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Old critics never die, they just retire to Cloudy Lees

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Dec. 18, 2039 – It’s a pleasant day here at the Cloudy Lees Home for Retired Wine Writers, or, as one of my less reverent pals (Jim Gordon, actually) dubs it, The Last Bastion of the Over the Hill Gang.

As far as senior citizen communities go, it’s not bad. We have morning swirling sessions to keep our wrists limber, and every Thursday afternoon there’s a distance-spitting contest that Wilfred Wong always wins, damn him. Then, at night, we gather around the electric heater to reminisce. Dan Berger tends to tell the same story every time, about when he tasted 2,000 Merlots in a single afternoon at the Riverside International Wine Competition, but then, he’s the oldest, so we cut him some slack.

Karen MacNeil just waddled by and said to say “Hi” to you all. She’s still her well-tailored self, although the red hair is now snowy white. She cackles more than she used to, although nobody knows quite why. We celebrated her 80th birthday the other day with a cake the kitchen made in the image of The Wine Bible. It was, needless to say, very rich and heavy.

Of course, not everybody is in good shape. You can’t expect that at this age! Poor Jim Laube, we almost never see him, except when Helen Turley drops by. Then Jim emerges from his penthouse suite—the most expensive in the place—on his walker, accompanied by Jancis Robinson. She’s a little dotty, and under the impression people still read the Purple Pages. But she’s awfully perky in that candy striper’s outfit. I never did find out how Jim and Jancis hooked up. Memo to self: Ask Jo Diaz. She knows everything.

One of my favorite times is when the volunteers visit to amuse us. Joe Roberts comes on Sunday afternoons (that is, if he’s not on some junket) for his weekly Wine Quiz. Now that he’s become a mime, he’ll describe a wine non-verbally, like in charades, and we’re supposed to guess what it is. He’s hysterical with words like “bubbly” and “tart” but really outdid himself with a Naked Chardonnay.

Then there’s Eric Asimov. Sadly, since his stroke, he thinks he’s Mimi Sheraton. He writes a daily column in our newsletter on the dining room. For example, yesterday he said the scrambled eggs “lacked clarity,” although he did like the cream of wheat for its “balanced hedonism.” Don’t get him started on the chicken a la king.

Every retirement community has a curmudgeon, of course, and you just know that here, it’s Paul Gregutt. He’s always muttering under his breath, scowling and fuming like Clint Eastwood about to shoot someone, but underneath all that, Paul’s a teddy bear. He leads us on our Wednesday night singalongs, playing old rock standards on the guitar. And if you ever need a doobie, Paul’s room is #203. (I didn’t tell you that!)

Jordan Mackay moved in last week. I think he’s the youngest resident. It’s nice to have new blood in the hood. All the old ladies lust after Jordan. It’s a little unseemly, if you ask me, to see Meredith May asking him every 5 minutes if he’d like “a little something from the pantry,” which I take to be a metaphor. But I have to admit, Jordan’s a cutie, even with the lobotomy scar.

Our Dean, if you will, is Pierce Carson. He’s been here since longer than anyone can remember. They say at first he was his usual funny self, cracking wry jokes and pinching the nurses’ tushes. But lately, he’s been kind of quiet. Every morning, the attendants wheel him over by the fern in the rec room, where he stays pretty much alone except for Gary Vaynerchuk, who replays episodes of “Wine Library T.V.” all day, which nobody else wants to watch.

The classiest retired critic in Cloudy Lees is Roger Voss. With his tweed sport jacket and elbow patches, not to mention that British accent, he’s our own royalty. Roger likes to preside over the Port service, where he insists the decanter be passed counter-clockwise, and gets quite cross if it’s not. He almost came to blows once with Matt Kramer. Matt, who unfortunately has bladder problems, said the counter-clockwise thing was “a myth” and tried to pass the Port clockwise. It was tense for a while, but Ron Washam told a few jokes and the next thing you know, everyone fell asleep, so all ended well.


Seeing the funny side of wine reviewing

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It’s been nearly 4 years since I posted this gag video on my blog. I remember some of my friends telling me, “You can’t do that!” They thought it was demeaning for a professional wine critic to poke fun of himself and of the whole system of wine reviewing. However, I thought then, and still do, that we shouldn’t take much of anything in this world too seriously. If you can’t see the lighter side of things, then you’re wearing blinders.

The truth is, if I didn’t take wine tasting as seriously as I do, I couldn’t have made this video. Every time I issue a score, I completely understand it’s impacting somebody’s life. If it’s a good score, the winemaker will be happy and use it to sell cases. If it’s a bad score, it can hurt the winemaker economically. That’s the main reason to take the job seriously.

Another is because people read my reviews and believe them. I have therefore a responsibility to the public for my reviews to be as honest, accurate and transparent as they can be. There’s a bond of trust between a wine critic and his or her readers–a bond that must never be disrespected or violated.

I’m sure I could list other reasons for taking my job seriously, but the rationale of this post is to point out the lighthearted side of what I do. Wine reviewing is probably the easiest thing in the whole world to make fun of. It’s pretentious (or so the criticism says). It’s snobby. It uses elitist words to baffle people and make them feel stupid. It’s fundamentally anti-democratic in that it divides the world into a few “experts” and a lot of ignoramuses. And worst of all, say the critics, wine criticism is fundamentally flawed. It takes what is essentially one person’s opinion and elevates it, in an irrational and fundamentally dishonest way, above everyone else’s opinions, so that it achieves the quasi-religious status of revealed truth.

From a certain point of view, all of these critiques have some validity. Especially in a nation like America, where we like to believe that we’re all equal (whether it’s true or not), wine criticism can come across as the worst form of royalist baloney. And for someone like me, who sincerely believes in the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, it is a little odd to find myself in the position of being “an authority.” It has never sat well with me and has always made me uneasy, but I’ve consoled myself with the thought (or maybe it’s a rationalization) that my self-doubt justifies the whole thing, or at least helps me keep things in perspective. I always liked Harry S. Truman, who on many occasions said that the only way he could think of himself as President without going off on some massive ego trip was to remember that he’d been a failed haberdasher. It was a constant reminder that he was no one special, just a guy with a job to do, who took that job seriously.

All this is by way of explaining why I made the video. (Actually, I should tell you that I made the video at the height of the Gary Vaynerchuk craze, and this was plainly satirical given his over the top video mannerisms.) There is a tendency in this country for people to elevate wine critics, especially the more famous ones, to godlike status, as if they can make no mistakes, as if everything they say came straight from the source. That is dangerous, and it seems to me that these same wine critics do little or nothing to dissuade people from lionizing them. I do believe that my wine reviews are authoritative, if for no other reason than that I’ve gotten good at this over the years. I do take reviewing very seriously. I take it humbly, too. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see the silly side.


Heimoff buys Hugh Johnson’s English cottage

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Yes, it’s true. I’ve admired Hugh Johnson‘s country shack for years, ever since he invited me to stay there while attending Prince Andrew’s and Fergie’s wedding, back in 1986. Hugh and I go way back, to when we joint published Vintage: The Story of Wine. So when he decided to put Saling Hall up for sale, for the ridiculously giveaway price of only 2.8 million pounds sterling, I couldn’t say no.

For the time being, I’ll divide my time between my Oakland home,

my villa on Mustique,

and my Paris Pied-a-terre, which I bought in the 1980s with my first profits from wine writing.

I think I still own a condo in Abu Dahbi

but it’s been so long since I stayed there, I can’t remember. [Memo to self: check on status of Abu Dahbi condo.]

I never dreamed wine writing could be so rewarding when I first started. To tell you the truth, I didn’t set out to be rich. No, I started writing about wine because I loved (a) wine and (b) writing, so I decided to put the two together. I didn’t care at all about making money as long as I could pursue my dream career.

It’s funny, though, how sometimes, you get things you’re not even looking for! Here I am, all these years later, with homes all over the world, luxury cars,

yachts,

and Hollywood starlets throwing themselves at me.

Little did I dream of all this wealth and happiness, but there you are. No wonder so many of these young bloggers want to succeed as a wine writer, the way I have. They yearn for the life I lead!

Once I move into Saling Hall I’m going to have to make it feel like my place, not Hugh’s. I was thinking of buying this little hat from Queen Elizabeth

and wearing it when I’m home. When I was over in London for Kate and Will’s nuptials, Liz told me I could have it for a mere 10.5 million pounds. (I think she and Phillip are a little short on cash following that expensive wedding.) I don’t have that much in my checking account, but I’ll just sell off a few of my older bottles of Romanée-Conti and Lafite to the Chinese. Which reminds me: I seem to recall buying this house in Beijing

with the royalties from my first wine book. Did I really, or am I just dreaming? [Memo to self: Look into Chinese real estate holdings.]


Screaming Eagle sold, & Top 5 wines of the week

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Yesterday’s surprise announcement that KFC Corp., the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken, has purchased Screaming Eagle Winery sent shock waves up and down Napa Valley.

Already nervous due to the recession, the valley’s cult wineries were caught off guard by the move, which had been in hush-hush planning for weeks, according to insiders who did not wish to be identified, because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The purchase price was not announced, but is likely to have been in the mid-nine figures, one insider said, making it the most expensive winery deal in U.S. history. As part of the deal, Screaming Eagle will produce a second wine, Frying Eagle, that will be sold in KFC franchises nationally and, eventually, overseas. Those in the know say also that the Colonel’s iconic face will be incorporated into Screaming Eagle’s label.

The sale of Screaming Eagle should not have been a complete surprise, however. Many of Napa’s top wineries have been quietly seeking buyers, due to sluggish sales because formerly wealthy collectors are no longer seeking out expensive wines. There have been persistent rumors that TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., was in secret talks with Harlan Estate, but those negotiations hit a snag following the devastating March 11 Japanese earthquake and tsunami that wrecked TEPCO’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Business Week recently reported on a possible merger between Colgin Cellars and Sears, while Aflac, the big insurance compay, is said to be interested in Scarecrow.

Personally [this is Steve speaking], I wouldn’t be surprised to see even minor cult wines, such as [deleted] and [deleted], brought under corporate control, which might not be a bad thing, when you think about it, as I have. If most of the cult wines were owned by a corporation, they’d have a monopoly, and they could then raise their prices, so the cult wines would be even more expensive than they are now. Then all wineries would benefit because of the proven economic theory known as trickle-down. So I’m in favor of the corporate takeover of cult wineries.

* * *

Top 5 wines of the week

100 points. Chateau Lactic 2008 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $37. I gave this wine 100 points! My first perfect Chardonnay ever! An extraordinarily rich, opulent Chardonnay, brimming with luscious flavors of buttered toast, buttered popcorn, buttercream, vanilla, caramel, butterscotch and melted butter. It was fermented and aged in 100% new, high-char French oak for 2-1/2 years. So balanced and rich, its finish lasts literally for more than an hour. 30 cases, 15.7%.

98 points. Bronwyn 2008 “Parallelogram” Red Wine (Paso Robles); $75. Made from an unusual blend of Syrah, Petit Verdot, Tannat, Xinomavro (a rare Greek variety), Tempranillo, Tinta Cao and Gewurztraminer, this unoaked wine has flavors that are difficult to describe, even with a dictionary. I opened my Webster’s at random to the word “leishmaniasis,” which sounds right. 256 cases, 15.2%.

97 points. Mishuga Family 2007 “MazelTov!” (Oakville); $475. Made from 99% Cabernet Sauvignon by a superstar winemaker who cannot be identified because s/he is under contract to a cult winery whose owner hates Melvin Meshuga (apparently they’ve both been married to the same woman, oops, I shouldn’t have said that! Too late, I just hit the “send” button) and would fire the superstar winemaker if he found out that he/she was working for Meshuga. The other 1% in the blend is Xinomavro (a rare Greek variety). 2 cases, 15.7%. Kudos also to Meshuga’s 2009 “Bris” Pinot Noir.

95 points. Feral Cat 2009 Xinomavro (Livermore Valley); $35. Xinomavro is a rare Greek grape variety. According to Wikipedia, “Various writers have compared Xinomavro to Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, etc.” Therefore, it must be quite good! I was unable to taste this wine in a blind tasting of other Xinomavros, since this is the only one in California, so I tasted it, blind, in a flight of Pinot Grigios, and you know what? It was, well, not the best, but certainly it stood out as unique. So I said to myself, “I give this wine 95 points!” And, for the price, it’s a pretty good value. Drink it with, uh, anything you darned well want! It’s a free country.

94 points. Blue Ox non-vintage Merlot (California); $4/300L. Imagine a “wine in a box” on steroids! The equivalent of a full barrel of Merlot, it works out to about 11 cents a bottle. True, it’s not a very good wine, in and of itself, although if you like the smell of sweaty armpits, it’s for you! But the price is recession-proof. The box measures approximately 5 feet high x 3-1/2 feet wide and is quite heavy (400 pounds), so you’ll need to get some help from the guys and find a dolly and pickup truck to get it home. The little spigot that comes out from the Ox’s nose is really cute.


Ask The Wine Critic

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Dear Mr. Critic:

Recently my boyfriend bought me a cheap bottle of wine for my birthday. I was very insulted, but I didn’t want to confront him because I love him and he’s good to me. How should I let him know he hurt my feeings?

Hurting in Pittsburg

Dear HIP,

Hurt him back. Hit him on the head with the bottle, then throw it in the garbage and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that it’s Screaming Eagle or no more nookie.

Dear Steve:

My roommate and I are having a little argument. I say Petrus is better than Cheval Blanc. He says the opposite. This is really destroying our relationship. We agreed to abide by your decision. So, wise one, which is better?

Roommates in Minneapolis

Dear RIM:

How long have you two been married? Because in every relationship, both sides have to give a little to get a little. Put aside this little squabble, get yourselves a bottle of gin, and watch E!’s latest on Lindsay Lohan.

Dear Most Esteemed Steve Critic:

What can you tell me about the taste of soil in wine?

Rajeev

Dear Most Esteemed Rajeev:

Not good. Try filtering the wine through cheesecloth. Good luck.

Hi Steve,

I’m one of those people that gets hopelessly confused in the wine aisle of the supermarket. I just don’t know what to buy! And the clerks are no help whatsoever! They are, like, totally clueless! I’ll be, like, standing there, looking all confused, and one of them will walk past me and I’ll say, like, “Can you help me? I’m having chicken tonight and–” but then usually he’ll, like, shrug his shoulders and tell me he doesn’t really work in the wine aisle, he’s just walking through to dairy. And I’ll ask if there’s somebody who does work in the wine aisle but by that time the guy is already gone, and so now I’m not only confused, I’m, like, angry too. I guess what I’m asking for is your expert advice on how to deal with my confusion and anger in the wine aisle.

Seriously in need of help in Los Angeles

Hi SINOHILA

Approximately 30 minutes before visiting the wine aisle, take two 5-mg. tablets of Diazepam (Valium), followed by a 5-mg. tablet of Vicodin. Wash them down with 3 shots of whiskey. You will feel much more relaxed, and, when you collapse in the wine aisle, I’m sure the clerks will be there for you.

Dear Bigshot Important Mr. Stupid Critic,

So this isnt a question, it’s a statemint. Why should anybody care about your stupid opinon anyhow? You should do something useful like being a plummer or fixing cars.

A Natural American Leader

Dear ANAL,

Actually you did ask a question. The construction “Why should anybody care about your stupid opinon anyhow?” is an interrogatory, followed by a question mark, so your initial assertion that you were not asking a question is clearly false, which raises questions about your credibility, if not your sanity. As for my advice, try Googling “remedial reading and spelling” and look for results near your mental institution.

Mr. Wine Critic,

Why should I believe anything you say?

Doubting Thomas

Dear DT,

Because I’m an expert!

Dear Steve,

Why did the winemaker cross the road?

Curious in Duluth

Dear CID,

I’m a wine critic, not Einstein. How the heck should I know?

Dear Critic:

What do you think of shelf talkers?

Wine Store Owner Thinking of Using Them

Dear WSOTOUT,

In general, I’m not in favor of talking shelves. Or any other talking inanimate objects. There’s enough talking in this world just coming from humans who think they have something to say.

Dear Steve,

I want to be a famous wine critic, be really rich, live in a mansion, have lots of babes and drive a Porsche. Any advice?

Wannabe Critic

Dear W.C.,

Sure! It’s easy as pie. Here’s what you do.

1.  Rob Fort Knox and don’t get caught.
2. Sell the gold for cash.
3. Deposit $10 million in my Swiss bank account.
4. Then I will teach you how to become a wine critic! But you’re on your own with the babes.

Kids! If you have a question, just Ask The Wine Critic!


New charity for ailing wine critics launches

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I can with pleasure announce that wine lovers can toast to the future health of their favorite wine critics this coming week at restaurants around the country, including Salud! in New York, Boulevard in San Francisco and Bouchon, in Napa Valley.

The event, which will be simulcast in all participating restaurants, will be produced by some of the leading Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine in America. All proceeds will help to pay wine critics’ medical and psychological bills.

Patterned after a similar event to assist mixologists, the “Help Our Sick Critics” event reflects the increasing concern on the part of critics and those who love them about the many injuries wine reviewers sustain in the performance of their often back-breaking and stressful work.

“Wine critics have extremely difficult jobs,” explains Linda F. Mochaletto, a professor of sensory analysis at the University of Ontario. Various forms of repetitive stress injury involving wrists, fingers, elbows and shoulders often arise after a critic has spent years opening thousands of wine bottles. “We’re even seeing stress injuries of the thumb and forefinger in the case of twist-off screwtops,” Mochaletto says.

Chiropractors report increasing cases of severe back injury by critics who have to pick up heavy cases of wine. Other frequent causes of injury are skin cuts, sometimes severe, resulting from broken wine glasses or box cutters used to break down cardboard boxes for recycling. Doctors also report toe fractures caused by dropping said boxes on feet. There have even been reports of cancer caused by carcinogens found in the extruded styrofoam many wine bottles are packaged in.

Dr. Stanley F. Molar, a Philadelphia dentist, says that repeated tasting of wine can cause major damage to teeth, enamel and gums, a major problem since most wine critics are independent contractors who do not possess dental insurance. “I know of wine critics who ended up in the emergency room after extensive tasting of high-acid German wines,” he noted. Reports of tongue discoloration are not uncommon. One female wine critic was said to have tried to lighten her purple tongue by soaking it in hair dye, which caused internal injuries.

It’s not only physical injuries that can take their toll on wine critics. The psychological stress can be high. “I’ve had several nervous breakdowns in the performance of my job,” notes Steve Heimoff, a well-known Bay Area wine critic. “When I have to give low scores to winemakers I like, it causes me major angst. And don’t think it’s a picnic having to go to all those fancy-shmancy dinners, with their constant schmoozing. Sometimes all I want to do is chill at home over a nice beer and watch The History Channel. But, no, there’s another to-do in San Francisco. It’s very stressful.”

The events this coming week are expected to raise millions of dollars, which will be deposited into a bank. Ailing wine critics can apply for charitable medical awards by applying through this blog. The most miserable stories will receive top consideration.


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