Smith-Madrone And The Value Of Venerable Vines

Today’s ‘tree falls in the forest’ enigma, my friends:  If one digresses before one begins, is it still a digression?

Because, before I get involved in all this boring ‘old vine’ Smith-Madrone crap, I would like to take a moment out of your busy schedule to discuss hyphenated names.  When I was first married, it was fashionable for a strong-willed, newly-wedded woman to declare both the sanctity of her union and the power of her own identity by hyphenating her ‘maiden’ name with that of her husband.  Not my wife, naturally—I purposely chose someone meek, submissive and entirely dominatable who, incidentally, I would not allow to have friends and constantly compared unfavorably to my late, saintly mother.

Obviously slipped on the walk and fell in it.

He obviously slipped on the walk and fell in face-first.

On the surface, the hyphenated-name solution seems like a politically correct win/win, but in truth, it winds up being unwieldy, pretentious and perplexing—whose last name comes first and why?—and really, who wants to have to spell their name, letter by letter, to some zit-smeared teenage phone jockey every time you order pizza??

Not only that, but the name that the woman keeps on one side of the dash or the other as an assertion of her ‘non-spousal-ownership’ feminism is probably her father’s family name anyway.

I actually knew a dude who changed his name to a hyphenated version of his last name and his new wife’s last name, just like she did.  Five minutes after being impressed with his loyalty, conjugal commitment and selfless pluck, I began to think of him as a wimpy dingledouche.  And I still do.

You want a hyphen, my boy, try this: P-Whipped.

My second wife simply kept her own last name, and that seems to be the optimal Band-Aid.  For different reasons, our oldest has her last name and our youngest mine.  When this causes confusion in school, at the doctor’s office or in social situations and folks ask why they have different last names, I have found that the most satisfactory and expedient response is:  ‘None of your fucking business.’

Nap Time

L.: Stu Smith. R.: Charles F. Smith

L.: Stu Smith. R.: Charles F. Smith

Now, I am not suggesting that Smith and Madrone are married, and even with California’s liberal legislative super-majority, it’s not likely that the definition of matrimony will be expanded, in our lifetime, to included a union between a man and a tree.

Nonetheless, according to Stu Smith, Smith-Madrone vineyard manager, that’s where the winery’s name comes from:

“It sounds better than Smith-Douglas Fir, Smith-Manzanita, Smith-Oak and certainly, better than Smith-Poison Oak—the predominant trees and shrubs on the property in 1972 when my brother Charles and I first began planting.  ‘Smith’ is not exactly a grand Mediterranean wine name, and certainly we couldn’t call it just Smith Winery.  Smith-Madrone, however, has a nice ring to it—and the madrone is now the most prominently cultivated tree on the property.  It fits, too: The madrone tree never stands out alone in the forest; it’s always clustered for shade and protection with others…”

Trivia: Stu and Charles appeared on a 'Simpsons' episode in 1998

Trivia: Stu and Charles appeared on a ‘Simpsons’ episode in 1998

Smith then goes on, somewhat interminably, about madrone taxonomy, distribution and habitat, referring to it by its biological tri-nomial Arbutus menziesii Pursh—but I will not transcribe the lecture  here because if anyone is going to bore my readers to suicidal catatonia, it will be me, not Mr. Stuart Smith.  Capisce?

We shall turn instead to Stu’s big brother Charles, who refers to himself as a ‘factotum’, which I was terrified might mean ‘somebody with as many boring scientific segues as Stu’, but which apparently  means ‘a person having diverse activities or responsibilities’.

More trivia: Madame Tussaud's has wax sculptures of Stu and Charles

More trivia: Madame Tussaud’s has wax sculptures of Stu and Charles Smith.

This is Charles’s modest way of saying that he is the vintner responsible for the trio of Smith-Madrone wines, all from the brothers’ dry-farmed Spring Mountain estate: Riesling, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.  The recent releases (2011, 2007 and 2010 respectively) have each taken gold medals in various competitions this year, including The San Francisco International Wine Competition, The Critics Challenge International Wine Competition and The Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition.

Despite such skill with the centrifuge and the cross-flow filter, and despite being a witty, charming and bright fellow (18th century Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume is a Smith forefather), Charles is hardly off the hook in the brain-busting banality department:  He’s also a world-class croquet player who boasts of having been a co-participant in the longest single game in the history of the World Croquet Federation. *

*How do I know that the Smith brothers will take this column in the spirit of good humor with which it was intended?  Because they are members of a group called G.O.N.A.D.S—the Gastronomical Order for Nonsensical and Dissipatory Society—an informal group of Napa winemakers founded at around the same time the Smiths released their first riesling.   


Wake Up Call

An obvious Smith brother imposter.

An obvious Charles Smith imposter.

So, among the multifarious minutiae making Smith-Madrone a prize-winner—including vineyard elevation (at 1,300 and 2,000 feet, ranging in steepness up to 35%, these are among Napa’s highest vineyards), low yields (a total of 4000 cases from a 200 acre ranch) and volcanic soils unique to California’s coastal ranges, an indispensable part of the program are the age of the Smith-Madrone vines, which—fair, fat and forty—have truly come into their own.

So there’s no mistake, when you find ‘Old Vines’ on an American wine label—or ‘Vieilles Vignes’ on a French label—there is no legal precedent ensuring that you are getting anything but a kiss and a prayer from the labeler.  Both phrases are, like ‘Reserve’, simply marketing tools.

Obviously, a couple more imposters.  Jeez Louise!

Obviously, a couple more imposters. Jeez Louise, people!

However, certain physiological changes do occur in grape vines as they age, and nearly all equate to a higher-quality end product.  After about twenty years, a vine begins to produce fewer grape clusters and smaller berries, but those that form tend to yield more intense sugars, color and concentration of flavors.  Another key factor is the plant’s root system: In newer vines where roots are shallow, they are much more susceptible to the ravages of drought and excessive rain.  Especially in the former scenario, in coping with water stress, a vine calls in sick to the photosynthesis lab and switches to respiration—a survival technique that burns malic, resulting in grapes lacking in sufficient acidity to produce the correct sweet/sour ratio.  In older vines with a deeper root system, water can drain away in a flood or be located in a drought.  Note that Smith-Madrone drip-irrigated for the first few years of their vineyard’s life, only switching to the dry-farm (non-irrigated) system after the vines were firmly established.

Some non-old Smith-Madrone vines

Some non-old Smith-Madrone vines

All of which is not to suggest that old vines always produce better wines—or even smaller yields—and like the cellaring potential of wine itself, of which no catch-all statement can be made, not all vines grow old with grace: Plenty no longer produce a viable harvest when they reach the age of so-called maturity.  In fact, when a winemaker insists on the superiority of quality from wines harvested from old vines, you can be certain of only one fact:  He has old vines.

Not so for the Brothers Smith, who are not so crass as to spackle their labels with any sort of old-vine phraseology, hyphenated or otherwise—they hold the truth within the bottle to be self-evident.

Arbutus Menziesii Pursh

Arbutus Menziesii Pursh

And it is.

Thus, Those Questions Are Answered And But One Enigma Remains:

‘If a madrone falls in the forest and no one can hear it, will Stu and Charles get off their kiesters and pick it up…?’

Tasting Notes:

rieslingSmith-Arbutus Menziesii Pursh (has no particular ring to it, does it, Stu?) Riesling, Spring Mountain, 2011, about $25:  As a viticultural area, California has not enjoyed much success with riesling, especially lately—a lot of the attitudes are hold-overs from the pre-chardonnay era, when Napa riesling, though widely available, was not particularly good.  Formerly Napa Valley’s most widely planted varietal (five times as much as chardonnay), a lot of it was the wrong clone put in the wrong vineyard.  Too much heat and insufficient drainage produces flabby, character-free riesling, and once the bar of wine-drinking sophistication was raised in this country, such rieslings were back-burnered by those few vintners who didn’t rip them out in favor of trendier grapes.  Smith-Madrone has hung in there, and it shows: Among the best rieslings produced in the United States, and certainly in California, the complex, inviting, multi-layered depth of flavor is astonishing, with nuances of lemon zest, pear, honeyed apple, apricot and fresh pineapple laced with minerals.  At 12.6%, the alcohol is high by riesling standards, but a subliminal amount of residual sugar (0.07%) keeps the wine on track alongside its bracing backbone of acidity.  (Incidentally, ‘off-dry’ is another hyphenated label word that has no legal meaning).

L.: Trade. R.: Mark

L.: Trade. R.: Mark

Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain, 2010, about $30:  100% fermented in French oak followed by eight months in the barrel, the wine shows a rich golden color that you might otherwise associated with slight oxidation.  Not here, that’s for sure:  A brilliant nose filled with honeycomb, chamomile, beeswax, apricot and nectarine leads into a balanced body, with malolactic creaminess and a pH of 3.41 on a play date.  The mid-palate is luscious with tropical fruit notes as well as Golden Delicious apple and Bosc pear; the finish is studded with vanilla, butterscotch and petrichor.

cab labelSmith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain, 2007, about $45:  Grown at the very top of the mountain and on the steepest slopes, from harvest to Happy Hour, this is not a wine for the faint of heart.  Nearly black in color, the nose is extracted and condensed with scents of warm berry cobbler, cassis, cedar, smoke and yes—Smith Brother’s Cherry Cough Drops.  It had to be said.  The mouthfeel is lovely—silken smooth, with a nice nip of tannin; there are layers of black currant, fresh tobacco, pie spice and a solid earthen core and a long, luxuriant finish.  A worthy wine for the cellar, since I would be willing to bet my next court-ordered digression that it isn’t going anywhere bad any time soon.

Posted in CALIFORNIA, Spring Mountain District | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Bordeaux Without The Bloodshed

escargot1From time to time, I mock the French for some of their inexplicable cultural anomalies, such as eating bugs you can buy poison at English Gardens to kill and animals on which you can bet at Churchill Downs; for having had a First Lady who bragged about sleeping with both Mick Jagger and Donald Trump; for their inability to say ‘The thoughtful theropod thinks theology is thrilling’ and for having invented nothing of note but the useless hot air balloon and the equally useless metric system .

'You can't eat me, I'm... I'm... I'm Ann Coulter.'

‘You can’t eat me, I’m… I’m… I’m Ann Coulter.’

But even I must confess that France is, without question, the most important wine producing nation on earth, yesterday, today—and short of a really quick global warming fast-track—tomorrow.

If you’re one of those types who can be staggered by statistics, consider this:  France, roughly the size of Texas, produces over seven billion bottles of wine a year.  That’s not a typo, and if you’re counting those suckers off on the bus trip, you wind up on Alpha Centauri with a pretty hearty buzz.

France is the world’s second largest wine producer, schlepping just a tad less than Italy—all the more remarkable when you consider that Italy is essentially one massive boot-shaped vineyard and France grows vines in a handful of select, intense pockets.

Of the overall French wine output, Bordeaux produces about a billion bottles, about twice that of the Côtes du Rhône and four times that of Burgundy.

Château Lafite

Château Lafite

So, if you figure that of the region’s most world-renowned names—the five Premiers Crus named at the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855Château Latour produces about 216,000 bottles annually, Château Lafite Rothschild twice that; Château Margaux kicks out 150,000 bottles and Château Haut-Brion about the same, with the 1973 classified Château Mouton Rothschild producing 240,000 bottles per  year—in all, a little over a million bottles.  The other 55 châteaux named in the Grand Crus Classés, skating down the so-called quality ladder to Cinquièmes Crus, or Fifth Growths, may release another thirty million bottles, but that still leaves a whopping 970,000,000  bottles of Bordeaux to be accounted for.

No B.S. In Bordeaux Supérieur

Assume that about half come from the broad appellation simply called Bordeaux, and a quarter of these—broadcast across the entire parent region from Verdon-sur-Mer at the northwestern tip of the Médoc to Sainte-Foy, 80 miles to the east—go by the AOC Bordeaux Supérieur.

Typical vinescape, Bordeaux

Typical vinescape, Bordeaux

Covering both red and white wines made from classic Bordeaux varietals, there are legal restrictions that distinguish Supérieur from their proletarian—inférieur—brethren: The reds have a higher alcohol-by-volume, the whites a higher percentage of residual sugar.  Reds spend a minimum of one year in oak and are restricted to grapes from older vines.  As a result, they tend to be fuller-bodied and richer that simple Bordeaux, which sometimes—but not always—equates to a wine with more potential for cellaring.

planet logoAnd as such, they tend to carry higher price tags than straight-shooting Appellation Bordeaux Controlee, but in the grand scheme of this often over-priced region, not that much higher.  If the ‘sweet spot’ for a balanced, drinkable, identifiably ‘characteristic’ Bordelaise wine is around $25, the following gang of five, imported by Planet Bordeaux, are all under $15.

An excellent low-end introduction to the multifarious flavors and fragrances available in the wine capital of the world.

Tasting Notes:

Château Argadens, Bordeaux Supérieur, 2009, about $14: Now owned by Maison Sichel—Gironde-based winegrowers, winemakers and éleveurs—d’Argadens is the Sichel benchmark for the AOC, exploiting the clay-limestone soil to great advantage.  A concentration of crushed berries plays against cedar, earth, truffle and green tobacco.  Give it about an hour to open up.

couronneauChâteau Couronneau Cuvée Pierre de Cartier, Bordeaux Supérieur, 2009, about $14:  Fresh and fruit-focused with lots of smoky-sweet oak, spice and sandalwood beside the cassis and cherry.  The 15th century estate is now fully organic, certified by Ecocert.

Château de Lugagnac, Bordeaux Supérieur, about $13:  With a history dating back to the Hundred Years War between France and England (trivia buffs, it actually lasted 106 years, between 1337 to 1453), the Château is certainly shored up by history.  The most terroir driven wine in the bunch—owing, perhaps, to the iron-rich clay over chalk structure of the Lugagnac soils—the nose shows blackberry, cinnamon and Asian spice with blackberry liqueur echoed in the mouth along with an earthy, tannic finish.

Grapes at Tayet

Grapes at Tayet

Château Tayet Cuvée Prestige, Supérieur, 2009, about $11:   This property, situated at the mouth of the Médoc—home of Châteaux Potensac and  Preuillac—the wine is predominantly merlot, with the remainder made up of cabernet sauvignon.  It shows some nice depth—surprising for the price point—along with notes of mint, cassis, plum and caramel with some rather tight tannins.

Château Reyon, Bordeaux Blanc, 2011, about $13:  Light and mineral driven, likely due to the deep gravel in which the vines are grown, the wine doesn’t offer much on the nose, but is crisp and refreshing in the mouth; good acid to balance the lemon peel and grapefruit palate with a granite finish.

Posted in Bordeaux, FRANCE | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Top Ten Holiday Wines For Under $10,000

The other day I read an interesting statement made by my colleague Robert Whitley of Whitley on Wine.

Clipboard burtonAnd, so we’re clear, by ‘colleague’ I mean ‘someone who writes about wine like me, but actually takes it seriously’.  Seriousity is an admirable trait that requires extensive knowledge of the subject and the ability to maintain a public face of decorum at tastings, winemaker dinners, competitions and speaking engagements.  Whitley actually does his homework, too, finding all sorts of cool value wines that you might have overlooked, then renders them real in graphic, poetic, gustatory tasting note terms; like Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough (‘…aromas of ripe gooseberry and pungent grapefruit…’) and Royal Tokaji Furmint from Hungary (‘…nuances of brioche, honey, and wet stone complemented by fruit-driven aromas of citrus and green apple…’) 

The dude even looks serious—like Richard Burton, although ironically, sober.

8 ballMe, I tend to fake my way through the written part and get sloppy silly plastered during the public part; I research not wines, but distributors, because I need a steady supply of ‘review samples’, and generally, once a rep and/or associated winery actually reads what I write about what they’ve sent, said rep is either fired or pretends it was all a big misunderstanding.  That is likely because when I compile my ‘Tasting Notes’, I simply shake my Magic 8-Ball and use some variant of whatever comes up in the little window.  And as for looks?  I may not be worth a date with Liz Taylor, but I can give Whoopee Goldberg a run for her money.

BTW, I got my job through Affirmation Action.  Thank you, white people.

So again, when it comes to Robert Whitley, ‘colleague’ may be defined in the loosest terms possible since it contains the word ‘league’ and I am certainly not in his.

At all events, the statement that Whitley made that so inspired me was this:

‘I sense a trend. Seems everyone (including me) is writing about good value wines for the holidays.’

circus soakerWell, about that:  For all my amateurish, self-obsessed, ill-conceived columnizing, which tends to view the wine world not so much as a specimen beneath a microscope, but as the fat chick on the carnival midway sitting above the Super Soaker dunk tank, I have scrupulously avoided following trends.  Like, when critics started raving about Mendoza malbec, I was doing blogs on really cheap Argentinian vino de mesa made with criollo chica and Granadero Baigorria antifreeze.  I used to like muscat, but now that every gangsta-rapper wanna-be from Bed-Stuy to Oakland is slamming the shit for breakfast, I’m touting muskrat wine from Turkmenistan. And when the conversation turns to ‘trendy blendies’ like sauvignon blanc and grechetto, merlot and garnacha, gewurtz and pinot gris, I’m all about a Fred Sanford blend of chardonnay and Ripple to make me some chardonipple.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more impressed I become with my own iconoclastic worldview and think-on-my-feet, image-busting creativity.

Night Train ExpressIf you held my toes to the bunsen burner and forced me to tell you of my proudest accomplishment when I lived on the street, it would be convincing Night Train to release a Special Edition Night Train Single Vineyard Express Reserve, which I then got the Michigan Re-Education Foundation to subsidize as a way to transform homeless drug-addicted cretins into wage-earning employees of the wine industry.

Turkministani vintner Bürkmenabat Daşoguz at work in his winery.

Turkmenistani vintner Bürkmenabat Daşoguz at work in his winery.

And you know that top-shelf, high-end label ‘Pruno Località Liquoroso’ made with baker’s yeast and Harrod’s Premium Fruit Cocktail juice that everybody’s talking about?  Mine—conceived when I did a brief stint at Detroit House of Corrections.

In fact, when you get down to brass tacks, this particular brand has made me such a steaming heap of cash that I really don’t need to follow Whitley’s ‘trend’ anyway.

Screw my middle-class readers: You want to drink like some ghetto swill-sucking schmuck without two nickels to rub together, read Whitley—or whichever trend-junkie lines up with him.

'C'mon, bitches, where be the mos-ca-to??'

‘C’mon, bitches, where dat mos-ca-to??’

Me, I’ll make a holiday list for those of us with sufficient scoot to appreciate the real deal.

I will, however, do my best to describe these wines using flowery, detailed, overblown Whitleyan, Parkerish—even Karen MacNeilistic terminology since these are some of the greatest wines ever produced in the history of humanity, and as such, they deserve this sort of respectful treatment:  After all, It isn’t every day that you can afford a $10,000 bottle of wine.

I mean, I can, but you can’t.

Tasting Notes:

1)  Domaines Barons de Rothschild Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac, 1959, $9,386 (Available: Arvi’s Seaside Wine Shoppe, Switzerland):

Not bad.

label2)  Henri Jayer Richebourg Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits, 1987, $8,726 (Available: Fine & Rare Wines, London): 

Pretty good.

3)  Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, 2007 (bottle signed by Thomas Jefferson), $7,835 (Available: Bubba’s Bottle & Basket, Yonkers):  


4)  Château Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac, 2003, $6,950 (Available: Slurp ‘n’ Glurp, Chicago):

Cannot predict now.

5)  Château Petrus, Pomerol, 1995, $5,999 (Available: Wines ‘r’ Us, NJ):

Tastes like old grapes.

eschezaux6)  Chambertin, Grand Cru, Domaine A. Rousseau, 1962, $5,698 (Available: Vinum Petri, Germany):

Worth it?  Probably not.

7)  Echézeaux, Grand Cru, Domaine E. Rouget, 1985, $5,450 (Available: Weezer’s Wine Consigners, Inc., L.A.):

You may rely on it.

8)  Chateau Ausone, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, 1945, $5285 (Available: Wine Robbers, NY):

Answer unclear—try again later.

9)  E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Mouline, Côte-Rôtie, 1978, $4825 (Available: I Wish Cotton Was A Monkey Wine & Spirits, San Francisco):


10)  Egon Muller-Scharzhof Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese, Mosel, 1989, $3,800  (Available: Adolf and Eva’s Wine Bunker, Berlin):

Focus and ask again.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged , | 3 Comments

‘the wine business’ In Blunderland Has Alice In Danderland

Ever been in a relationship with—or, worse case, been married to—someone who thrives on getting pissed off; to whom bile is lifeblood, huffiness heroin and acrimony the only emotion possible that can offer day-to-day, hour-by-hour equilibrium?

I’m talking about someone who wanders the earth like Diogenes, holding a lantern, looking not for an honest man, but for any scenario, any angle, any expedient however minor to succor the ravenous, mewling, insatiable demons of distemper within?

In other words, ever hung around with an anger addict?

I have, and I quake to be reminded of that mindset, but it was sort of hard to suppress those awful, corrosive memories while reading the vitriol spewed by readers of the drinks business—Europe’s leading booze trade publication—based on some moronic monochrome model that turned up adjacent to one of their recent features.

Alongside Top 50 Most Powerful Women In Wine, the drinks business published this absolutely bizarre clip-art-looking illustration:

original illustration

To me, it seems more inexplicable than offensive—as if the art director was a microcephalic time-traveler from Mad Men who suffered a full-on cerebral hemorrhage while smoking a fatty blunt.  I cannot imagine who was thinking what when on the drinks business editorial staff, because—blatant piggery aside—the graphic simply makes no logical sense as an accompaniment to a story about powerful wine women.  In fact, it represents the opposite since it depicts a non-powerful-looking woman incarcerated by an inverted wine glass.

Unless they were going for some sort of Orwellian allegory for how we allow our jobs to trap us—which they weren’t—I attributed it to an epic fuck-up in the editing room.

And, brothers and sisters, have I got some of those stories for a long winter’s night.

Shake a Head, Yes.  But, Shake a Fist…?

Apparently, the rest of the wine world disagrees.  It was blood they wanted, and blood they demanded, and blood they got so bloody quickly that within hours of the story going live, with volumes of venom and scads of sarcasm beginning to blast the Comments section like Katerina and Sandy* combined, the editors folded.

*Named for Sandy Koufax, of course: A man.

Here’s but a sampling of the snivels:

…Wow. Worst Visual Ever…

…Couldn’t get past your image of a pole dancer provocatively posing in heels to want to finish reading the article….

…As a woman that has been in the wine business for over 15 years, and often writes about the sensuality of wine and the way it can seduce you, that image is insulting as hell….

…trashy, insulting, and totally inappropriate…

And so on.

Within a short span, the publication got the message and pulled the illustration and replaced it with this mini-skirted silhouette, who, even without a wine glass or stiletto heels, is still absurd, but at least it doesn’t look like Daryl Hannah at The Blue Iguana:

second illustration

Yet, here are a few of the retorts after the image of the glass lass was dropped:

…you swapped out 1 offensive image for another…

…The second picture is just as big of a problem as the first…

…Your replacement image shows how truly clueless, old-fashioned and misogynistic you are at TBD…

So, the editors of the drinks business sighed once more and acquiesced, replacing the skirt woman with a bunch of ripe, delicious-looking gamay grapes—a benign enough icon for any viniculture article ever:


That would have to calm stormy seas, right?

Guess again.

Janice Cable writes:

…Now that the illustration has been replaced with a gender-neutral bunch of grapes, I can just be outraged at the strange, myopic, ahistoric introduction…

‘Gender-neutral’ is a weird way to view gamay, but…


New one on me, Janice, but apparently it is a real word, and means ‘without regard to history’.


The offending intro was:

‘The fact that there are enough powerful women working in wine to warrant a top 50 is a sign of how far the industry has come in a short space of time.’

This is ahistoric how exactly?  To me—correct or incorrect as the premise itself may be—by measuring the quickness with which the wine industry has begun to seek talent of both men and women alike, it sounds like they are looking history square in the gender-neutral kisser.

Sort of a-ahistoric, you might say.

And not for nothing, Janice—you yourself sound like a bit of an a-hole.

And Now: The Ne Plus Ultra of Hypocrisy

But, it must be confessed, my absolute favorite comment came from somebody named Marlene Rossman—who, for some cryptic reason hasn’t changed her name to ‘Rosswoman’:

‘…drinks business is a UK publication. They are still in the dark ages when it comes to women’.

Come again?  Which UK are you referring to, Marlene?  The one whose monarch is a woman, whose Stock Exchange CEO is a woman and whose longest-serving Prime Minister in the 20th Century was a woman?

Anyway, don’t you feel a bit strange dissing an entire nation with your smug, silly, superiority-complex ranting?  I mean, if for no other reason than half of the folks you just insulted are women?

Why are these people so goddamned angry??

Go Ask Alice

You just knew she’d weigh in, didn’t you?  Would have to.  And why not?  As one of the most powerful women in wine, who will obviously show up in one of the drinks business segments (only #41 – 50 were listed with the stripper/skirt/grape edition —stay tuned), she should have as much—nay more—room to spout her righteous illustration indignation as Janice the Cablewoman.

Clipboard carrot topAlice Feiring, of course, formerly Time Magazine wine/travel writer, Louis Roederer’s ‘Online Wine Writer of the Year, 2011’, renowned Robert Parker Jr. hater and award-winning author of several wine books including ‘Ginger on the Gironde’, which bears the following back-cover endorsement from Carrot Top:

‘If people with red hair read only one book about Bordeaux this year, let it be ‘Ginger on the Gironde’.

Feiring is also the voice behind ‘The Feiring Line’, that excruciatingly cutesy-titled wine manifesto in which she pointedly expresses uncompromising opinions about the same sort of titanic, tectonic topics covered by yours truly, with one important difference: People actually read her stuff.

And, as a result of that, any time I dare take the con to a Feiring pro or a pro to a Feiring con, I am inevitably mocked by friends, colleagues, offspring and that persistent peckerheaded poozle ValveKeeper of Must, who say:

‘You’re just jealous’.

Which is true, mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.  ‘Fess up: I’ve always wanted hair that looks like steel wool dipped in puréed flamingo.

In any case, that’s really sort of childish of me, and I do intend to keep on topic.

the drinks business Throws Women Under The Bus’

The above was the title of Alice Feiring’s take on the whole skank-under-glass controversy, and as always, I expected—beside the prerequisite ire—a hard-hitting, art-director-spanking, intellectually stimulating promulgation of the publication’s sins along with the musings of a double-x chromosomer and a brief prospectus of the Daimler-Hyundai Truck & Bus Corporation.

Well, I got the ire part right—Feiring, apparently, feels near pity for the drinks business’s benighted editorial board, wondering if they are owned by Rupert Murdoch.  She rightly points that women in the wine industry are indispensible to the product’s manufacture, sales and marketing.

On the other hand, I thought that’s what the article was all about.

But, no biggie, because that’s not even the weird part.  The weird part is that Feiring begins her column with the following statement:

‘”Do you ever have problems in the field, because you’re a woman?” So goes the oft asked question. After all, even if there are young men involved, there is an old boy network at the top. And so, I instead of telling them the truth I say, no, I get a hard time because I’m short.

I’ve always felt a little guilty about not being totally honest…’

‘Not being totally honest’?

A bit of a euphemism, that…  Still, folks wiser than I will have to determine when saying ‘no’ when the answer is ‘yes’ passes into the realm of ‘complete bullshit’.

But why?  What’s so hard about saying, ‘Yeah, but somehow, we muddle through…’?

Chromosome_Y.svgI confess to a Y chromosome, so obviously I don’t understand much of the subtle side of the prejudice that women in the industry may have dealt with over the decades.  Although, having taken my sommelier training from Madeline Triffon MS, I can say that a consideration of her gender never once occurred to me, then or now.  Only her palate.

But, I can also say with equal candor that if I was a woman experiencing bias from an ‘old boy network’ (let’s name names, shall we?), I would look to people like Alice Feiring to stand up and scream from rooftops until the situation changed—not to lie about its very existence, make excuses, then joke about it.

And if that rooftop screaming didn’t happen?  I guarantee you that I would consider it Alice Feiring—not a publication that’s willing to print a multi-installment feature on powerful women in the wine industry—that was throwing me under the bus.

I make no correlations here, but I will point out that The Feiring Line’s mission statement is:

‘I’m hunting the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world’.

A list, one notes, that is three-quarters male, with the lone woman bringing up the rear.  Hope there is room under that bus for Toni Morrison, Pearl S. Buck, Charlotte Brontë, Joyce Carol Oates, Doris Lessing, Lillian Hellman, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Anne Porter…

Et cetera.

Does That Mean That the drinks business Gets a Pass?

Yeah, kinda.  They screwed up, owned up and patched up.  As mortals, we can do no more.  Time will tell if there were lessons learned—and if so, I feel bad for that legion of tantrumheads who will have to sniff out their misogyny—or rumors of misogyny—elsewhere.

And, does that mean that I commiserate with the drinks business? 

It does.

Billie-Buckwheat-ThomasLike, if I were to publish a list entitled 50 Most Influential African Americans Of All Time, I would expect a bit of gratitude and, the very least, respect from folks like Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice and that actor with the liver spots all over his face.  I expressly would not expect excoriation from them—or the hoi polloi—simply because I chose to accompany the column with a picture of Buckwheat.


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‘CR20’ And Ruscalleda’s Rocking Restaurante

Every decade or so, a new culinary caprice climbs aboard the buzzword B&O, and—city by city—restaurants open up to cash in on pay homage to the ‘trend’.

Crusted pork on the bone with mashed potatoes and broccolini

Crusted pork on the bone with mashed potatoes and broccolini

Here in Detroit over the past thirty years or so, there was ‘nouvelle cuisine’, there were ‘trattorias’, there were ‘bistros’, there was upscale down-home white tablecloth soul food…

And these days, the yucky sounding ‘molecular gastronomy’ rears its repulsive head.

Of course, such joints generally have short shelf lives, and if you can strike while the kettle is hot, attract attention, good reviews and a crowd—and are not deluded to think it will last beyond the next flavor-of-the-month—you can sell up to some deluded investor and move on.

It’s a lot like guerilla warfare.

Fusion Vs. Confusion

Tree People fusion: Grubs and bark

Tree People fusion: Grubs and bark

When I was a sommelier, ‘fusion’ cuisine was the rage, and is probably the most singular example of the absurdity of taking food fashion too seriously, because every culinary style on earth short of that of the Papua Tree People of Southwest New Guinea has some element of fusion to it.  Countless Italian sauces, for example, rely on the tomato, which was native to Mesoamerica and didn’t even hit Europe until the 16th Century.  Likewise cocoa; but I suppose if your menu listed chocolate mousse torte as ‘Franco-Mex’, you’d have some explaining to do.

Chinois on Main

Chinois on Main

Of course, under correct and talented management, some places continue to make fusion cuisine sort of interesting.  Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main, blending Chinese and French styles and cooked by an Austrian, is alive and well after thirty years.  Hollywood’s Asia de Cuba speaks for itself, even though dishes like Havana-Style Pad Thai say ‘huh?’ more than anything else.

Then There Is The Real Deal

Travel fanatics, if you have never been there, drop what you’re doing and put Catalonia on the bucket list.  This intense community, encompassing the Spanish provinces of Barcelona, Taragonna, Llieda and Girona, is itself, the very essence of cultural fusion.  Its own nationality, the population is roughly split between speakers of Catalan and Spanish, and its culinary tradition blends styles from Spain, Valencia and France, using ingredients from the mountains as readily as those from the sea.

Carme Ruscalleda in her native habitat.

Carme Ruscalleda in her native habitat.

Here, on the coast between Canet de Mar and Calella, a short drive from Barcelona, is the remarkable Michelin 3-Star restaurant of Carme Ruscalleda, one of the most celebrated chefs in Spain.  Restrained, immaculate and known for flawless service, Restaurant Sant Pau fuses Catalan and Japanese culinary traditions while relying on local fish and flesh, with seasonal fruits and vegetables at the core of most dishes.

Offering such well-conceived, intriguing items as Lobster with Black-Olive Froth, Courgette Flower with Yellow Tempura, Maresme King Prawns, Cherries and Chopped Cucumber and an interactive, now-legendary dessert called ‘Moon’ made with coconut and chocolate ganache laced with fresh shiso, the cuisine is equally delicious and intellectual.  And guaranteed?  Nothing ‘Havana-Style’.

Sant Pau

Sant Pau

Having begun life as a basic Catalan deli, the evolution of Sant Pau to one of the most talked-about restaurants in Europe has taken twenty years.  And, in commemoration of that milestone, Carme Ruscalleda has released CR20—a sparkling Cava, which by its nature is a fusion in its own right.  A blend of macabeau, xarel-lo, parellada and chardonnay (only approved as a Cava component in 1986), her sommelier Joan Lluis Gomez—without attempting to suck up to the boss, obviously—describes it like this:

‘A brilliant Cava, like her ideas.  Clean and transparent as her honest character; with a fine and constant bubble, like her working philosophy.’

Now, there’s a nose browner than Obama’s.

L.: Always full.  R.:  Always dull.

L.: Always full. R.: Always dull.

But, in truth, CR20 is a sensational wine, no question, but I am equally impressed by the apparent humility that Chef shows in using her initials instead of her name on the label.  I mean, seriously: Can you imagine weighty waddler Paul Prudhomme releasing ‘PP Magic Seasoning Blends’?  Or that semi-gorked, notch-raising buffoon Emeril Lagasse hawking ‘EL All-Clad Cookware’? 

As if.

These guys should take a lesson from true talent—fusion femme-fatale Carme Ruscalleda—a chef with CR20/20 vision.

Tasting Notes:

bottleCR20 Extra Brut Gran Reserva, Penedès, 2008, around $30:  It may be psychosomatic, but I swear this wine manages to incorporate a multitude of flavors from Barcelona bakeries and fruit stands:  Yeasty upfront pan de leche, crisp green apples, dried pear, white peach and melon pierced by bubbles méthode champenoise—technology required to wear the Cava DO label.  Something is up with the price, though—and if you are interested in that sort of thing, time to buy is now.  According to, since 2009, the cost of a bottle has dropped from $60 to it’s current retail of $30.

Incidentally, the term Cava—Spanish for cave—came about as a result of legal conflicts with France over the use of champán, pissing everybody off on both sides of the courtroom.

Nowadays, with clear improvements in Cava*, as far as the Spanish are concerned?  ‘Champagne in Spain goes mainly down the drain’.

* About 95% of Cava comes from Catalonia.


Restaurant Sant Pau

Calle Nou, 10, 08395 San Pol de Mar, Spain

+34 937600662 

Posted in Penedès, SPAIN | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Beck Is No Loser, Baby—So Why Don’t You Refill Me?

Here comes Santa Claus!

Here comes Santa Claus!

Nothing quite says Christmas like blooming crocuses, picnics on grassy swards with lambs gaily cavorting about and the air filled with soft downy fluff from newly hatched ducklings.  Am I right, or am I right?

I mean, if you’re from South Africa and all.

Detroit Edumacation At Its Finest:

Cass Tech High, where my father taught for two decades.

Cass Tech High School, where my father taught for more than two decades.

I remember a survey once where they asked Detroit high schoolers to find South Africa on a map, and less than 2% were able to do it.  This fact is made even more pathetic when you consider that very few countries actually list their location in their names.

But, whatever.  Our drop-out rate is 75%, and a Detroit high school student has a better chance of going to prison than graduating.  Meanwhile, a 2011 report from the National Institute for Literacy indicates that nearly half of the city is unable to read.

Apologies: As I am wont to do, I have digressed.

Back To Christmas Below The Equator

Das what I'm talkin bout, fool.

Da’s what I’m talkin bout, fool.

I can’t say why exactly, but I don’t buy into this whole Southern Hemisphere theory.  Within this shrinking global network, it makes no sense that Christmas anywhere is not accompanied by snow drifting, yule logs burning, sleigh bells tinkling, pneumonia spreading and ice skaters busting ankles.

Between you, me and the wall, I really don’t believe in Florida either.

Anyway, I have read my history, and I know perfectly well than before Nelson Mandela came along, South Africa was known internationally for its white Christmases.

carte blanceRegardless, there is one thing that we can all agree upon, north and south:  ‘Tis the season for a bit of extravagant tippling, which by most standards includes small ‘c’ champagne.

At least it did for that ultimate authority on classy consumption, James Bond, who in Carte Blanche has traded his gauche martini for top-line Cuvee Clive from South Africa’s most respected producer of sparkling wine, Graham Beck.

Bonds.  Bill Bonds.

“Bonds. Bill Bonds.”

Of course—despite the fact than 96% of un-incarcerated Detroit students think that James Bond is either a genuine historical figure or an alcoholic local news anchor—he is in fact nothing more than a fictional character.  So Carte Blanche author Jeffery Deaver could have had him swigging sulfuric acid from a bleach bottle while mainlining ebola cultures if he had so chosen.

Not so Barack Obama and the aforementioned Nelson Mandela, both of whom are not only real people, but real people who enjoyed Graham Beck Brut NV at their respective inaugural parties.

Gots My Beck, Homie?

Not yet discovered by America’s Champagne-chugging hip-hop home dawgs, who prefer to drink for silly price tags—stuff like Louis Roederer Cristal Brut for $200 a bottle or Brignac Ace of Spades at $300—and not for common sense.  Bond’s beloved Cuvee Clive can be had for around $50.  Let’s keep it our little secret, shall we?

A Little Beckground Info:

Graham Beck, 1929 - 2010

Graham Beck, 1929 – 2010

Considering that many of the most recognized Champagne houses have pedigrees dating back centuries, Graham Beck Wines is not a new kid on the block—it’s a mewling infant still in diapers.  It was first released in 1991 under the directional auspice of billionaire mining maverick Graham Beck, who passed away at age 80 in 2010.

Beck discovered a passion for wine fairly late in life, but instantly dove into it with the same pioneering mania that he brought to Highlands—South Africa’s leading thoroughbred breeding farm—and a property development company in Israel; Beck, a Jew, is buried in Jerusalem.

The eponymous winery has sizeable estates in Stellenbosch and Robertson in the Western Cape—Detroit scholars, listen up: That’s the side that’s not the Eastern Cape.

The Robertson holding is called Madeba and focuses on minimal intervention in méthode champenoise wines, looking for the specific terroir that the rich limestone soils produce.

Erika Obermeyer

The fantabulous, talented, beautiful, outspoken, creative Erika Obermeyer

Stellenbosch’s proximity to the sea and granitic subsoils offer ideal climatic conditions for a multitude of earthy but elegant varietals.  Of the Stellenbosch plantings, cellarmaster Erika Obermeyer, Landbouweekblad South African Woman Winemaker of the Year—a woman with as many adjectives as fans—says:

“I’m extremely excited about the fantastic quality we’re seeing from these unbelievable vineyards.”

South Africa produces a lot of wine that, for those of us whose moon is the right side up, who celebrate Christmas in the winter like God intended us to and whose toilets flush in the proper direction, are acquired tastes.

Frothy, fragrant refreshers like Graham Beck’s outstanding line of fizz may be no exception, but it’s a taste that’s acquired in utero.

I do have it on 007’s authority, however, that they are best neither shaken or stirred.

(It had to be said, did it not?)

Tasting Notes:

Graham Beck Wines, Brut, NV, around $15:  Light on the nose, with apple, pear and biscuit evident; round in the mouth with the cream and acid harmonizing, not sparring.  Short, crisp finish.

graham_beck_brut_rosenvGraham Beck Wines, Brut Rosé, NV, around $18:  Aromatic fresh strawberry scents open this sensationally priced, salmon-colored rosé and carry through as crème de framboise in the flavor profile along with red apple, citrus, yeast and rose.  Quite an achievement for under $20.

blanc de blancGraham Beck Wines, Bliss Demi Sec, NV, around $20:  Unabashedly sweet, but with acidity and dosage in balance. A honeycomb bouquet with whiffs of lime and melon; abundant mousse and a sweet, gingery body extending into a clean, layered finish.

Graham Beck Wines, Blanc de Blanc, 2008, around $25: Tasty and distinguished from fragrance to finale; nice mineral undertones and a touch of smoke on the nose; brisk and creamy with incisive, almost tropical fruit notes through the mid-palate and a acid-gripping finish.

Posted in SOUTH AFRICA | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Two For Tea Is Groovy—So Long As One Of ‘Em Ain’t Me

L: Yuck. R: Yum

L: Yuck. R: Yum

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to make fun of herbal tea drinkers here.  They are a close-knit, close-to-the earth community who see the natural non-caffeinated decoction of plant material as inherently superior to overly-caloric, overly-expensive and overly-hyped Starbucks coffee.

On second thought, yes, I totally am making fun of them.  I had tea once, and you know what it tastes like?  A bunch of dried-up leaves somebody poured boiling water over.  Make mine a double, s’il vous plaît.

AA_Medallion_1_1yrAt least black tea offers a smidgen of caffeine—its only plausible plus.  However, any tea that touts ‘caffeine free’ as being an ‘advantage’ leaves me palpably baffled.  See, you have your Alcoholics Anonymous, your Narcotics Anonymous, even your Gamblers Anonymous—human cravings that need anonymouses.

On the other hand, note that there is no Milk ‘n’ Cookies Anonymous, no Buttered Corn-On-The Cob Anonymous, and pointedly, no Caffeine Anonymous.  And for a perfectly good reason: It doesn’t need one.  Walk into any AA meeting, and you’ll see legions of poor teetotaling saps guzzling cup after cup after cup of coffee, and not a single sponsor making tsk tsk snorts of disapproval or mentioning this blatant evidence of out-of-control addiction.

So Sue Me:  I Am Suspicious of Any Herb That Is Legal

L.: God. R.:Xenu

L.:  God. R.: Xenu

Now, I tend to be a live-and-let-live sort of fellow, and if Tom Cruise wants to believe in a Galactic Confederacy and thetans and teegeeacks, I say, God bless him.

Or Xenu bless him, or whoever Cruise thinks is in charge here.

And if someone wants to slog down an ocean of something called Coco-Caramel Sea Salt Herbal, or Traditional Medicinals Caffeine Free Organic Mother’s Milk, I say, have at!

I do, however, reserve the right to snicker my tuchis off either way.

To wit:

On tea-oriented Steepsteer’s website, tea blogger Claire writes:

‘I have a confession: I totally dumped out my cup of Rishi pu’erh and made a cup of Imperial Green Oolong instead.’

What the bloody f**k?

And How Strange Does It Get From Here?

Scientology strange.

Twinlab's CEO

Twinlab’s CEO

Yesterday, I received a press release from Twinlab Corporation titled Top Five Herbal Teas to Prepare You for the Winter Months Ahead.

Far be it from to second guess an ominous-sounding corporation like Twinlab—a name that Josef Mengele would have creamed all over—but, nigga please.

To prepare for winter, of which we Michiganders know a bit, I assure you that you will be far better off stocking your larders with (in this order): Jack Daniels, Tullamore Dew, single malt scotch, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Angel’s Envy, Rioja, Barolo, Vintage Port and more Jack Daniels.

And not Earth Mama Angel Baby Organic Herbal Tea for Breastfeeding Mothers.

But I suppose, when in Rome; right?  So, what follows are Twinlab’s top five recommended herbal teas followed by my own customary mean-spirited, Scrooge-like commentary:

horny goat weedHoly Basil Tea:  Referred to by Wiki as ‘an escaped weed’, holy basil has apparently been used for centuries as an insect repellent.  Now, since Twinlab is also into aphrodisiacs and male sexual enhancements—hand before Xenu, they produce a pill called ‘Horny Goat Weed’—it seems fitting that the same Wiki article describes holy basil as ‘ovate and erect with a hairy stem’.

In all, I think I’d prefer tea made with the dehydrated gonads of endangered white tigers.

Elderflower Tea:  Traditionally used to elevate the rate of urination while reducing snot, elderflowers go by the most unpolitically correct name of Sambucus nigra. Figuring that you can get the same effects by slamming copious amounts of Sambuca, which is also make from elderflowers, I think that the choice is pretty obvious.

Ginger Tea:  The press release recommends Twinlab’s Ginger Tea because it reduces flatulence.  Whatever.

Long-beakedEchidnaEchinacea Tea:  At first I thought this tea was made with those cute li’l spiny egg-laying anteaters from Australia, but someone dear to me pointed out that Echinacea and echidnas are not the same thing.  The former is widely used by millions to prevent or reduce instances of the common cold.  As someone who promotes buzz-causing substances, it is somehow unholy for me to become the buzz-killer, but nonetheless, a 2003 controlled double-blind study from the University of Virginia School of Medicine and documented in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that Echinacea extracts have no clinically significant effects on rates of infection or duration or intensity of symptoms.

And finally:

St. John's left eyelid

St. John’s left eyelid

St. John’s Wort Tea:  If I was going to drink tea made from any part of St. John, I don’t think my first choice would be something gross and contagious caused by a viral infection, but that’s just me.  Anyway, the release claims that this tea relieves holiday stress while lightening one’s mood.  Strangely, a study conducted in 2009 concluded that St. John’s Wort is effective as an antidepressant—but only if you’re German.  Of eleven German trials, eight found that St. John’s Wort was significantly better than placebo and the other three were very close. Meanwhile, of the eight non-Germanic trials, not a single one found it to be effective.

Dr. Mengele, take note.

In Conclusion, Class:

Twinlab's R&D facility.  In English, sign reads 'Always Environmentally Friendly'

Twinlab’s Grand Rapids R&D facility. In English, sign reads ‘Always Environmentally Friendly’

Twinlab Corporation has an R&D center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is good for our economy, of course, but begs the question:  After reading the above, why in the world would Twinlab need a Research and Development facility?

Based on the press release (and ever the businessman), I can offer Twinlab some elementary budget-slashing tips:

Research:  Wander out into any field anywhere on the planet and rip out anything you find.  Go home, look it up, name your next tea after it.

360_ron_jeremy_0825Development:  Convince the herbal tea community that it cures cancer, prevents Alzheimer’s, reduces the symptoms of any random disease you choose, meanwhile knocking your holiday blues on its kiester and improving your sexual prowess to that of a 1970’s porn star.

Voilà, Twinlab: You can close the building now.


After that—if I have indeed sold you—all of the herbal teas listed above are available online via Twinlab’s Alvita® Teas.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged | 2 Comments