Stories Are Compelling but Cannot Replace What’s in the Glass

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storiesI noted recently that wine writing is faced with a dilemma. It must  describe the individuality of wines and capture the full range of their expressiveness using a conventional vocabulary and general concepts that really aren’t  up to the task. A list of fruit flavors and oak derived aromas don’t capture the wine as a whole. Yet, when wine writers stray beyond a conventional vocabulary they are criticized for being obscure.

In most contemporary wine writing, the problem of describing the individuality and uniqueness of a wine has been solved by focusing on a winery’s story. The path to quality winemaking is often circuitous, full of problems to be confronted, and requiring vision, courage and dedication. Winemaking is usually a story about the uniqueness of a particular place and if the personality behind the wine is also distinctive that may go some way toward explaining the distinctiveness of the wine. The individuation and novelty of the wine is captured by the individuality and novelty of the story behind it. This is a reasonably successful strategy—we love stories, and when they are about places and people, uniqueness and individuality can be evident in the unfolding tale.

However, there are limitations to this approach. The first is that the features of the wine itself may slip into the background, especially those holistic properties that descriptions of aesthetic attention must point to. The distinctiveness of a winery’s story may have some aesthetic appeal on its own since narratives can be aesthetic objects. But the wine itself is the primary locus of aesthetic attention; if the wine is not distinctive, the aesthetic appeal of the winery’s story is diminished. Secondly, there are many outstanding wines that are blends of grapes from several vineyards, in some cases, several regions. Thus, they lack the sense of place that is seemingly required by a compelling backstory. Furthermore, many wineries that make compelling wines lack a long and storied tradition and their owners and winemakers walked a conventional, unremarkable path toward their achievement. In other words, what is distinctive is their wines, not the story behind them.

The stories of place and struggle are an essential part of wine discourse; the wine world would be a poor place without them. The historical story often plays a central role in explaining the appeal of a wine. But telling that story cannot replace the need to describe and evaluate what is in the glass. In the end, this fascination with stories, to the extent they replace a concern for what is in the glass, will not serve wine culture well. We drink wine to enjoy flavors and textures; we have other media for telling stories.

Nothing can replace the need for compelling tasting notes.

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Wine Review: Tawse Cabernet Franc David’s Block VQA Twenty Mile Bench 2013

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tawseThis is a gentle beauty, expansive, yet soothing, serene, and perfectly composed.

Faint vanilla, freshly turned earth, and soft graphite notes nestle with black current and red plum aromas. The non-fruit aromas are exquisitely balanced, a quiet sonata coming into tune.

Round and very soft, like cashmere, on the palate, medium bodied with a tranquil demeanor and a gently fading finish that gives a peppery kiss at terminus. A broad mineral seam carries through from front to back giving the wine a lifted character, the tannins fine grained yet fully present.

This is a most impressive wine, perhaps the best I tasted on a recent visit to Ontario.

Tawse is an institution here, one of Canada’s top wineries producing around 30,000 cases annually in their state-of-the-art, gravity flow winery from organic and biodynamically farmed grapes. Their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were lovely but this Cabernet Franc is a gem.

Drink with one of the great vocal performances of all time, also soothing and serene, the Righteous Brother’s Unchained Melody

Technical notes: From vines planted in 1998 on limestone, clay and loam.

Score: 93

Price: $44.95 (Purchase here)

Alc: 13%

The Art of the Lobster Roll

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coreaThe art of the lobster roll is a lot like the art of winemaking—don’t do anything to screw it up. It’s all about fresh lobster that came off the boat that morning.

I’ve been on the east coast of Nova Scotia and Maine for the past few weeks so I’ve become an expert.

Here’s a few guidelines for a righteous lobster roll.

1. You must have the proper roll. Not a hot dog bun, please no hamburger buns. The roll must have flat sides that are generously buttered and then toasted so each bite has a buttery hint. its lobster; there must be butter.

2. The lobster must be exceedingly fresh and cooked to the perfect temperature making the meat firm but never tough or mealy.

3. The lobster should be lightly dressed in just a bit of mayonnaise, to add moisture and fat. My preference is for a few thin slices of celery in the mayo for crunch and sprinkled with a few chives, but neither are necessary. Please do not put a piece of lettuce in the bun. And don’t sprinkle it with old bay seasoning. That’s just a distraction.

4. The bun should overflow with lobster. Ideally there should be a mix of claw meat and tail meat.

5.  Where you eat matters. This is the most important rule. A lobster roll must be eaten in sight of where the lobster was brought to shore, preferably in a beat up old shack on an ocean pier surrounded by lobster boats, with a briny smell in the air, seagulls on the attack and a waitress who says “labstah”.

6. There is one acceptable variation. In Connecticut they eat lobster rolls with the meat warmed and bathed in drawn butter. This is really, really good. But sadly they no longer harvest many lobsters in Connecticut due to the waters becoming too warm and so are in violation of (5). If you find this style in the proper environment you hit the jackpot.

side-streetWhere does one find this perfect lobster roll?

This mammoth sandwich at Side Street in Bar Harbor Maine had the proper mix of claw and tail meat, but they put old bay seasoning on it (why?), there was too much mayo, and it wasn’t quite as fresh as others I tasted. And the restaurant is in town elbow to elbow with hordes from the cruise ships.daves-at-halifax

At Halifax, Nova Scotia on the boardwalk downtown I had a singular taste experience. A lobster roll, one half dressed in traditional mayo with celery and one half warmed in butter. Almost perfect, but alas, it was consumed at a food court accompanied by a reggae band (who were quite good but one needs jerk chicken with ackee and saltfish when listening to reggae)

It was at Corea wharf north of Bar Harbor near the Schoodic Peninsula, where Lobster Roll satisfaction is to be found. A modestly sized sandwich of perfectly cooked, stunningly fresh claw and tail meat, perfectly dressed, overlooking the harbor pictured above—(1)-(5) satisfied well enough.coreas

Is Stupid but Entertaining Worth Praising?

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stupidSince I’ve been writing and thinking a lot recently about the role of the wine writer, I couldn’t resist commenting on this post by Tom Wark. Tom links to an article in The New Yorker by Troy Patterson, Jr. entitled, “How the Orange-Wine Fad Became an Irresistible Assault on Pleasure” .

The linked article is a take down of wine drinkers who have latched on to “orange wine” as the latest hot trend in the wine firmament.  (Orange wine is a white wine allowed to macerate on the skins like a red wine giving it some color and tannins.)

There was honey in the aroma. An intense whirligig of tannins metallically attacked my mouth and, on the finish, there was an astringent sizzle, with undertones of acid reflux. Tasting notes described this as a “long persistence.” I found it to be a test of stamina. While I waited for the wine’s acrid smack to wear off, I meditated on how this chic but peculiar elixir reflected the terroir of the urban social landscape.

OK. So he doesn’t like orange wine. Most people don’t.

But Tom writes that there is larger issue at stake:

Patterson is not so much communicating his dislike of the Orange Wine genre or the challenge of many of its examples. Rather, he has his cultural critic hat on and is attempting to make sense of the embrace of difficult drinks by Nicheites. What is it, Patterson is asking, that draws a certain type to these new, challenging and oh so nouvelle drinks? …he is questioning the propriety of elevating unpleasantness to a point of trendiness and proof of superiority.

I agree with Tom—that is exactly what he’s doing. The problem is it’s bullshit. Patterson is claiming that people who drink orange wine don’t really like it—they just drink it because its trendy. Because many conventional wine lovers don’t like it,  it gives the “nicheites” a sense of moral superiority.

Really? They’ve been making orange wine in Eastern Europe for millennia. Those folks would be surprised to learn they really weren’t enjoying themselves. As for the current wine scene, wine lovers seek out alternative production methods because differentiation is the beating heart of wine culture. We naturally seek out differences because we get bored drinking the same thing all the time. Part of the excitement of wine are the differences that nature and culture conspire to produce from wine grapes. That’s not being trendy—it’s an essential element of being interested in taste.

Of course, not every difference and variation is worthwhile. The wine has to taste good and give pleasure. When made by people who actually know what they’re doing, orange wine is delicious.  I traveled to Friuli and Slovenia last year and had stunning orange wine that was not at all difficult to drink. I recently poured a Gravner (mentioned in Patterson’s article) for a group of knowledgeable, conventional wine drinkers skeptical of anything trendy and it stole the show. Granted, there are some bad ones out there. I tasted one last month in Prince Edward County, Canada that Patterson’s description fit perfectly. But there is a lot of bad Pinot and Chardonnay out there as well. Why would the bad examples define the whole category?

As to Patterson’s larger point that there is something inauthentic and feigned about people who pursue difficult tastes, Scotch drinkers would also be surprised to find out they aren’t really enjoying themselves. Dark chocolate, black coffee, stinky cheese, cured anchovies, sushi, durian, raw oysters—all difficult to eat at first but we persist and learn to like them. (Well, Duran not soo much) Were we just being trendy and sanctimonious when we persisted or did they offer something intriguing despite being challenging? There are people in all sectors of culture that merely follow trends and mimic what’s hip. That is not unique to orange wine drinkers, natural wine drinkers, or people who pursue “difficult tastes”.

Tom doesn’t necessarily endorse Patterson’s views on orange wine but he thinks Patterson is a talented writer and the wine world needs more like him:

He is fun to read. Very thoughtful. He possesses the ability to make intriguing connections between subjects and ideas….The problem with wine writing is that there are no Troy Patterson Jrs in the wine writing club.

No doubt Patterson has a way with words but his article is frankly stupid. I agree, we need more talented wine writers. But I shouldn’t have to swallow ignorance with my hyperbole.

If You Don’t Like Our Wine Vocabulary, Suggest an Alternative

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wine descriptionsIf the wine critic’s job is to enable the reader to grasp the kinds of responses it is appropriate to have to a wine, then good wine writing must solve the problem of how to describe sensory experience. Thus, it is no accident that as wine grew in popularity and the culture of wine gained depth and maturity in the latter part of the 20th Century, wine writers began to expand the descriptive vocabulary they used in tasting notes. Finding a way to communicate about the flavors, aromas, and textures of a wine became essential to the health of the wine community. Robert Parker led the way with this trend toward a more expansive descriptive vocabulary. Some of his tasting notes have become legendary for their florid descriptions:

[T]he 2001 Batard-Montrachet offers a thick, dense aromatic profile of toasted white and yellow fruits. This rich, corpulent offering reveals lush layers of chewy buttered popcorn flavors. Medium-bodied and extroverted, this is a street-walker of a wine, making up for its lack of class and refinement with its well-rounded, sexually-charged assets. Projected maturity: now-2009

The reference to “street-walker” might strike one as over the top, although it seems to me its meaning is clear. However, this approach to wine writing has come under sharp attack. For example this essay by Richard Quandt seems to suggest that any use of metaphor to describe wine is “bullshit”.

Even the author of Cork Dork, Bianca Bosker, has reservations about the accuracy of such descriptors. After taking writers to task for using descriptors such as “sinewy” and “broad-shouldered” she writes: “It seems possible that what we “taste” in a fine wine isn’t so much its flavor as the qualities of good taste that we hope it will impart to us.” She seems to be suggesting that wine writers just make stuff up to sound impressive.

But what is the alternative? How can wine writers capture the uniqueness and individuality of wines without resorting to metaphor? When critics of our wine vocabulary complain about imaginative wine descriptions it would be nice if they suggested an alternative. But what we get is usually just crickets.

Wine Review: Hidden Bench Pinot Noir Felseck Vineyard Beamsville Bench 2016

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hidden benchDistinctive wines from this widely respected, artisan producer in southern Ontario, Canada, especially the wines sourced from their Felseck Vineyard. An elegant Chardonnay was enticing, as I tasted through their lineup, but this wild and crazy Pinot Noir stood out. The charming nose belies a beast lurking in the shadows.

A pretty, rose-scented halo surrounds ingratiating cherry and cranberry aromas set off by a layer of smoke. But in the mouth a narrow seam of sweet cherry is hemmed in by soaring flinty top notes and firm, voluminous tannins that come on early and persist through a long, tart finish. Powerful but not in the high alcohol, full bodied sense; its a sinewy strength, active and tautly expansive. A bright, brassy demeanor, ecstatic and turbulent, it pairs nicely with the fraught anxiety of Alice Merton’s Lash Out.

An original expression of Pinot Noir melding classic charm with a ravaged, rageful soul.

Technical Notes: Unfined, unfiltered , aged for 14 months in French Oak: 17% new, 17% 2nd fill and the rest older for 10 months; racked and returned to 17% new, 17% 2ndfill, 32% Stainless and the rest older oak for a further 4 months. Settled in stainless steel for 3 months prior to bottling, unfiltered. From a hot dry vintage, soils a mix of limestone and glacier till.

Score: 92

Price: $42 (Purchase here)

Alc: 13%

A Revealing Glimpse of Screaming Eagle

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sceaming eagleScreaming Eagle is rare, hard to get a taste of without mortgaging the house, and not open to the public. It has no showy tasting room; doesn’t give lavish parties for wine club members; and its winemaker isn’t a public figure filling up your Twitter feed. For ordinary wine mortals its inaccessibility puts it off the wine map, outside the conversation, as if it is not part of the same wine world. But that makes Elaine Chukan Brown’s in depth report on her visit to Screaming Eagle fascinating—it’s a rare look behind the curtain to discover what makes Napa’s most famous wine tick.

The history is of course interesting, but what I came away with after reading the article is their obsession with particularity, the distinctiveness of each individual section of their vineyard:

The vineyard is divided into 50 distinct blocks. More than half is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon; the remainder is an even split between Cab Franc and Merlot. Each of the blocks is farmed according to the specific characteristics and needs of that section – and that complexity of soils yields a distinctive signature. At harvest, the individual blocks are picked and vinified separately. The method of vinification also varies, with the cellar housing tanks of stainless steel, oak and concrete, and the different vessels serving the unique characteristics of a particular block. ‘Concrete can be useful in more floral wines,’ Gislason says. ‘There is something about the interaction of the vessel with the fruit that brings out those characteristics. Oak seems to do well to help manage and round out the fruit tannin in some Cabernet. Stainless steel works well with many things; it’s very versatile.’ After fermentation, the wines are moved to barrel for ageing, with vineyard blocks remaining separate until blending. ‘It’s all about recognizing symbiotic relationships in a blend. How different blocks interact can be magic.’

All of this for an annual production under 1000 cases.  Recognizing those symbiotic relationships between elements is the essence of creativity—there are no rules for it, history often isn’t a guide, and it can’t be taught.

The result is a wine utterly unique among California Cabernets:

The ultimate goal of such rigour? ‘We want elegant space inside the wine,’ says Gislason. It’s a notion that runs counter to most people’s view of cult wines, where heft and density are de rigueur.

I’ve had the opportunity to taste Screaming Eagle twice. Each time I was struck by how ethereal and finely etched they were. These are not big, powerful wines. They defy all the stereotypes about California Cabs. Yet, they clearly show the influence of California sunshine—bright, glowing, perfumed, a ghostlike intensity more felt than tasted.

As usual when I taste a wine of such stature I feel regret that it is not more available. Wine and cuisine are the only arts in which the finest examples are largely inaccessible to devotees. That is a shame for which there is no solution.

The Wine Writer’s Dilemma

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wine writingIf you’ve been following this blog and my articles at 3 Quarks Daily, you know that I give an account of wine appreciation in which tracking distinctive variations, the surprise of unpredictability, and a provocative, affect-laden sensory experience are fundamental to what we love about wine.

However, describing this kind of aesthetic experience that wine makes available poses a daunting task for wine writing and wine criticism. Wine writing that purports to aid in wine appreciation must (1) describe the individuality of wines and capture the full range of their expressiveness, and (2) find a way of describing and evaluating wine in which their individuality cannot be captured by conventional categories.

If the critic is charged with being “on the lookout” for what’s new in the wine world, she must be able to describe that novelty. If a wine offers something distinctive and unique, that distinctiveness must be described as well.

This is a daunting task for two reasons. As many have noted, in Western culture we lack a fully developed vocabulary for describing sensory experiences. Furthermore, all language is built on conventions and general concepts and thus describing something that is both new and unique requires some degree of linguistic innovation. The conventions of language must be stretched to accommodate something that by definition doesn’t quite fit.

Yet if the writer is to be understood those novel descriptions must  remain sufficiently bound to conventions to be grasped by the reader.

That is the dilemma—to be creative yet conventional.

Why the British and (some) Americans Hate Wine Drinkers

wine hatersThis is very funny and also probably true. Peter Pharos wonders why the British hate wine drinkers.

Prohibitionists aside, how could one get angry at a drink and the people that like it? Nobody gets sarcastic if you say you like vodka (even if, well, they should). Nobody thinks aspects of your personality are dubious if you drink green tea. Why, you can even say you love the tormented ambiguity that is cider and stand tall. But start talking about wine and you can see your interlocutors transform into your least favourite aunt in real time.

After showing that the real reasons can’t be that wine is a play thing of the rich (it isn’t), boring (don’t get upset, just ignore it), or dominated by snooty sommeliers (it isn’t and they aren’t) he comes to the real reason:

Well, I am afraid the plain and simple truth is that it’s because wine is European. Not foreign, you understand. You do do foreign under certain conditions. If, for example, it can be patronisingly filed under “Empire”. Or, if it is so exotic that you can mess it up without fear of anyone calling you out (sardonic tellings of Chinese mixing wine with Coke seem to abound in the British wine trade. That’s one big pot of milky tea having strong opinions on how the kettle absorbs light folks.)  But wine is European and, as with opera and philosophy, to be European is to be pretentious, effeminate, and altogether suspect.

Yup. I don’t know the British context, although Brexit is a big, fat clue, but in the U.S. similar attitudes prevail.

Liberals have long been the subject of epithets designed to cast them as un-American, such as “Chardonnay sipping”,”latte drinking”, “volvo driving”, or “brie-eating”. Obama was once criticized for requesting Dijon mustard on his burger. Notice these are all European, or worst, Scandinavian. And who can forget the battle cry of the early 2000’s—French fries should now be called “Freedom fries”.

As Peter notes:

In the end, the awkwardness and the hostility and the sarcasm has nothing to do with snobbery, or money, or class – and much less with wine itself. It has to do with the creeping suspicion that beyond the sea, someone, somewhere, is living a better life.

You can always posit resentment, or as the French say ressentiment, as an all purpose explanation for viciousness and be close to the truth.

Wine Review: 30 Bench Winemakers Riesling “Wild Cask” Beamsville Bench Ontario 2016

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30 bench rieslingAlthough 30 Bench makes several red, white, and sparkling wines, it’s their Riesling that shines. Winemaker Emma Garner produces several, small-lot bottlings sourced from various locations in their estate vineyards, each a focused study in terroir. This off-dry wine from their Triangle Vineyard was fermented in stainless steel and neutral oak using native yeasts and then briefly aged in stainless steel before bottling.

If you think wines with a bit of sweetness are tame and cloying this will disabuse you of that. This wine rips.

Petrol nicely cossetted within sensual green apple, pear, and honey all enveloped in an alluring tangerine halo yields a complex, sophisticated nose.

In the mouth it greets you with a a round, full, mouthful of sweetness before piercing acidity clamps down to an intense core of focused minerality transitioning to a long, dry, chalky finish. It’s vibrant with lots of bouncing around from fruit to tart to mineral with angular top notes always insisting on their privilege.  From its soft, generous greeting it bites and gnarls adding grapefruit and bitter pith notes at terminus.

Anxious, kinetic, feverishly rebelling against its pretty face, surely a cheated heart lies behind it. Pairs with Maps by the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s

Technical notes: 19.3 grams per liter of residual sugar.

Score: 92

Price: $30

Alc: 10.6%