How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth it is to Have a Thankless Clerk

When Nick Rowley is not seething silently behind wine shop counters, he sits loudly on the board of a Shakespearean theater group in—of all places—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

I note that as an incongruity because of all the things that the U.P. is known for—pasties and funky accents and Woody Guthrie songs—I wasn’t aware that renditions of Merchant of Venice were among them.  Merchant of Black-Ice, maybe. Eh-thello.

But I digress.  Back to Nick Rowley.

Recently, Nick informed many of our mutual friends on social media that I had attended a series of free wine tasting at the shop where he worked and drank a lot of wine. And not only that, but—even though the wine was free—I failed to pay for it.  Never mind that I was personally invited to the free tasting by his boss in the expectation that I would review the wines for free, which I did. Nick’s public beef was that I failed to buy any of said wine, and he referred to that as ‘mooching’.

My assumption is that perhaps he’s paid on commission, and rather than wait until my subsequent review attracts buyers (as his boss seems willing to do), Nick evidently expects the reviewer himself to buy the wine and eliminate the middle man.

My grandson has the same need for instant gratification, as do many two-year-olds.

But it raises an interesting point, and I query my fellow wine writers:

What are the financial obligations of wine journalists who are invited to tastings?

Are we, in any social construct, required to buy bottles of the wine we are invited to sample?  If so, wouldn’t the merchant then feel an obligation to pay us for the glowing columns we subsequently write? Quid pro quo?  Or rather, is the expectation that one freebie leads to another freebie, mutual back-scratching, pay-it-forward, and thus, in the long run, sells more wine to the public than a lone reviewer would likely purchase.

That’s always been my take—but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.  And by ‘free’, of course I mean, ‘it’s free’.

Meanwhile, of course, there is a deeper and more insidious side to Nick’s allegation:  It’s bullshit.

“I’m seen you drink” is Elizabethan English

Not only did I never drink free wine at any of these tastings, I haven’t consumed alcohol in nearly a decade.  As regular readers of this column know, I gave up drinking many years ago, yet still find the aura surrounding this beautiful product—its history, its makers, its lore, its nuance, even its merchants (in Venice and elsewhere)—entrancing enough to write about on a regular basis.

It’s the effects that affect me. So I don’t.

Alcoholism in the wine industry is a topic currently gaining traction among writers, and I have spoken about my own journey through addiction at wine conferences. I’ve devoted chapters in books to it and written columns about it until I’ve squeezed the subject drier than a botrytis-spackled Semillon grape.

The implication of Nick Rowley publicly insisting that he has watched me fall off the wagon many times when I have not—when my family, my colleagues, and the people for whom I work believe correctly that I have not—is abhorrent. In this hyper-connected universe, false allegations of this nature have a longer shelf life than a ‘09 Latour and that’s why most employers are wary of employing people with loose forked social media tongues. Many company handbooks even have a policy forbidding it.

It’s not the first time Nick has done it, either.  I’d mention the name of the shop where this took place, but I consider the owner a friend and I don’t want to embarrass him over his thankless clerk.  However, if he’s been wondering why I haven’t stopped in for a while, now he knows.

It still begs the question:  Why would an employee go out of his way to publicly trash talk an invited guest who writes regularly and positively about the product his employer sells? Frankly, it broadsided me—I had no idea that Nick harbored such toxicity; I always like the guy, and recall congratulating him sincerely when he temporarily found a better-paying gig at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“Wherefore by fate would a random clerk wanteth to foment such ill-will with a near stranger?”

Enter Nick’s Knight in Shining Plus-Sized Armor

Rebecca ‘Apparently, Silence Isn’t’ Golden thinks she has the answer.  She claims it’s because Nick thinks I’m a smug asshole.

Moi??  Regrettably, dear reader, unlike the drinking, there may be some truth to this particular rumor.  Over the years I have had multi-moments of smug assholiness, though hopefully fewer after I gave up demon rum.  Mea maxima culpa.

Still, is this a textbook case of the pot calling the kettle black?  Nick loves to tout his expensive British, student-selective, Henley-in-Arden education, and claims to have three hyphenated last names, even though I can only count one. Then again, my education was freer than one of his wine tastings and free-for-all in which I graduated four millionth in my class.

However, were I to hyphenate ‘Smug-Asshole’ and tack it on at the end of Rowley, I believe the numbers might add up.

Nick also claims that such lah-dee-dah schooling places him in a caste above a mere ‘plebian wine clerk’. In his own words, it makes him an ‘equestrian wine clerk’.  Now, he may have confused the word ‘plebian’ with ‘pedestrian’, but I feel his pain.  I didn’t realize ‘equestrian’ meant that you were smuggier than other wine clerks; I thought it meant you dated people who look like Camilla Parker Bowles.

Shylock-like, Rebecca seems eager for her further pound of flesh—Shakespearean irony, since her contribution to the world of literature is a journey through life while weighing five hundred sixty pounds.  You go, girl!  but slowly. She drives the blade in deeper by gleefully pointing out that on the lowly 11 shillings, 6 pence my wine writing earns me each year, I can’t even afford to sue Nick Rowley for libel.

Alas, again she is correct.  Yet, rather than mix metaphors by claiming that this is another case of the pot calling the kettle golden, I’ll point out that Rebecca’s magnum opus ranks four millionth on the Amazon Best Seller List and far from being worth its weight in golden, it is available for three cents. As a result, I suspect that she knows from whence she speaks.

Would that I had married an equestrian  and could afford to sit around the house writing Worst Sellers.

Dear Nick: Next Time, I’ll Pay for Free Wine Tastings In British Money.  How about £560?

In the end, Nick Rowley reminds me of one of those sniveling British brats in Lord of the Flies who crash-land on a desert island and suddenly become all bold and macho and bloodthirsty.  In Nick’s case, his island is Facebook.  Apparently, he wants to cast me as Piggy in his silly little melodrama, but as Shakespeare once famously quipped, “Oy, have you got the wrong vampire.”

Or maybe that was Roman Polanski.

It’s said that Englishmen lead lives of quiet desperation, and verily!  —would that it had been a little quieter, since Detroitermen often lead lives of pointed retaliation.

And this time, I have the conch.


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

Popping the Cherry on Michigan Maraschinos

When Otto von Bismarck quipped, ‘The less people know about how laws and bar cherries are made, the better they sleep at night,’ he wasn’t talking about sausages. Likewise, if The Jungle had been set along the Croatian coast instead of the stockyards, Sinclair might have exposed Maraschino’s cherry butchers instead of Chicago’s pig poachers.

But history is fickle, and if it teaches us anything, it is that nobody is really sure how to pronounce Maraschino.

Consider if you will, this embattled, embarrassing, embalmed garnish. On the first day of ninth grade biology, we put a Maraschino cherry inside a film canister and buried it in the soccer field, and on the last day of class we dug it up. It had not changed an iota, which was the teacher’s way of illustrating why Bog People from Denmark look like they are sleeping instead of like they are two-thousand-year-old corpses.

My take away from that afternoon was a vow never to eat bar cherries or Bog People.

Old-school Maraschino ingredients

Certainly, a cursory understanding of the pickled prunus process explains both the immortality of the fruit and the wisdom of the vow: First, young Croatian cherries are ripped untimely from the orchard, disemboweled by a pitting machine, then soaked for two months in a brine solution, which is the moral equivalent of placing a premature baby in a salt-water aquarium instead of an incubator. Upon being removed from the solution with grappling hooks, the cherries are the color of Edgar Winter’s scrotum, and must be dyed into some semblance of an edible color using Red Dye #40, which is not only linked to general organ toxicity but contains the bodies of cochineal beetles.

The abomination is completed by the addition of icky fructose and the oil of bitter almonds, which as you’ll recall from Arsenic and Old Lace, is the flavor of poison.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Some People are Born Cherrified; Others Have Cherrification Thrust Upon Them

Chris Fredrickson and Moti Goldring manning the Stillhouse Bar.

Many entrepreneurs have made their fortunes by recognizing a niche and filling it, but for a long time, Chris Fredrickson was too busy filling cocktail glasses in his Traverse City Whiskey Co.’s Stillhouse Bar to notice it. Many of his popular drinks were garnished with the hellish candy-apple cherries described above, and one day, he looked at his spreadsheet and saw how much cash he was laying out for them.

“The expense was jaw dropping,” he says.

On went the lights: Fredrickson’s family has been cultivating cherries in Empire, Michigan for three generations, and, he realized, he not only had the connections at the local co-op to produce his own brand of bar cherry, the raw product itself—without need to devolve into metaphors—was low-hanging fruit.

Other than the fact that Chris Fredrickson now produces Michigan’s only pickled prunus cerasus, the product might not have caught my eye but for a key element: His choice of cherry clones was the Balaton, of which I have written about in the past.

Outside its native Hungary, Balaton cherries are grown almost nowhere except Northern Michigan and are responsible for the remarkable depth of flavor found in select Michigan cherry wine. In part, that’s because unlike most sour cherries, Balatons may ripen to 24 °Bx, putting their sweetness on par with even the most respectable of Traverse City wine grapes.

Turns out that Balatons make a ne plus ultra bar cherry as well.

Fredrickson had another trick up his sleeve—a sleeve soaked in his own brand of whiskey. In 2015, along with Jared Rapp and Moti Goldring, he opened a micro-distillery in a former power station and began producing whisky based on a distilling recipe Fredrickson’s great-grandfather had patented in the ‘20s, right in the slipstream of Prohibition.

Ironically, it was the 18th Amendment that that compromised the original method of producing Maraschino cherries, which involved preserving them in Maraschino liqueur—a Croatian cordial made from Marasca cherries. When booze became verboten, a horticulture professor at Oregon State University invented a process of brining cherries in sulfur dioxide and calcium chloride instead, thus giving rise to those hellish, fluorescent sugar bulbs that may have a whisper of raison d’être hunkering down inside a childish virgin cocktail like a Shirley Temple, but shouldn’t show up anywhere near a grownup drink.

In a return to the roots of the garnish, Fredrickson opted to use Traverse City Whiskey Co.’s straight bourbon as a syrup base and black carrot extract instead of Red Dye # Bug Extract. The result is a deep, burgundy-colored morsel with a concentrated cherry taste; a confectionary with the tang and bite of a fresh Balaton, but with a long, complicated and nuanced aftertaste that includes almond notes along with a slight Bourbony bite.

Luxardo the Invincible

Does that make it overqualified as a cocktail garnish? An interesting proposition I’ll leave to advertising alchemists. For now, the only thing I found not to ballyhoo about the product is its generic-sounding, no-brandish moniker. For a product with such panache, it seems like a marketing hiccup to call it simply, Premium Bar Cherries, especially when—at upwards of sixteen dollars a jar—the competition has snappy, X-Man villain names like Luxardo or pedigreed, rich-people names like Woodford Reserve Bourbon Cherries or educational names that conjure up images of the Kennedy assassination, like Jack Rudy Cherries. That’s some heavy shelf-space jockeying, and if I was hawking these garnishes, I’d garnish them with a name that garners more brand identity.

Meanwhile, back at the Stillhouse Cocktail Bar, Chris Fredrickson builds what should be Traverse City’s signature drink, a Cherry Whiskey Sour. He says it’s become his most popular offering, and these days, when he looks at the spreadsheet, he sleeps a little easier knowing that the expense column for bar cherries actually goes to his bottom line.


Traverse City Whiskey Co. Cherry Whiskey Sour

1.75 oz. Traverse City Whiskey Co. American Cherry Edition Bourbon (made by steeping house-distilled bourbon in Montmorency cherries grown on the family farm)

1 oz. simple syrup

1 oz. sour blend (lemon, lime and orange juice in equal proportions).

2 Premium Cocktail Cherries

  • Muddle one of the cherries with the simple syrup in the bottom of a cocktail glass. Meanwhile, pour whiskey and sour blend in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously until carpal tunnel syndrome set in or your hand freezes to the shaker, whichever comes first.
  • Pour into glass and garnish with remaining cherry.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Madrone Ranger Rides Again

You have your Lone Rangers and you have your Rhone Rangers, and you probably have Heidelberg Tuns filled with preposterous puns, but as always, rising above them all in the rarefied atmosphere of Spring Mountain, you have Smith-Madrone.

Founded in 1971 by Stuart Smith, the dash in the winery’s name does not indicate a partner named Madrone; rather, the conspirators here are Stuart’s enological brohammer Charles F. Smith III and the frugally-named assistant winemaker Sam Smith.  The Madrone in the moniker is a tall and stately species of evergreen tree that lords over the estate’s mountaintop terroir, symbolic of the swagger and the sizzle of its grape juice.

I first fell in love with Smith-Madrone’s Riesling a decade ago, because amid a (then) sea of Left Coast cold-varietal mediocrity, it was a crisp, clean and shimmering stand-alone. Stuart Pigott, the Raja of Riesling, once called the Smith Brothers ‘two of the unsung heroes of American Riesling’—although considering the number of arias I’ve sung about them, I must be perennially off-key.

The wine, then and now, is an example of how this German varietal performs do if the V-shaped river vineyards of the grapes native Germany are flipped over to make California mountainsides. The solar-panel slopes concentrate sunlight and drain water and nutrients, forcing vines to struggle against the natural shocks that grape flesh is heir to, and this creates smaller, richer fruit than valley vines yield, and—because cool air flows downward, night air creates drafts that protect against against diseases, molds and pests. The result, both in Rheingau and at Smith-Madrone, is a dynamic mélange of fat fruit flavors—mango, ripe pear and pineapple laced with lean acids and incisive minerality.

2015 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain, around $34

What’s sauce for the Gau is sauce for the gander, so it stands to reason that the high-elevation hoodoo that produces such righteous Riesling might have something to say about Chardonnay as well. In fact, the sample of Smith-Madrone’s 2015 bears it out. Grown at sun-washed, 1,800-foot elevations and on slopes up to 34% grade, the Smith brothers have been harvesting Chardonnay from their estate for 47 years, and call 2015 ‘the most unusual harvest they’ve ever seen.’

“To start with, there was no rain, and there have been enormous swings of temperature and of course, there have been fires. This was after a mild winter caused early bud break, followed by protracted bloom and cool weather in spring, which contributed to smaller grape clusters and variable crop size.  We started harvesting the Chardonnay on August 27 and completed picking on September 16.  Despite the challenges, the color, flavor profiles and chemistry continue to impress us all.”

#metoo. The wine offers beautiful tones of ripe citrus behind a crisp concentration of peach, candied lemon, and roasted cashew stone and excellent, resonating texture. Get it quick; only 512 cases made.

2014 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain, around $52

The early years

Says Charles F. Smith:  “In spite of the drought and the Napa earthquake, the 2014 harvest produced an abundant crop and excellent expectations for the vintage. The 2013/2014 winter was one of the driest on record in California and rainfall totals on Spring Mountain were approximately half of normal. A long-term benefit of the drought is that berry sizes are typically smaller and have more concentrated flavors, which may explain the terrific quality of the 2014 harvest.”

Altitude plays a role in producing wines of potency and nuance, but without a proper foundation, it’s all for naught.  The reddish Aiken soil that predominates throughout Smith-Madrone vineyards is derived from nearby Sonoma Volcanics, and tends to be gravelly, leading to even more radical drainage than elevation alone would account for.  In the Spring Mountain AVA soil depths vary, but tend to be deeper than in nearby mountain terrains, and as a result, so do their red wines. Notable is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which is almost inky black in color (high elevation reds seem to tan in the direct UV rays like people) and has a bracing dose of acid that preserves the elusive quality of freshness in extraordinarily rich wines.  The wine displays the pedigree of middle-aged vines; these are in their early forties. It’s juicy with dark, saturated berry flavors—fruit crushed for jam, but not yet stewed.  It’s accented by coffee, spicy plum and crushed peppercorn and shows clarity and precision.

I always welcome an opportunity to circle back to see what the brothers-on-high are up to at Smith-Madrone.  Smith is the most common name in the United States, so it’s gratifying to note that these two are making some of the most unusual wines.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Scoring Wines En Primeur: It Dis What it Dis


Recently, I had a dastardly disagreement with a distinguished and discerning docent, leading to a disjointed discussion about scoring en primeur wines—extremely young wines sold as futures while they are still in the barrel.

The reason for our dissent was that said associate, attending the press-heavy primeurs event in Bordeaux last week, felt perfectly comfortable awarding 100 points to grape juice that is still wearing its Limousin diapers.

Now, in terms of this discourse (which you are urged to join in), let’s say that one’s general opinion of wine scales is irrelevant. We can agree that any scale, useful or not, has an alpha and an omega; a rock bottom and a ne plus ultra, an apex and a nadir. The number of integers one cares to jam in between them is up to the scale jockey; Wine Spectator uses one hundred points, Jancis is jiggy with twenty while James Halliday relies on five, but allows for half-points, so it’s really a ten point scale.

Me, I’ve been known to employ a 120 point scale, which makes no sense until you realize that I can score a lot of wines ‘100’ and thus get Intoxicology Report mentioned on the winery’s web site.

We do know that wine scales are not bell curves, and that a lot more wines get scored 100 than get scored zero. That’s because there is a tacit understanding that a wine buys its way out of complete and utter humiliation merely by providing the critic with a free sample.

100 Point wine

It is also understood that whereas the Grail is always the full monty, one hundred out of one hundred points, to reach that magnificent pinnacle, from which there is nothing higher for a wine to strive, one must produce a product that personifies the precepts of perfection.

Or is—to avoid another annoying amalgamation of alliterations—some pretty fine shite.

Since this is just a thought experiment, allow me to say that in my world, were I to score a wine 100 points, it would be because I believed that every viticultural star in the wine cosmos had aligned within a single glass—color, bouquet, body, balance, palate, finish. And were I to purchase a wine based on another critic’s assignation of a perfect score, I would expect to find that same superlative fluid in that same single glass. I would not expect a wine that is unpleasant and unready for consumption.

And therein lies the rub; my side of the debate: En Primeur wines are not only not ready for the glass, they’re not even ready for the bottle.

When scoring ‘futures’, you are recommending that potential investors put their money where your mouth is, and as such, you are making a bold prediction based (presumably) on your expertise, keen sense of historical trajectory and your enviable organoleptic ability to tell meh from magnifique —with a little sleight of hand and self-promotion stirred in for oomph.

I get that. It’s all good.

But, here’s an analogy. As the most hapless breed of human imaginable, a Detroit Lions fan, I can look at the team in April, and using my expertise, my keen sense of historical trajectory and my absolute conviction that I will ultimately be let down by a team that has blown batfish balls since the day I was born, I can predict that the Detroit Lions, on the strength of a decent offense, will make the playoffs on a wild card bid and lose in the first round.

In wine terms, that might make them an 85 – 90 point en primeur football team. And yes, I’d be comfortable telling you to drop a hundred dollar bill in Las Vegas that this prediction will be accurate.

However, if I told you that I predict that, based on a decent offense, the Lions will win the Super Bowl, you’d be silly to place that bet. Hell, if I told you that the Patriots will win, you’d still be silly to bet any hard-earned money, because there is only one Super Bowl winner and it is far too early to know what injuries, trades, suspensions, deflated footballs or dog fighting arrests might intervene between now and 2018 to prevent that from happening.

On the other hand, if I said the Pats will make the playoffs? I think you could safely drop the C-note.

Likewise, at least one critic has predicted the 2016 Grand Vin de Mouton will win wine’s equivalent of the NFL championship: He gave it 100 points. Not 99 points, not 99.5 points, but the full ball of wacky wax.

In other words, this is grape juice utterly devoid of any detectable flaws or defects; the Virgin Mary of Viticulture.

And yet, as always, when in a fetal stage, Mouton tends to be closed, tannic, acidic and harsh. It is one of those Châteaux that you buy for your cellar, not your dinner table. And not because you don’t want to drink it right this fucking this instant, but because… wait for it… you believe historical trajectories suggest that it will improve—not just a little, but  tremendously.

But we’ve already established that it cannot improve. There are not shades of perfection; there is only perfect. Ask the Virgin Mary: The only place where ‘extra virgin’ is a concept is olive oil. A wine does not transcend a hundred points as it matures and mellows and deepens in complexity and become a 105 point wine. It can’t. The consummation devoutly to be wished, the apotheosis, the paragon of point pursuit (according to those who would pass out perfect scores to barrel samples) has already been reached.

Meaning that rationally, once you plunk down your six grand or so for a case of beau ideal, there’s no place for it to go but down.

That said, people far more in the know than I insist that they can indeed, and with good conscience, judge a wine while it’s still in the womb. They are not the soothsayers and the crystal ball gazers of the trade—they are perhaps closer to the new breed of social geneticists who can predict which kids will grow up to be neurosurgeons and which will rob 7-Elevens.

As people, do we award them 100 points on the super-taster scale? Or will their skill-sets continue to evolve to a point where they can taste unfermented grape juice—or nay, where they can pluck a grape from a vine and confidently judge what sort of wine it will make?

We may not live to see such a world, but our children might: A world where the en primeur experts can look at random vine cuttings in a horticulturist’s shed and claim with certainty which will produce the next 1945, 1961 or 2009.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed. In the meantime, I’m gonna desist and disappear here—you kids can continue dissecting the discussion and rate embryos as though they were adults; I’m done dissing my betters, and I will not name names when it comes to the Bordeaux preaux with whom I disagreed last week…

Let’s just say that I have great respect for his palate and Leve it at that.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Eugolio Pomares: Superfluous, Maybe—Super Fluids, Without a Doubt

I’ve been writing about wine—bulk and otherwise—for the bulk of my life—successfully and otherwise.

And yeah, some things do get old.

John Doh! blogging

Read a random sampling of wine reviews, starting with Parker’s and trickling down to John Doh! blogger’s, and put a nickel in the cliché jar every time you read the descriptor ‘cassis’ or ‘blackberry’.

To be sure, I am as guilty as any of them.

Unless you’ve figured out how to monetize your reviews—and by monetize, of course I mean ‘earn more from them than if you had gone to trade school and learned how to weld transmissions’—writing about hundreds of wines that all taste like blackberry and cassis?

That gets old.

Newing Up the Old

Somm wanna-be cramming for exam

One subject that never fails to revive my jaded spirit and supplant my blasé clichés is something that most people not cramming for the dreaded ‘Arcane and Virtuously Useless Information’ portion of the Master Sommelier exam know little about:

Indigenous varietals.

And nowhere have I encountered such a cornucopia of excellent autochthons than in Spain. Sure, they exist in every region with a long tradition of winemaking: Slovakia has its Zelèn, France its Mondeuse, Italy its Bonardo—even California has its Vitis californica.

The common denominator, of course, is that they all pretty much suck Capra aegagrus hircus gonad.

But in Spain, especially through the creative compulsions of young winemakers who are currently redefining styles and mix ‘n’ matching blends, some ancient grapes are being rediscovered and repurposed. And—since I’m fortunate to know some compulsive consumers on this side of the Atlantic who search out these very gems on their frequent trips to Spain—I’ve been turned on to some remarkable ones.


Case in point (and there are only 250 cases at which to point) is Xabre from Galicia, made from the native red wine grape Mencía. *

* In order to sound all nativey, the correct pronunciations—in order—are ‘Shah-bray’ ‘Gah-leeth-eeah’ and ‘Men-thee-ah’.

Galicia is that chunk of northern Spain that looks like the head of a beheaded Portugal; it has found a broader audience in the wine world recently because of the remarkable Albariños of coastal Rías Baixas.

Eulogio Pomares

That’s where the family of Eulogio Pomares has been established for seven generations. The estate of Zárate was built in 1707, and as such, has been a pioneering influence on Albariño production in the area.

Pomeres has been at Zárate’s viticultural helm of  since 2000, and during his tenure, he has focused on the estate’s signature white, arguably the best Albariño in the world.

Somehow, however, he has found time to expand his horizons to nearby sub-regions, where varietals less known, but perhaps more intriguing, have been raised for many centuries.

‘Everything That the Human Being Adds to Nature is Superfluous, Including Himself’ – Eulogio Pomares

Inland from Rías Baixas spreads the mineral-laden slopes of Ribeira Sacra, and that is where Mencía finds its foothold.

Steeped terraces of Ribiera Sacra

In 2012, with his wife Rebeca, Pomeres founded Fento Wines as a means to explore the sort of expression that modern techniques could coax from such traditional varieties, and in Ribeira Sacra—which means, ‘the sacred riverbank’—he found many of them thriving in the weathered granite soils known locally as ‘xabre’. His own Xabre label, as may be expected, contains a blend of xabre-grown grapes which may vary with the harvests—he is more concerned with a balance achieved by nature than one that reflects D.O regulations, and as such, is willing to declassify his wines in order to achieve ideal results.

The 2015 Xabre is one such declassified wine; it contains 90% Mencía with the remainder made of Sousón, Mouratón and Garnacha. The fruit is sourced from high-elevation vineyards grown on terraces first carved by the Romans and in regions so remote that they are not well-known even in Galicia.

The wine is stunning, spectacular and unique; like the local tongue Galego, the wine speaks a language unrelated to the blackberry babble cassis cacophony you are probably accustomed to.

Fento ‘Xabre’, Val do Bibei, Galicia 2015, around $23: A wine with a dichotomous profile; one that needs to be tasted to be appreciated. Bold and delicate, the impression givenis that were the tannins even slightly off-kilter, the fresh coupage of sweet and savory would be swallowed whole. Pomares walks the high wire but keeps his balance, fermenting in stainless steel and keeping the oak intrusion to a minimum.The wine reflects warm summery plum flavors, but with an equal wash of licorice, clean lemon peel, cocoa and pepper; natural acidity and core of crushed stone minerality shore up the volume.

Posted in Rías Biaxas, SPAIN | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Once the Lime’s in the Coconut, Put the Fiano in the Aglianico

The problem with referring to Viticoltori De Conciliis ‘Latoscuro’ as ‘The Côte-Rôtie of Campania’ is that no one but a select circle of snooty, snotty, snoring old pedants will get it.

People like you and me.

However, reference that silly, one-chord Nilsson ditty about the lime and the coconut everybody immediately perks up and nods to a calypso beat

So that’s why I opted not to plagiarize Todd Abrams’ apt analogy, in which that hallowed hawker of hooch alluded to the tradition in the Côte-Rôtie—Northern Rhône’s roasted slope—of co-fermenting aromatic Viognier with meaty Syrah to produce a wine with an almost paradoxical bouquet, both floral and carnal.

Now, most people even on the periphery of old pedantry are quite familiar with the varietal characteristics of both Viognier and Syrah, so putting that lime in that coconut creates an organoleptic profile that one may at least wrap one’s snotty, snooty tongue around.

In Campania, the predominant red wine grape is Aglianico, and when that varietal is mentioned, even the oldest and most pedanticky among us may need to run to the World Atlas of Wine.

Italy’s Red-Wined Stepchild

Campania gets no respect. When you discuss the bold and blustery reds of Italy, I’m willing to bet dollars to Dove bars that you think of Amarone, Brunello and Barolo before you think of Taurasi, despite the fact that it can glare any of them down. Hailing from elevations that start at around two thousand feet, Taurasi’s soils are a unique blend of calcareous marls and volcanic deposits and the resulting wine is musky, tannic and acidic, and is aged for four years before release.


Taurasi—which sounds like a Star Trek planet—is as age-worthy as any Nebbiolo or Sangiovese. The acclaimed 1967 Taurasi by Mastroberardino is apparently still drinking well, although at $400 a bottle, I’ll have to take their word for it.

Back on earth, Aglianico was once used to make the iconic Roman Falernian wine, which sounds like something Taurisians would drink. As a stand-alone (as in Aglianico del Taburno or Aglianico del Vulture), it has a tendency to produce leathery, earthy wines that required multiple revolutions around the sun before they become palatable. Even then, it has a rustic, smoky nose without a lot a delicacy and is an ideal counterpart to the fatty cured meats for which the area is known—especially Campanian capicollo.

However, as the eccentric Bruno De Conciliis—who plays jazz to his aging wine to keep them happy—discovered, by macerating these tannic brutes with the skins of the local white variety Fiano, the resulting wine, like Côte-Rôtie, picks up sultry, sunny aromatics that elevate it from a brooding red to a bright and complex gallimaufry of flowers and fruit.

Bruno De Conciliis

Fiano is Aglianico’s blonde bride, a grape grown in Campania since Jesus was cutting eyeteeth; it produces rich, honeyed nectar that seems to pull a crisp minerality from the same volcanic slopes on which Aglianico thrives.

After being flayed alive, Fiano skins are allowed to macerate for two weeks with pre-fermented Aglianico, which began its own life highly concentrated with a yield on only ½ ton per acre, resulting in…

Latoscuro means ‘The Dark Side’

Viticoltori De Conciliis ‘Latoscuro’, Paestum IGT, 2009 ($80).

It’s a big wine with one of the most assertive noses I can recall experiencing in a red—and it’s the influence of the white, for the most part. Big honeysuckle and orange sherbet blends with deeper red berries and the distinct scent of cola; the palate is tannic and full, with chocolate cherry surfacing about a persistent citrus backbone, both acidity and—I imagine—Fiano.

Let the Taurasians drink their Falernian; I much prefer this lighter incarnation of Aglianico, which—though it doesn’t have quite the age-power of the purist’s version—still has the stuff to live long and prosper.

Posted in ITALY | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Man, the Myth, the McClelland

There comes a time in the life of every curmudgeon, no matter how mordant or cynical or jaded, when he must—if only for a moment—wax a little sappy.

When confronted with a new, powerful wine created by a potent, old-school personality who witnessed much of California’s wine history firsthand and who today remains that most elusive of viticultural species: A humble legend?

That qualifies as such a moment.

John McClelland

John McClelland, who I interviewed last year for Starstruck in Lodi Again, has a vinous pedigree to rival anybody in America still breathing oxygen: His sixty year career spans such milestones as running Geyer Peak, Alderbrook and Almaden, facing down mobsters in Las Vegas over wine lists and hobnobbing and bread breaking with every single big name from the California Vinicultural Pantheon. He’s a treasure trove of treasured tales, and I defy any wine historian to find anybody more knowledgeable—or more accessible.  Call the dude tonight and I guarantee you’ll end up listening your ear off.

The label that displays his signature is a partnership between McClelland, Napa wine whiz Mitch Cosentino and Paul Scotto, wine and cider makers extraordinaire from Scotto Family Cellars.

When I stopped by his Sonoma bungalow last February, I described McClelland’s physical presence this way: ‘Big as a bear and bald as a billiard ball, hands big enough crack walnuts; he looks a little like Brando in Apocalypse Now’.  Somewhere in his early eighties, and despite having been drop-kicked through some health issues, he retains a look of indomitability.  When sharing a room with him, you tend to see more of the physical side, and  lose sight of the gentle flow of affability that underscores his personality—on the phone, however, it’s all homespun charm.

When he called last week to talk about his 2013, released last June and just now coming into its true splendor, I was treated to the disembodied John—a phone voice several thousand miles removed from the shot-putter’s physique—and was thus reminded that his gentility is an equal and opposite side to  his persona.


A few years ago, facetiously, I talked about the human counterpart to terroir, the psychology of a winemaker that—like the climate—coaxes specific, often pre-determined qualities from a grape. But the more I considered it, the less facetious it seemed.  Two winemakers, building a product from an identical harvest, will invariably come up with two different wines, and the singularity in each will arise from the personalities of the man or woman behind the crush pad.

In fact, it is very easy to state that, as a rule, an exemplary wine reflects the creator as well as the place of origin.

McClellan Cellars Petit Verdot 2013 ($40) seems to embody that principal as succinctly as any wine I recall tucking into. Petit Verdot, once restricted to a blending grape in Bordeaux, is used rarely even in that capacity these days: It is a challenge to ripen it if springtime conditions are not optimal, even in the relative mild maritime climes of the Médoc.

Petit Verdot

In general, Petit Verdot requires more hang-time than France can provide, but in Napa, it has found a promised land, and when pampered through its fickle flowering season, it can produce plump, polished, powerhouse wines of the sort that many Napa disciples have come to expect.

The grapes that built this blockbuster were hand-harvested in early October, 2013 at (I’m guessing) optimum phenolic ripeness, hailing entirely from the Oak Knoll District in the southern end of the Napa Valley floor.  Each lot was fermented separately and barrel-aged in French oak for 26 months.

The resulting wine—not to be too hokey, too odic or too gross—displays quintessential characTerroir; it is John McClelland in a glass.

It opens with a strapping presence, forceful and sweet, with an embrace like currant syrup—cool Oak Knoll, with its extended growing season, allows fruit to ripen without stewing.  The concentration is remarkable, sapid and massive on the palate, but as cool as shade in the summertime.  This is wine with a grip capable of crushing walnuts or putting shot, but offers enough subtle restraint to remain delightfully layered, big, bold, but not boisterous.

Like John.

Elegant wine?  Not exactly, but there is an undercurrent of class and breeding that knifes through the potency; the flavors are rich cassis, blackberry, tarry licorice and some nice oak spice and smoke.  Tannins remain grippy, but the structure of the juice is so firm and the fruit so pristine that the wine promises to have a career as storied as its namesake.

Nature and nurturing have seen the remarkable John McClelland through eight decades: May his eponymous elixir show the selfsame spunk and longevity, even if neither he nor this sappy cynic are around to do the ultimate depth sounding.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Verdejo Viejo: Rueda Gravitas

In central Spain, Rueda is a white wine buoy bobbing on a vast red sea.

iberia-2-web1-600x468How vast? Spain produces a billion gallons of wine a year, and Castilla y Leon—Rueda’s home province—is by far the largest autonomous wine region in the country; the biggest region in the entire EU, as a matter of fact. It comprises a fifth of all the land in Spain, and it is solidly red grape country,  Tempranillo in particular.

And how tiny? Of the hundred thousand winemakers in Spain, only 62 produce Verdejo; a grape considered by many (myself included) to be Spain’s most splendid, age-worthy, non-fortified white wine varietal.

An additional  Verdejo plus is that for all intents, it’s grown nowhere else on earth.  Although 90% of Rueda is planted to Verdejo, that still only amounts to about eleven thousand acres in total—less than what California plants to Pinot Gris, a grape that Verdejo is said to resemble.

Verdejo in its native habitat

Verdejo in its native habitat

Before being rediscovered by Riojan producer Marqués de Riscal, Verdejo had been nearly forgotten in its native Rueda; that’s partly because it is so prone to oxidation that this became the region’s signature style, often made via a solera system similar to Sherry. Following the phyloxxera plague of the 1800s, Verdejo did not find another Spanish audience for nearly a century.

Beginning in the 1980s, however, a new wave of Riscal-inspired Verdejos have highlighted alternate qualities, focusing  on freshness and youth.  This, in part, is thanks to the manipulation of modernity. Night harvesting, cool fermentation and the use of an inert gas blanket minimized exposure to air during aging and maintained the crisp, tropical intensity that the grape displays when going through birthing pains.

“I Do Not Know if I Live in Spain to Make Wine or Make Wine to Live in Spain”

Among the handful of Verdejo producers is Didier Belondrade from Montauban, France, who, in 1992, went full Thoreau and left his executive position at Air France to make wine in Spain. He was especially enamored of the indigenous grape Verdejo, convinced that he could make a barrel-fermented, lees aged version patterned after the great Chardonnays of Burgundy.

The style was intended to blend some of the richness inherent in lightly oxidized, wood-aged wine with the keen, aromatic expression of young Verdejo. Key to such an endeavor, of course, is an obsessive attention to detail in all phases of viniculture, from vine to stemware. Rueda is rough country; the climate is harsh, far removed from any meliorating maritime effect, and the soils are poor, composed primarily of iron-heavy limestone.  Cereal grain barely eke out a living here, but as it happens, such terrain is ideal for Verdejo, especially when the vineyards are planted in the proximity of the Duero River.

Didier Belondrade

Didier Belondrade

These were the terroirs that excited Belondrade:

“My story began over a glass of Verdejo on a hot day in sun-drenched Andalusia; it occurred to me that I didn’t think the grape was living up to its true potential. With the climate here, Verdejo can be in Rueda what Chardonnay is in Burgundy. But for the techniques of some short-sighted people, we could have been the Great Spanish White Zone.”

That’s the sort of blunt honesty one expects from Belondrade, of course, and it hardly tempers his passion for his adopted country: “Spain,” he maintains, “not only stole my heart, it stirred something deep in my soul.”

He just had to bring a little Burgundian bump to Nava del Rey, creating a wine that incorporates the best of the aged, pre-phylloxera Verdejos of the past with the fresh, acidic Riscal  Verdejos.

To achieve this, Belondrade hand-harvests Verdejo from nineteen individual plots, each with unique terroirs, and containing vines of an average age of thirty years. He ages the wine on its lees in 300-liter French oak foudres; the wine is bottled and stored for a further 6 months prior to release.

It was this wine not upon release, however, but several years down the road that intrigued me.

2011 Belondrade y Lurton Verdejo Rueda ($40) is the most sophisticated incarnation of Verdejo I have ever encountered; remarkably textured and complex.  It is clearly not a Burgundian Premier Cru, but only because the profile is so distinctly non-Chardonnay: The breeding is every bit as heady.

bodega-belondrade-y-lurton-verdejo-rueda-spain-10532143The wine opens with lovely perfumes drenched in honey, walnuts, creamy white flowers and apple peel; the acids are in beautiful balance and the slight butterscotch of oak and oxidation is a counterpoint that is suspended within that balance.

To me, the sign of wine at an ideal stage of development is one that manages to flirt with the unique flavors of maturity without any one of them dominating; here, exotic wood notes blend with toasted almond and a touch of anise, but the fruit—predominantly fresh apple—remains keenly alive and of 2017, encompasses the rest.

In short, this is wine of monumental grandeur, and at $40, about a third of what you’d pay for a quality-comparable white from the Côte de Beaune.  Some voluminous value in Verdejo Viejo—¿verdad?

Posted in SPAIN | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

There’s a Cure for the Saumur Wine Blues

…And I’ll get to it at the end. In the meantime, no spoilers. No cheating. No peeking, no snooping, no shaking the box beneath the Christmas tree under penalty of a bitch-slap.

Ever seen this two in the same room?  Me neither.

Ever seen this two in the same room? Me neither.

I have had a pathological aversion to spoilers ever since seventh grade when that nasty little prick Joe Paolella came up to me when I was standing in line for Star Wars and whispered, “Darth Vader is actually Luke’s father.” And later, when Paul Zack sent me an email right before I left to see Sixth Sense that read ‘Bruce Willis is dead—that’s why the kid can see him.’

That sort of stuff spoils everything for everyone, every time. Especially wine columns.

But I Digress…



Anyway, Saumur is the topic of today’s harangue, in particular, Saumur-Champigny—a smallish appellation created in 1957 dedicated to producing red wine in the white heavy Loire. Like the ABC of Loire Rouge—Anjou, Bourgueil and Chinon—Saumur-Champigny relies on Cabernet Franc as its raw material. This grape, the third wheel in Bordeaux, and frequently an understudy only allowed to perform when Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot calls in sick. In the fertile limestone soils of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol in may excel, but throughout Bordeaux, it is generally treated as an also-ran.

Interestingly, not only did our subject also-ran begin the race in the Loire, Cabernet Franc (then known as Bouchet) is one of the parent grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, developed when it was bred genetically with Sauvignon Blanc in the 17th century. In Bordeaux, it’s a case of the Luke Skywalker out-performing Darth Vader, but in the Loire, which is farther north than Bordeaux and considerably further from the meliorating effects of the ocean, Cabernet Sauvignon—which buds late—rarely ripens.

Blues for the Reds are Green

Cab Franc on the hoof

Cab Franc on the hoof

The problem is—and thus, the titular blues—is that Cabernet Franc doesn’t always ripen in the Loire either. When fully flavor ripe, Cabernet Franc offers lyrical floral and spring berry flavors in a youthful, light package. It’s rarely overtly tannic and, like most cool-climate reds, shows shivery acids.

Unripe, however, it shows a pronounced vegetal undertone that is most easily described as bell pepper.

Whether or not you like this quality in your wine, it’s one rarely sought after by your winemaker. Like brett, it’s an occasional occupational hazard.

Saumur is one of those French growing reasons where the terroir, so vital to the endgame, is fairly easily laid out: A plateau made of the Loire’s distinctive metamorphic rock tuffeau rises at the town of Saumur town and continues for seven miles to the village of Candes Saint-Martin. This offers vines not only elevation, but well-drained underpinnings that provide such remarkable drainage that some of Saumur-Champigny vines—as in a few isolated pockets across the globe—managed to escape the phylloxera plague of the mid-19th century. Not all, obviously, but at least a handful within one of the vineyards from which Thierry Germain draws a quartet of wines released under the Domaine des Roches Neuves label.

Thierry Germain

Thierry Germain

Germain is considered one of France’s leaders in biodynamic winemaking—his logo shows him in silhouette casting a long shadow that morphs into wine vines. He nurtures them individually, by his own words, ‘observing and listening to them’, becoming indispensable to the farming where pesticides are not.

He began his career in Cab Franc country—Saint-Émilion—which explains his affinity for the varietal. He moved to the Loire in the early 1990’s, where he became as student of the great Charly Foucault of the benchmark Saumur-Champigny vineyard Clos Rougeard.

Focault, sadly, passed away in 2015 at the age of 66.

They are big shoes to fill, but Germain has forged his own Focault-sized reputation in Saumur, and although he is too involved with foliage to rest on laurels, it is fair to say that his wines are iconic examples of Cabernet Franc grown anywhere—a purist’s dream. He harvests thirty parcels by hand, restricting yields to half what the law allows, and often to half of the half. In his view, these vines are essentially allowed to grow wild, producing a miniscule number of quality fruit clusters. Depending on the parcel, many of these clusters he ferments whole using native yeasts, as they do in much of Beaujolais; thereupon, he ages the juice in massive foudres in order to minimize contact with oak. The resulting wines are remarkably fresh and grapey—a word, ironically, used rarely to describe wines. They offer juicy elegance braced by sharp, refreshing acidity with tannins as a background note.

The four I tasted were all from 2015 vintage, and reflect Germain’s imminently accessible style, though each with a slightly different and personal profile. By tethering himself to the needs expressed by the vines themselves, he has drained the juice of anything green and vegetal, leaving us with a shimmering image of Cabernet Franc.

Domaine des Roches Neuves, Saumur-Champigny 2015

franc-piedCuvée ‘Franc de Pied’ ($65): The sandy soils of this three acre plot give a distinct, explosive floral nose to the wine—the technique of 100% cold, whole cluster maceration lend it an almost Grape Kool-Aid youthfulness. The wine is not terribly complex, but easy and enjoyable—a perfect expression of ripe Cab Franc picked at an optimal moment to reflect the balanced bloom of youth.

Cuvée ‘Clos de l’Echelier’ ($59): A mingling of styles, ‘l’Echelier’ involves whole-cluster fermentation of only half its harvest, resulting in a wine that reflects both the Beaujolais-nose and the earthier, Saint-Émilion concentration. Crushed stones and raspberry enliven a meatier wine that comes from soils with slightly more clay than ‘Franc de Pied’, leading to a sensuous grip from nose to finish.

cuvee-marginaleCuvée ‘Marginale’ ($59) A striking intensity of flavors, beginning with a bouquet that’s like sniffing wild violets in the spring. Less overtly carbonic smelling, with a deep cherry, almost Burgundian profile, it is velvety in the mouth with a sense of sophistication that elevates it above a certain fun quality inherit in the others. ‘Marginale’ is made only in exceptional vintages, and only from restricted yields.

Cuvée ‘Mémoires ($69): Sweet fruit is prominent, though as always, in a bone-dry package; the acid level is pronounced, making this a wine for the cellar, though not indefinitely—a couple years should tone it back a bit. Tannins are light and slightly chalky. The parcel from which the wine is drawn was planted in 1905, and is on original European rootstock.

The Cure…

In conclusion, class, the cure for the greening of the grape seems to be a balanced combination of terroir and technique. Toss in optimal hangtime, and vanished are the Saumur wine blues.

Now, go in peace.

main-qimg-88d49a1aecc040b5d7a22227b98b0d26And for those of you who intentionally defied my advice and read on ahead, like my Irish grandmother used to say, “Go ndéana an diabhal dréimire de cnámh do dhroma ag piocadh úll i ngairdín Ifrinn”—“May the devil use your backbone as a ladder while picking apples in Hell”.

Oh, and ‘Rosebud’ winds up being the name of the sled.

Posted in Cabernet Franc, FRANCE, Loire | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

And Now, A Word From Our Sponsors: Me


“I have something to say, and one of these days, I’m going to stop writing these stupid books and say it.”

– Living epitaph on Kassel’s tombstone.


But seriously folks: As some of you know, when I accidentally checked ‘Author’ instead of ‘Hi-Lo Operator’ on the back of the matchbook that listed career choices, I was forced to embark upon a lifetime of literary lechery.  I snoggled and slavered over the requisite reliquary of writers. I consummated a mature relationship the greats while dorking the near-greats in my Chevy van, occasionally forgetting to call them in the morning. During the course of this prurient pathway, pausing only to catch my brain breath, I planted a few odd trees of my own.

The roster can be found by Googling my name alongside ‘’, but from time to time, I take a time-out from the wine column for a little personal plugola.

This is one of those station breaks.

The Blinding Glare of Darkness is my tenth book; it contains three short novels drawn in part from the fifteen years I spent in the mind-numbing world of Detroit automotive engineering and in part from the another fifteen years I spent in writing and co-producing documentaries for a Detroit film company.

The goal was to drill some drama into the dull and elevate the ordinary to the realm of extraordinary.  That’s the beauty of fiction: There are no constraints and the only rule is ‘No Rules’.

Demonstrated in The Blinding Glare as…

…A lonely addict interacts with his various adult children from the confines of a dystopian downtown tenement building.

…A Bloomfield Hills attorney becomes obsessed with a cryptic painting from rural India and abandons his career and family to search for the artist.

…A Ford assembly line worker with an abusive husband and an autistic son is rescued by a strange babysitter who recognizes genius beneath the scars.

Book  illustrations by my son, Jesse Kassel

Book illustrations are by my son, Jesse Kassel

Pledge Drive: You’re Soaking In It.

For the past half dozen years I’ve offered up this column gratis, keeping it free of advertising because, after the years I spend schlepping for Detroit’s Big Three, I have no wish to be beholden to anyone on any level.

Intoxicology Report, by design, has been something for nothing.

Now, it’s your chance to get something for something—I keep my books at $13 because I think it’s a cool, potent number and it seems like a pretty fair price for a piece of tactile entertainment that won’t vanish with a power outage and that you can pass on to others.

If I didn’t think these stories could hold their own in the rarified atmosphere of fine literature, I wouldn’t recommend them: In fact, I’d keep reworking them until they did.

Above all, I find the whole art of composing and/or consuming anything longer than a 140-character tweet to be an endangered species.  If you remain true to your reading roots and nibble at this brief interlude of self-promotion, I’d love your feedback.

The Blinding Glare of Darkness
is available at


“And we now return you to your regularly scheduled drivel….”

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged , | Leave a comment