Richard Mayson, Quinta do Centro And A Bunch Of Unrelated Stuff

How does the road from Coronation Street to Alentejano, Portugal get lost on Selden and 2nd in Detroit?

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of a noontime ride in the wine frontier.

Richard Mayson

Richard Mayson

I’m a huge fan of Alentejano, both as a concept and a wine region, so when a chance to interview Richard Mayson came up, I leaped at it.  Or rather, I drove toward it—the rendezvous was set for one of Detroit’s trendier hotspots, which is exactly the sort of place you’d want to rep this drab dystopia when somebody from similarly drab Manchester, England comes to town.

The subject of Manchester was where we derailed, however. Mayson, who owns Quinta do Centro in Alentejano, where he makes wine with acclaimed enólogo Rui Reguinga, happens to live in the north of England—specifically in Coronation Street country.  For those unfamiliar with this strange little British soap opera, it is not only the longest continually running show of its type in history (55 years), it is also so financially successful that it basically underwrote everything that Granada Television has done since.

And it is insanely addicting: Despite all odds, I have watched nearly every episode since I was a kid.

Coronation_Street_TitlesThat’s not something that most Detroiters can claim, nor would they claim if they could—Corrie, as diehards like me call it, seems better suited for bored matronly retirees with a fixation on daily backstreet life in England’s industrial North.

TracyBarlow1_Deirdre_1980sBut, Mr. Mayson is not a dowager and he’s not retired; he’s a widely read author and regular contributor to Decanter Magazine, and yet, he’s such a Corriephile that he confessed to actually have had it playing on the hospital room television while a dear relative was dying so as not to miss a show.  Thus, we whiled away our wine talking hour sharing deep insights into Tracy Barlow’s character and the death of (spoiler alert) her mother Deirdre.

Sort of pathetic, non?

L.s. Lowry

L.s. Lowry

Fortunately, a delay in the flight upon which he’d intended jet back to Manchester gave us an extra span to yabber.  Unfortunately, we still avoided wine-talk, and instead discussed his street light fetish—he has a portfolio of the world’s most fascinating lampposts, now including some from Detroit—and the book he’s writing about Lancashire artist L.S. Lowry.

Greatfully, thanks to the internet, and the honorary degree I hold from Google University, I was able to fill in the wine blanks after the interview.

First, Mayson is married to a Blandy (as in a Madeira Blandy) and has also penned a book on that fine fortified phenomenon from the Portuguese archipelago: It’s called ‘Madeira: The Island And Its Wine’ and as son as it becomes available, I’ll share a review.

Quinta do Centro

Quinta do Centro

But the wines we drank as we discussed the Rover’s Return, Lowry’s ‘matchstick men’ paintings and the homeless person peering in the window at Selden Standard were Mayson’s own: Quinta do Centro; three wines, all blends, reflecting the remarkable terroir of Reguengo on the slopes Serra de São Mamede, which  sit a rarified 1600 hundred feet above sea level.  The soils are rocky and predominantly granite, and the trio of rock star wines Mayson produces are all named, fittingly—in Portuguese—after rocks.

duas-pedras-alentejo-wineDuas Pedras ($10)  is a co-fermented blend of Touriga nacional (60%) and Syrah with a small quantity of Viognier; the aggressively floral white, according to Mayson, is the ‘salt in the cookie’.  “It’s not obvious when it’s there in small quantities, in this case, 2 or 3%.  It’s only obvious if it’s missing or it there’s too much.”  The wine expresses bright red berry notes (cranberry especially) with an herbal and mineral lift; the palate is full and and shows the richness of Touriga and the spiciness of Syrah.

Pedra Basta ($18), or ‘Enough Stones’, may be the swan song of the series—or it may not be.  In any case, like most wines, when it comes to Mayson’s, you can have too much, but you can never have enough. A fabulously aromatic blend of Trincadeira, Arragonez and Alicante bouschet, the wine shows a bouquet of velvety violets and briery raspberries; it opens into a layered medley of fruit and textured mineralit, showing lively acidity and moderate oak that does not overpower a long, spicy finish.

pedra-e-alma-alentejo-winePedra e Alma ($30) is the flagship wine; Mayson’s reserva.  Portuguese for ‘Stone and Soul’, the name is poetry reflecting both foundation and ascendency, which I am sure the winemakers intend the wine to display.  And indeed, it does.  Made from Trincadeira, Arragonez, Alicante bouschet and Grand noir, aged for 2 years in new French oak, it shows a cassis-like concentration of dark fruits, one of which owns the somewhat elusive comparison to mulberry, which I identify only because of mulberry trees in my yard.  There’s elegance behind the complexity, with licorice, Damson plum and a seductive tarriness, all braced by pure and primal acidity born of the vineyard’s elevation.

I asked the lamppost-infatuation, Lowry-beset, Coronation Street-consumed and Madeira-mad Mancunian if he’d named his daughter after one of his multiple obsessions, and he confessed that although his kid’s name is Isabella, his wife—now a Mayson—commonly goes by the sobriquet ‘Blandy’.

And I sheepishly admitted that I have a daughter named Corrie.  Hands across the water; heads in BBC.


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Steadfast Sancerre Stands Strong Amid War Of The Words

I believe I have finally begun to grow up.  I am about to discuss an article written by a colleague named Beppi Crosariol, in which I intend to spend zero minutes making jokes about his preposterous name, but rather, will focus upon the content of his character.

That’s progress, right?

Beppi is not to be confused with Beppo

Beppi is not to be confused with Beppo

The piece, in the Globe & Mail—arguably wine’s most sacred writ—reports on a magnetic-resonance machine study conducted at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language; it is titled ‘Science has spoken: Big wine doesn’t mean more flavour’

First, regardless of whether or not you believe that big wines have more flavor, I think we can all agree that big words are for anal poindexters with penis issues; thus, use of the term ‘magnetic-resonance machines’ when you mean ‘MRIs’, and ‘Cognition’ when you mean ‘shit we think about’ and adding wholly superfluous and ostentatious ‘U’s’ to basic words like flavor suggests that Beppi doesn’t like his pee-pee.

In any case, the first sentence is:

‘It appears that haughty Euro-centric wine connoisseurs were right all along: Lower-alcohol wines are more interesting than the big, fat ethanol bombs coming out of California.’

Wine glass shown actual size.

Wine glass shown actual size.

Now, unless he is speaking about Donald Patz, big, fat ethanol bombs represent but a small fraction of the things that come out of California, and plenty of the wines take their cues from Euro-centric winemakers in Southern Rhône and Northern Italy.  But, my point is, regardless of what science may find, when it comes to wine, ‘interesting’ is about as subjective and non-scientific a word as any I can imagine.

Which Brings Us to a Case of the Case in Point: Sancerre

"Do I look like someone who bores easily?"

“Do I look like someone who bores easily?”

Another wine scribe, David Honig, opined recently: “Flavor descriptors are useless because different people taste different things.”

I’m still oscillating that portion of my anatomy which encloses the cerebellum over that one, especially since he said it in defense of wine scoring systems, stating that they are the better ‘consumer tool’—even though critics score wines based on what they taste, and, of course, different critics taste different things.

(He later went on to say that brett isn’t a flavor, and although I swear I have tasted it,  I have sufficiently self-inflicted upon my braincase the neo-adult version of Shaken Baby Syndrome to worry about that right now.) 

To me, flavor descriptors are useful precisely because different people taste different things.  That’s what wine education is all about; listening to others and gauging the weight of their sensations compared to yours.  Sometimes you convince, sometimes you acquiesce. But always, you learn.

comte labelSo to the point, one of the requisite rituals of my Spring is cracking open a bottle of Sancerre. This wine represents to me a first-among-equals sip that speaks boldly but gently, a perfect metaphor for the season. As a reliable go-to, Compte LaFond, from Baron Patrick de Ladoucette, is an upper end (around $30) Sancerre that displays all the myriad subtleties that we look for in the appellation.  That is, as a Sauvignon blanc it displays floral and mineral notes without being aggressively citrusy or grassy—the 2011 that I poured had not yet begun to show ravages of age, but had settled into its twilight years with elegance.  Four or five years is about maximum for this label, when the tempered acidity and tamed terpenes seem to pull out the lemony bottom, and rich, complex undertones appear.

At 12.5% ABV, it is the polar opposite of a big, fat, high alcohol bomb from California.  The Hall to the Patz, in other words.

Now, I consider that interesting, which I suppose makes me a Euro-centric wine connoisseur, and thus, according to preppy, peppy Beppi, right all along.

But, although such descriptors as Mr. Honig finds useless include the following:

Springtime‘…Nice, almost musky intensity with aromas of light peach, white flower blossoms and powdery chalk; the palate develops into a bright blend of lime zest and fresh rosemary, especially nice when chilled; the wine is refreshing and light, but grounded with a backbone of minerality.”

…on a personal level, the truly interesting qualities in this wine are the following:

‘…The bouquet conjures up smells from an open window in the house where I grew up, with April breeze behind it blowing into a living room where I, though underage, was allowed on Sunday afternoons to sip wine alongside the adults, each of whom had unique smells of their own according to clothing, cologne and the peculiar je ne sais quoi of personal chemistry; the palate completes the image of quiet, happy moments when the lemony tang of Sancerre and the velvet of a callow afternoon buzz seemed to me to be the greatest thing on earth…’

That would indeed be useless to Honig or the homogenous horde of hoi polloi he happily hosts; in fact they’d be useless to anyone but the only one who really counts:  The dude drinking the Sancerre.

In which case, to moi, it is the opposite of useless:  It is priceless.

You see, although I may have grown up a tad, the moment I lose such marvelous, wine-inspired childhood thought-associations, the distinction of being a Beppi or Honig-style adult immediately loses its technicolor.

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The Sinskeys Of The Father Visited Upon The Somm

Robert Sinskey doesn’t think much of wine writers.  Oh, dear.

He does, however, have a soft spot for ‘lumbersexual sommeliers’, which I suspect is really a hard spot, but I would never say that, because otherwise, when I tear the venerable Napanese sot a new lumbersexual-ready knothole, I might come across as petty and vindictive.

And we can’t have that, can we?

eater-logo_800Sinskey (patriarch of Sinskey Vineyards except for the father who’s been doddering around the lower forty since 2000) recently wrote an op-ed for Eater, the self-styled Vox Media ‘society/culture’ cluster-bleep which relies heavily on advertising from people who own, among other things, vineyards.

RSV tasting room: 'Pretentious, no arrogant, bitch!'

RSV tasting room: ‘Pretentious, not arrogant, bitch!’

Titled ‘Why Sommeliers Matter More Than Wine Scores’, it begins by postulating that ‘the era of wine arrogance is over’, then proceeds to disprove its own postulate by projectile-puking several hundred words of venom unsullied by any predilection other than arrogance.

After taking an unnecessary and inaccurate opening swipe at Robert Parker Jr., referring to him as an ‘ex-attorney who anointed himself the palate of America’ (when we all know that nobody was more surprised to Parker’s rise to fame than Bobby P. himself), he suggests that sommeliers—who he considers ‘young and cool’—are an industry vox populi more valid than either wine critics or the Vox Mediapuli trainwreck he writes for.

In mathematics, this may be referred to as a non-logical axiom, because not all sommeliers are young and hardly any are cool.  He follows that singular inanity with another, suggesting that since wine critics do not ‘rise through the ranks of cuisine and service’ their loyalty is to their own egos before it is to their reader’s palate.

So my question is this:

'Would I be proud to serve this to my family?'

‘Would I be proud to serve this to my family?’

Some wine writers do have a fine-dining rap sheet, including me, but what does that have to do with a critic’s role in the scheme of wine appreciation?  A sommelier recommends bottles from a finite and inventory-sensitive wine cellar in order to make money for the boss; if a critic is found to have benefited financially from a supposedly objective recommendation, his/her career is in jeopardy.  If a series of such recommendations turn a huge profit for the restaurant, the sommelier gets a bonus.  If the same holds true for a critic, he or she gets a pink slip.  Or should.

But I digress, which is exactly what Sinskey does for the next six hundred words in which he offers us a succinct, if unsolicited, history of wine in America, culminating in another rip at his namesake Robert, whose 100-point scale he refers to as ‘simplistic’ and who, mid-rip, he inexplicably credits for having recognized 1982 as one of the defining Bordeaux vintages of the twentieth century long before other critics who, throughout the tirade, remain unidentified and thus, ripped-by-proxy.

But, Back to The Lumbersexuals

sinskyHere is a picture of Sinskey.  Please note that he has what may be described as a classic lumbersexual visage. In fact, he appears to be an archetype of the breed; the Platonic essence of whisker-sprouting, lumbersexist desperation.

Let’s analyze this face from a purely objective physiological perspective: The bone structure radiates a certain wimplicity that is echoed in the choice of corrective lenses: Half-frame granny spectacles hanging from a cord around his neck like a heterosexually-repressed librarian.  His boyish bangs, the color of the Pillsbury Doughboy’s tushie, dangle with forced nonchalance above a neat, multi-toned, meticulously-groomed beard; the open-collar designer shirt suggests the faux-ruggedness of any self-respecting lumbersexual—looking the part without actually being the part.

"I am a pencil-jack and I'm okay."  ♫

“I’m a pencil-jack and I’m okay; I sleep all night and I draw all day….” ♫

Because, of course, Sinskey does not come from actual lumbercultural roots; he’s a Fine Arts major from Parsons School of Design on 5th Ave and W. 13th.  And trust me, Greenwich Village is about as far from the logging communities of the Great Northwest as you can get and still be within this galactic arm.

But, that’s the beauty of lumbersexuality.  It requires a beard and butt bangs and some synthetic machismo, but no skills whatsoever with a chainsaw.

That’s why he’d be advised to not to wield one in the personal space of passive-aggressive pundits like moi.

Hiding a Multitude of Sinskeys

Bobby P

Bobby P: Pure butch

It’s said that if you claim to understand quantum mechanics it’s because nobody ever explained it to you.  Same goes for the 100-point scale, which Sinskey finds ‘simplistic’ and I find anything but.  In fact, my objection to the 100-point scale is not that it’s too simple, it is that it’s too complex and ultimately makes no sense.  But that’s fodder for future fustian forays.

It’s also said that no one who bitches about Parker’s scoring system ever got a 95+, but Robert Sinskey makes some very nice wines and it is inconceivable that his unaccountable anti-critic ire could result from him being on the shit-end of the score stick.  So I spent some time on the net, and yet, and yet…

I couldn’t find a single link where Wine Advocate listed a Robert Sinskey wine; not a single Parker score for a single Sinskey wine anywhere.

That strikes me as weirder than a cocktail party at the Betty Ford Clinic, so I’m hoping that you boys and girls at home can help me out.

Life After Wine Critics

Life After Wine Critics

In any case, Sinskey’s ungood upchuck of umbrage is unsettling to us ego-driven scribes who, let’s be honest, serve at the pleasure of winemakers.  Were they to collectively go all Sinskey on our asses and refuse by court injunction to allow us to write about their products, can you imagine the slow death we’d die?  —Or, suffering a fate worse than death, be forced to write about beer?  It would be like a Passion Play about the Middle Ages when those vassalsexuals (winemakers) assumed the Black Plague was spread by cats (wine writers) and killed them all, then discovered the disease was actually spread by rats (sommeliers) which now proliferated in the absence of cats.

What a world our children would inherent.

captain.trace.1No, I think it behooves us odd bedfellows in the Kebo Futon Sofabed®  of life if we strive en masse to respect the fruits of each others’ labor, to work together for a Uniteder States of America, to join forces as sentinels of liberty, indivisible, without regard to color, religion, creed or lumbersexual orientation.

To Robert Sinskey, your humble narrator says:

“Remember Wake Island, sir! Remember Pearl Harbor! Remember The Maine!  And above all, remember your duty to your galactic arm! 

Now, go in peace and sinskey no more.”


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Syrah, Syrah: A Tale Of Two Pretties

‘It was the best of tomes, it was the worst of tomes…’

first pictureOr something like that. When we were assigned that ponderous boat-anchor in high school, I told Brother Lithgow, “I’m not reading any more until this Dickens schmuck makes up his mind.”

I did read more, though.  Smacking students was not only legal in Catholic school, it was de rigueur.  And I’m glad I did—the overlong, overwritten and overwhelming exploration of the divergent characteristics of human nature, symbolized by a city to the north, and one to the south, is worth the odyssey.

I have a similar reaction to the dual faces of Syrah, the patriarch of  Northern Rhône, the enfant terrible of Washington, the darling of the Central Coast and the honeysnuggles of the Barossa Valley.

grapesIn Spain, the grape expresses a number of attitudes grafted from all the above, and can produce Syrahs as unique as any.  Impossible to generalize of course, but were coals held to my fallen arches I’d say that Spanish Syrah tends to be less fruit-driven than New World Versions, less brooding that French versions, less ripe than Aussie shelf-stockers.

Exceptions abound, no doubt—one of Syrah’s more remarkable pedigrees is its ability to express the personality of where it is grown.

The two I contrasted yesterday perfectly showcased the duality inherent in the grape; one, like the London of Dickens’ novel, was dark, fog-bound and treacherous, the other, like Paris in metaphor, was gaudy and bright, but with the trappings of artifice.

I’ll try to explain what I mean, using less words than Book the First; I promise.

Castell d’Encus ‘Thalarn’, Costers del Segre, 2012, around $35 (a.k.a. Paris): 

Raül Bobet

Raül Bobet

d’Encus has an interesting back story—it was first planted in 1151 and at the time, great hollows were carved from solid cliff-side rock, which winemaker Raül Bobet still uses.  51 acres are planted to vines, spread in the high-altitude technique of dense spacings (up to 3000 vines per acre), but grown  on low-yielding root stock.  This leads to smaller vines producing fewer grapes of higher quality.

‘Thalarn’ is 100% Syrah, which in Costers del Segre (in western Catalonia) is somewhat unusual—the grape is useful as a component ingredient in several Spanish master recipes, but in this case, the purity of the manifest expresses the clarity of mountain-grown Syrah.  The wine shows a splashy core of colorful fruit, but it comes off almost confectionary on the nose, like sniffing Grandma’s bowl of hard-shelled raspberry candy.  There are floral undertones, sweet as the gilded salons of Versailles, and a palate as smooth and as embroidered with cerise and cream as any formal French silk suit. The wine shows aristocratic breeding without sharp edges, but it’s longevity may be subject to subjects beyond its control.

García Burgos ‘SH’, Navarra, 2009, around $25 (a.k.a. London)

shJavier García and Laura Burgos, a pair of well-respected winemakers from northern Spain, teamed up at the Cantera de Santa Ana in DO Navarra to produce a pure Syrah on the lower slopes of the Pyrenees mountains.  The story I heard was that they called it ‘SH’ because this is Garnacha country, followed by Tempranillo and Viura, and straying from the pack has meant going with one of the varietals introduced to Navarra in the eighties—Cabernet sauvignon or Merlot.  Syrah is still sort of an iconoclastic upstart in this ancient winegrowing region, so when Javier/Laura decided to vinify it alone, they wanted to keep it sort of hush-hush—hence, the name, which probably should be pronounced with four more ‘H’s.

This is the opposing face of Syrah in northern Spain; SH leads with the force of a charging Tudor, all brusqueness and potency with big earthy smells and heady aromas of pipe tobacco.  These notes are repeated in the mouth, with more fruit, though black and blue fruit—blackberry, blueberry along with pepper and bittersweet chocolate.  A long finish and enough character to anticipate an even longer reign in the kingdom of Wine Cellar.

the end(I could, of course, go on with the lame Dickens metaphors, but something tells me that it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done, if I don’t.)

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The Brine In Wine Is Mainly In The Mind

Or so the scholars tell me.  But I’m not buying it—not for a second.

ear to conchOn the other hand, whenever I listen to a conch (which rhymes with ‘ponch’, not ‘honk’, damn it) I believe I’m actually hearing the ocean, not some poindexter Stephen Hawking phenomenon where the noise of the surrounding environment resonates within the shell.

Which brings us to brine in wine: Sometimes, tasting notes are about suspending didactics and embracing phantasmagoria.

When snorting and scribbling, the primordial challenge is to find esoteric—but nonetheless accurate—nuances in wine; it’s fun, serves as a sort of mnemonic device for remembering each one and, above all, keeps us from sounding like derivative saps when the words pass to readers.

Beachfront vineyard

Beachfront vineyard

Over the years, I’ve noticed—as you’ve no doubt noticed—that certain white wines display marked, if generally subtle, scents of sea water.  Most susceptible to these notes seem to be Albariño, especially from Rías Baixas, Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet’s mother grape) and Santorini Assyrtiko.

‘Salinity’ appears in tasting notes of Catalina Sounds Pinot noir, a red from New Zealand’s South Island.

What do all these wines have in common?  Bingo: They’re from vineyards that rely on the meliorating effects of salty ocean breezes.

It becomes easy enough to make the physiological connection:  Why shouldn’t grapes grown in these vineyards pick up the same flavors that we can smell while standing in them?  Couldn’t some of the volatile compounds that make up sea smells wind up in the finished product?  Shouldn’t these chemical compounds be in seaside soils simply by proximity, and thus, end up osmosisifying a path into the wine?

Smart People Say No, and Who Am I to Argue with Smart People? 

Beachfront Jamie

Beachfront Jamie

According to smartypants wine writer/plant doctor Jamie Goode: “…the source of matchstick/mineral character is most likely a volatile sulfur compound produced during fermentation by yeasts. Volatile sulfur compounds are responsible for the wine fault known as ‘reduction’, and what we have here is a classic example of a compound that at one level is complexing and another is a fault.”

hai karateNot sure I can define ‘complexing’, but guess what ends up being the primary aroma in ocean smell?  Dimethyl sulfide—a volatile sulphur compound—produced in large part by bacteria that eat dying plankton.  And the next most common ‘beach odor’ is caused by seaweed pheromones.  Hand before God; when we sniff at a bracing wind blowing in off the surf, we’re smelling kelp Hai Karate.

The third identifiable, isolatable smell you detect when you put a conch shell filled with sea water up to your nose comes from bromophenols—a class of organic compounds produced by marine algae.  In small doses, they smell like oyster shells and when concentrated, like iodine.

Both of these scents appear may appear in wine, but, like the sulfides, they are not the result of a maritime climate.  According to Ribéreau-Gayon’s 1982 tome ‘The Handbook of Wine: The Chemistry of Wine Stabilization and Treatment’, the fungus Apergillis niger may affect grapes during damp seasons and cause skin phenolic transformations that impart the distinct tang of iodine to the wine. Other winemakers blame iodine-based sterilizer that may not have been completely rinsed from wine processing equipment.

Salt-Of-The-Earth Opinions…

And in any case, the brine smells I pick up from certain white wines  come across more mineral than plant or animal; they are distinctly reminiscent of the saltiness in the air when you stand by the shore.

But again my senses seem to be thwarted by science: Beside the fact that even if vine roots could pick up sodium chloride ions, salt in the soil dooms the productivity of a vineyard and great lengths are taken to avoid it or flush it out

Olivier Humbrecht Michel Bettane

Olivier Humbrecht
Michel Bettane

According to Olivier Humbrecht—winemaker of the great land-locked estate in Alsace—what I’m noting is not saltiness at all.  He says, “It is the fraction on the palate that makes the wine taste more saline or salty. High acids or high tannins do not mean that the wine has lots of minerality.”

File ‘fraction on the palate’ with ‘complexing’ in WTF? wine-writer lexiconology, but French critic Michel Bettane seems to echo the salt-free sentiment: “A wine marked by salty undertones often are white wines rich in calcium and magnesium, as many mineral waters are.”

Domaine Comte Abbatucci Il Cavaliere Diplomate d’Empire, Ajaccio, Corsica, 2010, around $99.

labelThe wine that in this case launched a thousand words was a field blend from the highly regarded Corsican domaine of Comte Abbatucci; it is made from Vermentino, Biancu gentile, Brustiano, Benovese and Rossala bianca.  Reviews of the vintage from my esteemed colleagues describe it as ‘fresh, pretty wine with wet-rock minerality from the granite soil’ and ‘aromas of ripened yellow and exotic fruits with a touch of maquis fragrances’.

Not sure what ‘maquis fragrances’ are, but I’m sure they are quite complexing to the palate fractions.

usa-shipwreck-wine-1Well, what I smelled was good ol’ blow-the-man-down, yo-ho-ho, Neptune-approved ocean spray, more strongly that I recall having snorted out of any tulip or conch shell ever.  It was like nosing a fresh oyster, which is a fine thing in a freshly shucked Wellfleet, but  sort of head-scratching in a Vermentino.

But, better palates that mine found maquis and exotic fruits in the pricey potable, so the lesson learned here is simple, my droogies:

Take my tasting notes with a grain of salt.

Or bromophenols or dimethyl sulfide or maquises or whatever.




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Word, Wine Wimps: A Real Man Can Handle His Arsenic

broken_glass_carboyThe line between macho and third stage alcoholism may be a fine one, but here’s a true story: Two years ago I managed to break a carboy filled with dago red and I spent the rest of the afternoon not mopping it up, but sucking it up from the basement floor.

This is not to suggest that my descending colon is holier than thine (I imbibed through clenched teeth to avoid such an eventuality) but merely to say that real wine drinkers on a buzz-prowl don’t worry about two decades worth of rat droppings, waxy buildup or feet that have tracked in toxic chemicals from the garage.

When we drink wine, prone or upright, we do it with a sense of abandon, and if that occasionally requires that we abandon our health, our families and our jobs, it is a small enough price to pay:

We’re wine drinkers.

Enology’s Answer to Benghazi

mogendavidStories of arsenic in wine have made their requisite rounds recently, replayed ad nauseum (pun intended) by people bored with the Kardashians and unable to watch their neighbors drop dead of ebola because an ebola epidemic was never a threat to begin with. To them, the idea that cheap wines like Franzia, Mogen David and Almaden contain measurable levels of chemical element number 33 (which is the pet poison of most fictional murderers by the way, and thus, is literary) is less an excuse to panic than to brag that they are not in danger because they don’t drink such plonk.

And to them I say:  You are not a real wine drinker.

Top Of The Pontch: "Poisoning or non-poisoning section tonight?"

Top Of The Pontch: “Poisoning or non-poisoning section tonight?”

You see, to real wine drinkers, there are many categories of wine: There are wines one drinks with panache, wines one drinks at Top of the Pontch, wines one drinks to get punch-drunk and wines one drinks in a balls-out, cupboard-is-bare pinch.  All are equal under Bacchus and all are dependent on circumstance; thus, wines that contain  substances incompatible with life may be reserved for—and are often indispensible to—special occasions such as signing do-not-resuscitate orders, Truth or Dare drinking games and performing as the ultimate Janis Joplin impersonator.  And as ultimate Jimi Hendrix impersonators are fond of reminding us, you can choke to death as effectively on any wine, whether it contains arsenic or not.

One Man’s Mead is Another Man’s Poison

Thursday’s class-action lawsuit brought by a quartet of Californians merely puts a spotlight on the wussiness inherent in the worldview of modern wine consumers. Real wine drinkers owe a certain debt of gratitude to California, granted, but suing Mogen David because they use non-Kosher arsenic to poison customers?

That’s taking milktoast macholessness to the next level.

And in any case, when you actually read the report, we’re not talking much vino venom in the first place—around twenty parts per billion.

metrosexualLet me break that number down for you:  If only twenty men per billion exfoliated their skin, wore hair gel, got pedicures, gave a rat’s ass about fashion and whitened their teeth while sipping arsenic-free Moscato, there would not be much outcry about the emasculation of the American male, would there? In fact, the number of such tweety-birds is legion, and growing as aggressively as ebola virus in a Petri dish.  And where is ground zero for male-targeted grooming products, washboard abs, chest shaving and suing people because there’s D-Con in the Dolcetto?

Again, with Cali-debt acknowledged, it ain’t one of the post-industrial apocalyptic flyover states where I live.

waybackAllow me to dial the Wayback Machine to 1985 and the diethylene glycol ‘scare’ in which it was revealed that a number of Austrian winemakers had pumped up sweetness levels in their juice by using antifreeze. Although the result was the complete collapse of the Austrian wine industry, I am (as I may have mentioned) a real man, thus, I purchased 500 cases of said wine for a penny on the Euro.  Not only can I store it in my walk-in freezer, I was also able to convince colleagues that it was a brand new Austrian classification known as Prëstonekat and sold it to them for a dollar on the Euro.

1st Annual Agatha Christie Wine Pairing Dinner

And I have done likewise with all the tainted Two Buck, the corrupted Cupcake, the polluted Pomelo and the festering Fetzer I could lay my hands on.

"I detect traces of Corbett Canyon in his system, Sir Henry..."

“I detect traces of Corbett Canyon in his system, Sir Henry.”

Now, I formally invite all you real men to attend my first annual Agatha Christie Wine Pairing Dinner, where we will match arsenic-blemished wine with savory courses made from foodstuffs that Environmental Protection Agency also says contain toxic contaminants: Brussels sprouts, kale, dark-meat fish, rice, chicken and Round-Up.

As for anyone else, I challenge the most effeminate, clean-shaven, Renault-driving, Alfani-Spectrum-Slim-Fit-dress-shirt-wearing metrosexual among you to deny that (although you may may turn your sculpted noses up at Almaden Heritage White Zinfandel) you in fact cream all over brussels sprouts and kale, and in a completely Biblical sense.

Again, to you I say: You only live once:

Bottom’s up, bitches.

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Springtime Balancing Act: La Flor y La Abeja

For a wine person, I spend more time mocking wine conventions than I do attending them, but one of life’s primary sanity lessons is that sarcasm is free while a lecture on whether or not to de-stem grapes prior to crushing costs $115.

devils towerThat riveting conundrum will be addressed next week in Houston at the ‘In Pursuit of Balance’ festival, which co-founder Jasmine Hirsch describes in terms purloined from those Close Encounters masses huddled beneath Devil’s Tower:

“We are a gathering of believers.”

IPOB logoWhat ‘In Pursuit of Balance’ and its 33 member wineries believe—other than the pursuit of selling expensive tickets and pissing off Robert Parker Jr.—is not hard to determine since they’ve issued a Unabomber-like manifesto.  In brief, IPOB (as they prefer to be known) maintains that ‘balance’ is the foundation of fine wine and that California’s foray into the ocean of potables have produced too many big, full-bodied and high-alcohol entries at the expense of poise and finesse.  Focusing on California Pinot noirs and Chardonnays, the group’s avowed purpose is not to await some mothership filled with skinny aliens who prefer Burgundy, but to ‘lay the groundwork for discussion’.

Clipboard mashIt’s not the mission I object to, of course, but the price tag.  Thus, as IPOB wannabes, feel free to discuss balance on this site, free of charge, and if you need a photo of my house and two pounds of mashed potatoes to get you here, message me.

Putting the ‘Bee’ in Balance

In any case, discussions about balance come up frequently during wine tastings, and indeed, it’s sort of our Groupie Grail.  When a single element in a wine overshadows the others (loudmouth acidity or vice-grip tannins, for example) the sensory experience is proportionately diminished.  Balance has beginnings long before the grapes hit the crusher; ripeness of the fruit and concentration of the juice all play  roles; chemical manipulation by winemakers may adjust some of the elements that are out of whack, but (like chaptalization) artificial addendums to correct natural flaws must always be viewed with a certain begrudging skepticism.

Nik Wallenda, following in his father's footsteps?

Nik Wallenda, following in his father’s footsteps?

Tucking into a couple of wines from the Ribeiro region of Southern Galicia yesterday, I had sort of a eureka moment about the whole notion of balance.  One thing I’ve noticed over the years, (and no doubt you have to) is that frequently, otherwise wonderful wines show a weighted dominance in either nose or palate.  In other words, a wine which displays remarkably deep aromatic layers may show up somewhat one dimensional in the mouth, while a luscious mouthfeel may be restrained in the bouquet.  Traditionally, I’ve attributed the phenomenon to bottle shock, wine served at the wrong temperature or wine that has been open too long or too briefly, but ultimately, all are excuses meant to cover a wine’s imbalance, which may or may not be innate.  What this indicates is that whoever is responsible for serving a wine plays as a vital role in showcasing its proper profile as the winemaker.

labelAnd the reason this came up is that the wine, La Flor y La Abeja 2013 ($22)—an overwhelmingly approachable wine from Coto de Gomariz made with the local white varietal Treixadura—displayed a weight equilibrium between nose and tongue that proved noteworthy enough to drive an entire column.

All the other components in the wine happen to be in synch as well—the nose is filled with floral bravado, with peach and mint behind the brine scents that sometimes appears in coastal wines, reflected again in  the lemony, peachy, mineral-rich palate.

For those unfamiliar with Ribeiro, it’s a tiny D.O. (11 square miles) in western Spain; it lies in a valley intersected by four rivers Miño, Arnoia, Avia and Barbantiño. The climate tends to be wet and humid, but the soils are primarily sandy and drain well; vines can be found on the valley floor and on slope-side terraces known as socalcos. Treixadura is primarily a blending grape, but when vinified alone displays a marvelous palette of fruit, flowers and stone.

Xosé Lois Sebio’

Xosé Lois Sebio

If anything, the racy red-wine grape Sousón is even less known outside the appellation than Treixadura, and Coto de Gomariz vinifies a miniscule amount under the La Flor y La Abeja label.  In it, bright cranberry flavors, black pepper, rhubarb and cassis play against the traction of tartness; there’s a palpable whiff of iodine in the bouquet, perhaps a ruby-red response to the brine scents in the white.  Although not as massive as the white, winemaker Xosé Lois Sebio’s interpretation of Sousón (like his Treixadura) highlights the exotic subtleties that often appear in indigenous varietals, particularly in the Iberian peninsula.

Both are metaphorically perfect as Springtime sippers—blossom-fresh, cool and succulent, bright with promise. And in a column about balance, both are ideal accompaniments to the Equinox.

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