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Wine writer ethics, an obituary, and a segue to Tom Jones

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When I was still a beginning wine writer, one of the giants of our trade was Nate Chroman, who died last Friday at the age of 83.

I am looking now at his 1973 book, The Treasury of American Wines, which I have owned for many years. It’s a fine read, although for me its usefulness is limited by the fact that it has no index.

Nate was the wine critic for the Los Angeles Times in the 1970s and 1980s, but lost his job after another Times reporter, the paper’s media critic, David Shaw, wrote a series of articles on wine writing in which he questioned Chroman’s ethics. (I wonder if they ran into each other at the water cooler.) Nate, it seems, had accepted meals and travel from wineries, whose wines he then reviewed in the paper. This was the first instance, so far as I am aware, of a wine writer’s ethics being questioned in the media. My oh my, how far we’ve come. As we all know, gotcha! articles about wine writer ethics have become a staple these days, especially in the blogosphere (paging Jay Miller). Nate Chroman had the dubious distinction of being the Alan Shepard of that agonizing trip.

I met David Shaw, who passed away in 2005, in the 1990s, at his home in the Silver Lake district of L.A., where he had a modest wine collection he wanted to show me. Yes, David was a wine lover, and a knowledgeable one. Although he’d come under fire for what some perceived as an unnecessary persecution of Nate Chroman, who evidently was well-liked (I never met him), David never apologized or reneged. He had a sense of justice, not to mention a nose for a good story (he won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting about a preschool child abuse scandal) and felt strongly that wine writers should accept nothing for free from the wineries they cover.

I think David was a little harsh. Reporters can err too much on the side of being judgmental, especially if it makes for lurid reading. The worst thing I heard about Nate (I can’t locate a copy of David’s series, so I don’t know if it was in there) was that Nate used to demand that winemakers who invited him to lunch or dinner bring super-expensive bottles of wine, like Lafite, which he then wouldn’t even drink, but take home! I don’t know whether or not that was true, but it made the rounds, in those pre-Internet days when you heard things from an actual person’s lips.

I personally don’t think it’s a big deal to occasionally accept a meal from a winemaker. I do it on rare occasions, almost always lunch at my local Whole Foods, not exactly the Everest of haute cuisine, but convenient for me. Obviously I would never ask a winemaker to bring an expensive bottle, especially one he didn’t himself make. That’s over the line.

This next is a little irrelevant to the topic, but mentioning Jay Miller made me think of Robert Parker, so I went to his website where he’s described as “the million dollar nose.”

That made me remember the actress Betty Grable, who was described as having “million dollar legs.”

Through the magic of The Google Machine I learned the following:

The TV star, Holly Madison, has a million dollar insurance policy on her boobs.

The porn star, Keiran Lee, has a million dollar policy on his penis.

Head & Shoulders shampoo took out a $1 million insurance policy on the hair of the NFL star, Troy Polamalu.

Gene Simmons, of KISS, insured his tongue for $1 million.

And according to the same website, Tom Jones “allegedly” insured his chest hair for $7 million.

When I was in my 20s I was in a rock band [on keyboards]. We were good enough for Mr. Tom Jones to audition us as the opening act for his upcoming tour. My band had 8 or 10 female backup singers (the number varied over the years). They were all beautiful, sexy women. It turns out that Mr. Jones didn’t hire us, but he did put the moves on the ladies, whose reactions can be summed up in the word “Eeeew.” And finally, for your listening pleasure, here’s Tom singing “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” on YouTube.


Old wine writers never die…

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It was back in the late Eighties I first met Steve Pitcher at some wine event. He was this rather rotund guy, with a chubby pink face, wire-framed eyeglasses and thinning hair. He seemed always to be in his fifties, even though he must have been only in his early forties at the time. Holding himself with a certain reserve and distance, he seemed formidable, but I soon found that behind the rather dour mien (Steve had been trained as a lawyer, although he never practiced) lay an acute intelligence that was not without a wry sense of humor. He was very smart. He used sometimes to pretend to be German (I think he was of German extraction) and would revert to a German accent with a ja wohl accompanied by a formal little bow. But the eyes sparkled behind the glasses, and the little smirk on his rather small mouth told you he was having fun and giving you permission to have fun, too.

Steve was a good wine writer. He was of the old school, preferring long, scholarly essays to the short, snappy little poofs that are popular today. I don’t believe he ever Facebooked or blogged, much less tweeted; I suspect he would have scoffed, and he was an awfully good scoffer. I remember a piece he once wrote for The Wine News, which employed him longer, I think, than any other periodical he worked for. It was on California Sauvignon Blanc, and ran to 5,000 words. (!!!) That was verbose even for long-form wine articles.

I never saw Steve socially. He was a very private person, seldom referring to anything in his outside life beyond wine. I thought he might be gay, but as close as we were professionally, I never would have dared to ask him anything so personal. However, we did run into each other frequently. The San Francisco Bay Area’s wine writing circle was, in past days, a small one, rather like a fraternity. Wine writers associate with all kinds of people from the wine industry: winemakers, growers, cellar rats, P.R. folks, marketing and sales managers, wealthy owners, field workers, tasting room personnel. But it is within our own group, with our own kind, that we can most easily relax and let down our hair and share war stories. Steve was great at that. I knew that he always understood where I was coming from, and vice versa, so there was a certain telepathy between us. I also respected Steve’s palate. He loved German wine, and probably knew more about it than all the rest of us combined.

I liked him well enough so that, whenever I went to an event in San Francisco, or up in Napa Valley, I hoped and expected he’d be there. He usually was, chatting with someone, glass in hand, either listening intently with his eyes focused on the speaker, or saying something himself, in his soft-spoken monotone. I liked to sneak up behind him and tap his shoulder, whereupon he would turn around, recognize me, and make that formal little bow, accompanied by a Welcommen Herr Heimoff!

I miss and mourn Steve. I didn’t know he was sick, even though he’d apparently been suffering from the cancer that killed him for years. He certainly was around less and less over the last year or two, and on those occasions when I did see him, he was noticeably older and slower. But he never gave a hint that he was ill, much less dying, and his eyes never lost that glimmer that made him so special. I posted his death on my Facebook page Friday, and the tributes immediately began pouring in. Steve was well-liked by everyone in this industry. That’s as fine an obituary as a wine writer can hope to get. Ruhe in Frieden, mein alter Freund!



A little bit of this, a little of that

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Twitter as washing dishes

This little snippet from Reuters will probably pass unnoticed, but it’s really terribly interesting and relevant.

“Old media executives too busy, private for Twitter,” the headline says. Go ahead, take 2 minutes and read it.

Any one of the Twitter-phobic quotes could apply to me. My critique of Twitter runs along these lines:

- I’m busy enough with everything else, so I don’t have the actual or mental time to follow a constantly changing Twitter feed.
- Twitter is a very limited form of communication. I’m a writer. I like crafting phrases, sentences, paragraphs. Twitter doesn’t let me do that. This blog does. So does Facebook, to a lesser degree. Not Twitter.
- Most of what I see on Twitter is so superficial as to be ridiculous. I don’t wish to join the chattering classes who apparently have too much time on their hands.

I will gladly concede Twitter’s importance. When students are rioting in Tahrir Square, Twitter gets the news up first. It’s the most awesome media ever invented for instantaneous sharing of breaking events, complete with video. That is truly historic. But I don’t have to tweet in order to “get” Twitter. As one advertising guy said, in a delicious quote, “I understand how to wash dishes. I don’t do it regularly.”

I also understand why celebrities like Twitter. If you’re Lady Gaga, it’s a great way to reach out to your fans and keep them bonded to you (although Aston Kucher apparently grew bored with it). But I’m not a celebrity and I don’t think anyone cares about my every move.

I’ve been predicting a Twitter meltdown for years now. I just don’t think it has legs–at least, to continue its explosive growth. I don’t think it’s just “old media executives” who can’t embrace Twitter. More and more people are discovering that actually living in the real world is better than constantly tweeting to a bunch of “followers” you don’t even know. It’s called “get a life,” and if you’re living on Twitter, you don’t have one.

Robert Lawrence Balzar has died

I’m sure that a younger generation never heard of him, and that’s fine. But he went where no American had gone before, and helped launch the modern era of wine criticism, especially in California. It’s important for today’s new crop of wine writers and bloggers to understand that this stuff didn’t just happen sui generis, like Athena springing full-blown from the brow of Zeus. There are roots. Roots are important. Balzar was roots.

That Jay Miller thing

I’ve refrained from writing about the Jay Miller “payola” allegations in Spain, not through any kindness of heart on my part, but because I don’t know the facts, don’t have the time to dig, and refuse to speculate on matters of which I’m fundamentally ignorant.

But I did read this report yesterday, which contained an interesting paraphrase and quote from Parker himself:

…with Parker referencing the tediousness of tasting mediocre wines that can “burn out the best of us…”

That caught my eye, and I want to explore some thoughts of my own, which aren’t entirely clear even to me. I do taste a great deal of mediocre wine. Vast quantities, you might say, a tsunami of boring wine that comes in every day. It is tedious, and I have wondered what effect this has on my palate. Parker suggests tasting tedious wines can “burn out” the taster. This is a scary thought, because the worst thing that can happen to any professional is to be burned out.

I’ve often fantasized of tasting only the great wines of California, but, of course, that’s impossible. A popular, consumer wine magazine needs to review as widely as possible, and that necessarily involves tasting mediocre wines as well as great ones. Still, I’m of two minds here. I like the fact that I can review inexpensive wines, because that’s what most people can afford, and I feel a great sense of duty toward the average consumer, who’s just looking for a decent everyday bottle. I don’t think Parker has that same motive. He’s more geared to the high-end collector/consumer.

At the same time, I do think that tasting mediocre wines can have a dulling effect on the palate, even for “the best of us.” How do I counter-balance this nefarious effect? I have a method, but as you’ll see, it’s not perfect. I try to arrange daily flights so that (let’s say) inexpensive California reds are tasted only against each other, while another flight might feature only Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, most of which are necessarily expensive.

Every so often, I’ll throw a ringer into a flight: a cheap wine with a bunch of $100 Cabs, or a $100 Cab with a bunch of cheapos. I acknowledge that my system has flaws, but so does every other system in the world. I also maintain excellent health, eat right, work out religiously, keep my weight under control and get plenty of sleep. Those things help to keep me sharp and prevent palate burnout. But palate burnout always must be something the professional taster guards against.


Appreciating two lives

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From Beijing to Cupertino the world mourns the passing of Steve Jobs. I became an Apple user when, shortly after the famous 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl commercial that aired only once, my then boss bought a bunch of Macs for the office. He was frustrated with our existing computers (mainly TRS-80s, the infamous “Trash 80s” from Radio Shack) that were so hard to use, you had to read a 1,000 page manual just to do the simplest things, like cut-and-paste. And mail merge was like understanding the Theory of Relativity!

So Don (my boss) got the computers, but, lo and behold, nobody had the time or inclination to learn how to use them and to teach the rest of the staff. So Don asked me. I happily took the little Mac home and showed Eugene, my roommate, how clever it was. You could draw with it, in color, and it could actually talk! And it was light enough to tote around in a cute little canvas sack. I feel in love with Macs then and there and to this day have remained an Apple user.

I’m not going to say that, without Steve Jobs and Apple, wine writing as we know it would not exist. But Jobs, more than anyone in my opinion, is responsible for the way millions of people have taken the Internet into our lives. He not only invented the first personal computer, the Apple II (which I learned in grad school), thereby making it possible for anyone to compute. He realized, in the 1990s, that the rise of the Internet opened huge opportunities, and he invented the Macintosh to take advantage of them. It was the first computer that was easy to use, was Internet adaptable, and fun. And it looked good, too, a feature of every gadget Steve Jobs ever helped to design.

I remember in the 1990s the big question concerning the Internet was, what is the killer app? Everybody wanted to know how people would actually use it. Email was an obvious answer, but Jobs knew that the Internet was so much bigger than that. He didn’t invent social media, but he seems to have sensed in his bones that people were yearning for more involved, personal ways of communicating with the rest of the world through the Internet. Blogs, like this one, were one result of Jobs’ vision.

I felt bad, real bad, when I learned of his death yesterday. Although everybody knew it was coming, no one thought it would be this soon. His demise feels right up there with the passing of other icons. John Lennon has been mentioned in the media. Perhaps the two of them are up in heaven right now, talking about how Apple Corp. finally allowed iTunes to sell the Beatles catalog. Surely they’re listening to a Beatles tune. I wonder which one?

* * *

Robert Finigan was not the most famous wine writer to come out of the 1970s, but he was one of the most highly regarded among his peers. He published one of the first personal wine newsletters, Robert Finigan’s Private Guide to Wines, which was a precursor to Parker, Charlie Olken’s Connoisseurs’ Guide, and all the rest. He lived in San Francisco, and I always wondered how, as a wine writer, he could afford his tony place in lower Pacific Heights.

Bob died Oct. 1, at the relatively young age of 68.

I met Bob frequently during the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was getting into the San Francisco wine scene. For a while, he ran the C.I.V.C.  (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne), which was marketing the sparkling wines from California that had been established by Champagne houses, like Roederer, Mumm and Taittinger. He gave fancy tastings at the big downtown hotels that I loved going to. He also seemed to have been hired as a sort of functionary to the Getty family–I never understood that relationship, but it was kind of a personal wine advisor. Gordon was getting into wine in a big way, and his son, Billy, was best friends with Gavin Newsom, whom I knew slightly. When Gordon and Gavin decided to launch the first PlumpJack wine shop, in Cow Hollow, Gavin asked me to be part of a small group that would meet weekly, to sample wines and decide which ones would be sold at PlumpJack when it opened. Gavin (who now is California’s Lieutenant-Governor) wanted to assure his customers that every single bottle in the store had been personally hand selected by the team.

We met every Friday evening (I think it was) for six months, and would go through 15 or 20 wines, everybody standing in a circle. Gavin always led; Gordon was usually there; but the voice that carried the most authority was Bob Finigan’s. I would give my views, and Gavin (who was the ultimate decider) duly noted them, but I think Bob’s opinion was what tipped the balance, one way or the other.

Bob was an exquisite gentleman. He dressed nattily, in a urbane fashion, like a college professor. He was very kind and soft-spoken; we got along quite well. I think he must have been ill for some time, because the last time I saw him, about five years ago, he was walking alone across Market Street, toward the Palace Hotel where, perhaps, he was going to some fancy wine lunch. I was across the street, headed in the opposite direction, and didn’t really have the time to greet him. He seemed very frail; he was shuffling along slowly, like an old man, even though he couldn’t have been more than 62 or 63. I was shocked, to tell the truth. Now, I wish I’d taken the time to chat.

I will miss Bob Finigan. The world of wine has lost a gifted and loving voice.


Wine, sex and Mormons: an inquiry

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As everyone knows, I try my best to steer clear of controversy on this blog. But these are times that try the soul. Here’s something that just makes me want to scream!

Rough play? References to wine, sex prompt BYU to cancel U of U production of Greek play

That’s the headline in one media outlet reporting how Brigham Young University, the Salt Lake City school owned by the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), canceled a performance of Euripides’ Greek tragedy, The Bakkhai, just hours before it was scheduled to be shown.

Let’s break it down. The Bakkhai (sometimes Bacchae) premiered in Athens in 405 B.C. It is a morality tale, relating a fierce confrontation between Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, and the temporal King of Thebes, Pentheus. Dionysus calls upon the people to celebrate his annual Festival in the usual way, with wine-drinking, dancing and sex. Pentheus, a rather conservative sort who was the ancient Greek equivalent of the Family Research Council (or perhaps Mike Huckabee is a better example), doesn’t believe it’s right for the people to so indulge, and orders Dionysus’s arrest. However, the table is turned on Pentheus, proving that it’s a terrible idea to challenge a God, particularly one so popular with the people. Pentheus is torn apart by his own mother, who exhibits his head as a trophy. The Bakkhai has been called “the most horrific, powerful and theatrical of all Greek tragedies.”

The production, staged by the University of Utah’s Department of Theatre and Media Arts, had been scheduled as part of its 39th annual Classical Greek Theatre Festival, and was to have been shown at BYU. You can imagine the dismay of the 350 BYU students who purchased tickets when they were abruptly refunded their money and told the play wasn’t happening.

What prompted BYU to muzzle it? University officials knuckled down on the Univ. of Utah, and who knows what local political and religious pressures they brought to bear. The play’s producer, James Svendsen, offered this lame excuse: the production “does not really fit the BYU proscenium arch theater nor their audience.” If you believe that, I have a Tabernacle Choir to sell you. Is it really credible that the producer would have discovered his play didn’t fit onto BYU’s stage hours before it was to open? And in what way did the play not “fit” BYU”s audience? Isn’t that a judgment that the 350 people who bought tickets should have made, rather than had imposed upon them?

What really freaked BYU out was the “gender-bending in the casting” and “abundance of phallic symbols and cleavage” in the play (this, according to Svendsen). In the straight, white, male-dominated Mormon culture, any artistic expression, no matter how rooted in history, that doesn’t accord with their idea of correctness must be quashed, censored, driven underground. (And don’t forget, the Mormons were behind last year’s Proposition 8 campaign in California.)

The Mormons were also clearly obsessed with the focus on wine, notwithstanding its place in the Bible of both the Hebrews and Jesus. Wine is evil, because it lets people relax and be themselves instead of following some imposed mania, and so it must be resisted!!

Look, we’re not talking about some weird performance artist covering herself in chocolate and licking it off, or about the head of Jesus Christ in a jar of urine. I can understand why people would find those objectionable. No, we’re talking about an ancient Greek play by one of their greatest tragedians. The Bakkhai deals with a perfectly reasonable and important topic: the relationship between God and man. The Bible, Shakespeare, even modern playwrites like Kafka have asked precisely the same questions: Who is man to give his devotions to? What are the consequences of the clash between spiritual and civil authority? Jesus wisely recommended rendering unto Caesar, etc., and our own U.S. Constitution took the same route, famously prohibiting, in the First Amendment, the establishment of a State-sponsored religion.

But obviously, some reactionary religious groups never have been comfortable with the separation of Church and State. They would prefer to see governance and theology tightly intertwined, even in the halls of academia, where freedom of inquiry and expression ought to be celebrated, not despised. Why is that? And why is it that such people so often hate wine and the spirit of freedom it inspires?

Well, at least the Salt Lake Tribune gave The Bakkhai a glowing review, advising playgoers to get there early to catch dramaturg Jim Svendsen’s informative introduction.” Too bad BYU crushed it.

dionysus

Dionysus won’t be playing in Salt Lake. Maybe San Fran?


Some thoughts on bottle variation

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Late word: At 11:02 a.m. tomorrow (Tuesday 7/21) I will publish the winner of the Murphy-Goode “A Really Goode Job” with pics and up close and personal background info.

* * *

Interesting article by Dan Berger in last Friday’s Napa Register on bottle variation, a phenomenon rarely talked about by vintners because, frankly, they don’t want to talk about it. The most commonly understood (by wine consumers) reason for bottle variation is TCA — corkiness — but Dan points out another: lightstruck bottles (whether by direct sun or indoor flourescent lighting). I have to admit I’d never heard of this before I attended a tasting at Rubicon restaurant, years ago, at which Dan was present. He found some of the wines lightstruck.

There are other reasons for bottle variation:

- Transit. A bottle may have been exposed to excessive heat, say, in the back of a UPS truck on a summer day.
- Poor storage.
- The unequalization of production. Production of a wine is said to be equalized if all the barrels or tanks in which it was raised are blended together in one large tank. If this isn’t possible (and it’s often not), then you can have two different wines, both bottled with the same label.
- Time between tasting. Even if two bottles are identical, they can leave different palate impressions if tasted at different ages. Just a few months can alter a wine’s profile.
- Dishonest winery practices. Just because two bottles have identical labels doesn’t mean the winery didn’t knowingly put different wines in them. What, you think it never happens?
- Glass differences. The same wine, tasted in different glasses, will taste differently. This isn’t exactly “bottle variation,” but we don’t drink wine from bottles, we drink it from glasses.

I think bottle variation is the main reason why critical reviews of the same wine by the same critic can vary, when the wine is tasted more than once. It’s only reasonable for the public to expect perfect consistency from a critic, and certainly we critics ourselves would like to perform perfectly consistently. Unfortunately, consistency in anything is rare, and particularly in so subjective a practice as winetasting. Add bottle variation to the mix, and you have ample opportunity for scoring variation.

I once scored the same wine 9 points apart on 2 different occasions over a period of a few months. I don’t like saying that, but it’s the truth, and any critic who says it never happened to him isn’t being honest. Having said that, more often, when I accidentally re-review a wine (only to discover I’d previously reviewed it), my scores are either identical, or within 2-4 points of each other — a tolerable discrepency. I think that when I rate a wine differently over time, it’s because of bottle variation. I don’t think it’s because my judgment is at fault. But a wine reviewer always has to accept the fact that his judgment may be cloudy on any given day. I will say this: there is a strong imperative for critics to maintain rating consistency, which is the linchpin of our credibility. Imagine if, for instance, Parker started giving 72s to Lafite. Everybody would wonder if he’d lost his mind. That’s why he’s not going to start giving Lafite 72s.

***

I came across this John Cleese video on wine. It’s quite good, and I think you’ll enjoy it. Lots of familiar California faces.

On the Murphy-Goode contest

I spent the day today (Sunday) with the Top Ten and will blog Tuesday morning on my impressions and, more importantly, the winner. Will post a few minutes after the winner is announced by the winery.

R.I.P. Walter Cronkite

I met him once. I was on my first real job, as a sous-chef in a French restaurant in Massachusetts. Mr. Cronkite’s daughter was going to private school in the area; he was visiting with her. He dined alone, and after dinner, was hanging out in the bar. After I shut down the kitchen, he was still there, alone, nursing a drink. I got a glass of wine and asked if it was okay to talk with him. Of course it was. This was less than a week before Nixon resigned, so Watergate was obviously the focus of our conversation. I had the feeling Mr. Cronkite was happy to talk with me. He was so friendly, unpretentious, unphased by his fame. I was just a young, politically-oriented kid. He was a great newsman, a great reporter. The real deal. I hope his example of fair reporting lives forever.

waltercronkite


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