Monday, February 27, 2017

Wine Critics in Hell Act 7


Things are getting messy in Hell. The Bartender has just shot Suckling, who was threatening to stab Matt Kramer with a broken piece of Riedel (“Riedel—The Official Stemware of Eternal Damnation”®)—broken pieces of which are about as hard to find as insect parts in your breakfast cereal. This begs the question, can you kill someone who is already confined to Hell? Antonio Galloni tried to exit the Hell that is a Natural Wine bar in Lodi only to find that there is no escape—there never is from our own private Hell, is there? Laube hasn’t moved from his stool at the bar much. Alice Feiring seems either repulsed, or slightly aroused, by the senseless shooting of Suckling. OK, by the shooting of Suckling. Matt Kramer seems to be in a state of shock, while Parker seems bemused. The Stranger is looking at the Tarot Cards on the table in front of him and nodding in affirmation.

Galloni: (to the Bartender) Shoot me next! I want out of here.

(The Bartender casually replaces the gun beneath the bar and goes back to washing wine glasses. Suckling hasn’t moved. There is little concern.)

Laube: (wearily, and angrily, he rises from his bar stool and begins to speak, suddenly articulate) That sucking Fuckling tried to kill Kramer. What the hell? What’s the point of trying to kill Kramer, except that everyone hates him? We write about wine. All of us here. We just write about wine. We don’t do anything important. Nothing we write is important. We’re among the least important people in the universe. Not one of us has any real talent. We deal in adjectives. We sell myths. We put countless wines in our mouths and assign them arbitrary numbers. There’s no talent there. A good waiter in a good restaurant has more importance to wine than we do. We each chased our selfish little fixation on wine, our fascination with the romance of wine, our devotion to overindulgence in wine, and we stumbled into careers handing out recycled advice and completely worthless numbers. We think we’re important. Now we’re in this wine writers’ Hell. Trying to be the most important of the inarguably unimportant. We’re small people.

(Laube pauses. He takes a deep breath and gazes down at the motionless Suckling. The other writers are silent, dumbstruck at the suddenly loquacious Laube.)

We sell bullshit! We write countless articles and stacks of books that talk about the importance of wine, the beauty of wine, the almighty wonder of wine… And it’s all bullshit. In the next breath we lump all those wonders into lovely little bunches of scores. Ten thousand wines that are all 89s. Another ten thousand that are 90s. We take all that is beautiful and wondrous about wine and we reduce it to two digits. But it’s not the scores that are bullshit. No. The scores are right. Everybody thinks the 100 point scale is a joke, that the 100 point scale is the problem. The 100 point scale isn’t the joke. Most of what you need to know about 99% of the wines in the world is a number. 85. 88. 93. That’s all anyone needs to know. The joke is that we make a living saying the same old bullshit about wine that has been said for two hundred years. The joke is that we go from region to region, variety to variety, winemaker to winemaker, and, like yeast excrete alcohol, we excrete bullshit. Utter, complete, unmitigated, relentless, tireless, certified bullshit!

Every new wine we discover, every new region we discover, every new variety we discover, we write about in the same breathless, authoritative, and completely disingenuous double-talk. Terroir, biodynamics, natural wine, minimal intervention, authentic wine—it’s just crap. It’s shit we’re making up, shit we’ve agreed to promote, a sort of vinous mysticism that intends to befuddle, and intends to make ourselves seem wise. We can’t prove any of it. We can’t explain with any degree of accuracy what the fuck we’re talking about. But we have to say something. The numbers, which are what really express the value of the wine, aren’t enough. Not enough to justify our prestige and presence, our salaries, the fancy letters after our names, anyway. We’re wine writers, goddamit, not wine statisticians, we need to write.

Only, maybe we are wine statisticians. We crunch our imaginary numbers and try to make sense of them. The problem is, when you crunch numbers that have no actual relationship to wine, you get results that have no relationship to wine. So we make up stories, we sell marketing untruths, we spend our time selling ourselves in the guise of educating the public. Or we spread history on top of our work as a kind of horse manure, as though history is what makes wine great, or that history will make us seem more intelligent. But what we’re doing is selling bullshit. We’re bullshit salesmen. And now we’re all here in Hell because, finally, we got caught with our foot in the door.

(From the floor, Suckling does a sarcastic slow clap. Laube walks back to the bar and unceremoniously tosses back a full glass of the house red wine in Hell—Lodi Zin.)

Suckling: Hell is a place where Laube holds forth. God knows, he’s never been anywhere near first.

(Alice rushes over to Suckling.)

Alice: James! You’re alive! We thought you were dead. Which gave us great hope.

Stranger: Alive? Dead? What’s the difference, Alice? There’s no difference here. There’s no difference anywhere. Life and Death are just two sides of the same coin, like natural wine and every other wine. Grapes no longer have life after you make them into wine, Alice. And yet you ascribe “life” to the wines they produce. You ascribe “energy,” and “authenticity” to them. So where’s the line? Is it just your line? Are you the one who decides what “alive” means? If a woman who practices a healthy lifestyle gives birth to a child, is that child better, more valuable, more important than a child of a woman who isn’t completely natural? Is her son fake, less interesting, less authentic? Is nature that simple? Is wine that simple?

Alice: (under her breath) I hate this fucking place.

Stranger: Oh, Miss Feiring, the fun is only starting. (He looks down at his Tarot cards.) Here, look at the cards. (Alice gazes over the Stranger’s shoulders). More visitors are coming. Wait, are they visitors or permanent customers? Hard to tell from the cards. Are you a visitor? Or have you found your eternal residence? (He laughs.) And, look. Here, these cards. Do you know what these mean?

Alice: No

Stranger: 2017 is going to be the vintage of the century in Bordeaux.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Thoughts, News and Reviews

I seem to have collected a whole bunch of random thoughts, reviews and news. The HoseMaster of Wine™ Universe is a busy place, though, like all universes, it mostly consists of inconceivable emptiness. How I wish there were more black holes, but that’s another post altogether. Here then, in no particular order, are many of the thoughts and reviews and news I feel the need to get off my 98-lb-weakling chest.

In the March issue of Wine Enthusiast, on newsstands now, inexplicably, I wrote the piece for the last page of the magazine called “Last Drop.” The lovely Lana Bortolot, whom I met at Meadowood last year, and who then went on to become a Senior Editor at WE, commissioned the piece, and I’m very grateful. Since I first began writing humor, I always wanted to be published in either The New Yorker or Wine Enthusiast. Suck it, New Yorker! I love you, Lana!

I happened to check my stats last Sunday and noticed that I had passed the 2,000,000 page views mark. I have no idea what that measures, but it looked cool. Sort of like those McDonald’s hamburger signs, “Over 50 gazillion served.” You know that at least half of those were actually eaten. I’m very technignorant, but I do know that many of those two million hits were generated by Google’s search engines, spammers, and people to whom I owe money. Still, I’m grateful for whatever success and fame I’ve accumulated here. In many ways, HoseMaster of Wine™ has become one of the most rewarding activities I’ve ever engaged in, and that includes becoming Yelp’s “Biggest Butthole of the Year,” which is a very tough competition. Without the constant attention, I wouldn’t keep doing this crap. Thank you, truly and sincerely, all of you who check in here now and then and laugh at my hijinks. I am in your debt. Keep those cards and letters coming!

I read two wine books last month that impressed me, and I wanted to recommend them to you. I had considered writing full reviews of the books, but I went back and read my review of Kelli White’s wonderful “Napa Valley Then and Now” and I realized I just stink at book reviewing. I wanted to write a parody of myself. But that’s what I do every week, I guess.

I was browsing in my local book store right before Christmas and picked out a book from the Wine section called “Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine” by Gordon M. Shepherd, a professor of neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine—which is like having a CSW, only not as prestigious, obviously, because there are no letters after his name. Frankly, I learned more from the 200 pages of this book than I’ve learned from any other wine book I can remember over the past decade or so. If your career is about tasting wine, you’d be an idiot not to read it, and I don’t care how many letters are after your name. The title tells you what it’s about, but I guarantee you that if you read this book it will change the way you think about tasting wine, and change the way you taste wine professionally. Shepherd is hardly a compelling science writer, he’s no Stephen Jay Gould, but he writes about a complex subject in a clear and precise style. I thought I knew how the senses of taste and smell work, but “Neuroenology” made me feel like Donald Trump at a Mensa meeting. Shepherd clearly knows the subject. Wine, well, he clearly likes it, but doesn’t quite get it, but that’s not the point of his book. His passages about Memory and Wine, about how your brain processes smell, about how the way you smell a wine to some degree dictates your impression of it (the length of time you sniff, deeply or quickly, changes things), his chapter on how much and how subconsciously seeing the wine alters our perceptions, the insightful things he points out about tasting notes—I’ve never encountered another book as authoritative and useful on such an often overlooked subject in the wine writing world. And there’s a lot more wonderful information in the book than that. It’s the coolest wine book I’ve come across in a long time.

I’ve known Patrick J. Comiskey for a long time. I finally got around to reading “American Rhône,”  Comiskey’s history of the Rhône varieties in California. The subject might not be fascinating to the every day wine lover, but Comiskey is a very talented writer, with, to paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane, an inordinate fondness for “peripatetic.” His verbal portraits of the characters who became part of the original Rhône Rangers (which I always thought was a typically Grahmesque pun, but turns out to have been coined by Steve Edmunds) are so perfect and precisely observed that I found myself eager to see what Comiskey had to say about all of these famous California wine figures, most of whom I have encountered in my wine career. He nails them, one long home run after another. If you’re one of those folks who thinks this isn’t an interesting subject for a book, you should reconsider. Comiskey is such an engaging writer, he could probably make even Oregon Pinot Gris interesting. I said, “probably.” His essays on the different Rhône varieties are very good, and would be useful for anyone who isn’t versed on these wonderful grapes. It’s as well-researched a book as I’ve come across in a while—the wine book world is awash in lazy writing, so it’s nice to read someone who cares about facts. Remember facts? I am so weary of reading fact-adjacent wine writing, writing which is not only worthless and dishonest, but dull. Comiskey has a lively sense of the absurd, a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, and he knows how to tell a damn story. I lived through just about everything in this book, went to the first Rhône Rangers tasting, and many thereafter, have met most of the characters in the book, so I was sure I would be bored. Nope. This is wine journalism at its best, which is not meant as faint praise, but the way things are going, it just might be. Support one of the wine journalists who actually lives up to the name, and buy Comiskey’s book. It’s terrific.

There’s a restaurant in my home town of Healdsburg, named Bravas, that features Spanish tapas. I go there fairly often. The food is consistently good, it has wonderful ambience, and a decent selection of Spanish wines. But the idiots who own it think that it’s part of the Spanish restaurant experience to use water glasses, you know, flat-bottomed, cylindrical glasses, in place of wine glasses. If you ask for a “regular” wine glass, they don’t have them. You know why they don’t have them? Because every single wine lover who eats there would ask for them because drinking wine out of a water glass is insulting to the wine, insulting to the customer, and completely disregards the basic purpose of a wine glass, which is to focus the aromas towards your nose. Maybe my Rolls Royce isn't authentic because the steering wheel isn't on the right-hand side--that's how they are in England, after all. I'm too ashamed now to drive it. I feel more authentic in my Prius. Because I'm also a hybrid.

I hate faux Spanish restaurants and faux Italian restaurants that pretend the only wine glass you ever get in Spain or Italy is shaped like a water glass. And for a restaurant to use them in the heart of wine country is unforgivable. I don’t want to order a really nice Rioja and drink it from your cheap, crappy, inappropriate water glass. And I don’t want to be made to feel like a pretentious jerk by bringing in my own wine glasses. Your customers, Bravas, are more important than your attempt at authenticity at your Disneyesque Spanish joint. Why not make the waiters speak Spanish? That’s more authentic for a restaurant in Spain than water glasses for wine. You own five (or is it six?) other restaurants with actual wine glasses. What is your fucking problem with wine glasses at your fake Spanish place? Get some. Put water in the water glasses. Lastly, don’t buy Riedel or Spiegelau. Thank you.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sam Euthanasia--The World's Oldest Wine Critic

“I remember when the ’45 Bordeaux were first on the market,” 95-year-old wine critic Sam Euthanasia tells me, “the tannins were harder than Rubik’s Cube for the color blind. I said then, and I’ll say it now, those wines will never be drinkable. I had the ’45 Mouton just the other day. Tasted like goddam Polident. It stained my teeth, which weren’t even in my mouth at the time.”

If your business is the business of wine, then you know Sam Euthanasia. He’s been the most powerful wine critic in America, and the world, since 1952, and shows no signs of slowing down. A favorable score from Euthanasia means certain success for any new winery, while a scathing review can doom even the most famous. “I fart and they add more sulphur,” he has famously said. During my interview, he demonstrated. “What does that remind you of?” he asked, “Yellow Tail Shiraz?” Indeed.

Though there have been questions about Euthanasia’s faculties, he says any fears are unfounded. “95 is the new 70—just like wine ratings!” In a recent issue of his influential publication “The Wine Euthanist,” Euthanasia rated nearly 75 Napa Valley Cabernets 100 points. “What can I tell you,” Sam said to me, “it’s the greatest vintage of my life. You can’t be scared to give 100 points to a wine. I don’t care what anyone says, wine critics today are pussies. Afraid to give 100 point scores, like that devalues ratings. Imbeciles. When I was a young wine critic, wines pretty much sucked. They had more faults than the Trump Cabinet only they didn’t make you want to hurl. Or move to a real democracy, like Myanmar. Now I taste a vintage like 2013 in Napa Valley, and, hell, the wines all taste great. They all taste the same, but they all taste great. What’s a hundred points, anyway? It doesn’t mean a wine is perfect. I don’t know where people get that idea. Honestly, 100 points just means I don’t give a fuck what you think.”

The internet has revolutionized the business of selling wine. Where once it was only Sam Euthanasia’s opinions that mattered, now there are endless resources and ratings for consumers to consider. And there are a lot of surveys that conclude that Millennials no longer look to the elderly for their wine buying advice, they look to their peers. “Hell,” Euthanasia rants, “I don’t care about internet surveys. There are surveys on the internet that prove monkeys masturbate more than winemakers, and nobody believes that. If Millennials want to ignore the 65 years of experience that I bring to the spit bucket, that’s just fine and dandy. I don’t need them. I’ve got 50,000 subscribers to my website! Though, I have to admit, their average age is the Jurassic. Only dinosaurs care what I think. But that’s the wine business. We like our wines young, and our critics old. I think of myself as an aged Claret. More often than not, I suck. But there are no refunds.”

Euthanasia’s enduring power and influence baffle his fellow wine critics. “I wish he’d die already,” James Laube told me. I think he was talking about Euthanasia, but, hell, now that I think about it, maybe not. His head was down on the bar and I may have misunderstood. Robert Parker told me, “Sam is a powerhouse. Amazing. And to think he’s doing all that on his fifth set of kidneys, well, I stand in awe. His doctor told me his liver is the size of an iguana. When he dies, his tongue is going to the Smithsonian, right next to Monica Lewinski’s and Nixon’s forked one.” Hugh Johnson simply told me, “Sam’s taste buds died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.”

Sam doesn’t think much of today’s wine critics. “Most of them, they don’t even taste blind. They sort of imply they do, but they don’t. I taste blind. I can’t see a fucking thing. And I taste deaf, too. I can’t even tell if it’s a cork or a screwcap. And I’ve been tasting out of the same wine glass for forty years! So you know it’s not Riedel. That crap is more brittle than my hips. Oh, that reminds me, I need to wash my glass this month.”

“There are no real wine critics today,” asserts Euthanasia. “They’re all phonies. They have agendas. They don’t rate wines for the common person. They try to taste everything, they try to rate every wine available, but spend more time on the wines from their advertisers. It’s all a game to them. Slick lifestyle crap. Wine as a fashion accessory. ‘Look, a bottle of Harlan Estate makes your balls look bigger.’ The only balls I care about anymore are the tennis balls on the tip of my walker.”

If you really want to get Euthanasia wound up, all you have to do is ask him about whether or not he is losing his senses of smell and taste. Most experts agree that by the age of 70, smell and taste have significantly degraded. What must they be like at 95? Wouldn’t the biggest, sweetest, most intense wines get the highest scores? Just like the volume on Euthanasia’s television is perpetually set at “Heavy Metal?”

“Why are you asking me?” he rants. “All the other damned bigshot critics are nearly as old as I am. Parker, Laube, Steiman, Jancis, Olken—they’re old enough to be my kids. Nobody asks them about how degraded their olfactory bulbs are. Trust me, their warranties ran out years ago. They’re NOT running on fumes. And so you know, I had a new olfactory bulb implanted. It’s state of the art. It’s an LED olfactory bulb. Uses a lot less energy.

“And, besides, I don’t need to be able to smell and taste that well to accurately review a wine. In fact, it’s a huge advantage to have a poor sense of smell and taste when you’re judging wine. It really helps when you review natural wines. Oh my God, does it help. People think it’s hard to review wines. It’s not hard to review wines! Every jackass with a smartphone is reviewing wines now. ‘Wow, look at me, I have 3000 reviews on CellarTracker!’ That doesn’t make you a wine critic. That makes you a pretentious prick. Which is the first step to being a wine critic, but only the first step.

“Everybody thinks I should retire just because I’m old and think my house doesn’t smell like cats. I only have nine, how much can they smell? A great wine critic doesn’t need his full set of senses. Three out of five is plenty. It’s experience that matters, not performance. Which is what old guys always say. I’ve gone beyond judging wines for subtlety and nuance. Honestly, I judge them now for revenge.”