Monday, April 28, 2014

Dysfunctional Family Winemakers

This piece was the last piece I wrote before taking my 15 month "hiatus" in 2010. Those were the good old days. The piece began with the simple twisting of the Family Winemakers Association into what all families are, dysfunctional. That silly thought led to endless possibilities, the seediest of which I chose to write about. As twisted as a lot of this stuff is, I have a fondness for this sort of tastelessness, which will come as no surprise to any of my regular readers. Anyhow, here, from August of 2010, was my second, or maybe third, swan song, Dysfunctional Family Winemakers...

If there's one tasting I look forward to the most eagerly each year, it's the American and International Dysfunctional Family Winemakers tasting ("AInt Dysfun?, as it's known in the trade). There's an electricity in the air unmatched at any other event in the wine biz, except maybe the annual Capital Punishment affair held by William Foley in the majestic ballroom at San Quentin when he executes the staff of a new winery he's purchased. And he spares no expense on the food--it's Last Meal for everybody! But there are so many wineries represented at AInt Dysfun? that it would be impossible to taste at every table. (Unless you're Alder Yarrow. But he has a distinct advantage over ordinary humans. Just ask him.) I usually try to visit a few of my favorite Dysfunctional Family Wineries, after all, who can pass up a chance to visit with Gina Gallo and Jean-Charles Boisset, the poster children for AIn't Dysfun?, but spend the majority of my time tasting at Dysfunctional Family wineries that are new to me. I don't spend a lot of time here at HoseMaster of Wine reviewing wine, mostly because you babies whine when I do, but I came across some extraordinary wines at AInt Dysfun that I thought you should seek out.

There's something really inspiring about the wines from Overly Affectionate Family Vineyards. First of all, I don't think I've ever seen so many people working at one table before at a tasting. Seventeen members of the Overly family were present to share their wines. They had formed a long daisy chain of holding hands, so only Tricia Overly, the matriarch of the family, who was standing on the end, had a free hand to serve their wines. I was curious about how such a physically affectionate family got into the wine business, but Tricia's answers were constantly interrupted by her children kissing her repeatedly on the mouth. That didn't bother me. But breastfeeding at a trade show is crossing a line! Though I was curious why her son's beard stubble didn't irritate her. I was impressed with the Overly Affectionate 2009 "Come Here and Kiss Me" Chardonnay. When I asked Bennett Overly what made it so distinct, he looked up from where he was nuzzling his eldest daughter's neck and told me that the secret to Overly Affectionate Family wines was "skin contact, and lots of it." I don't come from an overtly affectionate family, so it was refreshing to see a family so openly touching and kissing and sharing physical comfort, so obviously proud of their family and wines. "There's a little bit of me in all my wines," Bennett told me, "and a little bit of me in all my kids too." Yeah, I guess.

After the Overly Affectionate Family wines I rushed over to wash my hands, then taste at the table where some friendly guys were serving My Sister's Underwear Drawer wines. You just can't get more dysfunctional than that! Each label features a lovely engraving of a different pair of the Bagg brothers', Scum and Doosh, sister's panties. Reminiscent of the Harlan Estate labels, except Harlan Estate's Scratch 'n' Sniff smells like money. I asked Doosh where the name of the winery originated. You don't want to know. First, I tasted the My Sister's Underwear Drawer 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon "Edible." The nose was slightly fecal, and the flavors were distinctly earthy, so I might have mistaken it for a Santa Barbara Cabernet. The My Sister's Underwear Drawer 2008 "G-String" Pinot Noir was my favorite. The wine simply glides between your cheeks. Doosh told me the wine is 100% Pommerde clone grown in very chalky soil. "What I'm really looking for in these wines is the same thing I look for in my sister's underwear drawer," Doosh told me, "expression of soil..."

As a person who thinks the whole wine and food pairing culture is stupid, it was refreshing to taste with the folks at Domaine Eating Disorder. Siblings Ann O'Rexia and Bill Emia were candid in their views. "Food, in general, is disgusting," Ann told me, "and has no place at the dinner table." As dysfunctional family members, you would expect Bill to disagree with his sis, "Well, I love food, and lots and lots of it. Anyone who doesn't eat his weight in trans-fats a day is just not enjoying life. But wine with food? Don't make me puke." Hard to argue with winemakers who make such remarkable wines. The Domaine Eating Disorder 2009 "Kate Moss" Sauvignon Blanc was predictably lean and acidic, though Bill admired its bounty of grapefruit, melons and Fig Newtons on the palate. Actual Fig Newtons. In every bottle Bill was able to add a yummy cookie due to a loophole in the TTB regulations that allows Nabisco products in certain wines. (There are Oreo cookies in the Eating Disorder Zinfandel from Lodi, but you can't really tell--it's Lodi Zin, after all.) Bill's favorite is the Domaine Eating Disorder 2006 "The Vomitorium" Gruner Veltliner. "If this doesn't make you Smaragd up your dinner, I don't know what will."

It seemed appropriate to end the AInt Dysfun Tasting at the most sought-after cult wine table with dozens of fellow wine bloggers clamoring for a taste of Personal Failure Wines. Personal Failure's concept is to bring together people who have never been successful enough to have pleased their parents under one roof to make wine. Each bottle has a back label that briefly explains how the winemaker disappointed his mother or father, or both. For example, here's what it says on the back of Personal Failure 2007 "You Married That Slut" Cabernet:

2007 was the year I married my wife Betty over the objections of my mother who told me I was marrying Betty because I was inadequately endowed and Betty was the first whore who said Yes, and that Betty was certain to take many lovers and a mockery of me, and that I shouldn't even think about running back home when Betty dumped me because she'd already be dead after turning the shotgun on Dad first, What was there to live for? This is my tribute to her. I hope you enjoy it. And, thanks, Betty, it was fun.The stories are compelling, and so are the wines. It seemed that each blogger had a Personal Failure wine he could identify with, and this, along with the astounding quality of the wines, made under the supervision of personal failure Tim Mondavi, is what creates the historic demand for these wines. Here's another, this from the back label of Personal Failure 2008 "You'll Never Amount to Anything" Chardonnay:

I dedicate this wine to my Father, Leonard, who, from the time I was a little girl, told me I would never amount to anything. And now, after a stalled career as a surrogate mother for endangered Amazon River tribes, five failed marriages, three failed suicide attempts, and one failed souffle, I want my Father to try my 2008 Chardonnay, which was aged 10 months in Ethan Allen oak and was bottled unfined, unfiltered and sadly unloved.You can understand why the Personal Failure table was so busy. Personal Failure speaks to us all.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lo Hai Qu Joins Geekhole.Com

My somewhat deranged intern Lo Hai Qu showed up more hungover than usual the other day, and when I asked her what she’d been up to, she said she had been conducting a social experiment with her girlfriends, and asked if she could publish some of the results on HoseMaster of Wine™. I have no idea what she meant, but I told her she could write about it here. I’m going to regret this, but here she is, the inimitable Lo Hai Qu:

So me and my friends joined this wine expert dating site,, cuz we’re all like sick of the dickwads who hit on us at wine bars. Like this one guy comes up to us and says, “Hey, sexy, if you got a split, I’ve got just the magnum that will fit.” I thought Loqueesha was gonna hurl her Prosecco at him. Not the glass, she was just going to hurl. She crazy. But I just gave the wad my Lo-cut dressing down look and told his sorry ass, “If I wanted to screw a loser, I’d buy a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.” Another time me and Shizzangela was gettin’ our drink on, Shizzy all upset because Dr. Conti dumped her for some white chick with an M.W. (Massive Wormhole), and this dildo walks up, can’t he see we’re drowning our sorrows in Moscato, and says to her, “You’re so beautiful, I’ll bet your tears taste salty like great Manzanilla.” Which Shizzy thought “Manzanilla” was that big dinosaur that ate Tokyo so she goes, “How’d you like me to teach you how to detect sulfur by shoving your head up your ass?” So we decided we’d sign up for and see if we could find us some maybe older guys who’d buy us really good Champagne, like Veulva Clicquot or one of those expensive new Growler Champagnes, though why the fuck you’d put Champagne in a bucket I don’t know. Anyways, I like beer in a bucket cuz I prefer a pail ale, but Champagne? I want to try that! is kinda like one of those wine chat rooms, you know, those wine chat rooms where there’s hardly any women so the boys can break out their wine hardons and wave them around like they’re playing Dungeons and Dragons with their meat thiefs. I was looking at one of those stupid chat rooms, like it was called winebazookas or something, and it was such a waste of time. Like there’s a million posts, but only three different topics. “Hey, the new BlowJob releases are out! Who gets to taste them first?” And, “Last night I drank a wine that got a bunch of points and you didn’t, Tiny Balls.” And, of course, “Anyone here ever had sex with a woman that you didn’t fold up and put back in the bag after?” Fuck, are those guys for real? I guess you get old and if you know a lot about wine being on those chat rooms, it’s basically just like strokin’ it to online porn, only when you finally let the gunk fly, you’re saying your own name outloud.

So I sign up for just for laughs. Lo doesn’t have any problems getting dates. I get hit on more than one of that asshole rapper Chris Brown’s girls. And like I got so many Friends with Benefits I could start my own Blue Cross—I issue ‘em cards and sign ‘em all up for Lobamacare. Lobamacare is just like Obamacare--we’re all gonna get fucked. But I thought it would be hilarious to date some wine experts, like, just sit there on a date and see the looks on their faces when they’re sitting across from an actual woman. Well, me and my girls, we thought it was a good idea at the time. But it sucked like wine-by-the-glass at a Chinese restaurant. Dating wine experts is like reading those fancyass wine descriptions that those shithead wine writers crank out—their words always make them sound good, but you put ‘em in your mouth and there’s just nothin’ there.

About ten seconds after I put my profile on Geekholes I had like fifty date requests. Loqueesha had about a thousand, but that’s because under “Likes” she put “AC/DC” thinkin’ that was what they call those French appellation laws. I told her that’s “AOC” but she says that’s stupid, “AOC” is the beginning words to the “Star Spangled Banner.” She always trying to sound smart about wine, but she don’t know Riesling from Ryan Gosling. Anyhow, I was trolling through my date requests and see this kinda cute sommelier who’s asking to take me out for coffee. Like I’m gonna get all Tête du Cuvée’d up for a cheapass date at Starbuck’s—I’ve got better Têtes than that. And he’s not that cute, he’s just sommelier cute, which is like being Lite beer. It’s not really beer, but there’s nothing else to call it. So I tell him if he wants a date with Lo, go big or join the Go Fuck Yourself Club™.  Man, is that Club getting full. I’m going to have to start a waiting list for new members, especially with the new Poodle Awards coming soon.

I never dated a somm before. Turns out “somm” is short for Sominex. This dude was talking about wine nonstop and I was about to pass out into my bean burrito. Yeah, that’s right, he takes me to a Mexican restaurant. Asshole. He asks me before the date if I like salsa, right, and I think he means dancing, so I get all excited. I should have known--somms can’t dance. All they can do is curate. He tells me he spends a lot of time curating his wine list, like he’s running a fuckin’ museum. Yeah, MOMA. Museum of Modern Assholes.  So this somm is so dull he makes those Sister Karen MacNeil videos seem hilarious. Which they are if you’re wasted from huffin’ Private Preserve, which is a great high, and you’re still fresh in the morning, but otherwise those might be the lamest wine shit on the Internet since that Suckling dude doing his best Phillip Seymour Hoffman self-destruct act rating wines. Every Go Fuck Yourself Club™ needs a Suckling member. If you get my drift.

The HoseMaster told me I shouldn’t date somms, and he would know. Well, his poor wife would know. It’s an obsession being a somm, like the most important thing in the world is wine, like how many "unicorns" you drank last week. Yeah, like little girls, somms chase unicorns. It also explains why most of them are virgins. Not that they care. Wine they can put in little compartments, like that one’s “natural,” or that one is made from Nebbiolo, or that one is “Grand Cru.” You do that with people, and, well, your life is gonna get tough. So they don’t bother with people. They hang around with other Geekholes, bragging about their wine knowledge, and never really wonderin’ if that’s the way to spend your life, tasting wine instead of people. I kinda feel sorry for them. No, not really, that’s not how Lo rolls. Some people think knowing a lot about wine is something to be proud of. Well, that and Boner In a Can® will get you laid.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Salvation Army of Jokes

I seem to have a lot on my mind. When I sit down to write a new piece for HoseMaster of Wine™, I often don’t know where to begin. It’s obvious I also don’t know when to end. I keep a running list of ideas for the blog, and I never run out of ideas, but many of those ideas are not good enough to warrant an entire piece. Which assumes I have any ideas that are worthy of an entire piece. So I thought I’d assemble a few of those random ideas and make a throwaway post out of them, a kind of closet cleaning, taking all the worthless crap to the Salvation Army. You can sift through all of my junk ideas and see if there’s anything you want. Leave a little change on the front counter. It’s all for charity. 

Hey, it's a slow day after Easter, a Monday, time to throw out the trash.

Score Inflation
Does anyone doubt that the major wine publications, not to mention Wine Enthusiast, have inflated wine scores over the past decade? Their explanation is that wines are simply better than they’ve ever been. This might be true, but it’s a stupid argument. If wines are better than they’ve ever been, then adjust the goddam scale. Here’s an analogy. Gymnasts are also better than they’ve ever been. Way better. Almost every woman gymnast now has a more difficult routine, and is better, than Nadia Comăneci was when she scored the first perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympic Games, yet not one of them scored a 10 in the most recent Summer Olympics. Why? They adjusted the scoring, recognizing that the bar for the sport was being set a lot higher as the competitors improved. Why can’t wine writers do the same with wine scores? It would bring some actual meaning back to a 95 point wine when it becomes a rare occurrence. Those thousands and thousands of 89 point wines, why can’t they become 80 point wines? That’s what they are. Wouldn’t it be nice to read a review of a wine and be excited that it got 91 points? No one gives a crap about a 91 point wine any more. That’s like falling twice off the balance beam. The whole team is laughing at you.

Great Pun
My beautiful wife remarked to me the other day, “You’re the Napa Valley Wine Twain.” Not true, but a quality joke.

Why don’t I have a Wikipedia Entry, OR a Facebook HoseMaster of Wine™ Fan Page?
This is a complete mystery to me. I have two, yes, two Wine Blog Awards! I’ve been featured in countless publications, a few of which still exist. I’m a famous sommelier. I bet Raj Parr has a fucking Wikipedia entry. But he’s a kiss-ass, and that’s how it works. Only kiss-asses get Wikipedia entries when they’re alive and not really anybody—Alder probably has one too. So, OK, now I don’t want a stupid Wikipedia page.

The Most Interesting Man in the Wine World
“He can use his tongue in place of an ah-so."

“He’s given an orgasm to every M.W.—blind.”

“He drew the maps for the Cistercian monks.”

“Winery dogs lick his balls.”

“He sabers Champagne with his penis.”

He’s the Most Interesting Man in the Wine World:

“I don’t always drink wine, but when I do, I drink somebody else’s.”

STEVE! A Throwaway Joke

The wine world was surprised by Steve Heimoff's announcement that he was leaving his job as wine critic for Wine Enthusiast to take a position with Jackson Family Estates. The surprise is everyone thought he'd been working there the past ten years.

Wine Blog Leagues
I always think that the wine blog world in the United States should break up into competitive leagues—Western Division, Central Division, Eastern Division and Southern Division. It’s kind of that way anyway, when you think about it, but we should formalize it. And then have playoffs at the end of the year. I know my Western Division would kick ass. I mean, look at our lineup! Heimoff leading off—he’s a pesky little hitter, a guy who knows how to work the count, and with him at the top of the lineup, well, he scores a lot. Then behind him you have Wark, who can hit from both sides of the plate, often at the same time, not with any power, but gets on the other team’s nerves constantly. Alder bats third—sure, he’s way past his prime, but he’ll see even more softballs thrown at him with the HoseMaster batting cleanup! Every Poodle knows the HoseMaster has all the power. Behind me, you’ve got Samantha Sans Dosage—she brings a big bat and isn't afraid to swing it. Hitting sixth is Charlie Olken—easy out, but has a big fan base. W. Blinky bats seventh—constantly and effortlessly strikes out, but, hey, he looks good doing it. I mean, this is a strong team. Some speed at the bottom of the lineup with RJonWine—no one can catch him with 200 wines in front of him, except maybe Alder, but Alder’s lost a step since he’s carrying an M.W. around. And, for gravitas, WakaWaka hits ninth—she has VERY long at-bats, which really wear down the opponents.

The Central Division? What a joke. Nothing but sissies. Alfonso—come on! All talk. Dr. Jeremy Parzen? Oh, please, the guy’s all flab—he put the high Ph in Ph. D. And with the Wine Curmudgeon in the lineup, well, cheap is the active word.

The Eastern Division looks formidable—1WineDoody, Dr. Vino, Lenn Thompson, Evan Dawson, Meg Houston Maker? Looks impressive. But, really, when you take a close look at them, it’s all empty chatter. Not a power hitter in the bunch, just a lot of reputation with nothing to back it up. Yeah, they have Asimov, but it’s a team game. He tries, but he just can’t carry that dead weight East Coast load.

Well, you get the idea. Fun idea, but way too Inside Baseball. But bloggers love to see their names on HoseMaster of Wine™!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The HoseMaster of Wine's™ Wine Class

You don’t have to know much about wine to enjoy it, and you need to know even less to write about it. Knowledge can enhance your pleasure drinking wine, but it gets in the way of writing a wine blog. This is yet another of wine’s mysteries, like why so much wine tastes alike. No one knows why so many wines taste alike, though I think we all agree they do, but it does explain why so many of them receive exactly 89 points. When it comes to wine, shit just works out. You will find that if you become interested in wine, knowing more about it will enhance your experience, deepen your relationship with wine. This is how wine differs from women.

My goal in publishing The HoseMaster of Wine™ Wine Class is simple. I’m tired of answering stupid questions from readers individually, so I’ll answer those idiotic questions here, in a format that won’t single you out as one of the dumbest wine drinkers since Kathy Lee Gifford. At the end of each month’s course, I hope you’ll be encouraged to return, discuss the wines I’ve recommended, and pray to Almighty God I won’t be present in the comments to ridicule your puny and irrelevant “insights.” I think you’ll find that by participating you’ll discover just how little you actually know about wine, and you will begin to keep your thoughts to yourself when among more knowledgeable wine people. I see this as a public service.

As you follow my lead and taste the wines I tell you to, you’ll begin to understand your own tastes and where you have failed to appreciate how much better mine are. Wine can be an intimidating subject, but that’s what makes it worth knowing about. Lots of beverages will get you drunk, but when you know about wine you can use that knowledge to intimidate other people, and that’s where much of the joy of wine lies. If you take my Wine Class seriously, soon you’ll be able to make your superiors look stupid, and, honestly, isn’t that just about the best thing in life? Aside from setting cats on fire?

I taste hundreds upon thousands of wine each year, but tasting is different than drinking, in much the way a food fight is different than eating. When you taste a wine and write about it as a professional, you’re extrapolating from that tiny taste how you think it will go with food, how it will age, and how it measures up against other wines in its category. How is this like a food fight? People throw shit at you when you do it, that’s how. Fat people with powerful wine publications. When you drink, you make all that go away. You can assess the wine with food, learn about it as it evolves over the course of the evening, and maybe work up the courage to tell your critics to fuck themselves with a four-foot ah-so. This is the way to learn about wine.

The class will require some work on your part. Genius. I’d like for you to take notes on each wine. If you want to go all Schildknecht (check Wikipedia under "Logorrhea"), use your imagination, describe smells and tastes that can’t possibly be there. That’s a good way to feel superior to the others, and increase your vocabulary. But, for the most part, I’d recommend you stick to your general impressions of the wine. Is it red, and why? Hold the glass up to the light and admire the legs. Idiot, the legs don't matter, I'm just screwin' with you. Would you describe the aroma as intense or is it delicate? You’re old, how do you know you’re not just losing your sense of smell like so many of our prominent wine critics? Does the aroma change, and if so, did you blame the dog? Would you say the texture is soft and silky like the inside of your mistress’ thighs? Or is it harsh, like the feel of her whip? And why are you so easily aroused, what does that say about you? Finally, what is your overall impression of the wine? Did you find it pleasant or profound? Or did you find it crappy despite knowing you’d be wrong because I selected the wines, you moron, and what do you know? These are all questions I’d like you to entertain, as well as what makes you think anyone will even read your thoughts about wine? There, now you know what it’s like to have your own blog.

My purpose is to get you to think about wine in a way you may never have before, that is, from an educated perspective, not your usual stultifying ignorance. Those of you who are already knowledgeable about wine might find that joining in the discussion will reaffirm your own particular arrogance in a pleasing manner. Perhaps wine’s best quality is its ability to powerfully affirm self-importance. This is certainly reflected in all of the wine world’s major personalities, some of whom should probably be publicly shamed only they’re too drunk most of the time to notice, often appearing in worthless videos dressed in a nun’s habit. Yup, I’m talking to you, Jon Bonné.

Alright, let’s get started. What better wine region to begin with than Bordeaux? Everyone acknowledges that France makes the finest wines in the world. In fact, you’ll find that the countries that make the best wines are the countries that hate Americans the most—France, Germany, Italy and, of course, Napa Valley. There was a time when every beginning wine drinker cut his teeth on Bordeaux. Now no one gives a crap about Bordeaux except the face-obsessed Chinese. But I think that Bordeaux still has a lot to offer the novice because once you discover how overrated the wines are, you have learned a lot about wine. I’ve recommended a few wines, but, truly, considering the ones you can afford, you’ll find that a wine from any vintage from any appellation will disappoint.

Try to match the Bordeaux with a simple meal.  Beef would work, even something so simple as Grandma’s Alpo. Note how the wine enhances, or fails to enhance, the meal. Think about ways you might better have spent the forty bucks the Bordeaux cost you, say by giving Grandma some human food. Everything I’ve mentioned in this beginning column is important to your ultimate appreciation of wine. If at the end of these Wine Classes you don’t feel more comfortable about wine, you’ll have only yourself to blame. I can’t hold your goddam hand all the time.

Finally, don’t worry about the glassware you use. Like you would. Make sure and put lipstick on before you taste or you’ll look like you don’t have any self-respect. Men, mind the backwash, what are you, a hillbilly? Use any glass you like; especially with Bordeaux, it just won’t matter. Worrying about using the proper wine glass when you drink wine is like worrying about what kind of paper bag you put the dog shit in before you light it on fire on your neighbor’s porch. It just doesn’t matter, it’s the quality of what’s in it that counts.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The New Wine Fairy Tales: The Magic Sommelier

Once there was a poor farmer whose only luck in life was that he had three lovely daughters. None of the three looked the least bit like him, which was probably for the best. One daughter had beautiful blonde hair like spun gold, one had raven tresses and almond shaped eyes, while the third daughter was fair-skinned, with hair the color of iron-rich soil. The poor farmer never gave a second thought to how little his daughters looked like him. The poor farmer’s wife had told him that each girl had been conceived under a magic spell from the evil wizard, Viagra. “Just another hard luck story,” the poor farmer’s wife said, “the emphasis on ‘luck’ and ‘hard.’” The poor farmer loved each of his daughters very much.

One day the poor farmer was plowing his field when his plow struck something hard and metallic under the soil.

“What the fuck was that?” said the poor farmer’s draft horse, an emaciated Clydesdale named Pferdie. The “P” was silent, like in sand.

The poor farmer bent down to look, and, there, just barely glinting in the morning sunlight, he could see something made of silver. Using his hands to uncover the buried object, the poor farmer finally revealed a silver tastevin, which he held up for his draft horse to see.

“Oh, Pferdie, it’s just a piece of crap. Shiny, but basically useless. Looks like a diaphragm for Lettie Teague.” What kind of poor fucking farmer reads WSJ? Pretty much every kind.

Before the poor farmer cast the tastevin aside, he couldn’t resist taking out his handkerchief and giving it a quick polish. The poor farmer rubbed and rubbed the tastevin. Before long, after only a handful of strokes, right there in the middle of his barren field, a Magic Sommelier appeared.

“Yikes,” the poor farmer exclaimed, “where did you come from?”

“You summoned me,” the Magic Sommelier said. “I’m a Magic Sommelier. You know how we sommeliers love strokes. We live for strokes. What can I do for you?”

The poor farmer and Pferdie were dumbfounded. What was a sommelier doing in their field? Sure, the poor farmer had walked behind Pferdie for many years plowing his field, so the Magic Sommelier wasn’t the first horse’s ass he’d seen. Yet it was still rather an odd start to the day.

“I’m not sure what you mean, Magic Sommelier. I don’t think there’s anything you can do for me.”

“I have the power, poor farmer, to grant you three wishes. But I warn you, you summoned a sommelier, you should be careful what you wish for.”

The poor farmer immediately thought about his three beautiful and beloved daughters. Maybe a wish for each would be the answer. But as much as he loved his girls, the poor farmer had no idea what to wish for them. Did they want money, or fame, or eternal youth? The poor farmer certainly didn’t want to make a mistake with his three wishes. What if he wished the wrong things for his daughters? What would his wife say? No matter, he didn’t have to worry about her, his wife had said she’d be gone all day under the spell of the evil Viagra, which, she often said, felt like riding Pferdie up a mountain wearing only G-strings for her boobs. Thongs For the Mammaries.

“Hey, poor farmer,” the Magic Sommelier said, “I’ve got other tables. You want the three wishes, or not?”

“Yes,” the poor farmer said, “I do. But I don’t know what to wish for. I have three beautiful daughters, and I want to give them each one wish. Oh, Magic Sommelier, why don’t you choose the wishes for me? That’s what you do, right?”

“Very wise of you, poor farmer. I will pick the perfect wish to go with each of your lovely daughters. But first, of course, I must taste them. Only then will I be able to find the perfect complement for them. It’s how we roll.”

The poor farmer led the Magic Sommelier to his humble cottage, where his three gorgeous daughters were waiting. They’d never seen a Magic Sommelier before.

“What’s that weird thing your neck is holding up,” asked the blonde daughter.

“That’s called a tastevin.”

“No, I know what a tastevin is,” said the blonde, “I meant your face.”

“OK, girls,” the poor farmer said, “you are each to be granted one wish by this Magic Sommelier, but first he must taste each of you. Yeah, I know, creepy, but that’s how he rolls.”

The Magic Sommelier took the gorgeous blonde’s hand and led her into the poor farmer’s bedroom. It didn’t take long, he might be magic, but he’s still a sommelier, before the blonde daughter emerged from the poor farmer’s bedroom, a look of utter dismay on her beautiful face. “What a jackass,” she said. “He asked me if I had a twin sister. He said the best way to taste is to taste double-blonde.”

Next, the poor farmer sent in his raven-haired daughter to be tasted by the Magic Sommelier. She was in the poor farmer’s bedroom for quite a bit longer than her blonde sister. The rest of her family was getting nervous about the time it was taking. But then the sexy raven-haired daughter emerged from the bedroom. She looked satisfied, but her face was covered in mysterious markings. “I think he’s kind of weird,” she said. “He went back for several tastes, and then decorated my face. I’d better get a damned good wish.”

Finally, the radiant redhead daughter entered the poor farmer’s bedroom. She was in there a long time. Funny noises were heard, and the poor farmer feared the presence of the evil Viagra. But he, and his daughters, waited patiently, not wanting to interrupt for fear of breaking the spell and losing the three wishes. When the voluptuous redhead daughter emerged from the poor farmer’s bedroom, she was one hot mess. “I got a lot more than tasted,” the redhead said. “He also probed me with his Magic Meat Thief. Though, really, I was disappointed. More of a Magic Meat Eye-Dropper.”

Before long the Magic Sommelier appeared. He brushed himself off, wiped his face, and started for the door of the cottage.

“Where are you going?” said the poor farmer’s family, all at once. “What about our wishes?”

The Magic Sommelier turned to them with a look of disgust on his face.

“When you summon a Magic Sommelier,” he said, “there are three things you usually expect. Like your blonde daughter, you expect that I will push for a second when you’re not even done with the first. Like your raven-haired daughter, you expect huge mark-ups. And, third, like your redheaded daughter, you expect to get fucked.

“All of what you expected came true. Your three subliminal wishes have been granted.”

With that, the Magic Sommelier vanished. That’s how they roll.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Nothing Could Be Finer Than Some Wine From Carolina in the Morning

Raffaldini Wines I’m Using to Talk About Myself
Raffaldini NV “La Dolce Vita” $16
Raffaldini 2012 Pinot Grigio Swan Creek $15
Raffaldini 2012 Vermentino Riserva Swan Creek $19
Raffaldini 2011 Sangiovese Swan Creek $18
Raffaldini 2011 Sangiovese Riserva Swan Creek $23
Raffaldini 2011 Montepulciano Riserva Swan Creek $29

I received an invitation late last year to a comparative tasting of Italian varieties, notably Montepulciano, at Raffaldini Vineyards. Sounded fun, the only catch was that Raffaldini Vineyards is in North Carolina. I have no idea how I ended up on their invite list, but I sent a note to Thomas Salley, their Media Relations guy, expressing my regrets at being unable to attend, given that I wasn’t sure North Carolina was an actual place. Eventually, Mr. Salley offered to send me samples of Raffaldini’s wines. Yes, Virginia, there is a North Carolina.

Comparative blind tastings are a classic marketing tool in the wine business, and in thinking about the Raffaldini wines, I flashed on how many I’ve attended over the years. In some ways, they rely on the same principles as magic (performed by "The Great Raffaldini!")—misdirection, the human ability to convince yourself you can’t be fooled, and outright lying. This is why I love them. But, like magic, most of the fun goes away when you know how it’s done. You know that the magician didn’t actually saw the woman in half, or make her levitate, or decapitate her, unless you’re watching a bad rerun of Peter Falk as “Columbo,” but you just can’t quite figure out how it was done. You read a book on magic, find out, and now the tricks are suddenly stupid, replacing you.

Almost anyone who’s been in the trade long enough has attended a Robert Mondavi blind tasting featuring Mondavi Reserve Cabernet versus First Growth Bordeaux. You sit and taste six wines, try to guess which are which, rank them in order of preference, and wait for the big reveal. Just like Three Card Monte, the dealer can’t lose. Plus, the opportunity to taste a First Growth or two gets buyer butts in seats. Obviously, if the tasting group of sommeliers and wine buyers chooses the Mondavi Reserve as the best wine, it’s a win for Mondavi. But even if the Margaux, or Latour, or Lafite, manages to eke out a victory, Mondavi wins. Why? Because the Mondavi is cheaper. By a lot. So a wine salesman can say to his customer, “I just had the Mondavi Reserve blind next to Margaux. The Margaux won, but the Mondavi was second, and it’s half the price!” Just using Mondavi and Margaux in the same sentence is a win for Mondavi.

It also brings up an interesting semantic point. Well, interesting to me. Salespeople will tell you an expensive wine is “cheap.” A really cheap wine they will tell you is “inexpensive.” Used car salesman talk. For example, “Mondavi Reserve is cheap compared to Chateau Margaux!” sounds better than, “Mondavi Reserve is inexpensive compared to Chateau Margaux!” You want to leave “expensive” out of it. But a basic wine that sells for under, say, fifteen dollars is never referred to as cheap. “This is gorgeous Merlot, and it’s really inexpensive!” is better than “This is gorgeous Merlot, and it’s really cheap!” So always remember, those $100 bottles are cheap, your every day bottle of Trader Joe’s Reserve Shoe Polish is inexpensive.

Wine shops love to rig blind tastings too. It’s so easy to do. Let’s say you’re throwing a blind tasting of ten California cult Cabernets. One of those wines, Spottswoode, let’s say, you were only allotted a single case. You know it’s a great wine, but you do NOT want it to win. You want a wine you have a lot of to win. What do you do? You put it first. The first wine in a blind tasting only rarely wins. Most people, even if they know a lot about wine, can’t believe that the first wine can possibly be the best wine on the table with nine more wines left to taste! So it won’t win. But whatever does win will have won over the Spottswoode, making it truly amazing wine. Even if it’s not. How do you make the wine you want to win actually win? Lots of ways. But the easiest is to say, first of all, that you, the owner of the shop, don’t know the order of the wines being poured. Of course, you do know. When a magician asks a member of the audience, “Have we ever met?” and the audience member says, “No,” what makes you believe him? He’s a shill more often than not. It’s the classic “willing suspension of disbelief” that entertainment often relies on. So you, as owner, know which wine you want to sell. You’re at the front of the room, and all eyes are on you. All you have to do is to pick up the glass of the wine you want to move, smell it, raise your eyebrows as though greatly impressed, close your eyes, nod appreciatively, sip it, smile, spit it out, and make furious notes. Your crowd, who sees you as guru, will pick up on your cues, though you’ve never said a single word. And, magically, that wine drifts to the top of the voting. Believe me, this always works.

In my sommelier days, I had little patience for stupid marketing pitches that relied on blind tastings. One of my least favorites was a new winery telling me, “We tasted our 2007 Cabernet blind against Harlan Estate, Montelena, Opus One, Bryant Family, Colgin and Screaming Eagle, and our wine won! So we think $150 is a fair price.” Who falls for that crap? I’d reply, “Wow! Really? A wine you made for your personal taste, that you’ve tasted thirty times, actually won? Amazing! I have a suggestion. Next time, taste your new, unproven, no track record Cabernet against wines that cost $50. It will still win, and you can charge $60, which is what it’s actually worth.” That wine sales technique is really a version of “the vineyard is right next to…name a famous vineyard.” Such horse shit. And in the next breath, they tell you what makes their wine unique is its microclimate, it’s terroir—forget that it’s next to Petrus now, in other words, and focus on how singular it is. 

The truth is that wines are not made to be compared to other wines. We all do it, for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t make it right. The longer you are involved with wine, the more experience you bring to every bottle you taste, and that’s certainly invaluable, but comparing Lafite to Margaux, or Rayas to Beaucastel, is wrongheaded. Making purchasing decisions based on blind comparative tasting makes me think of paraphrasing Richard Pryor (who was paraphrasing Chico Marx in “Duck Soup”), “Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ palate?”

I’m pretty sure at this point Thomas Salley is really glad I didn’t believe in the existence of North Carolina and show up to his Raffaldini tasting.

For no valid reason, I brought low expectations to tasting wines from North Carolina. Though I’ve certainly tasted North Carolina wines blind in various wine competitions, the Raffaldini would be the first North Carolina wines I’ve tasted intentionally. I have to say, I was often surprised by the wines, and in a good way. The wines, while all over the place from a quality standpoint, certainly reflect an owner and winemaker dedicated to quality. The motto of Raffaldini Vineyards is “Chianti in the Carolinas.” Are there any wineries on the west coast with mottos? Maybe. Didn’t Saintsbury used to say “Beaune in the USA?” Maybe there should be more. “Get yourself a DAOU Jones.” OK, maybe not.

The first wine I tried was the Raffaldini 2012 Pinot Grigio. Pinot Gris/Grigio is a variety I am not particularly attracted to. When you talk about Pinot Gris, everyone uses Alsace as the shining example, but most of the time I find those wines are just Tokay. Italian Pinot Grigio can be refreshing, even compelling, but not very often. Given all the superior Italian white varieties—Fiano, Garganega, Arneis, Greco, Tocai Fruilano--it seems odd to get worked up over the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio. It’s the dullest grape at the party, the one trying so hard not to offend anyone--it’s a grape wallflower. Yet the Raffaldini had quite a bit of personality, though it reminded me texturally of Alsace Pinot Gris more than Italian Pinot Grigio. Thick textured, aromatically like a fruit cocktail, the apple and canned peach character was appealing, and there was a nice backbone of acidity, though my overall impression of the wine is that it is a bit clunky, like a kid wearing shoes a size too big for him. However, it was damned nice with the Petrale sole I had sautéed for dinner. In fact, it lit up with the food, found its footing as it were, and I came away with a much better impression of it. Which, of course, is why you drink wine with food. For fifteen bucks, you could do a whole lot worse, and only occasionally better.

The Raffaldini 2012 Vermentino Riserva, don’t think I’ve ever had a Riserva of Vermentino before this, it’s sort of like today’s special being french fries, was a joy to drink. I remarked to my wife that it reminded me of a white wine from Navarro, all the fruit intensity backed by racy acidity, a great purity of flavor and a mouthwatering finish. The nose was floral and very bright, peach blossom and apricot, and even had a trace of saltiness. But I was taken aback by how alive and delicious it was on the palate, and by the richness and sexiness of its texture. This is gorgeous wine for any state in the Union to produce. Here’s an odd statement, it’s the best domestic Vermentino I’ve tasted. Not sure how much weight a statement like that carries. It’s right there with best black hockey goalie, but there it is. I’m a little surprised in this era of California producers fixated on varieties like Ribolla Gialla, Grenache Blanc and Arneis that there aren’t more Vermentinos out there. Such a lovely grape, if not the most complex, and the Raffaldini Riserva is a marvelous example of its many charms. Liguria in the Carolinas!

You just can’t be Chianti in the Carolinas without Sangiovese. You can’t be Brunello in the Boonies either. The Raffaldini 2011 Sangiovese isn’t bad. It isn’t thrilling either. In its defense, I could say that about a lot of Sangiovese, especially domestic Sangiovese. I’ve heard people say they’ve had wonderful domestic Sangiovese, but I can’t say I’ve tasted very many lately. The original Atlas Peak project ruined the California Sangiovese market—those were abysmal wines mostly. Now it seems like an afterthought of a variety in the state. The Raffaldini was pleasant, a bit on the ponderous side on the palate, but had Sangiovese’s blend of ripe red fruits, mostly cherry here, and a bit of bitter almond skin on the finish. What was strange was that on the second night I put my nose in the glass and immediately flashed on a Rioja Crianza! Where did that come from? Sitting overnight hadn’t done it any favors, yet it smelled like a very traditional, American-oaked Rioja. It was probably me.

The Raffaldini 2011 Sangiovese Riserva seemed like it was trying too hard. Hey, I’m a Riserva, I need to impress. People expect “more” from a Riserva, though how they define “more” is always suspect. Often, in Cabernet from Napa, for example, it means more new oak, or longer time in new oak. Over the years, I’ve found that in a lot of varieties of domestic wines, I prefer the non-Reserve wine. Too often, the Reserve wines are for status seekers, are for the people who have to go top shelf even if they have no idea what’s on that shelf. It reminds me of my best friend going to buy tickets for the circus (what’s more fun than going to the circus drunk, which we did when we could?) and getting talked into four seats in the “Owner’s Box.” Turns out the Owner’s Box, at an extra twenty bucks a seat, was two feet from the regular seats. They saw him coming. That can often be a winery’s Reserve. Anyhow, the Raffaldini Sangiovese Riserva had a raisined character to the nose, it reminded me of ripasso in a very vague sense, but also some nice dark red fruit and an unusual spiciness. It has nice energy on the palate, but, well, it’s muddled. Sure, it’s easy to drink, but I thought it lacked varietal definition. It did hold up well overnight, still displaying that energy, but it just seemed like they tried to make too much out of the materials they had at hand. Though, to be fair, it’s Sangiovese from North Carolina, so it’s way better than you think.

Montepulciano seems like a good choice for North Carolina. It’s one of those grapes that’s pretty resistant to downy mildew (which one can get from Robert Downey, Jr’s career path) as well as bunch rot. And if you’ve ever had your bunch rot, you know how nasty that can be. I like Montepulciano, though it’s so often pedestrian unless it’s in the hands of someone like Valentini. The Raffaldini 2011 Montepulciano Riserva is an interesting wine. It wasn’t until after I spent a few days with it that I read that it’s done in appassimento style, the style of Amarone, where the grapes are allowed to raisin, sometimes on mats, sometimes hanging from hooks, but dessicated in order to concentrate the wines. It’s an ancient technique, borrowed from dentists’ offices, and, done properly, it’s very labor intensive and delicate work. The Raffaldini is impressively robust, and very dense. It’s a bruiser, and really needs something very hearty and smoky to eat to match it. I can’t think of a Montepulciano anything like it. It’s a very interesting style choice, and, here, it’s a Riserva for a reason. It will have a very long life ahead of it. The question isn’t whether it will age, the question is, will it evolve? I wonder. But as I said to the gentleman who sent me these wines, “It’s one to Lay Down, Salley.” But if you’re a fan of, say, mammoth California Petite Sirah, or of Amarone, you will find this wine appealing. It has very dense blackberry fruit, with notes of espresso, and a nice touch of mild bitterness to the finish. Maybe a bit monolithic for my taste, but, really, considering the appassimento style, and the work involved with that, it’s very impressive winemaking. Very impressive. Just don’t serve it thinking it’s your basic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. It’s a million miles from that.

Lastly, there’s the non-vintage Raffaldini La Dolce Vita. When I opened the shipping box holding the Raffaldini wines, it was a surprise to see one of the bottles closed with a beer cap. It was La Dolce Vita, a sweet, frizzante white wine made, it seems, in the style of Moscato d’Asti.  There’s no Muscat in the wine, it’s mostly Traminette, a popular hybrid that genetically can claim eight different species of vitis in its family tree (we’ve all had dogs like that), and it weighs in at only 7% alcohol. Fun wine, really. I’m sure it sells like crazy in the summer out of the tasting room. It doesn’t have the refreshing sparkle that Moscato d’Asti has at its best, but, hey, what a great poolside drink, or the wine to serve that person in your life, and we all have one, who only likes sweet wines. Simply put, it’s delicious, and filled with charm, a mouthful of juicy peach nectar flavor.

I couldn’t resist a chance to talk about wines from North Carolina. There are about 160 wineries in North Carolina now. That’s amazing, really. The Raffaldini wines gave me newfound respect for what vintners are trying to do there. I enjoyed all of the wines, at least on some level, and the Vermentino Riserva and Montepulciano Riserva are distinctive and worth trying if you run across them. If you want to add North Carolina to your life list of states from which you’ve had wine, Raffaldini would be my choice.


Monday, April 7, 2014

The HoseMaster's Comprehensive Guide to Wine 4

In this chapter of my indispensable Comprehensive Guide to Wine, I teach you how to choose a white wine. Why you would want to is a mystery to me, but I'm willing to help anyway. I'll run you through the major white varieties, and what makes them inferior to red wines by definition. It's wine racism at its best! But you'll have to make the first Monday leap over to Tim Atkin's site in order to be enlightened. Please feel free to comment there, it makes an M.W. happy that someone talks to him, or, if you prefer, leave your little bundle of joy on my doorstep, right next to the flaming bag of Poodle poop.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

In Pursuit of Balance: A Love Story

The first time I looked in Raj’s eyes, deep and brown like an old premox white Burgundy, I saw it. I saw balance. I’d never seen balance in a sommelier’s eyes before. I’d seen cloudiness, a kind of protein haze; and I’d often seen a sort of emptiness, as though they’d been labeled “sommelier,” but were really filled with something else, something altogether fake, and they were but slick and convincing frauds sold to wealthy and ignorant dot-com zillionaires. But Raj was different. He had stillness, and balance. And I’d been looking for that. I’d always been in pursuit of balance.

And what is balance? I make wine, and I haven’t the slightest idea. I like to think of it like a Flying Wallenda might. You walk this small line utterly dependent upon balance, and you know you’ve achieved it when you don’t fall 150 feet to your death. So balance isn’t really that hard to understand from that viewpoint. Only a dead idiot doesn’t understand balance. Wine isn’t that different. Except sometimes the idiots aren’t dead, that’s about the only difference.

Here’s the irony: Raj’s balance made me lose mine. I fell, and I fell hard. Raj became my wine guru, my 12-pak Chopra. I wanted to give birth to something with him. I didn’t care what. Well, not a porcupine. I could sit and listen to Raj talk about wine all day. He knows everything about wine. Raj is my Wikipedia of wine. I know, because when I conduct a search in his pants, he comes up first. It was after one of our many conversations about balance that the inspiration struck me. Raj and I could give birth to our pursuit, bring our beautiful shared passion to the world, teach the wine world about balance. Why hadn’t it been done before? Surely, wines have always pursued balance, what else is there? What is a wine without balance? Aside from on the by-the-glass list at Fleming’s?

I was so excited I could hardly speak. I stared deeply into my Raj’s eyes and I wanted to cry. I was a woman pregnant with the future. Raj and I would give birth to Balance. And when Balance finally entered the wine world, when our baby was seen for the savior He most certainly was, wine would be changed forever! Balance would be King! Balance would assume His rightful place as the only true savior. And those who followed us would be rewarded, be seen as the true Lights of wine. We would take our message on the road, hold Balance conferences in great halls all over the country, invite the fallen, those poor wine lovers who mistake the whore of Ripeness for beauty, who worship at the satanic altar of alcohol, and open their eyes to what real wine is--What we say it is.

When I finally shared my vision with Raj, I could see he was speechless with love for me, and for our newborn King. He told me he had always dreamed of this day. That he had entered a world where Pinot Noir had been lost, had died for its Marcassins. Chardonnay was equally lost, a lonely old whore wearing too much makeup, flabby, and several hundred winemakers past tight. Raj knew he could save them. All he needed was a partner and a platform, and disciples to help spread the word. Balance is King, and there is but one way to Balance. Our way. Any other way can lead to only one result—a 150 foot fall to your death.

I don’t think my heart has ever pounded harder in my chest than when Raj told me that he knew of one winery where balance had already been accepted as Savior and King—mine! At that moment, I felt that Raj and I were one. Together, we would bring real wine to the world. Our wines. And the wines of those who chose to follow. At that moment, Balance was born. And I can still hear Raj’s words, words that have become our mantra for our Pursuit of Balance, words I never stop saying to myself, “Push, push, push, goddamit, push.”

Raj and I agreed that people had to come to understand Balance on their own terms, that we couldn’t push them too hard or they might come to wonder what was in it for us, which was pretty much the whole enchilada. We had to make them see Balance the way we saw Balance, our beautiful and sacred offspring, as the Savior of Wine. We needed a Manifesto. And nothing makes a Manifesto like vague and indefinable language. And I was staring into the big brown eyes of a master of vague and indefinable language.

Our Manifesto is brilliant. Through the time-honored conventions of obfuscation, vagueness, and out-and-out doubletalk, it achieves our goal. It brings us attention. That’s the main reason for all this. The rest is just a smoke screen of importance. For those of you non-believers, here are a few of the most brilliant pieces of the Manifesto of Balance:

“Loosely speaking, a wine is in balance when its diverse components – fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol – coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.” Oh, you know it’s brilliant when the only response to it is, “Duh.”

“Growing healthy fruit and maintaining natural acidity to achieve optimum ripeness without being overripe. What is ripeness and what is its relation to balance?” Love this! So smart. Optimum ripeness that isn’t overripe! That’s like optimum flavor without having too much flavor. Or optimum drinking without drinking too much. And then ask the question, What is ripeness? Beats the fuck out of me, but let’s get it to the optimum.

“Can balance in wine be achieved through corrections in the winery or is it the result of a natural process informed by carefully considered intention at every step of the way?” Ooh, a compound question! Those are fantastic! Like in grammar school, where the teacher is telling you the answer without telling you the answer. Johnny, is it best to be a conniving little liar who needs to have the crap beat out of him on a regular basis, or is honesty best?

We gathered disciples, likeminded people who understood that Balance in wine is truthfully defined as the interplay of fruit, marketing, self-promotion and faux philosophy. We made them pass a test, a test of faith and Balance, and then they were granted Confirmation. We preached that we should arrive at a definition of Balance that makes the most sense for us, and only us, and for where we grow our grapes. Who cares about everyone else? There’s this tightrope of balance that anyone can walk, anyone from anywhere. Skinny people can make it across without falling, fat people can make it, old people have a chance, tall people, short people...balance is possible for anyone. We just have to convince the wine-buying audience that we’re the only ones who can make it without falling to our death, that we’re the ones who truly understand Balance, and then they’ll see all the others as already dead.