WINE SPECTATOR: You’ll want to read Jenna Talia Baiocchi’s final column for Wine Spectator Online, “Holy Crap, Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me How Old These Creeps Are?” James Laube writes candidly about his experience at the Napa Valley Premiere Barrel Tasting of 2011 Cabernets, and how embarrassed he was to attend dressed as Grace Kelly because someone mentioned that at a barrel tasting you’d better Catch a Thief. Surprisingly, several attendees mistook him for Natalie MacLean. Tim Fish writes an exhaustive survey of the Asian market. “I went to at least ten Asian markets, and the wine selections sucked. I’d recommend BevMo.” Tim Fish also talks about his recent promotion to Senior Editor, “God knows, there’s nothing but fucking seniors around here. See my blind tasting report on Ensure.”
NAT DECANTS: Natalie MacLean talks about her about to be released book, Wine Grapes. “Jancis said it was OK to quote her as long as I gave proper attribution—she didn’t say how long the quote could be. It’s only 900 pages.” Nat also issues an apology for her poor review of a recent Dageneau Pouilly-Fumé, “I regret the low score, which was the unfortunate result of being just a tad drunk and mistakenly tasting my Clairol instead. The good news is, the Dageneau left my hair with a lovely sheen.”
WALL STREET JOURNAL: A rare look behind the scenes as Jay McInerney sits for the Master Sommelier exam. “I was doing quite well,” he writes, “until they asked me about Pinotage and I said it was the same as manscaping.” The service part of the exam proves particularly vexing for McInerney, “I asked the examiner what he was having for lunch, ‘Croque Monsieur,’ he said. So I replied, ‘Drop dead, Amigo.’ I think he took that the wrong way.” As it turns out, McInerney didn’t quite qualify for his M.S. “If he knew any less about wine,” the Master Sommeliers wrote, “he’d work for Bronco.” Lettie Teague defends the rising price of corks, “The stuff doesn’t grow on trees.”
ANTONIO GALLONI: The recent Wine Advocate defector writes about his new wine website’s pay model. “I envision one monthly fee for wine reviews and scores, a slightly higher fee for more personal access and wine advice from me, and the highest monthly fee for live Webcam shows where I mud wrestle nude with babes I meet after drinking all day.” First up, the 2010 Leroy Burgundies reviewed, and best two-out-of-three with Lalou Bize-Leroy. Don’t bet on the Italian.
1WINEDOODY: Joe Roberts makes his case to be Antonio Galloni’s replacement at the Wine Advocate. Comparing himself to Galloni, he notes, “I also speak four languages—English, Spanish, Ebonics and HTML. I’m also taking a Berlitz course in Tamil, which I thought was a feminine hygiene product.” About his qualifications to be the new Bordeaux wine critic, Joe points out, “I can name every classified growth in Bordeaux, I used to date the buyer for Costco, and, though I don’t have experience using a 100 Point Scale, I just bought a used one on Craigslist.” Sounds like Joe is a shoo-in.
WORLD OF FINE WINE: Jamie Goode reveals that the nature of how we spit wine is as revelatory as at whom we are expectorating it. Jancis Robinson MW writes about the latest research on grape DNA and the many unexpected discoveries. “As it turns out, if you get DNA from Mondeuse on your hands, you grow hair on your palms.” Hugh Johnson contemplates civilization without wine in “I’d Have Had to Sell My Eyebrows for Toupees.” Tim Atkin MW on why Central Otago should be in more crossword puzzles. Andrew Jeffords posits that Parker turning over the Wine Advocate to Lisa Perroti-Brown is equivalent to Caligula handing orgy duty to Margaret Thatcher. David Peppercorn MW revisits the 2000 vintage in Bordeaux and declares it the best vintage with three zeroes--and he's one of them. Allen Meadows on Domaine Ponsot wines from the 1920’s, “What struck me was how youthful they all tasted despite being under Stelvin.”
PALATE PRESS: You can count on Palate Press to prove time and time again that “Thought Piece” is, for them, an oxymoron. Meg Mark Maker’s has a long article about wine writing that is about wine writing and how it takes a writer to be one, but don’t let that stop you. Evan Dawson writes in his latest reflection, “It’s a wonder that any human being utters the words, ‘I’m bored.’” Have you read Palate Press, Evan?
I paid a visit to the Vintners Hall of Fame in St. Helena recently, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they had opened a new wing. Now, in addition to plaques of all the elected members, the Hall is displaying important wine memorabilia. It’s a terrific idea. After all, one can travel to Cooperstown and see wondrous baseball mementoes—Eddie Goodell’s tiny protective cup made from a Budweiser beer cap, Denny McClain’s autographed prison jersey, you can even picnic with your family under Barry Bonds’ cap!
Now many of the most important historical items in the history of California wine are on display for wine aficionados to enjoy. If you go, I’d urge you to take the audio tour narrated by famed Hugh Johnson impersonator, Hugh Johnson. I took notes of the audio tour, sort of like Alderpated does, only I don’t claim mine are accurate. Here are some excerpts:
Welcome to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, and the Vintners Hall of Fame, sponsored by Wine Spectator—America’s favorite wine publication. Remember, “Wine Spectator!--we put the “sewer” in Connoisseur.”
If you look at the display case to your immediate left, you’ll see the taxidermied alligator thought to have eaten Agoston Haraszthy, the “Father of California Viticulture.” It seems the gator was mighty Hungary. If you look carefully, you may see bits of Agoston lodged between the alligator’s ferocious teeth. Curators have removed most of those bits very carefully utilizing fine strands of wheat so as not to damage the valuable beast. So his floss is our grain! It’s said that the reptile washed Haraszthy down with a nice Zin.
The ashtray on your right, enclosed in the glass case, is filled with the cigarette butts of legendary California winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff. Tchelistcheff was one of the most influential winemakers in the history of California, mentoring many of the great winemakers who followed. It is from Tchelistcheff, for example, that the talented Mike Grgich learned his own appreciation of butts. He certainly has a firm grasp on them. Andre once said, “I like my Cabernet like I like my cigarettes, unfiltered and bummed off somebody else.”
Just down the Marvin Shanken Hallway (What’s the Marvin Shanken Hallway, you ask? Oh, almost as much as Marvin himself.) on your left is one of the original spitbuckets used at the famous Paris Tasting of 1976. At that tasting, the French wine judges were unable to tell the great wines of France from the crap coming out of California at the time. The French wine judges were not just ordinary folks, all were wine experts and two even had Ph.D.s. These were the famous French Pair o’ Docs. The surprise victories of a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon put California wine on the international map. The remnants of those wines are in this perfectly preserved spitbucket, which our curators tell us still smell like oak. It has begun to develop a light film of yeast on the top of the wine which has helped to preserve this historical treasure because even the French won’t spit on the flor.
Just beyond the Tim Fish Ladder, you’ll see the rough draft of Ann Noble’s original Aroma Wheel. As a professor at UC Davis, Noble first got the idea for an aroma wheel from an ancient Mayan calendar, which is also impossible to read and mostly inaccurate. In this original draft, drawn on a cocktail napkin from the Davis House of Pies, Noble, after a few gin rickeys, begins to outline the wheel with various aromas she detects in wines. Many are still listed on the Aroma Wheel as it stands today, but, if you read it closely, you’ll find a few that were later eliminated. Can you spot “Maynard Amerine’s dog breath,” “wet gerbil,” and “Robert Lawrence Balzer” on the napkin's chart? The phone number was apparently meant for the bartender.
If you walk a few feet past the James Laube Lobby (feel free to take a short break in the Laube Lobby, but please be aware that, in deference to Mr. Laube, all the cushions are greatly inflated), you’ll see a Nineteenth Century pickaxe used by one of the Chinese coolies who helped dig wine caves all around Napa Valley. Even today, Napa Valley wineries are counting on the Chinese to save their financial ax and pick expensive Napa Cabernets. Next to the pickaxe is a representation of the koi ponds that almost all of the Chinese laborers kept for contemplative purposes, though it’s thought that the koi may have been responsible for the cave diggers’ Carp-all Tunnel Syndrome.
Next to the Harvey Steiman Hot Tub (which is not an actual hot tub, but simply his nickname), you can see the original wine club. Made of local oak, the original wine club was used to beat people senseless to buy wines in tasting rooms. Unsuspecting visitors would drop by for a taste of wine only to find themselves hit over the head with the wine club, again and again, often four times a year. That wine club has morphed into the modern day wine club that almost every winery has, but which does exactly the same thing.
Continue on past the vending machines and the Matt Kramer Coin Changer (“Making Cents of Bills”), and you’ll see a grand diorama of hundreds of stuffed winery dogs. Every visitor to wine country falls in love with a winery dog. To the left is Corky, the famed greeter at Beaulieu Vineyards, whose rainy day aroma of TCA graced many a bottle in the ‘90s. Next to him is Caesar, formerly of Rubicon Estate—don’t cross him! And who’s that taking a whiz on a bust of Cesar Chavez? Why it’s the Gallos’ faithful companion, Short Dog. Isn’t this a wonderful tribute to those furry friends who make our winery visits so enjoyable? We think so, and, look, many are even more lifelike than tasting room staff.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed your visit to the Vintners Hall of Fame. And we hope that you’ll return soon for another visit. Mark your calendars for the 2014 grand opening of the Vintners Hall of Fame Wax Museum. Just like their finest bottles, the vintners are lovingly hand-dipped.
Now I know you’ve all heard the tall tales about Paul Bunyan, greatest woodsman to ever live, able to clear a forest the size of Montana with one great sweep of his mighty ax. But I’m guessing you’ve never heard of his half-brother, Parr Bunyan. Parr went a much different way with his life than his legendary brother. Parr became a sommelier. Well, not just any sommelier, but the Greatest Sommelier Who Ever Lived. Paul never talked about his brother much, seems he was embarrassed that Ma Bunyan had conceived Parr out of wedlock, though Ma claimed Parr wasn’t conceived with a man, but with a sex toy. “Why just talk to him,” she’d say, “and you can tell he’s mostly dildo.”
Parr had all the size of his older brother Paul, but where Paul was all massive thighs and immeasurable barrel chest, Parr was mostly head. Parr had the biggest head the world had ever seen. His head was so big, Parr had to strap three sheep to a log to use as a Q-Tip. His hat size had more “X’s” than Larry King. And to get his tastevin on over his head, he had to have a chain so long it had more links than a Lindsay Lohan sex tape. He hadn’t been born with a big head, for which Ma Bunyan constantly thanked the Lord, but once he became a sommelier, his head just never stopped growing. This can happen to ordinary sommeliers too, but not on the scale it happens to a Bunyan.
The legend of Parr Bunyan began when he passed the Master Sommelier exam, all three levels, in twenty minutes. He’d identified five wines served to him blind perfectly, down to the vintage, the producer and what time of day the wine was poured. “It’s a 2010 Trimbach Cuvee Emile that was opened 57 minutes ago by a guy who didn’t wash his hands after he urinated.” An embarrassed Larry Stone skulked from the room. Parr also wrote a thousand word essay on the subject, “The effects of Linne Calodo soil on flavor and tannin in Grenache,” that was subsequently published by the UC Davis Press and outsold their legendary soil book, “Fifty Shales of Gray.” When everything he recommended during the service part of the exam was the perfect match for the foods, causing one examiner to say, “These are the best pairs since Scarlett Johansson,” the legend of Parr Bunyan was born.
Why Parr Bunyan, the Greatest Sommelier Who Ever Lived, can tell the quality of a vintage just by sniffin’ the air. Parr strides his mighty stride, his gigantic head precariously balanced above his paunchy body, his tastevin jangling out the theme from “The Exorcist,” across San Francisco Bay, using the Golden Gate Bridge to relieve his itchy hemorrhoids, up to Napa Valley. His giant bean looming over the puny people of Napa, he inhales deeply. Trees are uprooted, trophy wives scatter willy-nilly, winery dogs are deloused, as are winery marketing departments, but Parr gets a good strong whiff. “A classic vintage,” he declares, “rivaling any I can recall, though Howell Mountain wines will take some time to come out of their shell.” On Parr’s proclamation alone, prices rise like souls ascending to Heaven, to an unseen place where no mortals will ever see them again.
From there it’s just a small step to Sonoma, a much bigger county, but no match for the size of Parr’s giant dome. One deep inhale, his head tilted slightly right to favor that nostril, the residents of the county experiencing a partial solar eclipse as Parr’s head comes between them and the sun, and Parr declares, “An excellent vintage here as well, though the alcohol levels are too high in much of Dry Creek and the Russian River and must be lowered, while the True Sonoma Coast has made wines of great distinction and balance. And, believe me, with a head like mine, you need to know balance.”
Around the globe Parr Bunyan strides, declaring the vintage in every famous wine region. Wine writers hang on his every word, winemakers dazzled by his knowledge and nose, and all of them astonished at the size of his head. There is nothing he doesn’t know about wine. He is the Greatest Sommelier Who Ever Lived.
But the Greatest Sommelier Who Ever Lived is still a man, and a lonely man. He broods. Some say that it’s the thousand wines he tastes every morning that affect his personality. Perhaps all that alcohol would affect a normal man, but it’s foolish to think it affects Parr Bunyan. Why, he can taste and spit a hundred wines in the time it takes an ordinary sommelier to pretend he knows what Nerello Mascalese is. Parr can recite the list of every known wine grape in less than five minutes to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major General.” One lazy afternoon, Parr sequenced Jancis Robinson’s DNA. Turns out she’s nearly indistinct from Eiswein.
Perhaps, some folks believe, Parr is a sad and lonely man precisely because he knows everything about wine, and being the Greatest Sommelier Who Ever Lived. There is nothing left for him to do but try and teach the human race about wine, about the right wines, wines that are wine as God intended. But not everyone will listen to Parr Bunyan. He fears it’s the size of his melon (often mistaken for Pinot Blanc in California). He speaks at symposia, he stoops to interviews with the ignorant, he lectures wineries and winemakers—and all for naught. For although Parr Bunyan is larger than life, a living legend, a wine god among men, people still insist on drinking what they like. They nod their head during interviews, they nod off at symposia, they praise his almighty head at wineries, they acknowledge his superior knowledge and truly gigantic body cavities, but then they just keep on making wines they like, drinking wines they like, ignoring his dictum of higher acid and lower alcohol, forsaking his wisdom in favor of their clearly inferior senses encased in their pathetic pinheads. Poor Parr Bunyan—it makes him lonely and sad.
When a head that size cries, the whole county smells like Manzanilla. Vineyards are flooded and precious top soil erodes. Parr Bunyan, therefore, is not allowed to cry, and this is what makes him sad and lonely. He wants to cry for us, to purify us of our wine ignorance, but he mustn’t. Instead, he must keep on talking, keep on preaching, keep on reminding us he is the legendary Parr Bunyan, Greatest Sommelier Who Ever Lived.
It turns out, that legend thing ain’t what it used to be.
One of my favorite authors is the late Nobel Prize Winner Jose Saramago. This piece was originally published in April of 2010, a couple of months before he died. Coincidence? Writing in Saramago's unique style was very challenging, and having attempted it here (poorly, at best), I did gain even more respect for his talent and work. When he won the Nobel Prize, the brilliant book critic Richard Eder said, "Saramago winning the Nobel Prize does nothing for Saramago, but it does a lot for the Nobels."
Translated from the Portugese by Ronaldo Jose Maestro
following day, every wine tasted the same. That is, every red wine
tasted the same as every other red wine, as if they'd all been made by
Siduri, and every white wine wine tasted the same as every other white
wine, and sadly that white wine was Rombauer, and this fact, a fact that
it took everyone a long time to acknowledge, no surprise given that so
many people's livelihoods depended upon wines tasting different, just as
if every baseball game had the exact same score every day and you only
had to wait and see which number your team scored because the box scores
were exactly the same every day and all the sports writers and morons
on ESPN would be out of work and Peter Gammons would go back to being
the janitor he should be, this fact that every wine tasted the same
began to worry everyone in the wine business. It worried the winemakers,
who swore that every vineyard designated wine they made, all 23 Pinot
Noirs and all 15 Syrahs, had to taste different from each other, they
came from different terroirs after all, though, when asked, they
couldn't actually define terroir, speaking about terroir as if it were
indefinable like God or Love or Biodynamics, which was created by God,
and each wine was made differently, but even they had to admit when
tasting wines that they did all taste the same, something even the
pundits had to finally confess after looking at their carefully composed
notes, notes that contained eerily similar phrases, dull and lifeless
writing, as though tasting notes were by definition written by the
thunderstruck and mentally unbalanced, notes that led to the mysterious,
mystical, God and Rudolf Steiner, for they are the Same Being, inspired
number 89, a number that was created for wine and only for wine and was
no longer allowed to be used in any other context for it now meant the
quality of every wine on the planet, red or white, still or sparkling,
fortified or late harvest, and had no meaning to people outside of wine,
and even BevMo, the very Cathedral of wine blandness ruled by its
titular Pope, Pope Wong II, the Pope Wong as Wong can be, changed it's
name to 89 Wines and everyone understood that to mean the score of every
wine and not the actual count of wines available for sale there.
And after the winemakers and pundits were forced to admit that all red
wines tasted like all other red wines, and all white wines tasted like
all other white wines, something they were loathe to acknowledge for it
surely meant that their services were no longer necessary or needed,
that a winery could hire any fool, degree or no degree from UC Davis, an
agricultural school in California known for its viticultural program
and its veterinary program, ensuring its graduates treated animals all
the same or made wines that all tasted the same, and the fool would
produce a wine that was awarded 89 points from all the wine pundits who
used the 100 point scale but who had now become obsolete because all the
wine publications did was list wines that were released, red and white,
and then print a large number 89 and awarded it to all of them, leaving
its critics to look for actual jobs, something they were completely
unqualified to do, so many of them went to UC Davis and became
veterinarians and began to rate dogs and cats on 100 point scales, as
in, Your dog is cute, has a nice wet nose, smells strongly of sulfur
problems, and his tail is a bit crooked so I'd say he's an 85 point dog,
which is good, not great, but nothing to be ashamed of, I rarely award
dogs points over 95, that will be 100 dollars. Most pundits became
homeless, ironically forced to forever drink 89 point wines, wines they
had always contended were perfectly fine wines but which secretly they
abhorred and had only given those scores to because it gave them
pleasure to score them just below 90, a number most desired by wineries,
especially for wineries that had not had the common courtesy to flatter
them, send them walnuts every Christmas or buy them lavish dinners or
fly them to foreign places and praise them ceaselessly, their palates,
their noses, their gift for language, though these traits were clearly
absent and all they really possessed was a business card and a
reputation for loving sycophants, but being homeless now meant that no
one praised them, no one cared what their opinions were about wines
because all wines tasted the same, all wines scored 89 points, they were
completely worthless as pundits, something they'd always known, but had
hoped no one would discover.
the public wondered why, if all the red wines tasted the same, which
they had suspected was the case all along and that the whole rating
system was some kind of inside industry joke, not particularly funny,
but lucrative, and if all white wines tasted the same, which they knew
from experience, all you had to do was serve them all cold from the
refrigerator and no one could tell if it was actual white wine or Santa
Margharita, a famous wine substitute, which now tasted exactly like
Rombauer anyway, why do we pay different prices for them? Well, I only
made 90 cases of this wine, a winemaker might say, even though he'd
actually made 89 cases but knew that 89 was no longer a recognized
number so he had to say 90, And it's from the very best part of my
property and thus it's the finest wine I produce and worth every penny,
though in this economy if you want to buy six bottles I can give you
thirty percent off, not that I need to bargain with my hundred dollar
wine, I don't, I just like you and you've been a loyal customer and I
want to reward you by only charging you seventy dollars for my 89 point
wine that tastes like every other red wine. But if it tastes just like
every other wine you produce, if indeed it tastes like every wine
produced everywhere, consumers started to say, Why should I pay one
hundred dollars for your bottle when I can get exactly the same flavors
and aromas, as described by famous pundits who awarded you 89 points,
pundits who are now deservedly homeless and scorned, from a bottle that
costs three dollars? Because those bottles, the winemaker replied, Do
not have my label on them, and my label is famous, recognized the world
over as desirable and rare and special, and that three dollar bottle has
a cheap label that will say to your guests that you are cheap, you
don't care much about them or their happiness, and, furthermore, that
you know nothing about wine or you would have nicer labels in your
collection, not just a bunch of cheap labels, which may taste the same
but are not the same because when your guests see my label they are
going to think, oh, this is great wine, surely this isn't an 89 point
wine, surely this is one of the greatest wines ever made, I can see that
by the label, and so it must be me, must be my inability to understand
wine, to list the aromas I'm smelling, to enjoy wine without knowing
what the label looks like, and that will be worth the ninety-seven extra
dollars you spent, dollars you will have spent on self-esteem and
imaginary prestige. This argument worked for a while.
I am interested in applying for the recently vacated position of Pope at The Wine Advocate. I’m certain that the abdication of Pope Antonio came as quite a shock to you and God, but you’ve accepted the Pope’s decision in a graceful and classy manner. Hell, He’s God, no one should be surprised. OK, I probably shouldn’t have said Hell.
It is the Pope’s job to speak for God. Pope Antonio, if I may be so bold, was never convincing in that role. I’m pretty sure he broke many of God’s commandments. For example, “Thou shall have no other gods before me, unless it’s Michel Rolland.” And no one really took Pope Antonio seriously, his Papal declarations fell on deaf ears. Winemakers ceremoniously kissed his ring, but then made fun of him after he left. “Sure, he’s the Pope, but he doesn’t know the Oakville Bench from the Rutherford bus stop.” So, in my humble opinion, the Church of Bob is better off without Pope Antonio. Yes, the younger parishioners may have been attracted to him, he spoke their language, but young worshipers show little interest in the Church of Bob. They’re flocking to other, newer, hipper places of worship—Our Lady of Wine Dude, and that crazy Canadian Nat Out of Hell First Congregational (though I think they plagiarized the Church of Bob mass). The more established members of the Church of Bob, his Choirbuttboys, never felt the kind of respect for Pope Antonio the church needed. It was his age, for the most part, and, frankly, news of his retirement has invigorated the faithful. They eagerly await a new Pope, a Pope who clearly and genuinely speaks for God. I’m that man.
I understand that there will be a Papal Conclave convening soon to select the new Pope for the Church of Bob. Cardinal Neal will probably push for some creepy sort of M.W. to be the next Pope. Please, Cardinal Perroti-Brown (oh, I miss the days when Dr. Miller was part of the church and I could address you as P-B & Jay—who doesn’t love a good P-B & Jay?), do not overlook the fact that M.W.’s are the spawn of Satan, and worship at his altar. Allowing one to become Pope would spell the end of the Church of Bob, and evil will have triumphed. They say M.W. stands for Master of Wine, but that’s only what they say to the public. They are actually indoctrinated as Mammon of Wine—that’s what the M.W. really stands for, Ms. P-B, so be sure and remind Cardinal Neal of that.
Between you and me, Lisa (may I call you that?, I feel like we’re somehow soulmates), Cardinal David is probably on his way out too. All the damned German Popes are on the way out. No one cares about the German part of The Wine Advocate, no one ever has, not even God Himself. Cardinal David must know this. There’s even been speculation, I know you must be aware, that there was a reason Cardinal David was banished to the wasteland of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. Ugly rumors about Choirbuttboy abuse, his obvious disdain and abuse of them in the Holy Chat Room of Squires. But though I think he’s been a wonderful Cardinal, and that those Choirbuttboys had it coming with all their constant whining, don’t be surprised if he uses the Papal Conclave to announce, like that traitorous Pope Antonio, that he’s starting his own church. Just what the damn world needs, more places of worship—Holy Galloni Chapel and Schildknecht Kirche.
Cardinal Squires will nominate himself. He always does. We’re all sick of him and wonder what God sees in him. My guess is that, hey, shysters stick together. But don’t let him be Pope, that would be disastrous. He’s a backwater Cardinal at best, so Portugal is the perfect spot for him. Who buys that stuff? Make him Pope and give him Bordeaux and California? We know that God works in mysterious ways, but surely He doesn’t consider suicide. That’s a sin, right?
Finally, a word of advice, don’t let those Three Wise Men from Singapore into the Papal Conclave. They just handle the collection plate, they don’t know crap about wine and who should be the next Pope. Tell ‘em there’s a manger in Bethlehem needs a remodel.
I’m hoping that you’ll present my name to the Papal Conclave. I believe that I would be a wonderful Pope, a Pope the worshipers would not only heed but come to love, as they love God Himself. If anything, I am overqualified to be the next Pope. I’ve tasted three vintages of Chateau Petrus yet for the past twenty vintages I’ve awarded them 98+ and higher. I knew Chateau Latour when it was just a little brick shithouse. I almost married Michel Rolland, but she called it off when she found out that “micro” was also my nickname… When you talk about California, my name always comes up. I live in California and am widely respected in wine country. I’ve met Monsignor Harlan and walked the holy land of Harlan Estate, felt the very presence of God, and witnessed the miracles of the pilgrims who flock there to find a cure for their extra cash. I know the Angel Krankl and the miracles of Ventura, how the Angel Krankl took the loaves of La Brea Bakery and turned them into holy wines scoring hundreds and hundreds of points, and his devotion to all things God. When Pope Antonio walked among the winemakers of California they admired him, his fine suit, his cool pointy hat, his magic scepter, his hot wife. But when I walk among them, they are joyous. Well, they laugh anyway.
When the white smoke finally rises from the Church of Bob, I pray that I am the newly elected Pope. Mine will be a lifetime appointment. I shall not use the Holy Parish to make a name for myself only to abdicate and begin my own church. May those Popes who do so rot in Lodi. I shall worship at the foot of God and faithfully convey his wishes and demands to his flock. I shall devote my life to the quest for perfection, just as God Himself would have all of us do. And I will find perfection wherever I go, I shall not be reluctant to award perfection as so many other churches are. Hundred point scores shall flow from me as wisdom flows from God. For that’s where the money is.
Loring Wines I Loved as an Excuse to Talk About Me
Loring Wine Company 2011 Chardonnay Rosella’s Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands $50
Loring Wine Company 2011 Chardonnay Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast $50
Loring Wine Company 2011 Pinot Noir Keefer Ranch Russian River Valley $54
Loring Wine Company 2011 Pinot Noir Gary’s Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands $54
Loring Wine Company 2011 Pinot Noir Cargasacchi Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills $54
Loring Wine Company 2011 Mourvedre Russell Family Vineyard Paso Robles $48
Loring Wine Company 2010 Convergence Paso Robles $79/btl in 3-pack
A few months ago, I received an email from Brian Loring, of Loring Wine Company. Brian offered to send me some wine, and he offered to send the wines without tech sheets and winery propaganda, which I tend to immediately put into the recycling bin right next to my empty Boner in a Can®. I took Brian up on his offer because I’d been a fan of his wines in my sommelier days and I hadn’t tasted many of them recently.
Brian sent me seventeen different bottles. It’s like going to the dealer for a test drive and he gives you the damned car. Or being “The Bachelor” and getting to sleep with all the girls, even the one with one eyebrow and a suspicious bulge. Man, now you’re livin’! Give her a rose, but be careful of the prick.
I was never on “The Bachelor” for one good reason. My wife wouldn’t let me. Well, that, and I’m ugly. But I was on “The Dating Game” in 1971, and several game shows after that. You probably remember me, I was Bachelor #2. I didn’t get picked for the date, which was, I kid you not, a trip to St. Louis. Nothing an 18-year-old boy wishes for more than a trip to Missouri. Though I certainly would have been looking forward to my date’s impression of the Gateway Arch.
I was also a contestant on “The Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour” in 1984. (OK, I know, what’s this got to do with Loring Wine Company? I’m getting there.) My four day total winnings were $34,100. In today’s dollars, that’s damn near $35,000. It was a great experience. It’s interesting to watch the videotape now (no, it’s not on YouTube, though it’s easily worthless enough to be) just to see the “stars.” The only genuine star was Steve Allen, who was one of my comedy heroes, and who reminded me on the air “not to be funnier than the talent.” The rest of the panel is a “Where Are They Now” column. Bruce Baum (a standup who used to wear a baby diaper on stage as part of his act—at least, I think it was part of his act), Roxie Roker (the neighbor on “The Jeffersons,” who was just incredibly dumb—she put the blank in Fill in the Blank), Jayne Meadows (Steve Allen’s wife), and, here it comes, Gloria Loring (a talented singer, but best known as one of the stars of the daytime soap opera, “Days of Our Lives”—“Like the sand during your beach sex, so go the Days of our Lives…”). Ms. Loring was gorgeous, blonde hair and green eyes, and I assumed she had no taste in men because she was married to Alan Thicke, who was to Johnny Carson what Korbel is to Champagne, or what HoseMaster is to wit. I was smitten, so the Loring name conjured up beauty and lust in my fevered and confused brain.
I first met Brian Loring many years ago when he first began following his winemaking passion. He lived in Glendale, I think, which is about twenty minutes from where I worked as a sommelier, and was making wines from purchased fruit under his Loring Wine Company label. A friend of his brought him in to the restaurant and I tasted through his wines. I’d try anyone’s wines once. This isn’t usually the case with sommeliers at successful restaurants. You are inundated with calls from aspiring new winemakers, new distributors, new brokers... Most of the time, the wines they bring are awful. It’s like speed dating at a leper colony, only you’re the one who leaves a little piece of yourself behind. However, Brian’s wines were good, he was a nice guy, and he got me over that beauty and lust over Loring thing. I don’t remember if I bought his wines that first time, but I often did in the years that followed.
Four of the seventeen wines Brian sent me were Chardonnay, all from 2011 and all vineyard designates—Rosella’s and Sierra Mar from Santa Lucia Highlands, and Durell and Parmalee-Hill from Sonoma Coast (and all priced at $50). Brian had mentioned to me in an email that he was thinking about the glory days of Kistler Chardonnays when he produced these wines, and drinking them over the course of a week, I certainly noticed the stylistic resemblance.
Kistler was the California Chardonnay success story of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. I don’t know how many of you have tasted a lot of Kistler, but, to me, their Chardonnays represented the classic Before and After photos you see in weight loss ads for women. In the Before photo, Chardonnay is dumpy and non-descript, with more bulges than a shoplifting Ninja. I mean, really, do you want to see her naked? That’s how I feel about so-called “naked” Chardonnays, Chardonnays with no oak. I don’t want to go there, I don’t want them to be naked, that’s why they’re the Before picture. And, unlike a “naked” Chardonnay Stelvin, you can’t just go and un-screw them. In the After photo, Chardonnay is transformed! She hasn’t just lost weight, but the lighting is better, the clothes fit, her makeup is perfect, her hair is done, she’s smiling, and her boobs are a cup-size bigger. It takes a lot to make that Before an After. In Chardonnay’s case, a lot of new oak, a lot of lees contact, a lot of malolactic fermentation, and a lot of damned slick marketing. Kistler had the biggest boobs of any Chardonnay available and was never afraid of flashing them. The word “mouth-filling” jumps to mind.
It’s one thing to try to emulate a style, yet another to succeed. Kistler presaged lots of other wines—you can draw a straight line from them to Peter Michael, Marcassin, and even Ramey. But those are the successful ones, many others made deplorable Chardonnays in that style. But Loring does a great job of channeling Kistler in these wines, though with his own thumbprint on each wine as well. I don’t think that’s as easy as it might sound. First of all, with all of that new oak, and all of the other cosmetics, you’d better have fruit that can stand up to it. And the more you mess with wine, the greater your chances you’ll screw it up.
Brian’s Chardonnays are very surehanded, but it’s a style you have to like. They’re more Ethel Merman than Peggy Lee. Subtlety is not their forte, but power and substance are. (And that’s not a knock—after all, Forte Knocks is in Kentucky.) It’s really been a long time since I drank Chardonnays like Loring’s, and I liked them a lot. But it can be hard to appreciate wines like this if you have minerality and crispness as your only frame of reference. I love Chablis as much as the next person. This ain’t Chablis.
I did my best to pair them with appropriate meals. The 2011 Rosella’s was just brilliant with some grilled swordfish, though I worried the swordfish might not be rich enough, it paired reasonably well. You also have to be patient with huge and ostentatious Chardonnays like these. At first, they are all oak and cream and roasted grain. But with time, at least an hour, the fruit shows what it’s made of. I often recommended decanting Kistler Chardonnays to restaurant customers. It helped, though I got a lot of odd looks from folks. Which could have been about the way I wore my tastevin like a yarmulke, but I don’t think so.
My other favorite was the 2011 Durell (a vineyard also designated by Kistler). Very rich and decadent, like something out of a Fitzgerald novel, it goes all out in its pursuit of ripe and sumptuous Chardonnay. With scallops, very simply sautéed, it was just the thing. And left overnight in the fridge, it lost nothing of its core of luscious fruit. Less tropical fruit than the 2011 Rosella’s, but equally riveting.
The 2011 Sierra Mar was a bit less exotic than the Rosella’s, and bit less substantial, but very good wine. I wasn’t as fond of the 2011 Parmalee-Hill, it was my least favorite. Why? Hell, I don’t know. I felt that it didn’t quite have the stuffing to stand up to the dramatic style. Don Knotts playing King Lear jumps to mind for some reason. "Hey, Opie, When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools--like Gomer and Floyd."
If you love this style of Chardonnay, oaky, flamboyant and ripe, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy any of Loring’s wines. There is some risk-taking in wines made like this, it’s certainly not a style in vogue with sommeliers at the moment, and it can go horribly wrong, but these wines are immensely successful.
Brian also sent me eight different Pinot Noir vineyard-designates, all from 2011. I once proposed that it be illegal for any winery to have more than four different vineyard-designates of any variety. Really, isn’t four enough? After that, it’s just showing off. Furthermore, does every damn vineyard deserve single vineyard status? If they all do, then none does. Hey, Brian only has eight (though I think he makes a bunch more). Williams Selyem is up to 176, and Siduri makes more than 700 vineyard designates, adding up to 2500 total cases. I cannot tell you how many times a winery presented me with six or seven different Pinot Noirs and I could hardly tell the difference between them. I’d occasionally try to get the winemaker to let me taste him on just one of his own Pinot Noirs blind to see if he could identify it from its distinctive, designated terroir. Most wouldn’t try.
I’ve always believed that if women bought the majority of high end wines sold, vineyard-designate wines would go away. Men like the hunt, the collecting of trophies. We have to have ALL of the Rochioli Reserves, and ALL of the Williams Selyem Pinot Noirs. Women don’t care. They just want to drink and not listen to the bullshit. “It’s wine, let’s open it. I don’t care what damned Turley it is, open the damned thing.” Men have to start pontificating about how little was produced, how hard it is to get, how amazing it is—we’re basically talking about our sperm. Women just want to get it over with.
Loring’s eight different vineyards were: Keefer, Russell Family, Clos Pepe, Gary’s, Rosella’s, Cargasacchi, Aubaine, and Durell…
Of those eight, I’d heard of six. Keefer is one of the great vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Gary’s and Rosella’s are well-known Santa Lucia Highlands properties, Clos Pepe and Cargasacchi are two of the stalwarts of the Santa Rita Hills, and Durell is a large and famous vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation. Aubaine was that dead guy from Nirvana, and Russell Family was some sort of cult, right? More like graveyard-designates.
Loring’s style is not really about restraint. Not in the Chardonnays, and not in the Pinot Noirs either. He just goes for it. A few of the Pinot Noirs tasted very extracted to me, as though perhaps they’d had enzymes added during fermentation. Nothing wrong with that, but at times it goes over the top of what I like in Pinot Noir. Every single one of Loring’s Pinot Noirs was well-made, but I had very different reactions to each of them.
The three that I loved were the 2011 Keefer, the 2011 Gary’s and the 2011 Cargasacchi. Notice the first two both rhyme with “reefer.” I’d gladly add these three wines to my cellar. Very different, but all wonderful. The Keefer is so beautiful and expressive of the red fruit with a bit of cola one can get from the Russian River Valley, with a silky texture and haunting finish. The Gary’s is much spicier and plusher, completely seamless and lingering, with an extra layer or two of depth. The Cargasacchi had a beautiful austerity about it, that cool climate restraint that promises to one day blossom into something extraordinary, and I loved its sour cherry/herbal edge that almost defied its luscious mouthfeel. I’d encourage you to seek out these distinctive Pinot Noirs from Loring Wine Company. They’re all priced at $54, and, given the Pinot Noir market, that’s a fair price for any of them.
The 2011 Rosella’s was but a notch behind those three. The first whiff of it was distinctly gingerbread to me, but it gained complexity and richness with air. I thought it a bit clunky, but that’s probably just its youth showing. The 2011 Clos Pepe perplexed me, and I remarked to my wife that if I had tasted it blind I might not have known it was even Pinot Noir. “Judging by your shirt,” she said, “I thought you had tasted it blind.” I very much liked the 2011 Durell. It tasted to me like classic Pommard clone Pinot Noir, though I have no idea if that’s so. Dark fruit, with a bit of earthiness, very pretty, it was really classic Pinot Noir to me—though I thought it just a wee bit thin, probably a vintage thing. The 2011 Russell Family was straightforward, but I didn’t find much interesting about it. I tried to forget that it’s Pinot Noir from Paso Robles--drinking Pinot Noir from Paso Robles is sort of like going to an Italian restaurant and ordering tacos--and just judge it objectively, but I found the wine just never inspired me in the least. Others may find it more appealing. The 2011 Aubaine hit me the same way—pleasant wine, but not in the same league as the vineyard-designates from Keefer, Gary’s, and Cargasacchi. Does it deserve it’s own designation? Not my call, but where does a winemaker draw the line? Obviously, it’s drawn at the bottom line.
Oh, I’ve gone on too long here. Somebody help me! I’m turning into that NothingsBiggerThanMyHead guy. But we’re almost through. There were five other wines in the Loring shipment, including the 2010 Divergence, a 2/3 Cab and 1/3 Mourvedre blend that is the biggest goddam wine I’ve had in years. Brian writes that he’s currently infatuated with the Spanish wine, El Nido, and its sister wine El Peachykeeno, and this is his California (Paso Robles, to be precise) version of that famous wine. I just couldn’t get past its hugeness. At least not the first day. I drank half a glass and suddenly felt like tarpapering my roof. Granted, El Nido has the same sort of effect on me, only I’d head to Home Depot and hire some Spanish-speaking guys to tarpaper my roof. So I put the bottle on the kitchen counter and waited. The second day all the fruit started to arrive, sort of like a bad Mardi Gras party. And it’s loads of very ripe fruit, particularly the Cabernet in the blend. I quite enjoyed it the second and third days, though it was relentlessly huge. In evaluating a wine, I’m not necessarily concerned with my own reaction to the style, I’m more interested in if the wine is successful for the style. I would argue the 2010 Divergence is very successful for its bold, gigantic, all or nothing style. If you’re a fan of gigantic, high alcohol Zinfandel, for example, you’d love this wine. If that sort of wine makes you gag like smelling week-old dog breakfast, avoid it.
Brian also sent the 2010 Convergence, a blend of 75% Grenache and 25% Mourvedre. I loved this wine. But I’m a Grenache freak and always have been. But this is Paso Robles Grenache, not Gigondas. It’s very intense, and very ripe, but it doesn’t stray into the sort of cherry hard candy territory very ripe Grenache can often find. Grenache can get away from you in the vineyard, leap to a high ripeness suddenly, and that gives it a sweet, cloying character in the glass. None of that here. Instead it’s just very intense and bold, with the Mourvedre tempering it, lending some acidity and savoriness. It was much like an expensive Priorat to my taste, and that’s a compliment. This is gorgeous, voluptuous, seductive, and wonderfully made Grenache that tastes like it came from a mineral-rich soil. I guess I mean it has striking acidity for the degree of ripeness, and that’s what gives me that impression. The price is $79/bottle in a three-pack, otherwise $99. The wine and the price are not for the shy of heart, but it's damned fine wine.
Brian also sent me a terrific 2011 Mourvedre from Russell Family Vineyard that was all you want from Mourvedre—meaty, mushroomy, earthy, and a bit like a mocha coffee. Also, a 2011 Grenache from that vineyard that I liked quite a bit—it shows that same nice acidity, considering the ripeness, as the Convergence, and leans into a cherry cordial sort of character, sweet and with loads of plush texture. A 2010 Cabernet from Russell Family Vineyard I didn’t find any affection for. It was all over the place—if a wine can be a sloppy drunk, this one was. And it may explain why I wasn’t overly fond of the Divergence, where it’s the main component.
Loring’s style is not for everyone, but one can say that for every great winery. But he has a consistent style, and if you fall in love with one of his wines, you’ll find you like the rest as well. So take a flyer, taste one. His is a bombastic, flamboyant, extroverted style of wine, and, in that style, his wines are memorable. The best, listed at the top of this marathon post, are landmarks of the style, and wines I highly recommend.
But, man, that’s a lot of wine to review. Comedy is easier.
The last lessons of my mentor’s life took place every Tuesday in Monkton. There, lying in the shade of his gout-swollen ankles, Bobbie taught me about the Meaning of Wine. His lessons were drawn from his life, his experiences, his vast knowledge of the boundless gullibility of humans. There were no exams, no wine reviews to write, none of his buttboys around to affirm his omniscience. There was but one student. I was that student.
No grades were given, nothing on the 100 Point Scale, but one was expected to occasionally perform some physical chore. Moving Neal Martin around to where he was most comfortably Bobbie’s footrest. Chiseling years of foie gras from Bobbie’s navel. Adding three points to every Antonio Galloni score when he wasn’t looking. A kiss goodbye earned extra credit, though he had more chins than a Chinese phone book. There was no graduation ceremony. There was a funeral. With a coffin the size of his reputation, and the only mourners a newspaper photographer, the winemaker of Sine Qua Non, and Bobbie’s grieving father. Yes, only Snap, Krankl and Pop.
I had heard that my mentor was terminally ill. Outwardly, he appeared fine, but there were signs. He’d sold his most precious belongings--his publication, his editorial control, and his Lisa Perroti-Brown hand puppet--to three mysterious men from Singapore, one of whom looked suspiciously like Dorothy Lamour. The Wine Advocate was off on the Road to Singapore. Hilarity would ensue, but we’d be left without hope--and crosby. It certainly was a harbinger of Bobbie’s death.
His death sentence came in the spring of 2012. Bobbie had awarded nineteen wines his perfect score, an unheard-of orgy of critical sploogemaking. Wine critics recognized his creeping dementia, and they quietly began to whisper about it. They’d always done what Bobbie had done. Followed his every example, from his pithy, overblown, pornographic wine descriptions to his 100 Point Scale, they’d obediently followed his lead like he was Temple Grandin and they were cattle. They knew the steaks were high. Though it would leave the wine critics bereft and desperate for someone else to copy, they began to openly talk about Bobbie’s imminent death. The cattle stampeded.
I decided to pay a visit to my wine mentor. Bobbie seemed fine to me at first glance, hale and chipper, suitably snockered for ten in the morning, and he greeted his prized blobber warmly. “HoseMaster,” he said, “it’s wonderful to see you. Make me laugh and I’ll pee my pants for you.” Judging by his pants, he’d already had a few chuckles that morning. And one serious damn guffaw.
“Good to see you, too, Bobbie,” I said. It was his response, the clarity of his dementia, that broke my heart. “2013 was the greatest vintage of my lifetime in Napa Valley,” he said. “And I have a small fortune in Twinkies in my sphincter. Will you come every Tuesday?”
Though something was clearly eating his brain (I suspected that Zombie Stephen Tanzer, whose palate was clearly that of the walking dead), there were many hours Bobbie was lucid. He would speak eloquently about wine, about wine criticism, and about life. It was never stated, but it was clear that I was meant to be his last voice, share his fading wisdom with a world starved and ignorant when it comes to the bounty of the grape. Yes, there was a bounty of the grape, and Bobbie was our Captain Bligh, listing starboard and besotted with Port.
“Wine,” Bobbie said to me, “is proof that God loves us, and hates Mormons. Wine is meant to deliver pleasure. Pleasure is wine’s only job, like a cheap whore. Always remember this, HoseMaster, and your life in wine will be infinitely finer--wine is a cheap whore meant only to deliver pleasure and then be tossed aside. You can dress it up, you can make it look like Julia Roberts, but it’s still a whore. But how does one measure pleasure? Answer me, HoseMaster. How?”
“A fake scale?”
“Yes, Grasshopper, you have learned well! But you miss the real point. Just like with a cheap whore, deep down you always fear your own performance when it comes to wine. The scale, your assigning an imaginary and wholly worthless value to that wine, that cheap whore, validates your wisdom and knowledge and virility. Always seek control of wine, my friend, not mastery. Leave the ‘mystery’ of wine to the sissies, the lazy thinking proponents of Natural and Authentic wines. Let them talk about their ‘journey’ like they’re actually going somewhere, the cretins. You don’t need to master wine, you simply need to judge it. Gods don’t master, Gods judge.”
Naturally, there came a Tuesday when I asked Bobbie about his love for wine, his obvious passion for what is, after all, mere alcohol dressed like a six-year-old beauty pageant contestant.
“Maybe I just had to love something,” he said. “Wine has prestige and status, though no one understands why. Like soccer. We are defined by who we love, what we love and how we love. Love is the yeast that transforms us, and makes us palatable to other people. Without that yeast, we just smell like old barrels. Did I choose wine, or did wine choose me? There is life’s mystery. I like to think we’re one. I am wine, HoseMaster, and wine is me and only me.”
On our last Tuesday together, Bobbie had a few parting thoughts for me. I think he felt Death was near, though James Laube had just left and, well, he does that to most people, and he had a few truths to share one last time.
“Remember to dance, HoseMaster, preferably with your pants down. Remember that it’s only wine, and it’s only numbers—it's just fools and rich white guys that think they go together. Remember that love and wine have one thing in common—when you’re clueless about either one, just make shit up. No one will ever know.”
It's the first Monday of the month, so today's piece is at Tim Atkin, MW's blog. It's in England, so many of the jokes get lost in the translation. I think you'll enjoy today's piece. It's written by the great natural wine hunter Frank Buck, a man who risks his life ferreting out natural wines from what are usually dangerous places. Feel free to comment, if you're so inclined, here, or across the virtual pond at Tim's.
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.
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