The Invigorating Catharsis Of The Shit Review

The history of the pan is older than Pan.  Should you consult Wikipedia, you will learn that the very first cuneiform ledger compiled by the Sumerians listed an inventory of ‘One hundred six amphorae of the finest mountain wine’ immediately followed by the accountant’s margin note:  ‘Actually, this overpriced pig-swill sucks the über-schlong’.

The first review

The first review

You see, as long as men and women have been creating things, there have been others born to piss and moan about them.  This is human nature, especially among the jealous and the untalented, and so, somewhere along the way, we elevated such sniveling, lonely, nit-pickers to titled status:  Critics.

Why?  Because we believe that aesthetic pursuits should be held to cherished values as delineated by supreme cultural arbiters?  Because we enjoy becoming part of a virtual community of artistic, experience-sharing souls?  Because we trust that those clever enough to wear the title ‘Book/Film/Restaurant/Wine Reviewer’ will winnow out the chaff from the wheat before we spend precious wages on leisure?

Of course not.  It’s because we love the shit review.

I'm gonna take my country and go homeThe Germans invented the term ‘schadenfreude’, and fittingly, no race on earth—Master or otherwise—has ever demonstrated schadenfreude  as an institutionalized lifestyle so thoroughly.  You know what the word means, of course, and you know that there is no synonym for it in English.  Normally, we do not like to borrow things from the Germans, especially after they borrowed Poland and refused to return it without a big whoop-de-doo, but we English scholars have simply not come up with a substitute word that describes so well the worst of our ungodly mortal spirit:

We enjoy the suffering of others. 

'Wipe that smirk off your face, Junior.'

‘Wipe that smirk off your face, Junior.’

Don’t we just?!  We delight in our neighbor’s yellowing lawn!  We relish in our co-worker’s arrest for accessing kiddie porn on company time!   Look at those morbid old postcards of the grinning crowds at a public execution—what do you think that was all about?

Aristotle spoke of epikhairekakos (ἐπιχαιρέκακος) when a person takes pleasure in another’s ill fortune; Schopenhauer said, “To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is devilish.”

And guess what?  Physiology proves it out: Studies indicates that the hormone oxytocin may be involved in the feeling of schadenfreude, and oxytocin sounds like OxyContin, and remember how happy we all were when Rush Limbaugh announced that he was addicted to it?

Moving Right Along…

And so, the shit review.

First, let’s look inside the brain of a critic and attempt to understand it.

Assistant to the ballboy's assistant.

Assistant to the ballboy’s assistant.

To begin with, I think we can all agree that the slightest ‘conflict of interest’ in a review invalidates it, and so, as a result, credible critics must come from the ranks of those outside the industry.   It would thereby follow that anyone who wants to french-kiss a topic long enough to learn about it, think about what they learned and then write about it, yet can’t muster up enough entry-level talent to make an actual career doing it, is the perennial outsider looking in—the Sir Geek-a-Lot kid that nobody wanted on their team in sandlot baseball.

As children, such creepy misfits often develop passive-aggressive ‘actings out’ like tearing the wings off flies and pinching baby siblings while Mom’s talking a dump, and as adults may build secret dungeons in their cellars to keep sex slaves.

A few, however, become journalists.  And, bolstered by the protection of the First Amendment, once empowered as one of the supreme cultural arbiters mentioned earlier, a ‘critic’ can (with impunity) begin to take revenge upon all the gifted types engaged in creative output of the sort they will never be able to do themselves.

submarineAnd trust me, passive-aggressive revenge it is, although it would be tough to find a critic who’d admit it.  Once the initial blush of a byline and a readership—however miniscule—wears off, and the new critic settles into the mundane day-to-day obligations of keeping his minions salivating for more material, he or she may learn a cardinal rule of life, which, of course, is best summarized by the NASCAR brain trust:  The only reason teenagers go to submarine races is to french kiss while submarines crash.

A shit review is the metaphorical crash that everybody really wants to see.

Newbie Critics Beware:

That said, shit reviews are only effective if they are peppered judiciously throughout a slew of boring ‘positive’ reviews.  This is something you need to learn quickly and deal with accordingly.  If people think you are the putty-colored, unskilled weakling that you actually are, your shit review will come across as the whining of an elitist snob with an entitlement attitude—which is exactly what it is.  A shit review, therefore, only works when buried among thousands of gushy and fellationary puff-pieces—the brown-nosing buckets of drivel you must write to establish yourself as enough of an expert on a subject to give your opinion weight.  Only then will your dutiful, if somnolent readerhood sit up and take notice when you rip someone far more on-the-ball than you are a new sphincter.

Lindsey VonnBut believe me, this is the moment your readers have been waiting for.  And take it to the bank: They will put in however many man-hours are required to get there.

Disagree?  Let me ask you this:  Did you or did you not sit through one hundred twenty-eight gruelingly, agonizingly, mind-bendingly stupid moments of Basic Instinct simply to see Sharon Stone’s hoo-hoo-ha-ha when she crossed her legs??

Yes, you did—bailiff, call the next case.

And Now, The Fun Part!

For some, writing a review while trying to maintain a mentally-balanced, super-smart, nice-guy façade is tough.  For others, it’s easy as dropping a few  pounds at Bergen-Belsen.  I am in the former camp—a walking therapy bill.  If you are too, you will find that every painful effort you take to sound wholesome, bon vivant and impartial pays double-dividends in the end, when you finally let loose on some hapless, unsuspecting sot.  It is schadenfreude squared—not only will your readers delight in the humiliating beat down of some egomaniacal ‘artiste’, but they will equally enjoy a chance to rubberneck at your own personal meltdown.

Because, let’s be honest, droogies: There is nothing more hilarious than watching a staid, sober, self-restrained fucktard critic go completely insane.

Evidence: A Key Requirement of Theoretical Postulation.

So, yesterday, Alder Yarrow—the critic that every girl’s mother loves, the Little Bobby Shafto of cultural arbiters, a bubbly, loverly young fellow who opines on children and puppies and ‘forest bathing’ along with the requisite cauldrons of plonk—decided to flex his cock-a-doodle-doo and offer the following social media hatchet job:

“Absolutely horrid meal at Chiarello’s Coqueta tonight. Lovely ambiance, but that’s about all the place had going for it. The food wasn’t just OK, it was crappy. Even their olive oil was lousy. And waiting 35 minutes for one of your five tapas dishes to arrive? It felt like a joke — about as funny as when they told us that their Patatas Bravas was sold out (at 5:30 PM). Seriously? Sold out? But not sold out of all four of those other dishes you’ve got on the menu that also have potatoes in them? Not even in the same universe as Contigo.”

Ouch, baby; ouch.

But, you see, it was effective!  Why?  Because it arose from the pen of a normally model, rosy-cheeked, curly-headed critic, that’s why.   Responses ranged from a nervous, apologetic-sounding “Wow, what a bummer…” to the somewhat indignant, one-of-the-two-of-us-is-nuts harrumph, “I had an amazing meal there about a month ago!”.  

Dozens of commenters chimed in, mostly agreeing with the zero-star review.   They smelled blood.  They sensed that Mr. Yarrow’s hallowed halo had been splattered with bile-flavored umbrage—‘high dudgeon’, as Miss Marple might say—and  everyone wanted in on the action!  The opportunity to become likewise outraged at the unparalleled idiocy of a restaurant inconveniencing a critic over something so basic as Patatas Bravas was (apparently) too good to pass up!

Chiarello's Coqueta, the object of his affliction that changed his complexion from white to rosy red.

Chiarello’s Coqueta, the object of his rejection that changed his complexion from white to rosy-red.


And suddenly, everyone was a part of the neural, how-dare-they berserk-o-sphere, a virtual network of angry wannabe critics spewing secret venoms from built-up wells of first-world pique over having spent hard-earned scril in restaurants that didn’t quite ‘measure up.’

Amazing stuff; had Yarrow actually gotten his brave little taters and his tapas on time, had the olive oil been extra virgin rather than a little yellow slut that’s been around the block a few times, he might have said he liked the joint, and that same simmering sea of splenetic sycophants would have loosed a collective yawn.  It would have been like the gawkers at a murder house after the corpse has been hauled off; ‘Nothing to see here, folks, move along, go back inside your psyches…’

The last review.

The last review.

Because, of course, in the end, schadenfreude originates deep in our hypothalmi, alongside our need for comfort, joy, to scam on girls who french kiss on first dates and punch trifling homeboys who disrespect them.   And yet if I—even moi—were called upon to critique Yarrow’s critique,  I would be hard-pressed to find anything other than savage delight in the public smackdown.  Pressed harder, I might have to admit that most of it is plagiarized, but then I’d have to cite the source of the original, and that is a place that most of you do not want to go.  No doubt, Contact Publishing in Amsterdam will sue me for revealing that in editing The Diary of Anne Frank in 1947, they chose to leave out what may, in fact, be the most diabolically mean food critique of all time—the Sistine Chapel of the shit review:

“Absolutely horrid meal at Stalag XI-B tonight. Sub-zero al fresco ambiance, but fresh air was about all the place had going for it. The gruel wasn’t just OK, it was crappy. Even their water was lousy. And waiting 35 months for one of your five allotted grams of bread to arrive? It felt like a joke — about as funny as when they told us that their potato-peel soup was sold out (at 5:30 PM). Seriously? Sold out? But not sold out of all four of those other dishes you’ve got on the menu that also have potato peels in them? Not even in the same universe as Auschwitz.”

Ouch again.  I couldn’t touch that level of snark with a ten-foot Pole from the anti-fascist resistance movement.  I will not comment on the fact that Stalag XI-B closed a scant two months after Ms. Frank wrote this scathing review, I will merely touch my finger to the side of my nose and raise my fist in the universal gesture of power.

A Couple of Pertinent Quotes Prior to my Leave Taking…

“As critics, we have no friends.  This is a good thing.”  – Charles Baudelaire, 1860

“I long for a new and abusive school of criticism to cut through all the charlatans.”Rebecca West, 1914

…And, of course, depending on Chiarello’s reaction to the Yarrow snub, perhaps the most impertinently pertinent quote of all:

“It is better to be feared than loved.”Niccolò Machiavelli, 1532

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thank God Almighty, Frei At Last…

Whenever I go looking for success in some sundry endeavor, be it stringing Christmas lights from the maple tree out front, penning the next Hollywood blockbuster or cheating my way through a surprise drug test, I follow a tried ‘n’ true formula:  I copy what everybody else is doing.

So, in searching for creative ways to market ‘A Rite of Paso’, I have been studying how the PR hired guns at various wine enterprises sell product, and let me tell you, these guys have balls the size of the one that drops in Times Square every 31st of December.

Cockfield pointing at testicle

Cockfield pointing at testicle

Take the Wall Street throwaway with the impossibly patrician name of Raiford C. Cockfield III.  Having gone down with the Lehman Brothers ship, III re-invented himself as a wine merchant who cashes in on cancer patients.  ‘Brimming with entrepreneurial zest’ is what the pundits called it when Cockfield III formed Altruistic Boutique Wines which, with III’s characteristic self-abnegation, is used as a vehicle to arrange ‘events’ for the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, the SPCA and the Women’s Foundation.  Hat’s off to you, sir—short of changing my name to Christian C. Kasselfield III and distributing free books to hospices and dog kennels, I can’t top this for sheer cynical genius.

handicap wineAnd there’s Tulip Winery in Kfar Tikvah.  A paradigm for the old ‘what to do if life gives you lemons’ dilemma, Roy Itzhaki once ballyhooed Tulip as ‘the biggest non-kosher winery in Israel’.  Turns out that being a big non-kosher winery in Israel is really stupid, but he employs a staff of mostly non-religious handicapped people from the nearby special-needs kibbutz, and the organizations that kosherify you refused to touch him until he fired everybody with a pagan limp.

You can’t find a Tulip wine review that actually talks about the wine—it’s all about the atheist gimps who make it.  Alas, short of trolling the byways on the qui vive for heathen ‘tards and infidel cripples to help me package books, I will have to allow Tulip their peculiar marketing exclusivity.

altruistAnd then there’s Markham Vineyard, who is so self-smitten and autogenously besotted with their own spirit of ‘giving back at both the local and national levels’ that they actually produce wines called ‘The Altruist’ and ‘The Philanthropist’ just so that you, the consumer (willing to pay $55 per bottle as a way of saying, ‘Thanks for being you, Markham), don’t accidentally overlook their Good Samaritanism.  See, for me to use this form of braggadocio, I would have to approach the publisher and the graphic designer and change the name of the book to ‘A Rite of Paso: The Gospel According to God’s Gift to Wine, Wordsmiths and Smoking, Barely Legal Starlets’ and that sounds too much like work.


Back To Me and Frei.

Jim Collins Video ShootBut, re-reading an old press release sent to me by Jim Collins, Chief Viticulturist at Frei Brothers in Sonoma, I think I may have hit literal—as well as metaphorical—pay dirt.  In a touching show of philosophical waxing, Mr. Collins reflects on the growing season with a special emphasis on the Frei Brothers’ eco-friendly improvements, including:

  • Reducing electricity use by 200,000 kilowatt hours—enough to power 20 homes for a year.
  • Reducing water use by 5.4 million gallons—enough to supply 54 homes for a year.
  • Setting a goal to reduce propane use by 50%—equivalent to removing 80 vehicles from the road.

So there you go.  Looking around my own sprawling suburban estate, I realize that like Jim Collins, I too believe that ‘if we take care of the Earth, Earth will take care of us’.  I notice the various ‘greenwashing’ upgrades that I have implemented in 2013, in my sod, my servants and my soul, promoting sustainability and carbon-footprint-reducing behavior modification.  In fact, the only reason I haven’t sent a folksy, personalized letter to all my neighbors outlining the specifics is because I didn’t have anything to sell them.

Until now.

PASOSo, let the decree be send forth like that of Caesar Augustus in the year that Christmas lights were invented that all the world should purchase my book because—and I mention this merely in passing, of course—the  author is:

  • Reducing dependence on bills from Comcast by tapping cable lines in someone else’s backyard—saving the equivalent of twelve envelopes and associated postage per year.
  • Reducing milk consumption by pouring Colt 45 over my cornflakes instead—allowing one cow to become obsolete and eliminating said cow’s ozone-destroying methane emissions.
  • Turning in my illegal alien gardener to Homeland Security—adding one available job that Americans refuse to do to the American job market.
  • Firebombing the Chevvy Traverse that sideswiped my mailbox—equivalent to removing one vehicle from the road.

As a way of tipping my hat to Frei Brothers for their marketing savvy, I have promised—and yes, I’m bragging about it—to involve them in my next Hollywood blockbuster screenplay, whose working title is ‘Frei Willie’, ‘Freiday the 13th or ‘The Freinch Connection’.

Stay tuned.

Posted in CALIFORNIA, Paso Robles | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guy Wicker Is The Heisenberg Of Hootch

Lissen up, Albuquerque undercover:

HEISENBERG 049I found Heisenberg, and he’s not dead.  He’s not Walter White and he’s not even in New Mexico.  He’s in Southfield, Michigan and he’s switched his drug dementias mid-season, from meth to absinthe. And also Chartreuse, single-malt scotch, Limoncello and ultra-premium gin.

And my Heisenberg is in it for the lolz and the buzz, not for the scrilla.

In fact, revenuers, cops and dudes with swastikas on their necks, take note: My Heisenberg distills only for personal consumption and for his occasional soirée—especially his annual, meticulously planned, four-day Thanksgiving extravaganza wherein he prepares exactly one million calories (no more, no less) for the huddled masses yearning to eat and drink free.

But like your Heisenberg, what this mad Michigan mastermind has set out to do is not only duplicate his favorite medicament, but to use his innate smarts and chemistry skills to make it better.  Not just ‘better’, though.  Ne plus ultra better:  The best.

Guy Wicker is Heisenberg.  Or At Least, He’s Heidelberg

Clipboard heisen heidelNow, figure from the outset that any story purporting to unfurl a comprehensible portrait of this guy Guy will be long and filled with non sequiturs.  I could write about him from now until it was time for the Easter Egg hunt and barely get beyond the starting blocks.  Let it be said that this precocious mop-haired poindexter, who looks like the love child of Sideshow Bob and a fully-charged Van de Graaff generator, approaches himself, his world and his laboratory experiments with the utmost OCD seriousness.

So, far be it from me to draft his intent, subsequent successes and pre-dreadlock jewfro with any affectation less.

HEISENBERG 057Take his center-stage altar.  It’s in his living room, on his hearth, and the focus is upon a small carved wooden idol like Yolo, the one that Queequeg carried around in Moby Dick.  It’s festooned with the sacrificial offerings of myrmidons who have passed through these peculiar portals:  There are strange four-dollar bills with the Kokovoko god pictured the center; there is a fully-assembled Mr. Potato Head, a pompadoured Big Boy figurine, a golden ankh, a bunch of other tchotchkes.  But prominent among the pagan presents is a red plastic chug jug filled with absinthe, and absinthe, it happens, is the Wicker elixir elect.

Not many stories about a guy like Guy—a guy who is a prospective bazillionaire once his half-price solar panel business finds seed capital—begin with a Keweenaw County teenager reading books on absinthe, but this one does.  The son of a rock doc in one of the most isolated, but geologically complex counties in Michigan, Wicker developed an early obsession with moonshine via The Foxfire Books, and then became fascinated with absinthe—the high octane European booze that was, at the time, illegal in the United States.

HEISENBERG 056It is at this point that Wicker informs me that during this phase of his life,  he really didn’t like to drink—commercial, affordable, available booze made him physically sick.  It was the do-it-yourself aspects of the distilling arts that intrigued him, and wasn’t until he studied refining techniques and learned the value in multiple-distillation and filtering that he realized that his aversion to drink was an aversion to the impurities in drink, not the ethanol.  So passionately and convincingly does he now rail against the crude manufacturing practices used by cheap liquor producers that I’m not sure I’ll ever again drink another fifth of Five O’Clock vodka before noon.

‘The Full-On Thujone Experience’

Clipboard red greenHaving thus divined the secrets of exotic, world-class tipple, Guy Wicker—like Walter White only without the cell growth in the lung tissue—sallied forth to make his drugs (in this case, his chugs), which meant distilling the purest moonshine that money can’t buy, then infusing it with great quantities of bulk Chinese herbs.  With duct-tape, rubber hoses, empty keggers and a couple of sixty-gallon food-grade plastic barrels, Wicker jerry-rigged a basement still and began to churn out  La Fée Verte (The Green Fairy ) like he was Rouge Vert (Red Green).

HEISENBERG 050You and me would have screwed this up; take it to the bank—but we don’t have engineering degrees from Michigan Tech, do we?  As ghetto as the operation looks, every annotated act, every calculated calorie, every yeoman’s weld is carefully considered, so that the ambrosia that finally trickles from the business end is really something wonderful.  Part of Wicker’s purification process involves filtering the raw liquor through two stories worth of charcoal particles jammed inside a sixteen-foot PCV pipe followed by another distillation.

From that point, the botanicals take over.

The main active ingredient in absinthe is wormwood, and Wicker uses two pounds of it per batch; it serves the spirit both as a flavoring agent and a hallucinogen.  Most sources, most makers and most absinthe aficionados will assure you that the drink’s psychotropic reputation is quite exaggerated, but our guy Guy swears by it.  Of course, he may use more thujone-rich Artemisia absinthium than the FDA’s recommended daily allowance, but it is wise to note that before the commercial producers got in on the absinthe craze of the early 20th century, most of it—like the stuff that drove people like Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde and Aleister Crowley bonkers—was made in a farmhouse without federal regulations.

Clipboard hairWicker swears that his concoction has the ability to produce peyote-like phantasmagoria in your external objective space so long as your body is suitably prepared.  And by prepared, I mean, you have to beat the shit out of yourself, either through exhaustion, sweat-lodge-quality heat overdose and/or excessive alcohol consumption.

“Your physical state has to be sufficiently run down,” he says.  “Otherwise, like a virus, you have a natural ability to fight it off.  In a perfectly-tuned system, nothing will happen.  In a weakened state, you will see ten-foot tall monsters with orange hair and fangs.”

He speaks with horrific nostalgia about one such experience during his million-calorie Thanksgiving a few years ago when a friend poured him a tumbler of absinthe, which he really didn’t want—but even less did he want to pour it back into the jug and risk contaminating the rest of the batch.  So, he drank it.

“I saw things that I really would rather not see again,” he shudders.  “Fortunately for the world, I spend most of the night in the bathroom hugging the toilet—a side effect of that much ethanol.”

Clipboard yakA side effect of his non-hallucinating—if somewhat embalmed—analytical left brain is his rambling, self-possessed Southfield home; a mind-blowing trip all on its own.  Although it’s about what you’d expect from a Tibetan Yak-haired, wife-free, offspring-free, middle-aged Einstein with the weird-science conceits of a twelve-year-old l’enfant terrible prodigy and the grown-up wherewithal to pull it all off.

Besides the sacrificial Yolo altar,  the bookshelves are plastered with all the smart people technical epistles required in Wicker’s various random experimenting, and the walls are hung with bizarre, bloodthirsty paintings, many done by an Ann Arbor artist called κροκόδειλος of whom I know little beyond the fact that he once cast a resin Cthulhu so big he couldn’t get it out of his kitchen and that, according to Wicker, he has a crush on my oldest daughter.

But there are also a number of wholesome, mom ‘n’ pop-type oil paintings hanging about, classical works like Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Van Gogh’s Harvest at La Crau for which Wicker pays some starving Chinese artist forty bucks to forge.  He seems somewhat surprised when I don’t quite ‘grasp’ that as genuine oils rather than modge-podge reproductions, owning these fake paintings is almost as good as owning the real thing.  Likewise, there is a puzzled pause when I do not entirely grok his next front room makeover project which includes a six-foot silver-plated angel’s wing hanging from the ceiling.

Well and good, but actually, it’s not here, but out back in his ‘armory’ that things really go all jacko nuts; this is where Wicker’s loco star truly reaches its zenith.  Inside, in the foreground, is a set of very expensive chrome apparati used in the manufacture of his cutting-edge solar panels, and in the background are the real cutting edges—swords, shields, clubs and suits of armor, everything handmade and used in the backyard gladiator tournaments he holds.  And these are no child’s play tournaments, either—no Dungeons and Dragons this.

He claims, “I can tell the sound of bones breaking so distinctly that I don’t even have to look anymore.”

And for a sheer WTF?-fest, all this actually pales in comparison to his laboratory, which is next door and protected (poorly, I’m guessing) by a stern-looking sign reading, ‘Restricted Area: Authorized Personnel Only’.

blueInside, Guy has an x-ray machine, every single element from the Periodic Table, including some I’m pretty sure he isn’t supposed to have, and most outrageously, a complete chemistry lab with all the bells and whistles—Erlenmeyer flasks, glass beakers, graduated cylinders, bunsen burners…

And, conspicuously arranged on the counter, in Baggies, is a quantity of some strange blue crystalline substance.

And that isn’t even the weirdest part.  The weirdest part is that, although I have been steadily Cracking Bad—nothing but off-key Heisenberg jokes since I walked in, long before I saw the lab—Guy Wicker doesn’t even think the weirdest part is all that weird.

Now, I had to ask him, so I now know what the blue powder is.  And it ain’t Blue Sky meth.  But I don’t think I’m going to tell you what it really is because I like the idea of the whole Wacko Wicker Wonderland; I like the mysterious aura of uncertainty that hovers over the place like The Munster’s eerie microclimate.

And anyway, I’m afraid if I divulge too many of Guy Wicker’s secrets, I might seriously piss off Yolo, or at very least the Kokovokoan mafia , and we can’t have that.

Posted in Absinthe, GENERAL, LIQUOR | Tagged | Leave a comment

Time To Put The ‘Chris’ Back In Christmas: Buy ‘A Rite Of Paso’ Now…

…And support the cause.  Over the years (deny it if you can, ardent acolytes) I have offered you over a million random, sometimes made-up and often very long, confusing words without seeking so much as a nickel’s worth of remuneration, even from those of you I didn’t openly insult, and now, to paraphrase the words of the immortal—if dead—JFK, the time has come for you to step forward:

‘Ask not what Chris Kassel can do for me.  Rather, ask what I  can do for Chris Kassel.’ for orders of ten or more; I’ll give you a 20% discount on the list price of $12.95 (plus shipping and handling by one of my marriageable teenage daughters).

Do it now and avoid lawsuits.




Posted in CALIFORNIA, Paso Robles | Tagged , | Leave a comment

No Honor Among Wine Thieves

I am honorable enough to admit that I stole this picture of Ron Washam

I am honorable enough to admit that I stole this picture of Ron Washam

Last week, I covered The HoseMaster of Wine’s tearful farewell speech given during an NBC Prehab interview, and it turns out that—silly me—I misheard the dirge and exaggerated his impending retirement.

By ‘exaggerated’, of course, I mean ‘totally lied about it’.

Not only is Ron Washam not retiring from wine writing, he’s not even taking a brief goddamned sabbatical to make me look better—The Green Bay Fudge Packers have apparently offered him a multi-year contract and until further notice, he intends to remain to the wine world what Aqua Net was to ‘80s glam rock:  The lacquery spritz that holds it all together.

Hair_Metal_Aquanet__OTP_by_iKojAs for me, dear and eternally trusting suckers readers, let me assure you that it takes a really big, really well-endowed man to admit when he’s not exactly one-hundred-per-cent completely right.

Anyway, that humbling, gratifying self-revelation led me to another lightning bolt of inspiration—the kind that allows me to write ream after ream on the subject of wine without actually having to learn anything about the subject of wine.  To me, you see, life is about more than overpriced Screaming Eagle and the various fluorescent engine coolants you can add to wine to increase its customer appeal.  Rather, life is a vast, varied and voluminous classroom where the blank slate of humanity is the chalkboard.  And this self-effacing, if overbearingly narcissistic and condescending column?

May it be the fingernail on said board.


This would be me

This would be me

So, God forbid, what if—like me—some other wine blogger was placed in the ignominious position of having fucked-up royally on his international soap box?  What would he have done?  Would he, like me, be willing to ‘man up’ and wander the streets of Speyer to the fortress at Canossa, self-flagellating in penance?

First, note that I said ‘he’ rather than the more politically astute ‘he and/or she’, as though women wine bloggers, a.k.a. bloggerettes, are nonexistent.  You might therefore—and quite nastily—refer to me as a misogynist on your Twitter account and then make even nastier remarks about my mother.  But we’ll get to that.  For now, enough to say that I love, love, love women—so much, in fact, that I have at great personal expense added a cinderblock room to my wine cellar in which to store them, and at last count have actually ‘married’ many girly women of the female persuasion.

But, back to other wine writers…

Take James Suckling.  Please.

Total Makeover. L.: Before R.: After

Total Makeover.
L.: Before
R.: After

James is a man’s man, a snob’s snob.  A bon vivant of such impeccable credentials that one cannot pec them even by pointing out that he shares a name with adorable, six-week-old piglets ripped from Miss Piggy’s teat and slaughtered for tailgate parties.  Mr. Hoglet should be ultra-sensitive to the damage done by internet rumors since he himself was the victim of such when Tweets began suggesting that his 2010 departure as editor of Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado was something less than amicable, forcing him to put the record straight in his own Tweet, stating that—and I paraphrase—“I was not shit-canned; I left the world of hackademia to spend more time with my family.”

Cases of Bordeaux getting ready for delivery in Shanghai

Cases of Bordeaux getting ready for delivery in Shanghai

So, a couple of days ago he posts the picture on the left above the caption, ‘Cases of Bordeaux getting ready for delivery in Shanghai,’ but the boxes in the photo are clearly filled with Château d’Aussières, which is not from Bordeaux, but Corbières in Languedoc-Roussillon.  In fact, the picture does not even seem to have been taken in Shanghai, but in Omaha’s Little China, but that’s a different story.  Sharp-eyed readers quickly pointed out the AoC misidentification, but did Mr. Arnold Ziffel wear the requisite sackcloth and do a mea culpa like our contrite, half-white President did when he screwed up health care?  As if.  Nope, Mr. Porky McPorkerson instead made some lame, random, off-topic and totally irrelevant point about Chinese people not wanting to buy poor vintages of Château d’Yquem, which actually is in Bordeaux.

Take Matt Kramer.  Pretty Please?

No, Matt Kramer is not a negrogynist; that’s Kramer from Seinfeld.  This one is the Wine Spectator geek who at a recent New Zealand wine conference claimed that ‘atheists can’t make great pinot noir’, which, if nothing else, woke up that portion of the audience who—let’s be honest and call a half-spade a spade—sleep through wine conferences.

Kramer vs. Kramer

Kramer vs. Kramer

What Kramer was referring to was the fact that monks in Burgundy made great single-variety wine because, in his unhumble opinion,  the intensity of their spiritual impulse confined them to a single grape as a means of hearing the voice of God through the voice of the land’, implying that science doesn’t really ‘get it’, nor do non-God-believing winemakers who use science to produce their less-great pinot noir.

On the surface, this is sort of funny, but nowhere near funny the pedophilia joke Kramer made at the beginning of his lecture.   Having just slept through Sam Neill’s presentation ‘Why I Am a Pinotphile’, he quipped that in the United States, ‘such a title could get you arrested’.

‘The black is indolent and a dreamer, spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink’ – Che Guevara,

‘The black is indolent and a dreamer, spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink’ – Che Guevara

Ha ha ha ha!  Good on ya, mate!  Sam Neill was, of course, too classy to point out that of the more than five thousand fudgepacking priests who have been accused of child sex abuse since 1990, very few have been atheists.

In any case, there have been no retractions yet from Kramer, who has been referred to by Hugh Johnson as ‘an intellectual guerilla’.

Of course, he has also not yet apologized for negrogynist Che Guevara, a fellow intellectual guerilla.

Take Levi Dalton.  Pretty Please With Sugar on Top?

Clipboard 2I know, I know—like you, I thought that Levi Dalton was a rootin’ tootin’ gunslinger from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  Turns out he’s a hifalutin’ telecommutin’ nerd from Eater NY’s Wild East Show, and is even less macho-looking than Matt Kramer, if such a thing were possible.  I read one—and only one—of Mr. The Only One Of The Dalton Gang Not Hanged, More’s The Pity’s columns in Eater, something about beached whales and restaurants, and let me tell you, it made no sense.  None.  I read it three times, too, and believe me, I don’t read things I like three times let alone tripey shite.  I really need to invite this ofay peckerwood to my temperature-and-humidity-controlled cinderblock wife cellar for a horizontal wife tasting—that would give him something interesting and non-misogynistic to blog about.

Which, in the cesspool of life, brings us around full circle:

On November 29, Mr. Stone-Washed Dungarees Tweeted that Ron Washam is a misogynist.  In fact, Dalton’s precise words, linked to Ron’s mis-readogynistic adios address, were as follows:

The HoseMaster would like you to know that all the misogynistic posts were to please his mother…’

Now, God bless Ron—he is from a kinder, gentler, albeit wussier place, San Francisco, where they are currently freaking out over temperatures below 40°.

 Frank Pentangeli

Frank Pentangeli

Here in Detroit, we’re made of sterner stuff, and if someone dares mention my mother in any fashion other than to remind me what a sainted—albeit alcoholic—soul she was, I am obligated by a sense of family honor to jam an ice pick vertically into his skanky little skull.

Honor, my friends.  Honor.  Honor is the trait that makes Frank Pentangeli slit his wrists in a bathtub; honor demands that Blake Gray—the HoseBagger of whine—give me credit when he blatantly steals one of my column ideas, including the title, (,; honor demands that wine writers like Suckling, Kramer, Dalton and Gray own up to dingledouchery whenever they are wrong, unintelligibly obscure or dishonest.

And if anyone is offended by this Call to Honor?  Bring on the ice picks, boys.

…And/or girls.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Why We Should Score Literature Like We Score Wine

Clipboard mansonLast week, having engaged in lively and utterly useless banter with wine writers Joe Roberts and Frederic Koeppel regarding the efficacy of scoring wine, I found myself having sort of epiphany that Brian Wilson must have had when he kicked Charlie Manson out of the Beach Boys.

You see, I have been a professional critic for all of my so-called adult life, mostly for corporate publications and mostly for editors who insisted that a specific ‘score’ be given for whatever entity I was tasked to review—films, restaurants, wines, whatever—evidently presuming that my targeted reader had the attention span of botfly larvae and preferred to have a nice, easy-to-digest number to gulp rather than having to Google words like ‘efficacy’.

I disagreed, of course, but even though I was being paid to have an opinion, I was apparently not being paid to have an opinion that differed from theirs.

Left: Acceptable Right: Unacceptable

Left: Acceptable
Right: Unacceptable

And unfortunately, just as one gets in the habit of saying silly things like ‘Thanks!  You too!’ whenever anyone wishes one well—even if it is the cab driver telling one to have a nice flight as he drops one off at the airport—I find myself assigning scores to everything around me, virtually as rote.  For example, when my adolescent daughter leaves for school, I score her outfits on a hundred-point scale, giving numbers in the upper 90s to Laura Ashley jumpers, burka-type cardigans and pleated, calf-length Catholic-girl skirts while panning hip-hugging jeans and cleavage-revealing Abercrombie & Fitch crop tops because I don’t want her teachers thinking the same thing I think when I see the neighbor’s barely legal daughter in a bikini.

Speaking of my neighbor, every year I critique his Christmas decorations using Wine Specthusiast’s inimitable, frequently copied scale.  This year I gave him a 79 because he had the historical audacity to have a black Wise Man standing by the crèche, and as a Evangelical Christian, I believe—as did Henry Ford, Detroit’s figurehead for national identity, unity and pride—that the colored races evolved to be servants, not kings.

nude jesusAnyway, my epiphany happened while I was kneeling by said crèche—not to pray, but to cover up Baby Jesus’ Holy Baloney Pony, for which my neighbor loses another ten points because if God wanted us nude we would have been born that way—I realized that in the years I spent reviewing books for The Detroit News, I was never asked to score literature the way The Detroit Free Press demanded I score wine and Orbit’s inimical, oft-copied Jerry Vile insisted I score restaurants.

And seriously, why not?  I mean, if the man-in-the-street has the IQ of a Javan stink badger, why would my editors assume they would have the slightest desire, let alone ability, to read a review of a book they can’t read in the first place?

How much more efficacious would have been to simply assign a number with a SparkNotes summary of Cliff’s Notes summary of the book?

Genius is pain, huh?

Ergo, here is the first installment of my new venture, Ineruditology Report, complete with scores and synopsises of tour de force belles-lettres which should keep my fifteen-year-old’s Lit teacher’s mind off her abecrombies as well as her fitches.


95-100Classic:  A commendable work of literary art.

90-94Damn Readable:  An opus of superior character written by a lunatic who, sooner or later, probably killed him/herself.

85-89Okay: An otherwise pointless tome with really graphic sex scenes.

80-84 Dreadful Drivel: Any book written by a French or German existentialist whose name you try, but fail to pronounce correctly when trying to appear smarter than you are.  Also reserved for beloved children’s books written by pedophiles.

60-70Tumid Tripe:  A moronic waste of ink written by someone without the literary chops to write ‘fuck’ on a shithouse wall.

3 – 21Inutterably, Unrelentingly Awful Hack Fodder: i.e.; Stephen King, Karl Marx, J.K. Rowling, Marcel Proust, Mitch Albom.

Criteria:  Finished books, reviewed after blind readings, are given a single score. A score given as a range (e.g., 90-94) indicates a preliminary score, usually based on a blind reading of galley proofs that have not been spell-checked. As of March 2014, I will switch to rolling four-point spreads for unfinished books. For example, one inanity may be scored 12-21, another 28-33.  I will believe this will better reflect the subtle differences between unreadable garbage and dangerous books which may actually bore you to death.

ClipboardFrankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1818:  At an age when most teenagers are spanking the monkey to Emma Watson upskirts, little Mary Shelley was writing one of the most gripping horror stories of all time.

Score: 97

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, 1959:  Of the entire Beat Generation, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Burroughs, et al., only one had enough genuine talent to write his way out of a paper bag.  Guess which one?

Score: 89

3-alice‘Alice In WonderBra, or, Through The Good-Looking Ass’ by Lewis Carroll, 1865:  The original, unedited manuscript of the pervie old Victorian’s magnus opus, it concerns the misadventures of a nubile pre-teen and is filled with all sorts of nasty coitus metaphors like ‘penetrating the hole’ and Alice’s phallic ‘telescoping neck’. In 2013, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s nom de plume would have been Inmate # 389941.

Score: 82

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1884:  It’s fun to read and say the bad words out loud, but seriously, Mark?  You couldn’t come up with a more plausible storyline than an escaped slave running hundreds of miles south, when Illinois, a free state, was right across the river?

Score: 80

The Old Testament by The Supreme Deity, 3500 BC: One-hit-wonder God creates man, and everything man does pisses God off.

Score: 79

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1866:  Enough said: Mankind has not invented the crime heinous enough that having to read this ponderous prolix pulp-pile would not be punishment both cruel and unusual.

Score: 65

‘Life of Samuel Johnson’ by James Boswell, 1791:  How would you even market a desperately tedious, mostly-fake biography of an obscure doctor who did nothing but walk around, get plastered and make silly, drunken observations that were neither cute nor particularly acute?  Why this stultifyingly stupid book is considered a ‘literary gem’ is truly one of humanity’s great mysteries.

Score: 41

bilge‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ by Mitch Albom, 1997: The only conceivable value in this pretentious bucket of bilge—whose sage advice, ‘Don’t trade dreams for a bigger paycheck’ is the diametrical opposite of how the author has lived and continues to live life—is to use it as tinder to burn down The Detroit Free Press building.

Score: 8

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged | 1 Comment

Westbrook Wine Farm: The House That Krause Soused

HoseMaster, meet hose hauler—and if you guys would consider a nude mud-wrestling hose-off to see whose hose heaves the heftiest hurl, have your girl call my girl and we’ll set up Pay Per View.

The NoseMaster wins by a hose

The NoseMaster wins by a hose

In this corner, HoseMaster Ron Washam, who announced in a tear-jerking Thanksgiving Eve threnody that he is retiring from wine writing—a day for pretentious critics, narcissistic winemakers and whiny consumers as sad was Ceausescu’s execution to the Romanian man-in-the-street.  In other words, they are dancing in those streets, spared from further face-cages in Room 101 of Washam’s blog.

Ron, you see—God bless his snarky soul—was able to overcome twin-whammy handicaps: He was born with a tastevin around his neck (twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers’ Association) and he is from California.  Nonetheless, he found the strength, through hard work, prayer and focus to remove the rosé-colored glasses through which his fellow plonk pundits view the situation and saw wine world for what it is:  Voluminous, fascinating and entirely mockable the nanosecond it begins to take itself too seriously.   He’s been able to tear new sphincters where virgin orifices are required, and in such a congenial, cynic-next-door sort of sweetness that in the long run the feedback he most received was, ‘Thank you, sir; I’ll have another.’

'Farewell, my lovelies.'

‘Farewell, my lovelies.’

See, as someone who manages to piss off winemakers even when I praise them, this is an impressive oeuvre.

Anyway, I could go on, and then on, and from there, further on, but I read his Farewell Address to the Nation with the same sniveling doubt that Bucharestians must have read the headline on the morning of December 26, 1989:  By which I mean, looking for a masthead that read ‘The Onion’.


…And In The Other Corner, The HoseHauler

Just as ‘sanitation engineers’ is the waggish way that jocular jakes refer to  garbage men, so I assume that ‘fermentation control specialist’ is what jesting vintners joshingly call ‘hose haulers’. 

Ray Krause

Ray Krause

According to his bio, that’s what Westbrook Wine Farms helmsman Ray Krause began his wine career doing—hauling hoses at Fresno’s Roma Winery.  At the time, he’d been accepted into a prestigious enology program at Fresno State University, for which he hosed the original San Joaquin Valley Wine Growers Association out of a scholarship.  After a stint spent hosing down U.S. Army Air Defense Command fighter jets, Krause went to work for Mirrasou, ultimately becoming their national sales director.

He went solo in 1975, creating ‘several product specific wine production and marketing entities’—a subterranean concept which only the dark mind of a sales director could grasp.  It wasn’t until 1994 that he came up with a concept that a challenged wino like me could wrap his palate around:  A bottle of wine.  Having purchased 40 acres without a mule, but with a horse—Paint Horse Ranch, specifically—he released his first bottling of Fait Accompli, a Bordeaux blend that, like a self-respecting, old school Claret, relied on grape co-fermentation rather than the final mix winding up as a barrel-time decision.  This blend, though proprietary , contains a higher percentage of cab franc than is used in most Meritage blends, more than 20%, making it (to my taste) a wine similar in weight, texture and profile to St-Émilion rather than the more austere wines of Médoc.  Both storied regions may nude mud-wrestle for the title of Bordeaux’s best, but the wines of the former tend to be more approachable, and, especially when young, more seductive and supple.   If that was Krause’s goal, it is in fact, fait accompli—mission accomplished.

westbrook-wine-farm-fait-accompli-madera-usa-10536947I was fortunate enough to try a four-vintage vertical of this immense, dense, intense  wine—2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009.  Each sells for around $60, each wears an individual wardrobe, inky and sumptuous, forward, focused and with one exception, each is quite prepared to perform.

An explosively seductive bouquet in the 2005 offered promise; the nose had a particular depth and profile usually reserved the hallowed Right Bank estates—brilliant blackberry and cassis girded by huge, evocative, scents of dried herbs, both in potpourri and standing alone as marjoram, chamomile, thyme.  Bottle to glass, the most powerful flavors remained wound up in the bouquet with the taste showing bright, but somewhat thin at first pass.  So I let it air for a few hours, re-tasted it, and in fact, the herbal notes had settled into the glass, with the nose showing a whiff of polished wood, warm  but restrained alcohol , with all the brilliant fruit notes intact while the palate fleshed-out nicely.

2006’s red carpet rolled out with less fanfare, more subtle, deeper, more diffused tertiaries and jammier, almost stewy fruit but shored beautifully by acidity. The integration of the elements seemed more complete, and although the wine is not the blockbuster that the 2005 is, it is fused, less complex and without obvious seams.

The 2008 presented more cocoa and coffee up front; the black fruits were hiding and the wine came across as brooding,  pensive and closed.  The tannins are presented in a wall—parching and still too big; they coat the mouth rather than titillate the tongue.  It’s a phase that some wines—Bordeaux in particular—pass through within a few years of bottling; the French call it the age ingrat or ‘difficult years’, and it  can be seen metaphorically as a teenager who prefers to spend time on the iPhone in her bedroom rather than chatting about life at the dinner table.  This may, in fact, explain the muted scents and flavors found here; decanting is a must and like the kid in the room, offering up a little breathing space is a plus.

41lgqUIdYzL__UX480_CR0,-80,480,490_Westbrook Farm Vineyard’s 10 year anniversary Fait Accompli, vintage ’09, is a creeping triumph, growing richer and  deeper in the glass.  Nice, saturated garnet color, it offers concentrated plum and lush blackberry notes with a hint of mocha in the bouquet. The entrance is sweet and elegant with opulent layers of black cherry, cedar, pepper and  vanilla that dance across the palate. The finish is rich and lengthy with well-developed tannins that smooth out through the moments that the wine lingers on the palate.

Fait Accompli remains the Westbrook flagship wine, but nestling amid the rest of the fleet are a number of variation on the theme, and at least one that straggles away from the armada and makes its own way.  I’m always intrigued—and more than a little leery—to see what Central California does with one of Michigan’s pet varieties, riesling, because it is nearly always a grape that does better in a non-cabernet climate.

Madera grapes on the hoof

Madera grapes on the hoof

First, a word on the appellation, Madera.   Plunked (or maybe ‘plonked’) in the center of the center—California’s hot, hyper-productive Central Valley, a hundred miles from the coast.  The climate is suited for production, and nearly a tenth of all California vineyards are located here.  Madera is Spanish for ‘lumber’, and the area has been tree-centered in centuries past.  Fresno, Krause’s alma mater, is also a wood word, meaning the local, prolific mountain ash.  The Fresno River flows through the AVA, and was the source that provided water for the man-made flume in the that took logs to the Central Pacific Railroad in the 19th century .  The river also provides irrigation, without which agriculture could not survive in these otherwise sun-soaked, arid flatlands.  Given the enological profile, it is no surprise that the bulk of the wine produced in Madera is just that—bulk.  With 80% of the wine vineyards planted to  muscat, typically used to produce fortified and molar-crumbling dessert wine, the challenge for serious winemakers here is to hang on to the grape acids which fade in hot weather and thereby, tend to throw the chemistry off.

Westbrook Farm Vineyard’s Über Rhenish, 2011 ($17) is vinified in what Krause refers to as an ‘intentionally austere Austrian style’, by which I think he might mean ‘picked early’—and probably at night.  Otherwise, unless he heaped in boatloads of tartaric acid at fermentation, the wine shows a remarkable low pH.  But, I don’t think it is artificially enhanced acidity, because the wine—although balanced—is missing some of the stone fruit flavors that riesling typically develops with long vine hang times.  In fact, the word Krause uses, ‘austere’, is quite indicative of the bone-dry style of ‘Rhenish’ (of the Rhine) that he produces.  He also ferments the must in a barrel, which is a pretty unique approach to the variety, but perhaps de rigeur in an appellation called ‘wood’.  Here, the results are a riesling that is fairly high in octane (13.2%), bright with lime and grapefruit, but not so much of the super-ripe peach and apricot that a warm weather riesling could easily showcase.  It’s a beautiful food accompaniment, but in a strange, lightly toasted style that most riesling fans may not understand.

Wine Enthusiast gets it, apparently:  They handed out a firm 90 points to the 2006 Über Rhenish.

Hose-OS28119Something else I dig about Krause: The Westbrook newsletter provides some interesting poetic commentary, making references to Thoreau and making god-awful puns like ‘Malmsey Dearest’,  proving that Ray Krause has a facility with words as well as hoses.

In the end, it’s all good: Whether associated with the HoseMaster (in his repose; alas, so it goes) or the hose hauler (long may he compose), the nose, as well as the prose, always knows.

Posted in CALIFORNIA, Central Valley | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment