On Christmas Day, Maxine made eggs Benedict for brunch, and then for dinner Marilyn served honey baked ham with all the trimmings (including scalloped potatoes) and so I had about a year’s worth of fat and calories and cholesterol all in one day. But what the hey, it was Christmas, a time to cast care to the winds and not worry about anything. Maxine and Keith drank coffee laced with Kahlua for brunch. I refrained from the Kahlua, because I had to drive to Marilyn’s afterward, over the beautiful but treacherous Santa Cruz Mountains that separate San Mateo from the sea, and there was a good-sized rainstorm coming down. Two good reasons to keep my blood alcohol level to absolute zero while driving. When you crest the mountains via Sharp Park Road, all of a sudden the Pacific sweeps into view, with Pedro Point to the south and whitecaps smashing up against the coastal rocks, and it can be hard to keep your eyes on the twisting road. After all these years of living in California, I still think, “There’s the edge of the western world.” In other words, to paraphrase Dorothy, I don’t think we’re in The Bronx anymore.
Anyway, I made up for my abstinence once I got to Marilyn’s, where I would be spending the night. Started off with a couple flutes of champagne. On her dinner table there was more champagne, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, and I think there was a Cabernet in there too; I wasn’t really keeping track. Nor did I care what I drank with what, which puts me fully in agreement with Matt Kramer, who made some waves a few weeks ago with this column, in which he basically and properly argues against getting too mental with the wine and food pairing thing.
The day before, my L.A. friend, Howie, had called to ask for my suggestion of what wine to serve some friends he and Athena had invited for dinner. Howie knows as much about wine as I know about his profession, producing hip hop music, which is, essentially, zero. I patiently told him to please not stress, to just open whatever seemed likely to work with whatever, and to refrain from calling me in the future with lame questions. (We go back a long way; I can speak frankly.) Wine writers do get asked these kinds of things all the time:
Which is better with the lamb chops, Cabernet or Pinot Noir?
I’m having friends over who know about wine. What should I serve to impress them?
I’m dating this girl who’s into wine. What will she like?
I mean, in most cases these questions have no answers, and even if they did, they can’t be answered in the abstract anyway. There are three reasons why people ask us writers questions like these:
1. Their insecurity.
2. Their perception of us as gurus.
3. The Frankensteinian myth manufactured by the industry that there are certain rules about wine that only barbarians ignore.
As with most things in life, there’s some truth to all three, but there’s also a lot of hype. People are insecure about wine. Why wouldn’t they be? Even professionals are insecure about wine. Sommeliers try their best to get the food pairing thing right and they still strike out often as not. So it’s understandable why people would turn to writer/critics for advice, especially if they happen to be old friends. We have been portrayed–or we portray ourselves–as more knowledgeable than most people, which happens to be true, as far as truth goes. As for rule #3, we’ve all grown up with the “red wine with steak, white wine with sole” thing, and there’s some truth to that, too.
But I think the reason why writer/critics sometimes get a little impatient with the questions is that we get asked them all the time, and we sense, behind the questions, in the minds of the questioners, a level of anxiety that’s antithetical to the spirit of eating and drinking and having a good time with friends. If you’re paying $200 for a meal at Masa’s (for one; double for two) the wine pairing damned well better be perfect, assuming you can tell the difference between perfect and merely good. But that circumstance is the exception to the rule for most of us; you can’t bring the level of scrutiny and heightened expectation to a home-cooked meal, or to a meal at an ordinary restaurant, as you do to Masa’s. Instead, you relax your standards, lower your expectations and enjoy. I think that’s the biggest difference between the European and American approaches to wine. We make such a big deal about it; they don’t. If there’s some Bordeaux left over from the roast beef and you’re onto the fish course, you don’t freak out and demand Sancerre or Muscadet. It’s not the end of the world. The wine-and-food-pairing Gestapo isn’t going to bang down the door and haul you off to the foodies’ concentration camp.
Late at night at Marilyn’s, as we watched a truly bizarre movie called Exit through the Gift Shop, I drank some of the Sauvignon Blanc, which was from Napa Valley, with vanilla ice cream and a scoop of leftover stewed fruit Marilyn had prepared as a side dish for the ham. I don’t think any sommelier would pair Sauvignon Blanc with ice cream and stewed fruit, but you know what? It was delicious, I didn’t care, there was nobody to impress, and it was so good that despite the calories and fat and cholesterol that had proceeded it I marched right into the kitchen for a second bowl. And another glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
What’s up at Rubicon? First, longtime winemaker Scott McLeod quit about a month and a half ago. Now, on Friday came word that Larry Stone, M.S., the winery’s general manager and close collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola for many years (since the Rubicon restaurant days in San Francisco), also has jumped ship. Larry now is President of Evening Land Vineyards.
Without further information, it’s impossible to know if these are isolated events, or if together they portend a problem at Rubicon. I tasted the most recent Rubicon (the wine) last month and there was no problem, but then again, it was the 2007, which was made three years ago, so maybe things have turned south since then. I gave it 93 points, not as high as 2005 or 2006, but respectable enough. Larry himself, in explanation of why he left Rubicon, told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné only that “They’re going in a slightly different direction right now,” a non-explanation explanation that means Larry has no intention of answering the question at this point. That’s all right. There are many things we don’t know, such as why James Suckling left Wine Spectator or what Rand Paul really did with that bong.
We can, however, speculate! Coppola late last month launched his much anticipated new Sonoma County restaurant, RUSTIC, part of his expanding Francis Ford Coppola Winery presence in Sonoma, which he told Inside Scoop SF is “a very ambitious project.” Could it be that, in this severe downturn, with cult wines like Rubicon having a hard time moving, that FFC has decided something more consumer friendly might also be more profitable? Maybe Coppola’s energy is moving out of Napa “over the hill” into Sonoma, and McLeod and Stone, knowing that, felt the time was right to get out. Then again, maybe FFC’s famously ill temperament finally got to both of them.
and on the sommelier front…
Was sent the galley of a new book, “Secrets of the Sommeliers,” by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay, and can definitely recommend it. I learned much more about sommeliers than I ever thought there was to know. It’s from Ten Speed Press, and definitely worth a read. The best quote is from sommelier Parr. It concerns his thinking process when sampling distributor wines: “As I [blind] taste them, I come up with a price I think each wine is worth. Then I look at the price list. If my number is close to the wholesale cost of the wine, it’s a buyable wine for me.”
Lots of meat on that bone to chew on! For starters, how “blind” is “blind”? If the distributor shows Parr a range of (let’s say) Domaine Leroy Burgundies in paper bags, is it really blind if Parr knows the winery? Maybe instead of knowing the wines are from a single domaine, all Parr knows is that they’re Premier Crus from a specific vintage. That would still help him “calibrate” his palate. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’d just like to know the details.
What’s really interesting is that, in comparing his imaginary price against the real price, Parr has, in effect, a rating system, as all tasters do and must. His system is, basically, 95-100 points = perfect parity between his imagined price and the actual price, 90-94 points for a slight (e.g. $10) discrepancy between imagined price and actual price, etc. etc. down the line. I like that! And I like that Parr shares with us his actual pragmatic thinking, instead of resorting to some airy-fairy M.W. “Hmm, I don’t have to know anything about this wine in order to tell you precisely how good it is or what it’s worth.” In order to come to a judgment about a wine, you need some parameter…you can’t be a tabula rasa, a blank slate “without built-in mental concept,” as Wikipedia puts it.
Finally, the wine life in South Korea
Loved this comment from a reader in South Korea concerning prices there. “Entry level NZ Sav Blanc is $30 USD a bottle and good everyday drinking Sangiovese mid range is $45 USD a bottle. The really good wines, (and I like Burgundy and Barolo), are $120-150 USD a bottle. These are retail prices! It’s madness.” So next time you feel like complaining about prices here, think about those miserable ex-pats in Seoul.
Is quality in wine inherent, or is it something we impute to wine? I’ve wondered about this for years. Before I took an active interest in wine and educating myself about it, I would happily slurp down anything you offered me, from Champagne to Ripple, and if you’d asked me which was better, I would have had to reply, in all honesty, I don’t know. Now, of course, I fancy I can tell the difference between quality and plonk, but is that really true, or is it just something I tell my ego in order to make it feel better?
I’ve been planning on giving a wine tasting to a group of young (mostly 20-something) people. It hasn’t happened yet, because of logistical problems — oh, scratch that, because of laziness on my part — but I’ve been thinking about how I might structure it. When you do tastings, there’s no template that works for everyone. A group at the Bacchus Society obviously has to be treated differently from my young tattoo and skateboard friends. For them, I came up with a couple different ideas to keep the tasting loosey-goosey so that we could all have fun, while still learning something.
One part of the tasting will be “Which is the more expensive wine?” I figure we’ll taste two wines: One costing around $200, the other $15. It’ll be interesting to see which wine the people prefer. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were split right down the middle, which would lead to an interesting conversation about why two consumer products that are roughly identical are so disparate in value. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if a majority favors the more expensive wine, since, in general, you get what you pay for. On the third hand, I’d be stunned if the majority preferred the cheaper wine — stunned, but not entirely surprised, since on many occasions, in blind tastings I’ve given higher scores to the inexpensive bottle.
Another session, I figure, is “Which is the real red wine and which is the white wine with food coloring?” I went out and bought some food coloring and found that a precise mixture of red and black will turn a Sauvignon Blanc the color of Cabernet Sauvignon. I decided to do this after reading a study that showed that, if people couldn’t see the wine’s color, they couldn’t tell if it was red or white. Isn’t that strange? We like to think it would be obvious, but apparently it’s not. (First, I’m going to try the experiment on myself.)
A third session is going to be really sneaky: I’ll give them the same wine twice, and ask them which they prefer. That’s pretty under-handed, but I’ll do it, not to embarrass anyone, but to show them how slippery perception is. They’ll automatically assume that, if I’m giving them 2 glasses of wine to compare, the two must be different. They’ll then proceed to find differences in the wines — differences that are not really there, but which their minds impute to the wines, based on their assumptions.
All three of these sessions are designed to show my young friends just how much subjectivity there is in wine tasting, and in our perceptions of wine. I think that’s the main thing a professional taster learns after doing this for a long enough time. Beginners start out with great certitude: they believe in classification systems, in reputations, in a price-quality relationship. As they proceed through life, they discovered that there can be important exceptions to every rule; but they discover, also, that, in general, the rules as commonly understood are more correct than not. Then they realize that the rules may not be as objective, as engraved in the DNA of the universe, as previously thought. What we collectively identify as “quality” may be only a majority preference, based on habit, reinforced by peer groups, and enshrined by tastemakers.
We seem to be living in an era of post-truth politics, in which nothing is real, nothing can be proved or disproved, all claims are to be taken as equally valid, and you can believe in anything you want — not necessarily because it makes sense, but because it appeals to you emotionally and viscerally. In a way, there’s nothing new about this: humankind has always made aesthetic distinctions. For example, is Klimt’s “The Kiss”
better than Picasso’s “The Kiss”?
But that’s art, you argue; there’s a big difference between art, which is subjective, and “true” reality. But is there? We see today in America that not even issues formerly thought to be scientifically objective — such as climate change, the economic impact of a healthcare law, or even where a President was born — are capable of being resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The same thing seems to be happening in wine, where quality (or what we long perceived as quality) is on a slippery slope toward redefinition.
I’ll have more to say about World of Pinot Noir this week, but now it’s off on this cool, partly cloudy morning to the south, and a few days in Santa Barbara County.
(I will also have more to say soon about the movie I’m in, Blood Into Wine, and the way they portrayed — or didn’t portray — my blind tasting. Stay tuned.)
I was reading the L.A. Times this morning over breakfast (oatmeal for health, bacon in hommage to Homer Simpson, and also because there’s been a lot of talk about bacon at this Pinot Noir event) when I came across yet another article on that big fight in New York State over whether to permit grocery stores to sell wine.
Like you, I’ve been kinda sorta keeping up with that story. I understood the issues. I just wasn’t sure which side I agreed with. One the one hand are small, mom and pop liquor stores, who fear that if grocery stores are allowed to sell wine, it will hurt them and maybe drive them out of business. On the other hand are groceries, who argue, Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell wine? It would be a great benefit to our customers, particularly those in rural areas, who won’t have to drive 5, 10 or more miles just to buy a bottle of wine.
Both sides have a point, as is often the case with tricky social, cultural and legal issues, which is why they’re hard to decide. For example, Napa’s winery ordinance is tricky because it pits wineries, who want an extra income stream, against some of their neighbors, who don’t want more traffic, etc. But in a democracy, somebody has to win. In the New York case, I’m siding with the grocers. They should be allowed to sell wine, for several reasons.
For one thing, it’s difficult for a state — in this case, New York — to present a coherent reason for intruding into private, commercial enterprise. Granted, alcohol is a regulated product, but it’s not clear that a State, or county or city, has the right to decide who should and shouldn’t be allowed to sell wine. Yes, States have the power to grant liquor licenses, but all things being equal, they shouldn’t be in the position of picking winners and losers. (The one exception I’ll make is that cities should be allowed to limit the number of liquor stores in ghetto neighborhoods.)
For another thing, this notion of letting only liquor stores sell wine is so antiquated, it’s pathetic. A holdover not only of Prohibition but of 19th century attitudes toward Demon Rum, it fails to recognize that wine is now a mainstream, respectable food. Most people who drink wine do so with meals, and in the company of friends and family. Wine is not some narcotic drug whose dissemination must be limited only to certain restricted areas, like prescription medicines sold in a pharmacy. (And even supermarkets, which are just giant grocery stores, contain pharmacies.)
Finally, we have only to look at our state of California to see that letting grocery stores sell wine seems to be doing little harm, if any, to wine stores. At small grocery stores, like 7-Eleven, all they stock are the big distributor brands that most mom and pop wine stores wouldn’t think of selling anyway. At larger supermarkets like Safeway, the selection is bigger, and there may be some overlap between what they sell and what a little wine shop sells, but if there is, it isn’t much. No, what small wine stores sell tends to be either rarer, more expensive wines or inexpensive imports that most grocery stores would never feature. I think of a wine shop like Paul Marcus, in my neighborhood, where you can get wonderful Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian wines for under $20. You’d never see them in a grocery store.
So I don’t think the New York liquor stores, who are organized under a group called “Last Store on Main Street” (an apocalyptic name meant to frighten) really have a case. I suspect New York State will eventually agree to let grocery stores sell wine, if for no other reason than that it will generate a quarter-billion bucks in new license revenues. If there are some liquor stores who feel threatened by open competition, let them upgrade to quality stuff. Consumers will shop wherever they think they can (a) get the best wine (b) at the best price (c) with the best customer service (d) and with the most convenience. They really don’t care if it’s a grocery store or a liquor store, and neither should New York’s (dysfunctional) government.
Old farts? Or rock stars?
At World of Pinot Noir, I introduced a friend of mine, a good-looking ultramarathoner without an ounce of bodyfat on his lean frame, to Richard Sanford, who is the Dean of Southern California winemakers. Hell, Richard is one of the Deans of all California winemakers. When Richard and I get together the conversation occasionally turns to Olden Times, and so it did there under the tent by the sea, where Richard was pouring Alma Rosa for the WOPN crowd. He was telling my friend about the old Sanford label and the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard when my friend — whom I like a great deal and admire for his creativity, not to mention the fact that he can run for 100 miles — said something about “you old farts.”
He meant it, I’m entirely sure, affectionately and without malice. We all say things that pop into our heads without thinking. I do every day, and I know it was that way with my friend. Still, it hurt, a little. Maybe it tapped into so much of the crap about dinosaur print writers who don’t get it versus cool young Twitterers who are the wave of the future, yadda yadda. At some point in one’s life and career, you have to start wondering if you’re still relevant — and maybe you find yourself trying a bit harder to prove you are.
So here I am now, in a coffee shop in “downtown” Santa Ynez, nursing a non-fat latte, when I pick up a copy of last Nov. 26’s Rolling Stone. Therein is an article on “the historic concerts for the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The musicians included such old farts as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springstein, Aretha Franklin, Bono, Patti Smith, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkle, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Ray Davies, Jackson Browne, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sting — and on and on.
You know, I’ve read and heard younger rockers, like Fergie, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Trey Anastasio, Will.I.Am, Shakira, Pink, Sheryl Crow, Foo Fighters, Taylor Swift, even Adam Lambert credit their musical forebears with blazing paths, breaking down barriers, opening entirely new genres and whole new universes of possibilities that enable pop music to forever stay vital, and to be one of America’s enduring contributions to world culture. And if you ask Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and their generation, they always and happily pay their propers to the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Elvis, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Fats Domino — that list also goes on and on.
For the life of me I don’t know wine writers seem more hung up with generational divisions than rock stars. Professor Saintsbury inspired Harry Waugh and Michael Broadbent, who inspired Hugh Johnson, who inspired Oz Clark and Jancis Robinson, who has inspired God knows how many women to believe they can be great wine writers. The writers of the 60s and 70s even inspired Robert Parker, even if it was in the negative sense that he decided to be unlike them, as Elvis decided to be unlike Pat Boone and the Sex Pistols decided to be unlike Journey. Parker, Johnson, Waugh, Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken and, yes, Jim Laube inspired me. I have some reason to think, or at least to hope, that I have inspired younger writers, and I know that Richard Sanford has inspired a generation of younger winemakers. Even now, there are brilliant young vintners working up and down California who keep one eye on the venerable past, with all its lessons and wisdom, as they stride into futures filled with hope and promise.
Old farts, or rock stars? Richard Sanford still has a few tricks up his sleeve. So do I.
Hey, who says you don’t get your money’s worth for this blog? Here’s a Threefer.
1. Talkin’ Sonoma County
Somebody from the Sonoma County Wine Library called the other day to do a little phone interview with me. She wanted to know, basically, how I thought the Sonoma County Wineries Association could do a better job of marketing and promoting Sonoma County wines. My answer was: it can’t.
This stuff is going to appear in print someplace. The interviewer sent me a draft of her article, and while I completely approve it, and am sure I really said all the things she quotes me as saying, I want to put my remarks in context. This was, after all, a long conversation we had, and the quotes were preceded and followed by other statements that gave more complete meaning to them.
(I should add that, as a news guy myself who’s conducted literally thousands of interviews over the years, not just with wine industry people but with cops, politicians, business tycoons, lawyers, doctors, crime victims, artists, judges, kids, dying people, you name it, I understand the challenges of getting quotes right, and of presenting them in a way that doesn’t distort their intended meaning. It can be difficult.)
So here are the quotes, with my amplifications.
1. “Sonoma County should not market itself as a region. The only region that means anything to anyone,” Heimoff says, “is Napa.”
What I meant: What I was saying was that I don’t think the words “Sonoma County” have much meaning to the average wine consumer. They do to people in the know, like you and me, but we’re not average consumers. To me, “Sonoma County” is a virtual guarantee of quality, of good viticulture and enology, of smart, hard-working people. But to most Americans, it’s like, “What part of Napa is Sonoma in?” They just don’t get it, and I don’t know if they ever will. So I’m not saying Sonoma “should not” in the moral, prescriptive sense of “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s more like I’m saying, “I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of marketing money promoting Sonoma County, because it’s not likely to be effective.”
2. He believes Sonoma was, “very promiscuous in the 80s in developing its AVAs.” Napa “was deliberate and said it did not want to rush. Sonoma is now paying the price,” he believes, with too many AVAs which mean nothing to the consumer, though an AVA like Russian River, he declares, has been very adroit in its marketing.
What I meant: Sonoma rushed out in the 1980s making all these AVAs before the terroir was properly understood. That caused bafflement, even among wine writers, but it also robbed the “Sonoma County” brand as a whole of the potential for respect and recognition, and fed (or attempted to feed) that energy into the sub-AVAs. Trying to promote “Sonoma County” now is a little like trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.
3. Much more important, he says, for Sonoma’s future is that, “people buy brands. In fact, brands are the only thing that people look for. I think in tough economic times people tend to stay with what they know, so to me, that would bode well for some of the more reputable brands in the country.”
What I meant: With hundreds of wineries in Sonoma County, they’re not all going to succeed, even if the public suddenly starts thinking that Sonoma County is the greatest thing since sliced bread, which they won’t. No, the most visible, respected brands will sell because people know and trust them. At the high level, a Williams Selyem doesn’t have to rely on a relationship with Sonoma County; people line up to buy it because it’s a brand. The same goes for Chateau St. Jean or Sebastiani or Geyser Peak; people buy the name, not the grape source. In Napa Valley, it’s a little different; people are so mesmerized by those two words, they believe anything from Napa Valley has to be great, which of course is nonsense.
4. “Newer vintners need to be aware they will have to build their brands by getting high scores for their wines from good critic. There is nothing,” he says, “that moves bottles off the shelf better than a high score from a reputable critic.”
What I meant: This would be self-serving if it weren’t true. The single best way for a winery (especially an unknown or little-known one) to sell wine is to get a high score. We can argue about who’s a “good critic” and who’s not, but not today. Put it this way: Which will sell more wine, an Enthusiast 100 or a Sonoma County AVA? Duh.
5. His tough-love wisdom at the moment: “Focus. It’s hard right now. And it’s every brand for itself. It’s definitely dog eat dog out there.”
What I meant: Exactly what it says. Woof woof.
2. Wine Fraud hits Canada, no longer limited to Europe
I’m continuing to read and enjoy Benjamin Lewis’s “What Price Bordeaux?” book, which is a romp through everything you ever wanted to know about the great wines of the Left and Right Banks. Each chapter is immensely interesting in its own right. I’m up to “Plus Ça Change” — “the more things change,” as in “the more they stay the same — which is about fakery, fraud, aduleration, mislabeling, and the entire Rogue’s Gallery of crooked practices which seems to have infected the world of fine wine forever.
When I was reading the chapter on Sunday morning I wondered if fakery exists in California. Just a little while later I sat down at the computer, went to Meininger’s Wine Business International to check on the day’s news, and saw this headline, from The Vancouver Sun: Canadians react angrily to faux wines.
Seems that some pretty big wine companies “buy bulk wine from cheap sources outside Canada, bottle it here and sell it in the B.C. [British Columbia] Wines section of government liquor stores.” This “could even be a violation of the criminal provisions of the federal Competition Act [and] at the very least it’s unethical.” Some of the wine apparently is labeled “Cellared in Canada” which, apparently, does not mean that the grapes are from Canada, although the average consumer might be forgiven for thinking so.
This brouhaha brings to mind the famous WineGate Scandal, which Lewis recounts in Plus Ça Change. In the mid-1970s, a negociant house bought cheap Vin de Table red wine. He also bought some real AOC Bordeaux white wine. He then changed the color of the wine on the paperwork for his AOC Bordeaux from white to red, which allowed him to sell it for much more money than a table wine would fetch. Of course, he had to correspondingly lower the price on his white wine, since it was “demoted” from AOC Bordeaux to Vin de Table. But he still made “several million francs of profits in a period of four months” before the fraud was discovered by shocked, shocked authorities. (Only the previous year, the President of the INAO, the AOC’s governing body, had insisted that “Our system of control has been perfected so that [fraud] is impossible.”)
So it can happen in Canada. But here in California? Well, we all remember that in 1994, Fred Franzia “pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud with Bronco by falsely labelling grapes,” according to the story about him in last May’s edition of The New Yorker. But that was 15 years ago, and to the best of my knowledge, California wine has seen no fraud since. Every once in a while the question arises of whether or not wineries send critics like me “special” bottles for review — bottles that aren’t the real wine — and while it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true, there’s no way to know. (All you investigative bloggers out there, here’s the route to stardom: Find such a case and bring the winery down.) There are, of course, rampant tales of fraud in the wine auction and old bottle communities, but I can’t get too upset about that, since it doesn’t impact 99.9% of consumers.
I think the Franzia case was a shot across the bow to California (and American) vintners, a warning from federal law enforcement officials that they won’t tolerate such outrageously deceptive practices. Perhaps far more interesting than outright fraud is adulteration — the “improvement” of wine by adding chemicals for flavor, texture and the like. Although the practice is frequently deplored by winemakers, it’s widespread, and there are currently no regulations, state or federal, to disclose them to the public. Should there be? I don’t know. How many more words can you squeeze onto a label? They’re already getting pretty crowded. Maybe wineries could make the information available online.
3. How to make cult wine and be graceful
And speaking of Plus Ça Change, I read with great interest yesterday’s front page article on Dick Grace in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which Mr. Grace skillfully administers the coup de main to the dozens of Napa Valley cult wines that regularly exceed the $225 price tag on his Grace Family Cabernet. The Chron’s wine editor, Jon Bonné, wrote that Grace “is credited with creating California’s first cult Cabernet,” a citation that may be undermined by the craze that attached to Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon when that wine first appeared in the 1960s. But it’s true enough, and the point is that Mr. Grace views the metastasis of cult Cabs with some proper skepticism. He told Jon, “We have to get over what I call the trophy mentality,” and Jon quoted his wife, Ann, as saying that some of the newer cult wines say more about “an address” than anything else.
Well, I can’t argue with that. I don’t taste all the Napa cults but I do taste a lot of them and I can unhesitatingly say that your quality-price ratio is poor in many cases. (The Napa Valley Vintners kindly invited me to a private tasting of cult wines I don’t routinely get to taste. The tasting is Nov. 5. I’ll be reviewing the wines, blind and formally, for Wine Enthusiast, but I should be able to write about the tasting here.)
You can agree or disagree with Mr. and Mrs. Grace — I tend to agree — but what struck me, when I thought about it, were the parallels between their attitude toward the newby cult Cabs, and the way that some of the older, Baby Boomer wine critics view the younger bloggers. Not to paint everyone with the same broad brush (something I’ve been accused of), but you can say generally that some of the older writers saw the younger bloggers as upstarts, not fully qualified, yet out there making statements anyway. That’s kind of like the Graces saying that some (not all) of the newer cult wines are wannabes rather than proven commodities.
Are the newer cult owners resentful that the Godfather of Cult Cabs, Dick Grace himself, faulted them? Maybe there’s been some grumbling. The Chronicle is Northern California’s largest newspaper, and this article was on the front page of the Sunday edition, meaning that a lot of people read it. But if they have hurt feelings, I doubt if they’ll express them in public. Besides, I have to think that many of the newby cults know, in their heart of hearts, that what Mr. and Mrs. Grace said is true. These overblown wines, crafted with the help of hired celebrity winemakers and grapegrowers, are “marketing tool[s], as opposed to wines with a distinctive character,” as Mr. Grace asserted. The pendulum indeed “has swung too far.” And in at least one other aspect, the Graces are attempting to make up karmically for the wealth and luxury that their lives have accorded them. A Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama, Mr. Grace contributes large sums of money to humanitarian causes. He calls this act of charity a “self-correction” after realizing that there is a higher purpose than wealth or fame. It’s enormously gratifying to hear him concede that the prices his wine commanded were “an extension of my overblown ego” and to see him making up for it.
Maybe Mr. Grace could hold Buddhism classes for his fellow cult wine producers in Napa Valley and elsewhere. They have a lot to learn from him.
Was in Miami Beach where I hadn’t been for a long time. South Beach is hot, pulsating and sexy. The Art Deco district is languid by day, throbbing at night with [mainly] young, good-looking people of every nationality
In the heavy, mid-afternoon heat and humidity, when sweat breaks out at the slightest exertion, it was pleasant to sit for an hour or two in a little cafe, nursing beers and cooling off and watching the passing parade. But nighttime is when South Beach wakes up.
We (my friends and I) hung at a place called SushiSamba, on Lincoln Avenue in the heart of the action. One of my friends had been the previous beverage manager of the restaurant cum club; the other was the incoming. The food — sushi meets Brazil via Peru — was as exotic and delicious as anything I’ve had lately. I’ve always been a Champagne pairer with raw fish, but sake also works. Fino sherry, too.
SushiSamba had a dance floor and they let the kids in from the street to bust moves, providing a sort of floor show. Their bodies are made of rubber. We drank a lot of wine until the wee hours. One night, back in our beachside hotel, all we had left was a bottle of Robert Mondavi Coastal Cabernet, but all agreed it was fine; to have complained because it wasn’t a “great label” would have been snobbish. But then there was the lady, who joined us at one point for drinks, who pointed out that the wine we were drinking (not the Mondavi) must have been good because it had “legs”; and my friends and I smiled at each other but said nothing.
“Legs.” There’d been an article in the United Airlines magazine I’d read on the flight down on how to be a wine snob. It included a glossary that had, not only “legs” in it but “ullage,” and I had to wonder if these articles don’t do more harm than good. Yes, we want to break down the barriers to wine enjoyment so that everyone can feel comfortable with it, but do people really need to memorize the word “ullage” and then actually use it in a sentence? I can just see it.
Average guy: This looks like a good bottle to get for the steak.
His wife: Yes, but what about the ullage?
His wife: I read it in the United magazine.
Anyway, my friends drank a lot more than I did, and a lot of different kinds of stuff. Wine, beer, cocktails, things I’d never heard of. They started a lot earlier in the day, too. I’m not big on alcohol before dusk. But then, they’re in the restaurant business, where the traveling, schmoozing and, yes, drinking is a lot more demanding and expected than in my relatively sedate world of wine writing. I had an uncle who was in charge of regional distribution for Seagram’s, and he drank a lot, too.
I’ve always liked people on that side of the industry. They have a rowdy, randy good-natured spirit, and they laugh a lot and make people around them laugh. God loves people who make people laugh.
Then there was this quote from yesterday’s New York Times I read on the flight back to Oakland: Classic and common are concepts up for grabs; my notion of quality may leave you cold. Many of our masterpieces owe their origins to the distinctly immoral ambitions of power politics, their survival to prosaic strokes of luck, their present pre-eminence to institutional marketing, critical attention and popular sentiment. Even so, survival can be chancy. Fine wines are tossed out and crummy wines are kept all the time.
Granted, the essay was really about who determines what is “art” as opposed to any old scribble. I changed a few words in the above quote to make it about wine, but the concept is the same. How does one wine get universally accepted as great while hundreds of others, which may be its equals or near-equals, are left by the wayside? More on this later.
P.S. To those of you who commented while I was gone and didn’t get them approved until last night, I apologize. For some reason I don’t understand, my laptop lost Internet connectivity.