Teague Fatigue: When Wine Writers Scrape The Bottom Of The Limousin Barrel To Make Deadline

khaleesiUnlike Lettie Teague, I don’t have to come up with wine column ideas.  I am beholden to no man, woman, trannie or Murdoch meat grinding daily like The Wall Street Journal; I can write when, how and about what I choose, up to and including Khaleesi’s lovely ochre/sepia-toned nipples, and still refer to myself as a wine journalist.

Why then (might come the logical rejoinder) waste time writing a column I don’t have to write about a column that Lettie did have to write?

Lettie Teague

Lettie Teague

Easy peasy, cheesy sleazies: I have to regain face after I accidently let slip the fact that I find WSJ’s wine columnist sort of hot in a scrawny, liberal-arts-major, intellectually earnest and enologically overbearing sort of way.

Actually, what I said was that I wouldn’t kick her out of the sack for eating Aspinal of London Luxury Christmas Crackers, but whatever; I have a friend who mocks me anyway by emailing random odd things that Lettie Teague comes up with in order to fill her weekly word count for a hoary old business journal and challenges me to think with my head instead of my petrified trouser dragon.

The latest was: ‘The Pleasant Surprise of Chain-Restaurant Wines’, WSJ, August 29, 2014.  http://online.wsj.com/articles/the-pleasant-surprise-of-chain-restaurant-wines-1409328776

Ergo, thoughts on this odd article:

wall streetI say ‘odd’, but actually, long before genuine oddness sets in, you need to read beyond the column’s first exegetic, non-ambiguous clause:

‘High-end chains such as PF Chang’s and Fleming’s Steakhouse are inarguably popular.’

Right; so if their popularity is inarguable, why mention it?  This is the WSJ, not Jack & Jill in the pediatrician’s waiting room—assume that your readers do not need you to state the obvious, unless of course you are being paid by the word.  But, I digress.

mortsIn any case, the non-sexual thrust of the article is that Ms. Teague was ‘surprised’ to discover that certain upscale restaurants have upscale wine lists, even if the servers can’t engage in enlightened banter over specific vintages of Avancia Cuvée De O Godello.  Her surprise is further augmented when she learns that a white-tablecloth restaurant like Morton’s Steakhouse, where checks average $170 per couple pre-gratuity, has not one, but four sommeliers at their Midtown Manhattan location, failing to note that getting a sommelier certificate in 2014 is even easier than getting a boner during Game Of Thrones.

She also points out (correctly) that the California cabernets on the list are overpriced, and opts instead for a $70 bottle of Argentina malbec which she knows retails for twenty.

All of which is odd, granted, but the oddity that seemed oddest is that the theme of the article is Lettie’s surprise that these specific spots (Fleming’s, Houston’s and that Chinese chingadera P.F. Chang’s are also included) take pride in providing decent wines to their clientele.  Why? Because they are, after all—in WSJ biz-speak—‘chain restaurants’, that’s why.

One of these Morton's sommeliers is a real person.

One of these Morton’s sommeliers is a real person.

That’s the whole surprise-worthy factor: The chain gang, in the opinion of our favorite Wall Street journalistette, actually shows wine savvy in choosing a selection of which she approves—even if, as she quips (possibly to lend credence to her initial postulation)—“When I asked our waitress if I could speak to a sommelier, she replied, ‘You mean an actual person?’”

Her bitingly sarcastic response, not given in the article, is likely to have been something memorable like, “No, you dense twat, I want a fictitious person to recommend a Strongwine from Dorne—as dark as blood and as sweet as vengeance.”

Anyway, so far, so good.

hoosier_chick_mousepadThe thing is, though, Lettie Teague may be breaking Christmas crackers on Rupert Murdoch’s nickel and quaffing malbec with a 350% markup on Fifth Avenue, but at the close of the day, she’s a corn-fed Hoosier chick who did, in fact, attend a liberal arts college (Kenyon) and knows (I suspect) that when Midwesterners think of chain restaurants, Morton’s Steakhouse is not the first joint that leaps to mind.

In fact, the expression, ‘If he takes you to Morton’s, he’s worth a second date’ is precisely why I intend to take Daenerys Targaryen there, on the off-chance she doesn’t put out on the first one.

shineAs Lettie well knows (even if her editor-in-chief Gerard Baker doesn’t), to us vast sea of slack-jawed yokels between New York and L.A., some of whom actually read The Wall Street Journal, ‘chain restaurant’ means places like Applebee’s, TGIF, Olive Garden and Cracker Barrel, where the only ‘surprise’ is that they don’t serve white mule in mason jars.

Since I am not on any hoity-toity, fancy-schmancy New York expense account, were I to write a column on chain restaurant wine lists, the tone of the piece might be somewhat different.

For starters, there’d be no pleasant surprises.

Ergo ² :

applebeesApplebee’s: The list aims to be all-encompassing, so long as your compass points due 7-Eleven.  Classic offerings from Sutter Home, Sutter Home, Sutter Home and Sutter Home are balanced with ambrosial Barefoot and gems from Cupcake Cellars.  Kendall Jackson Chardonnay is the lone breakaway ‘Vintner’s Reserve, a wine so bland and sweet that it might as well be served from a soda fountain; considering they sell twenty-four million bottles of it a year, not sure how much the vintner could conceivably be reserving.

tgiT.G.I.F.:  Thank God I freebase; otherwise this tired, lowest-common-denominator list would turn me into a teetotaler.  What line-up of mediocrity would be complete without Beringer White Zinfandel and Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio to shore up the (again) Cupcake Cellars and KJVR?  One that includes (as its high water mark) Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, the wine that proves that Marlborough is capable of turning their premier grape into something flat and forgettable.

"Anywhere but here, Mikey."

“Anywhere but here, Mikey.”

Olive Garden: The ‘Picking The Right Wine’ comments on their menu suggest merlot with chicken and chardonnay with beef, so you know from the giddy-up that you are encountering some iconoclasts in the OG wine program.  Cavit wines form the backbone of the list; they sell for $6.50 per glass and up, while the wine retails for around $5.50 a bottle, which means that the chain is probably paying around $4.  This might be understandable if pasta wasn’t such a goddamn high margin foodstuff to begin with.  The list actually includes the semi-decent Francis Ford Coppola’s Diamond Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, but not to put too fine a point on it, if Michael Corleone chose to blow me away in an Olive Garden, I would carry the ignominy into eternity.

Cracker Barrel reject

Cracker Barrel reject

Cracker Barrel:  Hands down, Cracker Barrel—the company that drew the ire of normal people when it refused to hire gay waiters and still represents a big night-on-the-town for the very demographic that its name pays homage to (crackers)—wins the chain restaurant wine list contest by a country mile simply by refusing to have one.  They claim that serving wine would clash with their ‘family-oriented’ theme, but I suspect the real reason is that they think of wine as liquid gay.

With apologies to Ms. Teague, this is how a real Midwesterner rates chain restaurant wine lists.  Granted, it’s hard to keep you down on the farm now that you’ve seen Paree, but sometimes you have to be reminded that your roots are shiny black with good ol’ wholesome Indiana topsoil.

Plus, she still raises the mainsail in my flotilla and (as opposed to Emilia Clarke) Teague’s in my league, more or less.  No columns about her nipples, though; promise.  Whereas I imagine they are quite pleasantly surprising and chromatically balanced, in my imagination they must remain. Unlike Game of Thrones, The Wall Street Journal does not have a mandatory nudity clause in its contracts.

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Saved By The Bell: Willis Hall Winery Is Down, But Not Out

Like a lot of whizbangs from his generation, John Bell sidled into his wine compulsion via Mateus and Lancers—those primitive, popular Portuguese pots of plonk that in the prehistory of American wine appreciation were revered simply because they were wine, as opposed to being Schlitz Malt Liquor or Vat 69.

The game changer

The game changer

“The beer we could afford in college were basically headaches-in-a-can,” says John, “and cheap liquor never went down right. I discovered a taste for simple, pink and off-dry, and in those days, that meant wine.”

Armed with an engineering degree from Penn State, Bell was hired by Boeing and moved to Seattle where a ladder-climb in the aerospace industry exposed him to the more sophisticated palates of the executive class.  He recalls his watershed moment—when he shed wines which were about as complex as water—as being a single sip of Jordan Cabernet, circa 1980.

That’s when, as he puts it, “I understood what wine was all about.”

Richard Kinssies

Richard Kinssies

He found a local fellow called Richard Kinssies—a Seattle entrepreneur who started a school for local wine lovers who were just beginning to appreciate the incredible wine growing region with which they shared a state.

Over the next twenty years, Bell learned all the esoteric wine stuff he could without actually getting his hands purple, then in 1999, ready to party like it was indeed 1999, he joined a Boeing winemaking club which allowed members to buy grapes directly from the many phenomenal growers in Eastern Washington.

He’d learned his Kinssies well, and that first year, blending wine in his garage from the ton of merlot, cabernet and syrah he picked up, he produced three gold medal winners at the following year’s—and surprisingly prestigious—Boeing Wine Club Competition.

Boeing, Boeing, gone

Boeing, Boeing, gone

Although those (and most of the many awards he’s won since) are gathering dust in a steamer trunk in his attic, Bell came out of the experience a full-blown addict.  By his own admission, he was hooked on aromatics and flavors, and by 2002, he realized that his wine was good enough to go commercial.  He retired from Boeing, cashed in his 401 k and formed Willis Hall Winery, which not only sounds classy, but combines the middle name of his father with the surname of his grandmother.

Continuing to operate out of his garage, he put to use his engineering know-how and built a custom array of winemaking equipment, and the stuff he released under the Willis Hall label was so good that in 2006,  Seattle Magazine named John Bell ‘Best New Winemaker in Washington’.

But alas, gentle reader, this is ultimately a tale of woe, and unless I get my literary train back on track, you may see it as nothing more than a maudlin meander down memory lane, and not (as intended) as an introduction to the Antichrist known as ‘local government’.

Enter The Dragon…

John Bell

John Bell

“As single person without a commercial license,” John Bell explains, “I can produce 100 gallons per year which I can’t sell, offer to auctions or give away to friends at Christmas.  All I can do is drink it, bathe in it or pour it down the drain.”

In other words, the government forced him to incorporate.  By nature, Bell is not a business man, treating wine as art, just as the root of ‘artisan’ winemaking suggests.

So from the outset, the relationship between John and the feds—as well as the local Snohomish County Schutzstaffel—was strained, and not in a good, gravity-feed filtration sort of way.

Because he had no need of a growth plan and could produce his targeted 2500 cases of wine per year using equipment he had in his garage, after jumping the financial and time-wasting hoops required to get a commercial wine license, federal approvals and county permits, he remained where he was and did what he’d always done, only now with a license to sell.

He also opened a perfectly-legal, by-appointment-only tasting room, immediately allaying fears that he would be attracting party barges to his quiet, cul-de-sac Marysville neighborhood.

Hell’s Bells…

The enemy within

The enemy within

All was well until 2007, when the county suddenly decided that he was not zoned to do what they’d said for the past three years that he was zoned to do.  They gave him ten days to cease all operations or face $250 per day in fines.

All his WTF? face-to-face meetings came to naught; the cockamamie county refused to budge and quickly, panic mode set in—having retired from Boeing, Bell had already spent his retirement funds launching Willis Hall and it had become his livelihood: One he entered into specifically because Snohomish County told him he could.

Ten days later, he found his garage festooned with OSHA-orange signs declaring that he was a crook.

For Whom The Bell Toils

So, despite the ludicrosity of the whole situation, John hired an attorney and a land consultant, paid the requisite fines (including the county’s mandatory advertisements in local newspapers announcing his crookery), and petitioned all his neighbors for a thumbs up.  Most them were not even aware that he was running a commercial wine operation, and when they found out, far from being outraged, a few applied for jobs.

WH_Bottles1Tens of thousands of dollars in fees and fines and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth in wasted wine (unable to sell it or bottle it legally, $300k worth of tanked chardonnay oxidized) later, a sympathetic quintet of local councilmen took up his cause, helping him to rewrite the zoning code to permit him to do precisely what he’d already been doing.

It passed, with the stipulation that in order to qualify, the original license had to be granted before 2003, which left John Bell, Winemaker as an army of one.

Bell’s Law was not appreciated by the Snohomish jackboots, who retaliated by sending in the county Fire Marshall, who promptly decided that he needed to either set up a pumping station on his property to increase pressure from the curb-side hydrant or install a $30,000 fire suppression unit inside his garage winery—despite the fact that wine is notoriously unflammable.

With no choice, he coughed up the dough.

The cavalry arrives

The cavalry arrives

In 2009, a stroke of fortune finally hit:  The part of Marysville where he lived was annexed by the city, new regulations came into play and Snohomish County harassholes had to find other entrepreneurs to bully.

The threats evaporated like fog on the slopes of Mount Pilchuck, and the new Fire Marshall paid him a visit, giving him such a clean bill of health that he was allowed to remove his hot-shot, high-priced, utterly pointless fire suppression system.

And That Would Be That, Except…

…the money the intervening years had cost him was so staggering that neither John Bell nor Willis Hall Winery has yet surfaced from the inland sea of bullshit formed when the county’s bullshit sluice gate opened.

Bell no longer stores Mateus here

Bell no longer stores Mateus here

This year, far from his customary 2500 cases of wine, he will make a total of a hundred cases, all white, which he will sell out of quickly.

As for the thousands of gallons of inventory that remains in barrels?  He hasn’t recovered sufficient cash flow to bottle it.  Meanwhile, the fact that you can only barrel wine for so long before it becomes undrinkable is still giving Bell plenty of late-night agita and attendant insomnia.

“Recovery plan?  Survive another year, that’s it.  Succession plan?  When I die, I stop making wine.  That’s my exit strategy.”

Heads Up, Dearest Patron:

While John Bell is still alive and sleepless in Seattle, I’m going to charge any regular reader of this column to crash his website (not in a Boeing way) and consider buying a bottle or two of Willis Hall.


seattle magWhy?  Because John Bell is the best new winemaker in Washington?  Not necessarily; that’s the opinion of Seattle Magazine, which I have never read.  Because he has all those moldering competition medals in his attic? Not necessarily; like him, I place little stock in competition winners. Because his wine is truly outstanding? Not necessarily, because I, like you, have never tried it—we’ll have to compare notes once our shipment arrives.

But because he is an upstanding dude who loves wine, loves to innovate, loves to keep on truckin’ against the odds and who has been jacked nearly to extinction by a bunch of self-serving, vindictive, bureaucratic douchebags?  And because we hate vindictive bureaucratic douchebags with the sort of unrelenting passion generally reserved for the mentally ill?


It’s high time that the Bell bell tolls for them, in Snohomish County and in all counties everywhere across the planet.

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Grand Traverse Distillery: Taking Their Best Shot

It’s an interesting question in any case: Does appellation play the same role—or any role—in defining a liquor’s quality as it does a wine’s?

Or is it purely marketing schtick?

Le Montrachet

Le Montrachet

I ask because a wine’s regulated place-of-origin is intimately woven with information about that wine’s terroir, whether it is as specific as the twenty-acre vineyard of Le Montrachet or all-encompassing appellations like ‘California’. With the former, you are legally assured that the grapes in the bottle are chardonnay, grown in a tiny, mystical plot of land in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune. With the latter, according to the law, a quarter of the grapes don’t even have to come from California, and those that do can be grown anywhere in the state; and as a result, likely originate in the hot, flat, cheap Central Valley.  The beautiful thing about this system is that the retail prices of each tend to reflect the exclusivity of the appellation.  A California label will likely cost you under ten dollars; a Montrachet, more than five hundred. Whether or not you get what you pay for is a subjective thing, of course—but for the most part, you do.

Landis Rabish

Landis Rabish

Landis Rabish of Grand Traverse Distillery told me, with evident pride, that he buys as much grain as he can from Michigan farmers; the only stuff he brings in is the stuff he can’t get in any great quantity, like like malted rye and barley suitable for whiskey mash. But it can be argued that winemaking is a process while distilling is an art, and how much the raw material has to do with what ends up in your pony glass has little to do with terroir provided the suitable variety of the starter fluid.

Those with better palates than I may disagree, and I’d welcome the chance for them to prove it.

Not the Rabish farm.

Not the Rabish farm.

In the case of Grand Traverse Distillery, the bragging rights to Michigan produce is as much an heirloom crow as a nod to eat/drink locovores; the Rabish family has been growing grain and making moonshine since Prohibition. Landis’ great-grandfather George Rabish used to distill the excess crop from his Standish farm back in the Thirties—some of his equipment, though not used, is still around.

“A lot of the best stuff was tossed out though,” Landis says, the regret in his voice obvious. “My grandmother didn’t like the association with our family and moonshine. We lost a few antique whiskey jugs in the purge that I’d love to get my hands on right now.”

Note to Grandmother: You can extinguish the fire, but not the desire.

True North

True North

In fact, distilling seems to have skipped a generation. It was Landis’ father Kent, with a background in biology and chemistry, who happened on an artisan vodka maker a decade ago and figured he could match wits with that sort of end game.  A whole lot of expensive copper later, he distilled a couple barrels of neutral alcohol made with grain grown by the Send Brothers in Williamsburg and water from Lake Michigan.  That became True North Vodka, the distillery’s flagship spirit, which Landis maintains is distilled 37 times for ultimate purity.

More on ‘number of times distilled’—which is, in many ways, a marketing hook—in a bit.

The distillery’s growth trajectory was exponential as befits Kent Rabish’s background as a sales executive for the pharmaceutical industry.  The second year, they quadrupled output to eight barrels (in quantity; vodka is not ‘barrelled’), the next year saw 15, and this year, according to Rabish, the goal in a couple of years is to produce 250 barrels of liquor—the equivalent of 62,000 fifths, making them the largest micro-distiller in Michigan. 

‘Large micro-distiller’, of course, being an outrageous oxymoron.

Charred bourbon barrel.

Charred bourbon barrel.

Not everything they make is vodka, of course—far from it. The Rabish rabble seems to have as much, or more fascination with the browns, and produce a number of interesting variations on the whisky theme, including bourbon. 

For the record, bourbon is defined as grain alcohol potted in new, charred, white oak barrels and aged at least two years; of the grains, the law require that least 51% be corn.  The rest can be made up of rye, sometimes wheat, and malted barley, which has enzymes that break down starch chains to fermentable sugars. Bourbon is a uniquely American product; to be called such, it has to be born in the U.S.A.  The association with Kentucky is largely romantic because Bourbon County, KY—which once encompassed about half the state—can claim to be the origin of the name.

A good thing, because the Rabish regiment wants to keep the home team front and center in the beverage, claiming a ‘mash bill’ of mostly Michigan agriculture. The bourbon itself is sensational; softly spicy with notes of orange, vanilla and warm caramel; an additional year on new oak, above and beyond the call of duty and not required by law, adds an undertone of smoky charcoal.

Library of grains.

Library of grains.

The intriguing element of spice in the bourbon is likely the result of the rye content; according to Landis, rye is the traditional distillate of Colonial America, and for many years, Allegheny County, PA was the epicenter of rye production in the United States, accounting for a half-barrel of yearly production for every person in the country. Rye itself is a pedigreed grain, having been favored in Neolithic times, although Pliny the Elder wrote in 70 BC that rye is ‘a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation.’ Maybe so, but mashed, brewed and distilled, it produces a dry, spicy, fruity liquor that has more of a bite than bourbon and less of bourbon’s characteristic sweetness. Rye production the United States died out after Prohibition; popular tastes moved toward the brown sugar, caramel allure of corn-based bourbon. Not only that, says Landis, rye is pricey; he pays 50¢ a pound for rye; less than 15¢ for corn. But for those that love the unique nip of heat and rustic richness that only rye can impart, no other hooch comes close.

Old George

Old George

Rabish’s rye is called ‘Old George’ after his granddad; it’s not only an homage to him, but to old-timers of any designation who made rye before Prohibition. Bottled straight from the barrel without filtering, the unique rye flavors are perfectly represented—nosing a glass is like walking into a room where a loaf of rye bread is baking. There are provocative overtones of allspice and cinnamon and a complex floral that a basic bourbon can’t touch. This is a booze for an experienced and experimental palate, perhaps, but part of the learning curve to appreciating liquor—who liked their first snort of Scotch, for example?—is branching out from the familiar.

Take gin, for example. This botanical blend of juniper and other aromatic herbs, fruits and spices has been popular since the Middle Ages, and because of the variety of possible recipes—many kept under lock and key by those who create a ‘house blend’.  Most commonly, other than juniper—the predominate flavor—additions include anise, cinnamon, almond, citrus peel, coriander, grains of paradise and nutmeg.  The concoctions are only as limited as the gin maker’s imagination and they made spend years perfecting the recipe. Landis Rabish has not spent years ruminating (no pun; it isn’t rum), but he’s definitely spent a whole lot of months mixing and matching, and more than likely, he isn’t done yet. The one I sampled had been aged in white oak barrels and showed a slithery softness infused with a myriad of exotic high notes. One of his ‘secrets’ which is happy to share is that the neutral spirit (wheat vodka) upon which his gin is based is of the highest quality; many producers are less concerned with the purity of the base booze, believing that the botanicals will mask them or the cocktail will, since gin is one of the few spirits that is made to be mixed, rather than consumed straight. Unfortunately, ‘GIGO’ is as true for distillers as it for computer techs.

In fact, all of Rabish’s liquor is built upon the purest, cleanest of foundational spirits—one of the things that he says the multiple distillation process insures.

So, Back To That…

Landis and his stills.  Pot still left; column still right.

Landis and his stills. Pot still left; column still right.

In the distilling process, when broken down to its most basic elements, a fermented mash (called a ‘wash) is slowly heated to the several boiling points of the various liquids contained within.  Water boils at 212 °F, ethanol (the pure stuff) at 173 °F, so in a perfect world, the process should be as basic as heating the wash to the second temperature and re-condensing the steam. Problem is, the organic mechanics of fermentation produces a number of compounds other than ethanol; a few are noxious and some are toxic, and some have lower boiling points than ethanol, and so, are contained within the first ‘run’.  Essentially, these are poured off, but some remain behind, and to rid the final product of them, you re-distill. In theory, the more times you distill a wash, the purer it becomes. But again, the world is not perfect, and along with some of the bad-news congeners exist some of the flavor volatiles, so a careful balance between what you keep and what you toss is vital. Vodka, by its nature and legal definition (‘neutral spirit’) is on a Holy Grail quest for purity; whiskey, on the other hand, depends on heavier elements for complexity and depth. Rabish’s ’37-times distilled’ brag is the result of his column still (as opposed to a ‘pot’ still used in Scotch and Irish whiskey production). A column still has a number of plates, each acting as individual pot stills within the tube; the column is heated from the bottom and vaporizes the volatiles with the wash, which rise to the top (where it’s cooler) and condense against the plates and shed more of the non-ethanol every time they two. Vodka may be distilled until it is 190 proof, or 95% pure alcohol. Bourbon and rye, which also use the column still method, get held at 160 proof or less.

purus-vodkaEssentially, the ’37 times distilled’ tagline results from counting the plates and the number of times the vodka has undergone the downward trickle. Even the most exceptionally ‘clean’ commercial vodkas like Italy’s ‘Purus’ claim quintuple distillation, so at some point, it becomes obvious that number of distillation is more marketing doublespeak than quality indicator. Which is fine—Landis Rabish has a degree in Communications and plenty of retail sales experience to shore up his right to use catchphrases as long as his products lives up to the hype.

And it does. Rabish (and his father) are a true craftsman, which means that no corners are cut and the quest for perfection is ongoing. To me, it matters far less how many times they distill their vodka and even less than that they buy raw grain from Michigan instead of Wisconsin, which may in fact grow better rye than we do in the first place. What matters is that Grand Traverse Distillery processes, ferments and distills on premise.

Because, far more nefarious to the reputation of micro-distilleries in 2014 are those that do not—despite frequent claims to the contrary—actually distill all their own liquor. As much as 75% of small-batch labels may be marketed and sold by someone other than the distiller for any number of reasons, the most logical of which is that it costs a boatload of cash to open a distillery. Whiskey requires aging, and unless you have very deep pockets or a ready market for fresh vodka, the lag time between the start of production and the release of a brand may be years and years.  A new distillery needs cash flow in the meantime, and often those without the slow-growth mentality of Grand Traverse Distillery solve the issue by purchasing bulk whiskey that may not even have been made in the state where it is bottled.

Worst thing? Consumers don’t seem to mind. 

I do, though—to me, that’s misrepresentation.

Redemption could use a little redemption.

Redemption could use a little redemption.

And because I think so, I’ll name names: A single distiller in Lawrenceburg, Indiana called MGPI makes rye distillate for George Dickel, Redemption, Angel’s Envy and Smooth Ambler, among many others. And not custom stuff, either—it’s the  very same rye whiskey in every bottle. The logo is the only difference.

In my book, the true art of micro-distilling happens on premise, within the same bricks-and-mortar that bottles it, preferably by the person who pours you a glass in the tasting room. Like Landis Rabish does in his Traverse City oxymoron, Michigan’s biggest micro-distillery.

Talk about purity of spirits all you want; that level of purity is one of the essential spirit—the soul—and it outstrips 37-times-distilled every time.

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Water Bored: The Ice Bucket Challenge

A match made in Heaven.  Or was it 7-Eleven?

A match made in Heaven. Or was it 7-Eleven?

You know how when Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett it just sort of ‘felt right’?  Or, ever reminisce about the warm, gushy, non-sexual feeling of utter contentment that poured over you when Gary Cherone started singing with Van Halen?  For that matter, remember how cool it was when Fonzie finally jumped that shark?

No?  Well, then you probably won’t like this idea either.

Somehow, I have thus far resisted the temptation to enter the currently popular state of cheapskate hypothermia and instead have made a dull, distinctly non-viral Facebook video of myself not getting a bucket of ice water dumped over my head.

♫  "You'll never... walk... at all..."  ♪ ♫

♫ “You’ll never… walk… again…” ♪ ♫

This mustn’t be be construed as my support  for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which I would be opposed to even if I could pronounce it.  Nor should it be read as opposition to charity as a general concept—except for that awful, annual MDA Show of Strength, which actually got worse without Jerry Lewis singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to kids that, by the nature of their disease, will never walk at all.  (As if the idea of rich people asking poor people for money is not sufficiently anathematic, it sounds more like a Ponzi shake-down when you consider that over $2.4 billion has been donated to MDA since the 1950s… and they still haven’t cured the goddamned thing…)

Ice bucket challenge my ass.

Ice bucket challenge my ass.

To the nine people left on earth, mostly in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, who don’t know what I’m talking about, there’s a recent social media fad making the rounds called ‘The Ice Bucket Challenge’.  It involves filming yourself getting a bucket of ice water dumped over your head, then then ‘challenging’ friends (without viral pneumonia) to either dump a bucket of ice water over their own heads or donate a hundred dollars to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Apparently, the key lure in this nonsense is that your friends (1.2 million have nibbled the hook so far) will want to showcase their physical prowess in the face ice water yet not look like penny-pinching dingledorks afterward, so they dump the water and subsequently announce that they donated the C-note to ALS anyway—even if it seems more logical to donate it to The Viral Pneumonia Association.

"Are the cameras on?  How's my hair?  Can you film from my good side?"

“Are the cameras on? How’s my hair? Can you film from my good side?”

What’s wrong with this picture?  For starters, charity is a wonderful thing, and as the man says, it not only begins at home but should stay at home.  Otherwise, you tend to look like an opportunistic douchebag, like corporations who donate $15 k to Jerry’s Kids, then receive two hundred thousand dollars worth of free advertising when they hand over the check on national television.

Nothing seems quite so cynical as braggadocio-style giving, and yet, the idea of donating to the ALS Association and not filming it may be evident by the charity’s own figures: Since the challenge began, donations are up by approximately eight hundred percent.

What’s The Solution?

fire challengeIt is, perhaps, no coincidence that another video ‘craze’ currently going around is ‘The Fire Challenge’.  This one involves teenagers lighting themselves on fire with some arsonist accelerant like nail polish or Everclear and posting the video to YouTube.  For this stunt, you are not expected to donate anything to anybody; the thrill, apparently, is the third-degree burns and/or reconstructive surgery that invariably results, which will cost more than you would have donated anyway.

love_and_marriageSo, like love and marriage, horse and carriage, the next inevitable step is to combine these two lunatic-fringe dares into a single double dare—  ‘The Set Yourself On Fire, Then Douse The Flames With Ice Water Challenge’.

Your dauntless, charity-driven and mentally-incompetent friends will saturate themselves with lighter fluid, light themselves up like  Joan of Arc, and just as they become roman candles, somebody behind them will pour a bucket of ice water over them.

Clever, right? Safer, huh?

Yeah?  Well then, you probably won’t like this idea either:

"Where'd that human torch go??"

“Where’d that human torch go??”

Since I invented the game, I get to pick the charity, and I pick The Macular Degeneration Association, with the specific stipulation that the dude with the ice water bucket be suffering from it, and thus, be totally blind.  That way, nine out ten times, he misses the conflagrating imbecile with the water entirely.

It’s a Darwin-win, and we all get on with life.

Because, do you know what?  Like love and marriage, some things are simply not compatible, and burning yourself up on cue or self-inducing core-body-temperature-drops for any cause, charitable or otherwise, are among them.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask the local gentry: They’ll say that that much, anyway, is elementary.

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Hot Wine: Summer In The Vineyard

First of all, unless its mulled, there is no such thing as hot wine and second, other than maybe Verónica Martínez or Amy Freeman, there is no such thing as hot winemakers—but that’s a lament for a different logarithm.

Delicious Amy Freeman

Smokin’ Amy Freeman

The term ‘hot winemaker’, of course, is a sensory misnomer referring to an elevated level of testosterone in the wine writer and an artificial standard of contemporary bodily heat.  The term ‘hot wine’ is a sensory misnomer referring to an elevated ABV—alcohol by volume—and ‘high ABV’ is legally understood to mean table wines with an ethanol content greater than 14%.

At this point, technically, they become dessert wines and are subject to higher TTB taxes. Yes, Virginia, it’s a profit game.

Virginia_Santa_ClausMisnomers, Virginias and agency definitions notwithstanding, the shifting tide of trends and tastes combined with new yeast cultures and climatic readjustments have seen a public gravitation toward richer, riper, fuller wines in recent years; whether the attribution is laid to Parker or passion makes no difference to the anaerobic microorganisms responsible for fermentation: Unless it is diluted by water or mechanically removed, the higher sugar content in must results in higher alcohol in wine.

In cooler wine zones like Burgundy, it is often a struggle to ripen grapes to the point where they have reached the required °Bx (the standard scale for measuring sugar in the wine industry) for fermenting to around 13% alcohol, which fans out to a requisite °Bx of 23.  Germany has an even tougher time with ripening—one of the reasons that the German wine industry has historically focused on white wines, with ABVs in the top category of Prädikatswein acceptable as low as 7%.

A spoonful of sugar helps the tartaric go down

A spoonful of sugar helps the tartaric go down

Of course, the ease with which a winemaker may simply add granulated sugar (called ‘chaptalization’) to boost end-game alcohol is obvious, and that is why the technique remains embroiled in controversy.  Many reputable appellation laws prohibit it—others don’t.  The ‘don’t prohibit’ list includes Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chile and New Zealand.  Here in the United States, chaptalization is allowed in Long Island and Oregon, but not in California.

That’s the woe story of wines that struggle for sugar.  With a ‘hot’ wine, the problem is the polar opposite, and to the winemaker, the issue is one of either reining in the punch’s punch or—God forbid—producing a wine which successfully blends flavor, depth and acidity and embraces whatever ABV rides along.

And therein lies my problem with the term ‘hot wine’.

'Fill 'er up, Miracle Boy'.

‘Fill ‘er up, Miracle Boy… YOLO.’

A wine in which the burn of alcohol is so pronounced that it is worth a tasting note is a flawed wine.  The Holy Grail of every grail-full of wine is balance; if it misses the brass ring of equilibrium, it has pretty much jumped the quality shark and fallen floundering into the water.  Alcohol tends to presents itself negatively in wines without sufficient fruit extraction, tannins, acidity or any of a thousand organoleptic intangibles that even the most passionate Parker puppet may not be able to name and doesn’t need to.  If the wine is noticeably pushed in a direction that suggests undesirable heat to the taster, there has been a mistake made in process or in a winemaker’s appreciation of what constitutes harmony.

Or, there’s always this: The wine may simply have been served at the wrong temperature.  Full-blown, high-alcohol red wine shows best at around 62° F—a point where many folks in the tasting room are looking for their cardigans—and when served warmer, the alcohol tends to evaporate more quickly and may do a frontal assault on the nostrils you’ve just jammed into the snifter.  In that case, it make more sense to blame your host, not your vintner.

Runaway ripening, when grapes reach upwards of °30 Bx, can yield some stunning, nuanced wines, but only if the natural acid has not collapsed—a phenomenon that coincides with fruit maturation.  During véraison, as berry skins lose their chlorophyll and begin to accumulate phenolic compounds, sugars increase as acids decrease.  The trick that every successful vineyard manager and winemaker must learn is what their specific terroir can offer to their specific cultivar: Some grape varieties require more hang time to become fully ‘flavor ripe’ than others.  Once that knowledge is mastered, it’s down to the whims of the seasons in any given vintage.

Hanging around with syrah

Hanging around with syrah

Syrah is an example of a variety which often does reveal its full panoply of flavors without an extended hang-time, but whose acid must be closely monitored to hold pH at around 3.6.  Once it skyrockets past 4, the game is over and the resulting wines will be stewy-tasting, flabby and may come across as ‘hot’.  The alcohol, in other words, will be but one of several off-putting factors, and they all play a role in tossing that wine off the balance beam.

Stillman Brown of Red Zeppelin Winery is  a Paso Robles winemaker who keeps daily—and near the end of the growing season, sometimes hourly tabs on the grapes he will buy from a number of growers scattered across this broad appellation.  Paso is known for very hot, very long summers with extreme diurnal temperature shifts, allowing wine grapes maximum hang-time without pronounced acid deterioration.  As a result, Brown is often faced with decisions regarding final ABV, especially in varieties like pinot noir which may become unpleasantly aggressive at port-grade potency.  The same holds true with cabernet sauvignon, a wine that can, in California, confront the palate with fierce ABV.  Brown feels that cab cashes in some of its finesse if the numbers go much above 15%—this, despite critics like Jim Laube’s (Wine Spectator) frequent score-nod to the chocolatey, big-oomph cabs of Napa Valley.

Stillman Brown

Stillman Brown

Not so zinfandel, which Brown does not produce as a stand alone, or syrah, which he does in several beautiful show-stopping incarnations—and, at ABVs which creep toward (or, occasionally, vault over) Oloroso sherry levels—17% ABV.

He says, “I’ve never used R.O. (reverse osmosis, a technique for de-alcoholizing wine) where you pick ripe grapes, then suck out the soul.  I get tired of pseudo-complaints about getting ‘too buzzed’ on 17% wines; if that’s your concern, drink less.  Some wines are balanced at 7%, others at 17%.  In some years where I pick, syrah is not fully flavor ripe until it has developed ungodly high sugars; if I stripped out the alcohol to, say, 14%, the wine might still be good, but it wouldn’t be as full, not as luscious; not the same wine at all. If fruit extraction, tannin and acid are low, 16% is too high.  If not, it’s too low.  It’s a sin to dismiss a universe of great, higher-alcohol wines on that criterion alone.”

The late, great Robert Hughes

The late, great Robert Hughes

Unfortunately, like anything offensively ‘hot’—Kardashians, Sharknados, Brandy Melville destroyed denim shorts—wines may, on simple virtue of the wallop, become market manipulators.  For those winemakers unable to handle their alcohol, the focus shifts from judicious balance to overripe ethanol torpedoes.

To paraphrase the classic line about American figurative art by the great critic Robert Hughes, “A taste for massive but intrinsically unbalanced wines may be acquired.  But is it required?”

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Wearing Their Hearts On My Mitten: Michigan Wine Competition, 2014

I certainly hand it to the grape council that represents my Mitten: They are one sincere bunch.

Karel Bush, Promo Specialist at Michigan Grape & Wine Industry

Lovely Karel Bush, Promo Specialist at Michigan Grape & Wine Industry

Such punkling puns aside, I mention this because The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council held its 37th Michigan Wine Competition on August 5, and last night, I crashed the glorifactory and flatterizing party that was held in East Lansing.

The competition used to be held at the State Fairgrounds before the city that held the State Fair became so dysfunctional that nobody in the state wanted to crash it; subsequently, the judging was moved to East Lansing, a city known for collegiate consumption and party animalization as much as Spartan abstinence.

I’ve covered the event for about half of its thirty-seven year history, reporting on it for a number of publications, and—oddly or not—have never been asked to be a judge, even though my record of flatterizing the winners has occasional exceeded reason—especially when I was a columnist for The Detroit Free Press and was beholden to their glorifactory and flatterization policies regarding Michigan products.

Apparently I’m damned by faint—and equally, for over-the-top praise.

'Judge not lest ye be judged' - Matt. 7:1

‘Judge not lest ye be judged’ – Matt. 7:1

And yet, among the twenty-five Michigan Wine Competition judges, there are plenty of folks who haven’t written squat about Michigan wines for any of the past thirty-seven years (largely because they are not from Michigan), but they do have a national ‘presence’, thus, apparently, add prestige and gravitas to the judging panel.

Which makes perfect sense until you consider that no wines but Michigan wines are entered, therefore, only Michigan wines can win. Where precisely the prestige lies in having (for example) a talk show host from New Orleans decree that the best Michigan dessert wine is a dessert wine from Michigan is for keener minds than mine to deduce.

Note to self:  Gee, Chris, maybe if you stopped being so graphic about this you might get more respect from the grapeheads in Lansing.

In any case, that annual, anticipated Grape Council snub aside, I can certainly state that the winning wines have gotten better every year that I’ve been after-the-fact involved, and were, in fact, better again this year.

The Devil—and the Distinction—Is in the Details…

Winemaker Roger Bonga; poor guy thought he had a leg up on the competition

Winemaker Roger Bonga; poor guy thought he had a leg up on the competition

Most wine people are aware of the inherent pitfalls in wine competitions, even if the consuming public—to which awards are directed anyway—are not.  Even so, it is worth mentioning that of 107 wineries in Michigan, only 51 entered wines.  Since the total number of wines judged was 450, I think it’s fair to conclude that less than half of Michigan wineries entered every wine they produce.

Part of the problem is that virtually every winery in Michigan is boutique-sized, and competition rules state that there have to be a minimum of fifty cases of any given entry available to the purchasing public.  This may not seem like a boatload of wine to those with a global grasp of production, but for a lot of start-up, newer Michigan wineries, it is.

Thus, some of the best wines being produced in Michigan may, necessarily, go without a needed publicity shot in the basilic vein.

The Ethical Treatment of Party Animals

The Grande Dames, Master Sommeliers Madeline Triffon and Claudia Tyagi

The Grande Dames, Master Sommeliers Madeline Triffon and Claudia Tyagi

Even so, one of my favorite long-time competition judges, Master Sommelier Claudia Tyagi (who opted out this year due to some tooth trauma and apparently hasn’t learned to transcend dental medication) assured me that the actual judging conditions are as rigorous and principled as can be arranged.  Wines are tasted ‘double blind’, extreme cleanliness is demanded of all stemware and even the restroom soap is certified unscented.  Best of all, they lose the cumbersome point-scale and award wines gold, silver, bronze or metal-free—that’s all.

The results are what they always are in such competitions where huge numbers of wine are sampled, categorized and gilded, leafed, bronzed or cast back into the fire: A wholly subjective slice-of-moments on a single day-in-the-life of mostly young wines tasted in laboratory conditions not likely to be duplicated by a single consumer ever.

Which is fine: As long as human beings are involved, wine judging will remain an inexact science, and as always, I am gratified that the Council has tried to remove any variables—including me—which might skew results.

Tasting Notes, 2014 Michigan Wine Competition ‘Best of Class’ Awards:

( *These are wholly subjective slice-of-moment impressions from a single day-in-the-life of mostly young wines tasted in receptionary conditions not likely to be duplicated by a single uninvited consumer ever.  

Plus, I disagreed with a few, and the ones I thought should have won are given below…)


auroraSparkling:  Aurora Cellars Brut, Leelanau, 2011:  One of the downsides of a somewhat incestuous Leelanau wine world is Larry Mawby competing against Larry Mawby.  Larry Mawby won with the wine he sparkled up for Aurora, which is a big, blowsy, yeasty, doughy wine with a sharp apple peel-flavored mid-palate.  Refreshing and somewhat cava-like with a tart finish.

My Pick:  L. Mawby Consort, Leelanau, NV:  In my world, Mawby would have beaten Mawby with his elegant, refined, multi-vintage blend built entirely of chardonnay.  A touch of residual sugar softens the natural acids; the older wines fill in complexity gaps while the youthful core of spritz remains intact.

bluestoneDry White Wine:  Blustone Vineyards Riesling, Leelanau, 2013:  For any number of potential reasons (bottle shock, temperature served, etc.) the wine seemed to lack the essential aromatics to decode the variety; the flavors were accounted for in the mouth, but it was mostly basic peachy stuff—a nice wine to up-end and enjoy, no question about it, but more user-friendly than contemplation-ready.

My Pick: Black Star Farms Arcturos Pinot Blanc, Old Mission Peninsula, 2013:  I get the riesling thing already, but this intense, pear-kissed gem from Lee Lutes (who rarely fails to deliver) is a rounded, delightful wine, somewhat low in acid, which brings out the sweetness of the juice and is fully representative of a variety which continues to make strides in Michigan.

Kris and Ryan Sterkenburg bask in glory

Kris and Ryan Sterkenburg bask in glory

Semi-Dry White Wine: Gill’s Pier Vineyard Riesling, Leelanau, 2013:   A bright, fruit-filled nose with solid depth of character—apricot and green apple and maybe a touch of pineapple; succulent mouth-feel, rich on the palate if slightly short-lived on the finish.  No second choice here—this one nails it.

Rosé: Chateau de Leelanau Cabernet Franc Rosé, Leelanau, 2013:  Porch wine, purely and pleasantly; supple and crisp but not terribly memorable.  Light strawberry notes, some summery tart cherry flavors, not much more.

My Pick: Boathouse Vineyards ‘License To Chill’ Pinot Noir Rosé, Leelanau, 2013:  I can live without the excruciatingly irritating name, but the wine is sensational; it offers watermelon and wild strawberry intensity in a balanced, nicely acidic mouthful.

azoSemi-Dry Red Wine: Lawton Ridge Winery AZO Red, Lake Michigan Shore, 2013:  In general, I might be embarrassed that we need a category for semi-sweet red wine; more so that ‘Best of Show’ is a trio of hybrids (chambourcin, chancellor and noiret) that singly, rarely produce anything spectacular.  But the wine is surprisingly satisfying; dusty, jammy layers with bright shafts of ripe plum and currant shining through.  The wine threw some major sediment into my glass, but otherwise, none of the other wines that competed in the category came close.

Dry Red Wine:  Peninsula Cellars Cabernet Franc, Old Mission Peninsula, 2012:  A bright wine; none of the broody, chocolatey depth that the winery’s cab franc sometimes displays—rather, the cranberry and pomegranate flavors, which are fully delightful, take center stage.

Jay Briggs

Jay Briggs

Fruit Wine:  45 North Vineyard & Winery Peach Crémant, Leelanau, NV:  Jay Briggs, the winemaker, is young, and indeed, this is a young person’s wine.  In fact, if twelve year olds could drink, they couldn’t produce enough of it.  Not unpleasant by any means, but simple and shoulder-shruggy in a Creamsicle, peach sherbet sort of way.

Lee Lutes basks as well

Lee Lutes basks as well

My Pick:  Alas, not entered.  The entire collection of fruit wines from the U.P.’s little-mentioned, oft-overlooked Garden Bay Winery are prize-winners all.

Dessert Wine: Black Star Farms Arcturos Winter Harvest Riesling, Michigan, 2012:  A head-full of ambrosial nectar; a Lee Lutes masterpiece.  As strenuous to make as it is effortless to drink, the wine is creamy with baked apples, lemon cake, maple candy and a racy, shivery crisp finish.  The crowning touch to the competition; no other late harvest wine seemed to bring all elements of the style together so perfectly.

Posted in Fruit Wines, Lake Michigan Shore, Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan, MIDWEST, Old Mission Peninsula | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Robin Williams: Art, Alcoholism And Suicide

Never mind that he was born in Chicago, went to high school in California, lived just north of San Francisco and drove around Napa like he owned the joint—which, in part, he did.

Here in Detroit, Robin Williams will always be a Detroit boy.

CW, CBS And Showtime 2013 Summer TCA Party - ArrivalsHis father was a Ford executive and before he moved the ancestral silver spoon from his mouth to his cocaine-filled nose, Robin went to Detroit Country Day—a school for rich kids who we simultaneously despised, mocked and envied.  Country Day kids tended to be smarter than us—they were definitely richer than us—but in the end, as Robin Williams so poignantly proves, they were no happier than us.

Williams’ schoolboy days were a few years before my own, and when I first saw him as Mork in 1978, I was enthralled. When I scrutinized his improv over subsequent years on talk shows and before live audiences, I could not believe the instantaneous wit that seemed, indeed, to come from some planet beyond the galaxy.  As such, still being a young wannabe comedy writer, the fact that Country Day kids could not only be smarter and richer, but light years funnier than we were left little alternative but to mock, despise and envy him.

Nothing close to schadenfreude over his death, of course.  Nothing but profound, largely personal sadness, and for reasons that have nothing to do with Country Day, rich kids or the peculiarities of psyche that convince people with everything that they have nothing.

But I’ll get to that.  He’s not the first creative genius to fall down that darkling shaft from which there’s no return, and he’ll hardly be the last.

I was asked by a friend to write a piece on Robin Williams and his relationship with wine, and I assumed that he meant his sprawling Italianate mansion and twenty-four acres of Napa vineyards.  The house was equipped with a magnificent cellar for—irony of ironies—both art and wine.

Problem was, Williams had mostly been on the wagon since 1983, and when he fell off it hard in 2003, he checked into rehab at once.  There is something to be said about the strength of character of someone who can love wine—the lore, the mystique, the history—and dodge the buzz with the determination of a bull moose.

The thing is, by its very nature, the buzz sands out the rough spots in the day-to-day drek we all draggle through, and without that balm in Gilead, life can—and pretty quickly, too–lose its technicolor.

So, at the end of it all, The World’s Greatest Dad hopped aboard the last train to glory by his own rules.  As it happens, so did the world’s greatest mom.


My mother grew up as a rich kid on Detroit’s East Side, and was, in her time, by far the best fashion illustrator in the city.  Like Williams, her father was an executive at Ford—in an era when Ford, and by default, Detroit, pretty much had the world by the short hairs—but she opted into a non-automotive career, marrying a fellow illustrator she met at art school and going on (in an era where everything was drawn, not photographed) to pretty much blow her advertising colleagues out of the tub, talent-wise.

Like Williams, she had a weakness for wine and pharmaceuticals, but unlike Williams, she had the hubris to think that she had the upper hand, even when it was obvious to people around her that she didn’t.  She committed suicide around the same time that Robin Williams signed The Pledge.

The connection between runaway creativity and suicide is pretty well documented—the list of insanely talented people who topped themselves doesn’t need to be hashed over.

Depression is a pretty equal opportunity affliction, and I’d venture to guess that most suicides leave behind no estimable body of art.  But I have no doubt that most of them were loved savagely by someone, somewhere, just the same.

The tragedy—and the reality that is often most confusing to those left in the wake—is that being loved, even worshiped, is not enough.  By its very definition, self-destruction is a selfish act, and only happens when someone is so subsumed in ego that the inevitability of causing irrevocable damage to everyone around them, to throwing permanently off-kilter those who often tried to help them, has become irrelevant.

Happiness seems to be an equilibrium that we’re all driven to seek, and there are those rare individuals—people we are grateful took their first breath in any case—who reached so deeply inside themselves in search of solace that even if they didn’t find it, they found instead a tappable wellspring of something profound and beautiful—something that they were, for a short time, unselfish enough to share.

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