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Old habits die hard

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At Waterbar Marilyn and I ordered a platter of oysters and when our Italian server looked to see who wanted the wine list, naturally I extended my hand. For nearly 40 years in my relationship with Marilyn I’ve been “the wine guy” (Marilyn has her own expertises) but I’ve never been so arrogant as to assume I should do the ordering for her. So after I decided on a Muscadet de Sevre et Maine for myself, I handed the list to Marilyn and she picked a Pouilly-Fumé—another good choice.

When the wines came I had to try them both with the oysters—that’s what I mean by “old habits die hard.” This is a little snobbish and must strike certain people (although not Marilyn, who’s used to it) as eccentric, but what can I say? It’s what I do. Wine-and-food pairing is integral to the soul of the wine lover. The Muscadet was as good with the bivalves as I’d expected. It was cold, light and bracing, steely to the point of mineral, and in the tang you could taste the wind from the Bay of Biscay that washes over the Melon de Bourgogne grapevines.

One hundred eighty miles to the east, also on the Loire, is the source of the Pouilly-Fumé. This growing region, along with neighboring Sancerre, yields what the British writer Andrew Jeffords calls “some of the very greatest incarnations of Sauvignon Blanc.” It’s a cool area, climate-wise, but not as cool as in Muscadet, and nowhere near as cool as, say, Marlborough, which is why you rarely get that methoxypyrazine smell. Instead, Pouilly-Fumés are generous in fruit, and seldom oaky. Compared to the Muscadet, the wine was rounder and softer, and I was surprised that I preferred it to the Muscadet, which was a tad too dry for the sweetness of the oysters.

It’s impossible to talk about this stuff with anyone except another wine lover. Baseball fans go on and on about ERAs and who’s on the IL. Politicos are obsessed with races in Kansas’s 2nd and Virginia’s 7th districts. Tarantino freaks argue about whether The Hateful Eight is superior to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Foodies debate who makes the best tacos in town. But leave it to winos to worry about whether Muscadet or Pouilly-Fumé goes better with oysters!

And yet this is who we are. If you recognize yourself in this scenario, don’t apologize for it. Yes, we have to keep our obsessions under control: it would not be right to pull this stuff at, say, the Thanksgiving table, when Aunt Ethel and Uncle Jerry just want to enjoy the turkey and stuffing, and not be subjected to a Talmudic debate on wine. But when we’re in the rarified company of our own kind, feel free to let loose.


Oakland sued for failure to enforce its own policies

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(Readers: this is a copy of my post this morning on the website of my political lobbying group, the Coalition for a Better Oakland. While it concerns the city in which I live, it’s relevant to cities around the country that are dealing with the scourge of encampments.)

It’s with great pleasure I share with you the news that our friend Seneca Scott, executive director of Neighbors Together Oakland (NTO), yesterday announced that NTO is suing the City of Oakland for failure to implement Oakland’s Encampment Management Policy (EMP).

The EMP, you’ll recall, was unanimously approved by the Oakland City Council last October, with the full support of Mayor Schaaf. It carefully defined “no-go” areas where tents would be prohibited, including parks, and was set to begin on Jan. 1, 2021. It was a sane, wise policy, but never implemented. The City Council, says Scott, “ignored the EMP out of fear of political blowback.” The lawsuit demands “that the courts intervene and hold the City accountable for enforcing the law in order to restore balance to city streets and neighborhoods…”.

While the Coalition for a Better Oakland is not party to the lawsuit, we fully support it, and will do whatever we can to be helpful.

NTO’s lawsuit, which was filed in Alameda County Superior Court, is similar to one filed in Los Angeles by the LA Alliance for Human Rights, which is suing Los Angeles over its failure to resolve the encampment problem. That followed a rash of other cities being sued for the same reason: their epic failure to clean up encampments by providing shelter for the unhoused.

There are several interesting things about these lawsuits. First, they denote very clearly that cities have to be compelled to take action on encampments; left to their own devices, they remain inert, paralyzed by fear of pro-encampment activists. Secondly, the lawsuits require cities to not only clean up encampments, but to offer their residents some kind of “four walls and a roof” in which to relocate. This is not just for reasons of compassion, but for legal necessity: the landmark Martin v. Boise legal decision, which was left intact by the U.S. Supreme Court, requires “that homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives.” Cities have interpreted Martin v. Boise, probably correctly, as meaning they dare not roust homeless people unless they can give them someplace else to live.

It’s great that cities finally are being compelled to deal with encampments, after so many years of official denial and ineptitude. NTO has done a brave and good thing. Without their lawsuit, Oakland government, and especially its renegade City Council, will continue to drift in inaction and lassitude, pretending to be progressive but ultimately caring about nothing but campaign contributions.

Left unanswered by the lawsuit, meanwhile, are three huge questions: (1) What kind of shelter must cities provide to homeless people? (2) how do cities pay for it? and (3) What do we do with homeless people who refuse to leave their tents, even after being offered shelter?


Vote NO on the recall!

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I still think Gov. Newsom is going to beat this Republican recall. But the polls are a lot closer than they were a few months ago, when I predicted he’d win by double digits.

Now, I suspect his margin will be in the single digits. Still a win, but not a very big one.

It’s obvious to me what’s happening. Newsom inherited a series of gruesome issues. The wildfires are clearly not his fault, although Republicans are blaming him for not clearing the forests.

The housing situation is clearly not his fault, although Republicans are making it sound like Newsom is refusing to build badly-needed housing.

COVID-19 is clearly not his fault. He has tackled the pandemic with as much grace and intelligence as anyone could expect. But Republicans are suggesting he personally imported the virus from that Wuhan lab and spread it around California.

It’s only fair, I suppose, to blame The Guy at the Top when things go badly. But it’s not fair. He’s done the best he could, under the toughest circumstances imaginable. His critics, especially those Trump Republicans, love to play Monday morning quarterback. But what would they have done, had they been in power? They would have ended mask mandates and school shutdowns, thus putting hundreds of thousands more Californians at risk of serious disease or death. They would have cut taxes on billionaires, and ended Newsom’s efforts to combat global warming. They would have done whatever they can to make California unfriendly to LGBTQ people. They would have brought the evangelical churches into the halls of government, with all the attendant horrors. Above all, even if a Republican were to replace Newsom (which I do not for a moment believe), that new Governor would be dead on arrival, politically speaking: facing a Democratic legislature, he would get nothing done, except to give nasty speeches that would tear Californians apart, pitting inland rural districts against the more populous coastal cities and suburbs. The last thing California needs is more division.

The Governor is handling the stress well. He’s out there every day, doing his job, whether it’s at a hospital or in a forest or school. Looking poised and confident, he’s leading our complicated State as effectively as any modern Governor I’ve seen, including Jerry Brown. I’m sure that, inwardly, this cannot be a happy time for Gavin; we all want to be loved, politicians more than anyone, and it must hurt him to realize that a good chunk of Californians want to kick him out.

But the Governor ought to take comfort in these two facts: 1) most of the recall proponents are Trump Republicans who do not have the interests of California, or America, at heart, and 2) even those Democrats and Independents who may be thinking of kicking him out are going to change their minds at the last minute. As they look over the Republican field of candidates, including Caitlyn Jenner, they see a clown car—although that’s not fair to actual clowns, who as a rule are not dangerous lunatics. I strongly believe even those inclined to fire the Governor will reconsider, when they consider the alternative.


Afghanistan: the lesson

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Those Trump-publicans are trying to pin the blame for Afghanistan on Biden, but it won’t work, because Americans know the truth: Trump started the “get out of Afghanistan” parade and Biden inherited it and got out.

I didn’t blame Trump at the time. Even a broken clock is right twice a day! America had been in Afghanistan nearly twenty years; Trump understood how stupid it was to remain there a day longer. He began the negotiations with the Taliban to ensure an orderly transition. If the situation today is out of control, why not blame Trump?

However, I won’t do that. I shared his frustrations, along with a majority of Americans. What the hell were we doing in a land war, a civil war, in a godforsaken Asian country, and a fundamentalist Islamic one at that? Yes, Al Qaeda and the Taliban deserved what they got after Sept. 11. We beat the crap out of them. But the warning signs were all over the place. After we overthrew the Taliban, we should have gotten out, and left Afghanis to stew in their own juices, with a warning: If you harbor terrorists again, we will destroy you.

But we didn’t deploy our full strength, and that was our strategic mistake. As an old karate guy, I can tell you that withholding your most powerful blows is not the way to win a fight. You have to give it everything you’ve got, because your opponent will certainly give it everything he’s got. In other words, there’s no time for the Marquis of Queensbury rules.

Does “everything we’ve got” mean nuclear weapons? Yes. Tactical ones. I know this isn’t a popular thing to say. It horrifies people. But if we’re not prepared to win wars using “everything we’ve got,” then we shouldn’t fight wars in the first place. Did we learn nothing from Vietnam?


Exposing a dangerous Republican lie

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I routinely get blast emails from rightwing sources, and I like to read them, not only because they’re funny, but because it’s important to know what the enemy is up to.

For instance, there’s this thing called Congressional Insider, which sounds like a bona fide media site, but is fake news. They sent out a blast email on Friday. There’s no trace of the Congressional Insider on the Internet, and the only contact information on the email is a Huntsville Texas address, which is the same as on other rightwing emails I get from other organizations pretending to be real. But if you read the email carefully, you’ll see where this stuff is coming from: Newsmax.

Now, you’ve probably heard of Newsmax and recognize that it’s an extreme rightwing, proto-fascist media site that peddles hate and conspiracy theories. In 2020, they contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to political candidates and conservative causes, through so-called “affiliates” of Newsmax. Here are the biggest recipients of their funding: the Republican National Committee, the 1820 PAC (a super-secretive conservative group, based in Washington), Security is Strength (another extreme rightwing group that strongly endorsed Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court), and Donald Trump himself.

The email they blasted out is a hodgepodge of rightwing talking points, but its main target is Critical Race Theory. Here’s their headline:

[Critical Race Theory’s] real target is Christianity and the Bible.
The far left wants it in our schools. 
The war on Christians is in full gear, says a most famous Jewish thinker.

(The “famous Jewish thinker,” by the way, is none other than David Horowitz, who’s been a rightwing crank for decades.)

Now, as a Jewish thinker myself, let me weigh in on this supposed “war on Christianity and the Bible.” I am adamantly opposed to any Christian influence on government, federal, state or local. I don’t mind the milder forms of Christianity, but in modern America, Christianity has been hijacked by a lunatic fringe of ideological radicals, who aim at nothing less than the overthrow of our democracy (think of Jan. 6) and the establishment of a Taliban-style theocracy, run by evangelical mullahs who would nullify gay rights, make abortion illegal, and mandate a thousand other things that would end freedom and diversity in America.

If you want to call that a “war on Christianity,” go right ahead! I couldn’t care less. So, yes, the Congressional Insider, AKA Newsmax, AKA the Trump/evangelical party and its dark money, is correct when they say people like me want to undermine Christianity in America. I want Christians to go back into their churches. They can believe whatever they want; they can practice their religion to their heart’s content; they can have festivals and revival meetings and T.V. shows that bilk credulous poor people out of their money, the same way Trump does. What they can’t do, though, is to impose their homophobic, anti-science, misogynistic and anti-immigrant fanaticism on the rest of us. Their little war on Critical Race Theory amounts to nothing less than an assault on our democratic, Constitutional rights. Stoked by Donald Trump, they appeal to the most ignorant, frightened slice of the electorate, people whose knowledge of reality comes from their Bible-thumping preachers and from fraudulent sites like Newsmax.

By the way, if you’re a California voter, the best way you can resist the dangerous insanity of these rightwingers is to vote NO on the recall of Gov. Newsom!

Thank you.


My favorite wine books, and why they’re so great

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U.C. Davis asked me to list the wine books that had the most influence on me, and explain why. I had a lot of fun yesterday writing this, and I’m pleased to share it with others who love to read.

The Romance of Wine, H. Warner Allen (1932)

They don’t write like this anymore. In fact, nobody’s written like this for close to a century. Herbert Warner Allen (1881-1968) was, like so many others on this list, a Brit and Oxford man, with a solid education in the classics, and a penchant for journalism. A friend of George Saintsbury’s, Allen was a novelist first, but his love of wine led him to write “Romance.” The Times of London said of Allen that his readers will but learn that wine is a glorious thing for man and prohibition an evil thing. Mr. Allen writes like a poet. He dresses his bottles with flowery garlands.” Flowery garlands indeed! Of 1869 Latour, Allen writes: “Beautiful to the eye, this great wine breathed forth a perfume worthy of the gods…compounded of a multitude of subtle fragrances, the freshness of the sun-ripened grape, etherealized by the patient work of Nature into a quintessence of harmonious scents. The palate recognized a heroic wine, such a drink as might refresh the warring archangels, and the perfection of its beauty called up the noble phrase ‘terrible as an army with banners.’” Perhaps it’s a good thing such extravagant writing is gone, but reading Allen taught me that I could have fun with my words, swim in them, wander in them as in a flower garden, write dense, compound sentences with literary allusions, and yet remain clear and humane. Churchill wrote in a similar style (albeit not about wine), and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury (1933)

Some argue this is the greatest wine book ever written. I wouldn’t go that far, but it deserves a place in every wine-loving bibliophile’s library. Saintsbury (1845-1933) was another of those Oxford polymaths whose interests spanned everything from French literature to British recipes of the 17th century to, of course, wine. Reading “Cellar-book” brings the reader into the clubby, rarified drawing rooms of late 19th-century gourmets, with their eight-course meals (washed down with old Champagne, Yquem, Margaux and Port), and described in the flowery, Victorian writing style that, for better or worse, has all but disappeared from the English language.

The Complete Wine Book, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel (1934)

Following the Repeal of Prohibition, in 1933, there came a spate of wine education books for an American public almost wholly devoid of any knowledge of wine and its culture. This was one of the earliest, and best. Schoonmaker (1905-1976), a wine merchant, writer, and importer of European wines (into New York), was one of the first Americans to call for honesty in California wine labeling, using grape varietal names instead of purloined silliness like “Burgundy” or “Chablis.” (I think co-author Marvel was what we might call a ghost writer.) “The Complete Wine Book” is factual, comprehensive and knowledgeable; if a little dull in style, it nonetheless gave post-Prohibition Americans what they needed: a solid foundation.

ABC of America’s Wines, Mary Frost Mabon (1942)

Mabon was food and wine editor for Harper’s Bazaar, which for decades defined elegance and style to Americans, mostly women. She came from a good family, niece of an American minister to Ireland, wife of the president of the New York Stock Exchange. I’ve always enjoyed compendiums of California wineries from long ago, and Mabon’s Chapter IV, “California Wineries,” is a wonderful romp through how-it-was: the names of Bisceglia Brothers, Solano Winery, Alta Winery and Mont La Salle Vineyards have not been uttered for a long time, but reading of their Haut Sauternes, California Burgundies and Sherry Sacks transports you back to a time when FDR was President, the Depression was raging, and Americans were just starting to enjoy drinking without fear of getting arrested. Her book, too, contains helpful hints on storage, refrigeration, label reading and food pairing that must have been greatly welcomed by housewives of the time.

Wines, Julian Street, 1948

Street, a New York City reporter who ventured into Broadway playwriting, might today be called a metrosexual. Debonair, looking a bit like the actor Leslie Howard, he was “long interested in the twin arts of wining and dining,” as the book’s dust jacket explains. True to his journalistic roots, he interviewed men and women from all over the world for “Wines,” to tell the story of wine, and to explain the intricacies of the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, the Loire and Alsace, Germany, Italy, Sherry, Port, Marsala and Madeira, not to mention Palestine, Persia and Greece. The question with which he leads off his chapter on California wines is one that no one would ask these days: “Why can’t we make better?” You come across gems like Street’s reaction to a Martin Ray 1936 Pinot Noir, from the Santa Cruz Mountains: “It was a remarkable wine, the first American red wine I ever drank with entire pleasure.” For a wine-loving history buff, that’s as good as it gets.

The Harry Waugh Wine Diaries (1960s-1980s)

Waugh, who died in 2001 at the age of 97, was a British wine merchant who rose to the top of his profession. He was a prolific writer and speaker, and served on the Board of Chateau Latour. One little-known aspect of his career was his early championing of the budding California wine scene of the early 1960s, and the way he acted as a transmitter of California wines and ideas to his Old World colleagues in London; his Zinfandel Club, which he founded in that city, introduced the British wine world to the boutique California wines of the era. He wrote a series of Wine Diaries between the 1960s and 1980s. I discovered them one by one in used bookstores and have treasured each. I had the privilege of accompanying Harry on a wine tour of Washington State, when he was already close to 90 and the Washington Wine Commission asked me to look after him. The impact of his Diaries on me was in their writing style: Harry wrote very simply, with no elaborate flourishes and none at all of those florid, over-the-top preciosities that have infected modern wine writing. In his humbleness and aw-shucks manner, he has provided a model of scholarly propriety for generations who admired him.

The Wines of Bordeaux, Edmund Penning-Rowsell (1969)

Another of those highly-educated Londoners of the mid-20th century, Penning-Rowsell (1913-2002) was friends with everyone who mattered in the British wine trade. His masterly account of Bordeaux isn’t for everyone. The history is detailed and lovingly told, with accounts of how many French francs individual chateaux sold for in real estate transactions, how many francs the resulting wines went for (going back centuries), rainfall totals in the Gironde, the rise of the once all-important negociant houses, and, of course, the vintages, starting in 1795 and ending in 1978.

The Fine Wines of California, Hurst Hannum and Robert Blumberg (1971)

Just as the 1930s brought a spurt of wine books for Americans desperate for wine knowledge after the 13-year long disaster of Prohibition, so the 1970s witnessed a new phase of that education, this time for the burgeoning Baby Boom generation. Blumberg and Hannum were both young law students at the University of California when they were bitten by the wine bug; together, like many students before and after, they toured Europe. They began their book by asking the pertinent question, “Why another wine book?”, and answered it this way: “While there have been many excellent treatises in recent years on viticulture and enology, there has been nothing dedicated to a consumer-oriented description and analysis of California wines.” What they produced was somewhat anodyne, but their descriptions of wineries are another valuable source of historical research. They divided that into two parts: larger, better-known wineries (Christian Brothers, Louis M. Martini, Souverain) and “A sampling of smaller wineries.” This is, for me, where the meat is: at the dawn of the boutique era, wineries like Davis Bynum, Freemark Abbey and David Bruce were up and running.

The Wines of America, Leon Adams (1973)

No history of American wines, especially one written in 1973, could remain current for very long. Adams’ book was outdated, it’s fair to say, the moment it was released; California wine history was on overdrive, and nobody could have kept up. Still, for the modern historian, it’s an important resource. How many times over the decades did I turn to the Index to discover, say, the origins of Fountain Grove Vineyard, or some detail of the old La Questa, or who was using new French oak in the 1940s?

Gorman on California Premium Wines, Robert Gorman (1975)

The book came and went with hardly any notice from anyone. Gorman was not a wine professional, nor did he have any connection to the industry. As he himself wrote, “My book…is the record of a personal voyage of discovery into the premium wines of California.” I’ve always liked personal books: my first one for the University of California, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, was a deeply personal book. Gorman wrote about California Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and other varieties at a time—1975—of great ferment in the industry (no pun intended). The boutique movement had started, yet this was still a period when Napa growers planted every variety cheek-by-jowl with every other variety, and Americans were still drinking so-called “Chablis” and “Burgundy” from jugs. It’s a fascinating take on the time, and Gorman’s vertical tasting notes make for interesting reading even today.

Which Wine? Peter Sichel and Judy Ley Allen (1975)

Not the greatest wine book ever, but it served its purpose for budding amateurs like me. A solid overview of the grapes and wines of the world, with vintage charts and recommendations. We need a good compendium like this every few years.

The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine, E. Frank Henriques (1975)

Henriques was, oddly enough, an Episcopal priest, who lived and pastored in the Sierra Foothills. He said he wrote his little encyclopedia out of “a fond regard” for his subject. He also claimed to have “the most extensive notes on current wines…of anybody in the world,” which may have been a slight exaggeration; did he know what Michael Broadbent was up to? The New American Library, an imprint of Signet, published this in soft cover for a mass market; it was not the most promising format. But it’s a good and at times fascinating volume. Where the Reverend Henriques got the wherewithal to taste Lafite from 1806 on, or Petrus back to 1946, or seemingly every wine Robert Mondavi ever produced, is unknown; perhaps he “borrowed” his reviews from others, although that’s a terrible thing to imply about a man of God. Nonetheless, no detail was too small for Henriques’s scholarly eye. Especially noteworthy are the retail prices Henriques cites for every wine: you might want to invent a time machine when you learn that Heitz 1968 Martha’s Vineyard sold for $11.

World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson (orig. 1971, second edition, 1977)

The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest, Bob Thompson (1993) [inscribed]

I bracket these two Atlases together, although Johnson’s preceded Thompson’s by nearly two decades. What they have in common, besides their Mitchell Beazley connection, are elegant structure and, especially, the maps, a Beazley specialty. Anyone who loves wine will have studied with the greatest interest and delight the detailed, color-coded maps of towns, vineyards and geographic and geological features, which make “wine country” come alive. Both books were instrumental in my education, particularly in understanding appellations and the lay of the land.

Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson (1977)

I loved this book from the moment I bought it. Benson offered what was, for the time, the most penetrating glimpse into 27 men (and one woman!) who dominated the California wine scene in the mid-1970s. At a time when other writers were focusing on grape varieties, vineyards and wineries, Benson was interested in the person. He roamed the state with a tape recorder, did his interviews, published the transcripts, and voila. I used the same technique for my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. It was my homage to Benson; both books, I think, remain of interest to historians and amateur wine buffs.

The Father of California Wine: Agoston Haraszthy, Edited by Theodore Schoenman (1979)

Every student of wine eventually learns about the Hungarian “Count,” who more or less birthed the California wine industry in the middle of the 19th century, after he was sent by the State Legislature to Europe and brought back with him more than 100,000 vine cuttings of at least 350 grape varieties, many of which he planted on its 118-acre Sonoma Valley estate. The book is in two parts: a useful, rather workhorse biography of Haraszthy (1812-1869), and his 1862 report to the California Legislature on “Grape Culture, Wines, and Wine-making.” Haraszthy dedicated his tome to “the agricultural public…hoping that… it may prove a valuable and an enduring source of wealth to the American horticulturalist and farmer.” It does that indeed, and is delightful to read, especially when you consider that English was Haraszthy’s second language.

The Great Vintage Wine Book, Michael Broadbent (1980)

In all likelihood, no one in history (except for Rev. Henriques?) has ever tasted the world’s great wines as thoroughly as Broadbent, nor is anyone ever likely to in the future. And he kept every note, assembling them into this hard-covered classic. 1799 Lafite? 1947 Cheval Blanc? 1959 Romanée-Conti?  1653 Rüdesheimer, from the Rhinegau? 1851 Stibbert’s Port (“the most magnificent old Port I have ever drunk”)? Mr. Broadbent has notes on them all, plus thousands of others. You and I will never have these opportunities, but fortunately, because of Broadbent’s diligence, we can at least have some idea what these wines tasted like.

New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, Alexis Lichine (1981)

I absolutely devoured this book when it came out. It may in fact have been the single most influential wine book for me early on, its arrival coinciding with my nascent interest in wine. Lichine, who owned Chateau Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux, was a Bordeaux man, but his interests in wine were global. His knowledge of areas beyond France and Germany was perhaps a little second-hand. But for Bordeaux, Burgundy and German wines, the New Encyclopedia was the alpha and omega of the times.

The Wines of California, Roy Andries de Groot (1982)

Something of an oddity. DeGroot (1910-1983) was a British, Oxford-educated gourmet and wine critic, who became a U.S. citizen in 1945. He called his book “the first classification of the best vineyards and wineries” of California, the Pacific Northwest and New York State. It was an idea no one was particularly asking for, and his classification (and those of others) went nowhere. Still, it provides an interesting, eccentric take on the wine scene at the birth of the boutiques.

The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery, Leonard S. Bernstein (1982)

Bernstein (not that one) was a freelance, suburban New York City writer with a passion for wine, who wrote about it in a satiric way that did not mask his thorough understanding of the issues. From chapters on “letting the wine breathe” and “etiquette” to “which wine-which food?” and “understanding oak,” Bernstein skewers the pretensions of wine snobs, while educating readers to the most acute subtleties. I recently reread the book and it remains as fresh and funny as it was 40 years ago.

The University of California-Sotheby Book of California Wine (1984)

This was the It book of the year, the Bible. I well remember the buildup to its release, and how I rushed to buy it (for $55, a lot of money at the time!). Everything you ever wanted to know about the Golden State’s wines, written by some of the most authoritative personalities of the era (Gerald Asher, Bob Thompson, Paul Draper, Maynard Amerine, Alice Waters, Timothy Mondavi and many others). Sumptuously packaged, it was the reference point for a generation of wine aficionados.

On Wine, Gerald Asher (1986)

These are reprints of Asher’s famous essays for Gourmet magazine, written in the 1970s and 1980s. The British-born Asher, whom I knew when he lived in San Francisco, was one of those internationalists, as comfortable writing about the wines of Piedmont and Chablis as those of his adopted state, California. His chapter on California Cabernet Sauvignon laid down the marker for acute, lively and creative wine writing and analysis.

The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud (introduction by Michael Broadbent. English translation, 1987)

Professor Peynaud (1912-2004) was a leading light of Bordeaux enology. Trained as a scientist, he brought an academic approach to the making and appreciation of fine wine. “The Taste of Wine” is a deep dive into viticulture, enology, wine chemistry and vocabulary, as well as professional tasting techniques. It could have been tedious, but Peynaud keeps it accessible and interesting. His concept of “cru,” as opposed to “terroir,” is marvelous, and informed my own understanding of the influence of place, practice and person on wine.

Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson (1989). Another must-have, another Beazley book, and another Johnson masterpiece. No one has ever told the story of wine, from its mythic beginnings in the Transcaucasus to the Paris Tasting, as compellingly, or with more beautiful graphics.

California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube (1989)

Nineteen-eighty-nine was the year Wine Spectator first let me write for them. I got to know Jim Laube, their California reviewer, fairly well, and treasured this book for a while. It was, for its time, the most complete and authoritative volume on Cabernet, with Napa Valley, of course, dominating. Jim, like De Groot seven years previously, attempted to classify the wines, in this case into 5 Growths, an effort doomed to fail, as was De Groot’s. But his descriptions of the wines, historical details on the wineries and vertical tasting notes were greatly welcome back in the day.

Secrets of the Sommeliers, Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay (2010)

Parr, the famous sommelier, partnered with Mackay, the San Francisco writer, to produce this insidery account, a sort of “day in the life” of a wine pro. It’s heavy on name-dropping, and while the somm trade has perhaps lost some of its glamor in recent years, Mackay’s breezy style makes it a good read.

In Search of Pinot Noir (2011) and Claret and Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon (2013). Both by Benjamin Lewin, MW.

These are pretty much the last wine books I bought. I mention them together because they’re both great books, and for the same reasons. Lewin, a much-respected wine writer, is high-class. To me, he comes from the Hugh Johnson-Gerald Asher school of writing, which is scholarly, precise, knowledgeable and elegant. In both books, he demonstrates his mastery of the subject matter, and brings new twists in his interpretations, giving fresh insights into areas like cult Cabs and “The Holy Grail,” the Grands Crus of Burgundy. Explaining terroir, in all its complexities, is a Lewin specialty. His tasting notes are a delight, on a par—mirabile dictu!—with Broadbent’s.


My wine books and papers are going to U.C. Davis

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The U.C. Davis School of Viticulture and Enology has asked me to donate some of my wine books and personal papers to them for permanent archiving or display, a request I’m pleased to comply with.

I have about 300 books of various kinds, assembled from the late 1970s until about 2010, when I pretty much stopped acquiring new ones. The U.C. Davis people asked me to identify which of my wine books have been the most influential on me. Here’s the list I sent them:

World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson

Gorman on California Premium Wines, Robert Gorman

California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube

The Wines of America, Leon Adams

Which Wine? Peter Sichel and Judy Ley Allen

Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits

Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine

Gerald Asher on Wine

The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud

The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery, Leonard S. Bernstein

The Romance of Wine, H. Warner Allen

Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury

California Wine, James Laube

The Great Vintage Wine Book, Michael Broadbent

The Wines of California, Roy Andries de Groot

The University of California-Sotheby Book of California Wine

The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest, Bob Thompson [inscribed]

Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson

Secrets of the Sommeliers, Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay

The Complete Wine Book, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel

The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine, E. Frank Henriques

The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines, Bob Thompson

Drink, Andre Simon

Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson

Wines, Julian Street

ABC of America’s Wines, Mary Frost Mabon

The Father of California Wine: Agoston Haraszthy, Edited by Theodore Schoenman

The Fine Wines of California, Hurst Hannum and Robert Blumberg

The Wines of Bordeaux, Edmund Penning-Rowsell

The Harry Waugh Wine Diaries: Diary of a Winetaster, Winetaster’s Choice, Harry Waugh’s Wine Diary 1982-1986, Pick of the Bunch

I’ve treasured all my wine books, but these have been the ones that most inspired and impacted me, and to which I have returned, again and again, to savor.

Among my papers are tasting notes assembled from roughly the same period, 1979-2010. They number about 10,000, and do not include some 50,000 wine reviews I did for Wine Enthusiast.

I kept every scrap of paper containing every note from the start.

I had no idea why, or what I would do with it all, only the thought that they were somehow worth keeping. (Maybe I had visions of Michael Broadbent’s “Great Vintage Wine Book” dancing in my head!) There were some grand tastings, that’s for sure. Among the more memorable were:

  • a vertical of Joseph Swan Pinot Noirs, 1972 through 1981, at Chez Panisse, for which Alice Waters prepared salmon with Champagne butter and grilled lamb with fava beans and potatoes
  • a Taylor Fladgate vertical going back to 1948 (very great wine)
  • the 1991 vintage in Germany, covering about 400 wines; that tasting severely burned away the enamel on my teeth!
  • An April, 1993 vertical of all seven “great growths” of Bordeaux, including the 1947 Cheval Blanc. This was with Bill Newsom, the late father of our Governor
  • Speaking of Gov. Newsom, I also have the reviews from a half-year of tasting with him to select the wines his new Plump Jack wine shop would offer. Young Gavin drew up the charts in his own hand; the notes themselves are in my handwriting.
  • A Leoville-Las-Cases vertical, 1928-1988, conducted by the renowned collector, Dr. Overton, at the old ANA hotel in San Francisco
  • The 1991 vintage from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
  • A fascinating tasting of the five First Growths of Bordeaux from both the 1990 and 1982 vintages
  • A Gaja tasting, always a treat. This was primarily the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages.
  • A “California mountain wines” tasting, by Andy Blue’s old Bon Appetit tasting panel, which held such monumental tastings back in the day. I will always remember this particular one because it taught me an important lesson. I had tasted the 1979 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (this was in winter, 1990), and wrote, “Inky black, orange at rim. Dead? Raisined note. Massive tannins either hiding it all, or the wine is gone.” Unable to make up my mind concerning such a famous wine, I turned to two of my colleagues. Jim Laube said, “91 points, hold 5 or 6 years,” while Andy Blue entirely agreed with me that the wine was over the hill. The lesson I learned: even professionals can disagree. Trust your own instincts.

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