There’s A Boner-Jam of Sommeliers… And Nobody Can Pronounce The Word

Pet Peeve

Pet Peeve

We all have our pet peeves, don’t we?  Whether it is people talking on cell phones at checkout counters, forms you have to fill out that don’t give you enough room to answer the questions, duck-face selfies and/or people who chew with their mouths open?  And the more anal retentive and passive-aggressive and OCD we are, the more pet peeves we seem to have.  Am I right?  Some of us have so many pet peeves that we need a petting zoo to contain them.

My pet peeve, of course, is people with pet peeves.

Take Hoppin’ John cookbook author, John Martin Taylor.  Now, if I had an angrier, pet peevier type of personality, I could mention how it makes me hoppin’ mad when people use colloquial spellings when naming businesses, like Toys Я Us and Tastee Freez.

Hoppin' John Martin Taylor

Hoppin’ John Martin Taylor

Or, how it sticks in my craw when people who are not serial killers insist on using all three of their names.  But, thanks to the miracle of psychoactive drugs, my anger is safely behind bars in the petting zoo of Benzodiazepines.

Anyway, the other day, John Martin Taylor made known one of his pet peeves.  Namely and verbatimly:

“If I hear one more person say “suh MAH lee ay” I am going to lose it. What I want to know is how the hell did a word spelled sommelier come to have an AH sound in it? “The suhMAHleeay suggested MO-AY to go with our BROOSHETTA.” As Charlie Brown used to say, “AAAAAAARRRRGGGHHH!!!”

I Think That Might Have Been Long John Silver, Not Charlie Brown, But…

arghWe’ll get into the specifics shortly.

First, if you are like me, you just said ‘sommelier’ out loud to see if you pass the Taylor test.  I did, and was briefly and outrageously so smug that I took a selfie and posted it to Duck-Face Book.  Then it occurred to me that if you look at the word ‘sommelier’, a glaring reality appears: The word ends in an ‘R’.  Not a Cyrillic, Communist, backward ‘R’ like the people at Toys Я A Menshevik Plot To Opiate The Masses use, but a good ol’ Amerrrrican ‘R’ such as you find in ‘Ronald Reagan’.

Not ‘Onald Eagan’, John Mahtin Taylah:  Rrrrronald Rrrrreagan.

Long John Collins

Long John Collins

The word ‘sommelier’ is French, you say?  So fucking what?  If you want to speak French, press two.  I say Detroit, not ‘Day-TWAH’‘Day-TWAH’ sounds totally Gay-TWAH.  And who says ‘Pah-REE’?  We say ‘Paris’, as in Hilton.

All the sudden, we are supposed to start dropping perfectly good letters in order to impress John Norman Collins, or whatever the Hoppin’ John dude’s name is?  No way, André.   Somm-uhl-YAHR.  It rhymes with Terr-WAHR.

And not for nothin, spell-check ‘hopping’, John: There’s a ‘G’ at the end of it.

Court of Master Hootch Hawkers

But a larger question has arisen.  Now that we know how to pronounce ‘sommelier’, do we even know what one is?  Do the big boys themselves, The Court of Master Sommeliers, know for sure what a sommelier does for a living?

marthaJohn Martin Taylor offered his own synonym:  A sommelier is a wine steward.

I’ll sign up to that, so long as there’s enough room on the form to do so, and provided nobody confuses ‘wine steward’ with serial killer Martha Jailbait Steward.

certified somBut sommelier is a restaurant position; can we at least agree on that?  Like a Sous (‘Soos’) Chef or a Maître d’hotel (‘MAY-ter DOH-tull)?  A sommelier directs a joint’s wine program, trains the staff, writes the list, curates the cellars, recommends rotgut to rouse a ravenous rabble.

And yet, if you want to go the official route, in order to call yourself a sommelier you have to write a check for $525 to the Court of Master Sommeliers and attend a two-day, ‘very fast-paced, intensive review’ of wine, memorize the ‘CMS Deductive Method of Blind Tasting’ and pass a written exam.

The only thing you don’t have to do is have a restaurant job.

To call yourself a ‘Certified Sommelier’, you have to pass Level II, which involves ponying up another $325 and taking an even tougher exam, including a Written Theory section, a blind tasting and demonstrable proof that you can open a bottle of Freixenet without putting out your cheap date’s blind eye.

Again, what you don’t need is an actual job in the restaurant industry.

Advanced Sommelier in typical attire

Advanced Sommelier in typical attire

Okay, I get it—like Navin R. Johnson discovered about weight-guessing, the Court of Master Sommeliers is a profit deal. And if they can sell a bunch of certificates and introductory course diplomas to the riffraff like so many Papal Indulgences, more power to them.  We’re not Bolsheviks, after all.

It all makes perfect sense, at least until you get to the third ‘level’ of sommelierdom, the ‘Advanced’ course.  Now, all the sudden, if you read the prerequisites, to qualify you need (beside $795) ‘at least three (3) years’ minimum experience, five (5) years suggested, in the front-of-the-house restaurant service industry.’

So there you have it.  After milking the masses and creating a phalanx of people who can call themselves sommeliers without actually being sommeliers, the Court ‘fesses up to what we all knew from the gitty up:

Sommelier is a restaurant position.

So maybe I do have a pet peeve:

Me as a sommelier recommending red wine with trout.

Me as a sommelier recommending red wine with trout.

Like Solomon Northup, I spent 12 years an indentured peckerwood with my little Court of the Master Sommelier certification pin stuck to my little black tuxedo label, schlepping plonk to the patricians.  That was two decades ago, and I promise you, it hasn’t occurred to me to refer to myself as a sommelier since.  Why?  For the simple reason that, despite the qualification, I’m not one.  In fact, it is the very same reason that I don’t refer to myself as a teenager—sophomoric wit notwithstanding; I was one once, but I’m not one now.  If I did, who would I be fooling?  Other than Stevie Wonder, who aced the blind tasting portion of the sommelier exam, by the way.

For those non-restaurant people who anted up, crammed up, practiced up, blind-tasted up and came up with a sommelier certificate, power to the people!

But although I hate to be the bearer of bad news, for you the proper pronunciation of ‘sommelier’ is [uhn-em-PLOID].

Arrrggghhh that, Charlie Brown.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The Funnel Of Snobbery: Here’s How It Works

In order to simplify elaborate concepts, certain ‘wine blogs’ rely on fancy graphics and colorful charts and educational posters and shit, and that’s just coolaballoolies: If you need life distilled to a See Dick Run picture book before you can grasp it, you have my sympathy.

Intoxicology Report—which relies on big, difficult and frequently made-up words to edificate the wine public—is probably not the wine column for you.

And by the way, cretins; if you see dick run, the solution is not Wine Folly, it’s penicillin.

Typical confusing bullshit chart

Typical confusing bullshit chart

Take my approach to the subject of wine snobbery, one of the most poorly understood and misused terms in the entire wine-appreciation lexicon.  It is mostly applied as a pejorative—like when you describe your hundred-dollar bottle of Chateau Musar as tasting like fermented horse manure.  Why? Because nobody who aspires to be a true wine pro (yet displays no MS or MW after their name) wants to be called a wine snob, because then everybody laughs and asks why, if you’re so smart, you don’t have an MS or MW after your name.

Better to feign humility going in, my friends.  Grovel and fawn, brown-nose and bootlick, and thus, never have to answer for your failure to justify any supercilious display of snobbery with professional qualifications.

That said, when it comes to wine, there is nothing  really wrong with being holier-than-thou, at least not on the surface.  Issues only begin to show up when you are called upon to rationalize the precise level of snobbery to which you aspire.

funnelBecause, of course, there are many strata therein. And some are more parvenu-ier than others. The very nature of the word  ‘snob’ indicates that you feel superior to those around you.  Thus, like the specific gravity driving residue down to the bottom of the cesspool, there must exist a funnel of snobbery—layers of snob degrees you must channel yourself down, filter yourself through,  until you finally reach your personal nadir of I’m-wine savvier-than-everyone-around-me.

And although I admit that a pretty piece of family-tree-style clip-art with branches and threads and squares for the various wine snob ranks would be appropriate here—even called for—my graphic resumé includes no such Folly-esque skill sets. *

* If any talented Samaritan among you would care to help me out, I will send you a Porta-Potty filled with all the brett-infected, overpriced and over-hyped Lebanese wine you can stomach.

The Peter Principle of Plonk

There’s a human condition first pointed out by Canadian hierarchiologist Laurence Peter which can be summarized like this:

‘Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.’

L.: Laurence Peter R.: Werewolf of London

L.: Laurence Peter
R.: Werewolf of London

The Peter Principle was cited in the late 1970s when the business world began to recognize an intrinsic problem with promoting managers based on their performance at current jobs.  What inevitably happens is that, since the corporate ladder climb consists of ambitious folks striving for the top, each one ultimately reaches a position where they cannot perform effectively enough at the new job to warrant further promotion.  Thus, they advance no further within their company, and as a result, managerial spots are filled with people who have reached their specific ‘level of incompetence’.

Since a ladder climb suggests an upward trajectory, and since I have chosen the funnel analogy to denote the downward, drain spout-like momentum of wine snobs, I will rename our ubiquitous Peter Principle the ‘Dick Doctrine’.

Nonetheless, you will see how, in a similar vein and for the identical reason that managers who rise like scum to the top of the schlock pot do, wine snobs will always descend to their own level of incompetence.

The Changing Face of The Superiority Complex

snobTime was, an American wine snob stood upon the shoulders of Napa and beat his chest relentlessly until everybody in the room shut up.  But soon enough, it became gauche to talk about Napa as a stand-alone , and you had to narrow your snobbery to an appellation within the appellation. Thus the funnel constricted to a specific point of egress depending on whether you preferred the maritime influence of Los Carneros, vineyards above the fog-line in the volcanic soils of Howell Mt. or the warmer weather of Wild Horse Valley.

And by ‘preferred’, of course I mean that you could dominate conversations by talking about it.

By the turn of the century, though, Napa and her satellites had become so full of themselves and wine cellars so packed with idiotically-priced Napanese goods that even wine snobs got sick of hearing the same old ditty.

So, the search began for trendier perches upon which their snobby little talons could alight, and because California is a breeding ground for fads, they began to find other places to yabber on about.

Take Paso Robles, among the voguiest California appellations, drawing   trendapoids like moths to a hot but brilliant flame.  As they are sucked inexorably into said flame, the Dick Doctrine can be viewed from start to finish in a carefully-controlled research setting.

“Are we there yet?”

First, the wine snob discovers Paso and considers the appellation to be a sort of untouched wild, wild wilderness, somewhere the plane might crash on a puddle jumper between L.A. and San Francisco.  They see Paso as Napa without the cosmopolitan zip code, the reputation pressures or the forty thousand-per-ton fruit, and, since they claim to love nothing more than a relaxed, simplified wine experience—unless it’s mentioning a hundred dollar bottle of hundred point wine you’ve never heard of—Paso it was.

And the fact that the Paso experience may be fraught with genuine dangers like getting bit by a tarantula or being stuck in an endless conversation about Penn State and Joe Paterno with Gary Eberle made it all the more exciting.



For a long time, the problem snobs encountered in Paso was that the funnel clogged itself up with the sheer non-complexity of the place.  Even though Paso Robles is three times as big as Napa, there weren’t all those varied microclimate-based sub-appellations you could struggle to memorize, then casually spew  when you ran out of things to say about JoePa and thus become snobbier.  You could talk about east and west Paso, but hell, you can do that with the earth’s hemispheres: It hardly makes you sound like the brightest bulb in the marquee.

Enter the Mother of Bureaucracy, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, who late last year authorized eleven sub-appellations for Paso—absolute snobification gold for those who thrive on arcane wine knowledge.  Now they can memorize all sorts of new place names, link them to soil types and growing degree days and Heat Summation regions, and really get the snob game on.

Drano_CrystalsThus, like a healthy dollop of Drāno to a clogged commode, the funnel flushed and the Dick Doctrine was able to drain freely; a sluice gate of snobs now flows across the calcareous hillsides and alluvial river basins of Paso like orcs pouring out of Mordor, each one destined to seek his or her own level of incompetence.

We’ll follow one case study via a timeline.  Our subject, who asked to remain nameless, is named Dick.

1980:   Dick brings a bottle of Mateus to a fondue party in Peoria.  His host, who becomes his snob sensei, pours it in the toilet and sticks a candle in the bottle, then serves a Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1968.  Dick sees the light and begins to circle around the flame: Top Napa Cabs. First, the super-ripe benchmarks—1970, 1974 and 1978—then , then, (as snobcosis takes hold) the more elegant odd-numbered vintages, 1969, 1973, 1975 and 1979.

1984:  Since Dick has letters after his name that are neither MS or MW, but DDS, he can afford to be selective in his newfound snobbery.  He is briefly sidetracked when everybody starts raving about 1982 Bordeaux and he discovers that he can pick up Château Lafite for $41 and Lynch Bages for $13.  It’s even cheaper en primeur, but Dick has not yet refined his game to the point where he knows what that means.

Dick is one of us:

Dick is one of us: “It’s all about the bass.”

2000: Dick is a good ol’ boy at heart; just a fat suburban dentist with a fat wife named Jane and two fat kids named Buddy and Squirt, and he soon focuses on California again. As befits a dense wine snob, he likes dense wine, and he fills his redwood-with-dark-walnut-stain wine cellar with all the powerhouse names he reads about in the Spectator—Dalla Valle ’90, Dunn Howell Mt ’94, Araujo Estate Eisele Vineyard, 97.  He brings them out at dinner parties, brags about them at the country club, pays a corkage fee at his favorite clip joint to have them grace his table, waxing on about the microbial content in the soil structure of the microclimate within the row at the vineyard within the sub-appellation of the wine.

He has truly become a wine snob in the most  classical sense of the word.

2008: With the onset of the recession, Dick finds his financial ability to load his lacquered, Napa-heavy cellar with a backhoe is somewhat constrained, but fortunately, by this time, he has struck up a tentative friendship with the wine steward at his second favorite clip joint, a sommelier called Mr. Winky the Scounge Doinker, who asked that his name not be used.

As Dick is nouveau riche, Mr. Winky is nouveau douche, and feels that he is imminently more knowledgeable about wine that Dick, which in fact he is.  So when he introduces Dick to the wines of Paso Robles, which are denser and powerhousier than Napa’s, Dick defers like the big old alpha-male hippo finally conceding the harem to a younger, more virile opponent.

2011:  Wine snobbery is a syndrome which begins in the gustatory cortex and affects the brain in stages; mental paresis generally occurs 30  to 40 years after one’s first exposure to really good wine.

The primary stage involves reading a lot of wine books and drinking above your means; secondary snobbery is often accompanied by a wine cellar, an uncanny ability to piss off other wine snobs and becoming insufferable to winemakers who must nonetheless kowtow to you and your checkbook.

Homer and his seeing-eye butt boy

Homer and his seeing-eye butt boy

By late 2011, Dick has entered the tertiary stage, characterized by poor gait, impaired balance, bladder disturbances and general mental confusion that allows him to switch vinological allegiance.  Dick is now loading his wine cellar with wines from Paso, with a particular focus on the wines of Danny Daou, whose bio states that he is a man with ‘Homeric vision’.  Love the image, other than the fact that Homer was blind.

2014:  Down the douche-drain of Daou dinkdom Dick dashes.  Discern Dick dash.  Dick has narrowed his snobbery even further:  Not just any dram of Daou will Dick drink; it has to be ‘Soul of Lion’.  Love the image, other than the fact that lions have no souls.

2015:  Latent and final stage wine snobbery has set in.  It is acute and incurable and cognitive behavioral problems are evident.  The snob funnel  has now narrowed to its ultimate point and forces Dick out the business end:

In the end, here is how his downward trajectory culminates:

dinky dauDick is a California snob first, a Paso snob second, a west side of Paso snob third, an Adalaida snob fourth, a Daou snob fifth, a ‘Soul of Lion’ snob sixth. At this point, his brain atrophies into a late-harvest raisin and he breaks into Danny and Georgie Daou’s yacht and seeks out the ultimate, most snobby penthouse in which to swig his wine.  This is the ne plus ultra snob dream come true; he has reached his level of incompetence.

He is arrested immediately, and thus, the Dick Doctrine is made manifest.

Now, I could get really snobby on your ass and do the same thing with France, but as it happens, my editor just called and my deadline is fast approaching for completion my new primer, See Dick Drink Pruno While Taking It Up The Ying-Yang In Sing Sing.

Meanwhile, my droogs; like the man says:  Don’t be a Dick.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What’s Wrong With New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?

Same thing that’s wrong with Napa Chardonnay.  Nothing—except that it isn’t French.

Oz Clarke

Oz Clarke

I know, I know; Oz Clarke once said, “New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is arguably the best in the world.”  But that merely underscores my point while highlighting the absurdity of anyone using the term ‘arguably’ while making their own point.

Because anything is arguable, right?  I can say that, arguably, Jeb Bush is the most intellectually stimulating man ever to run for the presidency.  I’d lose the argument quicker than my dignity at a Mensa convention, but I’m sure you’d all argue to the death my right to make it.

One Man’s Fish is Another Man’s Poisson

Arguably, the most arguable argument is not about whether or not New Zealand makes the world’s best Sauvignon blanc, it’s about what the word ‘best’ means.  Of itself, that’s a suspicious word to use when describing a wine with as many stylistic interpretations as there are climates in which to grow it—and Oz’s world has many, many climates.  He’s paid for his opinions, of course, and has a respectable résumé to shore up his qualifications to make them, but in which case, why use the word ‘arguably’?  He either thinks New Zealand makes the best Sauvignon blanc in the world or he doesn’t; either way, Oz—why go looking for trouble?

Cuz, bro-hammer you done did found it.

capt cookFirst, maybe we can not argue over the idea that certain gustatory templates for Sauvignon blanc were established along with certain parameters of expectation long before Capt. Cook tripped over his first kiwi, before California met its first Jesus drunk missionary and at at time when the Mapuche were still running willy-nilly over Chile.  Any decision that wine growers in these countries have made on which variety to plant must have been based, in part, on some vintner laying awake at night muttering, “Wonder if I could make some Haut Brion or Château de Goulaine even though I live in Wairarapa…”

Pourriture noble

Pourriture noble

And the answer, of course, was ‘no’, but the profundity—or lack thereof—of their subsequent disappointment may be relative; the lesson learned was that Sauvignon blanc produces noteably different wines in different terroirs, especially when subjected to process manipulations in the vineyard and in the cellar.  Gravelly Pessac-Léognan produces mineral-laden, somewhat austere wines with a citrus-focused crispness—unless (as in nearby Sauternes) the grapes are allowed to succumb to pourriture noble, in which case, an entirely new category of wine emerges along with an exuberance of unique flavor layers.  In the vineyards of Loire, a lusciousness may develop in the wine to encapsulate the flintiness—peach scents, pink grapefruit aromas and an appealing, uplifting verdancy, often described as ‘freshly mown grass’.  This descriptor is genuine, too—the quality that develops in the grape, making it unmistakable in blind tastings, is the direct contribution of aldehydes formed when enzymes work their magic during fermentation, notably hexenal, which also exists in abundance—lo and behold—in freshly mown grass.

Copy-Cat Pee

In certain terroirs, perhaps more prevalent in New Zealand than in Europe, volatile, sulphur-containing molecules may develop that are subsequently identified as ‘cat pee’—often from a need to impart shock value, especially among those wine writers who have read somebody else use the phrase and (like the Haut Brion wannabes) attempt to usurp another critic’s  imagination as their own.

'Come on, Winston.  Is that gooseberry or passion fruit?'

‘Come on, Winston. Is that gooseberry or passion fruit?’

But that’s cool.  You also see ‘gooseberry’ and ‘passion fruit’ in these same Sauvignon blanc tasting notes, many from people who couldn’t actually identify a gooseberry or a passion fruit if they had one of those 1984 rat-cages attached to their faces and were ordered to do so.  The science of taste nuance may be fairly well understood, but the art of translating it into adjectives is still a lazy man’s game.

On the other hand, New Zealand’s Dr Robert Keyzers raises a red flag as to how well understood that science actually is, especially when trying to influence Sauvignon blanc grapes  still on the vine. Understanding precisely how flavor chemicals are biosynthesized, and at what stages of the winemaking process, is the focus of Dr Keyzers’ work.

Dr. Robert Keyzers

Dr. Robert Keyzers

He says: “If we could analyze a grape really early on in the growth cycle, then tell the vineyard manager to ‘give that vine more water’, or ‘give that vine more phosphate’, for example, they could produce a grape with specific chemical composition that could produce a wine with a flavor and aroma profile to hit specific target markets.”

Which means, apparently, that if you want your Sauvignon blanc to smell more like poodle piddle than tabby tinkle, more like duckweed than gooseberry, more like crabgrass than Kentucky Blue, help may be around the corner.

Until that happens, we are judging the wine based on what nature throws at us and the lengths pythonthe vintner is willing to go through to influence final product.  And like the entirely arguable hundred-point scale, each of us judges which final product we prefer based on our own criterion of what makes for an archetypal Sauvignon blanc.

And whereas I can state without self-argument that I have been amazed by the theatrical potency, the aggressiveness, the fruit-forward bombast of some Marlborough Sauvignon blancs—Giesen, Loveblock, Greywacke, and the the box office superstar, the Betty Grable poster girl, Cloudy Bay, which—like most pinups—may be big and blowsy, but occasionally out of balance.  In any case, Cloudy Bay wine is always (to augment the scatology in tasting notes) built like a brick shithouse.

Clipboard kieraNow, your personal tastes may run to brick shithouses as opposed to Bauhausian form-over-function shithouses, and that’s fine.  Mine don’t.  You may find Christina Hendricks better schwing material than Keira Knightley.  I don’t.

But when it comes to wine, such a saturation of flavor may win prizes at competitions, but in a practical, functionalist, Walter Gropius world where wine is meant to be a meal companion, it may prove overqualified for the rôle.  In that delicate tête-à-tête, trying to food-pair mono-dimensional Sauvignon blanc—and I’ve had some that you’d swear were fermented grapefruit juice (Mudhouse, for example)— is generally counterproductive.  At times, ripeness comes at the expense of acidity, and that also applies to some oak-heavy Napa Chardonnays that dominated the upper-end market for a while; like Cloudy Bay, they tend to out-perform their dinner dates. And that’s too bad, because in leaner incarnations, both Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc are arguably the best food whites around.  Along with Pinot grigio, Muscadet, Albariño and Pinot blanc, Riesling, etc.

Is that a gauntlet tossed, or what?

cloudy bayBut let’s leave out the chow for now, because wine should exist in an equally rarefied atmosphere where it is the alpha and the omega of sensory experience.  Any wine should announce its presence, certainly, but even so, I can’t entirely cozy up to the ‘statement’ Sauvignon blancs of New Zealand in general and Marlborough in particular—wines that bellow, “Not only am I a Sauvignon blanc, but I am pugnaciously, bombastically, overbearingly a Sauvignon blanc.”

Sauvignon blanc just doesn’t strike me as the kind of grape to either request nor to benefit from this sort of operatic, bring-down-the-house-aria treatment.  Neither does Chardonnay.  And in France, do you know what these two wines have in common?  Of course you do—nowhere on the Domaine Didier Dagueneau or the Les Preuses Grand Cru label is the name of the grape announced.

brunhildeBut guess what is splattered all over the (likewise French) Alsace label…?  Pinot blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat.  Varieties that show beautifully as big honking Teutonic broads with Brunhilde horns and a voice you can hear all the way to Nibelungen-ville.

Meanwhile, back in Sancerre, Sauvignon blanc is subtle and savory; Pouilly-Fumé is crisp and gently floral; Touraine Blanc is lightly herbaceous and smells of honeysuckle and pineapple.

cagneyNone of these appellations find the particular need to pull a Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy and smash a grapefruit in your face, in what is arguably the funniest scene in cinematic history and a perfect metaphor for what’s wrong with many New Zealand Sauvignon blancs.

In case anyone is looking for an argument, that is.

Posted in Marlborough, NEW ZEALAND | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The News For Wine Bloggers Is Even Gooder Than Great

conference logoFinally, some good news arises from the Wine Bloggers Conference people.

I’m not talking about the conference itself—that’s pretty much standardized, annual good news, like the swallows returning to Capistrano or the onset of Christmas decorations in September or some random honky dingledouche getting gored by a bull in Pamplona.

I’m talking real good news.

Apalachin Summit

Apalachin Summit

For those unfamiliar with the Wine Blogger Conference concept, it is to wine bloggers what the Apalachin Summit of 1957 was to Mafia chieftains—a gathering of the crème de la crème.  In this case, it isn’t gangsters, it’s folks who self-publish largely unread, frequently derivative, increasingly repetitious and nearly always unpaid opinions about fermented grape juice and (like any geek-a-rama) serves as a sort of communal font of self-validation—as if Googling your own name and finding a couple of links to your obscure opuscules beneath the half dozen people with real jobs who happen to share your name is not validation enough.

Attendees have hitherto been restricted to three categories: ‘Citizen Bloggers’ (Johnny Lunchbucket types who are not tied to the wine industry and who ‘own’ blogs—meaning they pay Word Press twenty bucks a year to spume and sputter at random pseudo-professional intervals, beholden to neither editors nor deadlines);  ‘Industry Bloggers’ (snake-oil shills who have specific, financially-motivated agendas) and my favorite category, ‘All Other Attendees (people who have no conceivable reason to give a shite about wine, wine conferences, wine bloggers or one of the many blithering keynote speakers willing to teach them how to not do what they already don’t do even better).

To add to the situational surreality, this last group—the one with the least motivation to attend—comes with the highest entry fee ($395) and is (I can only assume) made up of blogger spouses who want to live the magic without doing any actual work and are content instead to sleep their way to the top.

Citizen Blogger

Citizen Blogger

Keeping in mind, of course, that in the larger scheme of things, the price-of-admission for Citizen Bloggers ($95) and Industry Bloggers ($295) is not actually less than that charged the do-nothings; a portion of the cost is simply subsidized by the event’s organizers.  Whereupon, in order to express gratitude for their largesse, you are ‘respectfully’ requested to write between one and three blogs about the conference itself in advance of it even happening, which sounds journalistically preposterous until you figure that many of these bloggers are so desperate for column-inch fodder that they regularly cannibalize each other like chickens on a poultry farm.

Thus, being force-fed Idea Pabulum is probably like manna from Heaven and is even more filling than plagiarism.

About That Good News…?

If in reading this somewhat cynical disquisition you have concluded that the only variable currently separating the WBC2015 (as the conference will be henceforth known) from runaway, sellout success is actually filling the three-hundred conference seats with perspiring patooties, you are probably incorrect:  If Star Trek conventions or Beach Boys concerts are any indication, there is never a shortage of bored people with disposable incomes willing to celebrate mediocrity.

Mike Lakusta

Mike Lakusta

No, the problem is (according to Mike Lakusta, CEO and Founding Partner of EthniFacts) that these sweaty blogger badonkadonks are overwhelmingly non-multicultural, non-diverse and non-representative of an America quickly approaching an ethnocentric majority.

Or, in language less diplomatic: They’re too fucking white.

Thus, a partnership was born between EthniFacts and WBC2015 with the noble intention of changing all that.  On May 27, 2015, they announced the ‘EthniFacts Diversity in Wine Writing Scholarship’ to encourage ethnic, gender and cultural diversity in the North American Wine Bloggers Conference attendees, which this year will take place in Finger Lakes, New York—just down the street from Apalachin, by the way.

powerballWhat this means is that if you are a wine writer with at least one year of wine bloggery under your belt and have never been paid for it—even at the embarrassing pay scale that most wine publications use, which makes minimum wage seem like a Powerball windfall—and find, when you glance in the mirror, more pigment than you bargained for, you may qualify.

Of course, it is also required that you prove legitimate financial need (since by the WBC’s own admission, the weekend can set you back a cool grand) but that should be a no-brainer since if you write a wine blog and can’t demonstrate financial need, you aren’t doing it right.

I do, however, confess confusion at the inclusion of ‘gender diversity’, because I honestly can’t guess what gender is underrepresented in contemporary wine writing.  The field seems pretty evenly littered with X and Y chromosomes, and even gender-ambiguous bloggers (whose names I could share in a cocaine heartbeat) are more numerous than the zombies in that one episode of Walking Dead when they finally overrun the farm.

Caitlyn Jenner, scholarship finalist

Caitlyn Jenner, scholarship finalist

Not only that, but I have noticed that the very act of writing about wine month after month seems to have squeezed out much of the testosterone that once flowed freely through my veins, forcing me into the sort of sexual amorphism that causes me to purchase quinoa, download Dead Or Alive songs and take selfies at the gym.  Frankly, if I was going to apply for a scholarship based on my sex, I would no longer even know what box to check.  After twenty-five years of emasculating wine writing, I have—not unlike Bruce Jenner—pretty much become the spork of gender identity.

To some extent, though, the whole Affirmative Action angle to the scholarship is equally baffling.  Despite Mike Lakusta’s pretty words, I’m not sure exactly what sociopolitical grievance he seeks to redress.  Certainly not the dearth of persons of color writing wine blogs, since you already have to write a wine blog to qualify.  And it can’t be to fill seats, because as the WBC website proudly points out, ‘space is limited to 300’.

Last year's conference was very, very white.

Last year’s conference was very, very white.

So the only other rationale I can come up with is the scholarship was introduced so that group shots taken at the conference look less Rinso white and more ethnically heterogeneous—or in the case of sexual orientation candidates, more homogeneous, but in the Biblical sense—and if that requires shuttling in a bunch of poor black bloggers to sprinkle through the photo op, so be it.  If all it costs is a plane ticket and a weekend in a fancy hotel, it is a small enough price to pay for multicultural bragging rights, right?  Although it could actually do more harm than good, because as everyone knows, you can’t keep them down on the plantation after they’ve seen Finger Lakes… but I suppose we’ll cross that human protest chain when we come to it.

Jong Il Lunchbucket

Jong Il Lunchbucket

See, if I was running things, far more important to me than a multicultural blogger’s vow of poverty would be some review of said blogger’s oeuvre, to see if Juanita Lunchbucket actually has something unique to say to an ethnic readership; I’d read Jamal Lunchbucket’s work and see if he is approaching wine in a way that reflects ‘the diversity of the new mainstream consumer’, or, like most bloggers, if he is simply recycling old material; I’d look carefully at Jong Il Lunchbucket’s blog and base his inclusion in the scholarship sweepstakes on the content of his characterizations, not on the color of his skin.

Because otherwise, playing the race card without seeing the quality and raising it one relevancy is a transparent bluff; any shark worth his or her tournament seat can see through it.

dildoIn any case, since I won’t be applying for the scholarship (even though I’m a vampire on my mother’s side) or attending the bacchanalia, that’s neither here nor there.  But I did mention some good news coming out of all this, and true to my word, here it is:

If you are a broke Afro-Cuban polysexual carrying around a Koran in a wheelchair—and happen to write a wine blog—I am announcing my own scholarship, forthwith and straightway.  Not to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference, of course—who cares about that; let the EthniHacks worry about it.  But instead, to attend this year’s Combo Star Trek and Beach Boys Conference 2015 (STBBC2015)  to be held in Dildo, Newfoundland.   Needless to say, last year’s conference was way, way too Caucasian.

Clipboard alThe winning candidate will have all expenses to the conference paid, plus a backstage pass to rub Al Jardine’s humungous Talosian forehead and tickle Lt. Uhura’s nay nays, going where no man has gone before.

All I respectfully ask is that you write at least three blogs on why ‘Wish They All Could  Be El-Aurian Girls’ is the greatest song every written.

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Bowers Harbor: The House That Jack Built

The yellow brick road that led to  Michigan’s top selling Pinot grigio began inside a stockbroker’s office, and the story gets stranger from there.

Start with the winemaker and proprietor, Spencer Stegenga.  A lot of local agriculture families have made successful runs at winemaking, but even though he grew up in rural East Bay, the closest Spencer ever came to farm work as a kid was picking hornworms off his grandfather’s tomato plants.

outsideEven the acres his father purchased in 1983 were used for raising animals; it was a quarter horse farm on Old Mission where, beside boarding horses, Spencer went to work caring for livestock while his father, before quitting the day job, considered life as a gentleman farmer.

Spencer says, “I think it’s fair to say that although he did very well as a stock broker, his real interests were anything but.”

The husbandry act petered out after a few years—that’s animal husbandry, of course; Jack and Linda were married until Jack’s untimely passing in 2004 (Linda is still actively involved in the winery).  Looking to repurpose the pasture land, Stegenga was approached by his Old Mission neighbor Ed O’Keefe with the idea that if the horse farm became a vineyard, Chateau Grand Traverse would happily purchase the grapes.  In went three plots—Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurtztraminer and  horse culture became horticulture.

Ed O'Keefe

Ed O’Keefe

Let it be said: It’s amazing how many stories that include Ed O’Keefe also include copious amounts of alcohol, and according to Spencer, the next chapter in Bowers Harbor history involved both.  Jack and Ed, one immoderate evening, decided that a second winery on Old Mission Peninsula was just what the area needed: More than one reason for wine lovers to make the trek over from Leelanau.  So, in the early 1990s, the decision to go it alone was agreed upon by Jack and Linda, and, like his namesake Sprat and the wife that could eat no lean, the couple combined core competencies:

“Dad was efficient at finding excellent people to work with, Mom was able to work out the finer points of licensing and getting the paperwork intact.”

Together they licked the platter clean, and in 1991, they were officially established as Bowers Harbor.  The family purchased a 34 acre cherry farm adjacent to the property, ripped out the trees and planted grapes, naming the expansion ‘Langley Vineyard’ after the family patriarch whose tomatoes Spencer had once de-wormed.

Clipboard spencerLater, they added Erica’s Vineyard—named for Spencer’s wife, covering the acreage where he proposed to her.

Proposing in a vineyard sound like something Spencer Stegenga would do.  In fact, everything Spencer does sounds like something Spencer would do—he’s one of those people that seems maddeningly blessed; looks, family, professional success.  He reminds me of that Owen Wilson character from Meet The Parents, who always seems to do and say precisely the right thing, leaving us Gaylord Focker-types to shake our heads in bemused envy.

In any case, by that time, Spencer had graduated from Hillsdale College with a degree in Marketing and Economics and moved to Vail for a couple of seasons where he waited tables to support an addiction for that powdery white stuff you’ve probably read about: Snow.  That experience, he claims, gave him a unique advantage in his approach to winemaking—the role he ultimately adopted once his ski bum adventure came to an end.

Grand Traverse Resort

Spencer Stegenga

“I tend to see wine from a consumer’s point of view.  Today, when I release wine in a style meant to appeal to a restaurant market, I’m able to get inside a server’s head and know how they’ll be able to recommend it.   It’s hard to sell someone a second filet mignon, but a second glass of wine should be easy.”

Over the years, those second glasses added up, and Bowers Harbor produces around 17,000 cases a year, nearly all from Old Mission fruit, although the family owns 30 acres on Leelanau and purchases Pinot grigio from vineyards in Lake Michigan Shore.  That variety represents a full third of the winery’s output and has built the kind of reputation that other wineries envy:  One that precedes it.

“We’re the biggest selling Pinot grigio in the state,” Spencer says.  ““It’s a variety we can consistently get right and rely on year in and year out.”

That choice of grape to pursue in that quantity—and quality—was also a decision borne more of marketing acumen than trend following:  “I sensed that the glut of Chardonnay on the market was going to reach a saturation point, that people—especially in Michigan—would look for representative wines that were a little crisper, a little leaner.  The critter wines from Australia sort of dominated the import market up here—overproduced stuff flavored with oak chips, selling for nine bucks.  I knew we’d never compete with that.  So our focus moved to Pinot grigio, in the full, unique style that Michigan terroir allows.”

BHV_Wine_Black_2896-LangleyBut, if he were to choose a wine from his list that he’d be willing to stake his own reputation on, it wouldn’t be that one, it would be the one labeled ‘2896’—which I thought was some exotic clone of Cabernet franc, but turns out to be the Bowers Harbor address.

“It a high-end Meritage, a Bordeaux-blend produced only in very good vintages,” he says. “Eight releases in fourteen years.  Nothing last year, of course, and probably nothing this year.”

Speaking of those dismal back-to-back winters, he points out the relative wisdom of having Federal Crop Insurance for the semi-sane people who grow vinifera in Northern Michigan.  “The check for ten grand didn’t hurt,” he admits, but even so, that’s hardly a dent even in the annual spray bill, which may approach twenty thousand dollars.

Because, of course, in winemaking, you still have to maintain your vineyards even in years where there is no crop.  But that’s part of the beauty of the whole Traverse City wine culture—the sheer unpredictability of the venture.

“It a lifestyle built around uncertainty,” Spencer maintains.  “Nothing up here is a lay-up—everything takes work and faith and a solid understanding that not every year is going to be a five-star winner.  You stay ahead of the curve as best you can.

“But guess what?” he adds with the broad grin characteristic of his own somewhat fatalistic worldview.   They complain about vintages in Napa too.”

Bowers Harbor may be the house that Jack Stegenga built, but the additions that son Spencer has overseen has made it a Bob Vila villa, an imposing mansion worthy of a spot on the National Registry.

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Jack Off All Wines, Master Of None

The titular pun is ‘me all over’—as immature as sniggering at the word ‘titular’.

Bob Campbell, MW, Esq.

Bob Campbell, MW, Esq.

From time to time, of course—snarky, sarkie satirical sibilance aside—those of us whose lowly role in this veil of tears and sin is wine critiquery (not wine mastery) may pause in our daily toil to ponder some odd, seemingly unsupportable statement made by one of our betters.

In this case, our better being Bob Campbell, MW, who led off a recent blog with this declarative:

“Few people would argue that Chardonnay and Riesling produce the world’s finest white wines.”

For starters, I would. But then again, I’ve always been among the few, the brave, the contrary.

But then again again, I do not presume to have mastered wine to the same mastery level as a wine master like Bob.

Bondage,_Gag_&_BlindfoldSo, when Campbell, MW, says that ‘few people would argue’, I assume he means that few people would dare argue, because if my sado-masochistic bondage fetish is actually a microcosm of reality—and I see no reason to assume that it isn’t—we are all either Masters or Slaves in a consensual, structured authority-exchange relationship, and if we don’t wear the MW after our name, we might as well attach a sheepish, submissive ‘SW’ to indicate our subjugation and obedience.

Unless one is into ménages à trois, in which case, we have crossed into kink territory that likely has its own set of rules, and thus deserves its own wine column.

thai modelFor now, let us say that what Campbell MW really, truly means is that lay people should not argue with him about which wines to tie-one-on with that may be finer than Chardonnay or Riesling; lay people should argue about which Thai model is the finest to tie up and lay.

So, back to the Bob blog.

I Ain’t Back-Sassin’, Massah Bob; Honest Injun

submissive slaveNot ‘arguing’, promise. But it occurs to me that Chateau d’Yquem, which contains neither Chardonnay nor Riesling, has reeled in perfect Parker scores for five vintages—the latest 2009—but it also occurs to me that Parker has a ‘JR’ after his name, not an ‘MW’.

Then there is Robert Voss, without any piggyback letters at all.  In Wine Enthusiast, his highest rated wines in Alsace—a region which has taken Riesling to spectacular heights—are Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2000, Selection des Grains Nobles Clos Jebsal Pinot Gris and Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2000, Vendange Tardive Grand Cru Clos Saint Urbain Gewurztraminer.

Tie me to the whipping post, Vickie.

Tie me to the whipping post, Vickie.

Victoria Moore’s 2014 year-end ten recommendations in The Telegraph does indeed include a Chardonnay and a Riesling (one each), along with eight wines that are neither.  Her interesting list contained a Verdicchio,a Picpoul, a Malagousia, a Gros manseng, an Albariño, a Chenin blanc, a Pinot bianco and a Sauvignon blanc.

She may be no Master of Wine, but Moore is always a mistress of not thinking like every other wine geek.

Decanter’s ‘Top 100 Wines To Try Before You Die’ is considerably less imaginative (#1 = 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild = yawn), but the top ten is no more Chard/Riesling heavy than Victoria Moore’s.   In fact, there’s one Chardonnay, 1978 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet (more yawn), and no Rieslings, but coming in at #4, above 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A and the Montrachet is our old pal d’Yquem 1921, an  equal blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc.

High-Camp Whores

Master Bob seems to be echoing the current trendy scenester sentiment; that is, that Chardonnay—once maligned by the Anything But Chardonnay hipster-dipster crowd (which nobody wants to belong to)—deserves some sort of a renaissance.

Sideways-Movie-Dump-BucketProblem is, then, as now, supermarket shelves are top-heavy with dull, mute, often sweet Chardonnays that people came to enjoy and see—since it wasn’t Blue Nun or jugs of Paisano—as sort of sophisticated. And so, in the original anti-Chardonnay movement (like the Merlot mudslingers who traipsed behind that awful flick Sideways like camp whores), it became sort of campy hip to hate the wines that the lesser hip considered ‘their’ hip.  Of course, Bob is now coming across as high-camp hip, where you decide you actually love what regular campy hip people think is non-hip.  Thus life becomes an ever expanding/contracting continuum of hippery and anti-hippery where everyone jockies for position and changes their minds while trying to crest the wave of assuming that whatever somebody thought was hip ten minutes ago cannot possibly be hip now.

And trust me, droogies, since in that cycle you want to come out on top, stick with me and I’ll see that you get there.

'Jack of tirades, master of Nun.'

‘Jack of tirades, master of Nun.’

Likewise Riesling.  For a generation Reisling was pooh-poohed by cognoscenti-ish wannabes as sweet and simple, thanks mostly to the infusion of sweet, simple sugar-water that flooded the late-last-century market disguised as Riesling.  Because the grape was then so universally associated with Germany, it was assumed by American consumers that everything that came out of Germany, including kitschy Liebfraumilch, must be some incarnation of the grape.  In fact, these wines were primarily Sylvaner or Müller-Thurgau, and even today, the Riesling that does make it into Black Tower or Goldener Oktober is of the quality you’d expect in something mass-produced for a demographic that won’t spend more than six bucks on a bottle of wine.

The Prophet

The Prophet

Now—as penduli are wont to do—the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and people like Stuart Piggott, who I respect (when he’s not referring to himself as ‘a prophet in the wilderness’) has taken the hyperbolic claptrap to an interstellar extreme with ‘The Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story’, more or less breaking the first of his own educational imperatives, ‘The Five Commandments of Wine’:  ‘A wine is as good or bad as it tastes and smells to you.’

That’s a bit like rewriting Moses’ First Commandment as, ‘I am the Lord, Thy God, and thou shalt have no other gods before me—except if you don’t like me, in which case, go with one of those badass Nordic deities or that bloodthirsty Babalu that even Ricky Ricardo is afraid of.’

Look, Riesling makes some excellent wine, especially when all the stars align a few times a century; no credible wine writer would say otherwise.  Chardonnay too, provided you have the requisite Goldilocks conditions, which basically nobody does.  Otherwise, these varietals, which are not particularly difficult to grow, produce oceans of forgettable wine almost everywhere they’re planted, with a few pockets—Côte de Beaune, Rheingau, Sonoma, Finger Lakes—as the exceptions to prove the rule.

chateau-grillet-bottle-shotOf course, you can make the same claim about Chenin blanc—and devotees of Domaine Huët Cuvée Constance Vouvray do.   Try telling a Condrieu-aholic that the two hundred dollars he just spent on  Château-Grillet 2012 would have been better spent in Walla Walla or Central Hawke’s Bay.  And nobody with any number of letters after their name, MW, MS, MD, Ph.D, DScPT or OB/GYN, tells a Sauternes-o-phile that the finest white wine in the world is missing a ‘Château’ in front of its name.

I’m not a Master of Wine, but—not to be too uppity here—I have developed a certain mastery of English lexicon, and I can tell Bob, you and the wall that there’s a world of difference between saying ‘the world’s finest white wines’ and saying, ‘some of the world’s finest white wines.

Like, one can be argued and the other can’t.


‘Okay, argue-break is over; back to the lower forty.’  – Chris Kassel, SW


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Dan Matthies and Chateau Fontaine: Please Exit Through The Gift Shop

I want you to take the following statement with a grain of salt, and then I want to sell you a desalination plant:

Salesmen are born, not made—and Don Matthies was born to be a salesman.

Dan Matthies show his mettle with metal medals.

Dan Matthies show his mettle with metal medals.

Whether he is hawking real estate, cheese balls, SX 92 Equipe ski boots, wall mounted cork-holders, Who Doesn’t Drink Alone? coasters or bottles of ‘multi-gold award winning’ Chateau Fontaine Woodland Red, the pitch is the same: All superlatives all the time.

Because that’s what salesmen do.

Which should not be construed as a bad thing. It’s just sort of an unusual thing up here in backwater wine country, miles from big city lights and Zig Ziglar’s hunting grounds; up here, a lot of the attitudes are self-effacing, a lot of the winemakers are debilitatingly shy and a lot of their wares are so excellent and scarce that they sell themselves.

This is the kind of vigneron I tend to encounter, here in Michigan and all over the globe: Gruff, taciturn guys with dirty hands, planted feet and tied tongues.

And then there’s Dan; Leelanau’s answer to Dale Carnegie, Willy Loman, Ron Popeil and George Babbitt—Barnum & Bailey rolled into one. Again, this is not a pejorative: As e.e. cummings once quipped, ‘Damn everything but the circus.’

monks meadowIt is, however, a fact:  Chateau Fontaine’s tasting room doubles as a crafty country general tchotchke emporium, carrying everything from bird feeders to drink mixers, and although the space is top-heavy with remnants of the scores of prizes that Dan Matthies has won over the years (many of them remarkably prestigious), I was directed to the winery by someone who claimed it was her favorite stop on the peninsula, not for the back-to-back George Rose Awards (Finger Lakes Competition) for the Best Riesling in the World, but for the gourmet cheese ball that Matthies serves in measured, complimentary portions to guests—then sells them a pack of Monk’s Meadow Cheese Ball Seasoning Mix so they can make their own.

Creating the niche, then filling it is key to the Dan Matthies character, and you can tell that he loves every second of it.  A personality quirk that becomes obvious the first time you meet him is how he couches the comparative consequence of his conversation in body lingo:  The more important the thing he is about to tell you is, the closer in he moves toward you—spider and fly—and the softer his voice becomes.  You feel like you are party to a special marketing campaign designed for your ears only—the old ‘For anybody else, this is ten bucks. For you…”

fatThat’s the point that you know you are seeing him in top form; you can tell he’s totally, irrevocably in his element. And of course, like any successful motivational speaker, the commodity that Dan Matthies likes selling most of all is Dan Matthies.

And here’s where the plot gets thicker than the ankles on a Cedar polka princess…

But no desalination plant salesman worth his salt would get to the plot thickener without the story’s beginning, so here it is:

'So long; don't let your sugar loaf...'

‘So long; don’t let your sugar loaf…’

Four decades ago, Dan Matthies was a banker in Saginaw who was good enough on the ski slopes that world-class Sugar Loaf Mountain Resort—then the largest employer in Leelanau County—hired him to teach new techniques to affluent ski-club bums.  It was a seasonal gig, but true to form, Matthies saw the niche and filled it: He abandoned city banks for snow banks, stayed and opened a ski shop inside the Sugar Loaf lodge.

And, like Navin R. Johnson discovering his ‘special purpose’, it was off to the slalom:  “It was a gold mine,” Matthies smiles; and indeed, the string of blue ribbons that he has won throughout his career began soon enough when he was awarded Ski Retailer of the Year for selling the most equipment from the smallest space.

Alas, the resort’s ownership was operating on a lesser grade of business acumen than he was, and in 1998, reading the handwriting on the bunny slope, Matthies packed up his Rossignol snowboards and K2 twin tips and went home.

Stan Howell

Stan Howell

Fortunately, by that point home included some fertile acres of Leelanau, and when Matthies saw an ad in the Leelanau Enterprise looking for people willing to grow wine grapes, the light bulb of opportunity again went off in his eyes.  G. Stanley Howell, head of MSU’s horticulture program, came to check out the property, ran some tests and pronounced it, “Possibly the best site in the state of Michigan to grow vinifera.”

That must have been music to the ears of someone with a nose for taste, huh?  In 1987, Matthies went into the viticulture business, hand-planting five acres to Chardonnay for which he found a ready market among a growing group of winemakers looking for a group of growers.  Those were early days, and his first customers included Larry Mawby and Bruce Simpson at Good Harbor.

That saw him through a decade or so, and then—like a few growers have done since—he worked the math and saw that if he was going to stay in the business, the only thing that made even a modicum of financial sense was to go full monty and make the stuff himself.  Figure that if, in the year 2000 (when he opened his tasting room), a ton of Chardonnay grapes was worth around a thousand dollars, and that from that ton, somebody was making around 750 bottles of wine, even with the requisite overhead investment he was leaving a lot of cash on the table. To a man with his entrepreneurial savvy, it seemed to be the only way to go; the way proven out by the fact that he sold out his initial 750 case run within two months—due in part to Dan’s Salesmanship Merit Badge and in part to the undeniable fact that his wines were—and are—first rate.

merit badgeSo, back to the thickened plot.  Dan Matthies is the sort of eccentric, personality-laden, self-promoting, fun-to-write-about wine talent that forms the core of an appellation compilation such as this one:  He’s an integral part of the show, there from the beginning, consulting with the top names and providing them raw material—someone, in short, who helped define the essence of Northern Michigan wine.

And yet, despite his evident mastery of the marketing metric, the ABCs—‘always be closing’—he was mysteriously unavailable for an interview every… time… I tried.

glen arbor sunWhat I got instead was a Matthies press kit, which is cool—I suppose, in some bizarre alternative universe, I’m a member of the press.  But I really don’t hold interviews like that.  I like to sit with the subject, get down and dirty (even if half of it winds up being off-the-record), watch reactions, drive quotes, gauge personality.  After all, I write character studies more than wine reviews, and as such, I don’t care for interviews conducted over the phone let alone over puff pieces in the Glen Arbor Sun.

But, like a vineyard manager trying to lay down canes and survive another brutal onslaught from Old Man Grand Traverse County Winter, one works with the tools one is given.

French Road Cellars

French Road Cellars

Chateau Fontaine, the property, was the first significant investment Dan Matthies made in Leelanau; at 27, he stumbled across an old potato farm on French Road whose south-facing slopes were so steep that growers used to roll the harvest down them.  This was the soil of which Stan Howell became so enamored, and today, it forms the nucleus of the Fontaine estate.  Intimately involved in the estate’s management is Dan’s wife Lucie and his son Doug, who is also the owner of French Road Cellars, Michigan’s first custom crush facility.  This concept, currently booming Napa and Sonoma, allows a start-up winery access to equipment to crush, bottle, label and ship wines from a single location without investing in bricks, mortar or stainless steel.  Thus, a winemaker-wannabe with stars and dollar signs in his or her eye (along with the umbra of common sense) can create a market for their wine prior to taking out a second mortgage out on the house.  Although Dan, who also runs Dan Matthies Peninsula Properties, Inc , could probably arrange that for you.

Dan and Charlie

Dan and Charlie

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Chateau Fontaine continues to rack up more ribbons than a Bavarian maypole. Most of the fifteen labels currently available have taken home prizes at some point, many of them gold, some of them double gold; beside the nonpareil Riesling two-peat at the Finger Lakes Competition, the trophy case is filled with dozens of awards from dozens of award bestowers, and no Michigan Wine & Spirits Competition would be complete without at least one Chateau Fontaine wine standing on the top tier of a category podium.  Having washed down a cheese ball with some of this year’s entries, I’m just as sure that Chateau Fontaine will continue to crest the Leelanau wine wave in 2015 as I am that this chapter will not become part of the Dan Matthies press package.

But that’s cool—Bel Lago’s Charlie Edson refers to Dan Matthies as ‘a consummate gentlemen’ and I have no reason to improve on that assessment.

dan pouringAnd speaking of consuming, don’t take my word for it: Make a point of stopping by the winery to feel for yourself Dan’s magnetic sales persona.  Allow him to draw you in; watch him as he circles closer, making you feel like you are the only taster on earth.  Only then, when you’re suitably charmed, inveigled, hooked, have you had the genuine Chateau Fontaine experience.

‘Thanks for your patronage; please exit through the gift shop.’

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