No matter what your line of work, almost everyone has had a mentor, a person who freely and generously gave you advice and guidance on your career path, perhaps even in your every day life. I thought I would introduce you to the man who has guided me on my wine journey, a man who has taught me as much about life as he has about wine. Perhaps in reading about him you too will benefit from his wisdom for he has much to teach everyone who loves wine. His name is Vin.
I met Vin at one of the first wine tastings I ever attended as a member of the trade. If memory serves, it was a tasting of wines made by apes. It was Vin who directed me to the table where a gibbon had made a particularly lovely Brachiation d'Acqui, and we struck up a conversation. It turned out that Vin wasn't really in the wine business, but he was so passionate about wine he frequently crashed industry tastings, and was very adept at it. He had a series of fake business cards that seemed to be successful at gaining him entrance to even the most exclusive tastings. One card, I remember, proclaimed he was the wine columnist for the "Wall Street Journal," which, given the fact that in real life his face was actually pixelated (stemming from a childhood accident with acne cream), was entirely credible. And it was even more credible when you talked to him and realized he was simply bluffing all of his wine knowledge, a tradition at WSJ that lives on today. But it was something that Vin said to me that very first meeting that has stayed with me, and that also made me realize I had a lot to learn from him.
"You don't have to know anything about wine to be a wine expert," Vin said, "because everyone is stupid." It's advice that has served me well my entire wine career, and has become even more meaningful in this wonderful age of wine blogs.
(I should also add that at that wine tasting I was also impressed by a very delicate orang muscat from Borneo, a Lodi chimpanZin, and the wines of Helen Turley.)
After that, I would always look for Vin at wine tastings. I was new to wine, but passionate about it, and Vin could sense that in me. Perhaps he identified with my thirst for wine knowledge and my drive to be a great sommelier. At another wine tasting early in our friendship, I think it was a tasting of wines made by albinos, Vin remarked in his characteristic aphoristic style, "What makes a great sommelier isn't letters after his name, or that doohickey that hangs around his neck. What makes a great sommelier is a shitty goddam attitude." To this day I remember his words when I meet a newly minted M.S., and am struck by its wisdom whenever I'm around a member of that brotherhood of imaginary experts. It helps to remember they're just doing their job when they're talking down to you.
Oh, I have a million bits of wisdom from the great Vin, more than I can share in one post. Eventually, I invited Vin to wine tastings at my apartment where we would taste wines from all over the world and he would teach me about them, about how to understand them, how to rate them, how to analyze their components and make sense of them. But Vin doesn't like to taste wines blind. "Never believe anyone who says they taste wines blind," he told me, "that's like believin' your Boy Scout troop leader is required to give you a prostate exam. They're both just giving you the finger for fun." Together, Vin and I tasted through hundreds of wines, and much of what I know today about the great wines of the world I learned from Vin. I don't think anything he told me turned out to be wrong, even if, at the time, I didn't understand what he was saying. Which may have been because he always spoke through a kazoo. Here are just a few examples of Vin's wine wisdom:
"Any moron can make great Cabernet, and most of them do, but it takes a genius to make you believe it's worth more than thirty bucks. Unless you're a butthole."
"Chardonnay is the McDonald's french fries of wine--it's better with ketchup."
"You couldn't puke and make it smell as bad as Retsina."
"Terroir is French for 'April Fool!'"
I don't get to speak to Vin as often as I'd like lately. I've moved to Sonoma, and Vin is busy pursuing his lifelong dream of eating every issue of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate just to pass him through his lower intestine. But he and I have talked at length about wine blogging, about its impact on wineries and the wine business in general. Vin has some amazing insight and wisdom regarding the proliferation of wine blogs. "The combined wisdom in all of them wouldn't fill Jancis Robinson's left nut." It's funnier through a kazoo. We talked about wine reviews on wine blogs and Vin's take was, "They're as worthless as shelf talkers for sex toys." Our most recent conversation was about the Wine Blog Awards, and after I complained about the nominees and the winners, Vin remarked, "Giving awards to wine bloggers is like handing out condoms to castratos."
Volume Seven takes us back to the world of white wine grapes. If white wine had never existed, would anyone really care? Sort of like white soul singers. Who'd miss them? If every variety of vitis vinifera were red what would we be missing? Why I simply can't imagine my life without those two bottles of Riesling I drink a year. And who wouldn't miss Chardonnay? We need a grape to badmouth like we need Barry Bonds or Glenn Beck or Mel Gibson (who, ironically, only drinks white, really white, wine). Chardonnay is the Tonya Harding of grapes--pretty good on ice but liable to try and hurt you with wood, and incredibly fun to hate. But there are plenty of red grapes to despise--we'll always have Merlot. And let us not forget Gruner Veltliner, the pride of Austria, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger. What would life be without Gruner? Well, just like Arnold, I can't wait to find out. Yet we do live in a world of both red and white varietal grapes. So let's just get this over with.
Albarino belongs in the category of aromatic grapes along with Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Viognier and Jessica Alba, for whom it is named and who, as an actress, really stinks. Albarino has just recently come to the attention of consumers from its Spanish home of Rias Baixas (pronounced "wrinkled bike ass") where it has been quietly producing plonk since the 12th Century, much like Fred Franzia. Albarino is believed to pair nicely with food, only no one has discovered what food yet. I like it with a traditional Spanish dish like Raquel Welch (who took her stage name from the famous grape juice because she can turn your tongue purple). Aside from Spain and Portugal (where it goes by the name Alvarinho so that consumers know not to buy it in Portuguese), there has been some interest in the variety in California and Australia. However, recently it was discovered that most of the Albarino planted in Australia is actually the Jura grape Savagnin, so they wrote it a Dear Jaune letter and ripped it out. There are a few acres of Albarino in California so it will be interesting to find out what variety it really is. Best guess is it's actually the variety named for Stevie Nicks--Hi Ho Stevierino.
Interesting facts about Albarino:
The hybrid grape created by crossing Cortese with Albarino is Albacore, which produces wines your grandmother might enjoy with cat food.
Albarino's large number of pips can cause bitterness especially when it's made from sour grapes.
Albarino was the darling of sommeliers before Gruner Veltliner, making it the equivalent of Natalie Wood. Dead in the water.
Other names for Albarino:
Peaches and Herb
There was a time (this was before the majesty that is wine blogs) Arneis was referred to as Barolo Bianco because it was often blended with Nebbiolo to make Barolo more palatable. Now they just use new oak. Arneis was on the verge of extinction in the 1970's, much like bras, when it was rescued by a couple of Piedmont producers, most notably Bruno Giacosa, ironically, a famous producer of Brabaresco, a famous jug wine. An upsurge of interest in the wines of the Piedmont fueled more plantings of Arneis, and now the variety has achieved a certain amount of notoriety, and its wines of uncommon mediocrity are no longer strangers to wine shelves. Several producers make Arneis in the passito style during which the grapes are allowed to dry on mats, which concentrates the sugars and really makes your feet sticky when you wipe them. If I were you I'd passito on most of them. A few acres of Arneis also exist in California, where some jackass is likely to plant any old grape and try to sell it to his wine club at a hefty profit to help finance his unprofitable obsession with Syrah (see HHGG, Volume 4). In aerosol form, Arneisal Spray, it can effectively combat allergies to thin, insipid white wine.
Interesting facts about Arneis: "Arneis" means "little rascal" in Piedmontese dialect, which explains why it smells like Alfalfa.
A famous song was written for Arneis after it was no longer being used for Barolo and was being pulled out by winemakers. There have been many versions of the classic, "So Langhe, It's Been Good to Know Ya."
Fans of the grape are known as "Arneis Army" and hold an annual tasting at Chateau Palmer.
Other names for Arneis:
Desi (oh, you knew it was coming)
Drinking Trebbiano is like spending a day reading wine blogs--about as dull as it can get and you're grateful when you wake up the next day and don't remember a thing. It's painfully and horribly thin, like Taylor Swift in a bathing suit, and often just as flat. Trebbiano is one of the most widely planted white grapes in the world and is included in a startling number of Italian white wines, mostly because Italians don't drink white wine themselves and don't mind ruining the meals of foreigners. There was even a time (again, long before the Golden Age of Wine Writing that is Wine Blogs) when Trebbiano was allowed in Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is more than you can say for James Suckling now. But Trebbiano is a very important grape under its alias Ugni Blanc. Ugni Blanc is the grape from which Cognac and Armagnac are distilled, perhaps brought to Cognac during the Papal retreat to Avignon, probably in distill of the Knight. Trebbiano is also important in the production of Mexican Brandy, a product that rivals the finest French tequilas. And Trebbiano is also used to make balsamic vinegar. So, basically, it's a wine grape at its best when not made into wine. Like Gruner Veltliner.
Interesting facts about Trebbiano:
Trebbiano is a very prolific grape producing upwards of eight tons an acre, like the set of Biggest Loser.
In Portugal the grape is known as Thalia. Ironically, the singer Thalia is the Mexican Brandy.
Trebbiano is a favorite among very dull sommeliers. Are there any other kind?
Other names for Trebbiano:
Bolla Soup (Soave)
A career in the wine business is fantastic and utterly selfish. For 30+ years I've been paid to learn about wine, drink excessively, talk about wine to everyone I meet, and accept countless free rooms and trips and hats and polo shirts. And for this I earned admiration and unwarranted respect. Walk into a party and announce you're an accountant, no one cares. Walk in and have folks discover you're a sommelier, everyone seems to want to talk to you about wine. It's shameful, really, our obsession with wine. The number of hours we spend writing idiotic Dear John letters to Pinot Noir, or compulsively Tweeting about wine, spreading the wit and wisdom of high school sophomores around just as actual birds relentlessly spread crap all over windshields and statues, or relentlessly romanticizing the stuff we mostly use to alter our simple states of mind, is near criminal. But what's worse is the glamour and prestige attached to it. I was just a guy who knew a lot about wine who was paid to get folks drunk on expensive stuff. I never deserved much respect or admiration. Of course, now that I've been writing HoseMaster of Wine, most of that is gone. Good.
I met Karen Bopp ("My last name is not a verb," she used to tell me) at Pacific Dining Car. The restaurant is across the street from Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown Los Angeles and Karen was a nurse there. After her shift, she would occasionally stop in with a bunch of coworkers for a glass of Champagne. At first I only knew her well enough to say hello, as one does to a regular customer when you work in a restaurant. But, well, she was beautiful. The word "statuesque" may have been coined for Karen, and I wanted to get to know her. Karen had an aura about her, a sweetness and intelligence that radiated from her person, and the kind of infectious laugh that makes the entire room smile. She was irresistible.
There was a time when every Valentine's Day I would send Valentines to as many women as I could think of who made my life more interesting and richer. I'd post fifty or more Valentines. Sure, I was making Hallmark rich, but it was fun; and I was often told that mine was the only Valentine she'd received and that it had made her day. Each year I would also try to surprise a woman who was virtually a stranger to me with a Valentine, a woman I was vaguely acquainted with but didn't really know. In February of 2000 I shyly handed one to Karen. It was the one Valentine that changed my life.
Karen was flattered and surprised by my silly Valentine and agreed to have lunch with me. I can still remember how nervous I was to meet her for lunch, but the instant we began to talk everything was fine. We polished off a couple of bottles of wine, had a leisurely lunch, and it was suddenly time to leave. Karen had to pick up a birthday cake for a coworker, then would see me at Pacific Dining Car where the birthday party was being held. We began the day strangers but by party's end she had embraced me as a friend. All for the $3.95 of a Valentine.
Karen loved so many things. She loved singing. She loved wine. She loved nursing. She loved film, man, did she love movies. She loved yoga. She loved science fiction TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek. Can't say I shared that passion, but perhaps working as a surgical nurse and running emergency rooms leaves you with a taste for believing in eternal life and the power of blood. She loved Sting. She loved fine art. She loved to spend time with her family. I've never met a closer family than Karen's. If there was any animosity or jealousy or anger or coldness in her family, among her and her three siblings and their clans, I never saw it or heard about it. Frankly, it was annoying in that Ozzie and Harriet way, although, really, I was simply jealous in the sort of petty way that would have disqualified me from being part of the Bopp clan. But this laundry list of her loves is like a silly FaceBook page and does nothing to explain what a beautiful, spiritual, funny, charming, compassionate woman she was. And how often Karen's Light enriched my life.
I won't soon forget a wine country trip I took with my wife Kathleen, Karen and another friend, Sue, a flight attendant. When you're a sommelier, everyone wants to go to wine country with you. So the four of us rented a house in Cambria and spent a few days touring wineries in Paso Robles. Our first day wine tasting was quite the endurance contest. We'd been to four or five wineries and it was getting late, around 7:00, but as we were driving by Linne Calodo I wondered if Matt Trevisan, the owner/winemaker, was still around. It was September, harvest, so it would be unusual if he weren't. He was. Karen, Sue and I piled out of my car (I was driving since I was the only one spitting, mostly because I was the cheapest drunk of the three). Kathleen had had enough and lay down in the back seat. Matt came out, recognized me, and offered to taste us on some barrel samples. Great! So Matt grabbed a thief and began crawling up and around all his barrels to sample us on his amazing wines. And what were Karen and Sue doing while Matt was climbing up the barrel racks?
Taking pictures of his ass. Closeups. Giggling all the while. They were like bung paparazzi. It was kind of embarrassing, the sommelier showing up with his drunk women, but Matt laughed and seemed to enjoy their enthusiasm for his, well, high end wines.
Karen and I had one huge falling out, and it was over a man. She had been dating him for six months or so and one night in the bar she talked to me about him. I won't share her confidence, but what she told me made me erupt with anger. I told Karen in no uncertain terms that she needed to lose this guy, that he would absolutely and inevitably break her heart into a million pieces. I was outraged and I crossed a line, threw far too much anger at Karen, and she didn't speak to me for about six months. Didn't come into the restaurant, didn't answer emails or return calls, just shut me out. I was crushed. I loved her, truly, deeply, loved her, and I knew, as only a man can know the perfidy of another man, that this clown would wreck her. But I'd been wrong to be so angry.
Another six months passed and my birthday rolled around. I got a card in the mail. A surprise card from Karen, as my Valentine to her had been a surprise. Inside the card were three words she had written. "You were right." The first and last time anyone has written that to me. I called Karen immediately, she briefly told me how the jerk had abruptly and cruelly jilted her, and we resumed our friendship. She taught me forgiveness in those moments, and she taught me about compassion, about the power of love and kindness to teach instead of pedantry and smugness, my normal tools of persuasion. This fool had crushed her loving spirit, she had believed him to be "the one," and humiliated her as only a turd like that can, yet she had thought to reach out to me, forgive me, and ask me to forgive her. When I looked into Karen's eyes I often felt I was looking into the very face of Love.
Karen had given her working life to helping people. Just how many people had she comforted in her life as a nurse? How many people had she saved with her hands and her intelligence? So many doctors she worked with in surgery admired her, leaned on her, trusted her completely. How many families had she helped? The numbers, could they be calculated, would be staggering. How much pain and suffering did she absorb? How many people walking around today owe her a debt of gratitude? Hundreds? Thousands? What is a life in wine worth compared to that? Nothing. Her selflessness compared to my selfishness continues to haunt me. And yet I've been the lucky one in life, the one who doesn't deserve that luck. Would that I could have given her most of my luck as she gave me so much of her heart. I'd have gladly given it to her.
Karen would not have wanted praise or thanks or admiration. She was an extraordinary woman, filled with life. Life burst forth from her in a ceaseless stream. From her singing voice, to her beautiful laughter, to her skilled and graceful hands, Karen gave life. She was much loved, and had so many friends I cannot imagine how she even remembered all their names. And yet I know how much she would have liked to have found "the one," to have had children of her own, no matter how much she loved her nieces and nephews, to have shared her life with one special man. That this never happened for her is yet further proof of what cowards and fools men can be. There she was, right in front of them. Beautiful, brilliant, sexy, vibrant, loving, compassionate, charming, funny... Well, there it is. She may have just been too good for this world.
When Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer I don't think anyone believed it would beat her. Not her. It had been detected early and Karen had done everything right, had the absolute best care from doctors she knew were great and gifted. Her cancer went into remission. And came back. And then it seemed to be alright again. It was a seesaw battle for roughly six years, and there were many times it seemed Karen was returning to health. But, finally, the cancer spread to her liver, and on a family trip to Hawaii she became very ill. After doctors stabilized her enough to travel, she was flown home to Irvine Medical Center, where she was employed, to spend her last few days among family and friends. She died June 30th. She was 54.
During one of the worst stretches of my adult life, when I was frightened and depressed, feeling hopelessly lost, it was a visit from Karen that saved me. She came to Sonoma for a visit and seeing through my forced joviality she sat me down and forced me to talk about my mental state. I felt profoundly, for the first time, the strength of her healing heart and love, the sacred gifts that had made her such a wonderful nurse. As I shared my distress, my horrible fears and hopelessness, Karen held my hands and listened. When I was finished, she shared her own experiences with fear, her own insecurities and anxieties, her every day battle with cancer, in a way that was the very embodiment of courage and hope. And I knew, after just those few minutes we spent talking, that I would be fine. I knew in a way that I'd not known ever before. And it is that knowledge, a gift from my friend Karen, that I am clinging to now. Now that she's gone.
We are introduced to Winnie-the-Spew and our story begins
So here comes Christopher Robbin and his precious Bear kerplunking and headthunking down the stairs, bump, bump, bump, one at a time, having awakened Daddy, MS, from his sound, bearlike slumber. One swift kick and Christoper Robbin and Winnie-the-Spew are already downstairs for breakfast, all of their arms bent in funny and unusual ways.
"Oh, look at this, Spew, I can point in two directions at the same time with only one arm!"
"I'm sorry," says Christopher Robbin, "but I just wanted you to tell us a story. Please tell us a story, or I'll simply have to tell Mummy you've kicked us down the stairs again. And you know how much she hates that when her hands are still shackled in the morning."
Usually Bear likes some sort of game when he comes downstairs, a game of matches or running with scissors. But today Winnie-the-Spew, for that's the name Christopher Robbin most often calls him, though it's more of a girl's name and makes Bear piddle, wants to hear a story.
"And what kind of story do you want me to tell you?"
"Oh, please, not about wine and bouquets and drinking and feeling the lovely bumps on Jancis again. Spew likes stories about himself. Those are his favorite stories. Tell us about the adventures of Winnie-the-Spew!"
And so our story begins.
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, it must have been before 9/11, Winnie-the-Spew lived all by himself in the vineyards under the name of Mondavi. Winnie Mondavi. It was on a big gold-plated sign so that's how we know. This is all the explanation you're going to get.
("But what does it mean, 'under the name?'" asks Christopher Robbin.
"Shut the fuck up and listen."
"I hope you die," says Christoper Robbin.)
One day when Spew was out walking in the vineyard he came to a strange building and from the building there was a lot of noise and many strange smells. Spew sat down and stroking his chin with his paw he started to think.
"I don't have much of a brain," said Spew, "but I know that there is a lot of noise coming from this building, and there wouldn't be a lot of noise unless there was something going on. If I'm in a vineyard and most of the grapes are gone it means the noise is wine being made. And if wine is being made then there's only one thing to do. Get shitfaced."
And so Spew entered the large, strange building and there in front of him were giant, shiny steel tanks. "That must be where they keep the wine!" thought Spew. And so he began to climb. He climbed up and up, higher and higher, up and up, and while he climbed he sang a little song.
Isn't it fine How a bear likes wine? Slurp Slurp Slurp You can smell it on my burp.
He kept climbing...and climbing...and climbing...and he climbed so long that he thought of another song.
Wouldn't it be funny Wish I'd thought of it sooner If instead of tasty wine This is filled with fuckin' Gruner?
Spew was getting rather tired now but he was almost at the top. He began to sing a Complaining Song, but we shan't sing it here, and when he was through he was peering over the top of the giant, shiny steel tank.
"I wonder what it smells like," thought our nearly brainless Bear, "if it smells like melons or figs or catpee or Christoper Robbin's bed sheets, though he's nearly nine years old." To find out what the wine smelled like, Spew lowered his head into the giant, shiny steel tank and took a deep breath.
It was carbon dioxide and Spew fell into the shiny steel tank of wine and drowned.
In which we meet Eelaub and search for his nose.
One day Winnie-the-Spew was walking through Nap Valley and came across his friend, the ever-morose Eelaub.
"How are you today?" asked Winnie-the-Spew.
"What's it to ya, you stuffed piece of crap?"
"Oh, bother, you are a pompous ass. Let me take a look at you." And Spew walked round and round Eelaub until he noticed that something was missing.
"Something is missing," he said.
"Yeah, your genitalia, for one thing."
"No, it's your nose. You don't have a nose."
"Are you sure?"
"Well," said Spew, "you either have a nose or you don't have a nose. I think everyone would agree you don't have a nose."
So Eelaub walked over to the Nap River and peered at his reflection. Where once he'd had a nose, and a very nice nose, there was nothing. "Where's my goddam nose?"
"I'm sure that's what everyone in Nap Valley wants to know, Eelaub. Should we try and find it?"
"Well, this accounts for Everything," cried Eelaub, "it explains it all. I've lost my nose. Somebody must have taken it. Isn't that just like them? The whole Valley's full of assholes."
Spew didn't know what to do. He wanted to be helpful, but, really Eelaub was a smelly ass. So Spew decided instead to be helpful, and off he went to look for Eelaub's nose.
Through tasting rooms and walking wine train tracks, Spew searched and searched for Eelaub's nose. Then he came to the CIA, a Stone Grey building where his friend Owl in Meadows lived. Spew knew Owl was home but he banged and banged with the door knocker and nobody answered. The door knocker was kind of wet and mushy, not like most door knockers Spew had seen. Though he'd seen very few knockers of any sort save for Christoper Robbin's mother's set.
"Owl, come to the door. It's me, Bear."
"What is it? I'm rating coats right now. Coats of Bone and Coats of Nuts."
"Something terrible and wonderful has happened. Eelaub has lost his nose. What shall we do?"
"Reward! We'll offer a reward to anyone who has seen Eelaub's nose, though I don't know why anyone would want his terrible nose. But you'd have to believe they'd give it back."
"That's a great idea, Owl in Meadows. We'll offer a reward. And we'll get Christopher Robbin to write out the reward, if his arms aren't still broken."
Then Spew took a closer look at the door knocker. It was a very suspicious looking door knocker, not at all hard and not at all attractive. "Just where did you get this door knocker, Owl?"
"Why I found it in the vineyard. Why do you ask?"
"Because I know someone who wants it. This is no door knocker, Owl, it's Eelaub's nose! We've found it! Hooray!" And Spew grabbed the door knocker, which was really Eelaub's lost nose, and left Owl standing there in amazement.
"Where's my fucking reward, you silly ol' sack of bear shit?" But he never got a reward. And there's a lesson in that for everyone. There are no rewards in life.
As long as I've been tasting wine I've wondered what the hell "Rutherford dust" is. What makes it different from any other dust? And isn't dust mostly just dead human skin cells? Why do I want to smell that in my Cabernet? "Hmmm, smells like cassis, green olive and a nasty case of eczema--must be from Rutherford." I think it was Andre Tchelistcheff (I just call him "the Sheff") who first coined the expression, and even he didn't know what it meant. I, personally, think it was in response to the famous Oakville Litterbox character everyone was talking about, though it could have been the Stags Leap Greasy Fingerprints. No one knows what the Sheff was thinking.
I weaseled an invite to the "A Day in the Dust" tasting of, primarily, 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford District held at Rubicon Estate last Wednesday. I attended under an alias. I went as "Dusty Rutherford." Only one person asked me if I sang "The Look of Love." I said Yes.
Industry tastings are more about social networking than they are about the wines being served. Since I relocated to Sonoma from Southern California I go to tastings and know only a few people, mostly winery owners and winemakers. In Los Angeles at a tasting like this, I would have spent 60% of my time shaking hands and catching up with other folks in my line of work. You taste the wines in between conversations. It's crowded, it's loud, and very difficult to judge wine at these things. But that's not what they're for. They're like FaceBook gone awry. Imagine having to actually talk to your FaceBook friends in person! Gawd, what a nightmare. You don't want to talk to them, you just want to have them! Like children. And now here they are with stuff all over their face demanding your drinking time. Not at all how you'd imagined it.
Since Dusty Rutherford knew so few people, I was able to focus a bit more effectively on the wines. It's still a crappy environment to judge wine. It's dark, it's dank, it's filled with sweaty people. It's like judging wine in John Wayne Gacy's basement. Which really makes me nervous now about those hors d'oeuvres. But I put on my serious evaluation face, took copious notes, tried really hard to pay attention and discovered what everyone has been saying all along is true--2007 is a great vintage for wine in Napa Valley (and other wine-growing regions in California as well). I tasted about 25 Cabernets at the Rutherford Dust tasting and the only one I wouldn't consider buying (were money no object, which it fucking is) was the Heitz 2005 "Bella Oaks" which I thought had far too much Brett, though it brought back childhood memories. Of petting zoos.
I'm not going to bore you with a bunch of tasting notes. No, I'm going to bore you the way I usually bore you, with poorly conceived humor. The wine blog world is overflowing with amateurishly written tasting notes, and, frankly, I'm not good at tasting notes. They all taste like paper to me. (See what I mean about poorly conceived?) I hate reading the tasting notes on blogs. They're awful. I read just one of the longwinded and pretentious tasting notes on "Bigger Than Your Head" and I am awestruck at the remarkable ability he has to wring every last bit of pleasure out of drinking wine. It's wine with a side order of anhedonia. But at least he doesn't match up wine with music. This is the realm of genuine idiots. Wine doesn't need music and music doesn't need wine. And they go together about as sensibly as literature and perfume. So I won't dull your senses with poorly written wine descriptions. But I will tell you which wines I thought were the best, and the not so best.
Let's start with the best. Much as I hate to agree with STEVE!, I think he's right that the real dazzler of the event was the Staglin 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. But Staglin has made brilliant Cab after brilliant Cab in recent years, so it's hardly surprising. The '07 may be legendary. Wow. If Rutherford is known for elegance, the '07 Staglin is damned Fred Astaire.
The first wine I tasted at the event completely surprised me. When the first wine you taste is sensational, it's always disconcerting. You start to think you're being too easy on it, that there has to be something you're missing, that it can't be that good. It's like losing your virginity, which, sadly, I've only done once. But I kept tasting it, and tasted it again later, and it's terrific. It's the 2007 from Round Pond, not normally a producer I would seek out. But this is seamlessly luscious and rich Cabernet from Rutherford. And then it was nice to see some of the legendary names of Napa Valley perform so well in 2007. The 2007 Rubicon is breathtaking, and the 2007 Beaulieu Georges de Latour returns to greatness after some time away. Finally, among this top five, I'd list the Meander 2007 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet for it's sheer power and purity. For those of you who haven't been in the wine business for a long time, or ever, let me tell you, it is very unusual to go to an event and find five wines that are absolutely classic. You're usually lucky to find one or two. These five were topnotch, and a joy to taste.
Maybe just a notch below these five winners were a handful of other wines, all very worthy and memorable wines. The 2007 Long Meadow Ranch was very seductive, Rubicon Estate's 2007 CASK was almost hypnotic, Honig's 2007 Campbell Vineyard is by far the best wine I've ever tasted from them, the once famous Freemark Abbey Bosche Vineyard was the best it's been in years and I like very much the suppleness of 2007 Quintessa though I'm not normally a huge Quintessa fan.
And there were some disappointments as well. Flora Springs 2007 Hillside Reserve, Hewitt Vineyard, Martin Estate's Reserve, Provenance, Freemark Abbey's Sycamore Vineyard--all nice wines, but hardly in a league with the others.
Any of the top ten wines is worth considering for your cellar. The prices vary considerably, and some haven't been released yet, but I think all of them are worthy if your budget allows. You're welcome.
And now back to our regularly scheduled stupidity.
My mailbox is overflowing with press releases from new and interesting wine projects. This is what happens when you become one of the top wine bloggers in America. It becomes your duty to spread the information as widely as possible, as if you're the prison wife of wine marketing departments everywhere. So, as an obedient wine blogger, I'm going to share some of the latest news about up-and-coming wineries to watch for in the next few months.
SELF-LOATHING WINERY AND VINEYARDS
The goal of Self-Loathing Winery and Vineyards is to inject a little bit of self-hatred in every bottle we produce. We start with our estate grapes, which are handled as well as we can handle them, but, really, we're not that good at it. During the growing season, and as close to harvest as possible, our winemaker and his team carefully walk each vineyard row. He stops every now and then to criticize the grapes. "You look awful. You call those clusters? Gladys Knight has better pips." Soon the grapes arrive in the winery for their transformation into mediocre wine at vastly inflated prices, but what can we do? We're underwater at Self-Loathing Winery and Vineyards, and we don't just mean the way we make Pinot Noir. Frankly, we're not sure why anyone wants our wine, but if you do, please go to our website-- if we had a website, but what would be the point? Who would buy this handmade, artisan crap? Self Loathing Spokesmodel Lindsay Lohan
We recently sat down and blind tasted our 2007 "Denigration Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon alongside Harlan Estate, Sloan, Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow and Far Niente. It pretty much sucked. Really. It was kind of embarrassing. The Harlan was in another league, the Scarecrow was way better, Screaming Eagle rocked, and Far Niente--come on, we're better than Far Niente, for God's sake. We didn't do so well in our blind tasting, but, in our defense. we're about the same price as the others.
When you open a bottle of Self-Loathing, we hope that you feel the way we feel when we make the wines. Angry at yourself for being so stupid.
A trip to wine country is never complete until you've paid a visit to Domaine Asperger. When you and your guests arrive you'll be greeted with a limp handshake and a reminder to remember Domaine Asperger's motto, "Please No Eye Contact." You'll be given a brief tour of the vineyards if your guide can focus for a minute and stop staring at the hummingbird feeder. Don't try to distract him, he loves his hummingbirds and generally eats two or three before lunch. After your tour, during which you'll see our winemaking facility and realize that asking relevant questions is pretty much a waste of everyone's time, as it is at most wineries, you'll be escorted to the tasting room. Well, your guide may just point to it and grunt, but you'll feel welcome! In the tasting room you'll be able to experience our award-winning wines and experience the hospitality Domaine Asperger is famous for. Please refrain from making jokes or exchanging pleasantries with our tasting room staff. They simply won't understand and may wander off and then we have to send someone to try and find them. Simply taste our fine wines and place an order. Idle chitchat won't get you anywhere and, frankly, every tasting room is sick of you and your self-obsessed babble. We hope you enjoy your visit to Domaine Asperger and if you plan on returning, please reconsider. And stop making faces. Who are you anyway?
AWKWARD SILENCE WINES
Isn't it about time someone produced wines for life's awkward silences? Well, that's exactly what we've done at Awkward Silence wines. Now after you've told your husband you're two months pregnant before remembering he's been out of town for the past ten weeks, you can open a bottle of Awkward Silence 2009 "Busted!," our award-winning blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and a pinch of Summer's Eve. It's crisp and oh-so cleansing. Let's say your wife discovers that pair of Victoria's Secret panties in your lunch pail. Before you try to explain what they're doing there, open a bottle of Awkward Silence 2007 "Sick Bastard," a soothing red blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, with a dash of Y Chromosome. It's rich and satisfying, and will eventually give your bride a mustache. There's a perfect bottle of Awkward Silence wine for every intimate occasion. Just had lousy sex? Six pumps and a squirt? Reach for a bottle of Awkward Silence 2007 "Never Happened Before" Pinot Noir. You and your unfortunate partner will be able to fill that awkward silence with the silky richness of Pinot Noir that's fortified with just the right amount of Rohipnol, so she'll forget what happened each and every time you fail to satisfy her. That's what we do here at Awkward Silence wines. We're your proud accomplice in life's little failures.
A blog set inside the world of wine public relations--where the media, the culture and I are different words for the same thing.
HOW THE BP DISASTER IS LIKE EVERYTHING I CAN THINK OF IN THE WINE BUSINESS
1. The BP oil spill is exactly like the Three Tier Distribution System. In the brief history of the United States, a history unlike the history of any other country because no other country borders Mexico and Canada at the same time, the BP oil spill is the worst ecological catastrophe ever seen. Similarly, the Three Tier Distribution System sucks too. All of us bear some responsibility for the BP disaster. We insist on using fossil fuels to power our vehicles, heat our homes, run the gigantic Google servers that bring you this important, pioneering blog, and blow leaves from our driveways. If there were no demand for oil, there would have been no BP disaster. I imagine you hadn't thought of that. Compare that to the Three Tier Distribution system as it now stands in this great country that borders both Canada and Mexico, where, by the way, there are no Three Tier Distribution Systems even though, supposedly, they are countries more backwards than the United States. Perhaps all of us bear some responsibility for the Three Tier Distribution System as well. We allow it to exist when we know it's wrong. So just as we need to clean up the oil in the Gulf of Mexico, we need to eradicate the oily mess that is the Three Tier Distribution system. The oil companies own our government just as the liquor distributors own our state legislatures. It's time we take them back, return government to the people it belongs to, the ignorant masses. I predict that the Three Tier Distribution System will be dismantled about the same time we give up our cars and squeegee all the seagulls clean.
2. The rise of wine bloggers is like the rise of oil from the ocean floor. Wine bloggers have changed the wine environment in similar ways to how the oil from the Deepwater well has changed the Gulf of Mexico. Where once there were clear waters and smooth sailing, now there's all sorts of crap floating around. When I invented wine blogging several years ago, and created the Wine Blog Awards, I confess I didn't know how important it would be to the wine business. I could not have foreseen how important I would become. Now, just as the Deepwater well has sprung a leak spewing unfathomable amounts of goo and crude from one location that has spread all over the Gulf of Mexico, so has wine blogging spread all over the world. And despite the efforts of many to try and stop the wellspring of bloggers, nothing has worked. Just as thousands of gallons of oil emerge from Deepwater every day, so hundreds of new wine bloggers emerge, unleashed from the bounds of traditional media just as the oil has been unleashed without the use of traditional wells, and with much the same results. The waters of the wine business will never be the same. And even when the flood of wine bloggers is capped, if it's capped, the effect will be felt for generations. Just like the BP disaster, we have yet to see whether it's a good thing or not.
3. Wineries had better learn to embrace Social Media in the ways I tell them to or they face their own BP disaster. Just as British Petroleum had all the resources to avoid a catastrophe like the one in the Gulf of Mexico, a catastrophe that has brought them to the edge of financial ruin, so do wineries have the resources to hire a person for Social Media. Those that do not face the same dire consequences as BP--their names besmirched, their company boycotted and despised, and huge profits for their executives. I advise my winery clients, who will remain anonymous because that's what they hired me to do, to use wine bloggers and Twitter and FaceBook even if it means they divert resources from vineyard management and cleanliness. The only thing that matters about wine is how it's promoted. Had BP had the foresight and planning to promote their oil spill in a positive light, the company would be in fine shape. What if BP had mounted a campaign to emphasize that the Deepwater spill brings oil discovery to the people? The people who walk the beach, the people who fish the Gulf waters, the people who are birdwatchers. Would people still be as outraged? What if BP had blamed Al Qaeda? Just carefully insinuated through a series of carefully orchestrated Tweets and FaceBook quotes that it was Osama bin Laden working with a team of divers trained at a school in Florida who were responsible for the spill? Suddenly the whole country would be rallying to help the poor folks at BP. Rudy Giuliani would be giving inspirational speeches and Bruce Springsteen would write a song, "I'm Gonna Miss Tuna, Miss Tuna, How's About We Plug Your Well." Wineries need to use Social Media in the same way corporate giants use FOX news, and, believe me, bloggers are more than eager to oblige. The ones who aren't already marketing people (aka, Wine Blog Award Winners) are for sale, and cheap. It behooves wineries to spend their money where it should be spent, on marketing.If you're paying a winemaker more than you're paying your marketing people, you're making a terrible mistake. Wineries that make that mistake will end up with the kind of disaster on their hands that BP has.
4. Traditional wine writers are going the way of marine life in the Gulf of Mexico. A few will survive, those that are able to withstand the most oily residue, like Jay McInerny who has had years of hair gel as practice, but most will perish under the wave of noxious slime that is wine bloggers. This is just how it goes, get over it. The landscape changes, and what changes it the most is natural disaster. And so it is with the wine business. No one could have foreseen that winery owners would have to move from kissing the diamond-tipped drill bits of James Laube and Robert Parker to greasing the palms of a giant school of wine blogging barracuda, but that's just how it goes. All wine bloggers are wine writers because I say so. And so wine writing has much in common with the Gulf of Mexico.
I learned so much at the Wine Bloggers Conference, and I had this totally original idea to list the Top Ten Things I Learned! It just came to me. I swear, I don't know where it came from. Maybe I'm channeling one of the many geniuses I met in Walla Walla. You would not believe how many geniuses were there. Steve Heimoff was there (he's like a SuperGenius! He sounds just like Stephen Hawking! Not the physicist, just some guy named Stephen, hawking.), Lettie Teague was there (she's such a genius she writes for the Wall Street Journal, which is a newspaper just for geniuses and doesn't even have comic strips!), Andrea Robinson was there (she's such a genius she's got these wine glasses that make wine taste so good you think you're drinking out of Riedel instead of a Riedel ripoff! Wow, how smart is that?), there were geniuses everywhere! I haven't met that many really, really smart people since I applied at the DMV. I learned so much about blogging, and I'm really excited to share it with you. I know a lot of you couldn't really afford to go to the WBC, so I'm hoping these insights will be helpful. I wouldn't have been able to go either if I hadn't sold all of those samples wineries have sent me the past six months. Oh, don't worry, wineries, I'll still post tasting notes on the wines! I'm not stupid. I wrote down all the back labels and I'll go from there. It will be just like I actually tasted them. Anyway, here are the Top Ten Things I Learned at the WBC!
1. To be a good wine blogger, you not only have to learn about wine, you also have to learn how to write! Not sure I signed up for this. Isn't it enough that I know a little bit about wine and took typing in high school? Those seem like solid wine blogger credentials to me. Now it turns out I have to find my "voice." I don't even know what that means. People can't hear me on this blog. I don't need a voice. I have Twitter. Which is like vuvuzelas--if you played them with your asshole.
2. Just reviewing wines doesn't make for a good wine blog. Then why do they give an award to Best Reviews on a Wine Blog? I'm going to go with this lesson, but I still think people are really interested in my reviews. And why wouldn't they be? Nobody knows more about Wines under Eight Dollars than me. I think the problem is bloggers who talk about really expensive wine and about wines from grapes nobody has heard of, like Mourvedre. Who the hell has heard of Mourvedre? Wasn't that the guy who created "Jeopardy"'s real first name? What turns people off is talking about great wines. Come on, people, let's stick to what wine bloggers do best--recommending reliably mediocre wine!
3. I'm really famous. Everywhere I went around the hotel, people knew me. It's like I had a name tag. Oh.
4. There were wine writers before Robert Parker. Apparently, this is true. But most of them were British and white and had a hairy wah and a huge Johnson. But they are the past and we are the future, and somehow we're supposed to feel good about this.
5. Marketing people are really nice, but you can't trust them. This is kind of hard to believe. All the ones at the conference were really, really nice to me and only said good things about my blog and how good I am at matching wines with reality TV shows, which is something I thought of myself and is really way more clever than matching wine with music or old movies. Like with "Biggest Loser" I said you should drink K-J Vintner's Select Chardonnay because it's really fat and hopeless. And why wouldn't I trust marketing people when it's marketing people who gave the Best Writing on a Wine Blog to marketing people who write fluff about wineries and wines they represent and are major sponsors of the WBC and also sponsor the European Wine Blog Conference (where I hear the girls go topless!)? That seems fine to me. Theirs really was the Best Blog. And it's not just a blog, it's paid advertising! It's a blogger ideal. I guess they mean don't trust marketing people who don't have a blog.
6. Bloggers don't like criticism. That's what so great about blogging. We're all nice to each other. It's like we all have the same defective gene. Except that HoseMaster guy. But I'm guessing he's just mad about his hairy wah. Plus, I hear he's been in prison for identity theft. He stole Hitler's.
7. Publish as often as possible. I kind of knew this anyway, but it's good to have it reinforced. Content needs to be slapped together as quickly and as often as possible. It's quantity not quality. With enough quantity, quality will come. We know this from Harlequin Romances and Cook's Champagne and Orson Welles. So don't sweat the facts, don't worry about originality, just crank it out. Whew. This one I can do. 8. Walla Walla is the Lady GaGa of wine regions. I made this up, but it's really catchy. Walla Walla=GaGa. And there are so many other similarities. Lots of fancy packaging with basically nothing inside. And next year we won't be talking about either one of them.
9. Speed tasting wines and posting about them is fascinating and educational. For example, I learned that most red wines taste exactly the same. Kind of like spit does. And that tasting notes are best when written quickly because you can just use the same words over and over and nobody really notices. For fun, I often write descriptions, and then shuffle the descriptions and the wines so they don't match! Know what. It's hard to tell the difference. And it turns out that's what most wine bloggers do! Now they tell me. That's how you know you have good tasting notes, they're interchangeable. This is liberating and should cut the time I spend on my blog in half, so I'll have five extra minutes to read Catavino and thrill at the prose.
10. Credentials can be fabricated. This is the most important thing I learned at the WBC. Your readers know a lot less than you do, so knowing what you're talking about is irrelevant. It's that you say stuff often and with a unique voice. So now I'm going to be the Selma Diamond of wine bloggers! And if someone stops by your blog and does happen to know more than you, you can delete their comments. But how likely is that? With a stunning dearth of talent, just look around, wine bloggers don't get comments.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
What the Critics Are Saying About HoseMaster of Wine
"If you want a great hoot and howl moment or two...go read the HoseMaster's year-end reflections...that guy is without a doubt the funniest SOB in the blog-world...and thank him for having the brains and balls to target his laser of laughter on anybody...HoseMaster for President...HoseMaster for Blogger of the Year...although he would be the first to say the bar is so damn low for that award, he should win it every year..." --Robert Parker
"No one is immune from California sommelier and wine judge Ron Washam's skewering. He polishes that skewer with boundless enthusiasm and acuity."
"Washam uses his own blog, HoseMaster of Wine, to skewer the industry in general and wine blogs in particular. If your mouse scoots to your browser's close box while reading a wine blog, Washam may be the blogger for you."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"...that guy Hosemaster has real talent...if you ask me sign him up for Comedy Central...he's the funniest guy since Adam Carolla's hilarious book...IN 50 YEARS WE WILL ALL BE CHICKS..."
"Ron Washam, former sommelier, is easily the most bitingly funny blogger/wine writer that we have ever come across. He is an equal opportunity crusader who pillories big wineries and amateur bloggers alike, as well as everything and everyone in between...One needs a sense of humor and a tolerance for earthiness to enjoy reading The Hosemaster. We must have both because this guy deserves a wider audience, in our humble opinion." --Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine
"In my opinion, and that of many others, his blog is one of the best. And in terms of satirical or parodic wine blogs, it has no peer. Ron’s alert eye catches every pretense and skewers it with laugh out loud mercilessness."
"This site should carry a warning label. It's sort of a Dave Barry/George Carlin approach to wine. The Hosemaster (real name Ron Washam) skewers fellow bloggers and industry savants with glee, while offering hilarious wine guides such as his Honest Guide to Grapes..."
--Paul Gregutt, Seattle Times
"Washam is a skilled wine judge (I have judged with him) who is willing to judge wine double blind, in public. To my knowledge, Parker does not do this and never has. So Ron's credentials are in place, and so is his sense of the absurd."
--Dan Berger, VintageExperiences
"...I consider Ron a very talented writer and I’ve long been an admirer of his scathing wit..."
"And if any free sites think they can conquer the world, there’s always the Hosemaster to take ‘em down a notch."
--Tyler Colman "Dr. Vino"
"Those of you who know Ron either love or hate him, because he throws jabs like a punch drunk boxer, and we’re all in the firing line. He’ll throw them if he hates you, and he’ll throw them if he loves you. He’s a satirist of exceptional quality."
--Jo Diaz "Juicy Tales by Jo Diaz"
"I must say you are an idiot. I've never liked you. I have no idea why people find you funny."