For the Love of Wine

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glass of wineIn the wine world, the new normal is anything but as we all struggle to stay healthy and cope with economic recession. But it’s important to sometimes step back and remember what wine is all about.

From its origins in Eurasia some 8,000 years ago, wine has spread to become a staple at dinner tables throughout the world. But wine is more than just a beverage. People devote a lifetime to its study, spend fortunes tracking down rare bottles, and give up respectable, lucrative careers to spend their days on a tractor or hosing out barrels. Wine has an attraction that goes beyond mere liking. For us, wine is an object of love.

The word “soul” has unsavory philosophical connotations so I won’t throw it around. But whatever it is that allows us to live with gratitude, conscience, humor, and Eros—wine can speak to that part of us, the whole self, not that truncated part that is a palate or nose.

The spiritual dimension of wine has a long history. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was said to inhabit the soul with the power of ecstasy—the Ancient Greek word ekstasis meant standing outside the self via madness or artistic expression, and wine was thought to encourage that transformation. The Romans called the same God Bacchus with similar associations. The Judeo/Christian world tames the ecstasy yet still acknowledges the virtues of wine. Judaism has long included wine in its rituals for which it incorporates a specific blessing, and of course, for Christians, wine represents the blood of Christ and receives many mentions in the Bible. Other alcoholic beverages have existed for as long or longer than wine, but none have its spiritual connotations. Today, wine is just one among many alcoholic beverages consumed in great quantities. Yet it sustains its sacramental role—as status symbol, fashion statement, a sign of class, refinement, or sophistication, a source of intellectual delight, the object of a quest for a peak experience, or the focal point of social life—all contemporary renditions of “spiritual” some more debased than others.

What makes wine an appropriate object of love? Why does wine have this spiritual dimension? It isn’t only because of the alcohol. Cheap whiskey doesn’t have it. It is not because it tastes good. Many beverages and foods taste good, but they lack wine’s power to move us.

Spirituality is about inward transformation. Dionysus was a gender-bending, shape-shifting God who entered the soul and transformed the identity of the one afflicted. Go with Dionysus and achieve ecstasy by escaping the confines of one’s identity; resist and be torn apart by conflicting passions, according to the myth. Wine too is about transformation–the grapes in the vineyard, the wine in the barrel and bottle, the drink in the glass as its volatile chemicals release an aromatic kaleidoscope of fleeting, irresolute incense. Wine changes profoundly over time. In turn, the drinker is transformed by the wine. But not merely by the alcoholic loosening of inhibitions or the ersatz identity appropriated through wine’s association with status. Instead, the wine lover, at least on occasion, is transformed by the openness to experience she undergoes when gripped by sensations whose very beauty compels her full attention. For unlike any other drink, wine can arrest our habitual heedlessness and distracted preoccupation and rivet our attention on something awe-inspiring yet utterly inconsequential, without aim or purpose, lacking in survival value, monetary reward, or salutary advance in our assets.

Why wine has this power to move us is a question for another day. Today, it’s just important to celebrate it.

Wine Criticism and Alcohol Consumption

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wine criticism 2Here is an argument I’ve heard several people make for the unreliability of wine criticism.

(1) Wine criticism requires excellent judgment

(2) The consumption of alcohol impairs judgment.

Therefore, wine critics have impaired judgment and their evaluations cannot be accurate.

Of course, the immediate response to this argument is that wine critics typically spit when they are evaluating wines.  But when you look at the numbers that doesn’t quite let wine critics off the hook. Some alcohol is absorbed through the mouth when critics are tasting, swishing and spitting. Does that matter?

There is not a lot of science on this but the one report I found that clearly addresses this issue was from The Wine Spectator reporting on a study done in Wine Studies, 2012. The study measured blood alcohol content from drinking vs. spitting.

Ten participants were given 15 milliliters (approximately a half-ounce) each of five white wines and five red wines to swish and spit, rinsing with water in between, over the course of one hour; their BAC was measured 15 minutes after the last wine. A week later, the experiment was repeated, but the subjects drank 15 milliliters of each wine. No food was consumed, and the wines ranged from 11.5 percent to 13.5 percent alcohol.

Even though the individuals drank only 150 milliliters (about 5 ounces, or 1 glass of wine), five of them measured a BAC above the Netherlands’ legal limit of 0.05 percent (versus 0.08 in the United States). In contrast, when volunteers spit the samples, they all had low (but detectable) BACs under the legal driving limit, averaging 0.0026 percent.

.0026 percent BAC doesn’t seem like much alcohol consumption but that depends on how many wines you’re  tasting and spitting and how many times you taste each wine. Critics report tasting varying amounts of wine depending on the tasting event. At the Decanter awards, critics  taste 85 wines. Many competitions may be twice that. Fred Swan says he tastes around 40 wines for a regional tasting at a winery, more if they’re in a hurry. Various critics report 20-30 wines in a day when tasting for a publication. Eric Asimov reports that some critics will taste 100 wines at a sitting.

It is difficult to compare the study with actual tasting panel behavior. The subjects in the study tasted only 1/2 ounce of each wine, a very small amount. Most critics would likely taste and spit about an ounce of wine per sample since most would sample a wine more than once.

So in the study, 5 oz. of spit wine produced a BAC of .0026. In a tasting where 40 wines are tasted, using the 1 oz. figure for each wine, 40 ounces would be tasted and spit. That is eight times the consumption in the study. That is an average BAC of .0208, well under even Europe’s legal limit. But for the Decanter awards, 85 wines  would be 17 times the amount in the study. That is a BAC of .0442, very close to the legal limit in Western Europe. And in those tastings that require 150 wines be tasted—that would be over the limit even in the U.S.

Of course there is one important caveat. Wine tastings can take place over several hours, especially the large ones, with a break for food. I doubt earnest spitters would  be a danger on the roads.

But nevertheless in large tastings there is probably some degree of impaired judgment, not to mention the real problem of palate fatigue when tasting that many wines.

Does this undermine wine criticism? I think the palate fatigue is the real threat. The alcohol consumption less so. Wine critics in many contexts are engaged in aesthetic evaluation which involves being sensitive to the expression of the object they’re evaluating. I think very mild inebriation likely makes you more sensitive to the sensory properties of the wine. We want to be in a frame of mind where we have a kind of sympathy for the object in order to grasp as many properties as possible. A bit of alcohol enhances that sympathy.

How much alcohol do I consume when writing a review? I don’t spit. Wine is for drinking and you get a better sense of a wine by swallowing. But I review only 1 wine at a time over 2 days to see how oxygen affects it. The basic evaluation is made with one  3 oz. tasting pour, with a follow up later in the evening to do the music pairing.

Wine Review: Rocca Sveva Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore DOC 2013

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roco sveva valpoMoody and then demonic, this wine probably reminds you of someone you used to know.

You’re greeted by a blast of barnyard brett with the the first whiff, but that quickly blows off to show mushroom and allspice stirring in their prison of blackberry, fig, and leather.

On the palate, the entrée broods richly with dark cherry infused depth and weight. Punchy acidity generates a clean, fresh but brief mid-palate which hints at black licorice before matters get out of hand with a vibrant crescendo of tart, fiery top notes. Soft, powdery tannins and dark chocolate are not quite up to the task of balancing the nervous finish.

Interesting and multi-dimensional, a wild ride from somber to spirited to edgy and volatile. No one does somber, spirited and demonic like Radiohead—There There takes you there.

Notes: Aged for 12-18 months, 30% in barriques and 70% in oak barrels. Ripasso is made from Valpolicella wine that undergoes a second fermentation in the spring on the pomace left over from the production of Amarone. This wine is made by the cooperative Cantina di Soave from 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara. In operation since 1898, the cooperative has 15,000 acres of vineyards serving 6 different winemaking facilities with headquarters in the hamlet of Borgo Rocco Sveva

Score: 92

Price:  $28

Alc: 14%

Will the Restaurant World Survive?

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restaurant workersFood world icon David Chang, owner of several restaurants including Manhattan’s Momofuku Noodle Bar,  was interviewed in the New York Times Magazine about the threat to the restaurant business from the coronavirus. It’s not a pretty sight:

…I do not want to incite panic and hysteria, but I think for restaurants and the service industry, there is going to be a morbidly high business death rate. My fear is the restaurants that survive are going to be the big chains, and we’re going to eradicate the very eclectic mix that makes America and going out to eat so vibrant and great. And there is a lot of feeling that even in good times, if chefs can’t make their numbers, they’re going to lose everything, so imagine what they must be feeling now. When the economy is booming, it’s hard for restaurants to get loans from the bank because there’s no assets to back them. I don’t know if it’s going to be feasible for the government to give out a stimulus loan to a restaurant or restaurant groups the way they were able to do in 2008 to the auto companies. So I’m trying to figure out what the best way is. The government should give a greater bailout package to real estate owners so that there can be relief for restaurant owners. It has to move up the chain.

To save the restaurant business we would need immediate income support to last for months for ownership, chefs, and top talent extending all the way though the supply chain. I don’t see this happening. As Chang points out “There’s a lot of successful chefs I know who have five to nine days left of money. And then what do you do? I don’t know.” And of course the situation for restaurant staff is even more dire.

I hate to be pessimistic but I think Chang’s worst fears will be realized. For the next couple years, even once we have the virus under control, for most people, going out to eat will mean heading to Olive Garden.

We’re all wondering when life will return to something like normal. For far too many people, even if they survive with their health intact, the world they inhabited a month ago is gone.

Of course, eventually we will rebuild and prosper. It’s important to remember that the modern world with its marvelous technology, copious freedoms, and extraordinary wealth was built from the rubble of two world wars and a great depression.

There is hope but one needs to look to the horizon to find it.

Timing is Everything

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tasting at the wineryAs state and local governments order people to stay home to limit the spread of the virus, toilet paper and canned goods are not the only items people are snapping up. Wine sales at wine shops are soaring and large, highly-distributed wine brands are struggling to keep wines on the shelf.

Meanwhile, small wineries that depend on restaurants and on-site sales are trying to figure out how to survive. The question on the mind of  everyone  in the wine business is what will things look like on the other side when we get the virus under control.

I’m no economist so I won’t speculate but on matters of wine economics The Wine Economist Mike Veseth and Silicon Valley Bank’s Rob McMillan have already started to tackle that subject.

Rob McMillan went so far as to offer a tentative prediction about when things might open up:

Timing of an end is the most difficult to predict, but I have a current operating guess.

  • The CDC has worked with Major League Baseball to predict a tentative date for the opening of the Baseball Season and has come up with May 10th. Obviously, that’s not set in stone.
  • While I know this virus is different compared to the common flu (See Johns Hopkins comparison of the two), there are many similarities. The CDC also reports that flu season normally peaks between December and February, with activity at times lasting as late as May.
  • Finally, we are seeing South Korea and China having success flattening their curves and they are now restarting their economies. Both went through a period of about 4 months to work through this, and if that holds true for the US, that would put us in May when we do the same. So for scenario planning, I am coming up with the end of May as the expected case date we open tasting rooms and restaurants again.

Hmmm. I’m not so sure about this. According to most epidemiologists, even if we succeed in reducing the transmission rate of the virus, we are likely to see waves of resurgence until we get a vaccine or reach herd immunity. Even assuming a seasonal reduction when the weather warms up as with the flu, a possibility most experts are uncertain about, with the lack of immunity in the population, as soon we stop the social distancing, the virus might well go on the rampage again. We are likely to be playing whack-a-mole with the damn thing for many months.

Under such conditions, are people going to be willing to repopulate restaurants and tasting rooms? Unless we have comprehensive testing abilities including antibody tests and massive contact tracing to spot outbreaks before they take off, many people will be reluctant to resume their social activities. Our capacity for testing thus far doesn’t give me much confidence in that scenario.

Of course, as we saw last week with the beach hordes on Spring break, some people will throw caution to the wind in order to have their parties. Maybe there will be enough of them to make opening tasting rooms and restaurants worthwhile.

I think I won’t be joining them.

Is Wine Important During the Coronavirus Epidemic?

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wine 1For most of us in the U.S. we are either “sheltering in place” or at least trying to get along without the usual social activities that fill our lives. The present is grim and the future opaque.

Is wine important in times like this when lives are threatened and jobs are lost or suspended? I would argue that wine (or other beautiful things) are even more important in these times.

Like all beautiful objects, wine gives us pleasure. But the experience of beauty is more than mere pleasure or enjoyment because beauty motivates and inspires us.

When I find an object beautiful, I desire to have it in my life and the beautiful object promises to make my life better when I become so committed. To find an object beautiful is to love it and to wish to care for it as well as discover its secrets. Beauty inspires commitment because it is an inexhaustible source of meaning.

More than ever we need such things in our lives right now. Whether it is wine, music, nature, art or craft we need beauty to dwell on and dwell within, to be inspired by the promise that in these dire circumstances the world contains such things—we cannot allow the capacity to be fascinated to die as we fight the virus and the loneliness.

If you haven’t watched this yet you must give it a look if you want to be inspired—it is truly moving. The Weight by the band is a great song. But you’ve never heard it performed like this.

The Weight | Song Around The World

Wine Review: Le Clos de Caillou “Les Quartz” Côtes du Rhône 2016

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les quartzThis Grenache-dominated Rhone blend has the guts of a warrior and the charm of a child. There is a sweetheart ready to break out but it will take time.

Aromas of dried cherry and red raspberry compote compete for attention. The compote wins, leavened by lovely lavender and sage blended with freshly turned soil and cherrywood an occasional visitor. This nose is expressive and promises great fruit power, only to deliver a deluge of minerality on the palate.

It opens with pleasant round, ripe fruit but quickly compresses into a linear, edgy plane of crushed rock that cuts like a sharpened conversation. The tannins launch early with a powdery texture but acquire a rustic medium grain as the complex finish reveals notes of bitter, dark chocolate and cranberry. Medium weight, the linear, mineral seam is encased in a stocky frame with a sense of depth and richness more implied than tasted.

I would lay this one down. With lots of stuffing but still pretty wild, it will get interesting as it gets civilized. It’s a much better value than many overpriced bottlings from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Aggressive and distraught despite the occasional flash of a smile lyrical and warm, its complex personality resonates with Hurry on Home from Sleater Kinney’s latest effort.

Technical notes: 85% Grenache, 15% Syrah, these vineyards are surrounded by Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards, but were not included in the appellation. Grapes from 50 yr. old vines were grown bio-dynamically and fermented with native yeasts. The Grenache was aged in foudre, the Syrah in barrique.

Score: 93 considering its aging potential

Price: $30

Alc: 15%

Covid 19, Christmas Ponies and the Taste Revolution

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christmas ponyThere are many tragedies unfolding as covid-19 ravages the planet. With the massive loss of life and livelihood up ahead, this is not among the worst outcomes, but given my interests it nevertheless saddens me when I think about it. Independent wineries, restaurants and their employees are going to take a big hit. That’s a lot of skill, imagination and determination gone to waste. I’m sure the chains and commercial wineries will survive by doing what well- financed firms with market power do. But it will be hard for the little guy to survive in a business as tough as the restaurant business or the artisan winery business.

No one knows what society will look like on the other end of this. There are too many contingencies to make predictions. But the food and wine revolution that has transformed the taste landscape in the U.S. over the past 50 years may well be over. It was driven organically by creative individuals with drive, courage, and an idea. But it was enabled by upper middle-class wealth and a global consciousness open to new influences. I suspect both will be in short supply in the near to middle future.

I hope I’m wrong. Maybe in 18 months with a successful vaccine in hand, the innovation economy will come roaring back with investment capital thrown around like confetti and consumers flush with government checks and a new job.

Please might I have a pony for Christmas?

As Our Communal Lives Shrink Food and Wine Become an Anchor

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simple mealIt looks like we will be hunkered down for the long haul, “sheltering in place”, minimizing social get togethers while the news gets more grim by the hour.

We all have different coping strategies—for me, as always, it’s food and wine.

Of all the pleasures we pursue, food is the one that is constant in its satisfaction since we must eat several times during a day. These satisfactions are temporary—we get hungry soon after being satiated. But that impermanence is a good thing, since the pangs of hunger are a reason to once again seek pleasure. There are very few other activities in life in which the imperative to seek satisfaction and thus to experience pleasure is so constant. (Sex may be in second place—but not three times a day!)

Thus, food is a unique and singularly anchoring sort of pleasure. Because the attractions of food are so persistent they shape our lives in a variety of ways and have implications for all aspects of life, especially social life. Eating is a center around which our social lives revolve, and feeding ourselves and others well is an essential part of socializing well. The pangs of hunger are not only a reason to seek pleasure; they are a reason to seek friendship.

That need not change even though our communal lives are shrinking.  Feeding the people we share a life with becomes all the more meaningful.

And if you’re dining alone, that too becomes an act or extraordinary self-care.

The pleasure of food (and wine) is not an afterthought—a bonus over and above the nutrition that food supplies. It is both a symbol of love and friendship and the substance of them as well—including self love.

The practice of cooking, eating, and drinking well is an excellence that reverberates throughout the rest of life, an anchor we need so desperately in this desperate days.

Rays of Hope

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ray of lightUncertainty, mortality, suffering, change—the coronavirus has dropped all of them on our doorstep. When we face circumstances like this, activities we’ve always taken for granted suddenly become salient in their mattering and urgency, and we confront questions about what we really value.

These intruders are unwanted guests to be sure and they may well trash the place before they leave.

But sometimes the provocation is just what we need.

Throughout human history we have never changed without a crisis. It’s just not in our nature to evolve in rational, measured sequences. Only when forced to, will we discard old paradigms and cast about for new ones.

We have not done ourselves proud over the last four years. The civilization that emerged from the provocations of world war and showed such promise at the close of the 20th Century has been teetering on the brink of a dark, turbulent chasm. This virus will surely push us over.

But in the process of re-inventing ourselves there is an opportunity to change our behavior and way of life to give our planet a chance to heal. When the doctors and scientists have done their work it will be time for the rest of us to step up.

No one would confuse me with an optimist. (I disliked Pollyanna as a kid). But suffering and uncertainty have a way of focusing our attention.

When robbed of inertia, motion is the only option.