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“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.


Remembering Mom, over a glass of wine

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Like you, I honored my mother yesterday. Gertrude died 6-1/2 years ago, at the age of 90, after a brief bout with cancer. I was with her when she passed, in the hospital. It was just the two of us, at 6:03 a.m. Something very mystical and inexplicable happened to me at the instant of her death, that I will always remember, but which I will not write about here.

Gertrude came to enjoy wine as she aged, especially after she moved to California. Her son–me–was, of course, making his living as a wine writer, so there was never any shortage of wine. She preferred Chardonnay, preferably a little sweet and oaky. That was something; I don’t think she’d ever tasted a decent wine in her life before she was 75. What wine she’d had was the occasional icky-sweet sip of Manischevitz, usually for a Jewish holiday. In that she was no different from my other family members of that generation. They didn’t know about wine, didn’t care about it, probably thought it was exotic and snobby; goyisch. The only reason they schlepped out the Manischevitz was because taking a little wine is part of the Jewish tradition, especially Passover.

Mom did like her Bloody Marys, though, although she was never a big drinker when I was growing up. Too much to get done, what with raising the kids, keeping the household running and, by the way, returning to school, in her 40s, to get her teaching credential and becoming the only mom I knew, of the vast hoards of Baby Boomer kids running around the Bronx, who worked for a living. (I know, being a mom is work. In that case, Gertrude had two jobs.) I was proud of her for that.

But like I said, after she moved to California, around 1994, she started drinking more. She had come from a dry culture to a wet one, and responded accordingly. When in Rome… I never saw her drunk, but I would watch her take a third glass of wine at a family gathering, growing more animated, her eyes sparkling a little more than usual, and it made me happy. In many respects, Gertrude’s wine journey paralleled that of America’s. As wine became more and more an accepted part of the culture in the 1990s, it became a more accepted part of Gertrude’s life, too. I remember the first time she asked me to bring “a couple of extra bottles” for her the next time I visited, so she could have something cold in the fridge for when she had “the girls” over to her apartment, which was in a nice retirement community.

Mom in 2004. See her little Kerry-Edwards button.

My father, Jack, who died 30 years ago, had been a purchasing agent for a major defense plant, on Long Island. Every Christmas, he would come home laden with bottles of scotch, gin, vodka, peppermint schnapps and cognac, gifts from clients who wished to let him know how grateful they were for him buying their company’s wares. He never brought home wine. But Jack wasn’t a big drinker, either, so he’d throw all those bottles of liquor in the closet. When I was 17, and about to leave home for the first time to go to college, I determined to see what getting drunk was all about, since, I figured, that’s what college students do, so I might as well get in some target practice. I purloined a bottle of Jack’s booze–what it was I have long since forgotten; could it have have been rye?–and, with my friend Charlie, my bad boy pal from down the block, I got blind-eyed drunk. I remember stumbling home, around midnight, with my parents already in bed. I was crashing into things, knocking stuff over, making a lot of noise. But my parents didn’t wake up.

During my freshman year in college, I drank way too much. I was away from home for the first time, free, liberated, ready to be the wild party boy I’d never been before. My crowd drank a lot of cheap stuff: Thunderbird, Ripple, Bali Hai. On some days we were drinking by 10 a.m. This period did not last long, however, because I realized, in some vestigial way, that I was drinking too much–that I probably had a propensity for addiction–that I’d better cut it down. I did. Ever since, I’ve understood that I have to control my alcohol intake. I never drink during the day, not even a glass of wine with lunch. Lord knows I make up for it at night, but I don’t think I drink too much. It’s very important for people in this industry to control themselves.

Looking back over all my relatives, on both sides of the family, I don’t think anyone ever had a drinking problem. My mother’s brothers, who were from Oklahoma and Texas, were southern gentlemen who loved their “bourbon and branch water,” but I never saw them get drunk, either. I myself drink hardly any hard liquor. I do love a dry vodka martini; the taste of gin does not agree with me. I’ll have beer on a very hot day, which doesn’t occur much in the Bay Area.

So how did I honor my mother yesterday? With Champagne, of course; but that was only the outward form. I honored her with memory.


Happy Passover! Now pass the wine

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I’ve been going to seders ever since I was born, I guess; my parents no doubt brought me when I was a baby, although the first seder I can recall was when I was about six, when my Uncle Teddie gave me my first sip of wine.

I remember that day, not because of the seder, but because the wine was so awful. In Yiddish, I’d describe it as dreck. Manischevitz, it was, sweet and insipid. It’s a miracle that, years later, I was able to overcome that horrible experience and try wine again.

The Passover seder never had much religious meaning to me. It was instead a family get-together, and since I liked my family, I liked going to the annual seder. One of my aunts usually held it at their big houses in suburban New Jersey; our little apartment in The Bronx was hardly suitable for a gathering of up to twenty. We’d go through the entire Haggadah, more or less, meaning it was a very long seder, with all the ancient rituals adhered to: the drops of wine on the plate, the singing of songs, the recitation of history, and, yes, the Four Questions, which for many years I got the privilege of asking, since I was the youngest male.

Like I said, we stuck to the Haggadah, the basic how-to book of the Passover seder, because my father, his brother my Uncle Lennie, and their brother-in-law, the aforementioned Uncle Teddie, were good Jews, nominally, at any rate. I attended Hebrew School–as we called religious training–after my public school day ended, for nearly seven years, from the age of six until after I was bar mitzvahed, at thirteen. I was well educated in Jewish history and culture, and while I could read Hebrew, and still can, I can’t speak it, nor could I translate it for you, not if you paid me.

I still go to seder every year, because my dear cousin, Maxine (Lennie’s eldest) holds one, at her house in San Mateo. We use a battered copy of her daughter, Rebecca’s, Haggadah, from when Rebecca was in grade school. I tried once, about ten years ago, to write a new, more modern version of the Passover story, because I thought the old version was anachronistic. For example, in that old Rebecca version, written at the height of the Cold War, it says a prayer for the Jews of the Soviet Union. There hasn’t even been a Soviet Union since 1991, I think it was. And I never understood the part where the four sons are pitted against each other: One wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask a question. That seems kind of unloving and unfair to me.

My more fundamental problem with the Hagaddah is that I’ve never been able to relate to it as a religious document. It seemed to me as a kid, and still does, that the practices the Haggadah commands for the seder don’t have much to do with my conception of spirituality, or with the problems of the modern world, or even of understanding myself. It doesn’t mean much to me, but I do respect its tradition and, like I said, I enjoy getting together with my family, and honoring something that at least tries to instill meaning.

My favorite part of the Haggadah is the emphasis on wine. I like the fact that we’re encouraged, in the Hagaddah, to drink a lot. It’s great to get high in a family as political, funny and verbal as mine. As far as I’m concerned, we Jews invented wine. Maybe it wasn’t an actual Jew who discovered it, somewhere in the Caucasus (so we’re told), in the misty days of pre-history. But the Jews were the first to celebrate wine, to elevate it as a crowning achievement of humankind, to place it at the center of their most important rites and rituals, to make it a center of their poetry. (Along with olive oil. Where would Mediterranean cuisine be without the Jews?)

Maxine and her husband, Keith, do the cooking for the seder: traditional  stuff, like leg of lamb, roasted potatoes, Israeli cous cous, greens. The ritual foods also are there: the burnt egg, the parsley and salt water dip, the charoset, a sweet paste of fruits and nuts, said to symbolize the mortar the Jews used when, as slaves, they built the Pyramids. (Every food item in the seder has a symbolic meaning.) But I bring the wine, naturally. I don’t even pretend to try and do perfect pairings with such a culinarily chaotic table, although I always bring a nice Pinot Noir for the lamb. The Biblical emphasis is on red wine, especially when you make the droplets on the plate (ten in total, one for each plague). But, if there’s a God (Hashem, for the Jews), I don’t think she’d mind if someone who preferred white wine used that instead. She would, though, wonder about someone who didn’t like wine.


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