Wine for the Abnormal

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wine education 2I got into wine rather late in life but once bitten by the wine bug I just plunged into it and I’ve devoted a considerable amount of time over the past 20 years learning and writing about wine. In all of that time I don’t think I’ve ever thought wine needed to be simplified or “demystified”. Wine is rich and fascinating and it’s that richness and complexity that has always attracted me to it. I also must say that since getting into wine I have not encountered many people who were snobbish and unapproachable or who thought of their wine knowledge as something to be hoarded and doled out only to the worthy. There are of course jerks in any endeavor but my experience with wine people from retailers to educators to sommeliers to winemakers has been overwhelmingly positive and when I began to learn about wine almost everyone I encountered was willing and eager to share their knowledge.

And so I am always deeply puzzled when I read commentary like Tom Wark’s interview with Elizabeth Schneider,  who recently published a book called Wine for Normal People. She reports on a negative experience she had with an employee of a winery:

With that incident as an apt example, you note to your readers, “Wine is one of the few subjects I know of in which many people in the industry discourage you from learning yet put you down for not knowing stuff.

She goes on to respond to Tom’s prompt:

When I first got started in wine there was a wave of people who were trying to make wine more approachable. It was great. But then the dreaded certification craze began and I think that brought back the snobbery and the information hoarding that I experienced when I first became interested in wine. Movies like Somm just perpetuated the idea that wine people were some other form of life (what so many consider a higher form, which is so ridiculous), and that created a bigger gap between regular drinkers and wine industry insiders.

I don’t want to dispute Ms. Schneider’s experience. It’s her experience and I’m sure she’s reporting it honestly. But “information hoarding”? I can count on one hand the times I’ve encountered someone interested in hoarding information. In the wine world we’re overwhelmed by information and people willing to share it.  Then she goes on to raise a different issue:

The wine intelligentsia is never happy with wines that are palate pleasing, it seems. And they are extremely judgmental of what other people like. Recently I was at an event with a Master Sommelier, and she declared New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was a vile starter wine that she would never present to her customers. I was so disgusted but then remembered that this is normal for the industry.

Mencia is great, but there’s a reason Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot remain popular: they are tasty to most wine lovers. I will never understand why it’s popular to shun Bordeaux because it’s passé, or something people like or have heard of.

So now I’m just confused. If wine educators are pointing out to novices newly interested in wine that there is more to wine that Merlot and Cabernet, they’re what? Snobs? Or “information hoarders? It seems they are giving information, not hoarding it. They are explaining what makes wine fascinating. Furthermore, why on earth would we expect people who have engaged in a deep study of wine to be satisfied drinking or talking about entry level New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? If that Master Somm’s customers were experienced wine drinkers who aspired to get beyond what’s available at the supermarket, why would she present them Oyster Bay?

Of course you have to know your audience. If they’re unfamiliar with “starter wines” then you begin there. I’ve been an educator for many decades. If there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that you have to start with where people are. But you also have to take them on a journey. Flattering their current habits or parroting what they already know is not education—it’s a rip off. And the students know they’re being ripped off.

I’m increasingly fed up with this pandering that treats wine appreciation as snobbish and elitist. The constant refrain that people are intimidated and confused about wine is simplistic nonsense and it’s not doing the wine industry any good. It’s exploring the endless variations of wine that makes it fascinating and if you “dumb it down” you will kill whatever spark of inspiration brings people to wine in the first place. Complexity, authenticity, and a sense of place can be appreciated only through experience and education. There are no short cuts, no easy way to master it despite what these “populists” would have you believe.

Of course not everyone who drinks wine will be so curious as to want to explore it. That’s fine. People have different interests and limited resources. Not everyone has the time, attention, or money to take an interest in wine. These are the barriers, not snobbish somms, information hoarders, or timid, confused consumers quaking with fear that someone will disapprove of their taste.

There are many levels of wine knowledge and people will naturally find the level at which they are comfortable. But this discourse that assumes you can gain genuine expertise by reading a book that “demystifies” while sharing entry level wine among friends is an insult to people with genuine expertise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Wine World’s Culture of Expertise

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wine scholarFor everyone who thinks wine expertise is bullshit, that there is really no difference between everyday wine and fine wine, and nothing worth knowing about wine that can’t be learned from a $6 bottle of Chianti and a pizza, you should go read Noelle Harman’s post about her experiences studying for her WSET diploma. Noelle spent ten years as a tax attorney before getting the wine bug and she compares her experiences  studying for the bar exam with her new pursuit of a wine education. The bottom line:

The day of the bar exam, I remember being a bit nervous. But I also knew that I’d studied as best I could to prepare for it: 3 years of school, a couple of legal internships, an intense bar review course, and hours of self study. Any jitters I had went away once the exam started – because my confidence kicked in. I wrote my heart out (hardly anybody typed their exams back then!) and I didn’t second guess myself.

You don’t see what your “grade” is on the bar exam, just pass or fail. I passed. And I practiced tax law for almost 10 years.

So far, my Diploma exams have been a different experience. And no, I’m not just talking about the tasting portion (which unfortunately WASN’T part of the bar exam).  My confidence level simply isn’t as high – I second guess whether I’ve studied enough, or studied the right things. During my exams, I’m jittery to the point of uncontrollable hand shaking (seriously!). And when I’m finished, I worry whether I’ve answered the questions as thoroughly as possible.

As she points out, in law school you have to read lots of cases. But all of those cases are subject to a fairly standard analysis. Find the fact pattern, identify the issue, choose the appropriate rule that governs that fact pattern, analyze how the rule applies given the precedents, and draw your conclusion. Rinse and repeat. The law is complex but highly specialized. Since law students haven’t chosen a specialty and because a bar exam couldn’t possibly cover the details of all areas of the law, the focus is on learning how to do legal analysis regardless of specialty. Passing the bar is hard—I watched my son bust his but to do it—but it is a focused domain covered by an analytical procedure. If you do the prep work you will know what you have to do on the exam.

The wine world is organized differently. The facts are diverse and don’t always fall into a pattern. Rules, general principles, are sometimes applicable but there are always many exceptions and special cases with new precedents arising with every shift in the weather or clonal variation. The wine world is made up of a vast number of particular facts about varietals, chemical compounds, soil types, regions, vineyards, viticultural and winemaking techniques, and individual winemaking styles. The only way to know it is to memorize those particular facts. The wine world doesn’t lend itself to a standardized procedure.  And on the advanced certification exams you’re expected to know it all. You never feel confident that you have your arms around it.

The people who have mastered it have mastered something of enormous complexity. Thus, the heart of the wine world is an impressive intellectual culture that constitutes genuine expertise.

The cynic might ask whether any of this knowledge sells wine.  The vast majority of wine consumers know nothing of this intellectual culture and couldn’t care less. But that’s the wrong question to ask. It’s like asking whether literature students made Danielle Steel rich. Obviously not. It’s about culture, not business. But when wine sales continue to plummet and prices retreat because consumers have moved on to some other hot product, it will be that culture that keeps the wine flame burning and the quality producers afloat.

Wine Review: Quinta De Fafide Reserva Tinto Douro 2016

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quinto de fafideIn wine and dating, first impressions can be misleading.

My first impression of this Portuguese blend was that it showed good aromatic intensity and depth. Black Cherry, raspberry, clove and cinnamon surrounded with a penumbra of dark toast were almost intoxicating—but the more I sniff the more I get blasts of tire rubber that come and go.

On the palate it’s full bodied and round up front and when the tannins emerge they are unexpectedly soft and fine-grained, almost cashmere like, which is unusual for Douro reds. But acidity becomes really prominent on the finish pushing the prominence of stony mineral notes just as the fruit power is dying. The final gasp is a disappointing mélange of powder and sour berry. The wine shows good tension from the persistent seam of acidity but its quite linear until the bottom drops out. Firmer tannins on the back end would have given the wine more balance.

The personality of this wine doesn’t come together. Its spicy and flavorful, soft and tender, but then turns irascible as the finish unfolds, like a person eager to charm but just too cynical to pull it off, an attitude captured well by Jenny Lewis on Red Bull and Hennessey.

The price is all over the map on this wine. At the average of $15 there are better options available. For the $23 I paid it’s not good value.

Technical Notes: A blend of Touriga Nacional (60%), Tinta Roriz/Tempranillo (25%) and Touriga Franca (15%), 12 months in new and used American oak barrels.

Score: 87

Price: $15 (ave.)

Alc: 14%

Has the Debate Between Terroir vs. Varietal Been Settled?

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clos de vougeotIn going through some notes for a book on the philosophy of wine I’m writing, I came across an old debate that once defined the difference between new world and old world wines—the relative importance of terroir vs. varietal in explaining the character of a wine.

For much of wine’s history in Europe, especially in France, Italy and Spain, wines were labeled with the region and sometimes the vineyard from which the grapes were harvested. A varietal was never mentioned (except in Alsace) and many of the wines were blends of many varietals. But that presented marketing problems for European wines in the U.S. where Europe’s geography was not well known and the names were hard to remember. As the U.S. began to make its own quality wine in the mid-20th Century, wineries began listing the varietal on the label along with the region, and the rest of the new world followed that practice. The consumer might not know much about geography but at least she knew she was buying Cabernet or Chardonnay. Today even Europe is labeling their wines with the varietal at least for their less expensive bottlings.

Thus, a debate ensued about which was more important—varietal or region? Has the debate been settled? In a word, Yes! Both varietal and region are equally important.

Everyone knows a Pinot Noir from Michigan will taste differently from a Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Even Pinot Noir from Santa Cruz will be quite different from SLH even though it’s just down the freeway. Famously, different blocks within Burgundy’s Clos de Vougeot Vineyard make quite different wines. All the evidence suggests that site matters. However, if Chablis were to plant Riesling instead of Chardonnay it wouldn’t taste like Chablis (as we know it). Plant Syrah in Napa and you might get a nice wine but it won’t taste like Cabernet. Most varietals have distinctive characteristics that when properly grown and vinified show their character even when subject to different interpretations.

Of course things are not quite this simple. Production and viticultural decisions from crop load to aging regimen matter as well. You can erase the signature of terroir and with enough effort erase the varietal character as well. Thankfully most artisan winemakers think it’s important to preserve both.

The old world practice of labeling by place rather than varietal was sufficient to sell wine because regulations (when they were followed) guaranteed only certain varietals could be used in specific regions. The consumer didn’t need to be informed that a red wine from Chambertin was Pinot Noir because it had to be by law. That method of marketing would not work in the new world where such regulations are non-existent. But these peculiarities of labeling and regulation tell us little about the relative importance of terroir and varietal. The fact that France, the standard-setter for fine wine for centuries, ignored varietal labeling doesn’t make it a superior practice—it was fine for the French context but inappropriate elsewhere.

As with most things in wine, everything matters at least potentially.

Does Wine Have a Rhythm?

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musical notesThat sounds like a curious question at first. Rhythm refers to the placement of sounds through time. But an ordered pattern of blinking lights might also have a rhythm. Sound is not essential to the concept; anything that displays an ordered sequence through time could have a rhythm. So what is the ordered pattern through time that a wine displays? A wine’s features aren’t displayed all at once. As the wine moves across the palate we sense some of its features sequentially. Usually the fruit appears first, flavor and aroma notes emerge and disappear, at some point we begin to sense the acidity, and then the tannins, and as the wine evolves in the mouth these components expand and contract, jostling for our attention, their relative degrees of prominence fluctuating with differing degrees of duration and acceleration.

So I think wines do have rhythm. The question is does that matter. Is their some relation between rhythm and quality? Music of course has rhythm but there isn’t some type of rhythm that is preferred by listeners. What matters is not the type of rhythm but the cohesion of the rhythmic elements and especially of the musicians playing the rhythm. Yet, in any reasonable complex piece of music, the musicians are not playing the same rhythm. Cohesion is not based on sameness but on variations that seem to communicate with each other. (Listen to Ron Carter and Tony Williams on Miles Davis’ Seven Steps to Heaven for an example.)

That gives us a clue about how a wine’s rhythm matters. As the various components of a wine are displayed through time they do not appear in unison but diverge sharply and may appear to be in tension with the acidity straining to be noticed, the tannins relentlessly becoming more prominent, the fruit power trying to hold onto its dominance. Some wines display a great deal of tension; in other wines the struggle for attention is more reserved and full of finesse. But in any case, in a wine of high quality the various elements are constraining each other, working together at key moments to reign each other in, each providing an anchor that the other’s play off of. Even a display of searing acidity or chewy tannins seems to hit the mark. Wine critics used to call this the “knit” of a wine which is helpful but doesn’t describe the dynamic element. In the end, great wines have a sense of effortless resolution. All that tension finally settles on a direction with all the contrasting elements finding a balance point that seems complete. No component failed to deliver, but nothing was left exposed and the dominant elements feel properly limited by contrasting elements. The final movement settled into its pocket.

If I had to choose one property of a wine that is the most reliable indicator of quality it would be this sense of effortless, rhythmic resolution. There is no single word to describe it. “Elegance” or “gracefulness” is appropriate for some wines but there are some wild and wooly beasts—a great Amarone for instance–that nevertheless achieve this resolution.

Should We Care if a Warming Climate Changes the Taste of Wine?

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nordic grapesBritt Karlsson in BK Wine Magazine asks “Should we lament that the taste of wines have changed?

That the wines we are accustomed to drinking will eventually change is probably inevitable in the wake of climate change. Some regions may need to change the grape variety, the heat may cause the acidity to drop, etc. This is especially a problem for the winegrowers who may be facing more unpredictable weather.

But for the wine consumers? Is it a problem for us that the taste of the wines we drink changes?

Her answer is no. I’m not so sure. Her argument is based on the fact that the taste of wine has always changed throughout history and we’ve come to accept that.

How did the wines taste before phylloxera hit during the second half of the 19th century? Nobody knows today. …

Those who started drinking wine in the 1970s and 1980s know that there has been a tremendous change in quality and variety since then. And thus, also of taste and character. We drink totally different wines today. Even the wines that come from the same regions that we drank at the time taste quite different today.

In fact, wine consumers easily accept new tastes. Remember when the New World wines emerged in the 1990s. People quickly became accustomed to (and liked) the more powerful and alcohol-richer warm-climate wines.

All of this is of course true up to a point. The vast majority of wine consumers probably won’t care if ripeness and alcohol levels increase because of climate change. They will be happy as long as the wine is drinkable. But connoisseurs and serious wine lovers who support the premium, fine wine market might care if ripeness levels wipe out the distinctive variations that classical wine regions produced. Sure we are happy to drink ripe Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands and inky Shiraz from Barossa. But that’s only because we can always return to Burgundy or the Cote Rotie if we want a different expression. New World wines expanded the variations we can enjoy. Climate change threatens to reduce variation and that will be something to lament.

Of course it may be that as Burgundy gets too hot for quality Pinot Noir we might find satisfaction drinking Pinot from Scandinavia or Iceland. But there is no guarantee that emerging wine regions in the north are capable of producing wines of such transcendent quality as the best from Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Barolo. The fact is that even at the accelerated pace of the modern world it takes decades to develop a wine region. We won’t know for a very long time whether the classic wine regions are replaceable.

The issue is not whether the taste of wine will change. Of course it will. The question is whether the changes enhance or inhibit variations and overall quality. We simply don’t know the answer to that.

So we should probably not be too sanguine about the effects of climate change.

Wine Review: Tommasi Poggio Al Tufo Toscana Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

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poggio al tufoA glorious wine for the price. It melds brash yet generous energy with a stern, sturdy backbone.

Simple, precise aromas of blackberry jam, grilled rosemary, and licorice blanketed by the scent of dusty, country roads give this wine an old world signature. But there is plenty of ripeness to leave a luscious first impression on the palate. It’s bursting with fleshy fruit upfront, then reveals herbal flavors at midpalate as it also begins to acquire toughness, an edgy angularity in the top notes while the dry, finely honed tannins forge a textured path through the  medium length finish. There is plenty of inner strength with firm acidity on a medium plus frame. The seam of fruit narrows as the wine  patiently evolves but it persists through the duration. This is a unique expression of Cabernet Sauvignon quite unlike new world versions. Part of its distinctiveness comes from the oak treatment—12 months in large Slavonian oak casks. Plenty of oxygen but little wood extraction.

There is tension and grit but also warmth and generosity. A fun companion but watch your back.

The music pairing was remarkable. Literally any song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers enhanced this wine by bringing out its different dimensions. But Can’t Stop was the most satisfying. It highlighted the wine’s backbone until the fetching bridge when it exuded generosity.

Technical Notes: Tommasi is the largest landowner in Valpolicella but they own vineyards in several other wine regions in Italy including these vineyards in coastal Maremma with soils rich in Tufo, a type of volcanic rock.

Score: 92

Price: $16 (See Vintus for purchasing information)

Alc: 13%

Misunderstanding the Role of the Food Critic

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restaurant criticLast week, New York Times restaurant critic Peter Wells published a scathing review of one of the iconic restaurants in the U.S.—Peter Lugar Steakhouse. Luger has been around since 1887 and is considered by many to be New York’s finest  steak house, appearing on many lists of the best restaurants in the U.S. But Wells complained about every dish he tasted, as well as the price, claiming he felt scammed.

This is neither surprising nor noteworthy. Wells is well-known for the occasional vituperative, negative review and I’ve never been to Peter Lugar so I have no opinion to offer. But what I did find noteworthy is one response to Well’s review in Huffington Post by Nancy Koziol. Posing a question about whether critics are “out of touch” she writes:

But does Wells’ opinion really hold much weight?

According to Facebook, the steakhouse is still knocking it out of the park: It has a rating of 4.7 out of 5 based on the opinion of about 4,200 of the site’s members. Scroll past the last few days of reactionary reviews and it’s clear that people love Luger, which makes one question whether professional critic reviews speak to the average diner. Luger’s reputation on Yelp is great, with over 5,000 reviewers giving it an overall 4-star rating. Several 5-star reviews have come rolling in this week.

She then goes on to look at the continued popularity of several restaurants that Wells has trashed in the past.

The underlying assumption of the whole article is that the validity of food criticism is somehow dependent on whether it conforms to popular taste. A critic that goes against a Yelp rating is “out of touch”. This is beyond silly. If the purpose of food criticism is to conform to popular taste, then critics really are irrelevant. Since we have Yelp and Facebook to tell us what’s popular we don’t need critics.

This has it backwards. The purpose of food criticism is to hold restaurants to a higher standard than mere popularity. The relevance of food criticism today depends on the idea that what is popular may not be good, and someone with vastly more knowledge and experience than the average diner can provide a useful perspective on culinary matters. The problem with crowdsourced opinion is twofold. First, 1000 uninformed opinions do not add up to an informed opinion. Secondly, most human beings have a tendency to follow the crowd and approve of what’s in fashion. Crowdsourced opinion has no antidote to that tendency and is in fact nothing but a measure of “trendslavery”.

And so the food critic’s job is to point out when the emperor has no clothes. The last thing we want from a food critic (or wine critic for that matter) is to rubberstamp conventional opinion.

Honky Tonk Heaven

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nashville 2I have a love/hate relationship with country music. Love the stories and the beat, hate the politics. But when you’re in Nashville what are you going to do? I have to say the “honky tonk highway” in Nashville is one of the most unique places in the country. I’m not sure there is a greater concentration of bars in a 5-block area and they all start rockin’ about 10 A.M. and keep going nonstop until 3 A.M. Go anytime during the day and you’ll find a first rate performance for the price of a beer. And I mean first-rate. This is where the top talent in commercial country music comes to find success and they pay their bills by hanging out on South Broadway.

nashville3Traditional Honky Tonks were old-school dive bars where the music was loud, the beer cold, and bootleggers might be using the tunnels in the basement to move their wares. The bootleggers are gone and the music is toned down for the tourists who have replaced the truckers and gamblers from the old days. Many of the bars have gone upscale with musicians who cover the latest hits, but some maintain the seedy atmosphere if not the substance of their outlaw legacy.

I spent the afternoon at the back room at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where Willie Nelson got his start and at Robert’s Western World where you’ll still hear tunes by Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell.nashville-1edited-

The music was bookended by some Nashville Hot Chicken—they aren’t joking; it’s really, really hot—and  the wonderful, whole hog, pulled pork at Martin’s.

If you’re tired of faux sophistication and want a rollicking, shitkickin’ sham put Nashville on your vacation list. It’s fun even if you’re ambivalent about country music.

Fires: We Need Commitment and a Plan

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firesThe tragic news of more fires in Sonoma County (as well as LA) has me sick at heart. Most of us connected to the wine industry have friends in the area whose homes and livelihoods are threatened once again. It has become a yearly occurrence each fall when the winds come. The burdens on the people who live there are exacerbated by the new policy of shutting down the electric grid for days on end to prevent faulty equipment from sparking new fires.

Worries about the welfare of residents there are accompanied by a feeling of helplessness. There just is not much we can do in the short run to forestall these events. Once the fire is out, of course, we should visit Sonoma and buy their wines. That’s important up to a point but clearly not a solution.

It should be obvious at this point that the situation is unsustainable. We cannot live like this.

So I heartily endorse Steve Heimoff’s post “California needs a Marshall Plan to combat these fires.”

For those unfamiliar with the aftermath of WWII, the Marshall Plan was a U.S. recovery program that provided massive economic development aid to Western Europe following the devastation of World War II. It has come to symbolize any large-scale, government funded rescue plan.

As Steve writes:

In calling for a Marshall Plan, I mean for the Governor to reassure an anxious public that these fires are no routine matter—that they have now placed themselves at the top of his to-do list. Newsom didn’t run on combating wildfires. I doubt that there’s ever been an American politician who ran for office with disaster prevention his or her main priority. But here we are: politicians need to be flexible, in order to respond to real-world events, and these fires are as real-world as you can get.

I have no idea what the solution is and neither does Steve. But he is right that establishing fire prevention and mitigation as a fundamental priority is the first step. It will likely require new thinking on a host of issues from the construction of the electrical grid to where development occurs and how forests are managed. It will probably require more taxes.

And all of this is of course bound up with the problem of climate change and the boneheads (a more polite term than the one I had in mind) who ignore it.

But sitting around hoping that next year won’t be so bad seems like a vain and foolish hope at this point.

Another wind event is predicted for today that could wipe out the progress made yesterday in fighting the fires.

It probably won’t help but–fingers crossed. What else can you do?