Last Chance To Secure Seats At The ‘Writers Write; Everyone Else Attends Symposiums’ Symposium

Seeking out small pockets of serious humor in a serious world preoccupied with ebola, ISIS and Tom Brady’s balls is a daunting task, but at the close of another nihilistic day, nothing is funnier than people who take themselves too seriously.

And I’m serious.

logoSo, when I received an invitation to attend The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa on February 17-20, I recognized a rare opportunity. Not to attend, which would cost me $695 of non-refundable alco-dollars (not to mention another $700 in airline fees) and allow me four full days (as promised) to ‘explore themes prevalent in contemporary wine writing and network with peers in an unmatched career enrichment opportunity’. 

But rather, to make merry over the sheer ego-sodden ludicrosity of anyone who takes this shit… seriously.

There, I’ve Said It…

In terms of my bucket-list priorities, this symposium ranks slightly above the Finding a Mormon Identity through Activism Conference in Provo this June and just below a four-day stint inside maximum security at Thailand’s Bang Kwang Prison.

Underneath that blouse, Talia Baiocchi is like totally topless.

Underneath that blouse, Talia Baiocchi is like, totally topless.

On the plus side, unlike in Bang Kwang, the wine symposium will not chain you to the wall with napinya shackles; on the other hand, I can’t think of anything else that would serve as impetus to sit through an entire Story Pitching, Speed-Dating Style lecture, even if host Talia Baiocchi volunteered to do it topless.

Other scheduled harangues include Eric Asimov explaining why Recognition of One’s Preferences are Vital for Wine Writers, which essentially means you’ll learn that before writing about wine you should decide if you like writing about wine, and Richard Bradley (Worth magazine) outlining What Luxury/Lifestyle Editors Don’t Want, for which you could save yourself an hour and spend ten minutes reading anything about wine I’ve ever written, giving you a pretty good idea.

These are called ‘breakout sessions’, bringing the prison metaphor around full circle.

Chin Up, Chumps; There’s an Alternate Universe

flagellantsNow, if I have offended any symposium-giddy peers, advertently or otherwise, mea maxima culpa³ and allow me a moment of self-mortification with a hundred lashes from a cat o’ nine tails.

Ouch. Ouch. Done.

Okay, so let’s suppose you really, really, really want to attend the symposium, but don’t quite fall into the exclusive category required of you to do so; that is, the status of being a ‘professional’.  Not to worry!  According to my peer Alder Yarrow, this is elitist-ese for ‘someone has paid you to write about wine at some point.’

So, this leaves you with two options:

Meadowood

Meadowood

1) Send me an email with the words ‘wine be good’ in the message box and I’ll put a dollar in your PayPal account.  You’re now a pro and together we’ll descend upon the Meadowood Napa Valley spa/conference center as a flash mob and disrupt the workshops and loot the wine cellar and I’ll ask Yarrow to send me a finder’s fee for recommending you.

Where we'll be staying

Where we’ll be staying

2) Attend my symposium, the Writers Write; Everyone Else Attends Symposiums Symposium to be held that same weekend in an abandoned tire-shredding warehouse in the Cass Corridor in downtown Detroit.  Granted, the milieu is not as resorty or spa-ish as Meadowood, but I offer an all-day pass to the Coney truck on 2nd and Selden and our breakout sessions include a trip to a crack house for the lecture How Not to Write About Wine Like a Pussy.

One-on-one coaching session

One-on-one coaching session

One-on-one coaching will include How to Steal Ideas From Other Wine Writers and will involve a Google search for my April 9, 2012 column, ‘In Defense of Wine Snobs’ followed by another Google search for Blake Gray’s June 21, 2012 column entitled ‘In Defense of Wine Snobs’ and Lettie Teague’s July 6, 2012 column entitled ‘In Defense of Wine Snobs’.

We will also have panel discussions on such topical themes as You Will Never Make a Nickel as a Wine Writer and Do Yourself a Favor and Go Back To Law School and Surefire Ways to Beat a Breathalyzer After an Extensive Tasting.

We also provide urinals custom-designed to make it easier for you to network with peers.

In the interests of full disclosure, I operate my wine writing symposiums on the principal that people don’t need wine writing symposiums to write wine columns, and that ‘writer’s block’ is a somatic disorder manifested by people who have nothing to say but are trying to figure out how to say it anyway.

Scrapping Afterglow from last year's symposium.

Scrapping Afterglow from last year’s symposium.

If that hasn’t dissuaded you, symposium pre-registration fee is $6.95, which may sound like a lot, but note that after the closing ceremony we will go on an all-night scrapping expedition through the neighborhood where there is enough remaining copper pipe, insulated wire, stainless steel cabinets, etc. to cover out-of-pocket expenses.

And it will secure you a reserved spot on our upcoming field trip to Kwang Dong prison where we’ll engage in a hands-on seminar guaranteed to be a more fun, more exciting career enrichment opportunity than the four-day Symposium for Professional Wine Writers:

Four days in the electric chair.

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Rafael Alonso: Digging The Indigenous In Tierra de Léon

mapAmerica drinks more, Italy makes more and France sells more, but nobody grows more wine grapes than Spain. In fact, based on 2012 stats, about 15% of all the world’s acres planted to wine vines can be found in that bulbous stub of land that dangles at the bottom of Europe like a saddlebag and pokes into the Atlantic like the bow of a supertanker.

And they’ve been doing it for quite a while now, too.  Wine’s origin in Spain is gauged not by historians but by archaeologists—by all accounts, Spanish vines were planted before the first pyramid went up in Giza; before Noah was so much as a gleam in his old man’s eye.

Ötzi the Ice Man

Ötzi the Ice Man

That places it between 4000 and 3000 BCE, around the same time that numbers were invented and Ötzi the Ice Man was crossing the Alps.

It stands to reason that such a history of grape cultivation resulted in countless varieties being introduced, countless varieties being developed, and—perhaps most interesting—varieties that were there all along.

Of all outposts within the vinosphere, Spain is (arguably) home to the widest array of seductive and savory indigenous grapes. Every time I try to do a deep dive into what’s new in Spanish wine, I keep winding up on a pathway of what’s old, unique and hitherto (to me) unknown.

Prieto Picudo

Prieto Picudo

Take Prieto Picudo, a haunting, black-skinned grape native to Léon, a province in western Spain, just above Portugal. The variety has been a standard here for centuries, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Tierra de Léon was given its own DO status.  Denominación de Origen, of course, is a regulatory classification system similar to French AOCs and American AVAs.

“The Sun is Our Enemy”

So, from this spanking new appellation, callow as a barrel sample, I tried an ancient varietal nurtured to splendor by a newish winemaker from an oldish estate.

Clear as unfiltered Port?  Hijos de Rafael Alonso is an asentamiento near Valdevimbre—a wine community with a population of around a thousand.  The winery has been around since 1949, a mere drop in the wine bucket of history, but the third generation of Rafael Alonso is now nudging the estate into the 21st century; as he says on his site, “Spanish wine is changing at a rapid pace and it’s required that we put a maximum emphasis on quality.  I replanted the vineyards and moved to modern farming techniques while maintaining an immovable banner in celebration of Prieto Picudo.”

Picudo weevil

Picudo weevil

Except that the web site, translated directly from Spanish, doesn’t say ‘Prieto Picudo’.  It says ‘Tight Weevil.’  I took a time-out to do a little etymological (as well as entomological) research, and it turns out that prieto can indeed be translated as ‘tight’ and a picudo is, in fact, a type of weevil.

Tierra de Léon is very hot and very dry, with less rainfall in an average year than Napa gets in a drought year, and at a relatively high elevation between two and three thousand feet, vines may suffer from too much exposure (up to 2,700 hours of sunshine annually), leading Alonso to quip, “The sun is our enemy.”

Still, I’m thinking that Google Translate might be a foe even more formidable to his fortunes.

gamonal labelThat said, Pardevalles (Hijos de Rafael Alonso) Prieto Picudo ‘Gamonal’ 2012, is a wine of such startling singularity that a noseful actually painted a mind’s eye image of a cool forest heavy with wild brambleberries; blackberries, boysenberries, etc.  Snuggling beneath those fruit scents is a whiff of smoke and pepper and a palate which leads with sweet fruit, settles into a many-layered, silken-textured integration of truffle, anise, succulent black raspberry and toasty oak.

albarin bottleA sister to ‘Gamonal’—named for a local flower with absolutely no connection to the wine—is Pardevalles Albarín Blanco 2013, a white wine that is every bit as complex and luscious, although on another flavor chart altogether.  Albarín, you may be surprised to note (I was) has nothing to do with the Albariño of nearby Galicia; the similarity in the name is likely due only to the color of the grapes, both with a root in the Latin word for ‘white’, albus. This is a varietal also native to Tierra de Léon, and the Alonsos grow nearly 2/3 of it.  The wine opens with a strata of distinct, separate fruit aromas, beginning with sweet lime and becoming tropical with mango before an explosive peach profile takes over.  This carries through in the mouth with a cornucopia of stone fruits with a touch of mint, everything shored by bracing tartness and a long, leesy finish.  The wine sees no oak, and shows a beautiful purity; pristine, lean and very ripe and offers a refreshing, extremely light and all-natural sparkle, what the French call pétillant wines, the Germans spritzig and the Italian frizzante.

I’m sure the Spanish have a word for it too, but after ‘tight weevil’, I think I’ll opt out of learning what it is.

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‘Garagista’ = Pretentious; ‘Garrigue’, Not

There but for the grace of God and self-respect go I.

There but for the grace of God and self-respect go I.

When I taste wine, I tend to verbalize a lot.  I say things that may wind up in my tasting notes, but at the moment may sound like disjointed babble coming from a mentally-unhinged street person.

And not just any mentally-unhinged street person, but one who is also a pretentious twat.

Today’s wine exercise is about two words which came up earlier in the world of viniferous self-speak twatdom, one of which shouldn’t be pretentious but is (garagista), and another which should be pretentious but isn’t (garrigue).

labelThe wine under consideration was Occultum Lapidem 2013, a marvelously-named Côtes du Roussillon Villages, which means (like ‘Villages’ wine from other AOCs with that sub-appellation) that this wine adheres to a stricter rule-regimen and comes from specific real estate within the larger Côtes du Roussillon. In this case, the wine is a blend of Carignan, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Lladoner and begins life in select vineyards on the slopes of the Agry River valley.

The wine is fierce and forward, and somebody mentioned a stylistic resemblance to a ‘garagista’ wine. The original garagistas were from Bordeaux and made small-batch wines that tended to be less austere and wood-heavy than the classic Château labels; they were fruitier and easier to imbibe when young.  Such a bang-up job have these young turks done with their terroir-defying vins de garage, or ‘garage wines’ that the term ‘garagista’ began to be applied somewhat indiscriminately to anybody making rule-free wine on a minuscule scale (as inside their garages), whether or not said potable wound up being particularly drinkable. ‘Garagista’ took on a certain rebel-yell edge and a caché  not dissimilar to—and likely as a result of—the garage bands of the Sixties and Seventies that morphed into punk music.  Thus, calling someone (or yourself) a ‘garagista’ gives you an air of counter-culture hepness, as though you are tuned into hardcore street vibes that your average wine taster can hardly so much as dream about.

Pretense by the truckload

Pretense by the truckload

Since in the majority of cases that’s nonsense, randomly tossing about the term ‘garagista wine’ (which this one didn’t resemble anyway) makes you a pretentious twat.

Not so ‘garrigue’.  This is a wine descriptor that I have only heard French people use.  And not just any French people, but primarily those French people who grew up in Southern France wine cultures and have, since childhood, been indoctrinated in subtle flavors and obscure scents that most of us Yanks don’t discover until we are losing our hair.

pepper1I love these kind of French people because they are (in general) so not pretentious about this innate side of their life’s experience. That they can pull these elusive descriptors so easily from the vinological ether is as impressive to me as is (to them) my ability to instantaneously sing entire jingles verbatim from 70’s TV commercials, like “I’m a pepper, he’s a pepper, she’s a pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too?”.

Garrigue in Rousillon

Garrigue in Rousillon

‘Garrigue’ is an essence word; it describes a variety of of dried, herbal tastes that arise in certain Mediterranean wines, especially those of Provence and Cataluña. It is a note that does not refer to a single, distinct aroma, but rather a type of aroma—something dry, rich, dusty and distinctly herbal, a potpourri not necessarily from Grandma’s linen drawer, but from the broad coast of Southern France, especially in late autumn.  Botanically, this includes the array of lime-tolerant plants that grow along the Mediterranean seaboard; juniper, thyme, sage and lavender, etc.

Occultum Lapidem is Chapoutier selection; Michel Chapoutier, you’ll recall, is that loudmouthed l’il biodynamicist from Hermitage who makes some really spectacular wines on his own, and has a superhuman knack for sniffing out value wines throughout Southern France.

Occultum Lapidem 2010 75clOccult Lapidem, from Domaine de Bila-Haut, is one such example.

The wine offers an aromatic blast of bouncy berry notes backed with an earthy spice and the slight bite of coffee beans. It shows sweet red fruit up front, but settles into a multi-layered panoply of stone, berries, a bit of anise, and culminating in what I first (pretentiously) labeled as ‘tobacco leaf’.

Why pretentiously?  Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tobacco leaf let alone taken a whiff of one—it’s one of those show-off descriptors that I read somewhere and was trying to reverse-engineer cigarette tobacco smells back to what it might have smelled like in leaf form.

Which is really pretty silly when you think about it.

Fortunately, salvation came in the form of  Todd  Abrams, who—it must be noted—was not the ‘garagista’ dude. He said, ‘garrigue’.

bouquet_garni_16x9And it all came together like the final twist of the Rubik Cube—what I was tasting was that precise, imprecise elusivity found in such wines; a combination of savory herbs, scrubby undergrowth and wild fields all drawn together like the cord around a bouquet garni.

Tasting it again was ‘garrigue unmasked’; the word now becomes like the old psychology maxim: ‘It may be stating the obvious, but it may not be obvious until it’s stated.’

Now, if you want to hear some genuine pretentious twattery, ask me more about psychology.

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Experiment Proves Foie Gras Is Not Torture

Raging-BullI fell in love with ‘method art’ when I first saw DeNiro play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.  As you recall, the Oscar-winner gained several hundred pounds to portray the boxer in his later years, eschewing the sort of pillow-with-straps effect that Oprah and Mariah Carey rely on, adding authenticity to his performance and shaming those of us whose ‘dedication’ to our discipline is made of stuff less stern.

In fact, DeNiro has already been signed to film Raging Bull II, which follows LaMotta’s story after he croaks, a role for which DeNiro intends to commit suicide.

"You dating?"

“You dating?”

As a result, I have lost all respect for journalists who make hifalutin claims like ‘drugs are bad for you’ without first giving up their careers and families and living for several years turning tricks in the back seats of Dodge Darts.  Likewise, a pussy pox on tightrope walkers who string nets beneath them; also seat belts on Formula One drivers and skydivers who use parachutes.

Foie-gras-production-in-F-007Thus, in honor of California’s recent repeal of its ban on foie gras, a.k.a. diseased bird liver processed to resemble Friskees® Classic Rodent Paté, I set out to write a thoughtful piece on the relative cruelty (or lack thereof) in its production.  It occurred to me that, in the spirit of Constantin Stanislavski (the great Communist theater director), rather than interviewing the usual passel of pusillanimous panda-pandering PETA (an anagram of paté) pansies, I should go to the source and find out for myself.

get smartAnd I don’t mean lurking around behind the scenes at some godforsaken goose farm in the Périgord—pretty much the Abu Ghraib of foie gras production—and snapping some clandestine shots with my Don Adams-quality miniature spy-camera.  No, like my hero Bobby Milk and my other hero, that guy who put on several hundred pounds to portray himself in Super Size Me, I decided to do an investigative-style self-experiment and subject myself, like Morgan Spurlock did with McDonald’s meals, to the daily regimen of a foie gras goose.

The Experiment…

Ex-Capt. Andar Abfungott

Ex-Capt. Andar Abfungott

In a combination of total disregard for, willful distortion of and general ignorance regarding basic scientific methods, I hired a personal trainer in the person of disgraced Army Reserve Spec. Andar Abfungott who was convicted in 2005 on five counts of assault, conspiracy and name-calling in connection with the beating and humiliation of detainees at Gitmo.

I shared with him the ‘rules’:

For four weeks, I would be confined in semidarkness and consume my usual diet of high-gluten, high-starch, high-fat Purina® Writers Chow softened with Five O’Clock vodka.

Then, for the next 21 days, I would be held in a small wooden box and be subjected to gavage—every day, up to 20 pounds of quinoa and puréed Peruvian stink badger fat would be forced down my throat by means of an auger in a feeding tube liberally lubricated with Heaven Hill bourbon.

bashara dungeonOn December 1, 2014, I began the experiment in the privacy of my secret Bashara-designed bondage dungeon where I required ex-Captain Abfungott to refer to me as ‘Master Chris’ while he subjected me to humiliating strappado hanging and abused me with a phosphorescent tube.  After five days, I had gained fifteen pounds, mostly in the form of scar tissue.

gospelEver the professional, my trainer had learned through hacked Facebook comments that I profess no religious affiliation, and throughout that month made steady, derogatory comments about atheism and sometimes pretended to be God, forcing me to sing Gospel music under threat of further punishment.

Once the gavage phase began, the verbal abuse became focused on my rapid weight gain.  ‘Tubby, tubby two-by-four, can’t get through the bathroom door,’ was the ex-Captain’s particular favorite, and the jingle was often accompanied by long periods during which he played accordion versions of cowboy songs and frontier ballads.

After ten days, the music switched to an endless loop of Arnold Schönberg dodecaphonic compositions, including the unlistenable Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31.

“All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers."

“All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers.”

During this time, while whiling away the minutes between feedings, my trainer read aloud from a Mitch Albom anthology of  inspirational sayings.

Finally, on the last day of gavage, January 19, 2015, my liver was biopsied by a surgeon brought in by an unexpected contingent of CIA operatives.  The result was, over 21 days, my liver had ballooned to the size of a plyometric fitness ball, weighed forty pounds and was worth approximately €90,000 on the Euronext Paris foie gras exchange.

In fact, in order to prevent them from shooting me in the head and selling it to the French, I agreed to sign a waiver insisting that what I had undergone at the hands of ex-Captain Abfungott was not torture but political rehabilitation and social restoration.

bigbrotherAnd I agreed to write a column admitting that any of my previous denunciations of foie gras were the product of my diseased psyche.  I had proven that foie gras production is not torture.

But that’s alright.  In fact, everything is all right; the struggle is finished.  I have won the victory over myself and I love Big Brother.

Although, by God, I still hate Mitch Albom. Bring on the waterboard.

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The Reign of Rhône; Long Live GSM

With apologies to Tennyson, in Spring, a young man’s fancy may turn to thoughts of love, but in mid-January, we’re still pretty much in lockstep with the revelries of Southern Rhône.

Southern Rhône vineyard

Southern Rhône vineyard

No wine I can bring to mind better says ‘chin up, ye winter weary with cabin fever’ than a toasty-ripe swig of cheer from Avignon,  the point upon which the Southern Rhône pivots. Unlike the north, where Syrah wears an exclusive crown, in the south, wine grapes sort of cluster together in vinous bonhomie and work together for the common good.  These may any of a score of varietals—Châteauneuf-du-Pape allows ten red and nine white—depending on the individual AOC.  Many of the grapes, of course, are also-rans; the Big Three (often identified by the acronym GSM, especially in Australian versions of Rhône) are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

Each grape spreads its  special sparkle o’er the splurge:

Grenache

Grenache

Grenache brings a keg of jammy sugars to the party; it’s a fleshy, sun-worshiping grape that fills the profile with red fruit flavors  like red currants, raspberries and cherries, occasionally with a whiff of menthol and licorice.  Its potency often belies its light, ruby red color, hence…

Mourvèdre, which provides an inkwell to a wine’s color base; a dark plum color which is echoed in the rich, dark plum taste.  Mourvèdre is responsible for some carnal notes as well—leather, gaminess, roasted meat.

Syrah

Syrah

Syrah is the grounding grape that tames Mourvèdre beast and hauls the loftiest ideals of Grenache back to earth—an earth that is often warm with forest notes and brooding with brambles and berries.  It provides structure and sense, anchoring its stablemates with firm tannin and an acidic backbone.

I had an opportunity to contrast a number of reasonably-priced Southern Rhônes with an aim toward warming the cockles, not breaking the bank.

Domaines de Amouriers ‘Signature’, VacqueyrasDomaines de Amouriers ‘Signature’, Vacqueyras, 2011 ($26): Somewhat basic, with vanilla, flowers and boysenberry in the bouquet and a moderately fresh and spicy middle-mouth. Vacqueyras sits along the banks of the River Ouvèze and produces wines that, while not blockbusters, may be described as ‘pleasant’.  This is good example of that, without ambition to be overly elegant, but delivering solid fruit and minerality.

Domaine de l’Oratoire St, Martin ‘Les Douyes’Domaine de l’Oratoire St, Martin ‘Les Douyes’, Côtes du Rhône, 2011 ($29):  A sharp and distinctive blast of mulberry rises from the glass, carefully mingled with a lighter, leathery savoriness.  It’s followed by a ripe, smoky-rich palate that is still a little wood heavy, having been aged for 18 months en foudre and bottled without filtration—a striking bitterness comes through at the end and hangs around for a bit.

Domaine Biscarelle Châteauneuf-du-PapeEddie Feraud Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2011 ($49): The wine remains taut; the nose is restrained, offering small scents of blackberry and pepper.  It shows better in the foreground, with a complex and textured set of flavors—coffee, spice, raspberry and tar—but does an abrupt  turnover to broad tannins that still show the harshness of youth.

Domaine Biscarelle Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2011 ($50): Bright and forward, the wine is from a fairly young estate, only founded in 1984.  Grenache heavy, with Cinsault and Terret Noir along with the usual suspects, it offers a spicy blast of iodine in the nose and a pronounced, refreshing acidity, leading into an aggressive palate, rich in black fruits and earthy tonality, leading to a snap of oak at the finish.

And The Winner Is…

Tramp,  Can Grau Vell, Catalunya, 2012 ($40)

tramp2Irony of ironies, the GSM blend that raised its head above all Southern Rhône contenders was a monumental Spanish wine from a minuscule producer—a wine with the unlikely, unlovely name of Tramp and a picture of a stray dog on the label.

The Catalan eye-opener is made by Jordi Castellvi in little Can Grau Vell, a winery situated on less than eight acres near the town of Hostalets de Pierola at the foot of the Montserrat mountains.  Castellvi plants five varietals; beside the Big Three of Rhône , he raises Cabernet Sauvignon and Marselan, a varietal better known in Languedoc.  These are blended into Tramp, named for a mutt that wandered through the vineyard and took sanctuary within Castellvi’s picturesque villa.  It is a beautifully crafted, amazingly vivid wine, displaying an intense nose of violets, tarry plum, blackberry with a distinct mineral lift; the palate echoes the depth of the aroma and adds additional structure with chocolaty, spicy finish.

Jordi Castellvi

Jordi Castellvi

I hesitate to offer further praise simply because I was fortunate to try this wine and the likelihood that you’ll find a bottle are fairly slim—less than 600 cases were made.  But it represents the luscious style of wonderful wines coming from some of these upstart Catalonians a few hundred miles south of Avignon.

Is the reign of Rhône under siege?  To me, some of the old standbys are tasting a bit tired, a touch rough around the stylistic edges.  If Castellvi’s wares are an example of the direction the fascinating appellation of Catalunya—known primarily for the unique sparkling wine Cava—is taking with GSM, I think they’ve got a shot at some serious glory.

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As A Wine Critic, William Shatner Makes A Good Starship Captain

brown bag it logoI was recently introduced to William Shatner’s foray into what we can only hope is the corpulent old hambone’s final frontier: ‘Brown Bag’—a bizarre wine tasting show featuring people who don’t know anything about wine interacting with a host that doesn’t either.

Then again, as a colloquial expression, ‘brown bag’ does not promise great wine insight, but rather, is a phrase used to describe the sack in which you hide a bottle you are ashamed of being seen with.  It may be a metaphor for a culmination of Shatner’s career, but it is not reflective of the  stuff tasted on the show, which are generally wines of pretty high caliber.

Better days

Better days

Lest this come across as Shatner bashing, let me say up front that he is not only my favorite Starfleet captain, he’s the only one—all the other Slim Shadys are just imitating.  But, just as I wouldn’t want Jancis Robinson to slither into a polyester ‘n’ Velcro jumpsuit and take command of the bridge, neither do I want James Tiberius Kirk sticking his rheumy eyes and third-stage-alcoholic schnozz into her area of command. It’s a better galactic coordinate when some Slim Shadys simply fail to go there, boldly or otherwise.

"Maybe if you changed seats it wouldn't be so red, James."

“Maybe if you changed seats it wouldn’t be so red, James.”

The format of the show (actually more of a podcast) has Shatner jawboning with so-called ‘celebrities’—although the red-carpet superstars may include the manager of a breakfast-all-day restaurant and some woman who auctioned off an afternoon with Shatner then had her husband outbid everyone else—as they taste a wine from a paper bag and wax naïvely about it.  Depending on the taster’s level of experience, this may or may not include inanities like, “The wine takes itself too seriously,” (James Reddick, Motorcycle Enthusiast) and “It’s egg-suberant,” (Blaise Supulveda, Eggslut Manager) and “We don’t care about the nose,” (William Shatner, Host).

However, the most WTF? part of the show is its wine scoring schematics, which may be said (by any corporeal, energy-metabolizing species in the Alpha Quadrant) to be highly illogical.

belll curveWines are scored on a ten point scale. So far so good.  But that scale runs from 85 – 95, which is where most of Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast wines score, granted, but that’s only because that scale runs to a hundred. And even then, the ‘100-point’ scale sucks Syrah sediment because it doesn’t really start at zero—the lowest score I ever recall seeing was a 70, and that virtually never happens, meaning that in the most charitable analysis imaginable, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast and countless other wannabe critics use a 30-point scale.

But suppose you ultimately feel comfortable counting no higher than the number of fingers you have? Fine; but even then, the choice of scoring between 85 and 95 is ludicrously random despite it being the ‘sweet spot’ that most drinkable wine falls in. Why? Because in that ten-point spread, giving a wine an 85 would correspond to a Wine Enthusiast 70 (which actually is a ‘1’) and bestowing a 95 is the same as awarding a wine 100 points—and if that’s not what it means, then what the hell does it mean?

Dude, I’ll make it simple: A 10-point scale should run from one to ten; not only is that Spock-smart, it’s also a scale that has proved perfectly adequate for emergency room physicians in gauging your pain level prior to removing the Tribble from your sphincter.

I'll have whatever the host is having.

I’ll have whatever the host is having.

Each ‘Brown Bag’ episode ends with playful banter between Shatner and guest which may or may include Bill’s personal assessment and in which he may or may not be high on some intoxicant or other but certainly looks as if he is.  And he may or may not agree with his guest’s opinion.  One time when he did agree was during the episode where music historian Robert Greenburg tried some Hunt Cellars Viognier and pronounced the wine ‘a little too sweet’.  Shatner echoed the sentiment.  Unfortunately for them both, the wine is vinified bone dry, which may give you an idea of the quality of the information you are likely to take home from the show, brown-bagged or otherwise.

Shatner will always be Kirk to me, or at least, that mad-cow lawyer from Boston Legal.  I’m afraid I will have to relegate ‘Brown Bag’ to the circle of hell just above Priceline commercials and his excruciating interpretive recitations of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.

In other words, will the real Slim Shady please drink up, shut up, and sit the f*ck down.

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Corsica: Napoleon’s Vinous Dreamscape

If you took the eno-expertise of France and blended it with the climate of the Italian Riviera and stirred in the heritage of Greece, you might  suppose that you’d just created vine Valhalla—a test tube appellation with Goldilocks conditions where everything is just right.

Not quite.

Clipboard telCorsica, an island off the coast of Italy, began producing wine half a century before Christ was born, when Phocaean traders from Anatolia planted vines in Aléria on Corsica’s western shore.  The island was sold to France in 1768, a year before the birth of history’s most famous Corsican—Napoleon Bonaparte.  Ironically, under his empire, the island was virtually ignored and it appears to have devolved into a sort primitive, feudal community that made Cosa Nostra-ruled Sicily seem like Teletubbyland.

corsica map LPThat may be an exaggeration, but between 1821 and 1852, 4,200 murders were reported in Corsica; the number that were handled via family vendetta is unknown. Throughout this period, and extending well into the twentieth century, the primary grape planted throughout the island was Sciacarello, a variety generally used as a blender (once vital in Chianti).  As a stand-alone, it produces a simple, strawberry perfumed wine that rarely reaches any depth of sophistication.  As such, the wines of Corsica, despite all the previously mentioned stars aligning, have not planted many flags of glory.

As a land mass, Corsica looks like someone’s left foot with all the toes amputated except the big one.  It’s pointing directly at Liguria, one of Italy’s smallest and most rugged and least renowned wine regions, but that’s a story for another day.  Although separated by ninety miles from the Italian mainland, Corsica was dealt a double whammy in the late 1900’s as phylloxera devastated vines as the indigenous population began to emigrate in huge numbers. It wasn’t until the Algerian War of Independence (1954 to 1962) attracted a reverse wave of immigrants in the ‘50s who began to revitalize the Corsican wine industry.

Sciaccarello

Sciaccarello

But that industry was primarily Corsican wine for Corsican people, and a whole lot of it. The rest was used to top off Europe’s infamous ‘wine lake’; a glut of mass-produced wine from warm climates like Languedoc-Roussillon, Castile-La Mancha, Apulia—and Corsica.  Over the past few decades, these regions have loosed so much plonk on the European continent that prices have plummeted and there has traditionally been so much left over that the EU paid subsidies to turn it into industrial alcohol.

In the later years of the twentieth century, some of the subsidies began to be handed out to growers willing to reduce the numbers of vines they tended, and in Corsica, by 2003, that resulted in 17,300 vine acres being uprooted.  Combined with modern techniques like temperature-controlled fermentation, the quality-over-quantity mindset has begun to take hold.

Cutlass-wielding Abbatucci

Cutlass-wielding Abbatucci

Abbatucci is a name you see everywhere in Corsica’s capital city of Ajaccio—there have been lauded Abbatuccis making Corsican waves since the French Revolution.

These days, it’s Jean-Charles Abbatucci who is raising the flag of revolution throughout the wine world, leading the charge with his portfolio of exclusive gems made almost exclusively from rare Corsican varietals, some of which he actually saved from extinction.  Today, his largely man-made ecosystem, comprising about 170 acres, includes terraced groves of olive trees, dry-farmed vineyards, no pesticides, and the unique (and ostensibly, unproven) technique of blasting the grapes with recordings of Corsican folk songs, both in the field and in the winery.

To lovers of native varieties, though, Abbatucci’s wines can be a double whammy.  First, there are hardly any of them available in the United States and the really exemplary ones are very expensive… triple digits in some markets.

labelI consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have been able to sample one of only 2000 bottles of Domaine Comte Abbatucci Ajaccio Cuvée Collection ‘Ministre Impérial at a shop where it retails for around a hundred dollars a bottle.  This strange brew, a blend of Morescola, Morescono, Aleatico, Cacajolo-Nero, Montanaccia, Sciaccarello and Niellucio. A gold medal if you’ve heard of any of these grapes; the brass ring if you’re familiar with all of them.  Niellucio is another name for Sangiovese, but the rest are—as far as I can determine—indigenous cultivars which Abbatucci’s father collected from mountain growers in the early 1960s.

The resulting wine takes on contours unlike virtually any wine I can bring to mine—with a single, odd exception.  It took me a brain-racking moment to recall the organoleptic checklist of certain Norton-based wines from Missouri. In seasons where the grapes fully ripen, there is an exotic combination of flower perfumes and exotic berry spice that mingles; it is the very elusiveness of identification that held my interest until memory dished up the strange variety—a Vitis aestivalis.  Meanwhile, the wine unfolds with a creamy, red berry palate filled with wild raspberry and red currant in the foreground.

David Shildknecht

David Shildknecht

Yet David Shildknecht of Wine Advocate—a dude who overwrites even more shamelessly than yours truly—speaks of this wine’s “virtually endless finish.”   In fact, the one drawback to the wine I noted was the quick fading of the fruit; delightful and exuberant up front, but dropping off quickly, as though lopped in two by a Corsican cutlass.  The finish was indeed long, but composed primarily of wood; a flat, neutral, popsicle-stickiness.  I am assured that Shildknecht was reviewing the same wine, but I couldn’t find a vintage on the label—only a cork with a 2010 stamp, which is what I’m trusting.

It’s an interesting mind game, though.  Nobody who writes in efflorescent bombasticisms as ‘a kaleidoscopically interactive, saliva-inducingly saline, uncannily energetic wine’ is a tasting tenderfoot and nobody who works for Parker is a piker, so how did we come to such diametrically opposite conclusions about a wine’s conclusion?

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion.

It would be best if you simply tried the wine on your own and decided who you should trust in future: A highly literate pro who holds a respected position on one of the world’s most influential and widely read wine forums…

Or Shildknecht?

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