Thursday, July 2, 2015

EPHEMERA: Wine Blogging--Just Another Kind of Sad and Lonely Exhibitionism

I was a judge in two wine competitions in June, the California State Fair Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition. That explains why I was absent for so much of June. Well, that and apathy.

I spend a lot of time wondering why I do what I do now, considering where I've been, and considering the big wine picture. It seems to be out of some sort of need for attention. Which is pathetic. Writing HoseMaster of Wine™ was originally a way for me to see if I could still write satire. But after five years and more than 400 pieces I think I’ve answered that question. No fucking way. However, I have received an awful lot of attention, much of it negative, and, like the flasher in a battered trenchcoat who lives for the reactions, I keep waving my weenie around hoping for applause for my limp apparatus. Maybe wine blogging is just another kind of sad and lonely exhibitionism.

The nominees for the Poodles were announced (the winners having just been announced) and I ill-advisedly perused many of the nominees. Ouch. I don’t know who the judges were, but theirs must have a terrible task, the equivalent of judging the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and having to drink the hot dog water afterward. Yet this year I felt some compassion for the nominees. Most must have felt gratified to have been nominated. I lobbied hard not to be nominated, I hate meaningless awards, which is another kind of pathetic. I didn't vote for the Poodles, but I certainly hoped that Chris Kassel would win for Best Writing on a Wine Blog (he didn’t, but he won for Best Blog Post of the Year, ironically, for a post that had nothing really to do with wine, but with Robin Williams' suicide--Morgue and Mindy) because he’s smarter and funnier than I am, and comedy is so much harder to write than tepid wine prose. That said, I’m sure Chris doesn’t give a crap that he won. I never did.

I ask myself all the time, what am I trying to prove by writing HoseMaster of Wine™? I don’t know the answer. Maybe I’m not trying to prove anything. But it feels to me like I am. Only I don’t know what. If anything, it’s to prove that I love wine. Not particular wines, not the romance of wine, just wine. And like any great love, I can’t explain why. I can only say I know my life would have been empty without it. That my love for wine is what led me to everything good about my life. So I feel protective of it, and I dislike those who merely use it, those who talk about it thoughtlessly, those who pretend to love wine, pretend to know more about wine than they actually do, but are merely using wine to benefit themselves. And they are legion.

I’ve always hated the pretentiousness that surrounds wine. Smart people can be pretentious, which is shameful. And stupid people can be pretentious, which is laughable. Wine writing these days seems guilty of being both shameful and laughable. Not all of it, not every single instance, not every single writer, but far too much. On the cosmic scale of being human, knowing a lot about wine barely ranks above being good at pinball. The endless debates that surround wine elevate trivia to heights equalled only by TMZ and pledging sororities. Yet chat rooms and blogs are filled with the kinds of wine frauds that would make Rudy Kurniawan proud, and only because wine is deemed important. I love wine, but I’d never, in the grand scheme of things, attribute it much importance.

In 2014 I judged in six wine competitions. This year I’ve judged two, and I’m probably done for the year. I know why I attend competitions. For the simple joy of being around a bunch of interesting wine folks, many, if not all, of whom know more about wine than I. It’s kind of like attending Bible Study, only everybody’s nuts and drinks too much. So just like Bible Study. Judging reminds me over and over again how endlessly fascinating wine is, and how it unfailingly outmatches us, humbles our feeble senses of smell and taste. Wine isn’t about those senses, though in a strictly objective sense it is. Wine is really about camaraderie, congeniality and laughter, the simple joy of intemperance. Or it’s supposed to be. Too often that is missing from wine judging, and from wine writing.

Truthfully, it’s also flattering to be asked to judge a prestigious wine competition. Not getting asked to return can be disheartening, a kick in the old grape nuts, but when you’re the HoseMaster, well, you never expect to be invited to the cool parties in the first place. Satirists never are. Getting invited even once is pretty cool, makes me feel accepted and appreciated. So, again, we’re back to pathetic.

Pardon my little rambling essay. EPHEMERA has always been about sitting in front of the fucking blinking cursor and just expressing what’s been running through my twisted mind. I do wonder why I do this. I don’t need to; it isn’t keeping a roof over my head. It isn’t a path to fame and reputation—not the way I do it anyway. It’s not even very good, not a repository of wit or insight that the world will some day honor and read. It seems to be some sick way of caring about wine, some way to repay what I owe to wine. As if that were possible.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Excerpts from Parker's "The Emperor's Diaries"

Editor’s Note: The Emperor’s Diaries were only recently discovered in the shopping cart of a homeless natural wine salesman living on the outskirts of Monkton, Maryland. After a painstaking translation from the Emperor’s native tongue, Hyperbole, a few excerpts from The Emperor’s Diaries were made available for publication prior to the diaries’ holiday release. The excerpts only hint at the importance of the document to the history of wine. We are honored to be the first to publish them.

February 1978

I think I’m going to start a brilliant wine publication, with hints of brimstone and new-mown hubris. I’m sick of being an attorney. No one likes attorneys. I want to be liked. I’m sure that if I become a successful wine writer, everyone will like me. Wine writers are far more popular than lawyers, even though both occupations are based on empty rhetoric. I would be able to travel the world and taste the greatest wines with the greatest winemakers, show them what they’re doing wrong. Wine needs a writer like that, with impeccable balance, and subtle notes of ultimate authority and papal infallibility, a critic whose palms aren’t quite as unctuous as our current wine writers’. I’m the guy.

Now I just need to think of a name and a gimmick.

June 1978

I’ve been wrestling with what to name my new wine publication tour-de-force. I have so many ideas, but none seems to stick. “The Wine Tour-de-Force” sounds pretty good. I might go with that! Imagine seeing my wine reviews published everywhere—in winery newsletters, on wine shop shelves, on the damned wine labels themselves—followed by the initials “WTF!” I predict this is exactly what will happen. And everyone will know what “WTF” stands for—it will be suffixed to my name for decades. But Wine Tour-de-Force just doesn’t sound right.

My wine publication will have a sole purpose. Not sure what that will be, but I’m dedicated to it. If it were up to me, the sole purpose would be to make me rich and famous. But that won’t work. Wine critics don’t get rich and famous. They get drunk and gout. Maybe the sole purpose should be integrity, to bring truth and independence to wine reviewing! Nah, that’s just crazy talk.

I’m still stuck on a name though. Right now I’m a lawyer, so maybe “The Wine Lawyer.” That could work. Or maybe “The Wine Public Defender!” Sticking up for your wine rights at no charge! Oh. That’s not quite right, either, but I think I’m getting warm. I’ll think about it. Meanwhile, I have to go and read the interview with Robert Lawrence Balzer in the new issue of “The Advocate.” Can’t wait.

July 1978

For practice, I’ve already started writing wine reviews. They’re dazzling, with lingering notes of thesaurus and echolalia. But I think I need some kind of ranking system so that my readers will know which wines I prefer. Writing reviews is easy for me, I have the nose of cadaver dog and and the vocabulary of William F. Buckley, Jr. getting a blowjob from Farrah Fawcett, but the wine descriptions will be the least important part of my new wine publication, “The Wine Closet.” (Not yet sure of that title, but the Balzer piece inspired me.) What will be important is the ranking system I employ. The ones out there right now don’t appeal to me. The 20-Point Scale is for academics. Everyone hates academics, even more than they hate lawyers. And, besides you have to spend all this time assigning numbers to crap that doesn’t matter, like aroma and clarity. Hell, I go to the john for aroma and clarity. Besides, I want to review hundreds and hundreds of wines in every issue of “The Wine Dandy.” (Getting closer…) Having to pay close attention, and then doing a bunch of addition, just won’t cut it.

And then there’s those guys out in California who rate wines with “stars,” though they look more like pasties for hot, busty Smurfs, or those rubber thingies you put in your bathtub so you don’t slip. Doesn’t matter, but that’s a damned stupid rating system. Wines have to go up higher than three. Three’s not a number that catches your attention. “Why, this fantastic wine is a 3!” That doesn’t make anyone want to buy it. Those guys are stupid. Maybe 100 would get your attention, but not 3. I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it some more.

I didn’t know it would be so hard to start a new wine publication.

August 1978

The 100-Point Scale! It was there all along! I can be so stupid sometimes, like when I bought all those ’72 Bordeaux futures. I’ll rank my wines using a 100-Point Scale. It’s genius. Everybody who went to public school knows that 100 points is a perfect score. Oh, I won’t give out 100 point scores very often. That would cheapen them. When you only have three crummy stars to award, well, you have to give three stars a lot. There just aren’t that damned many scores. There are only THREE! Duh. I’ll have 100 points. I’ll award 100 points maybe a couple of times a year. Any more than that and, well, I’d look like a profligate jackass. Oh, this is really gonna work great.

So now I just have to make up an explanation of how I arrive at my numbers for wines. No problem, I have a law degree, making up specious explanations comes under, “Previous Job Experience.” Now I’m just free-ballin’ it here, but let’s just say I start at 50. A wine gets 50 points to start with, kind of like how you get $200 when you start playing Monopoly for no apparent reason. Yup, 50 points, and then I start rolling the dice. Just off the top of my head, let’s say I give up to 10 points for color. Color doesn’t mean shit in wine, but I need to jack up the points, so let’s say 10. What the hell would a wine look like that got a 3 for color? Who knows? Who cares? It would have to be orange. Yeah, like orange wines make any sense.

Of course, for aroma a wine can get up to 20 points. It doesn’t really matter. I’m not ever going to actually assign numbers for color, or aroma, or intensity, or finish, or anything else individually. I have a life, for Christ’s sake. It’s only wine. But the 100-Point Scale needs to have the appearance of objectivity. Otherwise, people will think I’m just making the numbers up. Which I am, but I don’t want them to think that. It won’t take long, and I’ll know exactly what “87” smells and tastes like. Scoring for color and aroma and texture and balance and length? You can’t give numbers to those things. That’s crazy. I’ll just give a number to the wine.

Oh, I’m getting a good feeling about this. If I work hard enough, everyone will rely on my new wine publication. Everyone will want a subscription to “The Wine Probe.”

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Doin' It Horizontal with Limerick Lane

For the most part, I avoid panel discussions about wine. Nothing I hate more in the wine business than a Burgundy seminar. Trust me, NEVER go to one. They make waterboarding seem like summer fun. I do love listening to a knowledgeable person speak about wine. I was lucky enough once to listen to Gerald Asher talk about wine. His love for wine was matched only by his apparent and articulate love for language. And, of course, he has that cool fake accent. Panel discussions, on the other hand, tend to devolve into the worst sort of holiday dinner party—a lot of posturing, a lot of interrupting, a lot of people who were told once in their life they were funny and foolishly chose to believe it. There’s an old expression in TV that describes an unfailingly witty and charming guest on a talk show (think Amy Sedaris or Billy Crystal) as “giving good panel.” Far too many wine people think they give good panel when all they give is, well, panel.

So when I was invited to a panel discussion about Limerick Lane Zinfandel, I cringed. I loved the concept. Jake and Scot Bilbro, the brothers who own Limerick Lane, blackmailed all the folks who make Zinfandel from their fruit into bringing bottles of their 2013’s and talking about the vineyard. I love Zinfandel, so the chance to taste the Limerick Lane Zins next to the Matthiasson, Carlisle, Bedrock, Siduri and Biale versions made my heart race. I’ve got a little boner for Zin and it was being insistent, as boners can be. (I don’t know, is it me, or is there not enough use of the word “boner” in wine writing?) So, despite hating the idea of sitting through a panel discussion, I accepted the invitation.

The tasting was held at Healdsburg’s SHED. SHED is on the very cutting edge of wine country pretension, a place that uses the word “curate” a lot, and has a fermentation bar. I find that kind of thing creepy. After I visit I want to wash my hands in the Men’s Peristalsis Bar. But they do have a pleasant event space upstairs that comfortably accommodated the fifty or so attendees, who were curated by Limerick Lane’s David Messerli. On the panel were Jake and Scot Bilbro, Mike Officer (Carlisle), Steve Matthiasson (duh), Adam Lee (Siduri), Morgan Twain-Peterson (Bedrock) and Tres Goetting (Biale). The moderator was Tegan Passlacqua (Turley, and his own Sandlands). That’s a lot of winemaking talent.

Zinfandel gets short shrift among wine folks, in general. This is nuts to me. I’ve noticed there is a sudden fascination with Barbera among wine people lately, for example, a Barbera has won about four Best Red in Show Awards at recent wine competitions. I like Barbera just fine. But Barbera isn’t nearly as compelling a variety as Zinfandel. Where Zinfandel bats a robust third for California, Barbera is a scrappy eighth place hitter. Why all the fuss about Barbera? Well, it’s usually leaner and more emaciated than Zin, and we seem to be in that sort of wine-consuming modality these days.  Courtesy of IPOB and the Natural Wine crowd—all those Wine Amish People. Zin, at its best, is curvy and voluptuous, busting out of its undergarments, absolutely ready to go at the drop of a trou. Yet at its best, it also delivers beauty and completeness, and can be wonderfully generous with food (I love Zin with most pizza, as well as rare lamb and all sorts of other foods). And there’s just something special about the Limerick Lane Vineyard. The panel attempted to explain why.

I won’t bore you with the discussion. Mostly because, like the quality journalist I am, I didn’t take any notes. The aforementioned winemakers are all friends, and their camaraderie was contagious, but the talk was a lot of Brix, pH, TA, and other assorted chemistry crap that no actual wine person cares about any more than FaceBook users know shit about how the internet actually works. Besides, I was distracted by the six wines sitting in front of me, all Limerick Lane Zinfandels from the classic 2013 vintage.

I get invited to events like Limerick Lane’s because they hope I’ll write about it. I always intend to, but if I’m not compelled by the event or the wines, I lose interest. And that’s deadly to writing of any kind. But there’s another issue with an event like this one. None of the wines tasted, outside of Limerick Lane’s, is available. Limerick Lane doesn’t have a lot of extra fruit to sell, so each winemaker on the panel had but a couple of tons of Zinfandel with which to work. A couple of tons translates into about 125 cases. So good luck with that. There are more cases of mad cow disease in California (if you can, get the one made from Old Bovines). My apologies for writing about wines you probably can’t get. The point of the tasting, simply put, was that Limerick Lane Vineyard is such a great Zinfandel vineyard that even some of the best young winemakers in California can’t fuck it up.

A point that was repeatedly made by the panel (and the nature of panels is to make the same point in different words several times) was how well the Zinfandel at Limerick Lane holds its acidity at high levels of ripeness. This seems to be unusual for Zin, if not most varieties. The result is wines of uncommon freshness, and, indeed, most of the wines were brilliantly vivid considering their weight and ripeness. The ’13 Matthiasson was by far the leanest of the bunch, though it had also just been bottled and couldn’t have been at its absolute best. Nevertheless, it showed the typical red fruit profile of Limerick Lane Vineyard, though in a very lean, restrained, rather ungenerous style. When I spoke with Steve Matthiasson afterward he told me that had he been more familiar with the vineyard, with its propensity to hold its acidity, he wouldn’t have picked his grapes nearly as soon as he had. Honest guy. Of all the wines, I found his Zin the simplest and the least interesting. Yet it still had great brightness and lovely aromatics, and was expertly made.

Siduri’s version struck me as the most disjointed. It was elbows and knees and Adam’s apples. Much riper than Matthiasson, it was sweet with alcohol, noticeably oaky, and kind of fat. That can be a style that folks like, but sitting next to the Twiggy version its extraction and ripeness really stood out, and not in a flattering way. Maybe it points out that folks who don’t spend a significant amount of time making Zin often struggle with it, make odd wines. Zin is a harsh mistress, even more challenging, I think, than Pinot Noir, and far more difficult than Cabernet Sauvignon. The guys on the panel who specialize in Zin made much better examples.

Morgan Twain-Peterson’s Bedrock version was brilliant. Morgan is a great winemaker of Zin, in my book, one of the best—even better than his illustrious father. His Limerick Lane Zin had everything—a beautiful nose, all that luscious, ripe red fruit (raspberry and plum), Zin’s spicebox, amazing vibrancy and delineation, remarkable freshness for a wine of such power, and a very long finish. Oh man, I wish I owned some of it.

Same goes for Mike Officer’s Carlisle Limerick Lane 2013 Zinfandel. Wow. It seemed a bit unkempt at the event, I can’t remember when Mike said it had been bottled, as though it was bottle shock-y. But it was great Zin. It was really cool to taste the stylistic differences between two such great versions of that great vineyard, the Bedrock and the Carlisle. The Carlisle was bigger, a bit more extracted, and, at that moment, showed chalkier tannins. But a lot of the ’13 Zins I’ve tasted have significant tannins, which may be symptomatic of the vintage, and maybe related to the drought’s effect on vines. Hey, I’m guessing. Which is why they don’t put me on panels. Or maybe why they should. Anyhow, the Carlisle is really big and really beautiful—why does Charlize Theron come to mind? I don’t think it has been released yet, so, Mike, if you’re reading this, HEY, SAVE A COUPLE OF BOTTLES FOR THE DAMNED HOSEMASTER!

I didn’t know that Biale made a Limerick Lane Zin, but it makes perfect sense. Their 2013 was also stunning, though it seemed to me to be the least emblematic of the vineyard. So what? It was delicious. Slightly jammier than the others, except maybe the Siduri, it had great intensity and that brilliant bright red fruit and invigorating freshness that is the hallmark of the place. Amazing how that ran through each wine, each winemaker improvising on that theme. Cool to experience. Like listening to five great sax players riffing on the same melody. All great, but all about style.

Scot Bilbro presented two of the Zins from their Limerick Lane label, the 1910 Block Zin, and their “basic” Limerick Lane Zin. The 1910 Block Zin was big and bold and beautiful, but, that day, it was very unyielding. I guess that’s as it should be, and one might hope that a wine like that would be held back by the winery for a couple more years for it to blossom in the bottle. But economics don’t work in harmony with winemaking. So it goes. I wish I could sit with this wine for several days. Like a great storyteller, I know it has a lot to say, and is no hurry to say it. There’s little doubt it’s wonderful Zin, but when you have about ten minutes to taste it, well, that’s not nearly enough time for something so intrinsically interesting.

But the humble 2013 Limerick Lane Zinfandel (available at some point in the near future) was the star of the show, I thought. It synthesized the beauty of the site’s bright red fruit, flashy acidity, sweet succulence, supple tannins and lingering finish. Zinfandel just doesn’t present like this very often, but at this place, in this little corner of the Russian River Valley, it sings. It makes me wonder how many places in California Zinfandel would outdo Pinot Noir, outdo Cabernet, if only people showed it more passion and respect. If you love Zin at all, try a Limerick Lane Zinfandel. These seven talented winemakers can’t be wrong. If you don’t like a Limerick Lane Zinfandel, trust me, it’s you. But you knew that.