perfect copy.

But I want to look past the evident elegance of Theise’s writing to examine what it is he is saying, which seems to me dipped from the old, tiresome well of Authenticism. The indirect slam on California comes through in statements like “I don’t like Hummer wines,” in wholesale indictments such as “You’re picking overripe grapes because you’re scared they won’t be ‘physiologically’ ripe. Your wine has far too much potential alcohol, so you add water to the grape must [and] add…Mega Purple,” to anecdotes about the “connectedness” of Mosel winegrowers to their land and tradition in a way that implies that California winegrowing families possess no such connections, to assertions that the village of Zeltingen is “somewhere,” populated by “people who embody it,” as opposed to—what?—Los Olivos? Boonville? Forestville? which presumably are “nowhere,” and whose populace is disembodied?

Theise visits the grave of an old Mosel friend. “I love that he lies in the slate, the soil where his Riesling grew.” People like his friend “were the people of this place in the world. It’s no accident that there are almost no international consultants, the ‘flying winemakers’ from here. The Mosel gives its vintners all the stimulus they need.”

We are to conclude inferentially that California vintners have no connection to their land (tell that to the Seghesios, whose ancestors rest in Alexander Valley soil). That they are arrivistes without roots, lacking concern for their neighbors, uninterested in anything save hype and profit, who hire outsiders to tell them what to do and have no sensibility of their own. Theise tells a story of Mosel families who got up early one Christmas morning to help a neighbor pick Eiswein. “Afterward they gathered…for soup and Christmas cookies. And when they left they were all singing out Merry Christmas…”. “I ask you!” he cries in wonder at such communal love; “…being a Mosel vintner signifies membership in a human culture much deeper than mere occupation.”

There it is again, the insinuation that California (and the entire New World?) runs on “mere occupation” while the ancient, ennobled peasant-vintners of the Mosel have a spiritual connection to their land and culture that lifts their wines into some rarified category of Authenticism. Do California winemakers not help their neighbors, when help is needed? Certainly they do. They may even sing Christmas carols at that time of year. I could cite tales…And I would bet that the amount of money raised for charities, especially for field workers, in Napa Valley dwarfs anything in the Mosel.

Theise is right to poke fun at “flying winemakers” and a mythical “Hubris Hill” $125 cult wine (no doubt a Napa Cabernet) produced by a hired-gun winemaker employed by a billionaire lifestyle-seeking ex-engineer or Wall Street mogul. Such people do litter California wine country, and Lord knows I poke fun at them all the time because they’re so easy to satirize.

But to throw the baby out with the bathwater—to imply that the state is inauthentic based on a handful of extremes—is unfair and ahistorical. I’ve struggled to understand California bashing for a long time, whether it’s our wines or our weather or our lifestyle (“San Francisco Democrats,” “brie-and-Chablis drinkers,” “fruits and nuts,” etc. etc. ad nauseum). I suspect it’s part envy, but I also try to see things from the perspective of the Authenticists. Look, last week I drank and loved an entire bottle of Melsheimer 2010 Reiler Mullay-Hofberg “Schaf” Riesling, from the Mosel. Low alcohol (7.5%), from a family who’s farmed their slope for five generations, over 200 years—a gorgeous, admirable wine, just the kind of “connected” vintners Theise loves.

But when I look at their picture on this website, I can easily see a bunch of Mondavis or Seghesios or Pedroncellis or Davies or Bundschus or Benzigers, or any of scores of California families whose love of their land and connection to their culture are no less profound than that of anyone in the Mosel. And I think: good writing or bad writing, Theise still is indulging in California bashing. It’s silly, it’s a trope too easily depended upon by writers, and it’s time to get over it.


Everything I know about tasting, I learned from Michael Broadbent

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Most of how I taste, I learned from Michael Broadbent. Not the man personally—from his little guidebook, “Michael Broadbent’s Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting,” whose 1982 edition, the fourth, I bought for $5.95.

That book brought me from a dilletantish approach to tasting, in which I simply poured the wine, tasted it and thought about it, to a more structured, one might say scientific approach.  Michael took the reader through the actual mechanics of swirling, sniffing and tasting, explaining what to look for, how to know what you were experiencing, what to expect from different wines, even how to write a proper note. I devoured that book, over and over, re-reading it time and again to ingest its wisdom. It remains, in my humble opinion, the best guide to wine tasting ever written.

I wonder how others came to learn how to taste. We call it “tasting,” but it’s so much more than that, really. First of all, on a perceptual level experiencing a wine involves all the senses, from the Pop! of pulling the cork to the feel of the wine on the palate. But there’s so much more to the wine experience than “mere” perception. There’s the intellect, which never stops thinking, and briefs us on other aspects of the wine: If we’re tasting blind (for instance) the intellect scrolls through its database and tries to determine if the wine might be a Cabernet Sauvignon, from Bordeaux, a new release or maybe one with some age on it.

There is also the esthetic sense that only humans seem to possess. (Do animals have an esthetic sense? Gus certainly appreciates certain things, like warmth, dryness, food and water, my lap, a belly rub, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call those “esthetic appreciations.”) Humans, however, have the capacity to be captivated by the artistic mastery of created things. We may stand before an El Greco in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (which I used to do when I was an art student) in absolute awe, mindful of how hard it is to create such complex beauty with nothing more than an arm and hand, paintbrush and paints. To think that human intelligence and taste, with all the education, practice and understanding that inform them, was capable of painting “View of Toledo” is part of appreciating it: that painting appeals to us on every level of being human. Same with wine.

But understanding wine needs more than an esthetic appreciation, for all its importance. It needs a structured understanding, and this can be achieved only by study and application. Which is exactly what Michael Broadbent gave me, thirty years ago: the practical tools to take what was essentially an inchoate experience and translate or elevate it into something that could be written about, described, repeated and remembered.

Every time I taste a wine, every wine I have ever experienced is in some mysterious way evoked in my memory. Not consciously, of course, because there have been too many, numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But in some alchemically subtle way, that wine I am now experiencing stands in relation to every other wine, finding its way into the pantheon and taking its place, in just the proper order, beside all the others. The population of memory-wines in my mind is a very orderly one, where the inhabitants behave properly, according to their place in the hierarchy.

It is for this reason, among others, that I remain comfortable with the 100-point system of scoring, which actually is a 21-point system in Wine Enthusiast’s way of doing things. When we were kids in grade school, our teachers used to make us “line up” by size place: smallest kids in front (usually, me), then medium sized kids, and finally the big guys in the rear. Each kid knew exactly where to take his place in the line, like atoms arranging themselves into molecules according to some greater force than themselves. Wine, in my mind, is like that. As soon as it enters the “schoolyard” of my head, it finds its way to its proper place in line, which in this case means its place in the 21-point system. Michael Broadbent himself did not subscribe to the 100-point system, but neither did he rail against it. “Points are awarded” to wines during tastings, he wrote, adding, “Maximum possible can be 7 points, more often 20, sometimes 100,” meaning that he was intellectually open to the validity of the 100-point system. Then Michael went on to ask all the right questions: “Are words necessary? On what sort of occasion? Great wine—for whom?”

Michael framed the conversation more articulately than anyone before him ever thought to. We are still asking the same questions today.


What I’m reading

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A few new books to recommend for summer reading before summer ends.

Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail From Genesis to the Modern Age [Joel Butler and Randall Heskett] is, as its title states, an encyclopedic narrative of the story of wine from its misty origins at the dawn of time. The authors trace wine’s appearance on the human scene from pre-Biblical days, basing their history on archeological and other physical evidence, and then turn to Biblical exegesis to explain the Noah story of the planting of the vine, followed by wine’s steady penetration of Jewish culture. Then they trace wine’s path through ancient Greek and Roman societies, and end with an amusing chapter: Seriously, What Wine Would Jesus Drink? [You’ll have to read it to find out.] It’s a good book, a little dry, but packed with scholarly information. Joel Butler is one of the first two Masters of Wine in the U.S., and an old friend of mine. Randall Heskett is a Ph.D biblical scholar and president of Boulder University. Read their book for a solid background on wine’s role as nurturer of the culture.

Pairing with the Masters: A Definitive Guide to Food & Wine [Ken Arnone and Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan]. I can hear you thinking, “Oh, no, not another wine and food cookbook!” Well, yes…and no. It’s laden with recipes that are more conventional than exciting (tandoori chicken, cheese ravioli, beef bourgignon); if your library resembles mine, you probably have a dozen cookbooks with the same recipes. But what makes Pairing fun and useful is its treatment of wine. The authors recommend one wine for each dish [moderately priced and relatively easy to find), but they devote considerable energy to explaining just why that particular wine works so well, so that if you can’t find it, you have enough information to substitute something similar. For example, they recommend a Cantravelli Taurasi Riserva for grilled lamb chops with mint emulsion. I might not have the time to look all over town for this Italian Aglianico, but reading that the chops want a wine that’s “full-bodied, dark fruit (blackberry), earthy, grilled meat flavor, gripping tannin, slightly rustic,” I might choose a dry, cool-climate California Syrah. Surely that wouldn’t lead to disaster?

The authors also do something I’ve never seen before: they pair each dish with several wines that didn’t work, and explain where things went south. With the lamb chops, Washington Merlot and California Chardonnay are no-no’s because they clashed in some way with the food. The Chardonnay, they write, worked well on several layers with the lamb, but ultimately “the dish and the wine end up canceling each other out.” That’s an interesting take on wine and food pairing. Ken Arnone, by the way, is a Certified Master Chef (whatever that is), while Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan is a Master of Wine.

I’ll mention also Doug Shafer’s new reflection on the story of Shafer Vineyards, A Vineyard in Napa. Some great personal histories here of his Dad, John Shafer, himself and the inimitable Elias Fernandez, everybody’s favorite winemaker (I gave him and Doug a chapter in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California). And, when I have a chance, I’ll try Amarone: The Making of an Italian Wine Phenomenon, just out from The Wine Appreciation Guild.

Never stop reading! (And I don’t mean tweets.)


Reviewing wine: subjectivity is part of the complexity

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I finally finished Allen Meadows’s The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosnes-Romanée. I took my time, as I do with things of great pleasure I don’t want to end.

I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not a Burgundy lover, or able to afford these wines (who is?), you’ll learn a lot. It’s not every book that has so many things in it that make you think. This one is rich in provocative statements, such as this one, right near the end. Allen is recounting a tasting of 1945 Romanée-Conti, the only wine he’s ever given 100 points to. He wonders, “Had I been transported to another emotional dimension because of something in me, in the wine, or a combination of the two?”

What is striking about this isn’t that Allen was transported “to another emotional dimension.” Anyone who loves wine has probably had that experience. It doesn’t occur often in one’s life; it may never occur, but when it does, you remember it. No, what hit me was that Allen allowed as to how “something in me” might have been responsible, or equally responsible, for whatever the experience of that wine did to him.

To me, the question–which Allen doesn’t directly answer, but I think his conclusion was that it really was “a combination of the two”--implies something I think we all know, but tend to overlook. Our experience of wine isn’t limited only to its hedonistic qualities, “hedonistic” in this case meaning the way it presents itself to the five senses. There is a sixth sense–call it esthetic, spiritual or emotional–we don’t understand well, because it’s not measurable, or even explainable, in common physiological terms. It is, in fact, the thing that makes up happy, that lifts our spirits, that makes us simply thankful it exists. Now, wine may be a feeble vehicle in which to arrive at such peak experiences. Other human beings, a painting or a poem, the sight of a puppy or kitten napping, hearing the speech of Dr. King may send us there far more frequently than a sip of wine. But when wine does it, it remains seared into the memory.

Writing this makes me think about the 100-point system, about rating wines, about blind tasting. The critics of all these things point out, with some justification, that in order to truly appreciate a wine, you must drink it in the full knowledge of what it is. That is the way Allen tasted the ‘45 Romanée-Conti and is in fact the way he tastes most of the wines he reviews. My own inclination, at this point in my career, is to taste wines blind, but still, I do wonder. Question: If you read the transcript of Dr. King’s I have a dream speech, would it have the same impact as hearing it? Put another way, do you think that if Allen had tasted the ‘45 Romanée-Conti blind, in a flight of old Burgundies, he would have given it the only 100 point score in his career? I don’t think so.

Allen–an intellectually honest man–recognizes that his experience with the ‘45 Romanée-Conti raises the question of consistency, which he calls “the greatest of all attributes for a critic.” Readers want to be reassured that a wine review from a trusted critic hews closely to, if it is not identical with, a second review of the same wine, by the same critic, written within a similar time period. It would serve the consumer poorly if, on one occasion, the critic gave the wine 84 points, and then on another occasion scored it 94 points. Readers would rightfully question that critic’s credentials.

But here’s another reflection Allen makes on that ‘45 Romanée-Conti. “Peak experiences require a certain moment in time, under just the right circumstances, with a certain knowledge, experience, and emotional state. Rarely can those circumstances be replicated.”

Think about that. Allen is basically saying that the wine tasting experience is not replicable! Granted, his proviso is for “peak experiences,” such as the ‘45 Romanée-Cont. But it’s not clear to me why those parameters should not apply to one’s experience of every wine, whether it’s a Napa cult Cabernet or Two Buck Chuck.

This is a conundrum I think about all the time: Since “just the right circumstances…and emotional state” are so variable over time, then why should we expect any consistency from wine critics? I suppose the answer is at once simple and complex, like most things. It’s simple, because if a wine is, say, horribly flawed, we would expect the critic to pan it regardless of how his own personal circumstance varies over time. Similarly, if a wine is absolutely fabulous (to that critic), then we should expect him to praise it every time, although it would be unreasonable for us to demand that he score it precisely the same. (I personally think a range of 4 points is perfectly acceptable for repeat tastings, given bottle variation and things of that sort.)

But then there are all the wines in the middle: neither horrible nor fabulous. That’s the neighborhood where most wines live. The truth is, they’re the hardest to score consistently, precisely because, as Allen says, no “moment in time” is ever quite the same as another. It’s these middle wines that can score the most inconsistently in repeated blind tastings. They have positive and negative qualities: and depending on where the taster is at that moment, the positive qualities may outweigh the negatives, or vice versa. That’s the subjective side of wine reviewing.

Does this irresolution make the reviewer’s job irrelevant or, worse, useless? I don’t think so. The one conclusion the reader should take away from every review is that, while the review may not have been carved in stone and handed down from the Deity to the critic, still, the reliable critic has tasted lots and lots of wines over time, and is in a better position than most people to make a pronouncement. In other words, the “truth” of a review is never absolute, but only relative. And that’s better than no truth at all.


Single vineyard wine: Is this our inheritance from the Druids?

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From Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosnes-Romanée, we can garner lessons in almost every paragraph. This from page 16:

Almost overnight [following the French Revolution], Burgundy went from a land where the idea of terroir was sacrosanct and implicit in the production of wine, to one where it was a secondary consideration as wine became a wholly commercial product.

What Allen means by “sacrosanct” is a vin de terroir, which long has signified, to the true wine lover, the highest aspiration of which wine is capable. I always understood that, but I never knew how this notion arose in the first place–and how many ancillary issues it raises.

Allen traces the notion of terroir to the Druidic “concept of animism,” according to which “all things, animate and inanimate, possess a spirit or soul.” Light, darkness, a grove of trees, an individual plant, an insect, they all were inhabited by a god or goddess, which made each thing alive and distinct from all other things, no matter how similar in appearance they might have been.

From this ancient belief, Allen continues, came the corrollary that “the wines of one vineyard were fundamentally different from those of its direct neighbor.” We accept this today; it lies at the heart of terroir, and particularly with noble wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, whose greatest expressions people are willing to pay high prices for. Carried to an extreme, as in Burgundy (Allen’s specialty), we have the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, whose six climats [seven, counting Montrachet] can be said to represent modern-day Druidism applied to wine, through the filter of terroir.

We know today that “all things, animate and inanimate” are not inhabited by gods or goddesses (don’t we?), but we still love the concept of terroir in vineyards. So from an untruth has come a truth. But it’s a relative truth, because no one can claim, with absolute certainty, that a vin de terroir is objectively better than the best blended wine (for example, the 2006 Cardinale, to which I gave 100 points). Yet most of us, pressed, would concede that a vin de terroir is the noblest expression of wine.

Why is this so? Is it the residue of ancient thinking that still survives, in some deep part of our reptilian brain? I would argue that the appeal of vins de terroir is based, not on sensory distinction, but on intellectual appreciation. There are not five senses (hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste), but six, the sixth being thought. It is in our brains, in our capacity to form esthetic judgments and in our intellectual faculties, that the appreciation of the finest wine exists, lending pleasure to sensory perceptions and lifting them, at the highest level, to divinity or making them, in Allen’s word, “sacrosanct” (which is why praise of such wines often sounds like a religious benediction).

This isn’t an argument for or against blind tasting, but it is to suggest that the appreciation of fine wine can best be accomplished with the knowledge of where it comes from. Whether or not the professional wine critic can perform his or her job better with or without that knowledge is something that reasonable people can disagree about.


Staying relevant: for wineries, it can be tricky

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W. Blake Gray wrote, on his blog, a pretty good book review on Loam Baby: A Wine Culture Journal’s inaugural edition, so I won’t, not just because Blake did but because I’d rather comment on some of the remarks that Greg Brewer made in the author’s (R.H. Drexel, a pseudonym) interview with him.

Greg is, of course, the winemaker at Brewer-Clifton, Diatom, and Melville (did I forget any?). He’s also emerging as a sort of mentor to a younger generation down in the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills (although Greg’s hardly elderly; I don’t think he’s hit 40). I always liked Greg because he was one of the people who welcomed me to Sta. Rita Hills years ago when I first visited, driving me all around and telling me who’s who and what’s what. Reporters depend on the kindness of strangers like Greg, who is no longer a stranger but a friend; I profiled him in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversation with Steve Heimoff, and I contact him from time to time with questions about wine, vintages and other things.

Greg has a reputation as an intensely thoughtful guy, a philosopher. He will go all esoteric on you, if you want, but won’t if you don’t. (I also dig his tattoos.) Anyhow, this R.H. Drexel (whoever he is) asked Greg a great question: “How do you stay relevant?”

The issue of staying relevant if you’re a winery or a winemaker obsesses me. The main place I look for clues is Napa Valley,  because of all the wine regions in California, it’s (a) the hardest place to achieve relevance and (b) the hardest place to stay relevant.

This past February I wrote an article in Wine Enthusiast called “The Class of ‘72.” It was about the wineries who began life in 1972. They’ve had a tumultuous ride and not all of them have ended up for the better, sad to say. Some are stronger than ever (Diamond Creek, Caymus, Montelena) while others have languished. There’s no better illustration of “staying relevant” than to look at the Class of ‘72 and see that while some have, others haven’t.

Getting relevant in the first place if you’re in Napa Valley is difficult for multiple reasons. First off, competition is fierce. Does the world really need another $80 or $100 Cabernet Sauvignon (which is probably what you’re going to do if you have a Napa Valley winery)? The economy suggests that, no, it doesn’t. Wineries try to achieve relevance in all sorts of ways, from sending samples to people like me (to get a high score) to not sending samples to people like me (to foster the illusion of exclusivity) to hiring Famous Name growers and winemakers for bragging rights. (It also helps to get an important somm in your corner.) Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I never feel sorry for new Napa wineries that don’t really make it, because I figure that their owners are rich, and knew what they were getting into, although I’ve been around long enough to know that’s not always the case. Some of them may be rich, but they’re dumb as doorknobs when it comes to selling wine. Either way, I don’t feel sorry for them.

Even if you get relevant it’s hard to remain at the top. I’ll mention two names. Take Chappellet and Trefethen. Both are old wineries (by Napa Valley standards). Both make magnificent wine. Both are intensely relevant to me and to all serious writers. But I wonder if the collectors and showoffs, especially in China, who just want the latest new kid on the block could even be bothered to try Chappellet or Trefethen. That’s a mistake, of course, a big one. Their wines are better than ever. Winemakers learn from their experiences. They seldom make the same mistakes over and over again (well, some do, but not at the level of a Chappellet or Trefethen), and they learn new tricks to make their wines better.

I have no idea how Chappellet and Trefethen stay relevant, or if their owners even try to or care about it. Maybe they’re doing just fine; I hope so. But I’ve seen wineries that were stars for years before their ascent slowed and then they began the long, inevitable descent back to Earth. They couldn’t figure out how to stay relevant and so they didn’t.

In his interview Greg Brewer said he hopes to stay relevant by mentoring a new generation of talented young winemakers. If I were a 21-year old budding winemaker (oh, that would be nice!) I’d certainly hope that Greg would take me under his wing. But I also assume that Greg’s hardly ready to call it quits and just “mentor.” He and his wineries will stay relevant for just as long as he wishes to continue working. After that (and let’s hope it won’t be for many decades), his wineries will reach a turning point: all wineries do when their veteran winemaker dies, moves on or retires.


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