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Happy New Year!

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I’d like to wish everyone a happy, healthy New Year. 2015 was kind of weird for me in some respects, with lots of twists and turns—but then, life always provides the unexpected, doesn’t it? The thing I’m learning, or trying to, is that I usually land on my feet, and that, no matter what happens, it’s all good.

Well, it’s not always all good, obviously. But in looking back over what is turning into my long life, I can see how almost every time something happened to me that I thought was a disaster, it actually turned out to be good. “Every cloud has a silver lining,” they say. The challenge is to see that silvery glow when the cloud is enveloping you in darkness. Not always easy—that’s where faith comes into play. I don’t mean blind, mindless faith, but a faith based on reason: something along the lines of, “Hey, this has always worked out for me in the past, so why shouldn’t I believe it’ll work out in the future?”

I’m looking forward to more great projects in 2016 working for my wonderful employer, Jackson Family Wines. It was nearly two years ago that I quit my job as the Famous Wine Critic and went to JFW. Lots of people were shocked that I would voluntarily give up such a hard-earned, coveted position. But I was ready for something else, and I also thought it’s only fair to move aside and let a newer generation have the fun of being a Famous Wine Critic. I’m glad I made that decision.

I’d also like to thank my readers for continuing to check me out every morning. The content of this blog changed when I made my job transition, but I still try to keep it interesting and timely. To some extent, my profile has gone down, which I anticipated and totally understand. But that’s good; things have quieted down in the Comments section, and on social media like Twitter, where for some reason some people got angry enough to write stupid things about me when they should have been living their lives. It’s nice to have those head-butting days behind me.

So have a great New Year’s Eve. Party hearty, if that’s your thing, but party safely, and please, don’t drink and drive! See you in 2016!


Rich Smith passes to that great vineyard in the sky

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I can hardly believe the news that Rich Smith has died.

I’ve known Rich for so long, I can’t even remember when we met. He was instrumental in educating me about the appellation he helped to pioneer, the Santa Lucia Highlands, and was a good person to ask about all things viticultural. As for hospitality, Rich always welcomed me to the winery. He was as helpful and friendly as anyone in the wine industry I’ve ever met.

Rich was the founder of Paraiso Vineyards [formerly Paraiso Springs]. As the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association eulogized, He was one of the fathers and visionary pioneers of the Monterey wine region and continually championed sustainability and research to foster the success we all share.” Rich was one of those people a wine reporter naturally bonds with. He had a wry, inquisitive sense of humor in addition to his vast knowledge of wines, vines and local history, a salt-of-the-earth guy who was fundamentally a farmer at heart. He shunned the limelight, even though he was frequently in it—a guy you were drawn to for the dignity and centeredness he projected.

He and his winemaking team made fantastic wine at Paraiso. Rich’s Wedding Hill Syrah was, to my mind, his best wine, but the Pinots, Rieslings and Chards were fine, and Rich was generous enough to share fruit with other wineries, such as La Rochelle, Morgan and Manzoni.

Rich was only 69 years old when he passed away on Dec. 27. He will be missed.

Smith


Those emotional components of wine? Not going anywhere

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There’s been much analytical writing lately about the mental, psychological, intellectual and emotional aspects of wine, such as this think piece in Decanter, in which Andrew Jefford ruminates on the concept of wine “as a dream.” He writes of the way wine “commands our emotions” and of its “cultural depth,” referring to historical effluvia well-known to most wine writers, such as Napoleon’s love of Chambertin. As an example of this “cultural depth,” he claims, justifiably, that one cannot drink Stag’s Leap Cabernet without thinking of the Judgment of Paris. Certainly, that is true for me.

(Interestingly, Jefford puts more emphasis on wine’s alcoholic content than I would. Surely, getting buzzed, in precisely the way that wine stimulates the brain and spirit, contributes to the human capacity to experience emotion. Yet non-alcoholic consumables, such as movies and athletic contests, also stir up our emotions, so the presence of alcohol doesn’t seem to be necessary to make us feel strongly.)

Anyhow, I agree with Jefford’s line of thinking and have written about it frequently, suggesting that wine’s emotive and associative force—and not its objective hedonistic content—is the reason why people are willing to spend so much money on certain bottles. But the fact that this topic, of wine’s subjective and cultural bases, has arisen so much in recent months and years begs the questions, Why? And why now?

It used to be that the superior price of Haut-Brion, for example, was explained as a function of its superior quality. The First Growths cost twice as much as the Seconds because they were twice as good. All the experts said so; everyone believed it, because we lived in an age of expertise that applied to everything from art and economics to religion, governance and wine. People did not question the expertise of the experts, or their right to proclaim their views with rigid certainty. You might not particularly care about those views; but you, as a non-expert, were not free to disagree with them. Or, to be precise, you could, but at the risk of sounding like an idiot.

In retrospect we can see that this Age of Expertise was a minor chord in a larger symphony of hierarchical ranking, in which what was was would be. God reigned supreme over the Universe. The Kings and Queens who ruled empires were second in order, their rule “divine” and thus unassailable. Below the Kings and Queens were the Princes of the Church, Generals of the Armies and Admirals of the Navies, and so on and on, down through the pecking orders, in which peons and slaves occupied the lowest rung. These latter had no views, or none at any rate worth considering. This mechanistic view of the world and its inhabitants was reflected supremely in Newton’s mechanics.

We know what happened next: with the advent of Einstein, relativity, the Internet and social media, the old order has more or less totally collapsed. Authority means little these days, in an age when the autonomy of the individual, coupled with that anonymity of autonomous individuals called crowd sourcing, is promoted above all else. In wine, this disintegration of authority leaves the inheritors and defenders of the new order a challenging task: to explain the hierarchies of the old order. How did some wines get to be so much more famous and expensive than others? Proponents of the new order, who generally do not have the ability to taste wine widely, tend to resort to a radical explanation: that the old order was wrong. They say that when their grandparents drank Haut-Brion or Chambertin, the wine’s “cultural depth” actually became “freighted” (Jefford’s word, and not a flattering one) with a dream-weight-anchor that utterly prevented Grandpa from experiencing Haut-Brion for what it was, as opposed to the “dream” his brain conjured it to be. In Jefford’s words, “the dream modifies our reaction to the taste of the wine.”

That’s pretty radical. We wouldn’t allow someone who was racially biased to sit on a jury. We rightfully recoil when a Supreme Court Justice seems to let religious beliefs interfere with a “justice is blind” interpretation of the law. We don’t like it when news “anchors” let their politics blatantly color their reporting. So why is it that we trust wine “authorities” who speak from a dream-world?

This, at any rate, is how proponents of the new order think; and it explains why these arguments of the subjectivity and emotive power of wine are so frequent nowadays. If this tendency towards relativism in wine—an undermining of authority, a calling-into-question of the very notion of quality—continues, the world of wine will find itself in a very peculiar place that has no precedent in recorded history, in which wine always has existed within a hierarchy more or less agreed upon by everyone.

Which is why I don’t believe this worst-case scenario will happen. Human nature doesn’t change, despite fantastic advances in science. We are still the same people our distant ancestors were. Today’s wars and preoccupations mirror yesterday’s; only the particulars have changed; not much else. In wine, the hierarchies of authority (French classification systems, Famous Critic point scores) are under assault, but I don’t believe they’ll fail. These cultural re-assemblings occur from time to time; the rise, in fact, of Bordeaux to the summit of the hierarchy in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was precisely a reassembling of a prior order, more chaotic but for all its disorder, more real. The particulars today change; the underlying reality—that hierarchies always will emerge, official and unofficial, yet understood by all—remains the same. To resist them is to form the stuff of future hierarchies.


Christmas, and here’s El Nino!

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We had a quiet, low-key Christmas Eve dinner down in San Mateo. Maxine made a prime rib of beef, perfectly cooked, with her specialty creamed broccoli and good old-fashioned baked potatoes with butter. I paired it all with a Corison 2002 Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon. That particular wine is well-known for aging, but at 13 years, it was still filled with juicy black currants and dark chocolate, although it was showing its age a bit around the edges. I preferred it straight out of the bottle, young; after an hour in the glass it grew a little ponderous, which makes me wonder if perhaps another ten years might not be kind to it.

Before the meat course, however, we started out with some appetizers, particularly ahi tuna tartare I made from scratch. I like to almost mince the fish, then macerate it in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, capers, cilantro and lime juice. Some recipes call for adding things like avocado or roasted macadamia nuts, but I don’t; they make the tuna cumbersome and the dish doesn’t need all that frou-frou. Let the fish be the star, I say. Tuna tartare needs something to place it on or in. I’ve tried just about everything: toast, bruschetta, rice crackers, butter lettuce leaves and so on, but for the past few years I’ve stuck with potato chips, although in that case you have to spoon the fish onto the chip because if you try to use the chip to scoop out the fish, it (the chip) will break. But then, that gives you an excuse to use those weird little spoons that live in your utensil drawer. With the tuna, I opened a “J” 1997 Late Disgorged Brut, which I’ve been hanging onto for about ten years (it must have been released around 2005). Some critics say you shouldn’t age an LD after it’s been released, but I’m glad I did. The wine really was superb. It had lost about 70% of the bubbles, and was all nice and leesy-yeasty-toasty, and while the fruit had evolved into secondary characteristics (dried lime, grapefruit rind), it had a core of caramel sweetness. That was really a memorable wine.

We also had a wee sip of Highland Park 25 Year Old Single Malt. I gave that bottle to Keith a few years ago; I’ve always liked it, but never understood how valuable it is. We Googled it and found prices averaging between $500 and $600. How does Scotch get that expensive? Supply and demand, I guess. At any rate, a fabulous sipper, smooth, mellow, endlessly complex and satisfying especially on such a cold evening.

On Christmas Day we went to see The Big Short, which I highly recommend. It’s hard to say who should get the Oscar, Christian Bale or Steve Carell. Both were just terrific; the story itself—how bankers, through their greed and carelessness, almost brought down the world economy—is compelling, and director Adam McKay’s production was astounding. He used that “breaking the fourth wall” technique that The Office employed so well. Go see this movie.

Meanwhile, for those of you who have been enjoying a warm East Coast December, give us our weather back, you thieves! We’re freezing our butts off in California, where the daytime high has struggled to get out of the 40s and broad areas of the Bay Area have been dipping into the 20s at night. This morning—yesterday, as you read this—Oakland set a record low, at 30 degrees. Brrr. Gus didn’t mind it, but I did. Now I know that 30 degrees isn’t “cold” by Michigan or Vermont standards, but cut us a little slack here; we’re not used to it, and something about the Bay Area’s damp, fresh-off-the-Pacific wind makes 47 feel like 7.

But the big story isn’t the cold, it’s the rain. El Nino seems to be delivering as advertised, and since it’s not really supposed to kick in until January, we could be in for some extraordinarily soaking rains and blizzards in the High Sierra, which is where we get our water. In fact, the snowpack is twice what it was last year, and is at 111% percent of normal.

If El Nino is as “monstrous” as the scientists have been saying, we’re going to have to laud their predictive powers. When they get stuff wrong, everybody jumps on them. If they got this right—and it looks like they did—it will redound to the greater glory of climate science.


Too many chefs? A culinary academy closure raises questions

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It’s a real shockeroo that the Culinary Academy in San Francisco is closing. Its graduates include Ron Siegel, now of Michael Mina but I remember dining at the old Charles Nob Hill restaurant, which he eventually left to go to Masa’s. Talk about a resumé!

There are two outposts of the culinary arts in the food-obsessed Bay Area: The Culinary Academy [also known as Le Cordon Blue] and the Culinary Institute of America, in Saint Helena. To have one of them shut down in the midst of one of the greatest restaurant booms in memory is amazing. The official reason for the Culinary Academy’s closure is high food and facility costs,” but a major financial problem was “a $40 million settlement in 2011 of a class-action lawsuit by students who claimed the school inflated graduation and job placement rates.”

According to that settlement, 8,500 students who attended the Academy between 2003 and 2008 were eligible for tuition rebates, based on the notion that “they were told a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu would allow them to become chefs, but that many students who graduate are unable to obtain that position.”

One hardly knows where to start in the commentary. During the first 15 years of this new century, being a chef was one of the hottest careers in America—at least, the America of the coasts, and in the urban and rapidly urbanizing centers of the country, where despite the Great Recession people had good jobs and were developing the discretionary-income behaviors of upping their food game and looking for great local restaurants in which to dine. I’m sure that many applicants to the Culinary Academy dreamt of being the next Ron Siegel, and why not? It’s a good dream.

The “chefs are hot” movement was rivaled, in our food-and-wine world, only by the “somms are hot movement,” which itself was exceeded by the “mixologists are hot” movement. Still, there seems to be enough room in our hedonistic culture for chefs, somms and mixologists to co-exist, with plenty of jobs for all.

What, then, are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? I will not weigh in on the merits of the 2011 lawsuit, but clearly, even graduates of an esteemed cooking school in San Francisco found it hard to obtain the sort of work they were expecting; some of them faced “in excess of $100,000” in student loans, hardly an amount a young line chef, even if she could get a job, would be able to repay for many, many years.

I remember when I moved to San Francisco, everybody wanted to be an M.B.A. That was the hot job of the first Reagan administration. Of course, all those newly-minted MBAs didn’t get rich. That degree, too, was over-hyped and over-sold. I frequently have the same feeling about sommeliers today. There are so many ways to get certified, whatever that means, that I sometimes think, pace Warhol, that in the future, everybody will be a sommelier for 15 minutes.

But an oversupply of chefs? What else are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? Clearly there are two things going on: (1) the media’s obsession with these sexy careers, and (2) the corresponding reality that there are not enough jobs for all the graduates of the nation’s cooking schools.

I believe in dreams. I made my career as a wine writer based on my dream. But that was then; this is now, and I don’t know that the dream of being a chef is based on reality. There comes a time when a career gets so popular that too many people pursue it; being a wine writer is in a similar plight today. I am second to no one in the esteem in which I hold chefs. They have been instrumental in our evolution as a culture. If I had a kid who dreamed of being a chef and asked for my advice, I’d be torn. Follow your dream? Or forget about it because the competition is so intense and the chance of success is diminishing. I honestly don’t know what advice I would give.


How does our taste in alcohol change over time?

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When I was a young man I didn’t care at all for wine, except for its obvious ability to make a college freshman (me) drunk. Years later, I learned to appreciate and eventually love wine. At first I sought out Cabernet Sauvignon because that was the wine all the critics at that time (the 1980s) said was the most important grape and wine, at least here in California.

At about that time I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, where they assigned me The Collecting Page, which appeared in every issue. My job was to write articles of interest to wine collectors. I got to know most of the top collectors in America (they all wanted to have their pictures and names in the magazine, so they returned my phone calls and in some cases they sought me out). One thing I learned about these wealthy, white, middle-aged men was that, almost to a person, they had started out with a preference for Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux, then graduated to Pinot Noir/Burgundy. That was my first intuition that our tastes in booze change over time.

Of course it’s well known that many people begin liking sweet wines and only gradually move onto dry table wines, so that’s another calibration in the booze evolutionary scale. With me, a love of Pinot Noir took some time, because there wasn’t very much decent Pinot in California, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy good Burgundy. But by the mid-1990s there was enough good Pinot, from the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli and so on, that I learned to love it. However, I never loved it more than Cabernet. To me, they were separate, but equal.

However now my tastes are definitely changing. I’ve acquired, or I should say re-acquired, a taste for beer—good beer, craft beer, not the watery stuff produced by America’s gigantic brewers. I’m not sure why this has finally happened to me. Beer has an umami quality that I simply crave, especially for my first drink of the late afternoon. Maybe it’s the fizz.

I’ve also acquired a new-found appreciation for liquor, particularly vodka. Again, I can’t say why this is. My favorite is a gimlet: good vodka and freshly-squeezed limes. None of that sweet Rose’s, please, and if you happen to have a basil leaf, feel free to muddle it in, but not too much; the basil should be a subtle background taste.

This isn’t to say I don’t still appreciate wine. I certainly do. I continue to love a good, dry white wine, no matter where it’s from: California, Sancerre, Chablis. It’s in the matter of red wines that I find my bodily tastes changing the most. I can still appreciate a red wine, but it really has to be a very good wine. For me, red wines show their flaws more readily than any other wine; and the chief flaw is a certain heavy blandness that can come with an over-emphasis of fruit. Many, many California red wines suffer from this flaw; a little fruitiness goes a long way, and if the wine is out-of-balance in acids and tannins, the flaw is even more obvious. Another way of putting this is that I can appreciate a good beer, white wine or cocktail by itself, but most red wines are more difficult for me to enjoy unless they’re coupled with the proper food.

It’s funny, though, because I still find myself mentally rating wines, even though it’s going on two years (!!!) since I was a working wine critic. Old habits die hard. Take California Cabernet Sauvignon. There are lots of them I’ll score at 92, 93 points, even though they’re not particularly wines I care to drink, except, as I said, with the right foods. But there’s a twist: most of these big red wines call for beef, and I’m not much of a beef eater. (I think of lamb as a Pinot Noir food. Pigs and Pinot, as we say.) So even though my formal training is in rating and reviewing big red wines, and I’m pretty good at it, those same wines play less and less of a role in my private life.

I’ve also evolved to another more interesting point, at least for me. I’ve cellared wine since, like, forever! But I’m finally at the point where I’m starting to drink my older bottles. I figure, I’m not going to be here forever, and those special occasions I always fancied would justify popping the cork on a 15-year old wine seem to come a lot less frequently than they used to. So why wait? What’s the old saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

El Nino is starting to hit us here in California. One storm after another, with a biggie scheduled to roll in on Thursday. But the week beyond that is dry, and our state water officials are warning us, with some urgency, not to stop conserving just because the “monster” El Nino is coming. So we’ll just have to wait and see what January, February, March and April bring.


A rainy interlude in the Willamette, then snow

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I’m back from my trip to Oregon, where I got to know the byways of the Willamette Valley a lot better than before! Nothing like going back and forth along highways 22, 99 and all those lonely little country lanes to finally figure out who’s who and what’s what. I’d planned my trip a few weeks ago when AccuWeather predicted that the week of Dec. 14-19 would have dry, sunny weather—a rare break in their usual pattern of rain. Well, the weather could have been worse, but it was far from sunny and dry, and in fact they had record rainfall on Wednesday. I tried to drive down to Jackson Family’s Maple Grove Vineyard, outside Monmouth, but never got there: this is a picture of Maple Grove Road, so far as I know the only way into that remote, hilly outcrop of the Coast Ranges.

MapleGrove

I stayed in McMinnville, but the more I learn about the lay of the land, the better it seems to stay further south on future visits. Monmouth or Independence are sort of in the middle of where I need to be, but there are few hotels. Salem isn’t that far; it’s the State Capital, and a nice little city.

Each time I go to Willamette Valley its vastness impresses me. It’s not a compact little valley, like Napa or Sonoma, or even like the Santa Maria Valley. Napa is around 400,000 acres but Willamette is nearly ten times bigger, 3.4 million. It’s also really long from north to south and wide from east to west, and in between the hills and ranges the floor of the valley is flat. The grapes, of course, don’t grow on the flats, but on the slopes. I think it would take somebody a very long time to master an understanding of Willamette Valley terroir and Lord knows it’s not going to be me; but I know more than I used to, and in the future I’ll know more than I do now. So “the arc of Heimoff bends towards understanding.”

I do have to say, though, that I bought a bottle of Chardonnay, from a winery unknown to me, at a little wine shop in McMinnville, after the proprietress highly recommended it. (I won’t ID the brand.) She said it wasn’t oaky. Unfortunately, it was super-oaky, like drinking toothpicks. Mind you, this was a good wine store and the lady seemed like she knew what she was talking about. I find that disconcerting. Can’t we even agree when a wine is too oaky or not?

Anyhow, the Willamette is a warmish place due to the Pacific influence and despite its northerly latitude, so all the precipitation remained in the form of rain. My drive up had been gorgeous: sunny with impossibly blue skies. Here’s a picture of a spiritual-looking Mt. Shasta from that part of the journey.

Shasta

But it was raining heavily on the way home yesterday (Sunday) and as we hit the Siskiyou and Shasta passes the rain turned to heavy, wind-driven snow. I haven’t driven in heavy snow since I lived in the Berkshires nearly 40 years ago, so this was a scary experience for me. The I-5 freeway was down to a single lane in places, the snow and fog made for whiteout conditions, and of course the grades were up to 6 percent not to mention the curves. Throw in all those awful big rigs and it was downright menacing. (We love our long-distance haulers, America wouldn’t be the same without them, but I could live without the trucks. Yes I know that’s a total contradiction.) At one point we stopped at a rest stop and when Gus saw the snow coming down he refused to get out of the car. But I made him see the light so he hopped down and seemed a little disoriented as the snowflakes piled up on his back.

SnowyGus

People were giggling because he was so funny and cute in a WTF way.

Anyhow the trip back to Oakland (from Ashland, where we bunked for the night) took 7-12 hours because of the foul weather. (Ashland: another cute little town like McMinnville although a lot colder since it’s in snow country: shops, restaurants, holiday lights and hippies!) It’s nice to be back home after a week in Mexico and then my week in Oregon. Lots of work to jump on, including a great project concerning the Freemark Abbey renovation Jackson Family Wines is undertaking at the winery in St. Helena.

I’ll try to blog throughout this week. Take care.


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