Unnatural Detroit, Naturally


…I’m taking a brief sabbatical from Intoxicology Report to write a pair of wine books.  ‘Norton Wine: Walking Off To Look For America’, a book about a genuine native American varietal that can, in its best incarnation, rival vitis vinifera.  And ‘Starstruck In Lodi Again’, a book about that fascinating California appellation where some of the most intense and underappreciated wines are coming into their own.

In the meantime, I am releasing in serial form a supernatural novel set in the streets of Detroit, ‘The Jinx Fragment’.

I will link the novel here with an excerpt from each chapter as it is released, and if you want more, you can follow the story through the ethers.  The novel is illustrated by my son Jesse, who has a supernatural gift of his own…


‘The Jinx Fragment’


Bex stood on the corner of Benodet and Havre and squinted at the Shell Mini Stop. The whole McDougall-Stout hood called it the Shell Mini Stop even though the shop hadn’t belonged to Shell or sold gas or even had a visible sign for longer than anyone knew or cared; it was a tagged, tired and tumble-down relic and inside you could buy dusty candy and Swisher Sweets and Scorpio and cigarettes and lotto tickets and blunt wraps.

You could also buy SpaghettiOs, and Bex needed to pick up two cans for Grasshopper’s dinner. SpaghettiOs was the only thing that Grasshopper would eat on Tuesdays and Thursdays and today was Thursday and Grasshopper was unable to fend for himself out here, even to walk a block to the Mini Stop. He was preoccupied and driven by strange ideas, strange visions and Bex took care of his dinners for him.

jinxch1Unfortunately, tonight, eight neighborhood Scril Boyz bangers had decided to play their janked-up game with the Mini Stop owner, a nervous, clay-colored Sikh named Singh. They wanted to remind him that this was a hood mart, their hood mart and they owned it, not him, so they piled into the cramped aisle, poured the pot of coffee on the floor, stole some Skittles and Nacho Cheese Doritos and sat on the counter in front of the ballistic curtain behind which Singh skulked, peering out as they chased away at least a couple of customers. One was a street dude with puffy thyroid eyes and a stringy beard trying to buy cheap wine and the other was an elegant fellow in a black and white dashiki pant set who looked almost Biblical.

Normally, this would not have been too much of a problem for Bex, because the Scril Boyz looked out for him and called him Li’l Brah, even understanding that dope slangin was not his deal. Bex was fourteen years old—an age by which most of them had been jumped-in with so-called acts of love that ended in broken ribs and concussions—but these were kids with minds to want this.

For whatever reason, Bex wasn’t.

But it was cool because his uncle Chebby had been high up on the Scril Boyz food chain—one of the blood-in/blood-out O.G.S—and the others, those who came later, had sworn to have his family’s back after Chebby was killed. On any other night, Bex could have just snaked between the Scril Boyz and taken Grasshopper’s two cans of SpaghettiOs and paid Singh for them later without the brothers knowing.

But tonight, there was a sudden writhing from the shadowy tunnel that was Eschambault street and Bex knew what it was and he knew that it wasn’t good.

Bex was small for his age, hollow-thin with high, cramped shoulders, lithe limbs and narrow eyes that did a lot of moving around. This was mostly the nervous tension that came with the hood, but when Bex’s gaze began to oscillate and shift, it often looked out of place.  He had streamlined features—a finely textured face, panther black, glittery black, glossy black—but it was generally frozen with a sort of protective inertia. When his eyes darted it was unsettling and looked like secret lights moving inside an onyx statue.

Now his ears perked up as well. From the gloom behind the red-brick corpse of Elkin Corporation—a long-gone maker of milling equipment—a storm of motorcycle engines came as a single quick peal. It was like all the Dynas and Softails and Street Bobs had been startled by something and were now awake and angry…

For the rest, and more:



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Ken Schramm: A Friend With Mead is a Friend Indeed

EXTERIORWalk through the door of Schramm’s Mead and you’ll likely encounter two kinds of individual: Those who have no idea what mead is and those who know who the American Homebrewers Association named 1984’s ‘Meadmaker of the Year’.

I’m guessing that the former category includes most of the walk-in trade visiting the comfy, street side meadery on W. 9 Mile in Ferndale, MI, and I’m confident that the latter is restricted to a single dude, Ken Schramm.

Schramm, who has operated the place since 2013, learned to master the art of turning ambrosia (honey) into alcoholic ambrosia (mead) from Bill Pfeiffer, considered by many to be the the best meadmaker (as well as the best home brewer) the state of Michigan has ever produced.

For the record, Pfeiffer passed in early May, 2000—just as the bees were beginning to stir in their hives.

Ken Schramm in his native habitat

Ken Schramm in his native habitat

Although finding the majesty behind meadmaking took decades, Ken Schramm discovered the groundwork techniques when his brother bought him a book about basement brewing in the 1980s.  At the time, his career path was in television—he was a production supervisor for the Pistons for many years, and in fact, a nice chunk of our interview involved a primer course in why Detroit is home to an industry-envied gang of sports producers whose talents often outstrip the teams they’re filming.

These twin passions may seem random, but in fact, both require a certain meticulous mindset.  Those who have it know it and may make Emmy-winning television and kick-ass mead, while those who don’t often mock it as overtly anal and requiring an eyeroll-level of detail-sweating.  I’m in the latter category; and, in consequence, I’m not sure which end of a camera you’re supposed to look through while my homemade mead sucks: And I’ve been keeping bees in the backyard for a generation.

Fair to say that in the hour I spent with Ken Schramm I learned a little about video production and a whole lot about what’s been going wrong with my mead.

The Good, The Bad and The Rip-off

graduateHere’s how it happened:

Ken Schramm draped an avuncular arm over my shoulder and took me for a stroll by the pool, saying, “Chris, Chris, I want to say one word to you.  Just one word:  Nitrogen.”

It was a lot like ‘The Graduate’, only without the sex.

It turns out that if you intend to make decent wine out of honey,  it has a different bucket list needs than grapes, and the primary thing you have to do is boost the nitrogen level.  Without it, the all-important primary fermentation results in stressed yeast, and some of the undesirable flavors produced (and evident in my mead) are burnt rubber and rubbing alcohol.

The simple addition of Diammonium Phosphate in this critical, opening volley of meadmaking takes care of that.

As referenced in the section heading, my mead is bad, but since I’m not licensed to sell it, no harm, no foul.  No rip-off; mine is merely a learning curve.

I will, however—with malice aforethought—contrast my tasting of Ken Schramm’s meads, which are intrinsically, objectively and immediately delicious, with a very bad experience I recently had with another local product.

mcbwThis one suckered me with the back-story:

Motor City Brewing Works claims they discovered a barrel of mead they’d forgotten about, which had been been aging like a dusty cask of Amontillado for lo, these seven year.  They bottled it in 5 oz. portions, one of which I purchased at a local beer store, quite intrigued and prepared to learn what honey wine does when, like Fortunato’s bones, in pace it requiescats.

What I paid ten bucks for was a mouthful of stank, totally oxidized, and not in a stable, vintage Amontillado sort of way.

Now, I get the whole caveat emptor concept, and my concern is not for my sawbuck, but for yours: If this is the first experience you have with mead, it will likely be your last.

I love this logo. Pun central.  Look closely and you'll see Ken's bar bee.

I love this logo. Pun central. Look closely and you’ll see Ken’s bar bee.

Schramm’s Mead is the beacon on the horizon when most meads flounder in the sea of mediocrity like mine, or are sucked into a maelstrom of unintended pollution like MCBW’s.

Ken understands this—and has, in fact, invested a huge portion of his nest egg—into doing it the right way.

The mead mantra, as it is in all things consumable, is that your end product is never better than the ingredients that make it up.  To produce good mead, you need good honey, and to produce great mead, the raw stuff needs to perch upon the same plateau of exultation.  These days, thanks in part to the phenomenon known as ‘colony collapse disorder’, the bottom has dropped from under the apiary industry, and honey ain’t cheap.

As a result, for the same five ounces of Schramm’s mead, your tariff will push double digits, but that’s  because unlike MCBW, Schramm’s is no scam.  He begins with superb honey purchased in bulk, a lot of it from the orange groves in California, and dilutes it to what wine people recognize as 40 degrees Brix.  That allows fermentation to a suitable level of alcohol-by-volume—around 14%—while maintaining what wine people also know as ‘residual sugar’.  In a dessert wine, a high level of RS is a consummation devoutly to be wished; it acts a preservative and, when suitably balanced with acid, does not come across as cloying or undrinkably sweet.

Ah, but the acidity: Another fundamental difference between honey and grapes rears its head.  According to Ken, “The naturally-occurring acids in honey are gluconic, whereas grape acids are primarily tartaric, malic and citric.  Since organic acids interact with other compounds to equal flavor, understanding gluconic acids is—especially for wine lovers—something basic to measuring mead quality.”

Bee in the Now

PORTRAITTeaching the uninitiated to understand mead is part of Ken’s mission du passion, and one of the reasons he does not currently offer a dry mead is because—as is mirrored the appreciation progression of most wine drinkers who begin by liking sweet wines and graduate to dry wines—it takes a unique breed of meadist to love this style.  In in the meantime, he needs to keep his doors open and bills paid.

He does, however, offer lusciously sweet meads in which fresh, high-quality fruits and spices have macerated throughout fermentation, and these are some remarkable beverages indeed.

‘Ginger’ is a delightfully spicy, bracingly acidic mead with a bit of heat on the palate.  He uses quality ginger, citing the adage about making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but has future plans to seek out the ne plus ultra of the world’s ginger supply, which he believes originates in Jamaica and Hawaii.  Alas, he is unable to buy it in bulk, peeled and pre-crushed—an operation so labor intensive that it would place his bottom-line on life support.

As it is, if he’d have run the business plan—opening an upscale meadery a mile from Detroit—on Shark Tank, they’d have fed him to the piranhas.

menu‘Apple Crisp’ is so creamy that I asked Ken if it had gone through the secondary fermentation known as malolactic, in which malic acid is transformed into the lactic acid found in cream. It’s a winemaker trick to soothe overtly acidic wines, but often requires a nudge from the vintner; Ken is, for the most part, a non-interventionalist.  The quality I noted, along with the potpourri medley that smells like your grandmother’s linen chest, is the result of the apple/spice blend he relies upon.

‘Blackberry’ represents Schramm’s foray into ‘red wine’, primarily because it is made from fresh blackberries sourced from Willamette Valley in Oregon, also ground zero for phenomenal American Pinot Noir.  The mead is touch with tannins, which are inherent in the seeds of the blackberries—the hefty tannins in barrel-aged wine is often the work of often astringent vanillin in oak; anthocyanins in fruit seeds and stems is an entirely different, and much more tamable beast.  This mead is juicy and sweet, both ponderous and pretty.

awards‘The Statement’ makes no statement as to the sort of fruit it features, but I will: Balaton cherries from Traverse City.  I wrote a whole chapter about the cherry doc (Amy Iezzoni) to whom Michigan owes the introduction of this superb wine cherry, which reaches sweetness levels unheard of in tart cherries, and retains the titratable acids unheard of in black cherries.

This is my favorite of the bunch, balanced and scrumptious, and Ken tells me he has an even better one aging at home.

Finally, ‘Black Raspberry’ packs such a olfactory wallop that it’s served in a brandy snifter.  Indeed, it is true to both the subtle notes in black raspberries and honey, and contains such a pronounced level of the anthocyanins mentioned above that it is a mead that will require some aging before these tannins mellow out.

Honey on spoon

And therein lies an overcomable issue in the nascent national mead industry: Like all controlled substances, mead falls under the legal jurisdiction of the TTB and it is beholden to federal regulations.  As of now, Schramm cannot list a vintage date on his mead labels, because the jackboots in Washington have not figured out how to verify the data.  When they do, this is the sort of mead that will become prized for the year it was produced.

In any case, there’s your free, introductory course in meadology.  Now, go and make yourself useful…

Meading of the Minds

That means that when you stop by Schramm’s Mead, you’ll have zero excuse for being among the mead moronic and should be able to taste with shrewdness and perspicacity.

Although gentlemen, please be advised to check your ‘buzz’ puns at the door.


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When Chefs Go Rogue: Tesar Tasers Tony B.

Jimmy+Carter+Playboy+1976I’m old enough to remember when Jimmy Carter almost deep-sixed his 1976 presidential bid by telling Playboy magazine that he ‘lusted after women in his heart’.

In those days, a pious Christian family-man simply did not make those sorts of admissions, especially while running for president. And even though we all lust after people in our hearts—even those of us without hearts like Dick Cheney or the Tin Man—back then, gut-level honesty from presidential candidates was neither appreciated nor understood.

You can easily see how far the pendulum has swung in the other direction: Today, a presidential candidate essentially announces that he hates all Muslims and immigrants and ugly women and he’s his party’s front-runner.

Oo-ee-oo I look just like Buddy Holly; Oh-oh, and you're Mary Tyler Moore... ♫

‘Oo-ee-oo I look just like Buddy Holly;
Oh-oh, and you’re Mary Tyler Moore… ‘♫

So the idea that Chef John Tesar’s recent, borderline insane tirade in Playboy magazine would hurt his professional reputation is open to debate.  In course of that brief, rambling interview, he manages to skewer not only the city that hosts his restaurants (Dallas), critics who don’t like his restaurants (Leslie Brenner), Southern people in general (“We smile in your face and then when you leave the room we just talk shit about you”), but his far-more-accomplished colleagues (“Anthony Bourdain is one of the shittiest chefs that ever lived”).

It’s a brave new world, baby, and we all take innate pleasure in watching people like John Tesar undergo self-orchestrated psychological meltdowns on a public forum.

On the other hand, since Playboy is basically irrelevant in  the 21st century—especially since they stopped including centerfolds that our hearts could lust after—and Tesar was never particularly relevant in any century, and since the old marketing mantra ‘any publicity is good publicity’ is bullshit to begin with (let me know the next time Bill Cosby sells out a venue or Charlie Sheen lands a job), anybody who connects the dots and thinks this sort of interview is a sound business strategy must be from some parallel PR universe.

Gnatalie MacLean

Gnatalie MacLean

Now, if you happen to follow this column, I know what you’re thinking:

I expend a lot of virtual ink making merry over the foibles and failings and general fuck-upperies of my colleagues, and over the past twelve months I have probably made as many enemies as friends.  On the surface, the gap between what Tesar said about Tony Bourdain and my contention that my more-accomplished colleague Natalie MacLean is one of the shittiest wine writers that ever lived, may seem miniscule.

So, Here’s The Difference, All Y’all:

abcIntoxicology Report is sheer schtick—it’s fundamentally a satirical site in which I wedge a little wine knowledge into a stand-up routine.  I may be less vitriolic in person, but I lust after readers in my heart, and the basic, ground-level truth is that when I write a piece in which I ridicule the pomp and circumstance surrounding the wine industry, my daily hit count goes through the roof.  If instead I write about the discovery of a small-production, inexpensive Riesling from the central Pyrenees and check my stats, I’m Jared Fogle offering career advice at a Harvard commencement ceremony.

It Ain’t What It Ain’t, and That’s All It Never Can Be

I’m not selling a commodity in which quality and personal integrity is a particular goal—in fact, Intoxicology Report is, by intent and execution, the precise opposite of such business ventures.  It’s neither for sale to readers nor advertisers, and it doesn’t depend upon the financial munificence of customers to succeed.

My PayPal account remains equally empty if you love what I write or hate it.

‘’Rs’ Яn’t Us…

dinner-menu-However, a restaurateur—whose particular pecuniary pursuit is placing posteriors in pews—should at least consider that being a public prick doesn’t necessarily translate into salivating patrons lining up at his dining room’s doors.  In other words, whereas I am happy to read Tesar’s vitriol online for free, I am not in the least tempted to thereupon drop $80 an inch for 240-day dry-aged steak at Knife or $22 for raw tuna, which his Oak menu lists under the ‘R’-free category ‘Appetize’.

Had Tesar spent a single paragraph of his rare Playboy interview opportunity explaining to me why I should want tohow a chef can influence the prominence of certain beef flavors by altering temperature and humidity in the aging environment, and not why Anthony Bourdain (with whom he cooked at the Supper Club) is ‘dragged around by his dick by his wife’—I might be.

Playboy magazine, however, is not the least bit interested in John Tesar’s culinary techniques, as is obvious by the questions posed by the self-described ‘resident hangover specialist’ Alyson Sheppard, who probably fancies herself lust-worthy in some parallel Playboy universe.  She was interested in scoring headline fodder, not plugging Tesar’s endeavors, and knowing that the anger-prone chef needs very little nudging to trash great swaths of humanity in a single bound, she fulfilled her mission.

What’s sort of sad is that Chef John Tesar missed a chance to sell his talent and instead took Playboy’s click-bait hook, line and sinker—to the same sort of personal peril as one of the Alaskan halibuts he slathers with ‘brandade’ and ‘rouille’ and wants to sell me for $42.

Ah, well. Not my flying circus, is it?

Into the New Year with hope, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.




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Like We All Haven’t Done That, #682

An Open Letter to Josseleen Elida Lopez:

Don’t let the bastards get you down, sugar-hips: We’ve all outlived these kinds of moral meltdowns.

Josseleen Elida Lopez

Josseleen Elida Lopez

I’m referring to your recent 15 minutes of fame where your 15% blood alcohol level will likely net you 15 months in county lock-up.

During your brush with notoriety—as you’d probably remember if it wasn’t for that occupational hazard known as ‘blacking out’—you showed up at your favorite Wal-Mart with a slight methamphetamine glow and spent the next quarter hour tooling around in a motorized shopping cart devouring sushi and donuts and rotisserie chicken while swilling wine.

Now, it is fair to say that your choice of beverage makes your tale of particular interest to the readers of Intoxicology Report, which is, of course, a column about getting intoxicated on wine.

In fairness to them, however—at least those of them with what we in the trade refer to as ‘a good palate’—the total bill you racked up during your soirée was a whopping $32.36.

sushiSo, beginning with the premise that, following your shopping excursion, you had no intention of paying for anything anyway, let’s examine how you handled yourself.

First, according to the police report, you consumed ‘a box of sushi from the shelf’.  Now, I am not sure how they handle raw fish in Florida where your crime took place, but here in Michigan one would be hard pressed to find sushi in a box on a shelf.  That said, if what you actually did was eat a container of sushi from a cooler, I would assume that modestly, that would run a paying customer around ten dollars.

mini muffinsAdditionally, you ate a cinnamon roll and a mini-muffin. Based on my Google research, this extravagance was probably worth a total of six bucks, because even if you only ate one of each, once you open a package, it is somewhat difficult to sell the unconsumed remainder.

Stick with me here, snicker-doodle.

Let us now turn our attention to the rotisserie chicken.  At my local Kroger outlet, such fragrant delicacies are quite reasonably priced at $6.99, and although I have never consumed one ‘in store’, the smell that wafts from the appropriately-vented package  is so enticing that I have been sorely tempted to do so—and more than once. As the non-Caucasians say, Josseleen baby: ‘I feel ya.’

rotisserie chickenThe report is careful to point out that you consumed ‘the majority of’ the bird, which may or may not be an attempt to maximize your liability, although I think you would have been hung just as highly upon the gallows of justice had you consumed naught but a lone rotisseried gizzard.

Don’t confuse that with legal advice, however, because I am not licensed to offer it.  Neither is my pal Niagara Detroit, who nonetheless advises you to go with the ‘Well, EXCUSE ME for living…’ defense.

To tally  your comestibles, therefore, we are at $22.99.  Leaving you with $9.27 to account for the wine.

Here is where we start to have a problem, inamorata.

The original Wal-Mart still stands in Knob Lick, Arkansas

The original Wal-Mart still stands in Knob Lick, Arkansas

According to an article that appeared in U.S. Business entitled ‘Wal-Mart Turns Attention to Upscale Shoppers’, the pustulant hillbilly general-store-on-androgenic anabolics has ‘overcome its rural roots and downscale image to attract affluent shoppers.’

The piece goes on to say, ‘…the nation’s largest retailer is opening new stores this week with an expanded selection of high-end electronics, more fine jewelry, hundreds of types of wine ranging up to $500 a bottle, and even a sushi bar.’

So there you have it.  When I free-associate the concept of Wal-mart with food, I come up with Vienna Sausages, Funyuns, Velveeta Cheese—the only cheese you can heat without it getting all weird—and Steak-Umms long before I do sushi. So the fact that you, Ms. Elida Lopez, were able to do a personal honing radar lock on raw flying-fish eggs and tuna belly within your allotted fifteen minutes of fame indicates to me that you were in one of the upper-scalier Wal-Marts.

Am I wrong?

Thus, if you had the option of shoplifting a $500 bottle of 2003 Screaming Eagle Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or a sub-ten dollar bottle of Vendange Sweet Moscato (both of which are the same size, BTW—25.3605 fluid ounces) , and chose to travel the budget-basement route for no conceivable reason than you don’t know shit from shinola about  wine, then, alas, after all the high-fiving and thumbs-upping I had planned in honor of your wild and wooly Wal-Mart whirl, I come to a single inescapable conclusion:

You are not as bright as your biography indicates.

Love, Funny Uncle Chris



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Dreaming of a Black Plague Christmas? Here’s the Ticket…

As you can well imagine, Christmas traditions are very important at the Kassel homestead.  As such, all the bad little Kasselites found fossilized carbon in their stockings this year and the bad little wine patriarch—moi—ended up with vinegar.

But not just any vinegar mind you: Four Thieves vinegar.  This concoction, prepared by my daughter Erica—who is an anthropologist and does all sorts of research into particularly macabre periods of human history—had significant import during the 14th century.

black death nose coneIn medieval times, Four Thieves vinegar was used as a homeopathic weapon against the Bubonic plague.

There are as many recipes for Four Thieves vinegar as there are Black Death victims too stubborn to trust this magical elixir, but it a fair statement that every single one of us alive today owes our very existence to distant relatives who either filled their nose cones with the pungent fluid, drank it in shot glasses, rubbed it behind their ears like Chanel No. 5 or never came in contact with the plague to begin with.

vinegarErica’s recipe is adapted from the one that has been hanging on  the walls of the Museum of Paris since 1937.  It is as follows:

Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of champhor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express then bottle. Use by rubbing it on the hands, ears and temples from time to time when approaching a plague victim.

Normally, such a life-sustaining gift from an offspring would rank somewhere between a kidney donation and a personal Papal blessing from the  Elemosineria Apostolica, but as we all know, Bubonic plague today can be cured with antibiotics.  Thus, contracting it—then promptly being cured of it—is high on my bucket list of accomplishments I have planned for the upcoming calendar year.

I may now embrace Erica without fear of contracting bubonic plague

I embrace Erica without fear of contracting bubonic plague

But, I have now made a solemn vow to my daughter that in between intentionally infecting myself with Yersinia pestis coccobacillum and rushing myself to the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital, I will first try her touching, heart-felt, lovingly-given home remedy.  As a family, we Kassels are big into the Cure Local movement, and are—to a felon—do-it-yourself types.

I have agreed to wait until the first blackish tumor appears in my groin and I begin vomiting blood before tossing in the pus-drenched towel and dialing 911.

Of course, I have little doubt that this will be necessary. They couldn’t hang it in the Museum of Paris if it wasn’t true, could they?

Keeping the ‘E’ in ‘ChipotlE’

chipotle-ranch-saladAt very least, Four Thieves vinegar is delicious and makes a marvelous acidic counterpoint to the oil in any homeopathic, plague-busting salad dressing.

And by coincidence, I have just discovered a recipe for ‘Chipotle’s Ranch Salad with Handmade Guacamole and Tortilla Strips’ hanging on the wall of the Museum of Food Poisoning, so by sheer topical coincidence, we shall also discover if Four Thieves vinegar is likewise a remedy for the dreaded E. Coli Plague of 2015.

Onward and upward, droogies and Kasselinis.

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I’m The Bluto of SommDay School

Mea Maxima Culpa: On occasion, I pick on Master Sommeliers.  That happens to be cold-ass reality; I’m in the wine game for the lolz, not for the respect or the badges or the profits.

steve martinAnd my issue—if you can legitimately call it that, which you probably can’t—is that the whole mysterious aura of wine supremacy surrounding the Court of the Master Sommeliers funnels down to what Navin ‘The Jerk’ Johnson discovers in his eureka moment:  It’s ‘a profit game’.

Not only that, but the entire mystique is largely self-generated and self-perpetuating anyway, and the Masterhood—the top honor the Court bestows upon the wine world’s equivalent of gamer nerds seeking the ultimate level in Super Mario Maker (currently held by someone named Bananasaurus Rex; ‘nuff said?)—is generally billed among wannabes as ‘the consummation devoutly to be wished’.

marioTruth is, that bill that winds up being staggeringly high, and a lot of the payout—although by no means all of it—lands in the pocket of the Court and their derivative businesses.  The rest is the small fortune you will need to spend on wine tasting to have even a snowball’s chance of passing the MS exam.

Putting The $ Back in Chri$tma$

gaiserI bring this up in the season of pacem mittere in terram et in hominibus bonae voluntatis because over the last few days, my inbox has been bombarded with emails from the Napa Valley Wine Academy giving me the hard-sell on an opportunity to attend SommDay School.

SommDay School. How cute is that?

What my (or yours, if that’s what you’re giving me for X-Mo) three hundred dollars buys is a chance to learn the following tricks-of-the-trade, which the ad is careful to assure me ‘are not as clear-cut as you’d think’:

  • The attitude, demeanor and professional behavior of the Sommelier
  • Communication skills: speaking and listening with confidence
  • Service basics: mise en place and more
  • Champagne service
  • Decanting red wine
  • Food and wine pairing basics
  • Wine list construction basics
  • Dealing with customer service challenges
Getting Gaiserized is like getting Martinized, but more formidable.

Getting Gaiserized is like getting Martinized, but more formidable.

What another few hundred bucks buys me is the plane ticket to Napa I’ll need to attend the January 13 class, where Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser presides over seven what-I-am-guessing-will-be excruciatingly dull hours.

The advertisement refers to Gaiser as ‘formidable’.

Formidable? Oh, for Christ’s sake.

Wake Me When It’s Over…

Forget for a moment that I will happily teach you all of these things for free if you are willing to hitchhike to Detroit and don’t mind the smell of dried, illegal herbery on my breath.  Your other alternative is to spend at least as much as SommDay School costs on a computer, whereupon you can look all this stuff up gratis.

Of course, that presumes you don’t already have a computer and really find value-add in standing in the rarefied presence of a real live Ph.D. (a dorktorate, according to the Sommelier Glossary).

In which case, vaya con Dios, suckers.

The SommScouts of America

boy scoutNow I am going to make an analogy which will only be grokked by those among you who were Boy Scouts in the day when it was actually cool to be one, which would be the mid 1970s in Michigan, anyway.  I joined the Boy Scouts because I loved being outdoors, loved camping, loved shooting rifles and bows, loved a chance to get away from my parents and sleep outside over long, delicious weekends.

It was a little like the Army, only you could quit whenever you wanted without going to jail or getting executed, and they didn’t encourage you to kill kids from other Scout troops.

As I recall, rules were few, and you didn’t need to attend $300 Scoutday School to learn them—they were, in fact, as clear-cut as you’d think.  What I do recall was the sheer unbridled joy behind the concept: The physical exertion, the comradery and above all, the freedom to unleash a little pent-up boydom in a relatively adult-free environment.

Like the Court of Master Sommeliers, there were various strata of Scoutery.  If you were so inclined, you advanced from Tenderfoot to Second Class, to First Class, to Heart, to Life, and then—if you were the sort of anal individual who likes to set ridiculously lofty goals—Eagle Scout.

The problem you encountered along the way was pretty close to that involving Master Sommeliership, and that’s why the analogy works:

badgesAs you ‘advanced’ in the Boy Scout hierarchy, the fun diminished in lock-step with the laurels.  The focus was on progressively more difficult achievements and more arcane rote, such as going on idiotically long hikes and learning ludicrously useless knot-tying skills which might have served you if your career goals including being a pirate on the Jolly Roger, but in real-time life, were of no worth whatsoever.  The quest suddenly became less about boyish liberty and more about the opposite: Rigid and controlled knowledge acquisition—some esoteric, some practical—but mostly the same level of bullshit they were meanwhile drilling into our heads in school, which you could not quit anytime you wanted.

The Eagle Scouts of that world, on their feverish and endless dragon-chase for merit badges, were the Master Sommeliers of this one: People who take inordinate satisfaction in memorizing a shitload of idiotic minutiae simply to pin a badge on themselves.

And somewhere along the way, the undisciplined fun and purity of the scenario, be it wine or wilderness, is replaced by academics.

I have no doubt that it sneaks up on you too—one merit badge is too many and a hundred is not enough.

blutoTo Each His Own, And To Own Her Each…

Some of my best friends are Master Sommeliers, and everybody finds their own path to excellence based on personal standards.  No argument here.  But I can say without fear of contradiction that for me, in the Court of Master Sommeliers I am much more comfortable in the role of court jester.

Ite, missa est.

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Château de Maltroye and Why I Don’t Write Wine Books Like Hugh Johnson

Someone whose palate I respect poured a wine saying, “This is what California Chardonnay wants to be when it grows up.”

Behind such a statement I can find many points with which to agree, but in general, although the idea that anyone can do anything as long as they put their mind to it may be good parental advice to a kid struggling with pre-calculus, in the world of botany, a simpler adage applies:

It is what it is.

signThe palmary palate person poured a 2014 Chassagne-Montrachet from Château de Maltroye, a domaine which—in its own words—‘encapsulates the vagaries of Chassagne,  much of it unwritten.’

Of the non-vagaries in California Chardonnay, much has been written, some of it accurate, some not, most of it (though not all) relatively complimentary.  When you consider the words written by the truly great wine writers of our time—Hugh Johnson, Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson (none of whom are Californians)—much solid interpretation can be found, both of grape and ground and resulting wine character.

One thing that none of them can deny, however (nor can you), is that more Californians claim to make Chardonnay in a ‘Burgundian style’ than Burgundians who claim (at least in public) to make Chardonnay in a Sonoman or Napanese style.

Remember, Poseur is a French Word…

California will never be France, and in every sense, shouldn’t try.  New world wines have, or should have, an entirely different way of approaching the classic flavors of Chardonnay, and that—in the simplest of psychology vs. physiology debates—is both the result of nature and nurture.  Which is why, for the most part, the rules governing the way Chardonnay is done in Burgundy is overseen by Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée regulations, written specifically to avoid generic tastes.

Old vine Chardonnay

Old vine Chardonnay

Not that there are not generic Burgundies, of course; there are plenty of them and these are principals in the abstract. But too often in California, the attempt to duplicate the mysterious splendor of lieu-dit is done by assigning wines specific vineyards names, then elevating the concept of ‘vineyard designated’ wines to some rarified stratum where they really don’t belong.  Time is on the side of the French, who have had many centuries to develop the concept; California Chardonnay producers (with a few exceptions) are dealing in decades.

And the simple truth remains that for the most part, a specific vineyard name on a New World bottle is in no way a guarantee of quality.  On the contrary, many of these wines would be better if they were blends.  The branding might suffer, but the wines would not; very few growing sites on Mama Geo can produce wines of absolute distinction, and for any number of reasons—geology and climate foremost—an awful lot of them landed in the narrow strip of land that is Burgundy.

Like Darwin, we are dealing in tendencies rather than absolute rules of thumb.  Or in this case, tongue.

Château de Maltroye Chassagne-Montrachet

The château at Maltroye

The château at Maltroye

Château de Maltroye is unusual from the very first glance; virtually every Bordeaux begins its name with the word ‘Château’ but few do in Burgundy. That’s both truth and tradition; like the direct English translation of poseur is ‘trying to act like something one ain’t’, château means ‘castle’.  Due to its climate and proximity to the sea, the Médoc especially has always been a destination land of wealth and distinction.  As a result, there are many meticulously preserved manor houses from the days of yore.

That cannot be said in mid-country Burgundy, and in fact, the immaculate 18th century château at the Clos Maltroye is one of only a very few in the region.  Other than the headquarters of Jadot and Bouchard Père, it would be difficult to name another.

And in any case, Burgundians are more interested in showing off the fruits of the vine, and less the pedigree of their nerve centers.  That’s why Château de Maltroye is careful to (and legally obliged to) label some wines as Grand crus, others as 1er cru and the rest as Villages.

Since that is a descending level of quality, the fairest contrast between a like-priced California Chardonnay ($55) is with the Château de Maltroye’s basic white Villages offering.

waltFor this price in California, I am buying a bottle of Cakebread Cellars Reserve Chardonnay from Carneros or a WALT ‘Dutton Ranch’ from the Russian River Valley—big, fat, in-your-face wines full of oak and butterscotch. At this end of the scale, California tends to provide Chardonnay making statements that are the social media equivalent of writing in all capital letters.

Some people legitimately like this style of wine; others are bullied into thinking they’re supposed to like it.  I have no beef with the first faction—with the other, I suggest that a red Bourgogne might go better with beef.

And In the Other Corner, Wearing the Hard-To-Pronounce French Trunks…

Montoye winmaker Jean-Pierre Cournet

Montoye winmaker Jean-Pierre Cournet

The damp-pavement minerality in the Château de Maltroye (mahl-twah) was so striking that at first, I thought it might be the glass itself—it has happened  in the past that glasses washed in certain municipal waters dry with a particular calcium residue that shows up when you first nose a wine.  So I sniffed out a perfectly clean glass, and tried again.  The same aroma, known as ‘petrichor’, was dominant, and the man with the bottle said that this particular aroma was a signature of the estate, and asked me to allow the wine a moment of respiration.  Et voilà, literally in the length of time it took me to carry the glass from one end of the counter to the other (to avoid some lilies that, for some reason, the tasting room displays) the wine exploded with an effusion of fruit and soft, buttery lusciousness—a transformation as quick and remarkable as dipping a litmus strip into a glass of lemon juice.

Typical walled clos in Chassagne-Montrachet

Typical walled clos in Chassagne-Montrachet

Along with the fruit, malic-acid creaminess and toasted almond richness were the discernible vagaries of Chassagne that the domaine mentions, which by wine writers are often encapsulated with the single, unsatisfying word, ‘complexity’.  When so many layers appear in a wine that describing them becomes an exercise in poetry florid enough to come across as ludicrous, they remain—as the domain also points out—unwritten.  Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, you may not be able to define complexity—or minerality for that matter—but you know it when you see it.

To me, these are the subtle notes that bespeak the centuries of Burgundian excellence, a wash of nuance, a bright shadow of flavors that are at once nutty, fruity and rocky; the quietness of the expression is the key, not the bombast that can be found in top California Chardonnay estates across the ocean.  No amount of ‘growing up’ will change the essential geology of Sonoma unless it somehow involves the San Andreas fault.

Alas (or not, depending on your preference) my prose leans towards an American level of boisterousness, while Johnson, Clarke and Robinson seem capable of phrasing passages with less noise and more import.

Hugh Johnson

Hugh Johnson

They’re who I’d like to be when I grow up.

Unfortunately, most of the factors that underscore the differences between French wine and California wine are about the very thing that both celebrate, terroir, leading to an inescapable conclusion:

You work with what you’ve got and try to make the most of it.

Which, in conclusion, is why I will never write wine books like Hugh Johnson.

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