Vintage Cellars For Your Cellarable Vintages

The concept of a wine cellar sort of baffles me.

Current state of Kassel basement

Not because I don’t think it would be awesome to convert a corner of my cold, dank, subterranean arachnology museum into a temperate haven for comatose cabernet and reposing Rioja.

And not because the craftsmanship of a master carpenter wouldn’t diffuse notice from the fact that my sump pump has been overflowing for nine days.

And not because I’m adverse to the bragging rights inherent in talking about your wine cellar, indicating that you have sufficient shinplaster not only to build one, but to stock one.

No, the thing that baffles me is that there are people in this world with the stamina, discipline and self-control to simply ignore the wines they’ve just purchased for a decade or more; people who could actually make it to the basement holding a bottle of wine and not open it along the way.

Golfers may have their Palmer, football fans their Gipper.  My hero is the dude or dudette who can say, with certainty, that they will not be dead, incarcerated, or sporting a Five Year Alcoholic Anonymous pin when the lights finally go on for their case of 2007 Saint Prefert Collection Charles Giraud.

But, I am learning.  And the first, foremost and most critical financial lesson that any serious collector will share is that of the world’s annual output of 36 billion bottles, only a tiny fraction of them deserve the long-term spa-treatment of a wine cellar.

So, let’s say you are independently wealthy—the Lotto ticket came in, the rich uncle died or the former Finance Minister of Nigeria finally made good on the $2.2 million he promised you in that email: How do you separate the good from the bad and ugly?

And that would be the $2.2 million dollar question, because, in fact, nobody really, really knows.

What we do know is that for a wine to improve into a delightful dotage, it requires a certain balance of acid, fruit density, tannins and, when it applies, residual sugar.  This chemical cocktail provides the specifics that tend to make for ageable wine when present in at least three of the four elements.  But, with aging wine to masterful maturity, there are no sure bets, and some wines with only one or two of the requirements wind up being marvelous five, even ten years beyond vintage.

Rare, of course, is the wine that really improves to fifteen years, and rarer still are those that can improve to those legendary twenty, thirty—even fifty years past vintage.

And speaking of Vintage:

Build It and They Will Come… And Drink Up All Your DRC La Tâche

San Diego’s Vintage Cellars ( )is among the top cellar sellers in the United States, known for its quality of workmanship, expertise in cellar management equipment and especially, for reasonable pricing.

Current state of Kassel wine cellar.

According to Vintage Cellar’s Custom Wine Cellar Specialist Jake Austad:  “We can turn your wine cellar dream in a custom cellar reality.  Tell us what your style, size and budget guidelines are, and we can design a custom cellar that will suit any space and lifestyle.  We insulate, seal and set up cooling; custom wine racks are our specialty, and we can design and construct a wine rack system to hold your bottles beautifully.”

Typically resplendent Vintage Cellar.

And how.  And how I’d love to have one.  As you can see, my personal wine cellar looks like Dorothy Gale’s tornado shelter.

Contrasting are some images of Vintage’s cellars from around the country.

“For the serious collector,” Austad continues, “nothing is more important that the safety and organization of the wine collection.  With cellar management systems and cellar monitoring, you can keep your collection safe and ensure that you can find the perfect bottle in minutes.”

Equally drool-worthy Vintage Cellar.

Good, because after waiting a decade or more for a baby wine to metamphorize into a grown-up Goliath, who wants to spend more than a couple of minutes locating it?

The art of cellar making is as intense as knowing the signs of a wine that can grow up to be a fine, upstanding citizen.  Until you’ve perfected that, let the buyer beware.  But, once you’ve nailed those skills down?

Let the cellar give care.


Check out Vintage at

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Cognac’s Corrupt Compromise—Converting Cultivated Caché To Criminal Cash

‘There will always be a kind of love story between myself and that odd, unpredictable collection of bourgeois chauvinists who call themselves la France.’

– James Baldwin, Negro

Jenny and a vajazzled vajayjay.

Based on the existence of a perennially popular Paris Hilton, a mystifyingly in-demand Tom Cruise, an actual Jennifer Love Hewitt poozle-artform called vajazzling and well-received hip-hop albums by Ron Artest and Kobe Bryan, you’d think that your average cynic would be entirely sheathed in scar tissue by now.

But it’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world, Lola—and you’d think wrong.

You see, for every fatalistic sigh of resignation we breath, a fresh and fuming phoenix of fury foments whenever a legendary name dumbs itself down in the quest for a bottom-barrel bottom-line and worse—from a needless need for ‘street cred’ among weenies who are given way, way too much airplay to begin with.

No, I’m not talking about Rolls-Royce trading down from a $1.2 million special-edition Phantom to an online $19.95 doggie t-shirt.  Nor am I speaking of compelling in-house brand rivalries like Levis vs. Dockers or Sony vs. Aiwa.  Not even the second labels released by all the first growth Bordeaux.

I’m referring to the nouvelle tendance français to cater to a group of Americans who embrace—or pretend to embrace—a misogynistic, megalomaniacal, nefariously violent, bling-blaring lifestyle.

I’m talking about their thirst for thugs.

Vive la France; Mort aux Africains

Ever since Marie Antoinette quipped, ‘Let ‘em eat chicken feets and hog maw grits’ on the way to her photo op (topless, literally) with le guillotin, white French people have had an strange love/hate relationship with blacks.  Whereas they saw nothing squirrely about torturing black Algerians in the ’50s, nor the French Foreign Legion’s murdering black civilians in the Ivory Coast, nor in ‘Operation Turquoise’—a 1994 military action that assisted in the fully armed escape of the French-backed perpetrators of the Hutu-Tutsi genocide, the jazz-loving nation have also taken many African Americans under their protective wing, including Josephine Baker—whose trademark banana skirt can be seen as a precursor to vajazzling—former World War I military pilot Eugene Ballard, controversial poet Richard Wright and any number of authors attached to the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1930’s.

Far from a being cultural mimicry of the Black Plague, of course, it is a textbook example of ‘Wigger Syndrome’…

First identified in 19th century minstrel shows, later in Al Jolson films and currently during Eminem concerts, ‘Wigger Syndrome’ is a social phenomenon known by scientists as allophilia—Greek for ‘love of the other’—and is a well-established French Paradox 2 that causes Parisian youth to sport powder-blue Nike track suit, drink sugary drinks named for colors, not flavors (purple, red, orange), eat chicken feets and hog maws while listening to Wiz Khalifa.

It is referred to as a ‘paradox’ because, alternately, you can find no black youths in New Orleans, Chicago, Gary or Detroit who wear berets and striped shirts while drinking Orangina Rouge, eating snails and poached veal pancreas while listening to Maurice Chevalier warbling ‘Dans la vie faut pas s’en faire’.

This disparity of pop affection is the urban equivalent of an economic trade imbalance, and if you ignore the inherent implications, you may be confusing David Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage with Adam Smith’s principle of absolute advantage, specifically ignoring the latter.

Or, you may just be a dolt.  I know I am, because I have no idea what the stuff I just wrote means.

In any case, non-dolts include Cristal Champagne godfather Louis Roederer, who spent years exploiting hip-hop’s fascination with their iconic, clear, gold-foiled bottle—an image of conspicuous consumption and, in the case of most rappers, of class conquest.  As you recall, the bubbly bevvie had Jay Z barking, ‘You can’t roll a blunt to this one; You gotta, you gotta well, ya gotta light a J, You gotta puff a J on this one.  You can’t even drink Crist-OWL on this one; You gotta drink Crist-ALL…’ up until the time that Roederer hired a new managing dolt called Frédéric Rouzaud who dissed Jay-Z and his uppity tastes—at which point Jay Z called for an immediate Cristal boycott and switched to Ace of Spades—potentially, the only other Champagne he could pronounce.

Either way, Ace of Spades is also French, so the trade ledger remains this side of black.  No pun.

And Then There’s Cognac…

Bordeaux’s wonderful distillate is the other alcamahol d’affluence that has seized hip-hop’s snootiest snorters, and for years it was Hennessey, then it was Courvoisier, then it was Rémy  Martin, then it was upper-scalier XO (stands for X-tra Overpriced) versions of all three.  The rappers I know envision Cognac not so much as a classic tipple of sophistication, breeding and subtlety, but simply a drink that really successful, really rich, really old and really Caucasian dudes drink, and invariably, they add a note of vulgarity to the par-tay by mixing it with Coca Cola.  Then again, I don’t know anyone that can lay a claim to class.

Even so, as proven by French people’s ready, willing and ableness to sell fabled Châteaux to Chinese investors, Cognac producers are more than happy to promote their wares via thugs—few of whom have the slightest knowledge of or interest in the Appellation d’origine contrôlée’s long and storied history, and many of whom have police records longer than their left Armagnacs.

Strange bedfellows?  And how.

And Suddenly…

…All of the bungs have been pulled from the Limousin or Tronçais hogsheads; all pretense has been shed, and a new product has been foisted upon—and directly marketed to—the public (enemies) in a shamelessly corporate bid for a bigger body of brandy bux.

OG XO is being fronted by one of L.A. rap’s founding fathers, Ice Cube—an ideal spokesperson, because his thuggery is all imagery.   With no criminal record whatsoever, the former O’Shea Jackson—a Phoenix Institute of Technology architectural drafting student-turned-mock-mafioso, first hit the scene in 1987 with the seminal sub-genre act of gangsta rap called N.W.A. (Non-Wigger Attitude) and went on the have a successful spin-off career that included films, tv specials, a clothing line and four law-abiding mini-Cubes: Three sons and a daughter named ‘Kareema’, whose middle name, I was disappointed to learn, is not ‘Wheat’.

And Now He Has OG XO

Negro With Attitude Adjustment

For the record, OG stands for ‘Original Gangster’, which is where my lily-white honey-cracker agita begins.  Because there is no reason under the spherical-yellow-dwarf-consisting-of-hot-plasma-interwoven-with-magnetic-fields that any Cognac steeped in the lore of antiquity, with 3rd century Roman occupation origins and a history that is as filled with heroes, villains and charlatans as any Dumas novel, should pander to street kids in Bed-Stuy simply to feather the nest.

Except for one thing, also for the record: If you actually read the fine print, it turns out that Original Gangster isn’t a Cognac at all.  It’s brandy, which is under a whole lot fewer legal strictures than Cognac.

For starters, unlike Cognac’s varietal laws requiring that ugni blanc, colombard and folle blanche are the only grapes used, brandy can be made from Thompson Seedless if it strikes your fancy.  Brandy does not need to be aged in wood and can legally be colored with caramel to simulated oak extracts; Cognac does require oak aging—up to two years in barriques.  What’s more, Cognac must come from a very specific and authorized area; brandy does not even have to come from France, although Original Gangster claims a French pedigree.

Last, and most importantly, the label XO—which actually stands for ‘Extra Old’—designates a Cognac blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years but on average for upwards of 20.

For a brandy, XO is meaningless, since the law only applies to Cognac and Armagnac.  To use it without legal import is a scam worthy of the most disingenuous playa—it attempts to wedge OG into a category known as ‘veblen goods’—commodities for which people’s purchasing preference increases as the price goes up, as greater price confers greater status.

So after all that, how does the product itself rate?  I have no idea; I received no sample and I’m hardly going to shell out $90 for any brandy whose last name isn’t Norwood.

So, send me some already, Original Gangsters, wherever you are.  I’ll try it.  Send me some Coca Cola, too, and I’ll try it in its native habitat.

See, ultimately I think it’s just a scam meant to stroke some gangster egos; a French/African game as old as Josephine Baker, Eugene Ballard, Richard Wright and the Harlem Renaissance authors, all of whom were so soul-weary of being mistreated in the United States because of their race that they found France a refreshing, cleansing, edifying change of pace.

And let’s be honest.  What would I do if some Languedoc brandy maker released a bottle called ‘Original Maligned, Misunderstood, Whiney and Infantile Wine Critic XO’?

I’d become a friggin’ Frigger, that’s what I’d do.

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Airline Wine: Get High, But Keep It On The Down Low?

In a recent interview with CNN, my FB buddy Robert Joseph—Editor-at-Large of Meininger’s Wine Business International—makes an astonishing claim:

Robert Joseph

“Some of the finest wines in the world, some of the finest Bordeaux, actually, don’t taste good at high altitudes.”

He goes on to point out that non-classified peasant plonk—soft, fruity, often sweeter and generally less expensive wines from Chile or California may in fact taste better at 35,000 feet.  He recommends merlot and pinot noir in particular, suggesting that they may be more ‘fun’ to drink than cabernet sauvignon six miles above the vineyard.

Well, no doubt.  Cab is not necessarily a fun wine to drink to begin with.  Brooding, brilliant, brainy and broad, yes.  Fun, no.  And what self-loathing masochist finds it ‘fun’ to pronounce Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande or Château Malescot St. Exupéry?

Fraunhofer-Institut für Bauphysik

But that’s not the point.  The point, according to recent studies undertaken by the Fraunhofer-Institut für Bauphysik—also not fun to pronounce—is that at high altitudes, our sense of taste is diminished by as much as 30%; the result of the body adapting to atmospheric pressures within the cabin.  This goes for our taste buds as well, a third of which go Novocain-numb at cruise altitude.

The study was meant to explain why some factor beyond cost, convenience and the notion that airlines really don’t give a flying f**k (pun intended) might explain why in-flight meals are so universally maligned.

See that, you trivial, truculent tray-traducing traveler: Turns out it’s not our food, it’s you!

With wine it’s even worse:  Cabin humidity is intentionally kept low to reduce the risk of fuselage corrosion; your sense of smell fades as a result.   And as any first-year wine tasting student can tell you, capturing vaporized, volatile aroma compounds makes up the lion’s share of wine appreciation since the tongue is capable of detecting only primary tastes.

Lose the nose, you’ve lost more than half the battle already.

United is offering a free trip to the war-torn third-world shithole of your choice if you can guess which Frost is Doug.

That makes life for folks like Doug Frost, who writes the wine list for United Airlines all the more challenging—even though he is both a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier—formerly the highest titles to which a wine geek could aspire until last year’s inaugural ‘Master of ALL Masters of Wine’ program launched in my fruit cellar.

Of Doug, USA Today, gushes, “Frost likely knows as much as anyone in the world about how to make, market, serve and identify wines,” but Mr. Wine himself is honest about the trials and tribulations of finding selections that not only show sufficient intensity, flavor and character to suit our imploding high-altitude sensory systems, but wines which are stable enough to make it through the three to six months it may take for the bottle to make its maiden flight.

As such, he and his team choose the following year’s blends only after they’ve sampled them ‘on high’—and the wine passes the altitude taste test.

“In First Class, we need classic names and character,” Frost told Wineography last year. “In Business Class, we can step outside the classics to a degree, but throughout all classes of service, I need overt fruit more than anything.”

I will have to defer; if I had to accost Frost—even on cost—I’d be lost.

I’ll explain my personal United Airlines wine program directly.  But first, let me point out that I have noticed that the same ‘underperformance phenomenon’ carries through to in-flight movies as well.

For example, on my last 14-hour intercontinental voyage on United, I had plenty of time to spend watching films, and I chose only classics that I had previously not seen.

Viewing Notes:

Citizen Kane (1941): Totally boring with zero special effects except for that fakey mansion and some really chump-change makeup that, attempting to make the 25-year-old Welles look fifty, instead makes him look like an poorly-embalmed 25-year-old.  And Rosebud? Please: Obviously the sled was going to wind up being Rosebud; what did Orson take us for, microcephalic idiots?  Grade : C –

Lip service

Vertigo (1958): A morbid, mutant Hitchcock-and-bull box-office flop starring one-dimensional hack-tor Jimmy Stuart as a retired cop who is so afraid of heights he can’t stand up.  Populist showman Alfred H. should have stuck to bad TV; his attempt at a serious psychological study winds up more absurd than his lower lip.  And any movie that has Kim Novak naked in bed and fails to display her sizzling badonkadonk?  Fail.  Grade: D+

It’s A Wonderful Life (1942): That stuttering, stammering stupetard named Stuart again.  Sheesh.  This flick is bad enough in December; imagine it in August.  ‘It’s A Wonderful Reason To Get Hammered In The Bathroom Stall Instead Of Your Seat’.  Grade: D

La Règle du Jeu (1939):  The goddamn thing is in French; can you believe it??   For starters who wants to sit for hours in a thimble-sized seat drinking tasteless wine and eating awful food let alone having to listen to capricious, self-indulgent, humorless rich people yabbering about nothing—and, in a tongue that unless it’s front-and-center in a French Kiss with Sophie Marceau—grates upon the ear like nails on a blackboard.

France is the birthplace of the Marquis de Sade and this proves it.

Jokes, CGI monsters, huge bloody drawn-out battle scenes, naked babes, in that order; otherwise the film blows—those are my ‘Rules of the Game’.  Grade: D-

And yet, later I re-evaluated these films in my living room at sea level and awarded each and every one the coveted ‘two thumbs up’ along with five stars and a big ripe-from-the-vine tomato.  See, in the rarefied environment of the upper troposphere, that portion of your brain that judges, evaluates, assesses, appraises and otherwise scores artistic merit goes instantly numbnuts along with your nostrils.

Actually, it’s good thing they didn’t have airplanes back in 1855 when they were doing the Bordeaux Classification: Had they, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and Château Malescot St. Exupéry would have ended up as a Quatre-Vingt-Dixième Cru, with less of a chance of winding up on Doug Frost’s hoity-toity First Class wine list than a frost-ball in Hell.

I can smuggle a Double Magnum of Château Malescot on board without puking.

But, no matter.  Since I perennially travel coach, I don’t drink from the wine list anyway.

I have found that it is cheaper and only slightly less inconvenient to fill balloons with Château Malescot before I even leave for the airport, swallow them heroin-style and wait for them to reappear during the two hours I will sit on a United Airlines toilet waiting for ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ to end.

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Playboyz To Playmen: Is That A First Growth In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

My heart goes back to wander there,

And among the dreams of the days that were,

I find my lost youth again.

And the strange and beautiful song,

The groves are repeating it still:

“A boy’s will is the wind’s will,

And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, My Lost Youth (1919)


And, speaking of Wadsworth, wad shooting and general wa da fu (?),  I feel it fitting for us to pause here and consider our own spent adolescences; a time when we were in touch with ourselves at least once or twice a day—when we were always ready to lend ourselves a hand, when Hamlet’s ‘rub that lies therein’ lay therein a locked bathroom; when nothing was out of reach, yet everything was below-the-belt; when we stood firm and erect even though the winds of responsibility, respectability and reality were still a college degree away.

‘Take My Memory Back There, Lord; Sometimes I’m Overcome’ – Van Morrison, Brown Eyed Playgirl

Ah, National Geographic whenever they visited topless tribes in North Africa; ah, Hiram’s Powers’ The Greek Slave (Michelangelo’s David if you were gay); ah, flipping through my father’s weighty copy of The Oxford History of Classical Art; ah, the day in sixth grade when Sam Stahl came to school with a copy of Vivre d’Abord, a French nudist magazine which had us all confused because the women had pubic hair.  Who knew?

But most of all—ah, pilfered pages from prehistoric Playboy.

Remember how people used to joke about reading Playboy for the articles, which was a little like saying you snorted cocaine for the smell?

King Tut

And, remember when Christie Hefner, then Playboy’s CEO and faced with plummeting stock, quipped,  “Most magazines don’t have a workable model; we realize media is changing and intend to refocus Playboy from an an adult magazine to a multi-media company offering a wide range of Playboy-branded apparel and lifestyle products…” which was corporate doublespeak for ‘Whoa! Porn on the internet is free’?

The irony of all that is that so mild, so innocuous, so milk toasty a stroke book Playboy was—even at its raunchiest—that these days, when depravity squared is but a mouse click away, the articles in Playboy are probably the only reason you would read it.

But Would You Drink Their Wine?

So, the real reason for all this schmaltzy nostalgia is not an attempt to revive childhood touchstones, but instead to do my part as a responsible, respectable, realistic grown-up wine writer to mention—then promptly ridicule—Playboy Enterprises, Inc.’s latest foray into diversification: an internet-based initiative that has less to do with the Sin of Onan than the Miracle of Canaan:

The Playboy Wine Club ( seeks to have you, the wine-drinking, Playboy-reading, doinker-doodling consumer take your hands out of your underwear long enough to place them inside the pocket in which you keep your wallet.

The wine club is a partnership between Playboy and Washington-based Barclay Wine Company and is offering American clubbers ‘exclusive deals, loyalty programs and opportunities to participate in wine experiences with special wine tours and tastings’ along with a quarterly full-case delivery of boutique wines known as the Playboy Wine Encounter.

Now, whether or not this is a good thing, I do not seek to pass judgment, but the press release indicates that all wines will be ‘curated’ by Playboy and upon this word I will cast an opinion:

Left: Christie Hefner
Right: First edition of Playboy, circa 1953 BC

‘Curate’ as a verb should not apply to wine, because it indicates old and dusty things like King Tut’s mummy or the Dead Sea Scrolls, and although old and dusty wine can be dandy, it is only dandy because you can dust it off, open it, and consume it.  ‘Curate’ should be reserved for museums or art shows and should only apply to things you cannot dust off and consume like putrefying Egyptian flesh or papyrus parchment.

In any case, I joined the Playboy Wine Club just to see what was going on, and to see if they had any vintage nude photos of Carmen Electra to gawk at.  Nix on the latter, but as to the former, I scrolled, dead sea-like, through the available wines and discovered that there were some distinctly interesting selections, like 2008 Granite Ridge Reserve Shiraz, 2009 Radford Dale Chenin Blanc and 2003 Empyrean Draco Meritage.

And yet, none are particularly value-priced for members and can be purchased online for the same price—even on Barclay’s web site—without joining any clubs.

Therefore, be forewarned, those of you tempted to join yet another source of unwanted Inbox spam:  About Playboy Wine Club’s ‘regular price’ column, which attempts to convince you that you are, in fact, getting a deal when you’re not?

It’s as lame as Playboy magazine’s attempt to convince you that Carmen Electra has no pubic hair.


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It’s Up To You, New Cork, New Cork

Spot quiz, class:

What do corks and Mork From Ork have in common?

  1. They have absolutely no relevancy to 2012’s brave new world.
  2. Both come from obscure lands on the periphery of anything that could even vaguely be called civilization.
  3. They were once successful in popular culture, then became totally ‘meh’ due to the availability of better alternatives, and are now enjoying a bit of a career revival.

It’s number three, of course—sentiments that apply not only to cork and Mork from Ork, but also to Bjork and Mickey Rourke.

Barking Up The Wrong Tree?

Elastic, nearly impermeable, inexpensive and readily available, you’d think that cork must enjoy as venerable and antiquated a wine history as glass bottles—invented by the Phoenicians around 1000 BC—but in fact, prior to the 17th century, most wine bottles were stoppered with everything except cork.  The Greeks poured a thin layer of olive oil over their amphorae, then sealed them with pitch; the Romans often used hand-turned wooden stoppers, the English ground glass to fit individual wine bottle necks while the French preferred oil-saturated rags.

You may or may not like it.

But by the time of Shakespeare, cork magic was beginning to settle over the wine industry, and a line from ‘As You Like It’ delivered by Rosalind to her cousin Celia, indicates the ‘trendiness’ of the new technology:

“I pray thee take thy cork out of thy mouth, that I may drink thy tidings.”

The Rain in Spain Is Mainly Thought A Bane

For those of you who thought that cork came from County Cork in Ireland, please log off immediately and return to your assigned ward; Nurse Ratched will be around with your meds directly.

For those that remain, of course, the once-massive cork industry is centered in the temperate plains of Spain and Portugal, where cork forests form an amazingly diverse ecosystem, providing a habitat for the world’s most critically endangered feline, the Iberian Lynx.

Portuguese extractors ply their trade.

The quercus suber, commonly called the cork oak, is an evergreen oak tree with such a finicky laundry list of agricultural requirements that it really only thrives in a few areas of southern Europe and northwest Africa.  Portugal leads the way, providing about 50% of the world’s cork, followed by Spain, Algeria and Morocco.  France, Tunisia and Italy contribute to the industry as well, albeit in lesser amounts.

It’s a particular, unusual version of the Mediterranean climate that suckers quercus into submission—not much rain, plenty of sunshine, mild winters and relatively high humidity.  Oddly, forest fires are no real issue, and in fact, the reason why the tree is so uniquely suited for wine bottle stoppers is that the bark is an evolutionary firewall.  Most trees die when the bark is removed, but quercus has two distinct layers—the living inner layer forms a base on which the outer layer, which is dead, exists, basically serving as insulation against the occasional fires that the parched conditions encourage.

Unlike other evergreens, who regenerate from seeds—basically starting over from scratch after a fire—a cork oak regrows much more rapidly, as the insulated branches themselves sprout, forging a path to quick recovery.

So You Want To Start a Cork Farm?

Better get cracking, then.  It takes about fifty years for an individual tree to mature to the point where its bark has sufficient cell density to be considered stopper-material; earlier harvests wind up as floor tiles, fishing rods, floats, acoustic insulation and—believe it or not—spacecraft heat shields.

Once that half century has passed, bottle-stopper cork is harvested every nine years, entirely by hand since the critical inner bark cannot be penetrated or else the jig is up.  Treated with dignity, a single cork tree can live to be two hundred and may provide 65,000 stoppers.

Tainted love.

So, with all the benefits arising from all natural, biodegradable, sustainable, job creating, eco-friendly cork, where is the issue?

TCA, or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole in Chemspeak.

Taint Necessarily So…

TCA is a wine spoiler so virulent and off-putting that wines thus affected are, perhaps unfairly, referred to as being ‘corked’—likely because calling them ‘trichloroanisoled’ would be a bit too show-offy, and we all know that under no circumstances do wine geeks like to show-off.  Ever.

And yet, it has never been directly and definitively demonstrated that taint passes from a cork into the wine, or is an airborne fungus passing through a cork into the wine, but ultimately, it makes no difference. Nor that, whereas the cork industry maintains that cork taint affect between 0.7% – 1.2% of wines, the wine industry hold out for a much higher percentage, possibly as much as 10%.  In any event, once the scare was in, wineries began to search for alternate closures to lessen the bad PR, and thus were born several new industries—synthetic corks, aluminum screw caps, Alcoa’s glass and plastic Vino-Seal and pricey but efficient Zork corks—which sprang up to fill the void.

The massive hemorrhage of market share—based on public perception as much as reality—saw cork sales plummet in the first years of this decade, and insiders raised serious doubts that the industry had potential for long term survival.

Enter Science

So, now that all the Irish cork theorists have been subsumed back inside the Oregon State Hospital, I can bring out the folks in white coats without fear of general panic, right?

Over the past few years, scientists (hired by the cork industry, obviously) have been working diligently to improve both the quality of cork manufacturing and enact stricter protocol in certifying quality corks.  As such, it has been suggested that TCA may ultimately go the way of smallpox and be eradicated wholesale from the face of the planet.  As such, the industry has rebounded remarkably—a needed shot in the arm for Spain particularly, which is slogging through its second recession in three years.

As TCA becomes less and less of a concern, the benefits of a natural product should overrule the use of more non-biodegradable plastic and metal in wine stoppers.  At least, one can hope.

So, another spot quiz to demonstrate that you did not fall asleep during the second paragraph:

  1. What bird, later fried by Colonel Harlan Sanders, did Orkans like Mork evolve from?
  2. In what European cork-producing country where they speak French is ‘As You Like It’ set?
  3. When McMurphy imagines the World Series game, which pitcher whose name rhymes with Sandy Schmofax does he say is in trouble?

You are now Dr. Cork Dork. Congratulations.

Excellent, three for three.  I knew you’d never nod out on me, class.

You are now officially awarded membership in the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Cork Dorks and may proudly wear ornate robes that are duplicates of those worn by Doctors of Corkology in 17th century French mental institutions.

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News Flash: Red Wine Is Good For You And Guess What? I Couldn’t Care Less

Other than my father, who is a sensible, conservative Swiss fellow who drinks only in moderation, I grew up in a family of sloppy, out-of-control lushes.  We drank together, we drank alone.  We drank to forget, we drank to remember; we drank to remember, then promptly forgot what it was we just remembered; we drank to forget but instead, remembered other things we’d like to forget.

Personally, I tend to wake up half an hour before God, so it’s not unusual for me to pour moscato over my cornflakes, but as a pre-schooler, I was alone in the ill-advised habit of drinking first thing in the morning.

Mainly because everyone else slept in past noon.

In any case, right or wrong, we drank to our health, but safe to say the only thing we did not drink for was our health.

60 Minutes = 252 Months

Dear Morley,  it’s safer to be Rather; unless you’d rather be Safer.

Ever since that infamous French Paradox segment on 60 Minutes aired back in 1991, I have read endless affirmations of the show’s central premise: That drinking a glass or two of red wine a day is beneficial to one’s physical as well as emotional well being.  The basis of the paradox was that, for reasons then TBD, French people suffer a lower incidence of coronary heart disease than Americans despite their higher intake of saturated fats.

Although not satisfactorily explained, it was concluded—mostly by red wine makers who promptly began to lobby the FDA for the right to label their product ‘health food’—that the sole difference between the French and American lifestyle was the former’s consumption of more red wine.

Drunk Hungarian Santa. Is nothing sacred any more?

Never mind the fact that Andrew Mente; Lawrence de Koning; Harry S. Shannon; Sonia S. Anand, authors of ‘A Systematic Review of the Evidence Supporting a Causal Link Between Dietary Factors and Coronary Heart Disease’ (2009) concluded that there is insufficient evidence to establish a correlation between Big Macs and big heart attacks, and never mind that the French really don’t drink that much more wine than we do while the Czechs, Hungarians, Germans and Croatians all drink more wine than either one of us and croak of coronaries at a rate higher than both of us.

And most of all, never mind the fact that in the typical French diet, the following factors seem salubriously superior to the way we stuff our American gobs:

  • The French get up to 80% of their fat intake from dairy and vegetable sources, including whole milk, cheese and yogurt.
  • The French eat more fish than we do.
  • The French eat less sugar than we do.
  • The French tend not to snack between meals and despite the misnomer ‘french fries’, try wandering the aisles of a supermarket in Lyons and you’ll be amazed at how little hyper-processed, poisonous garbage you’ll find on the shelves.

Note that in the above list, there is no mention of wine.

“Finish Your Merlot, Son; There Are Children Going to Bed Sober in Africa”

Once we begin to slither and slabber down that slippery slope of slackness, pretending that our individual consumption of alcohol has anything to do with our health, especially when The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists moscato ‘n’ Kellogg’s abuse as the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States after tobacco and—you guessed it—poor eating habits, we are behaving as textbookly optimistic Americans.

Listen up, people: Optimism has no place in any serious, deliberate, contemplative overview of reality.

Most recently, the NY Daily News published a piece entitled ‘Six Good Reasons To Toast Your Health With Wine’ which alienated me with its first two words:

‘Oenophiles, rejoice…’

Michele Bachmann: Francophile

I hate the word ‘oenophile’.  In the first place, it’s pronounced ‘eenophile’, so why is there a superfluous ‘o’ instead of an extra ‘e’?  Li’l help here, Merriam-Webster?  Secondly, I am not, and never have been an oenophile.  If a pedophile is attracted to little kids and a homophile is attracted to members of his/her own sex and if a Francophile is attracted to Hebrew National Kosher Hotdogs, then it follows that an oenophile is sexually attracted to wine bottles.  I defy the most die-hard oenophile to try that on for size without getting stuck and having make a life-altering trip to Beaumont Emergency Room.

But, reading further in the article, it lists (as promised) six so-called health benefits to slugging red wine, which I will give below and promptly rebut—being a dyed-in-the-wool rebutophile.

1. Protect your brain: Evidently, older women who drank one or more drinks per day, every day, scored better than teetotalers on memory tests.  The explanation given was that wine helps prevent clots, reduce blood vessel inflammation, raise HDL (good cholesterol) which unclogs arteries.

Rebuttal: Protect your brain? Seriously?  The zombie apocalypse started and I missed the memo?  And what’s more, did we not grow up with the absolute conviction that drinking drink kills brain cells rather than protecting them?  And about those morning-after migraines…

No, researchers, I think you need to go back to the babbling board: Protecting the brain is the provenance of the skull, Omega-3-rich fish flesh and Fusion In-Mold, ErgoDial fit system bike helmets.  Not shiraz.

2. Zap the fat – Purdue University eggheads claim that there’s a compound in red wine, blueberries, and passion fruit that blocks immature fat cells’ ability to develop and grow. Studies find that people who drink wine daily have a lower body mass than those who indulge occasionally.

‘Never, ever have I drunk wine to elevate my testosterone levels. Never.’

Rebuttal: Wine is largely composed of what fat people who want to be not fat people call empty calories; a glass of wine equals around 100 calories—same as a jumbo egg, only without the 8 grams of life-sustaining, muscle-building, hair-on-back-growing protein.  Plus, wine’s inherent ability to lower inhibitions will cause you to order double-cheese meat lover’s pizza at midnight and eat the entire thing yourself.  No, people, I think we need a sanity check on this one: If you convince fat people that wine is the ticket to weight-loss, you are going to end up with a bunch of drunken buffarillas wandering around; is this what you really, truly want?

I mean, isn’t Rosie O’Donnell scary enough sober?

3. Good for your gut:  A Spanish study found that the polyphenol content in red wine can promote the activity of healthy and beneficial bacteria in the human plumbing system, combating such icky disorders as celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

Sopa de ojos

Rebuttal:  A Spanish study?  Is that Spanish as in Spain—the land that Britain’s Halifax Research Centre determined was where travelers are most likely to contract food poisoning?  Where they eat sopa de ojos (eye soup), pasta con pies y pelo (pasta with feet and hair) and algodon con sal (salted cotton candy?)

Protect the gut?  I’m getting sick to my stomach even thinking about it.

4. Protect the ovaries: Australian researchers found that the antioxidants and phytoestrogens in a single glass of wine a day seemed to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer by as much as 50 percent.

Rebuttal:  I drink three or four bottles of wine a day and have managed to reduce my risk of ovarian cancer to 0%.

5. Build better bones:  Apparently, women who drink have higher bone mass than those who do not drink.  Alcohol, one study postulates, boosts estrogen levels, slowing the body’s tendency to self-destruct as it ages.

Rebuttal:  So, along with my better bones, my elevated estrogen offers me decreased libido, erectile dysfunction, shrinking bollocks, moobs and loss of hard-won chest hair, which should make my new moobs even more prominent.  Before you know it, I will start renting romantic comedies starring Jennifer Aniston, going out for brunch at Neiman Marcus, buying piña colada-scented candles and, every twelve seconds texting my girlfriends who I will actually like, not hate (like my current friends), but will bad-mouth anyway.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but other studies have shown that increased estrogen production raises tumor progression in women with, or at high risk for, estrogen-positive breast cancer.

6. Safeguard against Type 2 diabetes:  According to a 10-year Harvard Medical School study, one or two glasses of wine per day were found to decrease risks of developing Type 2 diabetes by as much as 40%.

Rebuttal: On the other hand, if you consume more calories each day than you burn, triglyceride levels go up—particularly when these calories are from dietary sources high in simple carbohydrates and alcohol.

Like wine.  High triglyceride levels in the blood can contribute to a condition called diabetic dyslipidemia, and may lead to… you got it, Type 2 diabetes.  Not only that, but very high triglycerides—in the range of 1000 mg/dl—have been associated with memory loss (see #1 above) and abdominal pain (see # 3 above).

Your humble narrator in search of an honest drink.

The point of all this is not to talk anyone out of drinking copious oceans of wine so long as they are not driving, working, calling friends at 2 AM, speaking to random strangers in the mall or attending child custody hearings.

Whenever I read these bestselling bundles of baseless bull ballyhooing the health benefits of demon rum, I am—as Ombudsman for the Outspoken—reminded of Matthew Henry’s famous Presbyterian proverb:

‘There are none so blind as those who will not see double…’

…and, like Diogenes of Sinope, I am thereupon forced to pick up my lantern and go off in search of an honest man with a hip flask.

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A Bit Of Gloss For The Schloss Sauce: 800 Vintages And Going Strong!

Is Schloss Vollrads the world’s oldest winery?  Arguably so.  Sure, they’ve found the leavings of winemaking operations in Armenian caves dating back sixty centuries; there are Mesopotamian developments even older.  Egyptian texts attest that wine was popular among the New Kingdom upper crust and buried vessels have been found in the Abydos desert that indicate that the Pharaohs were sticklers for temperature control.

And dried leavings in the tomb of King Tut suggest that he was a red wine sort of man/god.

But these guys are all dust.  Dusty, dead and irrelevant, capisci?  Hell, if you can’t draw a current Wine Spectator point rating, you simply don’t count.  I know, because I interviewed Shanken and he told me so.

Schloss Vollrads

Schloss Vollrads, however—the Rajah of Rheingau—has earned scores in virtually every issue of virtually every wine magazine that has ever covered the Weinbaugebiete, and most of its scores have been pretty damn respectable.  And in 2012, the 800th consecutive vintage was released from this venerable estate (perched on the collective site of Honigberg between Johannisberg, Winkel, Mittelheim and Erbach), suggesting that some celebration is in order to accompany the bragging rights that the oldest continuing operating winery in the world has earned.

Holy Roman Reich, Batman…

Otto IV

So, shall we take a stroll down memory lane?  Back to 1211, around the time that Genghis Khan was flipping stones and killing anything he found underneath—but before the Black Plague, before the Magna Carta, before the infamous Children’s Crusade (20,000 German kids set off to liberate Jerusalem; nearly all were sold into slavery instead… doh!), before iPhones, before Pretty Little Liars.  

The Kingdom of Germany was then a part of the Holy Roman Empire; in fact, it was its center.  In 1211, Otto IV was running the show—he was appointed Holy Roman Emperor in 1209 and deposed six years later.

Meanwhile, in a manor house over on the Rhine named after the Lords of Winkel (later Vollradus in Winkela (Knights of Vollrad), the Archbishop of Mainz was upgrading the estate’s formerly ill-tended, Roman-planted vineyards, and in 2011, the first documented sale of his new, improved wine to the Victor Monastery in Mainz is recorded.

Thus, an eight hundred year pedigree, nearly as long as The Mousetrap has played the West End.

Rules of Riesling

Ripening riesling

I can find no reference to the varietals that the Archbishop might have grown, but these days, Schloss Vollrads is obsessively, compulsively, dogmatically riesling, and has been for a long time.  In 1814, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the bosche bard, the Mephistophelean meter maker stopped by the castle for a sip or two of Spätlese and vowed he’d sell his soul to the devil for a third.

The current spread is about two hundred acres, from which is drawn the gamut of German wine styles, Kabinett to Eiswein and a full bandwidth in between.  As wine enthusiasts know, but neophytes may not, German wine is classified by levels of ripeness—sweetness levels at harvest (not necessarily when the wine is bottled).  When all things Deutsch are equal, sweeter wines are generally considered more desirable because they tend to represent longer—read ‘better—growing seasons.

Schloss boss Dr. Rowald Hepp believes (with some justification) that riesling is the most sophisticated and elegant white grape variety grown on this, the third rock from the sun.

Before I comment on that assertion, however, a brief word on the use of the term ‘Doctor’ in Germany, because Germans are a bit funny about it, like they are about other things, despite being voted the least funny nation on earth in a recent global poll and Mark Twain’s classic observation, ‘A German joke is no laughing matter’. *

*Typical German joke: ‘Plants are said to grow very well if you speak kindly to them, which is why I sometimes go into the garden and insult the weeds.’  (Cymbal-crash)

Two doctorates: A paradox?

Although the Germans are patently punctilious about the precepts of propriety, tacking ‘Dr.’ onto the name of a winemaker does not necessarily connote a doctoral degree; it can be bestowed as an honorific upon any individual with any advanced degree and occasionally, simply as a term of respect for success outside of University.  Equally quaint is the protocol of addressing, say, Mr. Horst, should he actually earn two legitimate doctorates as Dr. Dr. Horst, and if he should earn three as Dr. Dr. Dr. Horst.

But Back To Vollrads…

Rowald Hepp: What’s up, Doc?

According to Doc Hepp, the soil structure beneath Schloss vines has been recognized as singular from the 1st Century—six individual soil layers containing loess-loam, gravel, slate and quartzite make up the rich brown Rheingau earth.

He maintains, “Riesling is the grape that makes the most out of this sort of growing condition; it reflects its terroir—the minerality in the soil and the climate very well.  The resulting wine shows the single most important quality of a world-class riesling: Balance.”

Dr. Hepp goes on the point out that most wine drinkers—and indeed, most wine writers—consider riesling ‘balance’ to be shrewd symmetry between acidity and residual sugar, which, of course, is vital.  But Hepp suggests that to him, even more essential equity exists between riesling’s exclusive character—specific fruits and aromatics—and minerality from the soil along with balance between alcohol and extract.

When these three factors are in harmony, he states without equivocation, riesling is ‘the perfect wine grape.’

If You Were Stranded On A Desert Island With Only One Wine…

Young riesling, very young Proust, too young Spencer

I stand with the Doc.  Riesling is to me a varietal that offers all things to all people, except possibly third-stage alcoholics as the octane level tends to be somewhat low: Riesling and high APV really don’t get along.

Oh, and by the way?  If I was stranded on a desert island with only one book?  In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust: 4000 pages long, covering seven volumes.  Should kill some time while the Professor builds a raft out of coconuts, spit and palm fronds.

And if I was stranded on a desert island with only one person, living or dead, who would it be?  Definitely the living one.

And for the record, if I was stranded on a desert island with only one cast member from Pretty Little Liars?

Spencer, no question.


Tasting Notes:

Schloss Vollrads Qualitätswein, 2011, around $18:  Straw yellow with sour fruits—green apples, lime and grapefruit on the nose, and moderately full, dry body with juicy melon, peach and honeysuckle notes.  A top-flight food wine with shellfish, ham or mild cheese.

Schloss Vollrads Kabinett, 2011, around $23: Lacy and delicate, the wine shows apricot and lime in the nose, an explosion of fruit on the palate along with pine, slate and a piquant spiciness.

Schloss Vollrads Spätlese Trocken, 2011, around $30: Emphatically assertive and precise, the wine has the depth of fruit of a full-on sweet Spätlese with all the associated white pepper, green apple, apricot aromas, mineral and smoke but wrapped in a more entrée-friendly package.  In fact, it would be difficult to find a meal that it wouldn’t compliment.  Part of a new generation of German wines, tending a bit more toward dryness.

Schloss Vollrads Spätlese, 2011, around $30: A gust of honey is settled by racy acids; pear, Golden Delicious apple, Key lime and passion fruit appear in the bouquet and carry through as flavors.  Spätlese means ‘late harvest’, so the wine’s sugars are all natural—in fact, by German law, they must be.  Long and lingering, the wine finishes with a bracing shot of damp stone—‘petrichor’ to wine writers with big vocabularies

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