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Some non-wine books that influenced me

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Forbes’ Cathy Huyghe, who is turning into one of the most interesting wine writers I know of, wrote late last week about the best non-wine books for wine communicators to read. This is a novel approach; we established wine writers often advise younger ones to read classic wine writers like Harry Waugh, Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent, but Cathy is exactly right when she says you can be “a better wine writer [by] read[ing] widely and especially outside the category of wine.”

Cathy didn’t list her own reccos (I wish she had) but instead asked others whom she ran into at the Wine Writers Symposium for theirs. (You can read her article here.)

I’m going to offer my own list of non-wine books. I can’t say that they’ll be helpful to all wannabe wine writers, because these things are terribly personal. But I can say that these are books and writers who have been helpful to me, in terms of informing my style and approach.

There’s a sort of truism in Eastern religious philosophy that anyone you meet can be the Buddha, so you’d better pay attention to them all, in case they have something to teach you. I don’t know about the Buddha part, but it’s certainly true of writers. You never know when you’re going to read something that will stay with you for life! Sometimes it’s by someone super-famous; sometimes, it’s someone you’ve never heard of. It’s a mysterious process of osmosis, by which the writer’s style just sort of eases its way into your head. It’s not about copying or plagiarizing or trying to write like someone else; it’s just that something about the writer impacts you in such a profound way that you find yourself “borrowing” some aspect of that writer’s manner or tone. So here are some writers whose works have informed my own writing in important ways.

Winston Churchill. I’ve read pretty much everything he ever wrote, in many cases several times. Churchill had impeccable grammar and sentence and paragraph structure. His sentences were incredibly complex: long and winding, yet as intricately organized as a symphony score. He knew how to tell a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, in a stately way. He wrote about massively important historical things, yet told them from a personal point of view that makes you feel you were right there beside him. He also was a strong personality who didn’t try to keep his feelings out of his writing, despite a thorough grounding in journalism. Churchill was, in fact, an emotional man, a fact that most people don’t realize. In his epic “The Second World War,” you can feel his emotions—joy, sadness, excitement, anger, disappointment, humor, even a needling sarcasm. He is a joy to read.

Gore Vidal. I put him on my list because, in addition to being a very good, proper writer, he was wickedly funny. I don’t think the word “snarky” existed in his time, but he was witty and stylish, and was able to make history come alive by inhabiting the inner lives of his characters. And he never wrote anything of inconsequence; whatever he wrote brimmed with importance and his own penetrating intelligence.

Celebrity memoirs. I know, I know; it’s undignified to admit I read ‘em and like ‘em. But I do! Some of my favorites have been Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn,” Lauren Bacall’s “By Myself and Then Some,” Jacques Pepin’s “The Apprentice,” J. Paul Getty’s “As I See It,” the Duke of Windsor’s “A King’s Story,” Keith Richards’ “Life,” and Katharine Graham’s “Personal History.” These were all wealthy, powerful people, and I like reading candid books where they reveal personal things about themselves (some of which are not flattering) that show the real human being behind the façade.

I always have a “latest book I loved” whose style definitely impacts my short-term writing and may go on to influence it long-term. I recently finished “The Savage City,” by T.J. English, a book I didn’t think I’d like but did, very much. It’s a documentary of life, crime and racial politics in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, a period I’m very familiar with. In fact, much of the action takes place in my boyhood neighborhood of the South Bronx. English obviously did a ton of research, paces himself beautifully, and knows how to tell a solid story with dramatic flair. He also writes with masculine power—not afraid to drop an F-bomb here and there, especially when he’s paraphrasing how people really talk. I like that muscular approach.

There is so much more to making a career as a wine writer than just reviewing all the free samples wineries will drop on you.


Wine writing when you can’t taste or smell?

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Lovely, inspiring article on the BBC’s website about about Andrew Hedley, a British-born New Zealand winemaker (Framingham Wines) who developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed, which had a devastating effect on his ability to smell and taste.

“Anything that goes into my nose or mouth now goes straight to my stomach,” he says, meaning, according to the article, that he “had to come up with a new way of smelling and tasting the wines he created.”

Andrew did indeed come up with a new way of smelling and tasting that works so well, he said, “We’ve actually won more awards since I had the cancer surgery.” This is indeed an inspiring story of the ingenuity and triumph of the human spirit.

As I read it I recalled the travails of my own wine-writing hero, Harry Waugh, who following a car accident in which he landed on his head lost his own sense of smell. Yet Harry, who was on the board of Chateau Latour in addition to his other considerable achievements which included writing some of the most influential books in the history of California wine, developed alternative ways of tasting that ensured his continuation as one of the great wine tasters and writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

What are we to make of great wine people who, suffering awful loss of a good part of their sensory equipment, nonetheless remain at the pinnacle of their careers?

Well, for me, the big takehome is that you don’t have to be the awesomest palate ever in order to be a big success. Both Andrew and Harry, and indeed anyone of us, had their limitations: they did what they could do with what they had. And yet something in their skill set enabled them to rise above their limitations.

I don’t know Andrew but I knew Harry. What made him great was his absolute devotion to the grape and wine as well as his ability to put complex thoughts into writing that was easy to comprehend. I have no idea how he managed to tell the difference between a vin ordinaire and a grand vin or vin de garde after his automobile accident, but he did. People still cared about what he said.

We make too much of “expertise” in wine and I realize I need to explain that. With all this attention to Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, we tend to think that you need some letters after your last name to be taken seriously if you opine about wine. While I bow to no one in my regard and respect for MWs and MSs, I have to say that when it comes to wine writing of the kind Harry—and a generation of wine writers of the last 30 years, including me—represented, there’s a case to be made that you don’t want so much expertise that it removes the reviewer from the common realm of the 99% who actually buy and drink wine.

There’s another important lesson to be learned from Andrew’s experience. The BBC reporter interviewed a head and neck surgeon who told him, To be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines must be very difficult and to be honest, it almost never happens in cases where surgery has been performed.” Well, even if you haven’t had your larynx removed, “to be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines” is very difficult anyway! It’s not objective science; even professionals will disagree about what they’re smelling and tasting, which is why my recent blending sessions at Matanzas Creek have been so educational. Taster “A” may find quince and guava, taster “B” may find nectarine and white peach, who’s to say who’s right or wrong? No one, that’s who. But what we can all agree on—at least, I would hope—is that beyond specific flavor descriptors we can all recognize essential quality, which when all is said and done is a function of intellectual interest. For what is great wine, if not a wine that stimulates your mind? And it would seem that, even when your sense of smell or taste is impaired, your ability to be intellectually interested and flattered remains. How cool is that?


Premox: a consideration

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Alan R. Balik has a good summary of premox in his column in the Napa Valley Register.

Premox, or premature oxidation, refers to a wine that should age well, but instead turns brown and “off” within just years of its release. The issue of premox has obsessed certain collectors, writers and winemakers for a decade or so, but is now gaining traction. At first thought to affect only white wines, like white Burgundy, it is now considered to impact red wines too, according to a Decanter article reporting on an oxidative destruction that is not expected at such an early stage in the life cycle of fine red wine,” including from Barolo, Napa Valley, Bordeaux, the Rhône and Burgundy.

Nobody seems to know if premox is something entirely new, and, if so, what causes it. As the articles linked to in this post point out, the cause/s could be anything: global warming, superripe grapes, poor corks and closures, high alcohol, low acidity, high pH, too much new oak, low levels of SO2, excessive exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process, sur lie aging and battonage, botrytis or poor storage (Clive Coats suggested these latter two), and who knows what else. This article, from The Drinks Business, summarizes some of the technical complexities involved in understanding the problem.

It’s impossible to think about premox and not refer to one’s own experiences with older wines. As I (and many other critics) have written for years, I’ve been disappointed in older bottles more often than not. And by “old” I mean more than eight years in Cabernet Sauvignon, and more than four years in any white California wine. (Obviously there are always exceptions.) As Jane Anson describes it in the Decanter article, too many older red wines these days bear “Exotic scents of prunes and figs, the burnt toast undertones of barrel ageing, the silky mouthfeel and unmistakable heat of high alcohol.” These qualities are, of course, not what you want in a ten- or twelve-year old Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that may have cost well north of $100, but common sense tells me they may be qualities that have come about due to the higher brix that grapes have been picked at over the last twenty years or so. That results in higher alcohol levels; also lower acidity, and, given the weltanschauung these days, plenty of toasty new oak. Add “micro-oxygenation,” or mox, in red wines, which also is rather common in the so-called “cult” red wines around the world, and you may have a perfect storm, in which the inherent elements of the wine begin life initially unstable, i.e. prematurely oxidized. Instability that is built into a wine may not be readily detectible when the wine is young, but with each passing year, the instabilities mount up and perturb each other, until the wine is thrown into disorder.

This is not to argue in favor of the current ethos crying for low-alcohol wines. There is not yet evidence, at least in California, that such wines age any better than higher-alcohol wines. (And they may well be less satisfying in youth.) But we have got to bear in mind that the wine world has already gone through a paradigm shift, in which people no longer care about aging their wines. Whatever they buy is consumed rather rapidly. It was only natural for winemakers around the world to respond to this shift by making wines that are softer, rounder and more delicious in their youth. If ageability is the baby that is thrown out with the bathwater, so be it.

There is one more thing to consider, and that is the matter of personal taste. It may be objected to that the subjectivity of personal taste has no place in an objective appraisal of premox, which after all is a scientific question. But a taste for older wines has never been widespread among the general public, and even experienced oenophiles may prefer their wines vigorous and young. After all, any aged wine is already on the road to senescence. Whether an eight-year old Cabernet is experiencing “the first blush of death,” as the English put it, is a matter of determining how much “death” you want in your wine. It may be because I am, at heart, a Californian, but I have never cottoned to that blush of death thing in wine. It can be “un peu beaucoup,” a bit too much. And, as Clive Coats notes, the notion of early deliciousness coupled with ageability is a bit of a stretch. “It would be idiotic,” he writes, “to expect today’s wine to be both delicious at a year and a half and to hold up for 15 years thereafter. Something has to give. I regret that it seems to be the ageing potential of the wine.”

We tend to forget, too, that we make excuses for wines that don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We say the wine is in an awkward phase, which is really an unprovable assertion, but does have the advantage of letting the wine off easy, if it isn’t showing as well as we would like. If one bottle shows wonderfully (by common consensus) while a second bottle of the same wine is a disappointment, we chalk it off to “bottle variation.” I have even heard collectors say that a power outage of an hour or so, which results in the temperature of a wine cellar rising by a degree or two, can perturb great wine so that it is no longer drinkable! This is what I mean by “making excuses.” We want our expensive wines to age well; when they do not, we offer up every reason imaginable for the failure. But Occam’s razor suggests that the simplest reason is usually the correct one: The wine wasn’t ageable in the first place.

Here in California, research into oxidation is somewhat recent but picking up intensity. This video, of Professor Andrew Waterhouse on “The Oxygen Cascade in Wine,” suggests some of the difficulties, although it is straightforward enough for the non-scientist to follow. Waterhouse’s bottom line is that lots more study is required to determine the relationship of free SO2 in wine and the effects of oxidation, including premature oxidation. Right now, he says, most of what we think we know is “speculative,” which means we’re likely to continue to be baffled by the phenomenon of wines that we think should age, but don’t.


No such thing as the “best” wine

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It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”

Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.

This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”

 headless

which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)

Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.

However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.


Do bloggers have an obligation to wineries that wine and dine them?

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When I was a working critic I was very particular about not letting wineries spend money on me. I had the reputation of not going out to lunch or dinner on the winery’s dime. I did it every once in a while, but tried to keep it rare. I also was extremely fussy about letting wineries spend money on me in other ways. This was only partly because of Wine Enthusiast’s policies; it also was because it didn’t seem right to accept favors (food, travel, etc.) from a winery if I was going to say critical things about their wine. That would have seemed rude and ungrateful. On the other hand, if I said nice things about their wine, it might have given rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Better, then (in my judgment), to keep wineries and their money at arm’s length (the sole exception being, of course, that I did accept free samples of their wines!).

Now, it appears that the issue of bloggers accepting freebies from wineries, and then not even bothering to write about them, has risen to prominence. Harpers.com, out of the U.K., has written a scathing editorial piece decrying bloggers who accept a winery’s hospitality and then claim that their “freedom of speech” gives them the right to not even write about the winery. One Italian producer told Harpers, “If I invite a blogger to my winery, and after I have paid for all of the costs the blogger still thinks I am not worth a mention, it is his/her right to do so. [But] it is also obvious that I, the producer, will never again pay a cent for his/her freedom not to write.”

The producer’s umbrage is completely understandable, isn’t it? The point I want to make here is that there are certain unstated but widely accepted rules in wine writing that include the notion of fairness. If a writer is to succeed longterm at being a success (not just a flash in the pan), the writer has to build up trust and affability among the wine producers she writes about. A wine writer with a bad name will find herself not accepted into the circle of wineries she hopes to cover. To get a good name in wine writing is the same thing as getting a good name anywhere and everywhere else: You have to play nice in the sandbox with the other kids. And if you take somebody’s money, and then insult them—either through silence, or by excessive criticism—you’re not playing nice, and word will travel, in this small playground we call the world of wine.

My generation of wine writers (whom I exult in running into whenever we’re at an event) understood the etiquette of wine criticism. Nobody had to explain it to us; somehow, we just knew that it was wrong to accept a winery’s largesse and then bite the hand that had just fed us. Since my main objective as a writer/critic was to tell the truth, I found myself decreasingly accepting largesse of any kind, because I didn’t want my hosts to feel that I’d been an ungrateful little so-and-so.

Too many bloggers, however, apparently don’t suffer from these inhibitions. They leave hurt feelings in their wake. This is why the Harpers article calls them “an endangered species” and adds this warning shot fired over their bow: “[B]loggers need to stay relevant just as any professional in the sector, and producers are starting to question whether the wine bloggers is, indeed, relevant.” Finally, the writer states something I personally know to be true: “Wineries are beginning to distinguish the difference [between informed and relevant bloggers and those who are not], and are analyzing closely as to where they should spend their few available euros.” Yes, marketers are drawing up their “A” list and their “Everybody else” list, and the A list is getting harder to get onto.

It’s all about being professional, and not just have power because you can push a button on a keyboard and self-publish. The wine press has always been a place of politeness, decency and respect, and blogging hasn’t and won’t change that.


What does the Galloni purchase of Tanzer mean to wine criticism?

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It is, I suppose, the fault of the historian and logician in me that I’m always looking for the meaning of things. I’ve always thought that all things are connected in some mysterious way, and that certain events have implications, not only for how the future will unfold, but for trying to understand where we are now. Such an event is the purchase of Steven Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar by Antonio Galloni, which hit the airwaves yesterday via dueling press releases.

The context here is several-fold. One, both Tanzer and Galloni are enormously influential in this little world of wine criticism in which I and, I assume, most of my readers dwell. Antonio got his fame after being employed by Robert Parker to write for The Wine Advocate, which is how I met him (for the first and only time), at a tasting at the Culinary Institute of America, where Antonio was kind enough to give me a very long interview, which I turned into a three-part blog post. (Here’s the link to part one.)

I was very grateful to Antonio for that (he probably knew enough about me to know that my blog could be, ahem, a little controversial). I went away from that experience thinking what a gallant, intelligent and well-bred mensch Antonio is.

Tanzer I never met; not that I recall. But he’s always loomed in my mind because of the huge reputation he’d garnered among the people I respect: winemakers, sommeliers and folks like that. Tanzer’s name was one of those that mattered in high-class wine reviewing. So what I’m trying to say is that both Galloni and Tanzer earned my respect.

For years we’ve been tracking the evolution of wine criticism, the dualism of print journalism versus online, the gradual fading away of my Baby Boomer generation, and we’ve all tried to figure out what’s coming next. Who will matter? How will wine criticism and recommending work in the next decade and beyond? For me, a major question has been: Will there continue to be super-important critics (and their associated publications), or will wine critiquing become so crowd-sourced (due to the sheer magnitude of blogs) that no one voice will have national or international authority?

My answer to the latter question has consistently been: We will continue to have “important critics” because some fundamental part of human nature demands it. Humans want “authorities” to tell them what to buy, and to justify their tastes, especially in an area like wine that’s so confusing, subjective, emotional and, let us admit it, irrational. A few years ago, at the height of the blogosphere’s insistence that “critics don’t matter,” I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. It seemed to me to be wishful thinking on the part of the many (who wanted a piece of the action), against the power and influence of the few (of which, until last Spring, I was part). But I always thought that someone would take the place of the Parkers, Laubes, etc. of wine criticism.

Now, with this acquisition of Tanzer, it appears that Antonio’s Vinous is moving forcibly into a position of great influence and its associated power. I welcome this. Both men seemed marked by fairness and objectivity, and an indifference to external influence. Both men, too (as well as their teams) are profoundly talented. So we could be looking at the next great force in wine writing.

The one question that remains for me is whether or not this new Vinous will address itself chiefly to super-ultrapremium wine, or will examine wines from all price points. This is a decision, obviously, that Antonio and his business partners will have to address, and I hope they will review everything, from under $10 wines to the rarest and most expensive bottles. If my two cents is worth anything, that’s the way to go.

So it seems to me that the meaning of this marriage is that wine criticism is consolidating among a younger generation, who will continue to publish both online and in hard copy. The torch is being passed, folks, and IMHO it couldn’t be placed into better hands.


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