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New charity for ailing wine critics launches


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.

A classic: Wine World TV!

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Hard to believe it was 2-1/2 years ago when I made this video, when my blog was a mere 3 months old. Gary V. was big back then, so I decided to have some good-natured fun and do this wacky takeoff. Click here to see it.

Ancient stone tablet reveals origins of wine criticism


Lost in the hoopla surrounding last week’s announcement of the discovery of the world’s oldest wine press was the unearthing of a stone tablet proving that wine criticism may be at least 6,000 years older than was previously thought.

The ancient winery was found at a remote cave site in Armenia, called Winna Speg-ta-torr, or “Believe [in the] God [or] Die.” News of the winery’s discovery bolted around the globe. But just yesterday, one of the archeologists who led the dig, Gregory Areshian of the University of California Los Angeles, announced he had also discovered a stone tablet, almost intact, that suggests vintners of old may have been as subject to wine criticism as are today’s winemakers.

The tablet, Areshian reported, was made of basalt, and was approximately 12 inches wide and 15 inches long, or about the size of a modern oversized wine magazine. It refers to an entity, Ruh-Buh-Puh-Kuh, or “He [who] kills [or] blesses [the] wine.” In an interview, Areshian said it is unclear just who or what this entity was thought to be by the late Stone Age Armenians. “Ruh-Buh-Puh-Kuh may have been an actual person, perhaps a warlord. Or it may have referred to some god. Either way, he seems to have been worshipped. We just don’t know enough about these people’s strange religion.”

The stone, which was difficult to translate because it was written in a little understood trans-Sumerian language called Geekish, refers to a wine, made by a local minor official named Freidy-Franzzxsiah (the name is an anagram of the ancient number for “Two” and the word for a huge quantity), which seems to have been popular with slaves. Areshian said references to the same wine have been found in archeological digs as widespread as the Egyptian tombs of Luxor and the ruins of Southern California shopping centers. In the reference to the wine of Freidy-Franzzxsiah, Ruh-Buh-Puh-Kuh referred to “chicken entrails,” although other translations have it as “swamp gas” and “vomitous emissions.”

Areshian said that Ruh-Buh-Puh-Kuh cursed the wine of Freidy-Franzzxsiah, referring to it as ”unholy” and “an affront to the High One, Jhim-Low-Bee.” This “Jhim Low-Bee,” a previously unknown Caucasian spirit-entity, seems to have held special terrors for people. Also unclear is the hierarchical relationship between Ruh-Buh-Puh-Kuh and Jhim-Low-Bee. Was one higher than the other in the totem pole of ancient deities? Were they different names for the same entity? Nobody yet knows.

“Clearly, we have much to learn about the strange, cultic practices of these ancient peoples, which are so different from our own,” Areshian says, adding, “That’s the nice thing about archeology. It lets us see how much human intelligence has progressed over the millennia.”

New robot wine taster threatens real critics


Following its success with a car that drives itself, I have learned, through my sources in Silicon Valley, that Google is secretly working on a robotic wine sensing machine, using artificial intelligence software that can mimic if not surpass the actual blind tasting abilities of the greatest wine critics.

The machine, which is said to physically resemble C-3PO, the robot from Star Wars, already has tasted more than 1,000 wines, without any form of human interaction, and correctly identified 99.87% of them.

The machine, which is nicknamed “Lobby” because it was conceptualized during a company party in Google’s lobby, also rates the wines it tastes, using the familiar 100-point system. Google programmed hundreds of thousands of scores from the world’s most famous wine critics, including Robert Parker and (ahem), myself, into Lobby’s database, using special algorithms that enable Lobby to search through it, seeking similar words and phrases, and assigning score numbers based on “hits.”

According to my source, the differences between Lobby’s scores and mine are “statistically insignificant.”

It’s not clear what Google plans to do with Lobby. My source, who is an engineer affiliated with the project, says the company is considering creating an online wine magazine using Lobby as its critic. Google then will argue that Lobby is actually better than a real, living wine critic, since he [it?] has no mind and cannot think, making him [it] immune to subjective factors.

According to the engineer, “Lobby is the perfect wine critic. He has the I.Q. of a penguin. He has no opinions, and in fact isn’t even conscious. All he can do is review wine. And he can do it all day and all night long, requiring only an occasional rinsing of his intake tube.”

The launching of Lobby represents, in the eyes of some analysts, Google’s long-awaited “second act” — the search for a major revenue source beyond the advertising its search product generates. With existing print wine magazines in a weakened position, and wine blogging having shown its inability to generate revenue, Google may be attempting to make a big play in the wine world. Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman/ceo, has been seen frequently in Napa Valley and in Bordeaux, and is known to have recently invested in Crushpad, the custom winemaking facility.

The amount of effort and resources poured into the development of Lobby suggests that Google is taking the machine very seriously. My engineer source also tells me that Lobby understands and can speak in eleven languages, including Mandarin, Urdu, Bengali, Hebrew, German and, of course, English. There are plans for a personalized wine reviewing application, MyLobby, that can be downloaded to a computer or cell phone. If the effort is a success, Schmidt has told insiders he plans to construct a new center on the Google campus; its main entrance will be called The Lobby Lobby.

“This project is still in the experimental stage, but it does provide a glimpse of what wine reviewing might look like in the future. The implications are staggering,” my source says. “Google wants to take over the world, and wine might be the way they do it.”

Judge rules that same-variety blends can be Meritage


A federal judge, Helen T. Franzia, in San Francisco yesterday ruled that Meritage wines may no longer discriminate against wines made entirely from the same variety.

The case stems from a 1988 ruling by the Meritage Association, a wine trade and marketing group, that in order to qualify for a “Meritage” designation, a red or white wine must be made from a blend of designated grape varieties traditionally used in Bordeaux, France.

Six years ago, that rule was challenged by a Napa Valley winery, Chateau Newsom, which put the word “Meritage” on the label of a wine made from a blend of 100% Malbec grapes. The Meritage Association brought a lawsuit against the winery, alleging that it had proprietary rights to the word “Meritage,” and that only a wine made from a blend of two or more defined varieties could legally use the term. A lower court agreed, and forced the winery’s proprietor, Dr. Gavin Forceps, a noted opthamologist, to remove the labels.

Forceps appealed, and the case eventually made it to the California Supreme Court. After a lengthy trial, in which noted wine critic Robert Parker testified on behalf of the Meritage Association while the equally famous critic, James Laube, supported Chateau Newsom, the state’s high court ruled, in 2008, in the winery’s favor, overturning the lower court and affirming the right of a single-variety blend to the “Meritage” name. The Meritage Association in response put an initiative on the California state ballot, asking voters to overturn the Court’s ruling and instead approve the original requirement that a Meritage wine must be comprised of two or more traditional Bordeaux varieties. In Nov., 2008, voters passed Prop 888 by 52% to 48%.

Forceps, allied with a group calling itself Citizens United Against Discrimination in Grape Varieties, challenged Prop 888 in court. Yesterday’s decision by Judge Franzia, which upheld Citizens United, was hailed by Forceps as “a great victory for freedom.

“Never again will Malbec, or Petit Verdot or Muscadelle du Bordelais or any of the other Bordeaux varieties, have to feel they’re not good enough to stand by themselves in a Meritage blend,” Forceps said at a packed press conference held outside San Francisco City Hall, moments after the decision was handed down.

He added, “Finally, in the eyes of the law, all Meritage blends are equal — be they one-variety blends or multi-variety blends.”

Opponents of the ruling were disappointed, and promised that their fight is far from over.

“How can one unelected judge overturn the will of a majority of California wine lovers?” asked a well-known winemaker who produces a “cult” style Meritage wine. The man, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from certain powerful critics, added, “We believe God ordained Meritage wines to be multi-variety blends, not an abomination made from a single varietal. That’s what it says in the Meritage Associations by-laws.”

The Meritage Association immediately vowed to appeal Judge Franzia’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeal. The case is likely to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before dozens, and possibly hundreds, of single-variety wines are labeled as Meritage wines as early as next week.

And, to complicate matters, a spokesperson for the P.S. I Love You group, Jo Diaz, announced her organization is considering demanding that Petite Sirah be entitled to the “Meritage” designation. “Judge Franzia’s brave decision has opened the door,” Diaz said, adding, “There is no longer any justification for the Meritage Association to discriminate against any grape variety.”

Acclaimed wine critic killed in freak accident


April 1 – Steve Heimoff, one of the most famous wine critics in the world, died when the stretch limousine he was riding in collided with a delivery truck carrying cases of wine. Police arriving at the scene pronounced Heimoff dead. He was 35 years old.

Heimoff had been on his way to the Wine Bloggers Conference, where he was scheduled to deliver the Keynote Address. Killed in addition to him were his driver, as well as the driver of the delivery truck.

The news stunned the wine industry. “We have lost one of the Immortals,” said fellow wine critic Robert Parker. “Steve blazed the trail, and the rest of us could only follow.” Another rising wine critic, James Laube, observed how rare it was for one of Heimoff’s kind to appear in the world. “He was definitely one of a kind. What a mind, what a palate, what a great writer. And so modest.”

Across the globe, winemakers honored Heimoff in their own ways. The Napa Valley Vintners observed a minute of silence. In Bordeaux, flags on the famous chateaux were lowered to half-staff, while along the Rhine River in Germany, wineries put black sackcloth over their windows. In Tuscany mourners filled Florence Cathedral and held a prayer vigil. At the New York restaurant Per Se, acclaimed chef Thomas Keller prepared a new oysters and pearl dish named Bijoux d’Heimoff. The Court of Master Sommeliers posthumously named Heimoff an M.S. while the Institute of Masters of Wine gave him the prestigious M.W. honor, their first ever to somebody dead. There are rumors that the Society of Wine Educators was considering making Heimoff a Certified Specialist of Wine, but a phone call to that organization resulted in a no-longer-in-service recording.

Common people were grief-stricken. Joe Roberts, a wine blogger who had a luncheon appointment with Heimoff for the next day, was in tears as he said, “Steve was my mentor, my hero. I think of Charlie Olken as my Dad, but Steve was more like my bro.” Roberts noted the irony of Heimoff’s death being caused by a collision with a wine delivery truck. “And to die like that, literally being drowned by over-oaked Chardonnay! I mean, how bizarre is that?” The truck contained a shipment of Charles Shaw Chardonnay, commonly known as Two Buck Chuck. It was on its way to a Trader Joe’s outlet just a short distance from Heimoff’s Oakland residence.

A memorial service is scheduled to be held at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. That city’s Mayor, Gavin Newsom, an old friend of Heimoff’s and himself a vintner, will deliver the eulogy. Also expected to speak are Heimoff’s ex-wife, Jancis Robinson; his former business partner, Anthony Dias Blue; and celebrity talk show host Gary Vaynerchuk. Following the service, a torchlight parade will make its way from Union Square to the peak of Mount Everest, which the Nepalese government has renamed Mount Steve. And vintners from 42 wine-producing countries announced early this morning that they will call 2010 the “Heimoff Vintage” in commemoration of the late, great critic.

Heimoff’s family requests that donations in his memory be made care of this blog. Checks or money orders only, please.

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