Vote On the Book Cover


My book on the philosophy of wine is still on track for a mid-November release. I’ve been plugging away at editing for the past several weeks; next week I send it off to a professional editor for fine-tuning.

I also have to decide on a book cover. My book designer sent me several ideas for the cover but I’m having trouble deciding. Do I go with the most visually appealing cover or the cover that best reflects the themes of the book? Do I play it safe or chose something outside the box?

You guys can help me. Here are the best options. Which one makes you want to buy the book? Let me know in comments.

barrel        sunburst   bottles  corkscrew  cork-and-grapes

We Should Get Rid of Typicity as a Criterion of Wine Quality


wine evaluationOne of my pet peeves in the wine world is the outsized role typicity plays in judging wine quality.

Wine education is largely about understanding what a typical Barolo, Left Bank Bordeaux, or Mosel Riesling is supposed to taste like. That’s fine. The entrance fee for any community is to understand the norms of that community. The wine world is organized around the distinctive flavors from these canonical regions and you can’t claim to know wine without understanding these flavor profiles.

But why is typicity a criterion for wine quality? Why do judges and critics downgrade wines that aren’t typical of their region? What matters in the wine world is distinctive variation. We seek out regions, sub-regions, and  vineyards capable of producing wines with a distinctive signature and identity. But then we turn around and insist that a wine must be typical of its region if it is to earn the highest accolades. These goals are in some tension with each other.  If we really value distinctiveness it’s hard to see how typicity could be of equal value. If a wine is typical, it isn’t quite distinctive.

If you happen to own a vineyard with an unusual soil composition that gives you atypical flavors, why should your wines be punished by judges for being atypical? As a winemaker, why should you be forced to “edit out” that distinctiveness in order to conform to what authorities deem is the proper expression of the grapes you’re using?

The over-reliance on typicity guarantees that most wines from a region will be generic. Instead of encouraging differentiation, typicity encourages mediocrity.

Simon J. Woolf made a similar point recently regarding the tasting panels that some regions employ to enforce conformity to an accepted flavor profile.

Typicity serves the needs of people who enjoy the game of deducing the region and varietal based on tasting wines blind. Without typicity, it would be impossible to establish the decision trees that blind tasters use to draw their conclusions. Most wine experts were trained using this deductive model of blind tasting; it is an effective way of sharpening your senses. But by elevating typicity to a criterion for wine quality we’ve transformed an instructional method into an aesthetic goal.

The result is fewer interesting wines.



Wine Review: Les Vignobles Guissard “Cuvee G” Bandol 2016


guissard bandolA solid if unspectacular expression of Bandol. This blend of 70% Mourvedre, Grenache, and Cinsault features compact but plentiful aromas of red plum, tobacco leaf, freshly turned earth, and nuances of chocolate and vanilla. But the background gamy note gives away its origin.

Bright early-appearing acidity and firm, peppery tannins give the wine a taut, sinewy presentation. A conspicuous seam of juicy, ripe fruit moves and stirs in its prison bound tightly by the persistent acidity and swelling tannins, which dampens the fruit expression.

The wine is medium bodied but its evolution has no volatility or hints and feints. Concise, confident but grim and resolute, it moves as a monolith, each element relentless but unchanging like a stalled looming seawall in a storm.

The medium length finish is hard but not grippy and cries out for roasted leg of lamb accompanied by some simple, blues-based rock from the Black Keys

Score: 90

Price: $23

Alc: 14.5%

To Live Decadently



a feastWhen we eat or drink, we not only modify raw materials, we consume them. Nature is transformed into my energy though the act of consumption. Eating is transubstantiation—I transform what is alien, what is outside myself, into my own substance.

Thus, the satisfactions of eating are correlated with an act of brute force. Does the transmutation of edible nature into the self contribute to its enjoyment? Do we eat to express our exhilaration in possessing the world?

No other activity  enables us to possess the world so completely. Eating enacts our dominion over nature and symbolizes that dominion as well. The grip that food has on us, its centrality as an anchor for our sense of belonging, rests on the symbolic meaning of this transubstantiation. We don’t kill to live, but live to kill, since much of our dominion over nature is freely chosen and not a necessity. We need to eat, but we don’t need to eat well. (This is true of vegetarians as well; plants after all are living organisms) This is not to say we get thrills from tromping on tulips. It is not the destruction we enjoy; it is the assimilation, the transubstantiation.

Other animals digest food to get energy. But among all animals only human beings turn necessities into enjoyments freely chosen. Only human beings chose to live decadently and turn our power over nature into a symbol for what we hold dear.

There are many human characteristics that distinguish us from other animals. Rationality has long been a philosophical favorite; the capacity for self-reflection and the use of complex tools are additional candidates for what is distinctly human. The capacity to live decadently is one characteristic among many. We should not privilege this capacity over the others but only add it to the constellation that is a human being.

Food is not a simple enjoyment. It rests on a chasm of deep meaning that we usually pass over in silence.

Smoke Taint is an Expression of Terroir



California Wildfires-Wine CountryAlthough early reports from parts of California and Oregon are grim, it is still too early to determine how much the 2020 vintage will be affected by smoke taint. At this point, there really is no way to be sure about the extent of smoke damage. This  article on the Bay Area’s CBS affiliate’s website explains why:

And now the labs are overrun,” said Dr. Anita Oberholster, a UC Davis enology professor. “They have a 30-day backlog at this point in time so, not only do you need to pick a week from now but you can only get your number 30 days from now.”

Oberholster’s research shows the most accurate markers for smoke damage only show up after fermentation, which means fruit tested in the field may miss signs of exposure.

The is a real dilemma for winemakers trying to decide what to do with their grapes. Some are ready to give up on the 2020 vintage.

It’s a dilemma facing a lot of Bay Area grape growers right now: whether or not to harvest at all. Smoke damage, called “taint,” can affect the taste and aroma of wine and the industry doesn’t want to do anything to degrade the region’s reputation for quality.

“We will not be making — much less releasing — wines that have any type of impact from smoke, I can promise you that,” said Michael Haney, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners Association.

That sounds a bit too categorical. Every situation is different. If you’re in the business of selling grapes, your customers will want to know what they’re getting. They won’t want to buy grapes they might not be able to use. But winemakers, especially winemakers who care about terroir, face a different question. Is smoke taint an element of terroir?

Wine is remarkable because it reflects the geographical characteristics of the region in which the grapes are grown, and those variations are the source of wines’ appeal for many wine lovers. It is obvious that wine regions in the Western U.S. will face the threat of wildfires every vintage going forward. Fire is as much a part of the ecosystem of wine grapes in these regions as temperature spikes at harvest. If you can taste fire in the wine, isn’t that like tasting the effects of morning fog or a spring frost?

It’s not as if smoky flavors are unusual or always a defect, as fans of the Northern Rhone will attest. If smoky flavors are acceptable when they result from the toast on oak barrels, why not when the cause is a naturally occurring, local phenomenon.

Of course, no one wants a mouthful of ash. If the smoke flavors are unbalanced that will be a problem. But winemakers have ways of controlling smoke taint, up to a point, through fining and filtering.

One complication is that the effects of smoke taint are unpredictable. As a wine ages, the smoke flavors may become more apparent. But that unpredictability is what makes terroir-driven wines interesting and is part of the allure of drinking aged wines.

I doubt that fans of Yellowtail want smoke aromas in their Syrah. They want this year’s vintage to taste like last year’s vintage. But the terroirists should make a virtue out of necessity.

As wine lovers, we should embrace the influence of smoke and reward those winemakers who learn to make the influence of smoke a virtue and a source of interesting variations.

Taste is Knowing the Tissue of Little Things



tissue of little thingsWe scour the universe for signs of intelligence, probe the brain for the roots of cognition, and build city after city packed with buildings that reach for the sky. But it is the small pleasures of life that matter most to us.

The 18th Century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that “taste is knowing the tissue of little things that make up the agreeableness of life.”

The “tissue of little things” refers to the everyday moments of satisfaction that make up the real substance of a life and give life its character. The subtle gestures of romance, the quiet certainties of friendship, the musical cadence of conversations, or the moments of a caretaker’s resolve mingle with the somber moods of a dreary day, the pleasant feeling when someone smiles, the hypnotic rhythm of waves crashing on the beach, or the gentle rustling of trees. These “little things” support the meaningfulness of life from moment to moment regardless of the major events that come and go.

Food and drink are the lattice that binds that tissue. Take away your favorite food or drink and the threads begin to  unravel.


Adapted from American Foodie, Chapter Two.

Wine Review: Marjan Simcic Ribolla Crus Selection Brda Slovenia 2017


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marjan simcicThis is one gorgeous wine from the lovely amber color with gold highlights to the olfactory orgy of red apple and apricot highlighted by orange zest, lavender, and juniper. But the irresistible, seamless beauty on the palate is the show stopper.

This is a skin-contact white wine with a rich but stunningly delicate palate. A refreshing tart thin top layer rests on a spacious yet weightless layer of minerality—transparent like spring water but ethereal, “the beauty of morning, silent and bare” to quote Wordsworth.

Refined, elegant tannins enter early, gently framing the thick yet diaphanous midsection. The wine executes a slow dance, the mineral layer passing from limpidity to stone to chalk as it is gradually enveloped and absorbed into the wine’s structure leaving a fragile wisp of fruit to persist through the long, sinuous finish.

Airy, delicate, and dreamy, this wine yearns for nothing. It is complete in itself.

I visited this winery when in Slovenia for a brief tour. It sits just across the border from Italy’s Friuli region. Simcic makes some of the most expressive wines I have tasted.

This wine needs the finest in dreampop for it’s accompaniment, Mohave 3’s Love Songs on the Radio.

Technical Notes: The grapes are macerated for 6 days in 3,000 liter conical oak barrels, the fermentation uses native yeasts. The spends 12 months on the lees in those barrels and then 6 months in 500 liter oak barrels.

Score: 94

Price: $27

Alc: 13.5%


Sensory Double Standards



kandinskyMany philosophers reject the idea that food and wine can be art. But there seems to be nothing but prejudice standing behind this view.

One reason we enjoy art and hold art in high esteem is that it helps us understand our world and our place in it. Painting, sculpture, and literature present objects, events, or scenes to us so we might view them from the artist’s distinctive point of view. And we come away from that experience with an understanding of how the world might be viewed from that unique perspective.

Another reason we enjoy art is because works of art sometimes generate emotional responses in us. And we explore those emotional responses in order to gain insight into how we are situated in the world and how we are related to the objects toward which our emotional responses are directed. Music, poetry, and some paintings are especially effective at generating these emotional responses.

Understanding and emotional response are fundamental human capacities which art helps us to imaginatively explore. We deem an object beautiful because of the intensity and originality of the exploration they make available.

But perception  is also a fundamental human capacity that enables us to grasp the nature of reality. Some paintings and other visual art objects help us explore the nature of vision independently of any rational thought process they might engender. And some music explores the nature of audition independently of any emotional response we might have to the music. These objects or events can also be beautiful and awe-inspiring because of the intensity and originality of that sensory exploration. Think of the patterns and colors of textile art or the soundscapes of ambient music. These also inspire contemplation about our place in the world even though nothing is represented or expressed. And such works are also sometimes beautiful and awe-inspiring if they are sufficiently powerful and original.

Thought and feeling are important but so is perception. The intricacies of perception and how it builds a world are as worthy of exploration as reason and emotion. And so many works of art are devoted to exploring how perception works.

But if visual and auditory experiences are capable of beauty because of the intensity and originality of the  sensory exploration they make available, why not taste?

Food and wine enable the exploration of taste. There is in fact no other way to explore it. The exploration of food, wine, and other beverages directs our attention to the nature of reality and our place in the world.

So why are food and wine not considered fine arts? And why don’t we talk about beautiful food or beautiful wine? Why the double standard?

If sensory experience is worth exploring, there is no reason to limit such an exploration to vision and hearing.

The Comforts of Home



still life 2As I wrote last week, to live is to be completely immersed in a sensuous environment, the often overlooked background atmosphere that deeply effects how we feel about life from moment to moment.

Food and drink are a symbol of that sensuous environment because they are a constant source of the small pleasures in life that make life meaningful and satisfying.

If that is right, then the home is the place where happiness is enacted.

At home, we are surrounded by a plenitude of familiar sensations, and food and drink are a prominent part of that atmosphere, the aromas and flavors permeating our lived experience throughout much of the day.

At least that is how it was in the past. The home used to a place of relaxation (unless the housework was unfairly burdening some household members and not others.) It was a place were we could fully engage with this sensuous dimension, without the distractions or turmoil of commerce. This is, unfortunately, no longer true for many of us working from home. Working from home has lots of advantages. But one of its complications is that, when work penetrates the home, the spell of that sensuous plenum is broken.

Many predict that working from home is the new normal as business see the advantage of cutting costs by eliminating the office building.

In this new reality, food and wine become even more important. As a symbol of that sensuous environment, they provide us with the feeling of the world receding even when it isn’t. The enjoyment of being immersed in the sensuous plenum of the home teaches us that this experience of enjoyment has intrinsic value—it serves no other purpose and is not reducible to its usefulness. In the midst of a busy work day, taking the time to savor is essential for mental health.

For this experience, the quality of the food and wine matters. But its goodness is the goodness of direct, unmediated pleasure that does not require fine discrimination or intellectualizing. Its goodness is not recognized through critical judgment. We are simply drawn to its quality and can sense it. Its goodness announces itself to us.

This is the nature of comfort food. The quality of the food expresses our dominion, our control over nature, our ability to create surplus and overcome need even when the phone is ringing, the Instant messenger is pinging.