Monday, March 2, 2015

How to Enjoy Wine--A Simpleton's Guide

Wine might be the most difficult beverage on Earth to enjoy properly. Coffee is easy. No matter what coffee “experts” tell you, coffee is all the same. It’s roasted beans, for God’s sake. Powder it and run hot water through it, and, bingo, it’s coffee. Essentially, coffee is human Drano. You don’t need anything to enjoy it, just open your trap and pour it down the drain. And beer is just beer. It’s not about complicated human enjoyment. No one worries about cellaring a great beer collection, or enjoying just the right beer with dinner. Beer and food go together like opera and pole dancing. You want a lot of each, just not on the same night. And it’s really over when the fat lady dances.

Wine Spectator decided to rip off Eric Asimov (How to Love Wine) and publish their own guide to How to Enjoy Wine. This is the equivalent of writing How to Enjoy Orgasms. Really? How hard is it to enjoy wine? Just lay there until the swelling subsides. The rest of my "Simpleton's Guide" is over at Tim Atkin's award-winning blog. And watch for my new book, "The Tantric Guide to Wine," arriving soon. I'm the Sting of wine writers. Tantric sex is like calling the plumber--you're in all day and nobody comes. Anyhow, wander over to Tim Atkin MW, and feel free to leave a comment there, or, if you prefer, leave me a little wet spot here.


My old computer recently passed on to the great Cloud in the Sky, taking with it some cherished photos I had stored, without backup (backup is for cops and toilets), as well as my continually updated list of ideas for HoseMaster of Wine™. It’s a bit disconcerting when all of your ideas disappear. Suddenly, you’re the editors of Wine Spectator. Not that I can’t come up with more ideas, but I miss that old list. It had years of ideas I’d enter as I thought of them, and was a kind of calendar of stupidity, greed and scandal in the wine business.

Many of the ideas came to fruition, but more than half didn’t. To be honest, at least that many were just plain stupid ideas. I would write an idea like “Asimov parody.” Oh, that’s brilliant. How did I think of that? Oh, I know, here’s an idea—what wine goes with Tony Award nominees? That’s pure wine writing gold. Mostly, my idea list was a way of keeping track of what I was thinking about, and of what I wanted to lampoon. Those ideas were jumping off points, a way to kickstart my imagination, and were usually quickly abandoned once the actual writing began.

So few ideas are actually any good. The list was a reminder of that as well. Inspiration is a fickle dominatrix. When I would sit down to write and felt like I had nothing to say, I would get frustrated. Looking at that list reassured me that writing HoseMaster of Wine™ has never been easy, and never really been fun. It reminded me that I could use an editor, though one is never forthcoming. And it reminded me of something I’ve only slowly learned to believe over the course of writing comedy most of my adult life—the well never runs dry. I always fear that I’ll sit down one afternoon to write and not a single joke will appear. That I’ll search futilely in the desolate landscape of my simian mind and not find a single banana peel to slip on. But, so far at least, that hasn’t happened. The writing starts, and the weirdness and jokes appear. And when I’m done, I gleefully hate ever word of it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ephemera: Great Palates Don't Exist

I am of the opinion that there are no great palates, only very experienced palates. I’ve had the great pleasure, and the occasional great misfortune, to taste with many of the most acclaimed and famous wine people, and that has convinced me of it. Yes, there are certainly physical differences between people in terms of their tasting abilities. Most of us are very sensitive to certain flavors and compounds, while being anosmic to others. And there are people branded as “supertasters,” which would seem to be the equivalent of an enormous penis or big breasts. Impressive, but more fun to imagine than actually possess. Not that I’d know about either one. But how good or well-endowed one is at the sense of taste, that isn’t really what makes you a brilliant wine taster. In fact, a supertaster is a miserable judge of wine (right, Tim Hanni MW?). What makes you a brilliant wine taster is the depth and breadth of your experience with wine, and, more importantly, with great wine.

None of what I’m saying has to do with the enjoyment of wine. Anyone can enjoy wine. Nor is it a sin not to know much about wine, though it would explain why most wine bloggers are going to Hell. And unless I’ve sat and tasted with someone, compared notes and talked about wines with him or her, I have no idea about how accomplished that person is as a wine judge. I don’t even care if he/she has letters appended to their name. I promise you, many of the worst judges I’ve been around have letters after their name, and most of the best have none (yeah, I know, I use HMW after my name, but that’s a joke…or is it?) It’s far more about experience. Lots of folks like to string letters after their name like so many dingleberries, and it’s nearly as disgusting.

Here’s the thing; unless you’ve tasted the “great” wines of the world, and tasted them often, it’s impossible to know where the bar is set for wine. We can argue about what makes a “great” wine, and which wines qualify, but those arguments are rather silly. There are many. But they are rare, and hard to taste for free, and in big demand. For a reason. They’re great wines. My list is my list, but a comprehensive list would include hundreds and hundreds of wines, but begin with the First Growths (oh, I do love Cheval Blanc), and Chave Hermitage, Chateau Rayas, Raveneau Chablis, Y’Quem, Spottswoode (a personal favorite), Jayer, DRC, Biondi-Santi, Giacosa… I’m leaving out hundreds of wines. But these wines set the bar very high for their appellations, and for other appellations that use the same varieties. If you haven’t been exposed to them, it’s nuts, and the height of human folly, to assign scores to other wines. 95? Relative to what?

Forget about scores, it’s about educating yourself to what a great wine tastes and acts like. No, they’re not all the same. They are different frames of references, just as great painters are different but represent a pinnacle of their style. Every great wine taster I’m aware of has a built-in catalogue of great wine in their head, a palate memory deeply ingrained, that they use to judge a new wine. Just how good is this Napa Cabernet? Well, it’s fine, but does it have the depth and grace of a Spottswoode, or the power and richness of Harlan Estate, or the voluptuousness and sweet fruit of Screaming Eagle? Extrapolate that to every region and suddenly you have a great palate. Only it’s really an experienced palate.

“Great palate” bothers me. I think about this shit all the time. There are a lot of pretty inexperienced wine experts pretending they have a great palate. It’s certainly enough to put a wine in your mouth and say, “I like this.” Nothing wrong with that. But that doesn’t make it great wine. There are standards, even if you’re ignorant of them. I’ve said it a thousand times. There are NO great wines under $20. Just stop pretending there are. You’re making a jackass of yourself. You insult great wines, and you insult the intelligence of your readers, the cheap fucks. Greatness is subjective, but not 100% subjective. Only the daft and thunderstruck think something can be 100% subjective. Few accomplished wine people would argue that any of the wines I spoke of earlier are only average or above average wines (Biondi-Santi would be controversial), but our ranking of them among the greats might be subjective to us. I’d kill for Cheval Blanc, but I can take or leave Mouton-Rothschild. Assuming I could afford either one, which I no longer can.

Much of this is about perspective. Don’t lose it. Enjoy every bottle for what it is. Every wine has something to say. But some are profound and life-changing (not that many) while the rest just sort of pleasantly babble. It’s a lot like wine writing. Thank you for reading my wine babble. But while enjoying wines, don’t toss the word “great” around so easily. Stop heaping praise on wines that aren’t particularly brilliant. Great wines have restraint; great wine experts also have restraint. Much of the joy of learning about wine is the joy of knowing that no matter how long and how much you’ve tasted, there’s always something even better out there. Wine humbles us. It makes us all look stupid. Anyone who blind tastes regularly knows that. We’re groping in the dark when it comes to wine. But that’s its gift to us. Wine gives us pleasure even if we’re not its match. Maybe, like the best marriages, because we’re not its match.

I think I hate email. I like it better than texting, which is the modern day equivalent of smoke signals, only less eloquent. Texting is the greatest blessing bestowed upon men since Viagra, though it serves a similar purpose—screwing your partner. Lovely to be able to text, “Thinking of you” while you’re actually watching sports on TV. And women fall for it. Or settle for it. And it takes no effort or thought, just a text. A perfect way to communicate when expressing your feelings is as foreign to you as child birth. No matter. But when I open my email I usually cringe. I’m good at eliminating spam, and I’m not on FaceBook, so, truly, I get the least email of anyone I know. But so much of what I get is dull, or hate mail, or weird marketing letters (some guy yesterday told me how much he loved my blog, "HouseMaster of Wine"), which I quickly delete.

However, the other day I received an invitation to attend World of Pinot Noir with a Media pass. My first thought was, Really, have you read my blog, HorseMaster of Wine? But it turned out to be a legit offer, which I happily accepted. I have no idea who put me on that invite list. I don’t really seem like a wine marketer’s dream. I’m thinking it may be a trap to finally kill me. I’ve never attended WOPN, and I’m pretty excited to go. I think it’s already a sellout, which makes me a perfect match! WOPN has quickly become one of the most important Pinot Noir events in the US. Which makes my invitation even more nonsensical. But I’ll be there, purposefully concealing my name tag, and will certainly have a few things to say when I return.

A big thanks to the WOPN for the invitation.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Have You Ever Meta-Winemaker to Watch?

The inspiration for this post was published on Inside Scoop SF

Winemakers to Watch. It’s a wine writing gimmick, but a damned fine gimmick. I taste countless wines generally unavailable to my readers, I speak of them with great regard, using only my finest journalistic muscles, confident that there will be almost no one to contradict me much less even taste the wines, and then I bestow upon those winemakers who returned my admiration the most fervently the honorific of Winemaker to Watch. When, really, all you’re doing is watching me. Oh, it’s genius, I tell you. Works every stinkin’ year.

Winemakers to Watch are harder to select than the Winemakers of the Year. Duh. Winemaker of the Year is just one of the guys I called a Winemaker to Watch a couple of years ago. I don’t even have to think about that one. Hell, I usually just do it randomly and hope they’re not dead. Though, now that I think about it, a Posthumous Winemaker of the Year has a certain ring to it. I love a deadline. And there’s a lovely irony to Winemaker-In-A-Box. Many look better in an airtight bladder. Anyhow, Winemakers to Watch are not easy to find or select. I don’t just focus on the quality of the wine. In fact, I don’t really care that much about the quality of the wine. Quality in wine is vastly overrated. I’m looking for iconoclasts, people on the cutting edge of winemaking, winemakers who aren’t afraid to take chances and charge you a bunch of money for the privilege of tasting their experiments—you can’t expect quality, too.

I doubled the number of Winemakers to Watch in 2015 to ten. Five seemed arbitrary. Clearly, ten is twice as arbitrary. I’m also an iconoclast, and pretty likely to make my Wine Writers to Watch in 2015 list. Let’s be honest, you have about much chance of finding these wines as I have of finding a new gig if this newspaper cuts my position and puts me in an airtight bladder. So if I give you ten wineries to search for, your chances of finding a wine improve. So, really, Winemakers to Watch is like a Scavenger Hunt for wine dweebs. The dweeb who finds the most Trousseau Noir wins.

Now that the task is done for 2015, I decided to do a brief meta-analysis. I never meta-analysis I didn’t like.

Why acknowledge that wines are made outside of California? I guess I had to if I wanted to get to the non-arbitrary ten Winemakers to Watch. California is overcrowded with talented and professional winemakers, none of them worth watching. Most of them just make Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Who drinks that crap? That said, half of the list work in California, and the others work in Oregon or Arizona. It takes courage to make wine in Arizona. For example, where the hell do you find the Mexicans to pick the grapes? The New Mexicans won’t do it. And Arizona is building a fence on that border, too. The real Mexicans are pretty much target practice for rednecks. The Oregon wine industry, on the other hand, needs my help something desperate. Who the hell buys Oregon wine outside of Oregon? Sheesh, those people hate everyone in California, why should we buy their wine? Well, I’m on their side with that, and with so many obscure people making so much strange wine in Oregon, it was hard to keep the choices down to a couple.

What happened to Washington? I had a Winemaker to Watch from Washington, but he came in eleventh. It seemed arbitrary to include him. I fucking hate arbitrary. And the best wines from Washington last year came from established winemakers, and what good would it do me to list them? Talented winemakers making great wine isn’t what Winemakers to Watch is about. Think of it more like a season of “The Bachelor,” and I’m the hunk handing out roses to really outrageously drunk people no one’s ever heard of who give me a bonér. That’s pretty much how the system works.

Yes, I’m a hunk. But let’s not over meta-analyze.

What about the wines? How do they breakdown? I think there’s a nice balance. It’s about evenly split between white wines that want to be red, and red wines that seem to be white. This is what real wine drinkers want. Not much Pinot Noir, and, just to rub it in, no Syrah, and, well, no Zinfandel. But, hey, my Winemakers of the Year make a lot of Zinfandel. Though mostly I awarded them Winemakers of the Year just to break the balls of those “In Pursuit of Balance” clowns and remind them, hey, I made you, I can break you.

How come not much Pinot Noir? Have you tasted the crap that’s out there lately? Pinot Noir is a very challenging wine for most winemakers, and I wanted to focus on winemakers who are really good at the easy stuff. It’s like choosing up sides for Tee-Ball. And, frankly, it seems like all the great Pinot Noir producers are old and boring. I try never to mention them. (And, really, there’s a lot of terrible Pinot Noir being produced in California. But at least it's balanced!)

How about prices? Don’t care. Doesn’t matter. Nobody buys them. They’re all out buying that terrible Pinot Noir other critics are mistakenly rating highly.

This year’s class seems older. So what? What kind of a stupid, pointless observation is that? I’ve about had it with this interview. I think it’s important to ignore age as a factor in choosing Winemakers to Watch, so I did. What of it? It takes years to develop the chops to become a great winemaker, to learn all the tricks to make weird wines taste good. And getting a new label off the ground is often a lot more than some of these glorified cellar rats can manage. Older! Shut the hell up.

You listed four women. Yeah, but I managed to ignore all the other minorities! My Winemakers to Watch is the goddam Oscars of wine lists!

Does anyone else get annoyed by this sort of vapid wine writing?

A Wine Lover's Guide to Best Picture Oscar Nominees

Leave it to the Wall Street Journal, once the home of Jay McInerny, the Crown Prince of wine schlock, to come up with wines paired with Oscar-nominated films. It seems wine writers are so bereft of original ideas they find it necessary to come up with “whimsical” pieces matching wine with absolutely every artistic endeavor. And the result is uncompromisingly stupid. The author suggests a Klein Constantia wine to sip while watching “Birdman.” Maybe take a mouthful and feed it to your mate! That’s the spirit! Now go crap on her car. Watch “Selma” with a bottle of Torbreck? That’s Martin Luther King, not an aborigine. And, hey, why not a bottle of Negrette? And nothing like Sherry to wash down “American Sniper!” Yes, when the movie’s finished you’ll have Post Traumatic Sherry Disorder—Wall Street’s equivalent of serving their country. Frankly, shouldn’t you drink a wine that’s sight specific?

While this kind of article is, of course, meant to be lighthearted, it’s really aimed at morons. It reads like something you might see on Wine Folly, where they assume their readers have suffered Blunt Force Trauma. I read a recommendation for a piece of shit article like this and I feel like everyone thinks people who love wine, as I do, are obsessed with wine to the exclusion of common sense. What wine should I pair with the ballet? I’m reading the Top Ten New York Times Books of 2014, what wines should I open? There’s a new PBS series about Hunger in America, I should drink something lean.

For the love of God, stop writing crap like this. With “Whiplash,” the story of a drummer and the teacher that browbeats him relentlessly, an Albariño! Of course! Silly me, I drank an orange wine because I thought skins contact would be appropriate. No wonder I didn’t like the film, I drank the wrong wine. And Bollinger Grand Année with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is genius, as is the suggestion to pair it with “seafood-inspired” small eats. What the hell is “seafood-inspired?” Some clam that found God? A lobster that recently devoted himself to charity so he’s no longer shellfish? I expect this sort of twaddle from wine bloggers, but WSJ? Yeah, OK, maybe so.

But you have to admire the suggestion to serve a German wine in order to more fully enjoy a movie about a man dedicated to stopping the Nazis in World War 2, "The Imitation Game." Brilliant. But why not a good bottle of Lynch-Bages for “Selma?” New Zealand Riesling with “Boyhood!” Why didn’t I think of that? And “Craggy Range” pretty much pegs Ethan Hawkes acting style. And when watching the story of Stephen Hawking’s life, “The Theory of Everything,” what else will do but Volnay? And if you really want to enjoy it, take it intravenously, like the great man himself! And if you need a song to pair with the movie and the wine, try Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vein!”

I find wine writing like this offensive. Well, I guess if anyone has it coming, it’s me. Lots of people find me offensive. But I do it on purpose. There’s a stuffy, rigid, insipid, mindless school of wine writing that fancies itself articulate, witty and interesting, but is, in fact, condescending and insulting. There are many examples, they appear regularly on WineSearcher and Pallet Press, but this piece is a marvel in that category. Many of those wine writers who are of that persuasion spend a lot of time making fun of wine bloggers, dismissing their work as ill-informed and worthless (which it most certainly is). I’ve been the object of their scorn, too, to my credit. Not that I give a damn. Not when I read their work and wonder at its emptiness.

But I know what to drink with the Wall Street Journal. Something Standard and Poor.