Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ephemera: A Few Thoughts About Satire, Entirely Witless

Wine is a relatively finite subject, especially when it comes to satire. There just aren’t that many things to lampoon, really. Consequently, much of what I write revolves around the people involved in wine. The reactions I get can be fascinating.

To begin with, I often wonder why anyone reads what I write at all. I can’t. The hardest chore I’ve ever had on HoseMaster of Wine™ was selecting past pieces for “Best of HoseMaster” (a wondrous oxymoron). I’d sit at the computer and cringe while I read old posts, give my sphincter a world-class workout. I’m not especially proud of my work; I just feel driven to write. Were it not for the Internet, and the existence of blogs, I probably wouldn’t be writing wine satire at all. It’s hard work, and takes up a considerable amount of my time. But over and over I think, someone has to do it, someone has to hurl a bit of truth, in the form of satire, at all the pompous blowhards and tired pretenders that dominate the wine business, burst all the pretentious bubbles that litter the wine terroir. So I do it. I was fully aware when I started HoseMaster that there would be a price to pay. I don’t mind. It comes with the territory.

When I was first writing HoseMaster, I tended to go after the gigantic pool of numbskulls writing other wine blogs. It was too easy. I look back now and see that period as a time when I was loosening up, like a pitcher tossing a baseball softly in the bullpen. When I finally got into the game, I went after bigger opponents—famous wine writers and publications, famous winemakers, whoever seemed to me to be full of crap. That’s when things got interesting.

It reached a point where it became something of a weird badge of honor for someone to be insulted or mocked by the HoseMaster. That’s all good, that means I’m doing something right. Some took it well, others did not. I’ve had one pompous walrus refuse to shake my hand. I’ve been verbally assaulted more than once. I’ve received some pretty nasty hate mail (I love those). And what I began to realize was that the best course of action was to completely ignore the real jackasses. Not from fear, not from intimidation, but rather from understanding that it’s the smallest people who get angry at pointed satire aimed at them, it’s the least talented and the dullest who take offense, who don’t have the wits to understand that a person who is voluntarily in the public spotlight is fair game. And my intent wasn’t to lambaste the small people, the pretenders with a modicum of talent, those morons, but to have fun with the important people in the business. So those small people have vanished from these pages. And, in my view, my work has gotten a little better.

I love what I do. It doesn’t take courage, but it takes a certain fearlessness to write satire. As well as the ability to let anger bounce off of you. What’s hilarious to me is that almost every bit of hate mail I’ve ever received (and this goes back to when I was younger and writing comedy) is exactly the same. Being the butt of a joke takes a lot of emotionally insecure folks back to their playground days. Almost every single letter reads something like, “You’re not funny. Nobody thinks you’re funny. Who told you you were funny? You’re just an asshole, a bully. Why can’t you say nice things? What you do isn’t funny at all, and I’m never going to read you again.” I never respond. There’s really nothing to say.

I do try to be fair, in the sense that satire can be fair. But that’s not my first consideration. My first consideration is to try to be funny, to make my audience laugh. I’m alone here behind this screen, and I can’t hear any laughter. I only hear the voice in my head, the HoseMaster, or maybe Lo Hai Qu. I cannot hear any reactions. But the one thing I do know about satire is that satire is intended to go too far, to push the reader’s taste limits, to tiptoe up to the lines we’re not ever supposed to cross, the line where laughter becomes cruelty, where funny becomes crass, and toe those lines mercilessly until that line is erased. And in doing so, we all become a little more human, a little more aware of our own foibles, and the foibles of those who seem more powerful or more successful than we. Laughter is the great equalizer. I express my anger, and I have a lot of it, through comedy and satire, and if I make people laugh, that soothes my rage. For a moment. And then it’s back.

I’ve been lucky. People like Tim Atkin MW and Charlie Olken and Lettie Teague, even Robert Parker, people with actual clout and reputation in the business, have been surprisingly supportive of my work. I never could have foreseen that, nor does it feel deserved. Satirists are judged by their detractors, and their advocates. I can proudly look at my lists and say that my advocates are far more impressive humans than my legion of detractors. Thanks for that.

Some mornings I spend a little time cruising around the Intergnats looking for inspiration or ideas. Primarily, it’s a way to waste an enormous amount of time. I try to view it as meditation. I have trouble emptying my mind, but reading wine blogs is a great way to deaden it. In order to navigate the thousands of wine blogs out there (does anyone know how many wine blogs there are?—my guess is there are thousands, with at least as many abandoned ones as active), I read compilation sites, like or Terroirist. But, lately, Terroirist is worthless. Or more worthless, depending on your point of view.

I did notice that David White has stopped doing the compiling on his site, and turned the job over to Shelby Vittek. If I’m not mistaken, and I may be, Shelby was 1WineDoody’s intern, and, thus, the inspiration for Lo Hai Qu (something Shelby should have on her resumé). So I owe her one. But since Shelby has taken over, the recommended blogs on Terroirist are of the most mundane variety. This trend may have begun before Shelby took over, I don’t know, or care. However, every day the recommendations are from the same tired sources—it’s always Jancis, or something edited-to-death on Wine Searcher, or the latest Blinky toss-off, or something from Wine Spectator or Wall Street Journal. In my mind, Shelby is phoning it in.

There are a lot of hard-working, if marginally talented, bloggers out there screaming for some attention. Screw them. There, also, must be some talent out there that could use some hits. Not that many hits—I can say that when Terroirist cites HoseMaster of Wine™ I average about an extra 50 hits (though I’m guessing I can say goodbye to that after this post). I get far more interesting leads from Lewis Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight daily newsletter—but I don’t expect anyone else to be as industrious and wade through as much manure as Mr. Perdue. It’s like he’s biodynamic. Just try a little harder, Shelby. Lettie Teague and Jancis Robinson MW don’t need your “clout.” Reading Terroirist lately is like playing the same Greatest Hits of the 60’s album over and over and over… Even your favorite song starts to make you sick.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How to Enjoy Wine--A Simpleton's Guide

Wine might be the most difficult beverage on Earth to enjoy properly. Coffee is easy. No matter what coffee “experts” tell you, coffee is all the same. It’s roasted beans, for God’s sake. Powder it and run hot water through it, and, bingo, it’s coffee. Essentially, coffee is human Drano. You don’t need anything to enjoy it, just open your trap and pour it down the drain. And beer is just beer. It’s not about complicated human enjoyment. No one worries about cellaring a great beer collection, or enjoying just the right beer with dinner. Beer and food go together like opera and pole dancing. You want a lot of each, just not on the same night. And it’s really over when the fat lady dances.

Wine Spectator decided to rip off Eric Asimov (How to Love Wine) and publish their own guide to How to Enjoy Wine. This is the equivalent of writing How to Enjoy Orgasms. Really? How hard is it to enjoy wine? Just lay there until the swelling subsides. The rest of my "Simpleton's Guide" is over at Tim Atkin's award-winning blog. And watch for my new book, "The Tantric Guide to Wine," arriving soon. I'm the Sting of wine writers. Tantric sex is like calling the plumber--you're in all day and nobody comes. Anyhow, wander over to Tim Atkin MW, and feel free to leave a comment there, or, if you prefer, leave me a little wet spot here.


My old computer recently passed on to the great Cloud in the Sky, taking with it some cherished photos I had stored, without backup (backup is for cops and toilets), as well as my continually updated list of ideas for HoseMaster of Wine™. It’s a bit disconcerting when all of your ideas disappear. Suddenly, you’re the editors of Wine Spectator. Not that I can’t come up with more ideas, but I miss that old list. It had years of ideas I’d enter as I thought of them, and was a kind of calendar of stupidity, greed and scandal in the wine business.

Many of the ideas came to fruition, but more than half didn’t. To be honest, at least that many were just plain stupid ideas. I would write an idea like “Asimov parody.” Oh, that’s brilliant. How did I think of that? Oh, I know, here’s an idea—what wine goes with Tony Award nominees? That’s pure wine writing gold. Mostly, my idea list was a way of keeping track of what I was thinking about, and of what I wanted to lampoon. Those ideas were jumping off points, a way to kickstart my imagination, and were usually quickly abandoned once the actual writing began.

So few ideas are actually any good. The list was a reminder of that as well. Inspiration is a fickle dominatrix. When I would sit down to write and felt like I had nothing to say, I would get frustrated. Looking at that list reassured me that writing HoseMaster of Wine™ has never been easy, and never really been fun. It reminded me that I could use an editor, though one is never forthcoming. And it reminded me of something I’ve only slowly learned to believe over the course of writing comedy most of my adult life—the well never runs dry. I always fear that I’ll sit down one afternoon to write and not a single joke will appear. That I’ll search futilely in the desolate landscape of my simian mind and not find a single banana peel to slip on. But, so far at least, that hasn’t happened. The writing starts, and the weirdness and jokes appear. And when I’m done, I gleefully hate ever word of it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ephemera: Great Palates Don't Exist

I am of the opinion that there are no great palates, only very experienced palates. I’ve had the great pleasure, and the occasional great misfortune, to taste with many of the most acclaimed and famous wine people, and that has convinced me of it. Yes, there are certainly physical differences between people in terms of their tasting abilities. Most of us are very sensitive to certain flavors and compounds, while being anosmic to others. And there are people branded as “supertasters,” which would seem to be the equivalent of an enormous penis or big breasts. Impressive, but more fun to imagine than actually possess. Not that I’d know about either one. But how good or well-endowed one is at the sense of taste, that isn’t really what makes you a brilliant wine taster. In fact, a supertaster is a miserable judge of wine (right, Tim Hanni MW?). What makes you a brilliant wine taster is the depth and breadth of your experience with wine, and, more importantly, with great wine.

None of what I’m saying has to do with the enjoyment of wine. Anyone can enjoy wine. Nor is it a sin not to know much about wine, though it would explain why most wine bloggers are going to Hell. And unless I’ve sat and tasted with someone, compared notes and talked about wines with him or her, I have no idea about how accomplished that person is as a wine judge. I don’t even care if he/she has letters appended to their name. I promise you, many of the worst judges I’ve been around have letters after their name, and most of the best have none (yeah, I know, I use HMW after my name, but that’s a joke…or is it?) It’s far more about experience. Lots of folks like to string letters after their name like so many dingleberries, and it’s nearly as disgusting.

Here’s the thing; unless you’ve tasted the “great” wines of the world, and tasted them often, it’s impossible to know where the bar is set for wine. We can argue about what makes a “great” wine, and which wines qualify, but those arguments are rather silly. There are many. But they are rare, and hard to taste for free, and in big demand. For a reason. They’re great wines. My list is my list, but a comprehensive list would include hundreds and hundreds of wines, but begin with the First Growths (oh, I do love Cheval Blanc), and Chave Hermitage, Chateau Rayas, Raveneau Chablis, Y’Quem, Spottswoode (a personal favorite), Jayer, DRC, Biondi-Santi, Giacosa… I’m leaving out hundreds of wines. But these wines set the bar very high for their appellations, and for other appellations that use the same varieties. If you haven’t been exposed to them, it’s nuts, and the height of human folly, to assign scores to other wines. 95? Relative to what?

Forget about scores, it’s about educating yourself to what a great wine tastes and acts like. No, they’re not all the same. They are different frames of references, just as great painters are different but represent a pinnacle of their style. Every great wine taster I’m aware of has a built-in catalogue of great wine in their head, a palate memory deeply ingrained, that they use to judge a new wine. Just how good is this Napa Cabernet? Well, it’s fine, but does it have the depth and grace of a Spottswoode, or the power and richness of Harlan Estate, or the voluptuousness and sweet fruit of Screaming Eagle? Extrapolate that to every region and suddenly you have a great palate. Only it’s really an experienced palate.

“Great palate” bothers me. I think about this shit all the time. There are a lot of pretty inexperienced wine experts pretending they have a great palate. It’s certainly enough to put a wine in your mouth and say, “I like this.” Nothing wrong with that. But that doesn’t make it great wine. There are standards, even if you’re ignorant of them. I’ve said it a thousand times. There are NO great wines under $20. Just stop pretending there are. You’re making a jackass of yourself. You insult great wines, and you insult the intelligence of your readers, the cheap fucks. Greatness is subjective, but not 100% subjective. Only the daft and thunderstruck think something can be 100% subjective. Few accomplished wine people would argue that any of the wines I spoke of earlier are only average or above average wines (Biondi-Santi would be controversial), but our ranking of them among the greats might be subjective to us. I’d kill for Cheval Blanc, but I can take or leave Mouton-Rothschild. Assuming I could afford either one, which I no longer can.

Much of this is about perspective. Don’t lose it. Enjoy every bottle for what it is. Every wine has something to say. But some are profound and life-changing (not that many) while the rest just sort of pleasantly babble. It’s a lot like wine writing. Thank you for reading my wine babble. But while enjoying wines, don’t toss the word “great” around so easily. Stop heaping praise on wines that aren’t particularly brilliant. Great wines have restraint; great wine experts also have restraint. Much of the joy of learning about wine is the joy of knowing that no matter how long and how much you’ve tasted, there’s always something even better out there. Wine humbles us. It makes us all look stupid. Anyone who blind tastes regularly knows that. We’re groping in the dark when it comes to wine. But that’s its gift to us. Wine gives us pleasure even if we’re not its match. Maybe, like the best marriages, because we’re not its match.

I think I hate email. I like it better than texting, which is the modern day equivalent of smoke signals, only less eloquent. Texting is the greatest blessing bestowed upon men since Viagra, though it serves a similar purpose—screwing your partner. Lovely to be able to text, “Thinking of you” while you’re actually watching sports on TV. And women fall for it. Or settle for it. And it takes no effort or thought, just a text. A perfect way to communicate when expressing your feelings is as foreign to you as child birth. No matter. But when I open my email I usually cringe. I’m good at eliminating spam, and I’m not on FaceBook, so, truly, I get the least email of anyone I know. But so much of what I get is dull, or hate mail, or weird marketing letters (some guy yesterday told me how much he loved my blog, "HouseMaster of Wine"), which I quickly delete.

However, the other day I received an invitation to attend World of Pinot Noir with a Media pass. My first thought was, Really, have you read my blog, HorseMaster of Wine? But it turned out to be a legit offer, which I happily accepted. I have no idea who put me on that invite list. I don’t really seem like a wine marketer’s dream. I’m thinking it may be a trap to finally kill me. I’ve never attended WOPN, and I’m pretty excited to go. I think it’s already a sellout, which makes me a perfect match! WOPN has quickly become one of the most important Pinot Noir events in the US. Which makes my invitation even more nonsensical. But I’ll be there, purposefully concealing my name tag, and will certainly have a few things to say when I return.

A big thanks to the WOPN for the invitation.