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Say goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing

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Robert Gorman, in his 1975 book California Premium Wines, identified “three Englishmen—Harry Waugh, Hugh Johnson and Kathleen Bourke”—as the first “to write on California wine with any depth and sense of perspective.” This was not so much a slam on our native writers of the 1960s and 1970s, who could not have had the perspective of their much more experienced literary cousins across the pond; but it was a lament that came home to roost not ten years later, by which time American (which is to say, Californian) wine writing had descended into gobbledegook.

I was, on re-reading Gorman the other day (I’ve owned the book for decades), unfamiliar with Kathleen Bourke. It took a Google adventure to understand why: she’d been editor of the British publication Wine Magazine, the progenitor of Decanter, in the 1950s, and had given Michael Broadbent an early start in his wine-writing career. Of course, the magazine was unavailable in the States in those pre-Internet days, and so Kathleen Bourke was terra incognita for me.

Not so Harry Waugh and Hugh Johnson. Waugh wrote his inimitable wine diaries throughout the 1960s and 1970s and in his spare, leanly elegant and self-deprecating prose introduced a generation of Americans to French wine and a generation of Britishers to California wine. Hugh Johnson, of course, rose to stardom through his many books and articles, particularly his magnificent Vintage: The Story of Wine (1989); my dog-eared copy testifies to my eager devouring of every literate, lovingly crafted word, inspired no doubt by Macaulay.

In America, though, the ground broken by Bourke, Johnson and Waugh lay largely fallow, as our wine writers chose a path of greater expediency and commercialism. There was an explosion of wine books in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, but few made for good reading. They might have gotten their facts straight, but 35,000 words of facts makes for dull reading. There were exceptions: Bob Thompson’s 1993 Wine Atlas of California owed everything to Hugh Johnson in terms of style and even the book’s design (no wonder: they both shared the same publisher). Matt Kramer made quite a few ripples with his books (which were much admired in Europe) but, again, while accuracy might have been his forte, readability was not.

The main reason American wine writing fell into such doldrums was because of the wine magazines. They were frankly advertising vehicles. Writers, who were paid poorly, accepted their bleak compensation with grimness, and enjoyed the non-monetary aspects of the lifestyle their jobs provided. The less said about the quality of the average wine magazine article of the 1990s, the better—and I include myself in this indictment. Prose became captive to word count (itself enslaved to advertising), as well as to the whimsy of publishers who did not want unkind things said about potential clients; and there was, also, a pedantic “magazine style” that crushed creativity. Then, too, the advent of periodicals like People magazine (along with music videos on MTV) meant that the typical American had the attention span of a hamster. Wine magazines, no less than those in other areas of the culture, gave readers brevity, with its accompanying clichés and irritating reductionism.

I at least tried to overcome all this with the publication of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River (University of California Press, 2005). It was not a commercial success, but it was an artistic one and I enjoy reading it today. Despite the magazines, there might have been, in the 2000s, a burgeoning interest among writers to aspire to Johnson-hood and Waugh-hood, but if there was, the infant was strangled in its cradle by the rise of the wine blogs. No longer was there even the appearance of writerly quality. Any yahoo could blog, for free, with the resulting democratization of vulgarity—not in the sense of obscenity, but in its Latin root-origin of unrefined crudeness. In my blog, I tried to write wittily, and think I succeeded, but I, too, succumbed all too often to the snarkiness to which bloggers remain subject.

Is there a body of American wine writing today we can admire? I have enjoyed the books of Jordan Mackay and of Benjamin Lewin, MW (another Johnson-phile), but while his dust jackets say “he divides his time between the eastern United States and the wine regions of Europe,” he is essentially British, which explains his unique literacy. There may be others of whom I am unaware. But then, I don’t pretend to keep up with wine books anymore. The Golden Age of wine writing, it seems to me, is past.


A wine from my cellar, plus Bordeaux at a Basque restaurant

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A few nights ago I pulled the Charles Krug 2008 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley), which cost $75 on release. The color was still as inky dark as a young Cabernet, but after almost precisely ten years, the aromatics and flavors had turned the corner, picking up secondary (although far from tertiary) notes. The fresh blackberries and black currants I found when I initially reviewed the wine, in the Autumn of 2011 when it was three years old, were still there, but “growing grey hairs,” as they say, becoming more fragile, and showing leathery notes and, perhaps, a little porty, due to high alcohol, namely 15.7%.

In my early review, I wrote that the wine was “certainly higher in alcohol than in the old days, but still maintains balance.” In those olden days (never to come again, alas), Krug’s Vintage Selection, always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, hovered in the 12-1/2% range. Gerald Asher, writing in the early 1980s, credited Krug’s “influential legacy” (along with Beaulieu, Martini and Inglenook) as having contributed to “the seeds of all [stylistic Cabernet] options available to winemakers today,” a statement that remains true. His fellow Englishman, the enormously influential Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, went him one better. He gave the 1959 Krug Cabernet his highest rating, five stars, calling it “most perfect” and “a lovely rich wine,” and added, amazingly, that his friend, Edward Penning-Rowsell, who wrote the best book on Bordeaux ever (The Wines of Bordeaux), “could not fault it,” rare praise indeed from an oenophile who opined about his specialty, Bordeaux, for decades in the Financial Times. James Laube, the most important American wine critic after Robert Parker, was of more ambivalent opinion. While he called Krug’s Cabernets (first produced in 1944) “grand, distinctive [and] long-lived,” his scores on the 100-point scale were less impressive. In his 1989 California’s Great Cabernets he managed only two 90-plus scores over more than four decades of vintages of the Vintage Select (as it was then called).

I scored the 2008 Vintage Selection 93 points in 2011, and would do the same now. Admittedly, that wine took an enormous departure from the Krug Cabernets Asher and Broadbent loved. The high alcohol is a conceptual problem, and perhaps makes pairing it with food more challenging, but these are matters for our imaginations, not our palates. Organoleptically, the wine still provides good drinking. Even on release the $75 price was a bargain, when, for example, Grgich Hills already was $150, and Jarvis was a sky-high $315. Charles Krug had by then long lost its luster among the label chasers, a fickle bunch, and it must have been hard for Krug, used to being at the top, to be so overlooked, or maybe disrespected is the better word.

It’s always risky to predict the future of such wines, but I would not be surprised if the ’08 Vintage Selection is still purring away contentedly in 2028.

Tasting Légende Bordeaux at Piperade

In France “piperade” (pronounced something like “pip-rod”) is a Basque stew of onions, green peppers and tomatoes, spicy and garlicky. In San Francisco, it’s the name of Gerald Hirigoyen’s restaurant, which opened in 2002 and has long been a fixture on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list. It’s situated on Battery Street, an old-timely San Francisco neighborhood at the junction of North Beach, Chinatown and the Financial District, just below the cliff of Telegraph Hill: old brick buildings, lovingly restored, that now house tech hubs and architectural firms.

Piperade was where an interesting tasting of Bordeaux took place on Monday. I was invited despite my status as a retiree and had the privilege of being seated to the right of Diane Flamand, the winemaker for Légende, the Bordeaux brand that sponsored the luncheon. (I think this honor was because I was the eldest person in the room!)

Légende is owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR), which also owns Lafite-Rothschild. It produces five what might be called “entry-level” Bordeaux: a basic red and white Bordeaux, a Médoc, a Pauillac, and a Saint-Emilion. (This latter is, of course, not within DBR’s traditional wheelhouse, but was developed in response to the market.)

I have to say how impressed I was by all five wines. The white, which was served as a conversation starter before we sat down for the meal, was fine, clean and savory, a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon. The red Bordeaux was equally satisfactory, being dry and somewhat austere, although elegant. The official retail price of both–$17.99, although I’ve seen them for less—made me inquire where in the Bay Area I could find them.

As we progressed through the lineup, the red wines all showed true to form: the Médoc more full-bodied than the Bordeaux, the St. Emilion wonderfully delicate and silky, and the Pauillac the darkest and sturdiest of all, as you might expect. The flight was capped off with 2010 Carruades de Lafite, the “second wine” of Lafite-Rothschild, just for the sake of comparison. As good as it was–and it was!–the other wines had nothing to be ashamed of.

During the meal, where most of the other guests (about 15 in all) seemed to be bloggers, the topic arose concerning Bordeaux’s status and popularity in the California market. I weighed in, as is my wont : ) I mentioned that younger people are looking for unusual, often eccentric wines—the kind their parents never drank—which means they’re not drinking Bordeaux. But, I added, there’s a reason why Bordeaux has been the classic red wine in the world for centuries; and that, as they get on with life, I was sure these drinkers would eventually discover Bordeaux—especially reasonably-priced Bordeaux that shows the classic hallmarks of the genre.

At any rate, if you can find these Légende wines, they’re worth checking out!


The Golden Age of Wine Writing

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Feeling nostalgic, I have been re-reading the Wine Diaries of the late Harry Waugh that I have in my library. Harry, a Londoner and a very great wine man, greatly influenced my own writing style, and I was fortunate enough to accompany him on a tour of Washington State (around 1996) when he was already in his 90s, so I consider him sort of a mentor.

I was lucky to become a wine writer and critic at a time in the history of this country when it was possible for a young person, starting out with no experience or even connections, to succeed at such a career. The field was dominated by a relatively small number of individuals, but perseverance and (I hope, in my case, some talent) allowed me to penetrate their little club.

Today, there are so many people weighing in on wine that nobody needs a few ivory-tower critics anymore to tell them what’s good. With the rise of the Internet and social media, people have endless opinions available to them, to help them make buying decisions. There also are endless opportunities to learn about wines, grapes, regions and techniques: at the click of a Google search, you have entire libraries available to you.

But when I started, in the 1980s, there was obviously no Internet. There were only a very few people with national reputations who could influence great numbers of consumers, through the publication of articles and reviews in a tiny clutch of wine magazines, newsletters and newspaper columns. Americans needed such critics, to help guide them through the growing welter of wines in the wine aisle of the market; otherwise their senses would have been overwhelmed. It was also a time when the Baby Boomers—my generation—were finally getting wealthy enough to be able to afford the discretionary purchase of premium table wines on a regular basis. They wanted help; where demand is on the rise, supply responds appropriately, and the result was the creation of an industry and class: the professional wine writer and critic. I became a member of this restricted aristocracy.

I have made a distinction between wine “writers” and wine “critics” for a reason, for they are two different beasts. I used to know a lovely man, Rod Smith (who sadly died recently). He was a local guy, from the Russian River Valley, and a fine writer, who wrote for prestigious magazines and also penned some books. We were once at a tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons made from grapes grown in the various Beckstoffer vineyards of Napa Valley. At one point, I asked Rod how he was rating the wines (I certainly was), and he snapped, “I’m not a wine critic, I’m a wine writer!” His point was that the written word was important to him, not some snappy review, accompanied by a number.

But I chose to be both a critic and a writer. I exercised the critical part through my job at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, where my ratings, based on the 100-point system, were welcomed by consumers and trade alike (not to mention the winery owners who sent me their wines for review!). But I exercised the esthetic, writerly part of my passion through long articles in that magazine, and others, as well as books for the University of California Press and, after 2008, my wine blog. I took both parts of my job equally seriously, and like to think that I was successful at both.

How many members were there of the exclusive fraternity I was a part of? When I began, there were at most a dozen men and women in the entire country who had a national platform. (In my state of California, there were others who were important regionally, but who lacked that national exposure.) With such a small number, each of us was quite visible. We had clout, influence, reach: each word I wrote, each score would, I knew, be read with interest by large numbers of people. It was a heady feeling, but also underscored the grave responsibility that rested on my shoulders: to do a good job and be honest and scrupulous about it.

By the time I left the Wine Enthusiast, in 2012, there were literally thousands upon thousands of people reviewing wine and publishing articles in this country, not to mention the rest of the world. Some worked for a burgeoning number of wine, or wine-and-food, periodicals. Many more published online. There was even a Wine Bloggers Conference that attracted hundreds of ambitious, eager young (and not-so-young) people every summer. This meant that, although the number of wine consumers also was on the rise, each individual writer/critic’s influence was diluted, due to their sheer numbers. I used to say that, had I started my career in 2008 rather than 1988, I doubt that I would have achieved even one-tenth as much as I did: by 2008, the competition was just too intense. I was extremely lucky to have begun at a time when few young people gave any thought to being a wine writer and critic. In those Reagan years, most young people seemed to want to be MBAs!

So, today, a young person probably can’t “make it” anymore as wine writer or critic, that is, if they start from scratch. We do have a small number of individuals, such as Antonio Galloni and James Suckling, who apparently have achieved great success in the last ten years or so, but neither started from scratch: Galloni was launched to fame through Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, while Suckling arrived at his reputation through his years at Wine Spectator. I thus came of age during a Golden Age of wine writing, a time that no longer exists, and probably never will again, at least in America. Perhaps there are young men and women in places like China, Brazil or South Korea, where there is still an opportunity to forge a good career.

As for the 100-point system, I stoutly defended it all the years I used it. Now, I think it’s kind of passé. It will probably stick around for a while longer because it’s so entrenched. But, to be honest, in the last years of my career, it made less and less sense to me, and I would have abandoned it, had my paycheck not depended on it.


Why would restaurateurs or wine merchants want to hear the thoughts of an aging critic?

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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.


Live blogging from the Bloggers Conference

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From the Wine Bloggers Conference agenda:

Live Wine Blogging (White & Rose): This is the pre-eminent event at the Wine Bloggers Conference. Winemakers will each have five minutes to pour their wine, present their story, and answer questions from a table of bloggers. At the end of five minutes, winemakers will rotate to a new table. Bloggers will analyze and describe their impressions live via social media or their blogs.

Dramatis personae:

Winemaker Steve Heimoff, of Chateau Heimoff, poured his Chateauneuf-du-Pup “Cuvée Gus” for six bloggers. This is a transcript of the session.

Bloggers:

Elsie Tutwell, “Wine for Walloons”

Davison D. Dudwinkle, “Dudes Definitely Drink”

Nathan L. “Putzy” Poodleheimer, “This Putz Drinks Pink!”

P. Chumitz, “Waiter, there’s a fly in my wine!”

Desirée D’Anglebert, “The Sexy Grrlzz Guide to Wine”

Rainbow Roy, “How Gay Is That? Hot Wines for Hot Men”

*******

Steve: Hi everyone, how are—

Elsie: We only have 5 minutes.

Rainbow: I love your tattoos!

Putzy: Is this a rosé? Cuz that’s all I drink.

Steve: Actually, it’s—

Davison: Oh, darn, my screen froze!

Desirée: Really? Let me see. Sometimes if I hold it here—

Chumitz: Where did you say you’re from?

Steve: Actually, I didn’t say, but I’m from—

Desirée: There! It just needed a little love. Try it now.

Davison: Why is it damp?

Rainbow: Is that an orchid?

Steve: Yes, and that’s a poppy next to it. Now, about the wine—

Elsie: Oh, I like it. I’m going to tweet about it. How do you spell your name?

Steve: S – T – E – V –

Putzy: Funny, it doesn’t look pink….

Chumitz: Poodleheimer, you’re a moron. It’s Petite Sirah.

Steve: Actually, no, it’s—

Putzy: You don’t have to be so rude, Chumitz.

Rainbow: I have a tattoo, but I’d have to go au naturel to show it to you, and I’m not sure that the Wine Bloggers Conference is the appropriate place…

Davison: What forest is the oak from? What’s the char level? How old were the trees? Was the toastiére’s name Maurice?

Elsie: What’s a toasty air?

Desirée: I think it was fermented in concrete eggs. Am I right? Because I can always tell from that wet concrete smell.

Davison: That’s brett. Or is it TCA? I get them mixed up.

Chumitz: You’re nuts, Desirée. It was obviously aged in new Tronçais.

Desirée: I have an idea. Let’s ask the winemaker!

Steve: Well, I—

Davison: Because when I was in France the guy’s name was Maurice, only he was Swiss.

Rainbow: I knew a Maurice. But he was from Brooklyn.

Putzy: I really liked that last wine. You remember? You liked it too, Desirée.

Desirée: No I didn’t. Elsie did.

Elsie: I didn’t either. You mean the sparkling wine?

Putzy: I hated it. I liked the dessert wine.

Steve: Well, this is a—

Davison: You did like it, Desirée. Remember? You asked him what the pH was.

Desirée: Oh, right. I’m getting a little tipsy! Ooopsy poopsy!

Rainbow: It’s a portrait of my mom. The only reason I put it on my buttocks was because—

Chumitz: Rainbow Roy, we really don’t need to hear about your buttocks.

Rainbow: Well, I’m just saying.

Davison: What U.C. Davis climate region is it? Are the soils volcanic? How do you define “mineral”? How old are the vines? Is it a Geneva Double Curtain? Did you pick before the rains came?

Steve: Umm–

Elsie: I’m terribly sorry, Mr.—what did you say your name is? Smellneff? Anyhow, your time is up. Next winemaker!

Tomorrow: Heimoff does Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Reddit, Periscope and Grindr.

TwitterGus


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