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Fire and Fury: the Carr Fire in the heart of “Jefferson State”

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I left Oakland for my drive north at noon on Saturday. The morning fog had burned off, and the sky was sunny and blue. I first smelled the fire 125 miles south of Redding, in Yolo County, north of Vacaville, even with all the car windows shut and the AC on. By the Colusa County line, the sky had turned a milky, opaque silver. It looked like fog, but wasn’t. It was smoke from the Carr Fire, drifting south. I parked the car to walk Gus. The smell! Dirty dog, like when Gus needs a bath. But it wasn’t Gus. It was ash, burnt wood, and lots of other incinerated stuff.

The farther north we got up the I-5, the darker and hazier the air became. Visibility was sharply reduced, and it was fiercely hot. At 3 in the afternoon on a late July day in the Sacramento Valley, that sky should have been blindingly blue, not mother-of-pearl.

In Red Bluff, 27 miles south of Redding, things were really bad. The haze was super-thick—this picture hardly does it justice.

And the sun was a weird, reddish-orange smudge in the haze,

the way it must look from Neptune. The smell was very strong, very bad: a burnt-out fireplace. People were wearing face masks.

We stayed that night in Red Bluff. A few days earlier, I’d had an email from a guy who reads my blog, name of Alain Teutschmann, who owns Mount Tehama Winery, in Manton, a tiny town (population 347) southeast of Redding, in the Sierra Foothills. He’d read on my blog last week that I’d be in Red Bluff and wondered if we could meet. Sure. He took me to a dive bar—my favorite kind—out in the boonies, E’s Locker Room. They don’t have a website but they are on Facebook.

Alain–a lovely, interesting man, with a great back story–had read my comments about “Red Trump Land” and wanted me to experience “Jefferson State.” Here’s a picture of Alain in front of E’s:

Here’s a poster on a tree that tells visitors they are now in the State, not of California, but Jefferson.

We met the owner and the bartender, two very nice, young (to me) guys. Hard not to like them: salt of the earth types. Alain’s girlfriend, Betty, had joined us. We talked pretty passionately—I did, anyway—about politics, and the owner and bartender listened, but didn’t add much. I mentioned the Jefferson demand for “Smaller Government.” Then Betty—who by the way had evacuated her home–asked an interesting question. “I wonder, if we were an independent state, who would pay for putting out the fire?”

“Good question,” said the bartender, without offering an answer.

I wish he had. This is what these anti-government, anti-tax types never consider. There are thousands and thousands of firefighters (some of them dying), rescue personnel, private contractors driving heavy equipment (also dying), doctors and nurses, cops and law enforcement—you name it, fighting the Carr Fire and helping the people. Someone has to pay them. Someone has to pay for the gasoline for the water-dropping planes and vehicles. For that matter, someone has to pay for the paved roads the firetrucks and ambulances drive on. Someone has to pay for all of the infrastructure. And yet these tea party types demand “no government, no taxes.” With all due respect, I think they sit around at night drinking and getting stoned and complaining about “Big Gummint” taking all their money and giving it to the Blacks and Mexicans. Yet when their community is on fire they expect the Feds and the State to come in and rescue them.

What can you say to such unreasonable people?

I awoke on Sunday morning to nonstop local T.V. coverage: evacuation centers, reports by officials on the fire’s progress, weather forecasts, road closures.

The weather was not favorable to the firefighters. The smell of ashes was stronger than ever. I departed Red Bluff northward with great trepidation, not knowing what I would find in Redding. Someone had said on Saturday night the I-5 was reduced to six miles an hour due to the gridlock of mass evacuations and ambulances and firetrucks. Getting through Redding, though, was easy. The freeway was mercifully free of vehicles. The good news, I suppose, was that the high temperature would be “only” 100 degrees, as against Friday’s 113. Humidity ten percent, winds gusting and erratic, exactly what the firefighters don’t need.

For the folks who live in these parts, the Carr Fire is a catastrophe. Redding has about 90,000 people. Add in a few thousand more for the little mountain towns to the west—the fire’s epicenter—and it’s still a small community. Thirty-eight thousand had already been evacuated—nearly half the entire regional population. Many roads were closed. And the death toll was rising: six by Sunday evening, with many areas still on fire, and thus unsearchable by rescue squads. As I drove on from Redding up towards my next stop, Medford, Oregon, I kept the radio on the local stations, and it seemed like everybody in the entire vicinity was volunteering to help: people offered their barns and pastures for displaced livestock, their homes for the evacuated, food, clothing, rides, cell phone chargers, prayers. That’s the best part of Jefferson State. But I like to think that would happen in Oakland, too, or anywhere in the U.S.

On the way to Medford, you pass Mount Shasta. Anyone who’s driven the I-5 knows how suddenly and awesomely it appears, this majestic, perfectly-shaped sleeping volcano, clad year-round in snow. There’s a Vista Point turnoff on the I-5. Here’s a rendition of what the mountain should look like from there:

Here’s what I saw:

Nothing. A nearly 10,000-foot tall mountain, totally obscured by smoke.

Even in Medford—200 miles north of Redding—the sky was filled with smoke, and the air quality was horrible. But there are fires here, too. There are fires up and down the entire West Coast. “Oregon is on fire,” the local T.V. news anchor in Medford said on Sunday evening. It’s terrible, horrible, heartbreaking. But Donald J. Trump and his allies tell us that climate change is a myth, that the weather isn’t getting hotter, that elite scientists and Democrats are lying. Please, Jefferson people, if you read this, think! Rise above your anger and use your God-given brain. You good people have backed the wrong side, and they’re screwing you blind.


A family trip (and one down Memory Lane)

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I’m driving up to Seattle with Gus on Saturday for my grand-niece’s bat mitzvah. I could just fly, but I want to take Gus with me, and he’s not an official service dog, so that means the car.

It will be a slow trip, maybe 150 miles a day, with plenty of stops along the way. I’ll be going up on the inland route—Highway 5—instead of the Interstate 101, along the coast. Reason is, I get cold very easily, following a 2002 incident in which a rowboat I was on overturned in the cold Russian River. My friend and I were trapped in the water for a long time, and I developed hypothermia. Ever since, my body’s thermostat has been haywire, with the result that in the wintertime, in particular, I’m cold pretty much all the time. This past winter, all I could think of was being in the Central Valley this summer, where I could bake to my heart’s content and not be cold.

My route will take me through some pretty hot places, like Redding and Red Bluff. As I type these words (Thursday afternoon), Google tells me it’s currently 110 in Redding. The high tomorrow (Friday) will be 111. That’s pretty hot; in fact, the only other time in my life I experienced 111 degrees was years ago, in Paso Robles, when the heat was so crushing I had to take refuge in the air-conditioned library. I think I’m better prepared to handle the heat now, though. As for Gus, I’ll have to take extra care of him. He doesn’t like the heat, so we’ll walk in the early morning and later at night. And I’ll keep both of us hydrated.

I like going to out-of-the-way places that are off the tourist beaten path: Medford, Roseburg, Salem. It’s fun to explore these towns and small cities, checking out restaurants and bookstores, finding new bars, meeting new people, seeing the sights. Once you get out of the Bay Area and up towards the California-Oregon border, you leave Blue State territory and enter Red land. Siskiyou County went for Trump over Hillary 56.5% to 35.8%. Shasta was even more lopsided, 65.6% to 28.2%. Locals call that part of the country “Jefferson,” and they wouldn’t mind not being part of either California or Oregon. There are also a lot of libertarians. It will be interesting the meet some of the Trumpers, have a few beers or whatever with them, and sound out their feelings about Trump. After all the scandals and lies, are they having second thoughts?

In case you don’t know what a bat mitzvah is, it’s the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony for girls (for boys, it’s a bar mitzvah). It happens at the age of 13. Here’s a picture of me at my bar mitzvah:

Cute, huh!  That was a long time ago. Dwight Eisenhower was president, but JFK was running hard, and I was already attracted to him through the T.V. A year or so later, after he’d gotten the nomination, I read in the New York Journal-American that he would be at a campaign stop at the Concourse Plaza Hotel, which was just a few blocks away from my building in The Bronx. (The Concourse Plaza was where the New York Yankees lived during the season.) I sawed the handle off one of my mother’s brooms, bought a big piece of posterboard and wrote, with a big Magic Marker, “All the Way with JFK!” When I got to the hotel, there were sawhorses set up at the side entrance and only a few cops and spectators. A black car pulled up and JFK got out. He stood, straightened his tie, gave me a little smile with a nod of the head when he saw my sign, and disappeared inside. That was the closest I ever got to a future President of the United States.

Telling that story reminds me of a Mickey Mantle moment. I was a real autograph hound as a kid. The Yankees were easy to find during the season (they’d shop at the local A&P supermarket, buy pastries at G&H Bakery, wait in line for smokes at the drugstore), and you could always spot a Mantle, a Berra, Ford or Kubek on the street, and mostly they’d be happy to sign an autograph book.

But Mantle had a reputation among us kids. He could be super-charming, but if he’d had a bad day (like striking out a lot, which he did), he could be mean. You never knew. (Of course, we now know that he was an alcoholic.) I already had his autograph six times, but when I saw him that day, crossing 161st Street, I wanted #7. I caught up to him at the pedestrian island. “Mick, can I have your autograph?” Evidently, he’d had a bad day, for he shoved me to the ground and walked away.

Can you imagine a professional baseball player physically assaulting a little kid today? Headlines! Lawyers! Big trouble! But those days were different. Actually, I didn’t mind it in the least. I was shoved by Mickey Mantle! Pretty cool!

Have a great weekend. More on Monday.


Reflecting on the Golden Age of Wine Critics

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Michael Mondavi, whom I’ve known for a long time, invited me to lunch the other day. Over a leisurely meal of sushi at Ozumo in Oakland, our chat naturally ranged all over the board, wine-wise, but it certainly included a good deal of reminiscing.

Hey, that’s what you do when you reach a certain age!

Michael, who’s a few years older than I, told me many charming anecdotes about his Dad I’d never before heard. Surely Robert Mondavi’s legend will only continue to grow as his place in wine history—iconic and inimitable—becomes ever more heroic. Tinged throughout our conversation was a certain wistfulness that bordered on nostalgia. The “good old days” seemed just fine to us, although one does always have to keep in mind Proust’s epigram: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

Be that as it may, Michael prompted me to reflect on my time as a wine writer and critic, and it immediately became clear to me that I had lived through, and thoroughly enjoyed, being a part of the Golden Age of Wine Critics. One must be careful, too, of promiscuously applying the term “golden age” to things. There was a golden age of Greece, for sure, but the phrase contains a pejorative in its implication that the high point is over; never again will Greece be as spectacular as she was in 500-300 B.C.

We were long told that television’s golden age was in the 1950s: I Love Lucy, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Alfred Hitchcock, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, and some of the greatest live drama ever on such series as Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. But some critics also celebrate the television of our current era as the golden age, with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Sopranos and others too numerous to mention. So when was T.V.’s golden age–in the past, or is it all around us right now? One might paraphrase Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese foreign minister (under Chairman Mao), who, in reply to a query concerning his opinion of the French Revolution, said, “It’s too early to say.”

Still, I don’t think it’s too early to say that the years (roughly) from 1978 to 2008 were the Golden Age of Wine Critics. I date the start at 1978 because that is the year some of the major guidebooks to California wine first appeared; also the year Wine Spectator began gaining traction, and was in fact the year Robert Parker launched The Wine Advocate.

As for my end date, 2008, that was the year the Great Recession struck in all its force, with still unquantifiable repercussions in the wine industry; but more importantly 2008 marked the emergence of social media onto the American and world stage, as cultural pattern-shifters of major import. The important critics remained vital, but you could feel their importance fading among a younger generation that preferred the crowd-sharing intimacy of twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs to the sage counsel of older white Baby Boomer males pronouncing verdicts from lofty ivory towers.

Thus we had a span of thirty years, which is just about right for a cultural era, before it expends its energies and is replaced by some other paradigm. And it was my privilege to have been a successful part of that brief, shimmering illusion.

What a time it was! To have been at or near the center of vitality in the industry, especially here in California, which in many ways established itself as the center of the wine world. Not only in production, but in media, in the emergence of “celebrity winemakers,” in a wine-and-food culture especially along the coast, in wine getting interwoven into popular movies (Disclosure, Sideways), in wine becoming a huge public interest, when consumers needed all the help they could get figuring out what to buy, and we wine critics were more than happy to help them.

Never again, I suspect, will wine critics be treated with the reverence by producers as we were during those thirty years. We were courted and flirted with, wined and dined, as proprietors both wealthy and famous, and not-so-rich and obscure, sought the imprimatur of our good scores. We were interviewed by radio, television and magazine journalists seeking insight into our glamorous and esoteric lifestyles. We were asked to write books by major publishers, and trotted out as celebrities on the tasting and dining circuits. We were aware of that fact that a good review could deplete a particular wine overnight, while a bad one could jeopardize the owner’s ability to make payroll. We even, some of us, ended up in the movies.* We were part of an exclusive elite, and we knew it, although we tried to keep our fame in perspective. I did, anyhow: fame is fleeting, too soon gone, and containing nothing of value in itself, so that humility has much to recommend it.

I wonder how historical writers of the future will record this era of wine critics. Will they say the country went temporarily insane, giving so much power to such a motley crew? Will they view it as a necessary transition—sort of a set of training wheels–during which Baby Boomers went from near-total ignorance of wine to a near-obsession with it? Will there be a new golden age of wine critics that will be even more splendid than the old one? One thing’s for sure: no single wine critic will ever again enjoy the power that a handful of us did.

It was fun. Yet when I quit my job, on Sept. 2, 2016, I put the wine industry behind me forever. I think I left at exactly the right time: the torch was being passed, the times had changed, the practice of wine criticism was getting (for me) a little too baroque and stylized. And the playing field had definitely become mobbed. I personally like some elbow room. I have plenty of it, now. Goodbye, golden age of wine critics! It was a blast.

 

__________________________________________________________

 

* My brief appearance in Blood Into Wine

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1394383/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

 

was the high point of my film career!


Lessons learned from old tasting notes

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Why I did 25,000 tasting notes before I ever even had a job reviewing wine remains a mystery to me to this day.

I guess it was that overused word, “passion.” It’s not that I couldn’t help myself, as can happen with other less desirable addictions. I didn’t want to stop; I loved taking wine notes. I felt I was performing a useful act (if only to myself), and I’ve always derived intense pleasure in learning and mastering new talents. In the end, though, it really is a mystery, this “getting bit by the wine bug.”

I kept all eight of my hard-cover volumes as well the thick files of my written notes, and I’m glad I did.

NOTES

I don’t think I’m going to publish a “Great Vintage Wine Book,” but re-reading them makes so much fun. Here’s one from the summer of 1991 or 1992;

GAVIN

Gavin Newsom, today our Lieutenant-Governor (and the odds-on favorite to be California’s next Governor) was about to open his first Plump Jack wine store, down in Cow Hollow, and he invited me to be part of a small tasting group that met weekly to taste wines that salesmen had dropped off. The wines were written by Gavin himself, the notes are mine. We marked them simply “Yes” or “No”; a group consensus determined if the wines would be sold in the store on Day One.

Here’s another, from a Bon Appetit tasting panel shortly before Christmas, 1990 (and a big, belated Thank you! to Andy Blue for inviting me to those wonderful tastings for so many years).

 

DUNN

I don’t know if you can read it, but my notes concerning the 1979 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon—then 11 years old–are interesting. Here they are:

Me: “Inky black, orange at rim. Dead? Raisined nose—some licorice, tar. Massive tannins either hiding it all, or this wine’s gone.” Andy himself was there and so was Jim Laube, so I asked them both, separately, what they thought. I wrote:

“Laube says 91 [points], hold 5-6 years. Dias Blue agrees with me [i.e. that the wine is dead].”

That was a teaching moment for me. Andy and Jim were just about the most famous critics in California in 1990. As an aspiring critic myself, I looked up to them as mentors. And yet, here they were, coming down on diametrically opposite sides about a wine. I remember thinking, “Maybe there is no objective truth about these sorts of things. People will differ. The best course is to state your opinion honestly and confidently. Others can agree or disagree.” And that is the philosophy that guided me for the next 25 years after I really did become a professional wine critic. (And by the way, I still think that ageability predictions are crap shoots.)

One other thing I noticed going over my old tasting notes, and that’s how relatively low my scores were. From the same page as the Dunn: 84 points for Keenan ’87 Cab. A measly 86 points for La Jota ’86 Cab Franc. On other pages, I found lots and lots of scores in the mid-80s for wines that, today, I probably would score above 90. Why is that? Only two possible explanations: Score inflation, or a definite improvement in quality. I think it’s the latter. Vintners are picking riper these days than they did in the 1980s (which is a good thing, if they don’t let the grape sugars run away). They’ve learned how to tame those tannins, and they’re also far more educated about how to oak their wines; many from the old days were simply too oaky. That makes for better wines. On the inflation part, I’m willing to admit that there may have been psychological factors involved in my higher scores over the years. I don’t fully understand that part. I didn’t particularly feel pressured, from either external or internal sources, to score higher. I wasn’t aware of any shifting in my thinking or motives; Wine Enthusiast certainly never hinted to me they’d like more high scores. But I think my notes from the 1980s and early 1990s prove that my scores did tend to get higher, especially after the year 2000. I’ll leave it to others to ascribe the reasons why.

* * *

I’m on my way to Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley today. The weather will be absolutely gorgeous, warm and blue skies, so unlike my last trip when it was cold and wet, and the Siskyou Pass was treacherous driving. More tomorrow.


Unicorn wines, and maybe unicorns in Napa

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When did all this talk about unicorns get so crazy? Suddenly, it’s unicorn this, unicorn that. Fifty-five million results on a Google search, of which this one, published earlier this year in Fortune, is most explanatory: “a unicorn is a private company, valued at $1 billion or more, and they’re seemingly everywhere, backed by a bull market and a new generation of disruptive technology.”

New, over-priced tech companies. Hmm. We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Back in 2000 we called it the “dot-com bubble,” the catastrophic melt-down of a short era in which seemingly any company that ended with a dot-com enjoyed meteoric growth on the stock market. A good example was a startup called onsale.com. It was popular for a while after amazon.com got too expensive for most people to afford. I should know; I bought a bunch of onsale, and got slaughtered when it collapsed, along with all the other phantom dot-coms.

Now, the word “unicorn” is being applied to wineries. Wine Spectator picked up the term from Twitter back in 2013, quoting Raj Parr’s tweeted definition: “A [unicorn] wine that is ‘rare,’ ‘not seen much’ ‘special bottlings.’ Not always the most expensive but just hard to find.” By 2015, unicorn wines were all the rage in somm circles: the Wall Street Journal said “they confer[red] status not by cost but by the skill—or luck—it takes to acquire one.” Eater jumped into the fray, describing unicorn wines as a new category of wine taking hold in Manhattan—the once in a lifetime bottles that every sommelier dreams of drinking, and bragging about, before they die.” Eater’s list was exclusive to Old Europe, mainly France. You would never find a California wine on a unicorn list, especially not in Manhattan.

Most recently, here’s Wine Spectator again, with Dr. Vinny asking the question, “What is a unicorn wine?” and pointing out that the opposite of unicorn wines are “first-growth Bordeauxs, or ‘cult’ California Cabernets.” Interesting. Not that long ago “cult California Cabernets” were the hottest wines in the world, coveted by everybody. Can it have been only eight years ago that the San Francisco Chronicle called Aubert, Ovid and Sloan “six cult wines to covet”? Today, you won’t find them on anyone’s unicorn list. They’re more like your great-grandfather’s wine than something the cool kids drink.

By the way, the hashtag #unicornwine still gets a lot of play on Twitter, although the category finally seems to be opening up to include California wine—as long, that is, as it fulfills the requirements of being rare and impossible to get. Someone tweeted a link to an Instagram post from “Mcvino82,” who posted this pic of an Inglenook 1978 Petite Sirah with the hashtags #unicornwine and (funnily) #whereisfreddame.

So a nearly 40-year old California Petite Sirah just might qualify as a unicorn. Story time: Years ago, I was on one of my first assignments for Wine Spectator, to interview a wealthy rock-and-roll lawyer who lived in the Hollywood Hills and was a bigtime wine collector. As I pulled into his driveway, a UPS truck was unloading case after case of Dominus, Dunn Howell Mountain, Opus One, Petrus, Tignanello—you get the idea. As we shook hands I tried to make small talk and said, “Man, I see you like the good stuff.”

He pointed with his chin to the stacks of cases on his driveway and said, “That? Nah, I hate it.”

Wow. “Then why do you buy it?” I asked, mentally doing a financial calculation of the cost.

“Look,” he explained, “those are what I call ‘pissing wines.’ You know how, when you’re kids, you have contests to see who can piss the furthest? Well, ___ and ___ [and here, he mentioned some real Hollywood heavyweights] invite me to their homes, and they serve Petrus ’66, so I have to invite them here and give them Petrus ’64.”

I took that in. Then I asked, “So, if you don’t like these wines, what do you like?”

“Ahh!” he grunted, grabbing me by the elbow. “Let me show you.” He led me to his backyard, where he’d dug a storage cellar into the hillside. Rummaging through the racks, he pulled out a bottle. It was a Petite Sirah from San Benito County whose producer, even on that day 25 years ago, was long defunct. “This is what I like!” he exulted.

“What do you like about it?” I asked.

“I like it,” he replied, “because no one else can get it!”

That was the rock-and-roll lawyer’s unicorn wine. So, you see, there’s nothing new about the concept, only the word. And while we’re on the topic of fantasy, it looks like Napa may be getting ready to allow marijuana dispensaries within the city limits. It’s far from a done deal, but I can see a time when upscale tasting rooms selling sips of unicorn wines will also offer unicorn weed to inhale, leading to the very real possibility that tourists emerging from these establishments, staggering down the street, may visualize actual unicorns.

Unicorn2

Photo credit: goodmenproject.com


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