Thursday, September 22, 2016

Grand Vin

When I think about my youth, and I try to recall what it sounded like, I only remember a few voices. The voice of my mother reading “Charlotte’s Web” or “Winnie the Pooh” to me. My grandmother making dinner in the kitchen, the sounds of her kindness and humor that was my safe place. And Vin Scully.

The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. I was five years old. I can’t remember when I fell in love with baseball, or why. Baseball just seems to have been part of who I am. I don’t know how I came to write jokes either. Those places in my heart and soul seem to have been installed at the factory. I don’t care for any other sports. Not at all. I don’t denigrate them. No more than I denigrate romance novels, or sitcoms on the CW. I save my scorn for the wine business I love. And though I was pre-programmed to love baseball, it was Vin Scully who mentored me, every night of the baseball season, through my crappy little transistor radio under my pillow. His voice is the voice of my childhood. He could speak over my parents arguing in their bedroom if I turned the volume up a little bit. Make me feel better after I’d wet my bed far too late into my life. Vin Scully painted a picture of a world I never knew, but badly wanted to believe in, a world where your best effort was all you needed to prove you were valuable. I needed to hear that as a kid. He brought comfort to my childhood, but also dignity and joy. He never spoke down to me, he never dealt in inside jokes, never put down opposing players or umpires; Vin Scully epitomized class and sportsmanship, as well as the power of observation and storytelling.

Almost everyone reading must know that Mr. Scully has announced that this, his 67th year as the voice of the Dodgers, will be his last year. I’m not heartbroken. I should be, but it’s hard to be selfish to a man who has only been kind and unselfish. Actually, I’m amazed that I lived long enough to see him retire. I’ve listened to him for 58 years. I’d gladly take another 30. But I only feel gratitude, not loss. Grateful to have been born in Southern California where Vin Scully rules.

I don’t have many heroes. How many of us do? Vin Scully is one of my heroes. And so I’m self-indulgently writing about him. I need to, I think. You can stop reading here, if you haven’t already. It’s only going to be baseball foolishness. And there will be hundreds of tributes to Vin Scully written, mine won’t be that special. But I need to, if only for myself.

In the days before the endless stats that now dominate broadcasts, baseball was about the moment. The human moment. Vin Scully, when the situation warranted it, could easily explain the moment, make you feel you were in the game, make you understand what must have been going on in the hitter’s mind, make you think about what must be running through the manager’s strategy. But always with a twinkle in his eye. It was always only baseball. And when there was tragic news in the world, a catastrophe of mythic proportions, Vin would always remind us that there was a game to play, but that it was of no real consequence. That baseball was just the playground, and not real life. I’m certain that’s why I feel the same way about wine. And feel sorry for those who believe it has genuine significance in the world. It does not.

I remember a game against the Giants when Koufax no-hit them. The only televised baseball games in Los Angeles back then were NBC’s Game of the Week, and games against the Giants in San Francisco. It was 1963. I was ten. I had to go to bed because it was getting late. But as the game went on, into the seventh and eighth, Koufax had not allowed a hit. I was listening to the game in my room, the radio under my pillow, hanging on Vin Scully’s every word. In the ninth inning, my grandmother came and “woke” me up, sneaking me into her room to watch the end of the game on television. When Harvey Kuenn hit a comebacker to Koufax to end the game, one of Koufax’s four no-hitters, my grandmother and I let out whoops and cheers. Vin Scully, as was his wont, was silent.

Scully is, like the great writers and poets, the great singers and speakers, a master of the silent pause. After a dramatic home run, he would stop speaking and let the crowd tell the story. He understood timing, and I think I learned much of mine from him. One of my favorite Vin Scully lines was simple, yet perfectly delivered. He was speaking about a player who had suffered a mild injury and was listed as “Day to Day.” A pause. “Aren’t we all?”

There was the wonderful call of Fernando Valenzuela’s no-hitter against the Cardinals. When Valenzuela gets former Dodger Pedro Guerrero to hit into a game-ending double play, Scully first makes note of the exact time of the last out, the date, that he’s pitched a no-hitter, and then says, “If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky!” You want to listen to a master at his craft, listen to Vin Scully call that ninth inning.

There are 67 years of highlights. The great call of one of the most dramatic home runs ever hit, the Kirk Gibson home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. “In a year that has been so improbable,” Scully says, always improvising, though after a two-minute pause, “the impossible has happened!” Scully had a way of making memorable moments indelible in your memory. It’s a remarkable, and inimitable, gift.

Through earthquakes, riots, countless disasters and tragedies, culturally and personally, there was that voice in my ear, coming from underneath my pillow. It was the one sure thing in my life for six months of the year, a place I could visit and feel happy and included, safe from anger and fear and pain. I almost liked the lopsided games better because then Vin could tell longer stories about baseball. Yet there was also no one better at calling a dramatic, hard-fought, even heartbreaking baseball game. And probably never will be.

No one from Los Angeles would argue with the fact that Vin Scully is by far the most popular and beloved man in the city. Not Magic Johnson, not Kobe Bryant, not any movie star you can name. He has been for as long as I can remember. It says something about Los Angeles, often seen as vapid and starstruck, that this is true. In some very important way, he’s the most beloved man in my entire life.

I met him once, at the restaurant where I was sommelier. I’ve never been so grateful to meet someone. Bob Hope was a very regular customer, also, and I cannot tell you how many times very powerful, very wealthy, very successful men went up to Mr. Hope in tears because they were finally able to thank him for how much his USO trips to Vietnam meant to their lives, at the worst times of their lives. I didn’t serve in Vietnam, but I felt some of that gratitude to Vin Scully. Everyone will tell you that Scully is the same man you see on television, the same man you hear on your radio. Gracious, articulate, thoughtful, quick-witted, and humble. I wanted to stand up straighter, speak more clearly, and make him proud of me. I’ve felt that every time I’ve heard his voice for the last 58 years.

There’s an old warning that you should never meet your heroes. It’s usually true. Not in Mr. Scully’s case. I muttered something stupid, something he’d probably heard every day of his life, something jejune about him being the voice of my childhood. I was a wreck. More nervous than the day I got married. But Scully was so gracious, listened to me so intently, and thanked me with great charm and affection. It was one of the best moments of my working career, and a highlight of my days in Los Angeles.

And with his retirement, the last voice of my childhood goes silent. All those hours listening to his voice in the darkness, his voice a balm for every real and every imagined wound, the simple kindness of an older male voice a rare and precious gift to a young boy, the decency and sense of dignity he always exuded a shining example of what it is to be a man, I wonder, how many of us growing up in Los Angeles owe a large debt to Vin Scully? And now his brilliant career is finally Day to Day.

Aren’t they all?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Wine Critics in Hell Act 4

Act One is here   
Act Two is here   
Act Three is here

Our four dead wine critics, Parker, Laube, Suckling and Kramer, are listlessly hanging around in Hell, which appears to be a natural wine bar in Lodi. Alice Feiring is sitting at the bar deep in conversation with Laube, who is visibly inebriated, while she sips from a bottomless glass of natural rosé. There is a Stranger sitting alone in the corner who listens intently to everyone’s conversations. Everyone appears to be waiting for someone.

Laube: (drunkenly) I don’t know what I’m doing here with these idiots, Alice. I’m a lot more influential than any of them. I ran California! If I said a wine was 95 points, then, goddamit, it was going to get somewhere around 95 points. Give or take. I mean, there were other factors, weren’t there, Alice? I’m not to blame for that. There’s always other factors…(he drifts off).

Feiring: (consoling him) Oh, Jimmy, you did your best. And isn’t it better to be here in this sort of Hell than the one of your own making? I mean, Honey, you stayed at Wine Spectator for all those years. You had the courage to stay, not go out and try to make something of yourself like other wine critics. You were dependable, like a morning bowel movement. You had no aspirations to be better! I admire that. Get a big paycheck and just phone it in? Why, that’s inspiring! You gave the best years of your life to that magazine, and what do you have to show for it? Why, you’re a household name, like washrag, or doormat!

Laube: And I wrote a book! Don’t forget that. I wrote a goddam wine book.

Feiring: Why, yes, yes, you did, Jimmy. (a long pause) When was that?

Laube: I don’t remember. Maybe 1989? But it was a helluva book. It was about Cabernet.

Feiring: It sounds fascinating. Did it have numbers, Jimmy? Say some numbers to me, Jimmy. I love when you say numbers to me in that whiskey-laden voice of yours. It’s sexy. Tell me, Honey, what sort of a number would you give me?

Parker: One for the nearest shrink would be good.

Laube: (looking Feiring over) I’d have to taste you first.

(Feiring slaps him. His moustache flies across the bar. Parker rushes over and grabs Feiring’s wrist, which is poised to strike again. The bartender hands Laube his moustache back, which is now covered in peanut shells. Laube puts it in his glass of wine, wrings it out in the glass, and puts it back on his face. He then sips the wine, and his eyebrows show approval.) 

Parker: Leave him alone, Feiring. What’s he ever done to you? Laube’s like tsunami debris—he was washed up years ago.

Kramer: Look who’s talking about being washed up. The Great Robert Parker! That’s rich! We’re all here in this Godforsaken Lodi Hell because our opinions stopped mattering, because we’re dead to the world. Sure, we used to be somebodies. Our scores could make or break people. Our pronouncements carried weight. But not recently. Not right before we ended up in this Hell Hole. We were reduced to being just more internet wine chatter, the old fucks trying to talk over the party noise. A bunch of weary old men with fading senses trying to pretend the party ain’t going anywhere without us. Well, we didn’t leave the party, but the party sure left us. We’re not respected critics anymore, we’re just a string of numbers with initials after them. Like a goddam electronic wine ticker tape. 94RP, 93WS, 94WE 92CG… It’s pathetic. When we started, Gentlemen, we turned fine wines into a bull market. We taught people to love great wines with our tireless palates, our considered opinions, and our easy-to-use numbers. The wine business owes us! Now, it’s a bull-shit market, and we’re just a bunch of tired wine critics trying to hang on to past glories. We’re wine critics in hell. We’re great men. We even tried to pass the wine reviewing torch to a younger generation, but it was too late, there was no torch. Consumers blew out the damned torch. We had our day. But we stayed at the party way too long.

Suckling: Oh shut up, Kramer. Hell is listening to you pontificate. Do I have to go through eternity listening to you? Making Sense of Whinging? (to bartender) Christ, this crappy Grüner Veltliner isn’t even making me drunk! (the bartender shrugs, Suckling is clearly stating the obvious) Jesus, we have to drink this shit forever and it doesn’t even get us drunk? How come Laube’s drunk?

Laube: (slurring his words) I’m not sunk, Druckling. Uh, druk, Sunkling. I need a nap. (He puts his head down on the bar. Feiring breaks free from Parker and rushes over to see to him, caressing his head as Laube dozes on the bar.)

Feiring: Oh, Jimmy, I’m sorry I struck you. You’re the only kind one. I don’t know what got into me… (turning to the rest) You leave Jimmy alone! Can’t you see he’s miserable? You’re horrible people, all of you. You’re not even sweet enough to be Extra Dry. And you’re certainly not Natural. Why, you’re Bruts! Tasteless, cruel Bruts. You’re Veuve Clicquot! All of You! You're Yellow!

Parker: Oh, Alice, nobody here gives a Grande Dame what you think. Nobody cared when you were alive either. You only spoke for the fringe wine lovers. The ones who don’t enjoy wine, but see wine as some sort of symbol. Sure, lots of people bought my 100 Point wines to feel better about themselves. But is that any different from buying natural wines because they’re more authentic? Yeah, we fuck up the planet, ruin the environment, but we can feel OK about ourselves because we drink wines that are natural! Oh, we’re such thoughtful and engaged people. We don’t drink any of that terrible crap that wasn’t farmed biodynamically! Why, how can I enjoy a wine that wasn’t made properly?! We’ve raped the Earth, but if we’re really nice to this fifteen acres, all will be forgiven. It’s bullshit.

(The Stranger starts to laugh. He’s laughing quietly to himself at first, but then his laughter builds and he seems downright giddy. Everyone stops and stares at him.)

Stranger: (gaining his composure) Oh, I’m sorry. I’m just enjoying the show. Wonderful stuff. Why, this couldn’t have worked out any better if I’d planned it. Oh, wait, I did plan it. I have to say, the five of you are so much fun to watch. And we’re just getting started! But, I don’t know, does it seem a little…uncrowded in here?

(The door opens and in walks Antonio Galloni.)

Galloni: (to the bartender) Hey, where’s the men’s room? I need to drain my Tanzer.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The HoseMaster of Wine™ Wins a Roederer International Wine Writers' Award!

Every now and then, something happens that makes you feel great. An unexpected love letter from someone you have feelings for. Praise from someone for whom you have great respect, and who praises an example of your work for which you too have great fondness. A stray dog walks up to you in a park and curls into your lap. You feel great.

I won a Roederer International Wine Writers’ Award. Imagine that.

Hell, maybe Trump does have a chance. And don’t bet against the Cubs now. It could be that kind of year for Losers.

My category was the Ramos Pinto Online Communicator of the Year Award. I think it’s abundantly clear from my work that I believe the universe has a sense of humor. Irony is not a rare and precious mineral, it is as common as the fetid air we breathe. I laughed out loud when I read the list of previous winners of the Online Communicator Award. Three names in particular gave me some perspective on the prestige of having won—W. Blake Gray, Alice Feiring, Natalie MacLean. Life does have a way of keeping one humble.

I have often remarked here that awards are more about the group handing out the awards than about the recipients. Yet I’m damned pleased to have won, if not outright astonished. The Roederer Award becomes a permanent part of my resumé, and I am honored. Is it tasteless for the winner to demand a recount?

Is it at this point that I praise the others on the short list? Why do I have the feeling that not a single one of them was that thrilled to be on the short list with the HoseMaster of Wine™? No matter. Andrew Jeffords has won six Roederers now. I think that means next time he gets the free buffet and car wash. Mr. Jeffords is a far better writer than I, I think we can all agree on that. I expected him to win, though I hate betting the sure thing. Jane Anson is a wonderful writer as well, and I had the great pleasure of meeting her at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium in January. She was my sentimental favorite to win. And win she did, luckily for me, in the Features Writing category. Well-deserved. Andrea Frost also writes a monthly piece for Tim Atkin MW, and, while her style is the sort I love to lampoon, I admire her writing ear, her ability to turn a strikingly original phrase. I don’t know anything about Yolanda Ortiz de Arri, but she has the coolest name. And Alder Yarrow and I go back a long way.

I do believe that it’s important that wine writing be recognized in a serious fashion. The Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards are doing exactly that, and I commend them. Hey, you’re going to make mistakes, but the concept is bulletproof. There are not any other awards that only honor wine writing. (First clown that brings up the Wine Blog Awards, welcome to the Go Fuck Yourself Club®!) Most awards throw in the wine category as an afterthought, a way to bring a few more eyes to their ceremonies and results. Wine writers as Miss Congeniality. In the event Miss America dies, we go to your house for the wake. It’s insulting. So I hope that the folks at the Roederers stay the course, focus solely on wine writing. Any of you who have tried to write about wine on a regular basis know how difficult it is to be thoughtful and original about what is at heart a very narrow subject. Yet it’s a beloved subject to millions of people in the world, and the people who endeavor to make it more accessible and entertaining deserve recognition. My sincerest thanks to the people at Louis Roederer. Yours is the only wine writing award I wanted to win. I never once expected I would.

And a very big thank you to the five judges. Maybe I'm wrong, but I have to think that selecting me as the winner had to feel like taking a risk. My profane and often controversial writing for Tim Atkin MW's site (all the pieces I submitted for review were originally published there) is a long way from the traditional wine writing practiced by the others on the short list. Perhaps that worked in my favor, but, nevertheless, I very much appreciate the support of the judges who had the courage, or the whimsy, to vote for me. It's a distinguished panel of judges, which makes the award that much more meaningful to me. Charles Metcalfe, Tim Atkin MW, Fiona Beckett, Sara Jane Evans MW, Bill Knott--thank you, one and all. I've never had the pleasure of meeting any of you, which also worked in my favor, I'm certain.

Writing is a peculiar compulsion. I’ve written that I do this simply to make people laugh, but that’s not entirely true. I do it primarily for myself. I publish it to make people laugh, but I write to open that door in my mind where the voice now called the HoseMaster dwells. I’m not an interesting person in real life. I’m not well-traveled, I’m not especially brilliant, I’m deeply insecure and often withdrawn. Yet I can find this part of my mind that makes people laugh, that is able to see the farce that is every day life, that is fearless and quick-witted, unafraid to tell truths that others will not, that appeals to intelligent people and attractive women. I’m only that man when I’m here writing in that voice, and that requires I be alone a lot of the time, and lost in my thoughts much of the time otherwise. I live in my head. So often the rest of the world is a disappointment. You don’t want to be me.

I most certainly did not begin HoseMaster of Wine™ in order to become an award-winning wine writer. I had no aspirations when I began, and I still have none. I’m not a journalist. I write about wine, but wine isn’t my subject. Human foible and folly are my subjects, with wine as a mirror. I’m not really sure what it is I communicate online as Online Communicator of the Year. Maybe that wine and the wine business are not above satire any more than any other subject is above it. Maybe that wine isn’t just a terrible financial investment, but it’s also a terrible emotional investment. Maybe that knowing a lot about wine doesn’t make you important, or valuable, or admirable. We all take wine too seriously. Yes, it’s a miracle, but so is pizza. Maybe we should stop lying so much about wine.

I’m very flattered and extremely proud to have won a Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Award. Thank you to all the judges, and to Champagne Roederer and Ramos Pinto, the finest Port producer in the history of Port producers. Suck it, Fonseca.

I’ve been at this for a long stretch now, and the rewards have been immeasurably life-changing and rewarding. Awards recognize past accomplishments, and are fleeting. In the real world, you’re only as good as your recent work. The people I’ve met because of my work are the real reward. They are too numerous to mention, but you all know who you are. A writer writes alone, but lives among those who read his work. Being unread is death to a writer. A voice unheard is no voice at all. Thanks to all those who have heard me.

I know I offend people. I intend offense. Satire is intended to outrage and offend people. I measure my own success by who it is I’ve offended, who I’ve driven to outrage. I judge myself by that list of people, and I am content when everyone on that list is a fool, an idiot, or an asshole. So far, so good. Most have been all three. But satire is more than that. It spits in the face of false authority. It questions the establishment (oh, yes, I grew up in the ’60’s). It makes us laugh while it makes us think, and that is a rare kind of doubleheader. I am not a great satirist, or a comic genius. But if I’ve somehow paved the way for that kind of talent to emerge by being recognized with a Roederer Award, if I've made satire seem more vital to the wine business, then I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

Thank You, Louis Roederer International Wine Writers' Awards. I feel great.