Could Kramer Be Lamer? WTF, WS?

If you imagine that the following response to a recent Matt Kramer column in Wine Spectator is less about Matt muddlement and more about some lingering humiliation over WS’s refusal to publish a piece I wrote about Swiss wine, you couldn’t be more wrong.

That was Decanter.  And yeah, I’m still pissed.

Hugh Johnson/Not Hugh Johnson

Anyway, Kramer, who is sometimes spectacular as a Spectator speculator, was once described by Mike Steinberger (Slate) as, ‘the most un-American of all America’s wine writers;’ the left-handiest compliment that I—or The House Committee on Un-American Activities—have ever heard.

Furthermore, Hugh Johnson calls him, ‘an intellectual guerrilla among wine writers,’ while I, in turn, call Hugh Johnson ‘a guy whose  name sounds like he should have been a porn star’.

Kramer/Kramer

Wikipedia panegyrics aside, in his recent article ‘Wine’s Three Biggest Lies’, aspiring to ‘debunk a few of the great wine lies you’ve heard before,’ Kramer couldn’t be wronger.  Of his three wine ‘lies’, two are about as far from being lies as is the statement “More than four people on the entire planet even noticed M.I.A.’s un-American middle finger until some Born-Again dangalang brought it up,” and the third statement is one that I’ve never heard used at all, even by aliens—who incidentally, also missed the hand gesture.

Now, since Kramer has been a wine critic since I was in high school, (which may explain why he’s running out of ideas) let me tread lightly in sincere deference to his credentials.  Like Mom used to say about that pesky Jehovah’s Witness in the Target suit that kept knocking on our door: “He means well.”

Is This A Kramer Disclaimer?

Not at all—ergo, my shot at debunking some of the clunkier funk in his debunkery.

1)  You’re Not Happy, You Just Think You Are.  Okay, so the actual ‘lie’ he mentioned was,  ‘If You Like It, It Is Good’.  In fact, I have never heard this said specifically, but what I’ve heard is ‘Drink what you like,’ as a means to take the intimidation factor out of pairing ‘perfect’ wines with given courses—apparently, Mr. Kramer would prefer the phrase as, ‘Drink what you like, even though what you like sucks and you’re probably better off with beer anyway.’

Hot/Not Hot

People like Matt want to be the arbiter of what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’, what’s ‘hot’ and  ‘not hot’, because that’s precisely how they justify their paychecks.  And indeed, as a long-time reviewer of wine, beer and other perks of civilization, I would (with my dying breath) like to further along the concept that I am smart enough to  save you from yourself—but since this is a column about ‘honesty’, I cannot.  You see, as someone who has studied wine for his entire adult life, I may well ‘like’ a given wine for different reasons than a casual wine-drinker ‘likes’ her after-work glass of merlot, and what I think is ‘good’ may be based on my understanding of an archetype for what that region, varietal or style is supposed to represent than any ultimate sensual enjoyment of the product.

Kramer makes my point by opining: ‘Believe me, if you like the soft, round lushness characteristic of La Morra you’re going to mark down the more austere, harder-edged Barolos of the Castiglione Falletto zone.’

In other words, if you prefer a soft and lush wine over an austere and hard-edged wine, you’re wrong.

Interesting, considering that Wine Spectator described Rocche Costamagna di La Morra, 1990 as ‘Crisp in texture, featuring a rich layer of black cherry and berry flavor, beautifully defined and spicy around the edges.’

That’s not good?

The nature of ‘good’, of course, has been a mosh pit for philosophers since man first devised the word; there’s relative good, whereby something is good because people say it is good (La Morra Barolo) and there’s economic good, a.k.a. ‘value’, for which people will give up money (La Morra Barolo, $60).  And then there’s absolute good—something that is good in and of itself, regardless of opinion.  Apparently, Matt Kramer considers austere, hard-edged 2000 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Rocche de Falletto Castiglione to be absolute good, even though WS’s 100-point opinion of the wine has helped drive the price up to $225.

Euclid: Heap/Not Heap?

There’s a philosophical paradox dating from the time of Euclid in the 4th Century BCE and arising from ‘vague predicates’.  Called sorites, or ‘the paradox of the heap’, it argues that if a heap of sand is composed of one million grains, you could begin to remove them one and a time, and if there was a point where you could specify that the heap was no longer a heap, you’d have to qualify specifically when that happened.  If not, you’d continue to remove grains until there was only one left and it would still be a heap.  And even if you removed that final grain—and on into negative numbers—it must still be referred to as ‘a heap’.

This paradox can be reconstructed using a variety of predicates, but since this is a column about wine, let’s use that one:  If Barolos of the Castiglione Falletto are good regardless of whether or not you like them, you should therefore be able to remove specific qualities of goodness, one by one, until the wine becomes ‘not good’.  I challenge Mr. Kramer to state specifically when a Barolo passes over that murky threshold, and if he cannot, he’s embroiled himself in the Italian Paradox—a paradox even more paradoxical than the French one.

I suppose I need not wonder what Kramer’s opinion is regarding the absolute goodness of Gallo Hearty Burgundy; correct, Matt?  And yet, by the most basic and classical philosophical definition, something is good if it important or valuable.

In between dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mom and me used to sit in the kitchen and yakkety yak over a jug of this sweetish, simple swill, which she happened to like—far be it from me to suggest that there was something essentially wrong with her palate.  She’s been gone more than two decades, but every time I get so much as a whiff of this wine, I can exhume more memories and images than all of Proust’s silly teacakes combined.

If Kramer wants to tell me that this wine is anything but but important and valuable, I have a ‘good’ for him:  Good fucking riddance.

2)  Price Tells You About Quality.  Right.  Since no one on this end has been smoking belyando spruce, we understand that price doesn’t guarantee quality, but the suggestion that price doesn’t ‘tell you about’ quality is absurd, and Kramer knows it.  Why?  Because he writes for a publication whose ‘perfect’100-point wines rarely costs less than a hundred dollars per bottle, as this random sampling confirms:  Avignonesi Vin Santo, 1990, about $130; Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, 1996, around $500; Chateau Doisy Daene Sauternes L’Extravagant, 2001, about $250.

Plus, you can bet your sweet glass that any wine-rating wine writer worth his vault carefully follows fluctuations in wine prices following a particularly high Robert Parker Jr. score, because prices for wines he scores above 94 points tend to skyrocket.

3) Vintages Don’t Matter Anymore.  Seriously, I’m poleaxed.  Who says that?  Nobody that I know and certainly not Wine Spectator, whose highly popular Annual Vintage Chart scores the harvest season in each of 54 wine regions, using the same point scale they use to rate individual wines.  The print version comes with handy instructions like ‘fold on dotted line’ and ‘cut on solid line’ so that you can carry it in your wallet as a wine-buying, wine-drinking, know-it-all reference chart.

For even quicker access, there’s now a WS iTunes Vintage Chart App to flash in the face of anyone, anywhere, who at any time dares to claim: ‘Vintages don’t matter anymore.’

The ability to smugly bark back, ‘Fine, so you take the 87-point 1998 Médocs and Pessac Léognans and leave the hundred-point 2005s to me’ should be well worth a $50 WS subscription, don’t you think?

Drink/Don't Drink

A fun side-note to this vintage chart is that it also pretends to proffer sage recommendations on whether or not each one of your cellared age-worthy gems are yet ready to be consumed—yet, of 47 French chart entries, from Burgundy to Loire to Sauternes, 66% read ‘Drink Or Hold’—the kind of quality advice which I’m willing to offer you for free.

An undeniable truism, of course, is that in the world of improved technology, wine regions once thought too dry to grow vinifera grapes (though otherwise perfectly suitable), are now able to produce great seas of grape, many of which remain pretty consistent regardless of vintage due to the particular climate where they’re grown; parts of Washington, Australia and Eastern Europe come to mind.  In most of the classical wine producing regions of Western Europe, however—Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhein and Northern Italy for example, vintages are ballyhooed today as much as they were in Thomas Jefferson’s time.

Read/Don't Read

As for Matt Kramer, a quick web search brings up dozens of columns he’s written favoring one vintage over another, so he must assume that within his perceived world of vintage value scoffers, lying liars either haven’t heard of him, don’t read him or really don’t give an ish what he writes.

The category into which I fit is ‘none of the above’.  I read and enjoy Matt Kramer’s column, especially on those occasions when it actually makes sense.

In fact, next month I’m hoping for something on Swiss wine.

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Don’t Gack Into That Morning-After Super Bowl: Bytox Is ‘Hangover B-12 Gone’

For those who awoke this morning with Belichick-quality blues, unable to quite recall last night, here’s the play-by-play:

First Quarter:

15:00: Stephen Gostkowski kicks off to the NYG 2. Jerrel Jernigan returns for 21 yards to the NYG 23 and is tackled by Antwaun Molden.

…I really couldn’t care less who wins this stupid game, but since it makes no sense to stay up late watching it without making so much as a cursory bet, I place $20 on the underdogs—Crybrady already has too many Superbowl rings.  My opening drive is a six-pack of Brik, a malty, citrusy Irish Red Ale from Royal Oak, MI—one of my alma maters.

9:00:  Tom Brady throws an incomplete pass to the middle. Penalty: Intentional Grounding on New England (Tom Brady) -6 yards. Safety.  NYG 2, NE, 0.

3:29: Eli Manning passes up the middle to Victor Cruz for 2 yards and a touchdown.  NYG 8, NE 0.

3:24 Lawrence Tynes extra point is good.  NYG 9, NE 0.

Brik is gone; potty break while I open a couple of ‘Holy Grail’ brews instead of sitting through commercials that are trying way, way too hard to be hilarious.  Hey guys: beer-fetching dogs and babies talking like grownups has been done to death.  On the other hand, Belgique beauty Trappistes Rochefort 8 is a style which has not been done enough—creamy, foamy and filled with fig, dried citrus flavors and yeasty spices like cinnamon and and clove.  Another moiety of malty monkish moonshine is Chimay Triple.  A pale, wheaty ale with cottony carbonation and a lemon pepper finish, it’s got an almost wine-like sweetness—muscato, if I was to get specific.

Second Quarter:

13:52 Stephen Gostkowski’s 29 yard field goal attempt is good. NYG 9, NE 3.

0:15: Tom Brady’s pass to the left to Danny Woodhead for 4 yards and a touchdown.  NYG 9, NE 9.

0:08: Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point is good.  NYG 9, NE 10.

HALFTIME:

Madonna’s wardrobe refuses to malfunction.  No worries: I turn instead to her 1992 magnum opus ‘Sex’—a systematic treatise that is to coffee-table  schlock what  Xenophon’s ‘Oeconomicus’ is to Socratic dialogue.  Meanwhile, I pop the cork on a magnum of M. Lawrence’s  opus, also appropriately named ‘Sex’, and savor each sparkling swig while noting that Madonna has only slightly less body hair than Larry Mawby.

Madonna’s Botox® lips remind me that I to forgot to put on my Bytox™ strips.  These all-natural, so-called ‘hangover-prevention’ patches are touted to deliver depleted  vitamins and nutrients to the limbic systems of self-abusers. We shall see, Pilgrim.

Third Quarter:

11:25: Tom Brady passes to the left to Aaron Hernandez for 12 yards and a touchdown.  NYG 9, NE 16

The Doppelbock is gone, and it’s not looking good for my double sawbuck, either—is the fix in?  Brady needs a shave, but this looks like a points shave.  Say it isn’t so, Elijah…  This calls for your namesake, Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.  And plenty of it.

11:20: Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point is good.  NYG 9, NE 17.

6:47: Lawrence Tynes’s 38 yard field goal attempt is good.  NYG 12, NE 17.

0:40:  Lawrence Tynes’s 33 yard field goal attempt is good.  NYG 15, NE 17.

One man's whimper is another man's simper

Fourth Quarter:

1:04 Ahmad Bradshaw rush up the middle for 6 yards for a touchdown.  Point after good.  FINAL: NYG 21, NE 17.

Okay, all’s well that ends well.  I’m using my twenty bones to pick up  a fifth of Everclear 151 proof grain alcohol to kill any rogue pathogens that might have entered my body via the trans-dermal Bytox patch.  Last thing I remember, the patch is still firmly dermal.

MAÑANA:

Normally, after a night of drink-induced frivolity (or as we Detroiters say, ‘alcomaholism’), my first waking sensation is one of utter personal disgust in which anything I might have done the day before, no matter how heroic, selfless or noble—like forcing my way into a burning Children’s Hospital and carrying tons of helpless toddlers to safety (and I’d have to be pretty seriously wasted to do that)—seems totally narcissistic and rude. 

With the patch, the hospital scenario does not feel egomaniacal in the slightest—just stupid.

And my head does not feel like it has been pulverized by a passing troupe of mud bogging monster trucks either, but rather, like it’s been used as a t-ball tee by a group of slightly-challenged kindergarteners.  Nor does my stomach feel like somebody has been spoon-feeding me kitty litter, but more like I ate a couple of liverwurst canapés that have been sitting in the sun for a few days.

The young lady with the Bytox patch is not as attractive as she seems--you're drunk.

It is, apparently, the result of the myriad B-Complex vitamins contained within the Bytox patch, everything up the B ladder from B1 to B12 with a little E,D, A and K tossed in for good measure, and to make sure that trendapoids sit up and take notice, 20 mg of acai.

Final analysis, the product may not have totally eliminated the symptoms, but it did meliorate what would have been a raunchy wake-up call. 

I might suggest some formulaic additions—leave out the acai in favor of Vitamin X (Xanax) and my favorite member of the B-complex family, Vitamin Beam—but of course, that would sort of make me a Monday morning quarterback, wouldn’t it?

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A Triumphant Triumvirate That Trumped A Troop of Trifling Tricksters: Ronn Wiegand, Gerard Basset And Doug Frost

Wiegand, Basset and Frost

What do Ronn Wiegand, Gerard Basset, Doug Frost have in common?

Well, if you’re a cork dork, you already know, and if you’re not, you don’t care.

Digression: I know a guy with both a law degree and a medical degree, and sometimes I stare at him and marvel at the fact that half of him is smarter than all of me.  Still, after a shared evening of immoderate imbery when I sideswipe some sober sap, I get great personal satisfaction in introducing him to the victim: “This is my nasty, but highly-successful attorney, and speaking of nasty, if you need to stop bleeding from that nasty intracranial hemorrhage, he can probably help with that, too.’

Were I to be driving Ronn, Gerard or Doug home, the best I could come up with would be: ‘Sorry about the fractured skull and all, but did you know that of the 82 permitted varieties of Port grapes, only 30 are actually recommended by the Method of Punctuation of the Plots of Land of Vineyards of the Region of Douro?’

The Master of Wine program and it’s gruesomely grueling qualification exam first found life in 1953 when 21 candidates sat down to write five theory papers and three practical papers on wine—the business end, the science side and the relevant issues of the day.  Only six passed.  Now, you might conclude that such a dismal failure rate was due to a lack of foresight among these initial candidates, but no—less than three hundred others have qualified since, and at a smaller percentage rate than passed the first.

Why?  Because it’s friggin’ difficult, that’s why.  The current test consists of a four-day masochistic mental and mouthful marathon administered by the London-based Institute of Masters of Wine during which slaughterable sheep (75 of them in 2011, of which 11 passed—this year’s exam is June 6 – 9) prepare  four three-hour question papers and participate in three 2 ½ hour blind tastings and, should they pass, are required to write a ten thousand word dissertation based on original research.

Wearing an ‘MW’ after your name is a remarkable consummation of study, skill-sharpening and simple savvy, no question—and some of the coolest people in the biz have earned this bragging rights.  Some of the biggest peckerheads in the biz have too—but that’s a different story.  The point is, to demonstrate the level of OCD level required to secure a spot where you’re even allowed to take the exam is pretty intimidating.

And pretty expensive. The IMW requires that you first qualify, then enroll in  a two year, guided ‘self study’ program to prepare for the finals, and this will set you back around $5000—$2,200 alone for a four-day seminar introducing the program.  And then there’s buying the study wines, which I can’t see being less than a few thousand more.

That said, should you FUBAR one of the first two sections, you can ante up and try again.  Fair to say, hardly anybody gets to the dissertation stage on the first try, and those that do are near legend.

The exam, therefore, becomes to wine geeks what a triathlon is to athletic overachievers—something that only alpha personalities even consider considering.  Says Anne Pickett, an (unsuccessful) MW candidate: “This is one of those esoteric things you just decide to do to better yourself. If you pass, great. If not, at least you tried.”

How hard is it?  In 2005, two-thirds of those who sat one or both parts of the two-part exam failed to pass even one part, and with an almost Faustian glee, the IMW states that its test is ‘the hardest test of knowledge and ability in the world of wine’.

And compared to the ‘other’ celebrated wine pro credential, the Master Sommelier certification?

Ronn Wiegand pronounces, “…Master of Wine is vastly more difficult, and I would emphasize ‘vastly’ by a factor of three.”

Albert Winestein

A Title Only Albert Winestein Could Love…

So, non-mathematicians, what that means in layman terms is that if Master of Wine is literally impossible to pass, Master Sommelier is figuratively impossible to pass.  The chief difference between the two is that the The Court of Master Sommeliers, testing three levels of sommelierhood, is primarily concerned with standards of beverage knowledge, social skills and proper restaurant service—and somewhat less with the wine ‘business’ (except for running a solvent wine program) or instant viticulture recall.  Oddly, I think, a knowledge of Havana cigars is required, which in the United States are illegal.

Candidates at the Sommelier second level are required to prove three years of wine service, and five years for the third.  Going-for-the-brass-ringers must pass a $525 introductory course and the two ‘middle’ courses at $325 and $995 before the court will gracefully accept another $900 to allow you to sit for ne plus ultra Master Sommelier exam, even though your chances of failing it are somewhere around 90%.

For the ten percenters—and worldwide, that stacks up to a scant 160 individuals—there is the promise of prestige, awe and speaking engagements, but I think that in order to cash in, chutzpah is as vital as the diploma.

Again: What Do Ronn Wiegand, Gerard Basset, Doug Frost Have in Common?

They are the only three human beings in the solar system—potentially in the entire cosmos—to have passed both the Master of Wine and the Master Sommelier exam.

Like that of my hotshot buddy Dr. Ambulance-Chaser, M.D., P.L.L.C., Q.U.A.C.K., this is a truly unfathomable accomplishment, akin to winning the Van Cliburn Piano Competition after carrying your Kuhn-Bösendorfer Grand to the top of Mt. Everest.

So, What’s The Problem Then?

Only this:  There are three of them.

Who's Number One?

I am an American, and Americans have hated ties ever since we charlie foxtrotted the Korean War—they exist only so that boxing promoters can make money.  Ties are idiotic: Like, everyone has a favorite Stooge, a favorite Dog Night, a favorite Beatle (oh, yeah—only two left), and frankly, as a Catholic, if I’m forced to choose?  I’m going with the Holy Ghost.

So, like they do in sports, I’m proposing a Sudden Death Overtime Wine Certification program in order to crown one—and only one—of these chumps ‘champ’.

Devised by yours truly, it consists of a single question which I will pose (against my business sense) absolutely for free.  Gentlemen, start your crusher/destemmers…

‘How many sub-atomic particles are contained in an average merlot pip?’

Whoever answers first gets the distinction of tacking a new title—named for moi—after MS and MW:

MSG: Master of Sour Grapes. 

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Mr. Natural Wine Sez: ‘YOU’RE The Right Tool For The Job, You Tool’

'Keep on Trocken!' (Hep Rhein rheference)

Unlike most wine columnists, I never get ‘writer’s block’.  Au contraire, I deny that the phenomenon—whereby people who can’t think of anything to say go ahead and say it anyway—even exists.

Oh, sure, sometimes our personal muses get all PMSsy, sometimes we’re in the middle of a sentence and realize, ‘Not only does this make no sense, but I’ve already said the same thing several times before,’ and occasionally, we are unable to string two words together due to a hangover caused by the very product we’re tasked to review.

And yet, the solution has always seemed to me as accessible as a Castello del Poggio Moscato d’Asti and boils down down this:

‘See what other columnists with writer’s block are coming up with and copy off of them.’

Eric Asimov

Today is no exception.  This morning I read an article by New York Times critic Eric Asimov entitled ‘Wines Worth A Taste, But Not The Vitriol’, which I instantly picked up on in the hope that ‘vitriol’ is some chemical additive that would cause a scandal like the one in 1986 where antifreeze was accidentally added to dolcetto.  OK, so it turns out that vitriol is actually N.Y. Timesese for ‘vituperation’ (which I also had to look up) and not something poisonous like sulphuric acid.

Even so, another column idea cropped up during Asimov’s very first sentence:

ROBERT M. PARKER JR., the powerful wine critic, called it “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers.”

I was intending to call my piece ‘Look Who’s Calling The Kettle Black’.

But then I read further, and realized that the genuine gist of the article concerned ‘natural’ wines, that newish and trendy category describing wine made the way people made wine before it needed newish and trendy categories.  In other words, wine that has not been surreptitiously shaped at any point during its life cycle, from field (chemical fertilizers, mechanical harvesters) to fermentation floor (reverse osmosis, spinning cone, cryoextraction) to  bottle (added sulfites).

Oak juice

Not all winemakers howl from the same hymnal when defining ‘natural’ wine, but it might be fair to suggest that the Aristotelian archetype is grown in an organic or biodynamic vineyard, dry-farmed without a Monsanto crutch, hand-picked and fermented without chaptalization or citric acid, aged without Sinatin 17 oak juice and bottled without sulfites.  Based on this, any profile of a natural wine contains more don’t than dos, but in general, is intended to restore wine to primeval purity and focus on the expression of terroir rather than the intervention of Dow.

This all sounds good on paper, but winds up a bit like the neocons saying, ‘Let’s return America to the ideals and standards upon which it was founded—right after we stole it from the Indians.’

RPJ

Hence, the vitriol.  What yanks Robert Parker Jr.’s chain is that there are no government regulations determining the hoops through which you must jump to call your wine ‘natural’ nor any concrete definitions of what ‘natural’ actually means—as illustrated by my clumsy characterization above.  In other words, it’s an advertising buzz term meant to suggest that there is something inherently more wholesome about the product than something from (to use the California Wine Institute’s 500,000 case criterion) a large, commercial, mass-production wine corporation—like say, Cupcake,  ironically among the top selling wines at Whole Foods.

But does ‘wholesome’ translate into ‘more delicious’?  I suppose if you’ve ever eaten a rice cake or a plate of boiled tofu from Whole Foods, you can answer that question.  See, one problem with ‘natural’ wine is that the focus is necessarily on technique, whereas ‘unnatural’ vintners may be more concerned with the quality of their end result.  Mr. Jr. points out that his pet producers are mostly small French domaines making less than 5000 cases annually, and nearly all would fit into the colloquial interpretation of ‘natural’ by any rational definition.

Indeed, these boutique estates, like Domaine Gallety in the miniscule Southern Rhône appellation Côtes-du-Vivarais and Domaine Léon Boesch in Alsace make wine without additives or color enzymes, and only enough sulphur to prevent spoilage.  And say what you want about Robert Parker Jr., you can generally be assured that a wine he recommends is—under a pre-understood set of Parker preferences—pretty tasty.

One person who does indeed say what she wants about RPJ is Alice Feiring—and not only does she say it, she writes books about how much she hates him: The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. 

Go Ask Alice... Over and over and over.

Not surprisingly, Feiring—a well-respected wine journalist who probably never gets really wasted, asked on dates, hung over, or suffers from writer’s block—does not feel that natural wine is consumer fraud at all; rather, she thinks that ‘New World’ wine is the real scam, and refers to it as overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked and overpriced.  And not to over-do it, over-manipulated.  Recently, she has been getting a lot of positive press for her latest evangelizing effort, Naked Wine, which Amazon claims,  ‘peers into the nooks and crannies of today’s exciting, new (but centuries-old) world of natural wine’.

Admittedly, I have not peered into Ms. Feiring’s nooks and have scrupulously avoided her crannies, but I have seen her photograph, and I can assure you, if you were to attend a tasting with her, you’d be grateful that the wine was the naked one.

And then there’s loudmouth Rhône producer Michel Chapoutier, who considers ‘natural’ wine neither scamtious nor scrumptious, and uses a word which may have lost something in the Babelfish French/English translation: ‘Connerie’.  Since he’s obviously not suggesting that natural wine tastes like Sean, he may have meant ‘chicanery’ or, like Decanter Magazine’s Andrew Jefford dubs it, ‘charlatanry’—but in any case, Chapoutier calls natural winemakers ‘hippies’, thereby using a word which has not been used in half a century in the same sentence as he uses a word which has never been used at all.

So, What Are We To Conclude From All This Vile Venom, Vituperation and Virulence? 

Absolutely nothing.  ‘Natural’ wine is as fictitious a term as is  ‘connerie’ or ‘Reserve’ on the label, and so, there is no real way to judge if such wines are better, worse or exactly the same as their competitors.  One vintner’s ‘natural’ may in fact be another vintner’s ‘manipulated’.

What I do conclude is that this column will garner hate mail excoriating me for suggesting that Alice needs a looking glass, that Michel is a silly little Frenchman with his head up his glass and that Parker Jr. is neither god nor devil, but an opinionated critic like us all.

'I'm Jonesing for juice, Jesus.'

Doubtless, I will be told that I will never, ever win a spot on the coveted and recently-released ‘100 Most Influential People In The Wine Industry’—a scenario so depressing that I’m tempted to chugalug a gallon of vitriol-laced Kool-Aid.

Without the enzymes or oak juice, of course—it’s healthier that way.

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Certainly Maceration Is Normal For Boys, Ben. But…

…not during Algebra.  Now, wash your hands and finish your polynomials.

Yesterday I had my wine tasting acumen publically mocked by Ben Fawcett because I dared to suggest that I am a fan of Beaujolais—or rather, because  I like the grapey and unfettered freshness that a process known as ‘carbonic maceration’ brings to the Beaujolais buffet.

Not Ben Fawcett

The exact rebuke was this: ‘Then you have got a not so great palate. It is basically to make a red wine more fruitier but it always, always spoils it and has the opposite result.’

Two ‘alwayses’ in that dis too, Ben, which is about as superfluous as oaking a Jean-Pierre Teissèdre Villages.  See, when something is ‘always’ once, it’s ‘always’ for always.

But that’s an English lesson.  Apparently, you’re less linguistically anal than moi, and would prefer to give wine lessons, which is totally groovy since I am always up for enological enlightenment.

Not Ben Fawcett

So I will quote your coaching drill verbatim, sans persnickety ‘sics’:

“Buy a simple Spanish red for £6 – £7, an Italian and a French. It will prove it. The first to will be pure, from a place and taste good but basic the french will reek of jam and false aromas.”

Okay, Ben, so I tried that and it turns out that my corner store won’t accept British money since it’s in Detroit.  But okay; point taken, if I am reading your point correctly.  Let me expostulate, but first I must (with permission) change the ‘to’ in your third sentence to ‘two’, because a ‘to’ in that spot is as needless as, say, chapitalizing Domaine des Terres Dorées Fleurie.

It appears you hypothesize that if I spend £6.50  (USD equivalent = $10.23) on a wine from Spain or Italy, I will be getting a pure, terroir-true and delicious beverage.  But if I drop the same coinage on a  French wine, I can expect (your words) the reek of jam and false aromas.

Not Ben Fawcett

Well, let’s leave out the obvious: That carbonically macerated wine from Spain is widely available and includes wonderfully diverse selections from Estancia Piedra, Adegas Galegas, Muga and Bodega F. Remírez de Ganuza.  Meanwhile, back in the Boot, luminaries like Angelo Gaja and Marchesi Antinori are the proud pioneers of Vitello Novello, Italy’s version of Beaujolais Nouveau.  Rather than mention that all these CM wines are available at your magic quid-point, let’s instead take a peek at your reek: Jam.

Jam reeks, Ben?  Really?  Toe jam maybe, but ironically, though the unctuous scent of blackberry jam and blueberry preserves is highly prized in certain warm-weather varietals like zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon, it appears only sporadically in wines that have undergone carbonic maceration—which lean toward fresh, ripe-berry flavors rather than those of stewed fruits.

DEFINITELY not Ben Fawcett

But that’s as may be.  What really fascinates me is your concept of ‘false aromas’.  Now, if I was to review a 2009 Christophe Pacalet Moulin à Vent and write that the wine shows ‘…the distinct bouquet of purple, laced with aromatics of Mona Lisa, followed by the smell of sky, serendipity  and Mozart’s Symphony No. 19 in E-flat major,’ you could probably make a case that I’m picking up some false aromas.

Otherwise, Ben, if you can smell something, it’s real, not false.

But What Is Carbonic Maceration Anyway? And Who Is Ben Fawcett?

A couple of good questions; second one first: I have no freaking idea who Ben Fawcett is, just some random Facebook weenie whose wrist-slapping of yours truly inspired thought about the science behind the first question:

Carbonic Maceration

As practiced by the majority of Beaujolais vintners, carbonic maceration involves stacking whole gamay grape clusters in a closed, oxygen-free tank rather than fermenting them following an aerated pre-crush as most other winemakers do.  In the CM process, the weight of the top layer crushes the tier below it, and in time, you are left with three distinct strata: juice on the bottom, pulp in the middle, and on top, whole grapes bathed in the CO2 produced by the fermentation happening underneath.  That’s the carbonic part.  These grapes are naturally spackled with ambient yeast cells, which convert the juice within to ethanol—the skins split without the need for pressing, and that’s the maceration part.

The resulting wine is simple and fruity and generally intended to be consumed young, although most cru Beaujolais producers use the same technique—also called ‘whole berry fermentation’—to make wine that reflects its individual terroir and can, in good years, develop considerably with age.

And I happen to appreciate the unique flavors that CM produces; in small wines like Beaujolais Nouveau, these can range from ripe bananas to Cherry Jolly Ranchers to Bazooka Joe bubblegum; in cru wines, they can range from fresh plum to sweet pomegranate to raspberry to some elusive and ultra-alluring earth notes.

These wines do not suit everybody’s tastes, which is fine.  But to dismiss them because they tend toward the buoyant, the easy-drinking and non-ponderous side of the wine spectrum is a travesty of tipple-ology and deserving of multiple whacks with the snob stick.

Yeah, this means you, Fawcett:  Ben dover

*UPDATE*  Based on his gracious surrender, Ben Fawcett is now officially an ally.  Andy, however, is trying to force the British spelling of practice down my throat, so he is now the enemy.  See how it works?  A lot like ‘1984’.

Posted in Beaujolais, FRANCE, Gamay | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Tits For Taittinger: S.A.G, Not Saggy

As a connotation, as a concept and as a cliché, Champagne is a titillating tipple, entangled in seduction, raveled in sex and wrung out into seven-ounce flutes as a morning-after testimonial.  Therefore, when I developed an instantaneous crush on Champagne Taittinger’s new global spokesperson, it was all part of Dom Perignon’s  game plan from the gitty-up.

Vitalie Taittinger

Apparently, mademoiselle’s genetic double-helixes are all in order, too: She’s a Taittinger (Vitalie, daughter of Tait owner Pierre-Emmanuel), and if you want to your compare your tastes to my own, you can check her out on the red carpet at the Los Angeles Shrine Exposition Center for the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards® this Sunday, Jan. 29.

A Taittinger toast to kick off this silly, self-congratulatory Hollywood lovegasm is a 12-year-old Screen Actors Guild Awards tradition, but this is the first time that the Champagne house will be represented by the heiress apparent; she’ll be hanging around at the show, backstage in the green room and will be popping Taittinger Brut la Francaise corks during the afterglows.

True to her new role as Global Ambassador, she says, “Elegance, beauty, and passion define Champagne Taittinger and make the SAG Awards such a dazzling night. We are thrilled to toast to actors-as their gifted performances have the power to move and inspire, like Champagne,” but she says it in such a hot little French accent that you’ll want to go all Gomez Addams and start kissing her wagina.

(Not a typo, silly! http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=wagina)

But Enough of this Childish Nonsense.  Let’s Talk History

Founded on the outskirts of Rheims in 1734, the Taittinger clan did not get involved with the estate until the twentieth century, and so, as a Champagne name, it’s one of newest houses in the region.  It’s also one of Champagne’s smallest (major) producers, responsible for about 5 million  bottles a year compared to, say, 26 million from Moët, owned by the largest luxury corporation in the world, Moët-Hennessy-Louis Vuitton.

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, whose dead body I'd have to date Vitalie over.

At least MHLV is French.  Gratefully, Taittinger’s courtship, and eventual marriage to a major foreign investment group in 2005 had a happy ending.  Sold to the American hotel company Starwood in 2005, other Champagne houses—along with cooperatives, distributors and customers—quickly realized that the Connecticut-based hospitality group had goals which did not align with Champagne’s venerated brand culture and could result in a major breakdown of the equilibrium of the industry.  The following year, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger managed to buy the company back.

Referring to a business strategy suited to an estate of Taittinger’s size, Vitalie now says: “Taittinger couldn’t be run [like Moët].  However small, every market is important to us.  When you are a family business, we do the wine but we are supporting it with family spirit. For us it’s very important to meet those who are our friends.”

Friends in high places doesn’t hurt, and hence, the Hollywood face-time that Taittinger receives with its prominent support of the SAG Awards.

And hence, more history:

“Come Quickly, I Am Drinking With The Stars!  Like, There’s Brad Pitt With His Tongue Down Jennifer Aniston’s Throat”

For some reason, snobs of the Hollywood Clusterbleep Trifecta® (the Golden Globes®, the Academy Awards® and the S.A.G®.s) hate the former, believe that the Oscars are overhyped, overproduced anticlimactic, but consider the energy fields at Shrine Exposition Center akin to what the ancient Incans felt at Macchu Picchu.

William Hoehne

About the Oscars, Yahoo’s William Hoehne says, “By the time the Oscars come on you already know who is going to win because each voting branch of the academy has its own guild with a far larger membership then the academy has.”

And as for the Golden Globes, starstruck Toronto Star reporter Ron Salem whines: “They are essentially useless, because it’s like 90 people who vote on it, most of whom aren’t even journalists. I mean more people voted on hall monitor when I was in high school than vote for the Golden Globes…”

Mee-fucking-ow, baby!

On the other hand, The Screen Actors Guild awards are (apparently) revered because they are voted on by actors—all 120,000 members of the guild are eligible to cast ballots, with the nominees coming from about five thousand ‘specially chosen’ dues-payers.

Creed Bratton starred in the shortlived series Dork from Ork.

Not only that, but according to ‘The Office’ actor Creed Bratton, the 12-pound S.A.G statuette, (known as ‘The Actor’) has the hottest bod of all the award figures, and he refers to its ‘buns of bronze’ as ‘inspiring’.

Like Vitalie (who only dates from 1979), and Taittinger (from 1932), The S.A.G. Awards are babes-in-the-woods compared to others in the awards circuit, having been created in 1995 as an accolade to recognize outstanding members.  By contrast, The Golden Globes are 70 years old and the Academy Awards turn 83 this year.

As always, Las Vegas has poked it’s glamorous, glittery, Mephistophelean snout into the mix, offering predictions on potential winners. To give you an idea of what the oddsmakers are prognostocating:

For Best Actor, the current favorite is George Clooney (The Descendants) at 1/3; Best Actress is Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady at 5/8 and Best Picture, The Artist at 2/7.

If you’re a risk taker, go with The Tree of Life at 50/1—keeping in mind that that’s a hell of a lot better than the odds Vegas will give you on me ultimately ending up with Vitalie Taittinger.

Posted in Champagne, GENERAL | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

British Columbia: Gem of A Whole Different Ocean

I’ve been drinking, thinking and inking wine for about twenty years now, but every now and again, a growing region pops up that existed so far on the periphery of my mental wine map that I never gave it so much as a passing ‘Huh?’

British Columbia is one such spot, and I’d say ‘my bad’ except that I vowed to neutralize (with extreme prejudice) the next person who used that odious phrase—and I have a dentist appointment this afternoon

In any case, learning more about B.C.’s wine industry better qualifies as ‘my good’.  Often supposed too cold or too wet for grape cultivation by outsiders, it turns out, in fact, that much of the province’s interior is bone dry and sultry hot throughout the growing season.

Officially (meaning ‘recognized by Canada’s Vintners Quality Alliance) there are five B.C. appellations.  All are in the south; three are to the west of the Cascade Mountains and two—the Okanagan and Similkameen Valley—are to the east.  The westerly DVAs (Designated Viticultural Areas), Vancouver Island Region, the Gulf Islands and the Fraser Valley Region are cool and damp, and late-ripening varietals suffer accordingly—as they do all the way down the coast.  For them, reliance is frequently on mildew-resistent crossbred grapes like bacchus, siegerrebe and madeleine sylvaner, which make lovely and distinct wines, but don’t always haul in the sellout crowds.

British Columbia’s eastern appellations, however, huddle in a rain shadow behind a fourteen thousand foot cloud-shield that creates semi-arid desert—the most northerly of such biomes in the world.  Despite its 49° of latitude, canny viticulturists knew as far back as 1859 that the area could be a suitable habitat for vitas vinifera, but like it did in California, 1920’s Prohibition legislation bunged up their barrels and signaled the end of serious wine production in the province.  That is, until the mid-Seventies, when the Osoyoos Indian band established a commercial vineyard dedicated to riesling, ehrenfelser and scheurebe.

Today, Okanagan Valley, with help from nearby Similkameen, produces 90% of British Columbian wine.  Although German varietals can still be found in most of the hundred-plus wineries, certain microclimates have proven ideal for fussbudget grapes like pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah, and recent plantings have included heat-hankerers like zinfandel, sangiovese and tempranillo.  Even so, with temperatures which have been known to  drop below 13°, the area is every bit Ontario’s rival for ice wine, and in fact, plenty of Niagara Peninsula wineries own property here.

Peerless Pyramid

Yes, Stephen Cipes looks like the biodynamic winemaking type.

Front and center in Okanagan, just outside the capital city of Kelowna, is Summerhill Pyramid Winery, established in the 1980s by Stephen Cipes.  A New York developer, Cipes believed that the area was ideal for producing small, intensely-flavored clusters—a hallmark of fine wine production.  So he purchased land, then a number of clones from France, and, as he describes it, “…personally planted them on my hands and knees.”

Later, when he discovered that planting them in soil was more productive, a remarkable winery was born.

Known for its adherence to sustainable agriculture, Summerhill is currently producing more organic wine than all other Canadian wineries combined, using 80% organic grapes (with the rest in transition)  and is on the short path to Demeter Biodynamic certification.

Yes, the crew does too.

Now, I will not go all hypocritical here, since I have always maintained that—via my understanding of biodynamics as opposed to simple ‘earth-first’ horticulture—there is something a bit alakazammy about it.  I won’t go into the cow horn and moon cycle clichés, mostly because I don’t need to: Biodynamics are not the strangest practices going on at Summerhill.  These are pyramid power people.

Seriously so.  The pyramid-shaped structure at the Summerhill facility is, apparently, the most precisely aligned pyramid in the world outside the big one at Giza.  Referred to by Cipes as ‘a sacred chamber’, it is used not only as as a storage for the wines, but as a meditation stop during winery tours where visitors can take a five minute breather to explore the knowingness of eternity.

According to Cipes, “We are mostly liquid and we are affected just like the wine is affected. The effect is clarification. If a wine has a flaw in it, the flaw is accentuated. If the wine has good qualities, they are enhanced. When humans enter this sacred chamber, it is a grand opportunity to clarify our own inner selves. This chamber helps us to get to the knowingness of who we are…”

Who am I to argue?  Summerhill Pyramid wines have been blowing the competition out of the tub for decades, and it was named 2009’s ‘Canadian Wine Producer of the Year’ at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London.

Do not be dissuaded by the fact that Summerhill Pyramid wines are available in the United States only  via direct shipment—it saves you a trip to the corner bodega, and the Wine Direct ‘fulfillment provider’ is in complete compliance with the states that allows this form of wine delivery.

In fact, you should do what I did: When you place your order, include all the dull Mach 3 razor cartridges you can scrape up from the bottom of your bathroom drawer and ask Stephen Cipes to stick them in the pyramid for an hour or so, and send them back with the wine.

As to why, true pyramid people will be happy to clue you in.

 

Tasting Notes:

(Each bottle bears a replica painting of a B.C. critter by Robert Bateman, and $1 per bottle sold will be donated to the ‘Get To Know Your Wild Neighbors’ non-profit organization).


Summerhill Pyramid Cipes Pinot Noir Rosé, Okanagan Valley, NV, about $30:
  Pinot noir is one of central B.C.’s success stories, and it follows that the sparkling wines would be sensational.  This is not Neil Diamond’s Cracklin’ Rosie—it’s an exceptional méthode champenoise that defines the British Columbia sparkle style: Dramatic and intense with crushed strawberry, juicy watermelon and fresh red cherry aromas, some yeasty brioche on the palate and a nice clean, finely-toned finish.

Summerhill Pyramid Organic Pinot Gris, Okanagan Valley, 2008, around $20:  Crisp and medium bodied, the wine is very dry and shows characteristic notes of Bosc pear and almond on the nose, with clean, creamy citrus nuances and light tropical layers leading to a soft, distinctly acidic finish.

Summerhill Pyramid Organic Pinot Noir, Okanagan Valley, 2007, around $30:  A nice mineral-laden pinot, not too massive, but juicy with black cherry, raspberry, beetroot and a touch of rhubarb.  Subtle, smooth vanilla softens damp earth and hints of coffee; the tannins are restrained and blend seamlessly with the fruit and spice.

Summerhill Pyramid Organic Merlot, Okanagan Valley, 2007, around $30:  Pretty big at 15% alcohol, this merlot displays sweet and supple wild cherry notes and a charming mind-palate of Asian spice, cassis, blackberry underscored by a fresh, elegant acidity and ripe, soft tannins.

ICE WINES

Summerhill Pyramid Riesling Icewine, 2007, about $55 (187 ml): Bursting with luscious scents of apricot, dried pineapple and honey, this is a beautifully balanced nectar; there’s a vibrant structure built around contrasting sugars and acids and an almost hedonistically unctuous mouthfeel.  A textbook after-dinner wine, wonderful alone or just as wonderful with sweet, tropical desserts.

Summerhill Pyramid Pinot Noir Icewine, 2007, around $65 (187 ml):  Forget the dessert with this one—it’s too pricey and scrumptious to clog up with food.  Containing a hefty 22 g/l of residual sugar, winemaker Eric von Krosigk’s sweetest baby is serious and world-class; rich and ultra-ripe, loaded with candied cherries, stewed cranberry, Watermelon Jolly Ranchers and an opulent, melt-in-your-mouth finish.

Posted in CANADA, Onkanagan | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments