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.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Blind Book Review: Matt Kramer's "True Taste, The Seven Essential Wine Words"

Knowing Matt Kramer, I was pretty sure the seven essential wine words were “true, taste, the, seven, essential, wine, words.” So I didn’t feel the need to actually read his latest wine book, “True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words.” Kramer is often referred to, at least by his publisher, as the “great demystifier of wine.” I’d say this is close. Kramer is actually the great defroster of wine, relentlessly blowing hot air at his otherwise impenetrable subject.

“True Taste” is not a very long book, it’s a mere 128 pages. Which made it particularly disappointing not to read for my Blind Book Review. Matt Kramer’s magnum opus is “Making Sense of Wine.” “True Taste” is his .375ml opus. A mere half-book to which I shall apply my legendary half-wit.

Matt Kramer has been writing about wine for 40 years. Yeah, I know, seems a lot longer. He is best known for his column in Wine Spectator where he tries to educate James Laube about wine every single issue, a Mr. Kotter to Laube’s Vinnie Barbarino—hopeless but amusing. Wine Spectator uses words, but sells numbers. Their seven essential wine words are “lifestyle, advertising, scores, vanity, paywall, lavish and rich.” Kramer’s “True Taste” selects seven different essential wine words. From an overpaid wine columnist for Wine Spectator, the book is a forlorn cry for help.

Of course, we all want to know what the Seven Essential Wine Words are. I’d guess, but I’m pretty sure Bashful and Dopey aren’t among them, though I’ve had wines that are both. I knew that whatever the seven words turned out to be, they'd be vague and vinously indefinable. In order to demystify, after all, one has to mystify first. The wine trade loves to throw words around like “balance” and “terroir,” and then argue endlessly about what they mean. After all, when there is no precision to terms, no agreed upon definition, it’s easy to claim your wine has it. It's like putting "Reserve" on your wine label--OK, it's Reserve if you say so. In my 40 years (yeah, I know, it seems a lot longer), I’ve never once had a winemaker say, “My wine is really good, but it has the balance of a dead Wallenda.” Nope. Everyone knows balance, and everyone knows terroir, and if you don’t, well, then, you’re the asshole, not the clowns who can’t actually define it. Now Kramer adds seven more words to that list. Gee, thanks.

Kramer wants us to talk about wine in a more meaningful way than it’s talked about in, say, Wine Spectator. Which is like wanting us to talk about women in a way that’s more meaningful than how they’re talked about in, say, Hustler. Bigger numbers are better. 98 pts, 38DD, now we’re talkin’! When we describe wines using countless adjectives, we’re missing the point, and looking stupid on top of that. So how do we talk about wine, especially when we’ve had a couple of bottles? Simple. Let’s get pretentious! And who better than Kramer to show us the way?

Harmony. Texture. Layers. Finesse. Nuance. Surprise. There’s six of the seven words Kramer says are essential. No mention of Corkscrew, which is pretty fucking essential, but it’s his book. I have no idea what the seventh essential wine word is. I got those six from Tom Wark’s wisely obsequious review of “True Taste.” Tom writes:

“Finally, it’s notable that the way in which Kramer addresses the obvious issues of style and what makes a wine fine—issues that must be addressed in such a book—are done in a delicate and ecumenical way. He’s not trying to start a revolution. But he may be trying to nudge one along. After all, just read the title.”

I took Tom’s sage advice. I just read the title.

Kramer wants us to talk about wine in really vague terms. I’m all for this. He replaces Balance with Harmony. This is genius. If only Fox News would suddenly declare themselves Fair and Harmonious, what a better world this would be. What is Harmony in wine? I don’t have the vaguest idea, and that’s the point. I thought maybe a wine with Harmony is one that makes your girlfriend want to give you a hummer, but apparently that’s not it. Kramer probably takes several pages to explain what Harmony in wine is, which makes it the perfect essential wine word! You can use it and be confident the person you’re speaking to is as clueless about what you’re talking about as you are. This is how educated people talk about wine. Not just over your head, but over their own as well. How long before Raj Parr starts In Pursuit of Harmony? What is wine, a shitfaced barber shop quartet?

Texture is a concept you use for anything you put in your mouth—food, beverage, a loaded .38… It’s always part of a wine description. Every wine has texture. You can say a wine doesn’t have Harmony, but it has to have Texture. Unless it’s Pinot Grigio. Then it’s just wet. So I don’t need Kramer to explain Texture in wine. Used properly, Texture can be wonderfully vague. “I love the Texture of this wine” is the wine lover’s equivalent of “Man, your baby is sure alive.”

Layers is a usefully vague wine word as well. “Hey, which was your favorite Layer in that Chardonnay? I liked the second one.” So not only can a wine have Harmony, where all the pieces are seamlessly interwoven into one beautiful whole, it should also have Layers, where the pieces are layered and distinct—wine as a pousse-café! This is the kind of brilliant and radical thinking wine needs. And, frankly, isn’t it about time wineries started listing how many layers their wines have on the labels? Hell, wine has Brix, where are the damned Brix Layers?

I have no idea what Finesse is in wine. Therefore, it’s a perfect essential wine word! Bravo, Matt! Another bullshit word to use in wine conversation. “I think what I like about this wine is its Finesse.” Or, as Kramer once wrote in Wine Spectator, “Finesse is the quality of how a wine delivers itself to you.” I know my favorite wines use UPS. Does Finesse trump Harmony? What if there are too many Layers, what happens to Finesse? Can you have Harmony and Layers and not be a great wine because you used FedEx? Fuck, I’m confused.

Nuance is the answer. I need it worse than wine. I’m about as nuanced as Caitlyn Jenner’s bulge. Nuance is an essential wine word because if you are able to discern a wine’s Nuance, you are a superior taster. Nuance, by the way, isn’t Complexity. I guess. Complexity isn’t an essential wine word, but Nuance is. I’ve had a few wines lately that were so Nuanced I could barely taste them, so they must have been fantastic. So damned Nuanced! Why if Nuance were fraudulent wines, these wines were Bill Koch. You know how you know that wine is Nuanced? No, I didn’t think so. Dumbshit.

Speaking of Bill Koch, there’s always Surprise! Yes, Surprise is obviously an essential wine word. Great wine does Surprise us. As does corked wine, fake wine and the ending to “The Crying Game.” I know that the first question I ask a person who tells me he had a great wine is, “But did the wine Surprise you?” And if so, “Did you pee yourself a little?” The element of Surprise is why you see so many wine writers attending the DRC New Release tasting wearing Depends. Well, that and they’re all so fucking old.

On the bright side, it won’t take you very long not to read Matt Kramer’s newest wine book. You can not read it in a couple of hours, and I’d urge you to do so. I wish I’d been able to not read the book 40 years ago when I first began my wine career, it sums up everything I’ve tried to forget.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Child's Guide to Wine

Wine makes Mommy and Daddy happy. Sometimes they drink wine together. Sometimes they drink wine alone. Sometimes they drink wine with one of your “uncles” or “aunts,” the ones you see naked by mistake. If you’re ever an uncle, you hope you aren’t so hairy down there.

But what is wine? What does it do that makes adults so happy? Why aren’t you allowed to drink any wine? And why does it smell like that? It always reminds you of the school janitor’s breath. You don’t think you’ll ever want to drink wine when you grow up. Wine isn’t for healthy adults. It makes them talk funny and extra loud. Mommy and Daddy love wine more than they love you.

Let’s try to understand wine, how it’s made and what it does to you.

You can make wine from any fruit, but the wine your parents drink is usually made from grapes. Not the grapes you buy from the grocery store, those are for eating, or inserting into any of the many holes in your body. That’s fun! See how far you can shoot them!

Wine is made from tiny little grapes that are grown in special places called “vineyards.” There are vineyards everywhere! But the best wines are made from grapes grown in just the best places in the world, like Burgundy and Napa Valley and Italy. Your parents probably don’t drink those wines. They are very expensive. Your parents drink wines from places like Modesto and Chile and Trader Joe’s. They should be ashamed. But I know they are not. Mommy says, “I can’t tell the difference between expensive wine and cheap wine.” This is probably the truth. Then she says, “But I know what I like!” Tell Mommy that’s what your Little League coach says when he puts his hands on your private places.

The people that own the vineyards hire poor people to pick the grapes when they are ripe. Poor people need jobs and will do anything. That’s how you know a job is horrible. Rich people pay poor people to do it. But it makes our life great. Remember to say "Thank You" to poor people when you see them. Be grateful. They made your expensive shoes and your sister’s iPhone. Remind the poor people that we are all one human race, that there is no “i” in iPhone. Well, there is, but the “P” is bigger, just like after Daddy drinks a lot of wine.

The grapes go in big trucks to where the wine is made. Can you guess what that place is called where they make wine? That’s right! It’s called a winery. Just like the place where they bake stuff is called a “bakery,” and where your grownup parents go with your "uncles" and "aunts" is the “adultery.”

At the winery, the grapes are gently pressed until all the juice can leak out. When Mommy’s not home, you can try this on your little brother. The grape juice sits around for about two weeks. While it’s sitting in the winery, little tiny living things get into the grape juice and turn it into wine. These are called cellar rats. No, that’s a little joke, kids. Cellar rats are the people who work in the winery. They’re just like real rats, only real rats live in nicer holes.

Little tiny living things called “yeast” get into the wine. Yeast are simple, one-celled organisms, sort of like Jehovah’s Witnesses. The yeast eat the sugar in the grape juice. They don’t even have mouths, so we don’t know how they eat the sugar. If they don’t have a mouth, can you even call it “eating?” There are lots of mysteries about wine.

To replace all the sugar they’ve eaten without a mouth, the yeast leave alcohol behind. Just like your sloppy aunt had to. The process of the yeast eating the sugar without a mouth and leaving behind some alcohol is called “fermentation.” This is the most important part of making wine because wine without alcohol is worthless. Your Daddy may talk endlessly about how the wine smells, and how it tastes like fruit you never heard of, like “lychee” and “cat piss,” and how the wine is a little young and needs some more time (like your babysitter!), but the reason Daddy and Mommy are drinking the wine is the alcohol.

Alcohol affects the brains of your parents. A little bit, and they are happy. But too much, and sometimes their brains don’t work right. You know how you like to spin around and spin around and spin around with your eyes closed until when you stop you aren’t able to stand up anymore and you feel like throwing up? That’s just like drinking wine! It’s funny, isn’t it, to try to walk after that! You crash into stuff, and fall down. Like when Daddy comes home late from a “business meeting” and smells like motel soap. That’s the work of our friends, yeast.

Remember, yeast are what cause two important processes—fermentation, and trial separation.

When fermentation is over, the grape juice is now called “wine.” But it’s not finished. It doesn’t taste very good right away, and someone has to make it taste better so that Daddy and Mommy can get their alcohol. That person is called a “winemaker.”

Just about anyone can become a winemaker. You don’t really need to know very much to be one. Maybe one day you’ll want to be a winemaker. If you don’t really like school and need a career, winemaker is a good choice. You don’t even need to be very good at it! There are lots of winemakers who don’t have a clue. I’m thinking this just might be the perfect job for you when you grow up. I hope you’re not a girl. The wine business is about old men, like Congress or Beano. Maybe when you grow up, that will be different. That’s another little joke, kids, nothing ever changes!

The winemaker has to do something with the grape juice that the yeast ate without a mouth and made into wine. Usually the winemaker puts the wine into something to hold it until it tastes better. It can be a barrel made out of oak, or it might be a big tank made from stainless steel, or it might even be a cement egg! Where do you find a cement egg? Look for a chicken with a butt that goes round and round! The wine sits in the barrel, or the stainless steel tank, or the cement egg until the winemaker decides it tastes good. Mostly, he just pretends to know.

Whether the wine tastes good or not, the winemaker puts it into a bottle. Then it goes to a bunch of old men so they can give it a number. These old men are called “wine critics.” This is another job you might consider that doesn’t require schooling, or knowledge, or talent! Sounds perfect for you, doesn’t it?

More about that another day.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

EPHEMERA: "The Wrath of Grapes"--Not Just a Lousy Title

Most of the buzz in the biz the past week has centered on Bruce Schoenfeld’s article in The New York Times Magazine, “The Wrath of Grapes.” I think the title pissed me off to begin with, though I’m certain that wasn’t Schoenfeld’s doing. Maybe “Parr for the Coarse” would have been more accurate. Or “In Hirsute of Balance.” I thought I’d add to the discussion, though I am also certain that what I say and think is relatively unimportant.

When I was 42, Raj Parr’s current age, I thought I knew everything about wine, too. I’ve never met Parr, but he’s certainly well-liked around the wine world, which I’m happy to note, and not just by adherents of his winemaking philosophy. At 42, many people reinvent themselves. Parr had become a celebrity sommelier, the kind of oxymoron that makes me laugh, like “natural wine.” And the best way to get into the pages of The New York Times Magazine is to become a celebrity. Parr was smart, a sommelier who knew to hitch his star to a wealthy patron, Charles Banks. (Does anyone else find it ironic that Banks began his foray into the wine world with the money he made as an investment banker (paragons of integrity) with Jonata first, followed by the purchase of the very epitome of the wines Parr hates and Robert Parker made valuable, Screaming Eagle?)

Parr’s being front and center in the sommelier world brings a very distorted image of a sommelier to the public. He’s presented as the anti-Parker in the piece, the angel on your shoulder, not that big, fat, evil, 100-Point-Beelzebub whispering nasty remarks in your ear. At 42, I was damned preachy about wine, too. I wasn’t smart enough to get one of my wealthy customers to bankroll me through life, but I was certainly right about wine just about all of the time. Though I never had any desire to own a winery. And I never assumed it was my job to decide for customers what wines they were supposed to like. I tried to list wines that were great examples of their style and appellation, regardless of whether I found them personally rewarding. I swear, I thought that was the job! Turns out, I was a crappy sommelier.

Eventually, I learned that what I didn’t know about wine was infinite. This is still true today. The NYT Magazine piece paints Parr as a visionary, a kind and thoughtful revolutionary, a wine savant with unquestionable knowledge, instead of as a man who has had a single idea and has run with it. That’s not revolutionary, that’s narrowminded. Parr and Jasmine Hirsch had a simple marketing idea, and it has worked much better than they could have dreamed it would. Good for them. Now along comes Bruce Schoenfeld, who pitches an idea to the New York Times, writes a marketing piece for In Pursuit of Balance, and now Parr is the savior of wine. For another month or so, anyway. The last winemaker anointed by the NYT Magazine was Abe Schoener. Who talks about him anymore? Well, aside from Abe.

It seems to me there is a lot left out of the piece. That might be an editorial decision, or it might have been the author. The piece quotes Parker’s rant about Raj Parr, but fails to note that the rant was several years old. That seems purposefully slanted editorializing. It fails to note that Raj Parr doesn’t make Domaine de la Cote or Sandhi wines, which would seem to me to be important, especially to the vast majority of the readers of the piece who would certainly come away believing he does make the wines. Does he make picking decisions? Does he just tell Sashi Moorman how to make the wines so that they reflect their sites? Does he tell Sashi to make wines without any style? “Hey, Sashi, I’m detecting some style in this Pinot Noir. Knock that shit off.” And what about talking to some of the producers Raj Parr and his tasting committee have turned down for inclusion to IPOB? They might have something interesting to say.

I don’t like the tone of the piece. But Schoenfeld is a talented writer (even though he hates the HoseMaster, for which I am deeply grateful), so the tone must be deliberate. Stuff like Parker being “hefty and bearded” while Parr has a "teddy-bear physique.” He could have reversed those descriptions and they’d be accurate, too. The tone shifts back and forth, depending upon which side of the balance fence he’s writing about. Parr’s parts are lullabies, sweetly rendered and cherubic. The other parts are almost dismissive, and certainly skewed. And I know skewed. Steve Matthiason is a dreamer, an ethical man who follows his wine beliefs at his own expense. Doug Shafer lives among the grandiose architecture of Napa, whereas Steve lives in a farmhouse. See that? Grandiose vs. Farmer Steve. It’s propaganda, a NYT Magazine celebrity piece, plain and simple. And when a PR piece is written by someone talented, it’s just that much more effective, and that much more insidious. Yes, a piece should have a point of view, and Schoenfeld is entitled to his. It’s just that his point of view, illuminated by the hyperbolic subtitle, “A band of upstart winemakers is trying to redefine what California wine should taste like — and enraging America’s most famous oenophile in the process.” is so clearly sympathetic to one side at the expense of the broader picture.

Try making one of Parr’s “virtually flavorless” wines and selling it in the supermarket. Oh, that’s right, Santa Margherita did that twenty years ago. Unlike Matthiason’s wines, it won’t make you think. It will make you drunk. Try selling wines under 14% ABV in the supermarket. Oh, wait, just about every wine mass-produced for supermarkets is under 14% ABV. Why? Because you pay a lot more in taxes for a wine over 14% ABV, and that kills your bottom line. Are those great wines? They are to the folks who buy them. Maybe that Parr is on to something.

I’ve had a lot of fun at IPOB’s expense, and, to their credit, they’ve been gracious targets. Jasmine Hirsch is a sweetheart, and has always been generous to me. I’ve also insulted and satirized Robert Parker, and he has been equally gracious. It’s weird to me how Schoenfeld’s article paints Parker as responsible for what’s wrong with California wine, because, in truth, there is nothing wrong with California wine. And if there were, Parker would only be responsible for how it’s sold, not how it’s made. Are there wines that were made tailored to Parker’s palate? Yes. They were lousy and almost always scored lousy. Will there be more wines made tailored to Parr’s palate? Not very many, I’d guess. And that is a blessing.

What Parr really represents is the culture’s awareness of wine as something more than an inebriant. This is relatively new to Americans. Few people in my generation thought about terroir, including winemakers. You were basically unable to make “Parkerized” wines back then, so you didn’t. Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley in the ’60’s and ’70’s were all under 14% ABV, many were under 13%, just not by choice. Now people are thinking about the differences between wine and Great Wine. All this is fantastic, and it helps give meaning to wines like Sandhi. It also gives meaning to wines like Carlisle and Bedrock and Spottswoode, too. There’s not just one way to make Great Wine. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who tells you otherwise is a fraud.

I’m just sorry that Raj Parr and company were anointed by the Newspaper of Record. I’m glad for them, they’re all very nice people, and I’d love to have a puff piece written about me in that magazine. But for the vast majority of folks who read the NYT Magazine, that piece is very misleading and misguided. It implies California has made stupid wines for decades because of one critic, which is simply untrue. And it implies that Raj Parr is some kind of visionary, while in truth he’s more Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Jefford on Mundane: Palate and Column Fatigue

How do you maintain your nose? Your tongue is your most important tool, whose box do you keep it in? How often do you need a liver transplant? And where do you keep the young migrants from whom you harvest your organs? How do you get orange wine stains out of your teeth? Is it better to expectorate or drool? Is age a factor?

All this, and more, will be answered today over at Tim Atkin's site. Taking care of your palate isn't discussed often enough, and today's post will provide you with solid advice on how to maintain your apparently mediocre equipment. As always, feel free to leave your tasteful, or un, remarks over at Tim's, or carefully floss and leave the detritus in its usual place here.