Monday, October 16, 2017

More Thoughts on the Wine Country Fires


In the coming days you will see countless press releases and articles that will talk about how the malevolent fires in California’s wine country this past week have, for the most part, not ruined the wines. This is true. As I write, the fires still burn; and parts of the vineyard up the road from me, owned by Simi (Constellation), were being picked this morning. There were grape trucks everywhere as I drove into town. Yet it’s true that the vast majority of vineyards, estimates run around 90%, were harvested before the fires started on October 8th. Wineries here are nervous that the wines produced this year will be written off, or devalued. This seems stupidly paranoid to me. And the constant nattering of pundits and marketing types talking about how the fires had little effect will probably have the opposite of the intended effect—the constant repetition will make people, in the long run, skeptical. Like when they told you there’s no way Trump can win. This isn’t exactly the Age of Truth-Telling.

From my own personal point of view, 2017 is a cursed vintage. Let's not forget the year started with Inauguration Day. Then there was an astonishing Labor Day weekend of back-to-back 116 degree days here in Healdsburg. And now the wildfires. All season long, as they do every year, visitors have asked me, “How’s the vintage look?” I always say the same thing, “Anything can happen. It’s not over till it’s over. Everything about growing grapes hinges on luck and weather.” We’ve had little luck and bizarre weather. But the wines will be fine, in some cases, damned fine. Emphasis on “damned.”

I think this is the first important vintage of Climate Change. I mean that from a psychological point of view, not a factual point of view. I’ll never think of vintage 2017 as anything but cursed and prophetic. And not just here in Northern California. Before their harvest, Chile damn near burned to the ground. As I write, there are uncontrolled wildfires in Galicia and in Portugal. Bordeaux suffered terrible frosts in the spring. I haven’t smelled fresh air in a week here in California’s best wine country. The punishment we’ve given the planet the last hundred years is coming back to haunt us. Some of the best winemakers in the world have been running for their lives the past week, and that’s not because they got lousy scores in Wine Advocate. Pieces I’ve written in the past year, I’m thinking of “Climate Change Cellars” and “Wine Critics in Hell,” as well as a few others, aren’t that funny anymore. Well, if they ever were.

Above all, let’s remember that these sepulchral fires affected the residents here far more than the vineyards. To put it bluntly, more people here burned than vineyards. Who cares what the vintage will be like? Oh, goody, Harlan Estate didn’t burn down! Wouldn’t want their mailing list to be upset, maybe not have a vintage for their vertical. Yes, I know, wine is big business here, employs a lot of people, generates monumental amounts of tourist dollars. But it’s the people who are employed in the business who are now suffering, unable to find a place to live, without much money, without much hope. I promise you, not a single one of them is thinking about how the wines will turn out. And this is now the way of the world. Please come here and visit! Or go out and buy a bottle of Sonoma County or Napa Valley wine. Buy a case! Hey, I know, buy a Natural Wine from here, it was, after all, a Natural Disaster. We need you, we need your money and your support. As New Orleans did, as New York did, as Houston does. As your town will, too, one day. Think we’re not all in this together? You’re an imbecile.

It was breathtakingly gorgeous here today. Some smoke around, as there will be for weeks, but it was warm and beautiful. But I wasn’t where the fires had been. I don’t have the heart. I nearly lived there.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Thoughts on the Wine Country Fires

Standing outside at 4:00 AM Wednesday morning, I was inordinately thrilled to see Orion’s belt just above my head, through the trees that overhang my house. It was my turn to get up, go outside on a blessedly calm morning, and smell the air for smoke, glance at the horizon behind me and pray there wasn’t an ominous orange glow signalling disaster, like the cotton candy hair of our President. There wasn’t, and I suddenly recognized the irony of being happy not to see fire anywhere near me while I gazed at the heavens and stood in awe of the indescribably gigantic orbs of fire in Orion’s belt and the rest of the universe, from which we are all descended. Wildfires humble you nearly as much as the heavens.

I live outside of Healdsburg, nearly equidistant from that quaint tourist town and from Calistoga in the other direction. The Tubbs fire (Is that really the most intimidating name they could give such a destructive and death-dealing fire? It sounds like it’s at Bed, Bath and Beyond. If only.) is about two or three miles south of where my wife and I live. Perhaps six miles to the north of us the Pocket fire is burning up Alexander Valley near Geyserville. Yeah, I’m scared. Though at the moment, safe and optimistic.

We began to pack our cars with valuables on Monday morning after our landlord awakened us and told us the ridge behind where we live was on fire. It’s forest from the ridge to our house. It was going to burn towards us. Gathering valuables and putting all of our animals in travel cages, I struggled with visions that most closely resembled Heironymous Bosch paintings. Yet a wildfire quickly brings one great focus. My wife Kathleen was the hero. I was more like Daffy Duck bouncing off the walls and repeating, “Woo Hoo, Woo Hoo, Woo Hoo!”

There was time. The winds had vanished. It was very still. We were outside, cars nearly packed, watering down everything like a bartender on a cruise ship. The smell of smoke makes you crazy. At about 10 AM, my landlord said that, “if I were you, I’d leave.” Kathleen and I drove into town to stay with friends in Healdsburg. Less than a mile from our house we had to pull our cars to the side of the road so that about five fire trucks could roar past us, on their way to fight our little fire up Young’s Road. I felt like applauding.

Our house survived that Monday night. The firefighters extinguished the fire about half a mile north of us, and the winds didn’t return. Tuesday morning we returned, and we’ve been here ever since. The cars remained packed. It ain’t over yet.

I haven’t been out to see the destruction in my community. I haven’t had the time or the desire. It’s been five days of sleepless nights and vigilance. I’ll see plenty of that destruction in the coming months and years. I don’t need to see it to know how terrible it is. I can smell it in the air. I can see it in the faces of folks at the grocery store, in the dozens of cars in the parking lots filled with belongings and pets. I can hear it in the planes and helicopters that are constantly flying overheard. I lived through four major earthquakes in Southern California. This is far worse. Earthquakes are the wedgies of natural disasters. A wildfire like this is a brutal beating.

There will be countless stories about these fires. Mine are trivial, but for my wife having to euthanize her beloved Arabian mare Lorian who was tragically injured when she reared and fell, refusing to be loaded into a trailer to be taken to safety, breaking her hindquarters. A three-legged horse has no chance against a wildfire, and a veterinarian, who had lost everything to the fire, her home and all of her belongings, rushed to help. Dr. Tere Crocker’s courage and compassion made all the difference in this horrible incident. Kathleen lost a loved one in this fire. So many have. The death toll is going to be staggering. 

But I’ve been lucky. I’m only writing this because many people have reached out to me, worried about me, and concerned I hadn’t posted here in a while. Maybe not my most avid fans, but, nonetheless, concerned. All is well.

So many things run through your mind in these situations. I’m reminded that people we should genuinely admire—firefighters, first-responders, volunteers and law enforcement officers from all over California and Oregon and Nevada—don’t have letters after their names. Should you? Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see WSET after a name, or CSW, or MS or MW. Earn the degrees, follow your passion for wine, but stick the initials where they belong—up your box canyon. This is the kind of chatter that goes on in the brain under stress.

I came home from work Sunday evening late, angry at how crappy my weekend had been, how ridiculously screwed up the job conditions were those two days—essentially feeling sorry for myself. Now I can’t remember why I was so angry. I haven’t given work a second thought. Where I work didn’t burn down like so many wineries have. And speaking of heroes without initials after their names, what about the CalFire helicopter crews who ferried trapped vineyard workers on night pick out of the fires? Trump would have fiddled while those brown people burned.

I’m grateful for the network of friends who checked on us, for our close friends in Healdsburg who took us in without hesitation Monday night and fed us, housed our menagerie. How do you repay that kindness? 

All of us will be talking about these wine country fires for a long time. Today is my 65th birthday. I won’t ever have to struggle to remember what I did on my 65th. I’m not celebrating. How could I amid all the loss and grief and pain and fear? It’s just my birthday. I’ve never felt smaller or less important than standing outside at 4AM gazing at the stars, happy to see them so bright and intense, burning into eternity.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Wine Is Just So Depressing

It’s just so hard to learn about wine. I try and I try, but, frankly, it’s depressing. Really depressing. I guess that’s just the way of the world right now. Everything makes me anxious and hopeless—even wine. There are countless books about wine, and they’re all so damned perky. All of them talk about wine as though it’s a gift from God, a vinous miracle, an expression of how the Universe loves us. I hate that sort of emptyheaded crap. The more I think about wine, the more depressed I get.

So many people I know are distraught about the state of the world. It's hard not to be when we are bombarded by bad news, fake news, and, worst of all, the truth. Wine is a respite from all that for most wine lovers, but maybe it isn't really. That's what sparked this post, a Depressed Person's Guide to Wine of sorts. I hope it makes you both want to drink wine, and not drink wine, simultaneously. 

To read the rest, you'll have to make the leap over to Tim Atkin's wonderful site. Please leave your thoughtful and despairing comments there. Thanks for reading.


Monday, September 4, 2017

The Emperor of Wine Donald Trump's Guerrilla Guide to Wine

Wine is simple, folks. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s simple. Believe me, I know simple. I married simple. Wine isn’t hard to understand. It isn’t hard to understand, trust me. Angela Merkel is hard to understand. I think she’s German. Must be German, she has that little mustache. Why is there a woman running Germany? I don’t get it. It’s crazy. No wonder the country is so cold it can only grow mediocre Riesling, it’s basically Herr-less.

This piece was inspired by Andrew Jefford's recent series about wine published at Here's a link:  When I read Jefford's piece my first reaction was that he was trying to outFolly Wine Folly. Who do they think reads Decanter? Aspiring sommeliers with head trauma? I found the piece hilarious, but not for the reasons Jefford probably thinks it's hilarious. So I decided to resurrect Donald Trump, the New Emperor of Wine, to lampoon it. As I've written previously, the Trump voice is fun to do, and easy. But you'll have to jump to Tim Atkin's remarkable site to read the rest. I hope you decide to leave a comment there, perhaps in your own version of our beloved President's voice.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Parker in the Bardo

The Emperor of Wine was brooding. What had it all been for, he asked himself. The power, the points, the bluster. Now, nearly 70, the body breaking down like En Primeur sales without his scores, collapsing under its own weight, mired in the useless numbers assigned by wine writers with the combined integrity of a pack of hyenas, he was transitioning into a new time in his storied life. Where once the very mention of his name struck fear into every winemaker’s heart, now they felt only ennui. No more Emperor? Ennui go.

Since reading George Saunders' first novel, "Lincoln in the Bardo," I've had this title in my head. I wasn't quite sure what to do with it, but it just wouldn't leave me alone. "Bardo" was an unfamiliar concept to me, except for Brigitte. I take it to mean a place between death and one's next rebirth--which is essentially wine blogging, though no one seems to know it. Anyhow, I finally wrote this piece, which is rather dark and strange and different. Perhaps I'm trying to make sure no one actually misses me around here.

I think it's worth your time. But you'll have to jump over to Tim Atkin's site to read the piece. While you're there, feel free to leave a comment. You can leave one here, but I think the place is deserted.