The Courage to Make Wine



lebanese wine growingWhile working on our forthcoming San Diego Wine Guide, we had the opportunity to talk to many courageous winemakers who gave up lucrative, comfortable careers for the rigors and uncertainties of growing grapes and making wine. But these profiles in courage pale in comparison to Syria and Lebanese winemakers who struggle against religion and war as well as the elements.

In his high-rise office in Beirut, Sandro Saade carefully chews a merlot grape from a vineyard hundreds of miles away in war-ravaged Syria, trying to determine if it is ripe enough to order the start of the harvest.

It’s too dangerous for him to travel to the vineyards of Domaine de Bargylus, which is nestled in verdant hills where wine has been produced since ancient times. But despite the bloody conflict and the threat of Islamic extremists, he is determined to produce world-class wines, and to help preserve a Levantine cosmopolitanism imperiled by decades of war….We are passionate about this, and we aren’t stopping. We will continue as much as we can,” Saade said. “The challenge is not just to make wine, but to maintain a high quality wine.

The quest for beauty has inspired many to risk much throughout history. Sometimes that quest involves painting pictures with alcoholic grape juice—another reminder that wine is not just a beverage.

Pushing Back Against the Green-Eyed Jealous Monster



green eyed monsterSkepticism about the value of wine criticism is ubiquitous, as I detailed in this post last month. But pushback against the wine-tasting-is-bunk meme is gathering steam. Perhaps all the major media publishing this drivel will offer a retraction soon.

This article by Jonathan Lipsmeyer at Gargantuan Wine identifies the problem. In response to the charge that wine tasting is subjective, Gargantua simply grants the point—What form of criticism is not subjective? Imagining a gaggle of critics discussing a painting by the pointillist Seurat, he writes:

Not unlike our wine critics, no two critics would describe the painting in a completely similar manner. An integral part of the problem is that the galaxy of stimuli is so vast that it’s difficult to circumscribe — a seemingly infinite body of descriptive text could find its source in this one painting. And invariably, some critics would contradict elements of others’ description — perhaps the emotion conveyed; the nature of the colors; or the Pandora’s box that is the intention of the artist.

And yet, in spite of this, each critic would be contributing legitimate information. Each critic would be elegantly articulating a thoughtful impression. And — barring questions of integrity and candor! — each critic’s description could be considered equally valid, as it invited reflection, cultivated appreciation, and brought greater understanding.

In all other forms of criticism, we accept the fact that critics will be offering their own unique point of view. While it is in principle possible for others to share that point of view, most people don’t—that is what makes the critic interesting and her writing sufficiently original to bother reading. Yet with regard to wine, this role of the critic is denied by the naysayers, usually without argument.

There are nuances that Lipsmeyer alludes to but doesn’t discuss. Like all human perception, wine tasting is only partly subjective; it is also rooted in reliable connections between our perceptual mechanisms and reality. If wine tasting were wholly subjective we couldn’t intelligibly discuss wine at all. And in fact there is wide agreement among experts about some aspects of wine—Lafite is more complex and has better balance and depth of flavor than 2-Buck Chuck, 2005 was a great year for Bordeaux, Barolo’s tend to have lots of tannin. Anyone who disagrees is spouting nonsense.

The question of to what degree wine tasting is objective is an interesting philosophical question because it forces us to get clear on the various factors that influence taste and it is important to recognize that some methods of tasting will be more objective than others. But what we want from wine criticism is not a recounting of facts but an overall impression of the wine and an evaluation. In the end, these judgments will rely on our personal histories, unique biological factors and personal preference—there is no getting around that. But that doesn’t distinguish wine from most of the rest of life.

As Lippsmeyer says,

So much ire is founded in what seems to be a green-eyed jealousy that “these critics say they taste things that I sure as shit can’t”; so, the naysayer concludes, “it must all be worthless”. Curiously, other forms of cultural currency are spared this onslaught.

Why winetasting is singled out as being uniquely subjective is a mystery for which I have no answer. Perhaps taste preferences are so closely tied to personal identity that expert opinion is experienced as a personal affront.

Aging Report: Borgogno Riserva Barolo Piemonte 1967



barola borgognoWine is extraordinary because, unlike other foods and beverages, it can improve with age. The best reason to drink aged wines is that they develop flavors and aromas that can only be experienced via the aging process. But that cannot be the only reason some of us are fascinated by aged wines because, frankly, some of them don’t have a lot of flavor left to experience. Eventually the fruit flavors fade, the mouthfeel loses its lushness and becomes little more than a mouthful of acid.  Yet there is still something worthy of reverence about popping the cork (or carefully easing it out) on a really old bottle.

Most age-worthy wines improve for 15-20 years before beginning their decline although some—from Barolo, the best vintages of Bordeaux, a few Rieslings—have a reputation for aging 50-60 years. The question is whether they actually improve over that long span of time.

At our recent Wine Elite San Diego meeting we opened this Barolo from 1967. Surprisingly, it still shows classic dried floral aromas and some tar, with licorice notes enveloped by smoke and ash. There is plenty of aromatic complexity to explore, although the fruit is now almost unidentifiable. The loss of fruit leaves the palate feeling austere but, with persistent firm tannins and high acidity, the impression of vibrancy and power is apparent even as the wine fades into senescence.

Although past its prime, this survivor from the 60’s soldiers on with still much to give. Should it have been opened 15 years ago? I don’t think so. Survival itself is worthy of admiration especially when it exudes such impressive signs of life.

As I write this, I’m gazing at the fiercely-etched, 1000-ft. high stone pillars in Navajo Country’s Monument Valley, survivors of millions of years of erosion from wind and rain. Barolos such as this Riserva are the monuments of the wine world.

Budget Wine: Charamba Red Wine Douro Portugal 2011



charambaThe Aveleda family’s entry level wine. Very bright, fresh, red and black berries, smoke, and a hint of barnyard on the nose—enough complexity to keep you interested. But this is a Portuguese wine so there is a toughness to it even on the nose, a bit reserved.

On the palate, very nice fruit and spice and medium body but with structure–high acidity and sandy tannins that leave on overall rustic impression. Portuguese wines from the Douro tend to be very flavorful but dry and rugged with no concession to softness or sweetness. This is typical of that style and at a great price, a terrific everyday wine made from a blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca and other grapes that are also used to make port.


Score: 86

Price: $10

Alc: 14%

Food Snobs are Your Brothers and Sisters

food snobSnobs are looked down upon in our faux-egalitarian society. We praise vast inequalities in wealth or strength, but when it comes to knowledge, anyone who thinks they have more of it is subject to ridicule. Of course, this gets the order of value exactly backwards. After all a snob is nothing but a geek who knows how to make eye contact.

So I dearly love The Online Home of Cultural Snobbery where aficionados of many stripes can find spiritual support and sustenance. .

Author David Camp, proprietor of the site, writes “snob dictionaries” for the culturally challenged that will get your vocabulary up to speed on film, food, wine, and music so you can at least pretend to have knowledge—”fake it till you make it” is of course the motto of aspiring snobs everywhere.

His latest tome is The Food Snob’s Dictionary. He helpfully supplies a lengthy definition of a food snob:

Part groupie, part aesthete, part stark raving loon, the Food Snob is someone who has taken the amateur epicure’s admirable zeal for eating and cooking well to hollandaise-curdling extremes. He wears Bastad chef’s clogs even though he works in publishing or property law. He owns an $8,000 gas range with six burners and a griddle. He’s collected the cookbooks not only of James Beard’s first-tier protégés, Marion Cunningham and Barbrara Kafka, but also of the all-but-forgotten second-tierers John Clancy, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, and Maurice Moore-Betty. He makes his own stocks, has taken a night course in mycology so that he may forage his own mushrooms, casually alludes to the “sugar work” he performed in the course of whipping up his famous homemade Christmas confectionery, and bakes rustic sourdough loaves daily from the pain au levain starter he’s had going since 1996.

And he includes a short history of food snobbery that will serve as a short history of our burgeoning cultural interest in food.

But his greatest contribution is a plea for understanding and empathy that should resonate with households across the world:

Finally, let us express our sincere hope that this brief volume serves not only as a handy reference, but as a tool for understanding. Though they are sometimes impossible to live with and are wont to sharply order us out of the kitchen, Food Snobs are often our friends and loved ones. We must understand that theirs is a heavy burden to bear; uneasy lies the imaginary toque. By letting them select the fingerlings at market, by indulging them as they geekily articulate their fantasies of someday meeting the food-chemistry guru Harold McGee and preparing a capon with him, we not only validate their passions but indulge the little bit of Food Snob in ourselves. For isn’t it true, after all, that every one of us can admit to preferring artisanal bacon over Oscar Meyer?

Well said, Mr. Camp, well said.

Road Food



covered wagoonWell, it is finally here. After 2 years of preparation, unloading a lifetime’s accumulation of possessions, and 1 year of learning the ins and outs of living in a box on wheels, Edible Arts is finally hitting the road. On Wednesday, we hitch up our RV and leave San Diego for a few weeks in Arizona, and then on to the wine regions of Oregon and Washington before returning to California so I can teach my classes in the Spring.

The quest is to discover the glorious particularities of American regional foods and wines . Think of it as the anthropological side of Edible Arts. That means a new website to keep up. Called Roving Decanter, I will be posting my travel articles there while continuing to post the “thought” pieces here. When there is overlap I will post at both sites.

Some people claim that the anticipation of a journey is better than the real thing. The problem with the real journey is that you have to bring yourself along, a complication the anticipation often leaves out. It is not at all clear how someone accustomed to the regularities of hours in front of a keyboard will take to the contingencies of a life in constant motion. But journeys are meant to answer such questions.

At any rate, it is all in the interest of science. So much in modern life is standardized, homogeneous, a one-size-fits-all attempt to detach the median person from her wallet. Does the uniqueness of place have a place anymore in the U.S?  I suspect it does if you look hard enough. We will be searching for that sense of place in American wines and foods.

Please join us.

Wine Review: Hondarribi Beltza Ameztoi Stimatum Getariako Txakolina 2012



hondarribiIf you’re tired of the same old wine routine and want something different, this is it—perhaps the oddest wine I’ve had all year.

Honarribi Beltza is an obscure grape grown primarily in the Basque region of Spain where it is used to make the red version of  txakolina (pronounced chok-o-lina)—a refreshing, high-acid table wine ubiquitous in the pinxos bars of San Sebastian. (The vastly more prominent white version uses honarrribi zuri grapes). Both the white and the red are sometimes slightly effervescent  but this red by Ameztoi from the Getariako region is still. (Don’t confuse it with the rose made by the same producer)

Although light-to-medium weight on the palate, the red version has plenty of structure from the acidity and robust tannins that give this a surprisingly long finish. The nose is bizarre—raspberry in the background with very prominent pear notes which I have never experienced in a red wine. The palate is sour raspberry with very dry licorice notes. Juicy and very fruity from at least partial carbonic maceration, yet nevertheless tart and structured, the overall impression is playful but rustic. It will stand up to most meat dishes, full flavor cheeses and fried fish.

I found this wine to be a bit of a challenge—fruity but exceedingly dry, cheerful and zesty but harsh—like your favorite schizophrenic.

Score: 85

Price: $25

Budget Wine: Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel Vintner’s Cuvee XXXV



rosenblum vcThis wine is like a waitperson who gives you a hearty greeting but can’t get anything right the rest of the evening.

Once you get by the alcohol on the nose, it gives rich blackberry with lots of sweet oak and spice. Complex for the price.  On the palate, it is very vibrant and juicy up front creating expectations that are quickly dashed by harsh acidity and excessive alcohol that make this unpleasant overall. Very hot and bitter on the finish.

Rosenblum is a well-known brand for Zinfandel and I’ve seen this bottling selling for as much as $10. I found it at Trader Joe’s for $3. It appears they have excess inventory—I wonder why?


Score: 83

Price: $10 Ave.

Alc: 14.5%



manischewitzMix a matzo manufacturer on a stolen passport, a desire to corner the market, and some really bad grapes and what do you get? One of the most famous wines of the 20th Century.

Wine writers love to talk about the story behind a wine—usually that means an uplifting story about a good wine. This story is a little different, with more twisted turns than an afternoon soap—truly made for Hollywood. (h/t Elatia Harris)

Food, Class, and Language



food wordsSometimes, when social scientists get ahold of food, I wander where the food goes. Linguist Dan Jurafsky writes:

But food writing, to a linguist like me, isn’t just about food. The words you use when you write a restaurant review say as much about your own psychology as they do about which dish to order.

He goes on to describe his extensive research into the language of food and discovers:

Reviewers of expensive restaurants relied on multisyllabic words such as “commensurate”, “unobtrusively”, “sumptuous” and “vestibule”, and wrote long-winded reviews to depict themselves as well educated or sophisticated. We eat high-class food not only because it tastes good but also to signal that we’re high-class ourselves and have the “commensurate” language.

When a review of an expensive restaurant was positive, writers tended to use metaphors of sex and sensual pleasure, talking about “orgasmic pastry” or “seductively seared foie gras”, cake that is “creamier and more voluptuous” or “very naughty deep-fried pork belly” – perhaps a way of demonstrating their sensuous, hedonistic nature.

Of course less expensive food is described differently:

But positive reviews of cheap restaurants and foods instead employed metaphors of drugs or addiction: “the chocolate in their cookies must have crack”, “the wings are addicting” or “in desperate need for a fix [of curry]” or “craving it [pizza] pretty badly right now”. Why the difference? We’re embarrassed about eating chips and chocolate. Foods that we “crave” aren’t vegetables. We talk about food as an addiction when we’re feeling guilty. By placing the blame on the food we’re distancing ourselves from our own “sin” of eating fried or sugary snacks.

Advertising for expensive crisps, he reports, used fancier language and more often drew comparisons with their lower-priced competition, because “upper-class taste in food has the role of “distinguishing” the rich from other classes – “We’re not like those other chips.” In general, the language of food does not depict the characteristics of the food but the wealth of the diner.

Menu language is equally instructive. In a study for my forthcoming book, we computationally analysed thousands of US menus and found we could predict prices just from the words on the menu. Again, the more expensive the restaurant, the fancier the words. Difficult foreign words (“tonnarelli”, “choclo”, “bastilla”, “persillade”, “oyako”) are an implicit signal of the high-educational status of the menu writer and, by extension, the customer. But we also found that expensive menus were shorter and more implicit. By contrast, the wordy menus of middle-priced restaurants were stuffed with adjectives (“fresh”, “rich”, “mild”, “crisp”, “tender”, “golden brown”), while positive but vague words such as “delicious”, “tasty” and “savoury” were used by the cheapest restaurants.

High-status restaurants want their customers to presuppose that food will be fresh, crisp and delicious. The surfeit of adjectives on middle-priced menus is thus a kind of overcompensation, a sign of status anxiety, and only the cheapest restaurants, in which the tastiness of the food might be in question, must overly protest the toothsomeness of their treats.

I’ve read my Marx and my Bourdieu. I’m happy to employ class as an explanation when warranted. But often exotic, complex, unusual descriptions are used because the food is exotic, complex, and unusual? And isn’t expensive food, when well-prepared, designed to be hedonistic and sensuous rather than filling and comforting? How else would you describe it except through hedonistic metaphors. Of course, not all expensive food is exotic, complex, and unusual, but it is usually the case that exotic, complex, unusual food is expensive for obvious economic reasons.

No doubt, advertisers and menu writers (which is a form of advertisement) try to exploit the vanities of their clientele—that is their job. But I fail to see how a positive review of a fine restaurant could be an honest description without the use of a sophisticated vocabulary. It’s not necessarily because the reviewer is a privileged twit, but because the food was sophisticated and required a sophisticated vocabulary to describe it. Simpler foods are designed to relieve hunger so they are described in terms of satisfying a craving. I doubt that guilt has much to do with it.

The idea that food preferences are nothing but a display of class-based pretension is getting rather old and tired.


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