Monday, November 30, 2015

The SOMM Old Shit

Hair Kruth
SOMM looks to become yet another Hollywood franchise, along the lines of Star Wars, James Bond and Gidget. The original film, SOMM, was actually the last in the Francis the Talking Mule series, with nothing but jackasses mouthing off. SOMM: Into the Bottle, the second in the SOMM series, answers the timeless question, “If you won’t stop the fucking car, where do I piss?” And just like that situation, the sweet relief comes when the film is over.

The writer/director of the SOMM series, Jason Wise, recently released a list of the next several films he’s planning in the SOMM series. He also announced that he has signed the most important actor in the films to a long term contract. That actor, Geoff Kruth’s hair, was not available for comment.

SOMM: Death to the Salesmen

In SOMM: Death to the Salesmen, Wise focuses on the relationship between sommeliers and the people who sell them wine. Fresh from achieving the Master Sommelier credential, these young somms now realize their power over ordinary wine salespeople. Wise masterfully builds the suspense so that we wonder, along with the salespeople, whether or not the somms will ever return a phone call, treat them with some respect, or even acknowledge their existence. “Calling on most sommeliers,” one saleswoman remarks, “is like having unprotected sex with Charlie Sheen—you expect to get screwed, and then the cocktail is expensive.” In another scene, we watch while Geoff Kruth’s hair keeps a salesman waiting for two hours. His hair always has a nice part.

SOMM: Schwindler’s List

Jason Wise spent months in camouflage gear capturing footage of a phenomenon rarely seen by humans, Master Sommeliers working the floor! The film’s title refers to their uncanny ability to squeeze restaurant clients for money. In a memorable scene, an unwitting guest asks the sommelier if there’s a corkage fee for the wine he’s brought in for his 50th wedding anniversary. He’s told the corkage fee is $150. “To open a bottle of wine?” the man asks, obviously astounded and angry. “No,” the somm says (Geoff Kruth’s hair, in a wonderful performance), “it’s ten bucks to open it. The other $140 is for product.” Wise also shows how restaurant wine prices are decided. “We take the price we paid for the bottle and multiply it by how many years it took me to pass the Master Sommelier exams—so, six. That seems fair.” There’s also a look at how by-the-glass programs work. “It’s pretty simple,” our sommelier tells us, “we serve you obscure wines that an average person doesn’t know, which disguises the price, then we pour a fifth of the bottle, and charge for that glass what the bottle cost to begin with. You know, really, we’re just trying to make movie theater concessions look cheap.” Soon you’ll see why every restaurant wine list is a Schwindler’s List.

SOMM: Thing About Mary

A lighthearted and occasionally crude look at the wine business. Theatergoers won’t soon forget what ends up in Geoff Kruth’s hair. A little Châteauneuf-du-Spunk.

SOMM: Like It Hot

A couple of sommeliers inadvertently witness a crime at Jackson Family Estates, yet another Banke robbery, and decide to dress as women in order to avoid being hired in the business. Hilarity ensues when the sommeliers go on a wine junket to Portugal in the hot summer and end up with Dry Sack. Geoff Kruth’s hair provides comic relief as the love interest for a muskrat.

SOMM: Namblaists

A strange tale of sommeliers who sleepwalk and fondle boys. Jared Fogle stars. Sponsored by Subway—Eat Freshmen!

SOMM: Breros

A fascinating inside look at the immigrant work force that actually harvests the grapes in California. While our intrepid band of Master Sommeliers travel the world drinking and debauching on junkets, and basking in the admiration of wine lovers, Juan and his crew spend harvest working long hours in the vineyard performing back-breaking work while looking forward to being scorned by the people of wine country. It’s heroes and zeroes—yeah, you decide.

SOMM: Left Behind

Jason Wise’s vision of a world without sommeliers. One morning, Geoff Kruth’s hair awakens to discover that every sommelier in the world has suddenly vanished in the long-predicted Sommelier Rapture. Except him. Kruth’s hair realizes that now he is the only sommelier on the planet—so, in his mind, nothing has changed, really. Wise poses the question, in a world without sommeliers, who will make wine seem unapproachable? Can wine survive without the people who spend their lives studying its trivia? Will ordinary people ever be able to remove a cork from a bottle and make it seem an act of courage? SOMM: Left Behind is a frightening look at a world where sommeliers have vanished. It will remind you of your last visit to French Laundry. Yes, it’s that scary.

SOMM: Goddame Losers

Wise tells the stories of the men and women who fail to pass the Master Sommelier exam. These Goddame Losers (their God is Fred Dame MS) have spent thousands of dollars and wrecked their personal lives in a vain attempt to become a Master Sommelier. Without the MS after their names, these poor souls must learn to live as mere mortals, holding down actual jobs and having healthy relationships. Losers. Imagine. They could be working for Southern Wine and Spirits, or Jackson Family Estates, where they’d earn the undying respect of salesmen. It just doesn’t seem fair. But we can't all be Geoff Kruth's hair. The Goddame Losers, it turns out, can't handle the Kruth!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Church Of Amy Semple McFeiring--Holiday Edition

I wrote this piece more than two years ago, when Natural Wines were all the talk of the industry.
It's Thanksgiving week, and I'm sure few are paying attention to wine blogs, and even fewer are paying attention to me, so I thought I'd drag this old piece of dung out of the compost heap. Nothing better than Thanksgiving leftovers with Natural Wine. 

I hope you all have a Happy Thanksgiving. Remember to be grateful, especially for not being a character on HoseMaster of Wine™.

I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a miracle. I never expected anything like this to ever happen to me. I attended the revival meeting innocently enough. I simply wanted to witness this strange and burgeoning cult firsthand. Experience the hypnotic and numinous leader in the flesh, just one in the sea of her admiring acolytes. I didn’t expect to be converted, to be healed of my many enological sins. But those hours in her company, listening to her speak, recognizing her inarguable spiritual truths, have brought me to the Light. Many have called her a charlatan, a nimble-tongued purveyor of half-truths, a self-proclaimed prophet of the pure, who preys upon the dimwitted dipsomaniacs and the mouth-breathing Millennials, whose calls to consume only the Natural, the Real, and the Authentic are clarion calls to the weak-minded and easily befuddled. I was one of those who berated her. No longer. I have seen miracles with my own two eyes. I have awakened as if from a long, sulfite-induced coma. I am newly baptized in the Natural Wine Church of Aimee Semple McFeiring. I’ve been reborn.

My epiphany began under a large tent on a warm summer’s eve somewhere in the South of France. As I entered, the congregation was singing Natural Wine gospel songs. “Fight the Good Sulfite,” “What a Friend We Have in Chauvet,” and “For He’s a Joly Good Fellow,” were sung with heart and conviction. The tent was filled with love—love, and anticipation of Aimee Semple McFeiring’s long-awaited entrance. I was welcomed with warmth and open arms, and a glass of natural wine that had a nose married perfectly with the overpowering aroma of the devoted deodorant-free throng. The worshippers grew quiet, the hymns stopped, the lights in the tent slowly dimmed to the oxidized color of a sulfite-free current release, and Aimee Semple McFeiring walked slowly onto the stage.

It was only then I noticed the people gathered at the very front of the crowd, just a few feet below Aimee Semple McFeiring, their eager and open faces turned to her brilliance. “Brothers and sisters,” McFeiring exclaimed, “is there anyone here who wants to be cured tonight?” What happened next is almost too unbelievable to relate; and if I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t have believed it either. But as Steiner is my witness, every word I write is true.

Wine people with every kind of horrible affliction, those people in front who had seemed the most eager to see McFeiring, began to line up on the steps leading up to the stage where Aimee Semple McFeiring was bathed in that oxidized glow, a glow which seemed to radiate from her purely natural hair color. At first, the sight of all of these terribly deformed wine lovers was horrifying to behold. The first man in line was wearing a Hawaiian shirt with the Trader Joe’s logo, and at the sight of him the congregation gasped and collectively turned their heads, a few attempting to muffle the sounds of gagging. There was a middle-aged, Humpty Dumpty-shaped woman wearing a shirt that had shiny beads spelling out the words “Got Wine?” I tried not to stare, but it was horrible to behold, and I was riveted to the sight, amazed at the woman’s courage to appear in public looking that inhuman and disgusting. A man was holding up a copy of The Wine Advocate, dog-eared and covered in highlighter, and people left a wide swath around him as though he might give them a disfiguring communicable disease, something with scales, a deadly form of 100 Point psoriasis. There were no fewer than a hundred of these pathetic souls in line, and from their dishevelment and grotesque appearance, I knew many of them were winemakers.

“Do you believe, brother?” Aimee Semple McFeiring asked the poor, misguided soul in the Trader Joe’s shirt (a woman next to me whispered to her friend, “He drinks Charles Shaw,” whereupon her friend wet her pants in fear). “I believe! I believe!” he shouted. And with that his Hawaiian shirt vanished, simply vanished, I have no idea how but for the power of Aimee Semple McFeiring, and he donned the hair shirt of the true believers in the Natural Wine Church. (McFeiring told him it wasn’t necessary to wear the hair shirt, but he replied, “It’s cilice I can do.”) Well, it’s not really made of hair, I learned, but of old filter pads cast aside by reformed winemakers. The grotesque woman in the “Got Wine?” shirt crawled on her knees to Aimee Semple McFeiring. There were tears in her eyes as McFeiring placed her right hand on the top of the woman’s head and shouted, “Be gone, Satan! Go back to Hell, Shanken! Leave this woman, Spawn of Heimoff!” The woman’s eyes rolled up in her head, she dropped unconscious to the floor, the crowd inhaled deeply as one. Then she began to levitate. McFeiring’s hand was still on her head, and it was as though she were lifting her with the strength of her will, with the power of her belief, with the pureness of her vision for the True Wine. And when the woman awoke, now alert and on her feet, her shirt now read “God Wine.”

But the man with The Wine Advocate was a different problem for Aimee Semple McFeiring. He held the issue in front of him, arms fully extended, and it was clear that McFeiring was frightened. She hissed, a long, sibilant syllable that made the congregants gasp. “Be not frightened, brothers and sisters. There’s no need to fear the forces of evil as represented by this steaming pile of lies.” She approached the man. “Do you believe, brother?” she whispered, the crowd growing silent in witness to her passion. “I want to believe,” the man replied, his arms beginning to tremble, “but I don’t know that I can.” “Put the ratings from Hell down!” Aimee Semple McFeiring commanded. The man’s voice broke, tears streaming down his cheeks, “But how will I know what to drink? Without the Book of David, and the Book of Neal, and the Book of Lisa, I’ll have nothing!” “You have nothing now,” Aimee Semple McFeiring said, and with that The Wine Advocate burst into flame. The man screamed and cast it aside. His loneliness was palpable, the emptiness of his life flashed across his face. Aimee Semple McFeiring walked slowly to the man. She slipped one strap of her dress off of her shoulder, in the dim light of the tent her breast was exposed, and the man suckled at her breast. A woman behind me whispered, “He drinks Cornelissen Rosé from her teat, it’s the greatest Natural Wine there is.” After a few pulls, the man stood straight up, he seemed six inches taller, and he glowed! Light radiated from his every pore. The tent lights were dimmed, but you could have read “Naked Wine” by his Light. It was a miracle.

And that night I also saw the Light. There is no wine but Natural Wine. All the rest is lies. To let it pass your lips is a sin. But we’re human, Aimee Semple McFeiring teaches us, and we sin. Chauvet died for our sins, so we will be forgiven. But we must strive to be without sin, to taste only what the Natural Wine Church of Aimee Semple McFeiring says is Authentic and Real and Natural, or we shall forever live in Ignorance and worship False Wines. I, for one, believe.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Tale of Two Wines

In the beginning, I always wondered when I would be able to drink wines that were ten years old with some regularity. This seemed an almost mythic and unattainable goal. Like most young wine lovers, I imagined that ten-year-old wines were far superior to wines that had just been released, that if only I could uncork older wines all the time I would finally understand the beauty and mystery of wine. I know now that this is foolish. In my experience, the vast majority of wines, and I’m speaking now of fine wines, not the oceans of plonk that make up most of the wine consumed in this country, do not get wildly better as they age. Even at twenty years old, most disappoint, or underwhelm. Wine is certainly different as it gets older, but better? This is a matter of taste. But I suspect most wine people would agree that wines that are brilliant after twenty years of age are relatively rare. But they’re what we live for.

When I open an older wine from my humble wine cellar, what makes it fun and rewarding is the trip the wine takes you on, the trip back in time and memory. What was my life like back in 1999? (Well, I got married to my beautiful wife Kathleen, most importantly.) It almost doesn’t matter if the wine is magnificent or memorable on its own. I’ve learned how to choose wines that will not fall apart over time, so the wines are rarely undrinkable. But the real pleasure is in the associations the wine brings to mind—that first year of marriage, the wonder of how grand and beautiful life can be. I hold the bottle in my hand, gaze at the vintage, and the producer, and I am overwhelmed with memories. Hell, I almost don’t even have to open the wine to enjoy it.

I always tell people starting out in wine to collect wines that have emotional meaning for you. You ordered it on your first date with your lover. You served it at your wedding. You visited the winery and fell in love with the place. The wine speaks to you, changes your feelings about wine. Those are wines that will reward cellaring, assuming they are wines structured to age. If you cellar wines because they received 100 points, you’ll find little meaning in them when you open them in twenty years. It was in the Wine Spectator Top Ten? Believe me, you won’t care. That’s a fool’s game. I know people with cellars filled with First Growths, 100 point wines, Top Ten wines, and cult wines. They brag about their collections, but that’s all they are. Collections. Meant to impress others. They’re soulless, and the enjoyment of wine is as much about feeding your soul as it is about drinking great vintages. I’ve tasted countless wines that were highly rated, and was grateful each time. But the wines I will always cherish are the wines that were not just magnificent, but nourished my soul, that triggered personal memories, which reminded me to be grateful for my life. It’s memories that make older wines complex as much as the tertiary aromas.

All of this has been said before. There’s almost nothing new to say about wine, though we spend countless hours saying it again and again. Wine is a vast subject, filled with infinite minutiae about infinite bottles, but, in its essence, it’s not hard to understand. Though it takes a while. Every beginning wine lover has to wade through the misinformation and folklore that surrounds wine. Spend a day in a tasting room with ordinary folks and you’ll hear an amazing amount of misinformation about wine that they’ve accumulated from various sources, primarily friends or relatives they see as wine experts, or misinformed tasting room employees or wine shop employees. It’s daunting how much bullshit wine generates. Wine blogs are filled with it. I attended TexSom and heard people with letters after their name say things I know are false, though often to promote themselves or an agenda. And, of course, the HoseMaster does his share.

My gorgeous wife and I were in Cambria for my birthday week in October. I brought along six or eight bottles of wine from our cellar for the occasion. One bottle in particular was reserved for our birthday meal at Bistro Laurent in Paso Robles. It’s that bottle, and another that I’ll get to, that sparked this little essay, that made me think more about aging wines and the rewards of doing so. Not while I was drinking the wine, not at all; while I was drinking it, I was speechless and utterly enthralled by how great the wine was. But later, in the passing weeks, as the experience stayed with me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The bottle was the 1990 Chave Hermitage. I don’t think I have the chops to adequately describe it. Anything I write would do a great disservice to a remarkable bottle of wine. I will say that at 25 years of age it was still young, vibrant and alive with energy. I’ve always loved Hermitage. For me, it’s the pinnacle of Syrah, though I also love Côte-Rôtie. The other legendary Hermitage from 1990 is the Jaboulet “La Chapelle.” I’m lucky enough to have consumed a few bottles of that great wine, also, and, make no mistake, it is a great wine. The Chave is better.

Where was I in 1990? I was in my third year working as a sommelier, and, truthfully, supremely ignorant about wine and the wine business. I was 38 years old, and finally surfacing from the grief of my fiancée’s death a year earlier. Near the end of 1990, I was dating the woman who would become my first wife--a remarkable woman who saved my life, and who awakened me to my own shortcomings and pain when she wisely divorced me. The Dow Jones hit a record at 2800. “The Simpsons” began. Barry Bonds was the National League MVP playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates while wearing a normal-sized hat. The Zodiac killer terrorized New York. And Chave produced yet another remarkable Syrah.

But it was the personal memories that the wine evoked as I consumed it with a fantastic meal at Bistro Laurent that really mattered. Sitting next to my beautiful wife, recalling the heartbreak that was part of my life in 1990, and thinking about my first gorgeous bride, and about all that had happened since, all the luck and all the heartbreak, the tiring and lonesome trail that miraculously led to my wife Kathleen, that was the gift of the ’90 Chave Hermitage. Its beauty and life reminded me of the beauty in my own life, the incredible luck and fortune that have been my constant companions. Nothing else, and not anybody else, could have given that to me. My favorite wine from my favorite Syrah appellation at twenty-five reminding me of how long twenty-five years is, and how lucky I am to have survived all those days. Only a great wine, a wine I’ve carried along with me all those years, imagining the day I’d finally get to drink it, could have done that. I have no idea what it scored, or if it was a Top Ten Wine that year. Only an idiot would care about that. It was a wine I shall never forget, joining a very, very short list of wines in that category.

In the midst of thinking about the Chave Hermitage, I happened to stop by Ridge Vineyards out in Dry Creek to pick up some wine and taste what they had to offer. Ridge doesn’t need my praise. They’re one of the greatest producers in California. And on this day, with that Chave still kicking around in the back of my head, I was greatly impressed by the Ridge 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, after sniffing and tasting, my first thought was, “I’d love to drink this wine in twenty-five years.”

The Ridge is spectacularly good Cabernet Sauvignon that is sourced, I was told, from the younger
vines at Monte Bello Vineyard. Younger, in Monte Bello’s case, meaning twenty years old. If you’ve never had the pleasure of drinking Monte Bello Cabernet, especially one that is twenty years old or so, you should put that on your wine bucket list. Anyone asked which are the five greatest California Cabernets who doesn’t include Ridge Monte Bello simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This 2012 Estate is not the legendary Ridge Monte Bello, but, truly, it seemed as good as its older brother. I was astonished, and kept tasting it trying to pick it apart, see why it was so much cheaper. I’m no Paul Draper, but I would be surprised if, in 25 years, you could tell the Estate from the Monte Bello. No matter, both are great wines.

Let’s put it this way. There are a lot of Cabernets that aren’t half as good made from vines that aren’t half as old that sell for a lot more money to the folks who chase scores and “cult” wines. The Ridge 2012 Estate is fifty bucks. Twenty years from now, that will seem insanely cheap.

Somehow, my brain decided to link the Chave Hermitage with the Ridge Estate Cab. You stick around wine long enough, taste tens of thousands of wines, and your brain alters—and not just from the alcohol. It finds connections that might make little sense at first, but which you mustn’t ignore. You might be tempted to call it intuition, but it’s more certainly wisdom. I’ve learned to listen to that wine voice in my head. When it says, “I want to taste this wine in twenty-five years,” I pay attention. Will the Ridge be another Chave Hermitage? Most certainly not. Doesn’t matter. It will be great in its own way.

If I live another twenty-two years and open the 2012, I know it will be something special. How do I know? Beats me. But I trust my instincts. And when I do drink it, it will remind me of 2012. Of the days when I was the HoseMaster of Wine™. Of the people I met and loved because I write this crap regularly. Of the people who may have passed since then. Of my sweet and adorably dumb Norwich Terrier, Mickey, who was born in 2012, who we raised from birth. And, therefore, of his mother, Kate, a dog I feel is my canine soulmate on her second visit. Of my long and remarkable marriage to the kindest soul who exists in this time and this place. Of a time that will seem imaginary to my future self in 2037, slippery, hard to recall, but was my 60th year on this mysterious planet. Only a wine can do that.

Every old wine, but especially the ones that take your breath away, is a time capsule we open with a corkscrew and a full heart.  A living, breathing, energetic reminder of our past that will unearth memories that have long lain dormant. And when people ask me how a wine can be profound, there is the answer.