Monday, May 30, 2016

Celebrating the Fortieth Anniversary of In Pursuit of Balance: A Look Back

Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr

Forty years ago, back in 2016, the most important movement in California wine came to an abrupt end. In an eerie coincidence, that same year, 2016, was the 40th anniversary of the moment most people considered at the time the most important event in the history of California wine, the Paris Tasting of 1976. Is this the year, 2056, for the next monumental change to wine? One can never know. No more than the unknowing people who were suddenly alerted to the demise of In Pursuit of Balance in 2016 could have known that the following November Donald Trump would be elected President of the United States. Though, in hindsight, the choice of Dr. Bill Cosby for his Vice Presidential running mate was inspired. Just recently, one of their old campaign buttons sold for a lot of money at auction. The one that said, “Where da white women at? Trump/Cosby 2016” Hillary lost in a mudslide.

If you were in the wine business in 2016, you were subjected to endless tributes to the Paris Tasting held in 1976. In that overpublicized tasting, conducted blind and entirely rigged, California wines bested some of France’s best wines in their worst vintages. The tasting was put on by a young English wine merchant named Stephen Spurrier. Mr. Spurrier is still with us, albeit as a figure in Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London, exactly as he was in 2016. A small article on the tasting written by the only reporter present for it, George Taber, and published in TIME magazine (an important publication in 1976, outsold on newsstands of the era only by TV Guide and JUGGS—the only magazine with bigger boobs than TIME) took the wine world by storm. The Paris Tasting clearly demonstrated, it implied, that California wines belonged in the elite company of French wines, which ultimately led to Chinese investors buying up countless French wine estates because they knew they just weren’t that good or valuable anymore. It wasn’t long before the most overpriced wines in the world came from Napa Valley instead of France. No one before 1976 would have believed this possible. The French were the widely admired leaders of overpriced and overpraised wines. But thanks to Stephen Spurrier and the usual overrated expert wine judges, Napa Valley was to rise to the top of obscenely expensive wines no one actually drinks. Nine judges expressing blind and inconceivably stupid opinions? It was the United States Supreme Court of wine. Judges scoring on the 100 Point Scalia.

But right in the midst of all the hoopla surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Paris Tasting, the next most important event in the history of California wine was coming to an end. In Pursuit of Balance announced it was ceasing operations after five historic years. The timing was poetic. The celebration of the event that put Napa Valley on the map competing with the organization that wanted to erase Napa Valley from the map. Napa Valley was learning what IPOB founder Raj Parr knew all too well. Fame is a Hirsch mistress.

IPOB released a statement one day before the 40th anniversary of the Paris Tasting that explained the origins and intent of the founders of In Pursuit of Balance, the sommelier Raj Parr and vineyard owner Jasmine Hirsch, as well as why they were disbanding the group.

IPOB was founded to show what balance in wine means to us,” Raj explained. “At the time, no one else had a fucking clue. Balance was what you tried to do to your books when you couldn’t sell that stemmy underripe wine you were making. It started as a small event to draw attention to producers who weren’t chasing after ratings from wine critics, though shipping them samples on request and hosting them at their wineries may have made it appear otherwise. It was never meant to be an ideological war. What were we? Natural wine? Now there’s your ideological war, with those crackpots. We just felt that balanced wines weren’t getting enough attention in the wine community, sort of like how ugly people aren’t in enough beauty pageants. So we decided to shine some light on what we were doing. Then we made the mistake of letting a bunch of other wineries join, and, well, you know, we just couldn’t hide that much ugly.”

“There was an information gap,” co-founder Jasmine Hirsch said, “between the full-throttle, high alcohol wines, and the more subtle, more nuanced wines we were making. We thought we’d fill that information gap with hyperbole and innuendo, so in our subtle, nuanced way we created IPOB. We managed to achieve what we set out to do. Balance facts with just the right amount of fiction and outright doubletalk. This very much appealed to young sommeliers as well as Jon Bonné.”

The years from 2011 to 2016, when IPOB thrived, were years when totalitarianism reigned in the wine business. They were the perfect movement for those divisive times. The wine world was splintered into groups that believed their wines were best, the only wines worth drinking, the only wines worth celebrating and talking about. The Natural Wine movement declared that only their winemaking led to authentic wines. Much as unsanitary conditions in poor countries leads to authentic diseases like cholera and dysentery instead of manmade diseases like high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction. Authentic is just so much better. There was a movement spawned by IPOB that celebrated wines with much lower alcohols. A wine over 13% ABV was viewed with scorn and suspicion. This naturally led to an important change in California wine—people rounding down on alcohol levels printed on their labels to make consumers feel better. Most of the totalitarian wine movements focused on less human intervention in the winemaking process. It wasn’t that many years later that winemakers were seen as bad for wine. Yes, what is so apparent to us now in 2056 was only beginning to be recognized in 2016. We know now that it was the winemakers all along. Some might argue that taking them all and shooting them was a bit of an overreaction, but the results are clear. Wine has never been better.

IPOB disbanded at the end of 2016. In just five short years, it managed to turn the conversation from great wines being the ones you enjoyed the most to great wines being the ones you just might like ten or twenty years from now. It wasn’t so much a movement of delayed gratification as it was a movement of anhedonia. But it worked. It appealed to every wine lover’s feelings that there must be more to wine than simple enjoyment. That part of America’s Puritan streak that insists that pleasure always be mixed with its denial. This was the real balance that In Pursuit of Balance taught wine lovers. That wine is just like life. It’s the denial of pleasure that leads to a place in Heaven.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Jackson Family Wineries Buys HoseMaster of Wine™

Following on the success of its purchase of Steve Heimoff, Jackson Family Wines announced today that it has agreed to buy HoseMaster of Wine™. Jackson Family Wines owner Barbara Banke had this to say about the sale:

“I just like to buy people. It’s one thing to buy a guy’s label and then make a mockery of him. That’s a hoot. I laugh every time I run into Robert Pepi, or those Murphys and Goodes. I unload amazing amounts of plonk thanks to their fine names. But it’s even more entertaining to buy writers. Steve was my first purchase, and, you know, my boots have never been licked cleaner in print. Gus taught him something, at least. But Steve is one of those nice writers. When he was at Wine Enthusiast, he always gave my wines high scores. I felt like he wanted to be bought. The HoseMaster of Wine™ is a butthole, and I thought it would be wise to just buy him and make him say nice things about our wines. I tried to buy advertising for his site, but he doesn’t take advertising. What the hell kind of wine publication doesn’t take advertising as graft? Come on, that’s how the wine business has always worked. That just makes my job harder. I finally figured out to buy writers like him. HoseMaster of Wine™ is our second purchase, but it won’t be the last.”

Many in the wine trade have bemoaned the consolidation of small wine writers under corporate umbrellas, but others note that it’s a natural progression from free junkets, lavish dinners and boundless free wine samples. “Why shouldn’t successful wine bloggers sell the only thing they have of value, their reputation, to the highest bidder?” asks industry expert Peter Payola. “I think the HoseMaster of Wine™ deserves every penny he received, and I’m sure, just like Steve Heimoff, he’ll continue to insist he retains his objectivity and integrity, though both are clearly on loan from Ms. Banke. It’s the beauty of the internet age, really. Readers only insist on the surface appearances being believable. Truth is for suckers. Politicians have known this for centuries.”

Banke is pioneering a new kind of wine journalism. There have always been wine publications that hire competent wine writers to write stories on behalf of wineries who want some publicity and great reviews. These “Pay for Play” publications are often the major source of income for wine writers who would otherwise be waiting tables and printing business cards on their home computer that say “Sommelier.” Issues of magazines like The SOMM Journal are packed with articles that are transparently advertorials, written by wine writers (in the loosest definition of the words) who are not so much interested in a byline as they are in a buyline. It was Banke’s inspiration to cut out the middleman, and rather than pay the magazine, just buy the damned writer.

“Look,” Banke said, “those magazines are essentially vanity press. I mean, who reads that crap? Every article is 500 words in search of a toilet. They have the depth of a back label, but without the insight. You’d think those wine writers would have some pride. Yeah, I know, that’s stupid. I wanted some vanity press of my own, but I can afford better writers! I’m lovin’ it, and it’s good for business. That HoseMaster guy, he’s a clown, an opinionated know-it-all. But I can use him against those Foley wines, and the Constellation group, the fucking Gallos, and have some fun. I’d sic him on Treasury, but that’s like kicking a castrato in the nuts—adding insult to surgery.”

If Banke’s strategy is successful, it is sure to spawn imitators. Many think it’s just another of Barbara’s hobbies. Her late husband Jess Jackson was fond of horse racing and collected front runners. Barbara has made it clear, judging from recent purchases, that she also loves horse flesh, though of the sort between which the tail resides. Others think it was daring and brilliant to buy a wine writer or two and see if they can maintain their image of independence and disinterest. The move is just a logical next step in the company’s wine acquisitions.

“Jackson Family Wineries is not just known for its large collection of winemakers and wineries,” says wine industry analyst Peter Payola, “they’re also known for their fine museum quality collection of Master Sommeliers, who reside in Banke’s private estate zoo, their own career Hearse Castle, but who also travel the world performing tricks for actual working sommeliers, wine buyers, and others with mental disabilities. It’s wonderful to see how many of the MSs can fit into a little tiny car! I think Jackson Family Wineries will continue to acquire Master Sommeliers, though, frankly, they have almost no resale value.

“Buying Steve Heimoff was a stroke of genius,” Payola continued. “He’s no fool. He can continue to endlessly wax emetic about wines produced by Jackson Family Wineries, proclaim Trumpishly that he can’t be bought, that he is only doing what he does for his supporters, but Banke can rest assured he won’t crap where he sleeps. He’s got a doggy for that.”

Other wine writers have been rumored to be on the auction block. Hell, let’s face it, every wine writer is on the auction block. Astrologically speaking, wine writers are born under the same sign—For Sale. As this is written, dozens of “objective” wine journalists are on junkets paid for by large wine companies or collectives, participating in the wine business’s version of “The Amazing Race.” Log onto their blogs, read the thinly-disguised, prepaid propaganda of their amazing wine journeys and discoveries along the way, and see if you can discern, “Where’s Dildo?” Wherever the wine writers travel the wines are “overlooked,” “underrated,” and “the next big thing.” When these wine writers travel, they have to travel light—no sense packing your palate.

Objectivity and integrity in wine writing are basically the tonsils and appendix—strictly vestigial organs. Only somebody else pays to have them removed.

Who will be the next big acquisition by Banke, or one of the other major players? Buying the HoseMaster of Wine™ was a risky move. He’s been described as a “loose cannon,” especially by people sitting next to him on the bus after his breakfast burrito. But Jackson Family Wineries has a long history of savvy purchases in wineries, Master Sommeliers and winemakers. Though most would argue you need a satirist on your marketing payroll like you need a beaver on your rugby team.

The HoseMaster of Wine™ could not be reached for comment.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Walrus and the Winemaker

The sun was shining on the vines,
  Shining with all his might.
He did his very best to raise
  The sugars to great height—
And this was odd because it was
  The middle of the night.

The Cab was ripe as ripe can be,
  High 20’s was the Brix.
“I can add some acid later,
  And some water to mix.
And then a lot of new French oak
  Should fool those stupid pricks.”

The Walrus and the Winemaker
  Were walking close at hand.
They laughed to think about the way
  wine ratings were pre-planned:
“A Hundred Points! A classic wine!
  The scores we share are canned.”

“If seven chimps with seven scales
  Gave ratings for a year,
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
  “That they would be less clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Winemaker,
  And shed a bitter tear.

“O, Suckers, come and walk with us!”
  The Walrus did beseech.
“We promise that we’ll take the time
  To clarify and teach!
Ignore our silly numbers, it’s
  Our adjectives we preach!”

The eldest Sucker looked at him,
  He dearly loved a rating.
A wine that scored a hundred points
  Was cause for masturbating.
Big scores to him were mother’s milk—   
  And critics were lactating.

“I sucked the teat of Spectator
  And nursed on Robert Parker.
Galloni’s nipples must be sore,
  I’m sure that Boone’s are darker.
I’m such a chump,” the Sucker said,
  “Each one’s a carny barker.”

But more young Suckers hurried up
  Enchanted by the numbers.
The Walrus published countless ones,
  Their pointlessness encumbers—
That sort of shit is usually the
  Provenance of plumbers.

“I hate the scores, their emptiness,”   
  The Winemaker abjured.
“I only use them in my press,
  Of this I can’t be cured.”
And not a single Sucker saw
  He was a lying turd.

And more consumers followed them,
  Then more and more and more.
And thick and fast they came at last
  And purhased just by score.
This made the Walrus very rich,
  The Winemaker a whore.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
  “To talk of many things:
Of points—and pics—and paid placements
  Of what your dollars bring—
And why integrity matters some,
  But dollars fucking sing!”

“But that can’t be,” the Suckers said,
  “The numbers are so clear.
They help us buy the wines we want
  Without an ounce of fear.
And ignorance is bliss, you know,
  When you take it up the rear.”

“’Tis ignorance,” the Walrus said,
  "That makes you lovely Suckers.
Come follow us and praise our skill—
  The wines all taste like Smucker’s!”
“They do,” the Winemaker had to say,
  “You stupid motherfuckers.”

“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
  “To play them such a trick.
To make them spend their hard earned bucks
  On numbers that mean dick.”
“Oh well,” replied the Winemaker,
  “It makes the business tick.”

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said,
  “I deeply sympathize.
The wines you make are dull and crap,
  And based upon my lies;
You only live to hear my scores,
  But here is the surprise:

“I taste your best wines only once
  And then I’m in a hurry.
I’ve tasted hundreds on that day,
  My senses are quite blurry.
But I really do not give a crap—
  I’m both the judge and jury.

“The scores I give are etched in stone.
  They cannot be debated.
You’re fucked because I say you’re fucked,
  You’re highly overrated.
I’ve found a new guy on the block—
  The public’s never sated.

“You’ll never get big scores again,
  Your numbers will be less.
I’ll give high scores to those who know   
  To kowtow to the Press.
You live by points, you die by points—
  In Peace, I hope, you Rest.”

“O Walrus,” said the Winemaker,
  “I’ve had a pleasant run.
I scored a lot of Parker points
  I had a load of fun.
The wines I made were not that good—
  Yet I sold every one.

“So I don’t mind those days are gone,
  No, not the slightest bit.
Let’s take the Suckers home,” he cried.
  But silence greeted it.
And this was scarcely odd
  Because he’d killed the piece of shit.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

EPHEMERA: The HoseMaster Answers Three Questions on Vinolent

I received an email a week or so ago from a Brit named Joss Fowler who writes a wine blog called Vinolent. Great word. For many years, Joss has been soliciting answers to Three Questions from noteworthy people in the wine business. A brief stroll through his Three Questions archives reveals a pretty impressive list of folks who have answered the three questions. For some bizarre reason, Joss wanted to screw that up by asking me to participate. I liked the premise, I liked the site, and I liked the company I was going to keep, so I answered Joss' Three Questions.

You can find the very brief post here:


Joss has some very kind words to say about my work in his introduction, for which I am very grateful. I've mentioned this before, but the Brits seem to be more enamored of the HoseMaster of Wine™ than the folks around here in wine country. Not sure why, though they have a long and honorable satiric tradition, from Chaucer to Swift to Monty Python.

Thanks, Joss, it was a pleasure.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Donald Trump, Your New Emperor of Wine, Rates the 2015 Bordeaux

You know what’s wrong with Bordeaux? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Bordeaux. It’s made by French people. Did you know that? Yeah, totally made by French people. So no wonder I didn’t like any of the 2015 Bordeaux I tasted—French people are losers. You know what happens when they have a challenging vintage? They surrender. I mean, name one Frenchman who had balls. And don’t give me Napoleon, the guy was a fruitcake and they named a pastry after him. And he ends up on an island with Idris Elba. What the hell is Napoleon doing with a black guy on an island off of Italy? Honeymooning? I don’t know, that’s the French for you. So the way I see it, Bordeaux sucks because it’s made by French people. I wish I’d known that before I tasted it.

It’s not that I don’t like French people. The press tries to make me out to be a racist, or some kind of bigot, but I don’t get that, I really don’t. Listen, I had sex with a lot of French women. I don’t like to brag, and I’m not going to mention any names, which are French anyway and hard to say, but there are a lot of French women rode to the top of the Trump Tower. So I know a lot about the French, and French women, so let me say this, these women are natural. It’s a good thing I didn’t marry one of them. We’ve already had too much Bush in the White House.

So I guess as your new Emperor of Wine, I’m supposed to tell you what I think about the 2015 vintage in Bordeaux. It’s disgusting. No, really, the stuff is horrible. A lot of people aren’t going to like me saying that. But I’m not afraid to say what I think, and I’m certainly not worried about whether what I say is true or not. Weaklings spend their lives worried about what’s true. I’m the new Emperor of Wine, and I’m just going to tell you what I think you want to hear, or what I just feel like saying off the top of my head. Why do people pay so much money for Bordeaux? It’s not that good, really, it’s not that good. You know what? I’d rather drink Ted Cruz’s wife’s bathwater, and, well, you’ve seen her, she can scare ugly off a WalMart cashier. If you text her photo, PETA complains.

I don’t know, maybe it was the weather that had something to do with the 2015 Bordeaux being so terrible. I’m sure Obama would say it’s because of “climate change.” Yeah, that’s right, boo! I hear you. What a joke. If there were climate change, how the hell could I keep my hair like this all the time? Everything now is climate change. There’s no climate change, folks. Though after tasting the 2015 Bordeaux I can tell you there’s no microclimate change either. I can’t tell most of these wines apart. No wonder they’re so popular in China, you can’t tell the Chinese apart either. All the wines are the same, just big and ripe and chewy, which I like. In Ivanka. Not in Bordeaux. I’m telling you, these wines are yuge. Where’s the balance? These 2015 Bordeaux have the balance of a dead Wallenda.

And what’s all this talk about Left Bank Bordeaux and Right Bank Bordeaux? You see, right there, that’s the problem. The banks are screwing up everything in this country. Well, not anymore, not when Donald Trump is Emperor of Wine. I’m going to get the banks out of Bordeaux. All the other critics, you know, the banks own them. I read them, I read the other critics, mostly for the laughs, that Neal Martin guy, what an idiot. He writes like a Harry and David’s catalog. Oh, he’s English, they’re all fruits. Anyhow, all of those other critics, they all say they love the Right Bank of Bordeaux in 2015. You see, they even admit they’re in the pockets of those French weasels. When I rate Bordeaux, I’m my own bank. Believe me, don’t give either bank your money in 2015. There’s just something wrong with those wines.

I know, everyone is going to want me to give specifics. I don’t have to. Really. I just don’t have to. Everybody wants to know, Donald, what are the best Bordeaux in 2015? People keep asking me if I like the First Growths. I have to tell you, I’m not a big fan of growths. I just had one removed from my ass. His name was John Kasich. Why does Bordeaux have five growths? And what does that even mean? It’s just some French thing, I guess. We don’t have growths in America, do we? No. We don’t need growths. I, Donald Trump, your new Emperor of Wine, promise you that there won’t be any growth on my watch.

Now to be fair, there were a few 2015 Bordeaux I liked. But I’m not going to tell you which ones. I’ll tell you why. I tasted them out of barrels! I don’t know what a wine is supposed to taste like out of a barrel. Nobody knows what wine is supposed to taste like out of a barrel. It’s not finished yet! What kind of a jackass writes about wines that aren’t even finished yet? It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense. Really. It’s like trying to judge the Miss Universe Pageant when the girls are all twelve years old. You don’t know whose rack is going to be the biggest! That’s crazy. You just don’t know. That’s what those other wine critics are doing when they’re rating 2015 Bordeaux out of barrel—they’re just guessing which ones are really going to develop. They don’t know. You can put ‘em in your mouth that young, I know, I’ve done it. But it doesn’t tell you much.

So that’s my assessment of 2015 Bordeaux. They’re terrible, they’re made by French people, and, believe me, the natural ones smell weird. The people I mean, not the wines. Don’t buy futures! I mean, who buys Bordeaux futures? Who the hell buys Bordeaux futures? I’ve made a fortune, I’m worth seven billion dollars, I’m telling you, it’s a bad investment. I’ll tell you what to invest in. That Randall Grahm thing where he’s making new grape varieties. That's going to be yuge, my friends. Forget Bordeaux, it’s for suckers.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Alice's Adventures in Naturaland

Chapter One: Down the Rabbit Hole

Alice was getting very tired of sitting by herself on the bank. Though she was usually by herself, unless she was at a wine tasting. But Alice didn’t like wine tastings, especially blind wine tastings. It was just so easy to be fooled, and Alice didn’t like being fooled. Unless she didn’t know she was being fooled, and then she quite enjoyed it. “If they tell me the wine is natural,” Alice thought, “then I quite believe them. When I taste one blind and say it’s natural, and it’s not, then I look stupid. Better to err on the side of ignorance,” Alice thought, “than to have an air of ignorance.” She was quite clever that way.

Oh, I don't know, I was reading the classic Lewis Carroll work, and just felt an irresistible urge to have some fun with "Alice in Wonderland." Seemed appropriate to have it appear in the UK, on Tim Atkin's site. It was fun to write (which isn't the case usually) because it was fun to dissect Carroll's work, enjoy his relentless punning and cunning and then try to imitate it. I'd forgotten what a brilliant work of literature "Alice" is.

For the rest of Chapter One, you'll have to head over to Tim Atkin's place. Do feel free to leave comments there, or, if you'd prefer, leave them here with a small tag that says, "Eat me." Wouldn't be the first time someone told me that.