Monday, November 23, 2015

The Church Of Amy Semple McFeiring--Holiday Edition

I wrote this piece more than two years ago, when Natural Wines were all the talk of the industry.
It's Thanksgiving week, and I'm sure few are paying attention to wine blogs, and even fewer are paying attention to me, so I thought I'd drag this old piece of dung out of the compost heap. Nothing better than Thanksgiving leftovers with Natural Wine. 

I hope you all have a Happy Thanksgiving. Remember to be grateful, especially for not being a character on HoseMaster of Wine™.

I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a miracle. I never expected anything like this to ever happen to me. I attended the revival meeting innocently enough. I simply wanted to witness this strange and burgeoning cult firsthand. Experience the hypnotic and numinous leader in the flesh, just one in the sea of her admiring acolytes. I didn’t expect to be converted, to be healed of my many enological sins. But those hours in her company, listening to her speak, recognizing her inarguable spiritual truths, have brought me to the Light. Many have called her a charlatan, a nimble-tongued purveyor of half-truths, a self-proclaimed prophet of the pure, who preys upon the dimwitted dipsomaniacs and the mouth-breathing Millennials, whose calls to consume only the Natural, the Real, and the Authentic are clarion calls to the weak-minded and easily befuddled. I was one of those who berated her. No longer. I have seen miracles with my own two eyes. I have awakened as if from a long, sulfite-induced coma. I am newly baptized in the Natural Wine Church of Aimee Semple McFeiring. I’ve been reborn.

My epiphany began under a large tent on a warm summer’s eve somewhere in the South of France. As I entered, the congregation was singing Natural Wine gospel songs. “Fight the Good Sulfite,” “What a Friend We Have in Chauvet,” and “For He’s a Joly Good Fellow,” were sung with heart and conviction. The tent was filled with love—love, and anticipation of Aimee Semple McFeiring’s long-awaited entrance. I was welcomed with warmth and open arms, and a glass of natural wine that had a nose married perfectly with the overpowering aroma of the devoted deodorant-free throng. The worshippers grew quiet, the hymns stopped, the lights in the tent slowly dimmed to the oxidized color of a sulfite-free current release, and Aimee Semple McFeiring walked slowly onto the stage.

It was only then I noticed the people gathered at the very front of the crowd, just a few feet below Aimee Semple McFeiring, their eager and open faces turned to her brilliance. “Brothers and sisters,” McFeiring exclaimed, “is there anyone here who wants to be cured tonight?” What happened next is almost too unbelievable to relate; and if I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t have believed it either. But as Steiner is my witness, every word I write is true.

Wine people with every kind of horrible affliction, those people in front who had seemed the most eager to see McFeiring, began to line up on the steps leading up to the stage where Aimee Semple McFeiring was bathed in that oxidized glow, a glow which seemed to radiate from her purely natural hair color. At first, the sight of all of these terribly deformed wine lovers was horrifying to behold. The first man in line was wearing a Hawaiian shirt with the Trader Joe’s logo, and at the sight of him the congregation gasped and collectively turned their heads, a few attempting to muffle the sounds of gagging. There was a middle-aged, Humpty Dumpty-shaped woman wearing a shirt that had shiny beads spelling out the words “Got Wine?” I tried not to stare, but it was horrible to behold, and I was riveted to the sight, amazed at the woman’s courage to appear in public looking that inhuman and disgusting. A man was holding up a copy of The Wine Advocate, dog-eared and covered in highlighter, and people left a wide swath around him as though he might give them a disfiguring communicable disease, something with scales, a deadly form of 100 Point psoriasis. There were no fewer than a hundred of these pathetic souls in line, and from their dishevelment and grotesque appearance, I knew many of them were winemakers.

“Do you believe, brother?” Aimee Semple McFeiring asked the poor, misguided soul in the Trader Joe’s shirt (a woman next to me whispered to her friend, “He drinks Charles Shaw,” whereupon her friend wet her pants in fear). “I believe! I believe!” he shouted. And with that his Hawaiian shirt vanished, simply vanished, I have no idea how but for the power of Aimee Semple McFeiring, and he donned the hair shirt of the true believers in the Natural Wine Church. (McFeiring told him it wasn’t necessary to wear the hair shirt, but he replied, “It’s cilice I can do.”) Well, it’s not really made of hair, I learned, but of old filter pads cast aside by reformed winemakers. The grotesque woman in the “Got Wine?” shirt crawled on her knees to Aimee Semple McFeiring. There were tears in her eyes as McFeiring placed her right hand on the top of the woman’s head and shouted, “Be gone, Satan! Go back to Hell, Shanken! Leave this woman, Spawn of Heimoff!” The woman’s eyes rolled up in her head, she dropped unconscious to the floor, the crowd inhaled deeply as one. Then she began to levitate. McFeiring’s hand was still on her head, and it was as though she were lifting her with the strength of her will, with the power of her belief, with the pureness of her vision for the True Wine. And when the woman awoke, now alert and on her feet, her shirt now read “God Wine.”

But the man with The Wine Advocate was a different problem for Aimee Semple McFeiring. He held the issue in front of him, arms fully extended, and it was clear that McFeiring was frightened. She hissed, a long, sibilant syllable that made the congregants gasp. “Be not frightened, brothers and sisters. There’s no need to fear the forces of evil as represented by this steaming pile of lies.” She approached the man. “Do you believe, brother?” she whispered, the crowd growing silent in witness to her passion. “I want to believe,” the man replied, his arms beginning to tremble, “but I don’t know that I can.” “Put the ratings from Hell down!” Aimee Semple McFeiring commanded. The man’s voice broke, tears streaming down his cheeks, “But how will I know what to drink? Without the Book of David, and the Book of Neal, and the Book of Lisa, I’ll have nothing!” “You have nothing now,” Aimee Semple McFeiring said, and with that The Wine Advocate burst into flame. The man screamed and cast it aside. His loneliness was palpable, the emptiness of his life flashed across his face. Aimee Semple McFeiring walked slowly to the man. She slipped one strap of her dress off of her shoulder, in the dim light of the tent her breast was exposed, and the man suckled at her breast. A woman behind me whispered, “He drinks Cornelissen Rosé from her teat, it’s the greatest Natural Wine there is.” After a few pulls, the man stood straight up, he seemed six inches taller, and he glowed! Light radiated from his every pore. The tent lights were dimmed, but you could have read “Naked Wine” by his Light. It was a miracle.

And that night I also saw the Light. There is no wine but Natural Wine. All the rest is lies. To let it pass your lips is a sin. But we’re human, Aimee Semple McFeiring teaches us, and we sin. Chauvet died for our sins, so we will be forgiven. But we must strive to be without sin, to taste only what the Natural Wine Church of Aimee Semple McFeiring says is Authentic and Real and Natural, or we shall forever live in Ignorance and worship False Wines. I, for one, believe.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Tale of Two Wines

In the beginning, I always wondered when I would be able to drink wines that were ten years old with some regularity. This seemed an almost mythic and unattainable goal. Like most young wine lovers, I imagined that ten-year-old wines were far superior to wines that had just been released, that if only I could uncork older wines all the time I would finally understand the beauty and mystery of wine. I know now that this is foolish. In my experience, the vast majority of wines, and I’m speaking now of fine wines, not the oceans of plonk that make up most of the wine consumed in this country, do not get wildly better as they age. Even at twenty years old, most disappoint, or underwhelm. Wine is certainly different as it gets older, but better? This is a matter of taste. But I suspect most wine people would agree that wines that are brilliant after twenty years of age are relatively rare. But they’re what we live for.

When I open an older wine from my humble wine cellar, what makes it fun and rewarding is the trip the wine takes you on, the trip back in time and memory. What was my life like back in 1999? (Well, I got married to my beautiful wife Kathleen, most importantly.) It almost doesn’t matter if the wine is magnificent or memorable on its own. I’ve learned how to choose wines that will not fall apart over time, so the wines are rarely undrinkable. But the real pleasure is in the associations the wine brings to mind—that first year of marriage, the wonder of how grand and beautiful life can be. I hold the bottle in my hand, gaze at the vintage, and the producer, and I am overwhelmed with memories. Hell, I almost don’t even have to open the wine to enjoy it.

I always tell people starting out in wine to collect wines that have emotional meaning for you. You ordered it on your first date with your lover. You served it at your wedding. You visited the winery and fell in love with the place. The wine speaks to you, changes your feelings about wine. Those are wines that will reward cellaring, assuming they are wines structured to age. If you cellar wines because they received 100 points, you’ll find little meaning in them when you open them in twenty years. It was in the Wine Spectator Top Ten? Believe me, you won’t care. That’s a fool’s game. I know people with cellars filled with First Growths, 100 point wines, Top Ten wines, and cult wines. They brag about their collections, but that’s all they are. Collections. Meant to impress others. They’re soulless, and the enjoyment of wine is as much about feeding your soul as it is about drinking great vintages. I’ve tasted countless wines that were highly rated, and was grateful each time. But the wines I will always cherish are the wines that were not just magnificent, but nourished my soul, that triggered personal memories, which reminded me to be grateful for my life. It’s memories that make older wines complex as much as the tertiary aromas.

All of this has been said before. There’s almost nothing new to say about wine, though we spend countless hours saying it again and again. Wine is a vast subject, filled with infinite minutiae about infinite bottles, but, in its essence, it’s not hard to understand. Though it takes a while. Every beginning wine lover has to wade through the misinformation and folklore that surrounds wine. Spend a day in a tasting room with ordinary folks and you’ll hear an amazing amount of misinformation about wine that they’ve accumulated from various sources, primarily friends or relatives they see as wine experts, or misinformed tasting room employees or wine shop employees. It’s daunting how much bullshit wine generates. Wine blogs are filled with it. I attended TexSom and heard people with letters after their name say things I know are false, though often to promote themselves or an agenda. And, of course, the HoseMaster does his share.

My gorgeous wife and I were in Cambria for my birthday week in October. I brought along six or eight bottles of wine from our cellar for the occasion. One bottle in particular was reserved for our birthday meal at Bistro Laurent in Paso Robles. It’s that bottle, and another that I’ll get to, that sparked this little essay, that made me think more about aging wines and the rewards of doing so. Not while I was drinking the wine, not at all; while I was drinking it, I was speechless and utterly enthralled by how great the wine was. But later, in the passing weeks, as the experience stayed with me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The bottle was the 1990 Chave Hermitage. I don’t think I have the chops to adequately describe it. Anything I write would do a great disservice to a remarkable bottle of wine. I will say that at 25 years of age it was still young, vibrant and alive with energy. I’ve always loved Hermitage. For me, it’s the pinnacle of Syrah, though I also love Côte-Rôtie. The other legendary Hermitage from 1990 is the Jaboulet “La Chapelle.” I’m lucky enough to have consumed a few bottles of that great wine, also, and, make no mistake, it is a great wine. The Chave is better.

Where was I in 1990? I was in my third year working as a sommelier, and, truthfully, supremely ignorant about wine and the wine business. I was 38 years old, and finally surfacing from the grief of my fiancée’s death a year earlier. Near the end of 1990, I was dating the woman who would become my first wife--a remarkable woman who saved my life, and who awakened me to my own shortcomings and pain when she wisely divorced me. The Dow Jones hit a record at 2800. “The Simpsons” began. Barry Bonds was the National League MVP playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates while wearing a normal-sized hat. The Zodiac killer terrorized New York. And Chave produced yet another remarkable Syrah.

But it was the personal memories that the wine evoked as I consumed it with a fantastic meal at Bistro Laurent that really mattered. Sitting next to my beautiful wife, recalling the heartbreak that was part of my life in 1990, and thinking about my first gorgeous bride, and about all that had happened since, all the luck and all the heartbreak, the tiring and lonesome trail that miraculously led to my wife Kathleen, that was the gift of the ’90 Chave Hermitage. Its beauty and life reminded me of the beauty in my own life, the incredible luck and fortune that have been my constant companions. Nothing else, and not anybody else, could have given that to me. My favorite wine from my favorite Syrah appellation at twenty-five reminding me of how long twenty-five years is, and how lucky I am to have survived all those days. Only a great wine, a wine I’ve carried along with me all those years, imagining the day I’d finally get to drink it, could have done that. I have no idea what it scored, or if it was a Top Ten Wine that year. Only an idiot would care about that. It was a wine I shall never forget, joining a very, very short list of wines in that category.

In the midst of thinking about the Chave Hermitage, I happened to stop by Ridge Vineyards out in Dry Creek to pick up some wine and taste what they had to offer. Ridge doesn’t need my praise. They’re one of the greatest producers in California. And on this day, with that Chave still kicking around in the back of my head, I was greatly impressed by the Ridge 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, after sniffing and tasting, my first thought was, “I’d love to drink this wine in twenty-five years.”

The Ridge is spectacularly good Cabernet Sauvignon that is sourced, I was told, from the younger
vines at Monte Bello Vineyard. Younger, in Monte Bello’s case, meaning twenty years old. If you’ve never had the pleasure of drinking Monte Bello Cabernet, especially one that is twenty years old or so, you should put that on your wine bucket list. Anyone asked which are the five greatest California Cabernets who doesn’t include Ridge Monte Bello simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This 2012 Estate is not the legendary Ridge Monte Bello, but, truly, it seemed as good as its older brother. I was astonished, and kept tasting it trying to pick it apart, see why it was so much cheaper. I’m no Paul Draper, but I would be surprised if, in 25 years, you could tell the Estate from the Monte Bello. No matter, both are great wines.

Let’s put it this way. There are a lot of Cabernets that aren’t half as good made from vines that aren’t half as old that sell for a lot more money to the folks who chase scores and “cult” wines. The Ridge 2012 Estate is fifty bucks. Twenty years from now, that will seem insanely cheap.

Somehow, my brain decided to link the Chave Hermitage with the Ridge Estate Cab. You stick around wine long enough, taste tens of thousands of wines, and your brain alters—and not just from the alcohol. It finds connections that might make little sense at first, but which you mustn’t ignore. You might be tempted to call it intuition, but it’s more certainly wisdom. I’ve learned to listen to that wine voice in my head. When it says, “I want to taste this wine in twenty-five years,” I pay attention. Will the Ridge be another Chave Hermitage? Most certainly not. Doesn’t matter. It will be great in its own way.

If I live another twenty-two years and open the 2012, I know it will be something special. How do I know? Beats me. But I trust my instincts. And when I do drink it, it will remind me of 2012. Of the days when I was the HoseMaster of Wine™. Of the people I met and loved because I write this crap regularly. Of the people who may have passed since then. Of my sweet and adorably dumb Norwich Terrier, Mickey, who was born in 2012, who we raised from birth. And, therefore, of his mother, Kate, a dog I feel is my canine soulmate on her second visit. Of my long and remarkable marriage to the kindest soul who exists in this time and this place. Of a time that will seem imaginary to my future self in 2037, slippery, hard to recall, but was my 60th year on this mysterious planet. Only a wine can do that.

Every old wine, but especially the ones that take your breath away, is a time capsule we open with a corkscrew and a full heart.  A living, breathing, energetic reminder of our past that will unearth memories that have long lain dormant. And when people ask me how a wine can be profound, there is the answer.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Wine Appholes

Nothing is safe from smartphones, their apps, and the appholes that use them. Especially not wine. FYI, I don’t own a smartphone. My wife has one, but I don’t qualify. Besides, I’m creeped out by Siri. She reminds me of a stalker I once had. A lot of bad memories there. I should have known something was wrong when we first made love and my future stalker said, “In ten inches, go straight,” followed by a disappointed, “Recalculating.” So I won’t be purchasing any wine apps. (And why is Siri a woman’s voice? I guess because if Siri were a man giving directions it would be more like, “I think we make a left in one hundred yards, it looks kinda familiar, and, for Christ’s sake, why are you going so slow, it’s just a pedestrian. And use your fucking turn signal, what are we, from the rest home?”)

There’s something rather sweet and simpleminded about the idea of people using wine apps. They take a picture of a wine bottle and wait for their phone to tell them about it. It takes them back to when they were slow little kids and they loved their Fisher-Price See ’N Say. “That’s a Madiran. You won’t like it. It makes a sound like a goat. ‘Tannaaaaaaat’” It’s how we learn! You know, I wonder why Tinder doesn’t capitalize on the See ’N Say mentality of appholes. Wouldn’t it be even easier to select a date if you not only viewed their photo, but also heard a brief recording? “This is Fred. In bed, he sounds like this, ‘Oh, baby, wow, you feel good, I’m gonna…sorry, that snuck up on me.’” Seems like they’re missing out here.
Oh, that's going to leave a Wine Ring.

A couple of soon-to-be-former friends of mine are involved with a new wine app called “Wine Ring.” First of all, I have no idea what a Wine Ring is, or what the name even means. Though, apparently, the app’s purpose is to erect a platform that you maintain so that it can advise you what wines you’ll like. So, I guess, judging from the erection and maintaining it, it’s basically a wine lover’s cock ring, which would explain the name. I had a cock ring once, but I was afraid to answer it. No, really, what the hell is a Wine Ring? Aside from what you leave on your date’s lower back when you set your glass of Pinot Noir there. But, for that matter, it seems like most of the wine apps out there have stupid names. I always think Vivino is for pretentious people with speech impediments looking for a good Pepinot Noir.

When you download and use Wine Ring, you begin by rating every wine you taste with their complicated rating system—“Love It, Like It, SoSo and Dislike It™” I particularly like the ™ at the end. Who’s going to steal that? The people who make vibrators? And, really, the goddam 100 Point Scale is so complex and hard to understand that we need a new scale that comes right out and insults our intelligence? It’s really a way to simplify the system for the developers. But I would have liked to have been in the room when all of these MWs (there are five listed as part of the Wine Ring Circus) came up with this rating system. “I don’t know, they’re mostly ignorant Millennials that will sign up for it. Why don’t we just use the ‘OMG, WFM, YMMV and WTF? Scale’”

Once the user has rated a dozen wines, Wine Ring claims, then it’s ready to guide the user to wines they’ll like. I confess that I don’t have any idea, but isn’t this how most of these appholes sell their product? On the premise that you’ll never buy a bottle of wine you don’t like ever again if you download their app. What kind of an idiot thinks that will work? People who know a lot about wine constantly buy wines they don’t like, and they know what they hell they’re doing. You think a smartphone app is going to help? They’re the same people rating the wines and giving advice for the stupid app you keep referring to on your smartphone. They might be wine experts, but they don’t know shit either!

Everything I’ve read recently about Millennials and how they buy wine claims that they are eschewing established (read “old”) wine critics and buying wine based on the recommendation of their peers. So why in the world would they download a wine app? Some wine apps are based on reviews and ratings, some are based on a conglomeration of reviews by other users of the app (think CellarTracker), and some, like Wine Ring, use the opinions of wine industry experts to focus your selections. So, as it turns out, kids, it’s not really your smartphone making the recommendation. It’s still the Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, and the other folks who rate wines for a living. Or it’s a bunch of clowns on a website competing for the most wine reviews posted. It’s a virtual wine world out there. You can pretend to be a hero on “Dungeons and Dragons,” or you can pretend to be a wine expert on CellarTracker! Fantasy is fun! With Wine Ring, apparently your taste is analyzed by a program which then finds other wines to match your taste, based on the opinions of, well, wine experts.

The Wine Ring website has my new favorite pair of oxymorons. It's called both an “Essential Wine App” and a “Crucial Wine App.” The “Essential” quote is from a piece entitled, "The Seven Essential Wine Apps." But the real question is, how essential are you if there are six other essential apps? It’s like saying Dopey is the Essential Dwarf. On the site, the article says of Wine Ring, “In some cases, it will even tell you if you like a wine before you buy it.” Wait. Isn't that the fucking point? I don't really need the app to tell me I like a wine after I buy it. That's like paying for yesterday's weather report. How stupid are the people at There's a rhetorical question. And why would you take their advice?

Ray Isle (which I thought was where you bought skate at the fish market) of Food and Wine Magazine is the writer who calls Wine Ring one of the seven “Crucial” wine apps. In the same article, Isle recommends two websites for buying wine, Amazon and Yeah, so he’s hip. Buying your wine on Amazon is like shopping for lingerie at Eddie Bauer. So, Ray, you sign up on Wine Ring, rate a dozen crappy wines you bought at the supermarket, then go to Amazon and see what Wine Ring recommends, and that’s how you learn about wine? Wow. It’s like learning about food from Swanson TV dinners--which, coincidentally, is one of the seven Crucial TV dinners. (And you should see the wine blogs Isle recommends…)

I also love Wine Ring’s answer to one of their FAQ, “What is a Master of Wine? A Master Sommelier?” The answer is:

“Both are expert in wine, and study for years to develop their ability to taste.  Our wine experts taste thousands of wines a year so you don’t have to!  You just get recommendations based on your individual preferences.”

Waddya know? I’m a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier. That was easy. Which explains a lot.

Google and Amazon, and others, build massive facilities that consume inconceivable amounts of energy so that appholes can post photographs of empty wine bottles, their latest meal, and other signs of their importance and status. It’s the new pornography. I need to remember to wear my Wine Ring.