Drinking Liquid Poetry

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pouring wine into glassI recently argued that wine writers face a daunting task. Their main job is to describe the individuality and distinctiveness of a wine. These dimensions of a wine are not easily captured using conventional categories or generalities referring to what’s typical of a region or varietal. If a wine is distinctive it can’t be typical, by definition. Yet the writer must provide that description of distinctiveness using a conventional, familiar vocabulary that readers will understand. That is the wine writer’s dilemma.

Given this daunting task and the need to describe the kinds of experiences a wine makes available, what is a wine critic to do?

What do human beings do when confronted with something that needs description and characterization for which there is no conventional category? We turn to metaphor. Wines are commonly described as brooding, assertive, playful or sexy—all are metaphors. Although it is seldom mentioned, the aromas standardly attributed to wine are usually metaphors. A Cabernet Sauvignon contains no black cherry. It may smell vaguely like a black cherry but the word “like” there is important. “Black cherry” is a likeness, a metaphor that approximates the aroma of some Cabernets. But these descriptions have become so commonplace that they are no longer treated as figurative just as “that is a deep problem” or “a road runs through my property” are considered literal even though they started out as metaphors.

It is with regard to the texture and mouthfeel of wine where metaphorical references become explicit although these too are so familiar they have become conventional elements of our wine vocabulary. We routinely speak of wines as having length, as caressing and round, as assertive or having an acid kick, as languid or soft as if these were literal descriptions. Without metaphor there would be very little to say about a wine. Of course, we are in full- blown figurative territory when tasting notes include reference to a wine’s personality as sexy, brooding, reserved or exuberant. “Wine is a person” is perhaps the most ubiquitous source of metaphor to describe the distinctiveness of a wine. It is also the sort of metaphor that is the source of the vociferous objections to contemporary winespeak that have become a staple in the press and in some academic papers.

These complaints seem to add up to the claim that metaphorical attributions are too subjective and ambiguous. When a wine is described as “a streetwalker” or “sinewy” it’s unclear to some readers what features of the wine are being described. The further inference drawn is that these are just attempts to make wine descriptions less monotonous or to call attention to the writer’s talent for verbal calisthenics without getting at something important about the wine.

I think these objections are misguided. Beginning next week in a series of posts I will show why.

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Defending the Wine Critics

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wine criticismIt’s fashionable to criticize wine critics for a variety of sins: they’re biased, their scores don’t mean anything, and their jargon is unintelligible according to the critics of critics. Shouldn’t we just drink what we like? Who cares what critics think?

In my Three Quarks column this month, I defend wine criticism by showing how wine criticism contributes to wine appreciation.

Budget Wine Review: Honoro Vera Garnacha Calatayud 2017

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honor veraI’m revisiting an old friend here. One of the more satisfying budget wines available, but it’s been a few vintages since I last wrote about this consistently good wine from the hot, dry deserts of northeastern Spain.

Lovely fruit profile on the nose for a budget wine, very ripe red and black fruits mingle against a figgy background, topped with chocolate and a layer of dust. There are some oak hints but they’re restrained.

The palate shows fig and blackberry, a medium body with an active, tense seam of minerality supported by plenty of acidity, boosting the top notes. The medium length finish is zesty, the tannins prickle but don’t grip. But their is some sourness at terminus from exposed acidity so the finish doesn’t quite satisfy. With ample fruit power but neither plush nor smooth, its lean, muscular frame combines toughness with polish, which holds together until the finish gives it up.

It’s stylish athleticism belongs on the dance floor with Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.

Score: 89

Price: $9

Alc: 14.5%

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5EofwRzit0

A $300 Sagrantino?

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arnaldo capraiW. Blake Gray reports that Arnaldo-Caprai, the winery largely responsible for putting the grape Sagrantino  and the Umbrian region of Montefalco on the wine map, plans to release a $300 wine, called Spinning Beauty, to compete on the global stage with other high end international wines.

Hmmm. If you have never heard of Montefalco Sagrantino you are not alone. I have dropped into several good wine shops looking for it and I usually get blank stares. It really isn’t on anyone’s radar here in the states. Which I think is the idea behind this wine. The price alone will turn heads as will the fact that it ages 10 years before release.

Spinning Beauty is not released until it is 10 years old. The current release is the 2009. Most of that time – eight years – was spent aging in new French oak barrels. This came after it was fermented inside DIFFERENT new French oak barrels.

Blake enjoyed the wine after letting it sit open for a day to calm the tannins.

I visited Montefalco last summer and tasted through the lineup at Arnaldo-Caprai, a tasting which did not include this new release. Their flagship Sagrantino, called Collepiano, 2011 vintage, was far and away the best Sagrantino I tasted on my visit to the region. My review is here.  It’s an excellent wine in its own right, dense, complex and lively, but also robustly tannic. It’s a good value at $50 if grippy is your thing.

My guess is this release is likely to succeed. Italy could use a hot, new grape and the region of Umbria surrounding Montefalco is gorgeous, what Tuscany used to be before it got too popular. My general objection to Sagrantino is that the fruit often tastes stewed and the wines can be over-oaked in an attempt to control the mouth-ripping tannins. But Arnaldo-Caprai avoided those pitfalls; they are probably the right winery to pull this off. It will be interesting to see what the critics say about it since it’s competing on price with established wines of reputation such as Ornellaia, Grange in some vintages, and Vega Sicilia.

The wine will be powerful and complex, and when the somms in the know lose their fascination with glou-glou and minerality (and they will because variation is what matters) I won’t be surprised to see this appearing on high priced wine lists in New York. The challenge will be creating a market for younger wines to take advantage of Spinning Beauty’s reputation—the tannins are an obstacle.

Now I Know Why I Stopped Drinking Beer

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no to beerI drank beer back in the day when the only decision was Bud or Miller. Then I discovered wine, and beer became only an occasional thirst quencher. Then craft beer came along and beer became interesting again. Artisan, local producers. Fierce arguments over purity and authenticity. Total dedication to craft. Insurgent brewers railing against Big Beer. There was a lot there for a wine lover to like.

But my interest in it again waned—to many IPA’s, too little differentiation, nothing to hold my interest.

This article in Imbibe Magazine explains what’s going on in the beer industry today, and it’s not a pretty sight. No wonder I lost interest.

Angry rhetoric has since faded like foam on an hour-old beer. Where lines were once drawn in the sand, crossed at peril to a brewery’s reputation, the sand’s now been shoveled into a snow globe and shaken willy-nilly. Forget tradition. Brewers are serving fruited goses through slushy machines and packing imperial stouts with peanut butter cups, as well as taking tea and seltzer on a hard turn.

Ownership lines are also blurring. In an era of heightened competition, with more than 7,000 breweries in America and climbing, independent breweries are teaming up to better weather the economic storm. Victory, Southern Tier and Sixpoint now comprise Artisanal Brewing Ventures, while in May, The Boston Beer Company—the makers of Samuel Adams beer—merged with Dogfish Head in a $300-million deal. It’s tempting to deem this a new beer landscape, but that’s too mild. A cultural and economic earthquake is rattling the industry’s foundation, with no certainty of how things will settle, or crumble beyond recognition.

“Teaming up to better weather the economic storm” is a polite way of saying industry consolidation. Big brewers swallowing up the little guy; the little guy trying to become a big guy so they can swallow up the little guys that are left.

As the article points out, there never was much of a commitment to localism on the part of the beer consumer. There is a good reason for that. Unlike wine, location makes little difference in beer production. It makes little difference where you get your hops or grains as long as the quality is there. Aside from the moral imperative to support your local business, there isn’t much of an argument for beer localism.

And it’s no longer about making good beer—it’s about finding a gimmick.

Breweries are entering a permissive era that’s formally blessed by the Brewers Association, which last year eliminated the requirement that a brewery’s production be mainly beer. Most prominently, boozy sparkling water has bubbled up, headlined by Boston Beer’s Truly Hard Seltzer….Branching beyond beer lets breweries flex their muscles, utilizing infrastructure and fermentation know-how to fashion newfangled beverages. …Golden Road now offers the Spiked Agua Fresca in flavors such as cucumber-lime, while 10 Barrel makes canned cocktails and the LQD Creative Liquids line, including green tea and coconut water gone hard.…It behooves breweries to create compelling experiential draws, which brings this story to the slushy machine. Breweries from Boston’s Trillium to Los Angeles Ale Works have loaded the churning contraptions with fruity sour beers and more, served frozen and sometimes topped with tiny umbrellas. “We’ve had people come in that don’t drink beer and have really gravitated toward the slushies,” …

No thanks.  These are desperation moves, flailing like a fish out of water. And it will happen to wine if industry consolidation continues. Once you lose what makes you distinctive, it’s a race to the bottom.

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.

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.