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My final wine review: epitaph to a professional critic’s career

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It is altogether fitting and proper (as Abraham Lincoln said in another context, in the Gettysburg Address) that the last wine review I shall ever write for Wine Enthusiast should have been for a Williams Selyem wine.

It was the 2012 Papera Zinfandel, which I reviewed on Monday. I did not deliberately hold it for the very last. But I did have a thought somewhere in the back of my mind that the culmination of more than twenty years of reviewing should be a special wine.

Had I had an unreviewed sparkling wine of quality, I certainly might have considered it; but I didn’t. Nor was there a proper Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. That left the Wiliams Selyem Zin, and what a wine it was. Bob Cabral has had a particularly successful series of vintages with that Russian River Valley bottling; the 2012 was one of his best.

But it wasn’t merely the quality of that Zin that made it a fitting toast to a celebrated departure. It was my admiration for Williams Selyem itself, and for Bob. I don’t have the longest experience of him among wine writers: others knew him, and enjoyed tasting the wines of Williams Selyem, long before I. We met around 2001, if I recall correctly, when I was writing A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in which he looms large. I remember with particular fondness sitting with him, in his cluttered little office at the old winery, on Westside Road, as he assembled the first-ever vintage of Neighbors, the blend of vineyards the winery sources from the Middle Reach of the Russian River. I felt privileged then to be asked for my opinion. I doubt that Bob seriously took anything I said into account for the actual blend, but it was terribly kind, and flattering for him to go through the motions.

A few of us tried the other day to estimate how many wines I’ve reviewed over the years. I honestly don’t know. Probably in excess of 60,000, possibly far greater than that. I don’t think Wine Enthusiast’s database, in its current incarnation, goes back that far. Of course, if you throw in all the wines I’ve tasted unofficially, the number has got to be around 100,000. And yet here I am, still standing, in good health, not alcoholic. Perhaps all that reseveratrol will yet come in handy.

People ask me how I feel, leaving the magazine for my new gig. The thoughts and emotions, as you might expect, are complex, but two stand out: one, that after 25 years as a wine writer (and always a freelancer; I was never a real employee), it was time for a change. And two, that my new job, at Jackson Family Wines, is a big one that requires a lot from me, and I take it all with a sober sense of responsibility. Aren’t you excited? people want to know. I tell them that excitement isn’t the word I’d use. I’m excited when I get to go to a Giants game, with great seats and Lincecum pitching. I’m excited when, after some time on the road, I come home to see Gus again. (And Gus is always excited to see me!) But “excited” doesn’t seem to have the proper gravitas for this occasion.

What will I remember most about being a wine critic? For sure, the kindness, respect and friendliness people in all walks of the industry have shown me over the years. I always felt the need to keep a kind of reserve; while I’m by nature affectionate, I thought that my position mandated a certain distance. I did not want to get too close to people whose wines I might have to give bad scores to. This business of how close to get to winemakers whose wines you’re reviewing must be on the mind of every critic. But it is no longer something I need worry about.

I think also of the wonderful opportunities I’ve had to explore every nook and cranny of our beautiful state of California and its wine regions. I’ve written before that I never saw a wine region I didn’t fall in love with, from the austere Santa Maria Valley to the bucolic glories of West Dry Creek Road, from the sheer drama of Highway 29, with its parade of famous wineries, to the curvaceous hills of Happy Canyon and the insanely wild mountains of Fort Ross-Seaview. To have experienced all this, often under the tutelage of local winemakers who taught me about the terroir (occasionally from a helicoper), has been undiluted joy.

And then there were the wines themselves. Not too many 100 pointers. Wine Enthusiast took a position, with which I largely agreed, not to be too profligate in handing out the ultimate accolade. Certainly, we can debate whether or not a 98 point wine might “really” have been worth 100 points (or vice versa), but that would be a waste of time, the point being that I’ve had more great wines than anyone can reasonably expect to have in a lifetime. Yet, somehow, that never spoiled me. Before I was a wine critic I drank Bob Red and White, or Gallo Sauvignon Blanc in 1.5s, or inexpensive Chianti, Médoc, Côtes du Rhône or anything else I could afford: and I was a happy man. The splendor of wine, it seems to me, lies in the beverage itself, its profoundly tongue-loosening and restorative qualities and affinities for food, and not in the web of fantasy we weave around it, in our imaginations.

Anyhow, I called this posting an “epitaph.” It is that, for my wine reviewing career, but it’s also a birth, for my new one. L’chaim!


Misty water-colored memories…

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I love my job of tasting the wines of coastal California, from Napa and Sonoma all the way down to Santa Barbara County. But I do sometimes miss the world catholicity (small “c”) of my tasting before I was a professional wine critic.

In the Eighties, when I developed this crazy passion for wine, I was lucky enough to be living in San Francisco, where the entire world of wine was available for drinking, if you had the interest and connections. I had three ways of obtaining wine: I could buy it, of course, and back then, it was relatively affordable for a struggling student like me. I could even occasionally afford classified growth Bordeaux (although not First Growths).

A second way was through the old Les Amis du Vin tasting group, which I was a member of. We tasted a lot of interesting wines, often poured by visiting winemakers who were on marketing trips through The City. In June, 1989, for example, they held a tasting of 1986 Bordeaux at the World Affairs Center, downtown. It included La Lagune, Clerc Milon, Pape-Clement, Pichon Lalande, Leoville-Barton, Montrose and Mouton. (My top-ranked, blind, was the Mouton.) Not too shabby!

And the third way I had of tasting was at tasting bars. We didn’t have “wine bars” per se back then (well, maybe a couple), but some of the retailers offered tasting; and I was lucky enough to be friends with the guys who ran them, which offered certain distinct advantages.

(I don’t think I’ll get anyone in trouble for telling the following story. Remember Liquor Barn? They were sort of the predecessor of BevMo. There was a branch down on Bayshore Boulevard where I used to hang out. The guy who ran the tasting bar liked me, and would ask what I wanted to taste. I remember once when I asked for Yquem, fully expecting he’d say, “Dude, are you kidding?” But instead, he immediately pulled a bottle from the shelf, popped the cork and poured me a glass. Those were the days, my friend.)

As a result of those experiences (and widespread reading, of course), I developed a pretty sound knowledge base of the various wines of France, Germany and, to a more limited extent, Italy. Once the Nineties arrived, and I began writing for wine periodicals, I got on the mailing lists of the various trade associations and restaurants that sponsored tastings in San Francisco, and so was able to further broaden my palate. Some of you may remember Square One, Joyce Goldstein’s fabulous, pioneering restaurant in San Francisco’s Jackson Square district. My old pal, Peter Granoff, M.S., was the sommelier there, and his wine classes were as radically innovative as Joyce’s Mediterranean-style food. I learned a lot from Peter. In November, 1991, he held one on Condrieu and Cote Rotie. I mean, wow. That was quite an eye-opener for me, although, looking at my scores, I was more impressed by the idea of tasting these wines than by the wines themselves! I scored them all between 88-91 points, but this may have been because the wines were far too young to appreciate: the vintages were 1987-1990, and I don’t know that I properly understood how to look for ageability

Then there were the Bon Appetit tastings, run by Anthony (Andy) Dias Blue; these tastings, I must say, were historic in their scope. There was one in particular that I still have my notes for. It was in December, 1990, at a downtown restaurant. Andy served up, among other Cabs, Diamond Creek 1980 Gravelly Meadow, Dunn 1979 Howell Mountain, Laurel Glen 1981 (whatever happened to that wonderful winery after Patrick Campbell sold it?) and a 1978 Mayacamas. You don’t get to taste wines like that anymore–at least, not without paying big bucks.

I was still a cub wine writer at that Bon Appetit tasting, and was puzzled when I got to the Dunn. My review indicates my puzzlement. “Dead?” I wrote, describing its “raisined nose.” I added, “Massive tannins either hiding it all, or this wine’s gone.”

Well, I needed some help understanding it, and fortunately there were two gentlemen present a lot smarter and more experienced than I was: Jim Laube and Andy himself. So I asked their opinion. One said it was dead; the other, that it needed many more years to come around. (Unfortunately, I no longer remember who said what.) That left me more puzzled than ever–but it taught me a valuable lesson. If two guys as wise as Jim and Andy could come down on diametrically opposite sides, that meant my judgment was as good as anyone’s!

Incidentally, my highest-scoring wine at that tasting was Ridge 1975 Monte Bello. At the age of fifteen years, it just wasted me. I’d love to try it now.

Anyhow, I miss those more innocent times when the world of great wines was made available to me, courtesy of the kindness of people like Peter, Andy and my friends at the tasting bars.


“Tasting better than claret”

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One of the most pleasurable bottles of wine I ever drank was a 1978 Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Monterey County appellation. I’d just moved to San Francisco and was poor, renting an unheated apartment, in the dead of winter, in the Ingleside District, just below Top of the Hill Daly City (and if you know that neighborhood, you know that it’s a cold, foggy, working class, decidedly unglamorous place, then as well as now).

That wine was the first Cabernet Sauvignon I’d ever consciously purchased, as a varietal wine to try and understand the meaning of “Cabernet Sauvignon”. It probably cost all of $3. I remember sitting at my desk, on that chilly December night, shivering in my bones, but delighting in the velvet caress of the wine. I took notes, recording every facet of the tasting experience: the texture, the flavors, the body, the finish. (At that time, I did not know that Monterey Cabernet was under fierce attack by critics.) With that act, I had opened the door to becoming a true wine lover: more than opened it, I had marched proudly right through it, never to go back again.

These memories came rushing back to me when I read these words in Pete Townshend’s superb memoir, Who I Am (HarperCollins, 2012): Referring to a family vacation he’d taken in the early 1970s through the South of France, Pete writes: “When we shopped, Karen [his wife] and I bought huge flagon-baskets of cheap local wine–tasting better than claret…”.

Who knows what the Townshends drank? Probably at the time not even they knew. Perhaps it was a modest little Vin de Pays d’Oc. (A “flagon,” by the way, is a sort of pitcher or rustic bottle; the word, of Latin origin, is related to the Italian fiasco, the traditional straw-matted Chianti bottle.) Yet the memory of that wine, and the pleasure it gave him, remained in Pete Townshend’s mind for 40 years. (And how many of his memories of Lafite, Cristal or Dom perished in that time span?)

Is there any more proof that wine need not be famous and expensive in order to have such lasting impact? Here’s Hemingway, from A Moveable Feast: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

We know as little of what wine the narrator drank with those oysters as we know of the Townshends’ South of France wine. It could have been a minerally Muscadet-Sevre et Maine, or maybe even a simple Petit Chablis. Whatever it was, it likely was not costly. Yet it formed a sense impression on Hemingway that not only persisted, but was so brightly etched in his mind that he labored to express it in words.

The point, I guess, is that any wine, from anywhere, can make you happy. That is wine’s glory and distinction. It’s why I’ve always had an anti-elitist attitude. The point of view that only famous, acclaimed wines are worth anyone’s attention is repugnant to me. Of course, I have my own opinions, which I express freely in my job as a wine critic, but I never lose sight of the fact that they’re just opinions. Someone, somewhere, is going to fall in love with a wine I give 84 points to, and that’s just how it should be. Salud!

By the way: Was there a wine that stands out in your memory?


Toasting the role of the Jews in the history of wine

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This blog is generally religion-free, but I read this article yesterday in the Jewish Journal and, with the High Holidays coming up (Rosh Hashana and Yom  Kippur) I find myself thinking of how my Jewish ancestors really, in a way, invented wine, or at least our modern understanding of it.

That there are scores if not hundreds of references to wine in the Old Testament is well known. Of course they were not entirely positive: some people got drunk. But overall, wine was such an integral part of ancient Jewish (and even pre-Jewish, Semitic life; don’t forget Noah’s grapevine) that we don’t even know how far back it goes in the mists of pre-history. What is clear was that it was considered very important.

In my own family, wine wasn’t a big presence. Neither for that matter were beer or spirits; my family weren’t drinkers. Mom liked a Bloody Mary at a restaurant, and I can’t remember anymore what Dad drank, but it wasn’t very much. They were water drinkers.

The first wine I ever tried was given to me by my Uncle Teddy, at a Passover seder. I must have been around five. He gave me a glass of Manischevitz and, when I gagged and spat it out, everyone around the table laughed. (Torturing the kids was considered fun in our family.) It’s a wonder I ever tried wine again after that.

Notwithstanding the absence of booze in the household, I was raised to have a neutral to positive feeling about it. Certainly no one in my family ever expressed anything negative about alcohol or wine. I personally knew next to nothing about wine until I was in my early 30s; but when I began studying it, I was proud to discover the role the Jews had played. Later, Greeks and Romans spread viticulture throughout the river valleys of Europe, leading down the millennia and across the seas to our present day. Somehow, the two cultures that were so different in so many different ways–Jewish and Greco/Roman–found commonaility in their embrace of wine. Both cultures recognized its essential goodness and holiness, even though both were aware of its dangers in excess.

Anyway, if you’re of the Jewish persuasion, let me wish you a good Rosh Hashanah (which this year is Sept. 5-6, in the Jewish year 5774). Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, follows a week later. I am not particularly observant, myself, but I have set photos of my late mother and father in a central place in the livingroom, where I will do my best, in my inadequate way, to remember them. I cannot promise that the wine I toast them with will be kosher. I can, however, promise that it will be very good.


The history and mindset of a wine critic

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Slow news day in wine country, with the harvest proceeding apace and not much else going on. So we take a little trip down memory lane. I turn to my old wine diaries, which I started in the early 1980s and continued for 15 years. It’s interesting to me to note the evolution of how I wrote about wine.

The first diary contains labels of the wines I drank and the following categories: date, color, aroma [usually] taste, food pairing [sometimes] and price. For example, here’s a Georges DuBoeuf 1981 Morgon, tasted 2/16/83:
color: deep scarlet, purple highlights
aroma: [not included]
taste: slightly frizzante, fruity, soft and balanced, delightful.
food: cheeseburgers!
note: onions hurt taste.
price: $6.
alcohol: 13.1%.

I guess I know what I had for supper on Feb. 16, 1983! It’s a pretty good note, short, sweet and to the point. I was definitely under the influence of Michael Broadbent and specifically his “Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting” which really to this day remains an ideal introduction to the topic. I like that I used the word “frizzante” which I think means slightly fizzy. It’s not a word I’d use anymore–I’d just say slightly fizzy. Why borrow foreign words if you don’t have to?

By 1986 I’d begun a system of actually rating the wines with a visual graphic: stars. I don’t know where I got that from. The San Francisco Chronicle maybe? Could have been Charlie Olken or Broadbent. Here’s a Louis M. Martini 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon (alcohol 12.5%) I tasted on Dec. 4, 1986:

color: brilliant ruby, consistent (no depth at center)
nose: cherry candy. Later: Cabernet aroma, dusty, clean
taste: round, sweet and balanced. Simple, mellow, true varietal character and totally dry. This wine has aged into a completely satisfying, distinguished and wise Cabernet–for $3.79!!! Not much complexity, yet smooth, satisfying and excellent with broiled steak. Developed in glass over time.
* * * 1/2

I think my puffs went up to 5. I’m not sure I know what I meant by “wise.” Maybe sure-footed? It’s not a good idea to personify wines, i.e. call them “precocious” or “teasing,” although I sometimes do it.

When did I start using the 100 point system? I can’t say exactly, but it must have been in the early 1990s. I think I’d just started writing for Wine Enthusiast, although it would be another several years before I was officially reviewing wines for them. Here’s an early example of a wine I scored using the 100 point system.

Chateau Woltner 1991 Howell Mountain Chardonnay.
date: 9/9/93
Note: tight, lean, focused aromas of lemon, dates and spice, toasty oak, butter. Very clean, sharp and acidic. Lean, tight on the palate, flavors of citrus, but almost austere, good acidity, finishes short. May improve with 1-2 years in the cellar.
Score: 87

I didn’t note the price. Chateau Woltner, long since gone, was owned by a member of the family that owned and sold Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, in Bordeaux. I believe this wine was then the most expensive California Chardonnay, something like $60. It didn’t work for critics or consumers at a time when people’s taste in Chardonnay was turning to riper, rounder, sweeter wines.

So you can see from the beginning I had a penchant for reviewing wines, or at least writing about them for my own pleasure. I never thought that anyone would read my notes, or want to; never thought I’d be doing it professionally. I just liked the experience of sitting down with a glass of wine and taking a little time to get to know it better. Don’t really know where that came from. I collected stamps as a kid, so maybe the two are connected. I also always liked to write, to put my thoughts and feelings into the English language, on paper (now, on computer). I still do. Putting a liking of wine together with a love for writing just led naturally to being a wine writer. I’m amazed I get paid to do it.


Memoir: How I got into wine

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We never drank wine when I was a kid. My parents, aunts and uncles might have a glass or two of Manischevitz for Jewish holidays, but that was it. When I got into college, there was a period when I drank cheap wine–Bali Jai, Ripple and Boone’s Farm–heavily. But I quickly realized I was becoming dependent on it and so my basic common sense made me quit.

I might never have discovered wine had not a series of coincidences brought me to California in my early 30s. Certainly nothing in my background or interests prepared me for what was to become an obsession. I was living with my cousins in Benicia, a little town northeast of San Francisco. We decided to barbecue that evening, so we went to the Safeway and stocked up on steaks, potatoes and all the trimmings. My cousin Maxine then pushed the shopping cart into the wine aisle and started doing what, to me, was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen concerning shopping behavior: she would pick up bottles, one by one, examining the front and back labels, reading silently, thinking.

Wondering what the heck she was doing, I said, “Just grab a bottle and let’s go.” Maxine looked at me with her famous arched eyebrow that is an unspoken indictment and said, in a low voice, “You don’t just grab a bottle of wine.”

There ensued a brief discussion about thoughtfulness in the purchase of wine, during the course of which I learned that not all wines are the same and that–evidently–there was a science or art behind the purchase that had to do with considering what foods the wine was meant to accompany. As these were entirely new concepts to me, I was flummoxed. I certainly wasn’t ignorant of good food: I’d worked in a series of cook positions at decent restaurants, including as sous chef at the Deerfield Inn, which had an old-style French restaurant located in Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, where the menu included beef Wellington, baked Alaska and Caesar salad, made tableside by me. But in all my years at the Deerfield Inn, where Kings and movie stars often dined because it was on the campus of the prestigious Deerfield Academy prep school where their children went, I cannot recall a single instance of wine being mentioned or even served. After my dinner shift was over, I would repair to the bar, for enough beer to recover from the mental havoc of the cook’s line. But never, ever was it wine.

That conversation with my cousin did something that, later, I recognized as my having been bitten by the wine bug. I began to collect books about wine, to read up on it in the San Francisco newspapers, to interrogate the floor staff of wine stores. When I moved out of my cousin’s home to my first apartment in San Francisco, out in the Ingleside, I would spend each weekend traversing the city in my old, green 1976 Datsun, starting downtown at Draper & Esquin and working my way west via Connoisseur’s Wines and The Wine House south to the Jug Shop, on Polk Street, Liquor Barn, down on Bayshore, Hennessey’s, in the Castro, the Ashbury Market, above Haight-Ashbury (where I first met Wilfred Wong, whose parents owned it), and so on, all the way out to the foggy Avenues where there was a liquor store whose name I can’t recall. Everywhere I went, I learned.

I joined the old Les Amis du Vin, a national association of wine-loving amateurs, and was asked to be the San Francisco chapter leader–an honor I declined after the then president told me how much work was involved: setting up tastings, inviting speakers and keeping track of members. I was very busy at the time–going to grad school fulltime, working fulltime, volunteering for the Shanti Project where I did household chores for very sick victims of the first wave of the AIDS epidemic, working out everyday at the gym, jogging 6 or 7 days a week, maintaining a relationship, and then trying to find a few hours here and there to sleep, read or watch TV. So running an organization just couldn’t be fit in.

I was especially fascinated by the concept of a structured approach to wine tasting. That was a new one on me. I knew all about structured approaches to other things–for example, writing a term paper, or baking a baba au rhum. But tasting wine? Yet I understood at the outset that, if you were going to get serious about wine, you couldn’t just willy nilly gulp it down. You could read about it, and I did; but in the end, you had to jump in and taste, and that required a methodology. In this, my master (whom I met only once or twice) was Michael Broadbent. His Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting (6th edition, 1979) was my indispensable helpmate. It formed the basis for the way I taste today.

Those years were some of the best of my life. Wine appreciation was an underground thing (this was the mid-1980s) even in as cosmopolitan a city as San Francisco. Not too many people were into wine: when you met another devotee, it was like coming across a fellow denizen of a secret society you recognized by signals only its members knew. I worked at the time on the campus of San Francisco State University, where I was also going to school, and I actually talked the boss into giving me $150 to hold a wine education class for the staff. I remember buying a Chateau Gruaud-Larose, but I don’t recall much else. I doubt the staff was very interested. But at least I got to taste a Second Growth St.-Julien for free.

I was lucky, I suppose, to get hired as a wine writer by the magazine I wrote for before Wine Enthusiast. Nobody wanted to be a wine writer in 1989. Nobody even knew what it meant. Everybody wanted to get their MBA and make a pile of money in the Financial District or in burgeoning Silicon Valley. So when I lobbied that first magazine to hire me, it wasn’t like there was a lot of competition. There probably wasn’t any at all. They hired me because I knew how to string a sentence together, because I knew a thing or two about wine, and because I convinced them I really wanted to write for them. Oh, and also because I obviously wasn’t some kind of nut case. But I don’t know if I’d be able to get a job writing about wine today if I was just starting out. It’s so much harder because so many people want to be wine writers.

“I’m not the world’s most passionate guy,” Ray Davies sang in “Lola,” my second favorite Kinks song ever (“You Really Got Me” is first). Neither am I. But I did get passionate about wine as a young man, and it still consumes me, albeit in a different way than it used to. For example, the writing is more important to me than it was in the beginning. Until I was paid to write about wine, in fact, the writing didn’t concern me at all; only learning, tasting and taking notes did. Once I got hired, I endeavored to write as best I could, and I think I displayed some talent for it. It’s the writing that still challenges me most today: not only the long article form (a kind of endangered species), but the short article or profile, even a photo caption or a snappy little 40-word review. But of all the kinds of writing, the blog format gives me the opportunity to write the most creatively, which is to say, the most happily.


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