I Googled “wine news” and here among the hits were these scintillating headlines:
Expert reveals 3 things you need to know about drinking wine on planes
Never spill your wine again with the __ wine glass and its metal stake
Eva Longoria’s wine goals for T-shirt designs
Delta pays a sommelier to pick wine for its flights—here’s her wine tasting advice
Extreme heat can taint the wine
Does the color of your wine influence your hangover?
Pour It Up! 9 Times a Glass of Wine Was Rihanna’s Favorite Accessory!
Well, I admit to being terribly behind the curve on cultural issues. Yesterday, a Facebook friend referred to something called “Ween,” and it wasn’t until I asked what a “Ween” was that I became educated in the fact that Ween is a major rock and roll band I had never heard of!
So perhaps there are burning wine-related issues of which I’m equally unconscious. But I don’t think so, which makes me regret all the more the vulgarity that has invaded what has now become “wine writing.”
Throughout the history of the English-speaking people writing about wine was reserved to the smartest, most literate among us. Wine—the beverage of our ancient Greek texts, and of the Bible, Old and New Testaments—was regarded as something too special to make light of. Generations of wine writers going back hundreds of years, of which I consider myself a recent incarnation, reserved their finest journalistic skills to writing about wine. Today, the Internet has made writing about wine not only common but promiscuous, with the result that people can headline their writing with the kinds of B.S. I listed above, and actually get others to read it.
Do we need tips on how to drink wine on planes? I don’t think so. You have to take the wine the airline is selling, and drink it from the glasses they give you. What other choices do you have? When there are no choices, there’s no need for advice, which doesn’t stop some people from offering it anyway. Next!
“Never spill your wine again.” I wasn’t aware that spilling wine was a major issue in America. I almost never spill my own wine, and as I am not a particularly well-coordinated person, I doubt that there are many people who spill their wine more than I do. So I have absolutely no need for any device or technique to prevent me from doing so. Next!
Eva Longoria and T-shirt designs. I barely know who Eva Longoria is, nor do I care. Since I don’t care about her, I certainly don’t care about whatever chotchkies she’s selling. Next!
Delta’s sommelier. Well, isn’t that special. It makes me feel so much more hopeful about my next Delta sardine can. Next!
I did not know that extreme heat can taint a wine. I thought you could heat wine up to, oh, I don’t know, a gazillion degrees, and it would be as fresh as a can of tuna fish. Thank you for that advice. Next!
Does the color of your wine influence your hangover? Now we’re getting down to matters of substance! I’ve been trying to figure this particular question out for decades, and after extensive personal experimentation, still haven’t arrived at a conclusion. My advice: Don’t be a schmuck to begin with and drink so much that you risk getting a hangover the next morning.
As for Rihanna’s favorite accessory, I’m already choking, as are you, on this celebrity-forced-fed diet we’re being fed by the media. Next! (Or not.)
Have a great weekend!
Copernican moments—also known as paradigm changes–don’t happen often. Change occurs constantly, but most changes shift reality only incrementally. Massive changes, the kind that set reality upside down, are fortunately few and far between—a good thing, otherwise life might prove unlivable. But, as Richard Mendelson, a Napa lawyer who recently interviewed Warren Winiarski, tells us, these Copernican moments are almost never foreseen, and can be identified only in retrospect. Such was the Paris Tasting of 1976, where Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, from the 1973 vintage, beat out a clutch of other wines, from both California and Bordeaux, in a blind tasting the consequences of which proved to be paradigm-shifting.
Copernican moments also can be personal rather than massively historical, and Winiarski describes his own falling-in-love-with-wine moment (which actually sounds a lot like mine: like me, Warren got bit by the wine bug in an unpredictable and mysterious way).
Warren, who worked early in his career for Robert Mondavi, describes another personal Copernican moment for himself: when Mondavi told him that a wine “must present itself to the eye by way of the building, making it esthetically pleasing, as much as it presented itself to the mouth.” I have never heard a Mondavi quote to that effect before, but it clearly sounds like something Robert Mondavi would have said; and when you think of the Cliff May-designed winery Mondavi caused to be built, it is indeed as esthetically pleasing as any winery in California, a delight to the eye, whose perfect lines and arches and earthy colors bring a sense of serenity and drama to the visitor even before she has had an opportunity to taste the wines. “No one,” Warren Winiarski says, “has looked at winery buildings after that the same way.”
This “esthetic experience,” Warren continues, “brought more than one sense into the experience of wine.” It brought, in fact, more than our five physical senses into the experience; it brought, and brings, an experience that is purely cerebral. Robert Mondavi understood that this meta-level experience might be the most important of all. How one feels about the wine one buys (or anything else one buys) is more than just the sum total of our sensory experiences. It’s about the feeling it evokes in us; and such feelings ultimately are irrational. They cannot be controlled. They can be prompted, and guided towards positive ends, but humans are not robots, and our feelings, evanescent and shifting, are what makes us distinctly human (among other things). Robert Mondavi knew that he wanted to influence our feelings. So has every other great winemaker in history. The best of them believed in the quality of their wine, of course, and worked very hard to ensure it; but they also understood that quality is not enough. A dubious or sated consumer has to be brought into the position where he can actually taste and appreciate that quality. Otherwise, what’s the point? And it does take a certain priming of the pump to get someone to appreciate quality: you have to make them believe that they are capable of appreciating it, and you have then to get them to take steps towards appreciating it, and you have to craft the entire environment within which the experience takes place so that it will increase the probability that the taster will experience quality in a high-minded way.
This, Robert Mondavi understood. It’s not a complicated message. But it can be distorted. Not everyone is as adept at crafting a message of power and subtlety as was Robert, and some overdo it to the point of caricature. Not every winemaker has thought the thing through, which is why not every chat with a winemaker, or every taste of wine, brings about a Copernican moment, even to those of us who are (believe it or not) looking for just such revelation. To expect it to is to demand the unreasonable. The thing that’s so exciting about the wine business at this time is that, while it suffers from a certain stasis, we know that someplace there exists another Robert Mondavi. Not that he will ever be replaced, but somewhere in this world there is a young man or woman, with a vision and the talents to communicate it, who will upset things in the wine world and cause a Copernican Moment to occur—not a small, personal one, but on a global scale, like the Paris Tasting.
What could that be? Who knows. But I have a feeling there’s one right around the bend. We won’t know until it happens, or shortly afterwards. That’s the thing about paradigm changes: you don’t see them coming. But it’s what keeps some of us alert and alive to news from the world of wine.
Jancis Robinson, “the most respected wine critic in the world” according to the cover of her new book, goes the route of brevity in this, our Twitter-addled world. “The 24-Hour Wine Expert” was just published by Abrams, a small house publisher specializing in art, photography and fashion. The book itself is small and thin, deliberately designed for easy-breezy reading.
For the beginner crowd—and, Lord knows, we love you, you are the future—“24” is a pretty good read. More experienced winos won’t find anything new in it, but let’s give Jancis credit for reinventing her brand for one, or even two, new generations who may not know of her renown but are about to discover it.
It’s a good, useful book, but I do have some gripes, and that is Jancis’s tendency, like that of so many world-famous wine writers, to stick with the same old famous names, a safely conservative but unsurprising and all-too-predictable practice that is a constant challenge for wine writers to avoid, if for no other reason than to show that they’re not stuck in some dusty old niche. Jancis has a category called “bottles to knock socks off,” presumably showoff wines. These are for your “label drinkers.” They are the classic illustration of the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” People who clamor for these wines have just enough knowledge to pass themselves off as experts, but beyond that, there’s not much going on. Every once in a while they memorize another famous name, because some critic they love said so, and so it goes onto the “socks-knocking” list.
Here are Jancis’s “bottles to knock socks off” from California. These are the only nine California wineries she includes: Arnot Roberts, Au Bon Climat, Corison, DuMol, Frog’s Leap, Littorai, Rhys, Ridge and Spotteswoode. An eclectic list to be sure; one might add others to it. Jancis has also two lists whose relationship offers perhaps a glimpse into her attitude towards Napa Valley: the first, “Twenty heart-stopping (and bank-breaking) wines,” includes nothing from California. The second, “Some overpriced wines,” includes “California’s cult Cabernets.”
“The 24-Hour Wine Expert” is ultimately a useful little book, a sort of stocking-stuffer for a holiday gift for that budding wine aficionado who’s probably younger and just starting out to explore the world’s most fascinating beverage. Experts will glance at it if for no other reason than to check out what Jancis, “the most respected wine critic in the world,” is up to.
That’s what the Washington Times is reporting. Seems my great state of California is considering allowing—not just barbershops—but beauty parlors too, a total of 42,000 shops in all, to serve wine and beer on their premises. The proposal is in the form of a bill, AB 1322, that would expand California’s current alcohol laws in order to “additionally allow the serving of beer or wine without a license as part of a beauty salon or barber shop service if specified requirements are met, including that there be no extra charge or fee for the beer or wine, the license of the establishment providing the service is in good standing, and the servings are limited to specified amounts.”
Sounds good to me! In fact, it sounds more than good: it’s civilized. But, wouldn’t you know it, no good idea goes without someone bashing it, and in this case the basher is the so-called “California Alcohol Policy Alliance,” a group whose website purports to “promote evidence-based public health policies and organize campaigns with diverse communities and youth against the alcohol industry’s harmful practices,” but which sounds suspiciously like the anti-alcohol groups in this country that have popped up forever, whose ideology seems like something out of Carrie Nation’s brain.
And not surprising! This California Alcohol Policy Alliance is just the latest incarnation of The Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems; they had to change their name because the Marin Institute got such a bad reputation. These people always claim that their motives are sincere, but there’s something fishily ideological about them, and their anger towards legal alcoholic beverages seems, well, outsized. They call themselves “The Industry Watchdog.” Well, “junkyard dog” would be closer to the point.
But I digress! The beautiful thing about the barbershop-beauty parlor idea is that it normalizes the drinking of beer and wine. There is probably no place more “normal” for Americans to go to than a barbershop or beauty parlor. That’s why serving beer and wine in such places makes so much sense. To be able to drink these alcoholic beverages in these normal, everyday hangouts would be a huge step towards making the consumption of wine—not a fancy thing for rare occasions—but an everyday practice, as it is throughout the wine-producing nations of Europe.
Incidentally, let me give credit to AB 1322’s Republican co-sponsor, Asemblyman Scott Wilk. It’s probably not a good idea for a Republican politician to ever be in favor of anything having to do with alcohol or drugs, and Wilk certainly represents a conservative district: Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley. But he’s not a nutbag Republican, and he’s okay in my book for this humane and positive step forward. Our Governor, Jerry Brown, now has AB 1322 on his desk, and he may veto it or let it pass into law. The anti-alcohol forces, including the Alcohol Policy Alliance, are lobbying him heavily, on social media and directly, to veto it: they are fear-mongering the general public with alarmist warnings that, if passed, AB 1322 will allow beer and wine to “flow freely without licenses, permits, monitoring, Responsible Beverage Service training, or enforcement of current regulations.”
Well, that’s fine with me. I don’t expect a beauty parlor colorist to have training in “responsible beverage service.” When the neo-prohibitionists at Alcoholic Policy Alliance say that passing AB 1322 will put the “health and safety of all California residents” at risk, that’s just a big lie. I want a country where drinking wine is so natural that you can do it in barbershops, in supermarkets, in movies, in fact pretty much everywhere. Does that mean I’m in favor of public drunkenness? Of course not. But rightwing groups like the Alcohol Policy Alliance base their fundraising on spreading such fear, the same way certain politicians are trying to make us so afraid of ISIS that we close this country’s borders, making it no longer the oasis for “Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Fear is never a good way to govern, and those who use fear to further their own purposes are to be pitied.
Off to Sacramento early this morning for a trade tasting the organizers are billing as “The Critic Vs. the Somm.” It’s kind of a M.M.A. smackdown beween Master Sommelier Sur Lucero and myself—or, at least, that’s what it’s purported to be.
They expect a big turnout, I’m told. We’ll taste through a half-dozen or so wines. Sur, like myself an employee of Jackson Family Wines, will do his M.S. thing and explain his analytical process. I’ll do mine.
The M.S. grid (I think this is it – I got it off the Web)
certainly looks helpful; it encapsulates just about every quality you could find in a wine, and thus helps you identify what the wine is in a blind tasting in which you’re using deductive logic to identify what’s in the glass. Deductive logic, you’ll remember from philosophy class, is where you take a top-down approach to reasoning: starting with the premises, you reach a conclusion that must be true, provided that the premises are true. Thus, if the wine satisfies all the parameters of a fresh young German Riesling, then it must be German Riesling—or so the Master Sommelier grid would have it.
That’s all well and good, if your objective is to pass the M.S. examination. But it’s not the way I taste wine. I always say that the way you taste depends on your job. Master Somms learn to taste the way they do because they want to be Master Somms; their job, as it were, during the period they’re studying, is to taste like an M.S., hence the grid. They learn to taste in order to deduce what’s in the glass and pass the test.
That seems to me a kind of closed-circle way to taste wine. I have no gripe against it, and I can appreciate the amount of hard work that goes into tasting a wine double-blind and being able to say it’s Bordeaux or whatever. That’s pretty good. It’s the Cirque du Soleil of winetasting: flashy, entertaining, a crowd pleaser.
I might have gone that route, except that the way I learned to taste wine was entirely different. It was basically the old British way, transferred to our shores via the media I read when I was coming up (the San Francisco newspapers, wine books) and, most importantly, Wine Spectator magazine. The latter was my Bible in those early years. I thought it was the greatest magazine that ever existed: I couldn’t wait to get my copy in the mail (this was when it was a tabloid, not a big glossy ‘zine the way it is now). And from Wine Spectator, I learned to taste wine using the 100-point system, in a way that—let’s admit it—is not nearly as rigorous as the M.S. grid.
So exactly how does the amorphous 100-point system work? Well, to begin with, it’s a subjective impression, but it’s not subjective to the point of random incoherence. The proper use of the 100-point system depends on extensive experience, the kind needed to draw upon a sense-memory of what “perfection” is and then comparing all subsequent wines with that rarely-encountered Unicorn. The way I taste is like a shortcut around the M.S. grid. It’s a lot easier: you don’t have to go through all those complicated line items, but then again, the sommelier doesn’t taste for quality; she tastes to be able to deductively identify a wine. I taste for quality. Those are two different things.
When I taste a wine single-blind, it’s not important for me to figure out what it is. That concept never even occurred to me when I was coming up. It would have seemed senseless. I tasted then, and now, with respect to the overall impression the wine made in my mouth and brain. Was it a Wow! or a Dud, and where on that continuum does it fall? After all, that’s the way actual human beings taste: do they like the wine, and if so, how much do they like it, or do they loathe it? It never seemed important to me to taste deductively; I wanted to learn to taste hedonistically (as Mr. Parker might put it). I wanted to get a job as a wine critic, and when I was coming up, wine critics got successful jobs based on criteria such as writing ability, knowledge of wine, and team skills, and not on deductive tasting. In fact, such deductive tasting is, to the best of my knowledge, a comparatively recent practice. Wine professionals never tasted the way sommeliers taste. Throughout history they have tasted the way I taste.
Is one method better? Well, like I said, the way you taste depends on your job. Wine writers of my generation never troubled themselves to think deductively (although there’s a certain amount of deduction involved in my kind of tasting). We either tasted openly, in which case deduction was completely pointless, or we tasted in single-blind flights, in which we knew many things about the wines (region, vintage, variety, etc.) and were simply comparing them qualitatively. That’s still the way I taste, but there’s something else: since I came up as a magazine writer, the object of my thoughts whenever I tasted wine was the consumer. I always thought of those anonymous people out there who might buy a wine based on my recommendation. They don’t care about the M.S. grid. They don’t get into that level of analysis. They just want to experience pleasure, and perhaps some good wine-and-food pairing too. And so that’s how I taste: Does the wine give me pleasure? Because if it gives me pleasure it should give most consumers pleasure. And if it gives me pleasure, how much pleasure does it give me? That’s where the points come in. Ninety points is a lot of pleasure. One hundred points is pleasure unbounded—a wine that’s right up there in my sense-memory with the greatest I’ve ever had. I might be less able than a somm to say “This is a Cabernet Sauvignon and this is a Merlot” but that sort of thing doesn’t matter to me, nor do I think the readers of wine magazines (or diners in a restaurant) care about that in a writer or server. They want someone who cares about them, who is able to predict for them what they’ll like, who can tell them stories about the wines. You don’t have to taste deductively in order to be that person. I think, ultimately, the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier are exactly that: the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier. One develops expertise at that sort of thing in order to climb the sommelier ladder and append those magic letters, M.S., after one’s name. That helps to get a job nowadays, in this intensely competitive environment, but how it helps consumers isn’t clear to me.
You’d think they wouldn’t give a hoot. Wouldn’t they rather hear about the toast level of barrels, the composition of the soil, the angle of the slope with respect to the rising and setting of the sun, the type of crusher-destemmer, and the all-important details of pH and acidity?
Well, actually, no. On these trips I occasionally go on, buyers routinely let me know how happy they are to leave all that geek speak behind and get down to what they really like: gossip!
Oh, I don’t mean who’s doing what to whom, behind whose back. That can be delicious, but it’s best postponed for the afterparty, when everybody’s half tanked. The lunches, dinners and inbetween tastings I do feature wine, and wine is certainly the rationale for our gathering, and I can usually talk with some degree of specificity about them. But often enough, what people really want, when you get right down to it, is good conversation about this industry we all love and are lucky enough to work in: Wine!
Look, these wine buyers spend half their days being pitched by salepeople. Most of them are pretty knowledgeable already about the wines, wineries, regions and so on. There may be some divots in their understanding, and if there are, they’ll let me know; if they request specific information, hopefully I can provide it, and if I can’t, I always have my trusty computer with me, and can look up the precise percentage of Semillon in that blend.
But—and this is simply my impression—restaurateurs and wine merchants who care enough to take three hours of their day to come to an event Steve Heimoff is hosting want more than technical stuff. I can’t tell you how often they tell me me how boring they find techno-sessions to be—a recital of geeky trivia. Yes, they want and need a certain amount of it. It’s necessary for them to have some technical foundation they can pass on to their own buyers—customers—as part of the story. But, like I said, most of them already have a ready store of knowledge, and if they don’t, they know they can find it online. So why would they happily spend the better part of a business day with yours truly? Because they want good conversation.
They want good back-and-forth, and not just about Jackson Family Wines. They want to talk about their jobs: the challenges, the complexities, the ironies. They want insider information about what really goes on behind the scenes at wine magazines: not just the P.R. but the facts. They want my opinions—and I always stress, in no uncertain terms, that these are my OPINIONS, although in most cases the circumstantial evidence for my opinions is substantial—about stuff like: is there a relationship between paid advertising and scores? Are wine critics paid off by producers? What will happen when Parker dies (which God forbid won’t be for a very long time), et cetera. And I get it: When I started blogging, in 2008, I didn’t even know what the word “transparency” meant. I didn’t know how untransparent we critics were: lordly autocrats, dwelling in ivory towers, who allowed our reviews to flutter down to the masses in the streets, who had to accept them without question. Thank goodness the early commenters on my blog taught me the lessons of transparency: tell us everything about how you review wines, every single last detail, or run the risk of one of us finding out that you’re a liar and busting you on social media.
Because, after all, restaurateurs and merchants—many if not most of them, anyway—still have to figure in the ratings and reviews of wine critics in order to sell wine. A few, here and there, don’t, and I applaud them. But many others do need to cite a score on a shelf talker, bottlenecker or newsletter, because that’s what customers want, and the customer is always right. So they—restaurateurs and merchants—have a natural curiosity about how the process works, and moreover they have a right to know.
I never give away information so confidential it could compromise me. I tell the truth. I explain how the commenters on my blog, and other wine bloggers, taught me about transparency, and how grateful I am that they did, and how happy it makes me to tell them everything I can, without violating confidentiality agreements that could land me in a lawsuit. What I think I bring to the table, when I’m on the road helping Jackson Family Wines’ sales force to sell wine, is something unique: anyone can talk about technical data. Anyone can give his or her impressions about the wine. What few others can do is to talk about wine from the perspective of a former famous wine critic who’s been there, on the playing fields, at the center of the action, and who moreover—and by happy serendipity—started a little wine blog eight years ago that dragged me into the wonderful weirdness of social media. I don’t always tow the J.F.W. P.R. line. I told my employers when they hired me that they knew who I was, that I wasn’t going to turn into somebody else—at my age—and that, if they could live with that, I would be happy to represent J.F.W., a winery company I had admired and respected for twenty years, founded by a man whom I loved and revered. They said, “Fine. That’s what we want. Go out there, be you,” and that is what I do. So, bottom line: There is no job I can imagine that is more satisfying than to be paid to visit with these wonderful restaurateurs and merchants and relax, over great food and great wine, tell them what I can about the wines, describe my admiration for Jess, and discover areas of conversational interest that engage us. My biggest challenge on the road is to stick to a schedule: We tend to talk so much and so interestingly that, before you know it, we’re thirty minutes behind schedule for our next visit, and in L.A. or S.F. traffic, that’s a haul! Professionally, that’s a problem. Personally—for me and the restaurateurs and merchants I’m with—it’s a delight.
Anyway: I’m back in Oakland tomorrow (today, as you read this) after two weeks in Texas and Southern California. I will be reunited with Gus, the mere thought of which beings me comfort and joy. Have a fabulous weekend.
A personal value to me is to blog five days a week, a goal I’ve mostly achieved since 2008. However! Not every day is it possible, especially when I’m on the road, and my hosts keep me to a tight schedule that usually starts early in the morning and can last until nighttime. So that’s why I didn’t post yesterday. Mea culpa. But here I am, in my Manhattan Beach hotel on Wednesday by 6 p.m., which means I can get a good night’s sleep and have time for this post, which is an account of my current trip in Southern California.
On Tuesday night I went to a meeting of the Women’s Wine Alliance,
a wonderful group of gals who are professionals in the wine industry, but they also do very great charity work. We were scheduled to meet from 6:30 to 8 p.m., but at 9:30 at night we were still gleefully at it because the conversations were so wonderful. I don’t think anyone wanted to leave but eventually it was time, and besides, I was happy to collapse into bed at my hotel, to get ready for a very early morning appointment.
The next morning, my pal Cory Rowin
picked me up at my hotel in San Diego at 7 a.m. and drove me to the local Fox-TV affiliate for a live interview. If you’ve never been in a Green Room on a morning T.V. show, they were also having a fashion show, an animal show, and a segment about baby quadruplets—so you can imagine! This was the wonderful lizard, Daisy, I met,
who was really as sweet and affectionate as could be despite her Jurassic look; it took some doing to get me to hold her but I fell in love as soon as she crawled up my breast and was just a loving little baby. And this was yours truly being interviewed by the morning anchor, Raul.
I’ve been on T.V. a couple times in my career and it’s always fun. We talked about wine, which the whole staff seemed to be interested in. Of course! Wine is interesting stuff.
Then we drove up the coast to Searsucker Restaurant, where we were set up for a tasting. I loved their fish pond,
and we had interested, and interesting, guests who seemed to want to know all about being a wine critic and all that jazz. Don’t get me started!
a town I haven’t been to for years. These beach towns are very wealthy and beautiful and on this perfect summer day all of them—Laguna, Huntington and the others—were Paradise.
Then it was up through San Clemente, a beach town I’ve only known as Richard Nixon’s California home, where his idea of relaxation was to walk on the beach in his suit and formal shoes, but to take off his tie! We also went to a little restaurant, Red Table,
in Huntington Beach, where I thoroughly enjoyed the New Jersey GM, Donna, and her bar manager, Jeremiah.
A good time was had by all!
At some point we hit up Watermarc Restaurant, in Laguna Beach, which is maybe the quintessential surfer-millionaire SoCal beach town.
Our lunch, especially the lamb chops, which I seldom have because it’s really hard to get good chops, was spectacular.
I so enjoy these trips because they get me out of Oakland and my comfort zone into the real world of restaurants, bars, bartenders, floor staff and wine stores, where real people who love wine work to sell it and, hopefully, buy some Jackson Family Wines wines. Every stop is different: a different play, a new cast, a new plot, a new location. And there I am, thrown into the narrative. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.